Ryan Cartwright and Azita Ghanizada look like ordinary humans. But in Syfy’s newest original drama Alphas, these two, along with co-stars Malik Yoba, Warren Christie and Laura Mennell, harbor an extraordinary secret: They’re Alphas, people endowed with superhuman mental and physical powers. Under the auspices of the United States government, these five work together to stop superhuman crime — although their inability to get along may prove more dangerous than the super-powered menaces they fight.
If this premise sounds like X-Men meets Law & Order, that’s because Alphas is the brainchild of X-Men: The Last Stand writer Zak Penn, who co-created the series with television scribe Michael Karnow.
In preparation for the July 11 Syfy premiere, Alphas executive producer Ira Steven Behr and actors Ghanizada and Cartwright joined Spinoff Online and other members of the press in a conference call to talk about the series.
Surprisingly, the first thing Cartwright and Behr told reporters was that Alphas’ sense of humor, not drama, was what drew them to the show.
“I was actually excited by a lot of the good humor in it, because I love comedy,” said Cartwright, who plays Alphas team member Gary Bell. Enduring another “horrible pilot season in L.A.,” as the actor termed it, Cartwright claimed Alphas’ realism and sense of fun immediately appealed to him.
“A lot of the pilots I was going up for were comedies, but they didn’t compare because the comedy was a lot wetter and not as real,” said the Bones alum. “The humor in Alphas comes from the people trying to rub along. I really liked the comic element of the characters’ relationships with each other.”
Behr, whose previous producing credits include The 4400 and Dark Angel, agreed. “I’ve done a lot of genre television and it has always been a struggle, one I have kept fighting, to try and get humor into the shows,” he said. “Here was the chance, right there on the plate, to do honest, real character-driven humor in a show that had enough other elements in terms of drama and mythology that the humor was going to be woven into that fabric in such a way it could not be pulled out.”
Honesty and realism were also keywords for Cartwright when it came to portraying Gary, the team’s autistic transducer — an Alpha able to see and read electromagnetic wavelengths.
“Obviously the first thing that came up was the fact that he is autistic,” he said. “That was the first thing I had to tackle, because if you are playing something like that you have to go in with a lot of respect. … You don’t want to play the syndrome, you want to play the character.”
Because the affable Gary also serves as comedic relief, Cartwright was determined to play him as authentically as possible. “It was fascinating getting to research [autism] — I just read a load of books on the subject,” he sai, citing Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, and Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet, an autistic writer who served as the inspiration for Gary. “It got me thoroughly interested in neuroscience, which was great for this job because every week there’s a new sort of extreme neuro-condition we get to investigate.”
Behr dubbed that “extreme science” aspect the show’s hook, explaining that they tried to keep each Alpha’s superpower as grounded as possible in science and real human ability.
“As Ryan said, we certainly use neuroscience as a basis for a lot of the jumping off points for the tales we tell,” Behr said. He then pointed to the real-life abilities of British artist Stephen Wiltshire, the autistic man famous for drawing every part of Tokyo to scale after flying over the city once, as an example of a typical Alpha “superpower.”
“If that’s not an Alpha ability, I don’t know what is!” Behr said.
However, with each extraordinary Alpha ability comes an equally extraordinary price — a huge theme for the first season. “Dramatically, what we like is that every ability comes with a downside — and how true is that?” Behr said. “Gary is a perfect example. He’s this incredible transducer that can pick signals out of the air but obviously his downside is very apparent with his autism.”
Not every Alpha’s downside is as clear cut as Gary’s, though. “You have someone like [Cameron] Hicks, who is hyperkinetic and has the most amazing ability and control over his body and yet at the same time he has certain psychological problems that have put him AA,” Behr continued, touching on the character played by actor Warren Christie. And despite the fact that Alphas is about a team of super-powered individuals, the producer dismissed attempts to peg the drama as a superhero show. “We are dealing with neuroscience and brain chemistry and we don’t consider ourselves a superhero show by any means,” Behr said. “We’re trying to take what’s already going on in the human brain and up it.”
Moving on to the story arc for the first season, Cartwright and Behr stated that the first episodes would establish the team and their myriad personal problems. “This is a group of people who are not really your first choice to be an investigative unit or to be going out into the field and getting shot at,” Behr said. “They are kind of working for the government but the government doesn’t know totally whether to trust them, [and] they don’t know whether to trust the government.”
On top of that, the team has to deal with Red Flag, a murderous organization of Alphas. “By the end of season one there will be cracks appearing all over the surface [of the team],” Behr promised.
At that point, Azita Ghanizada, who plays the shy synesthesiac Rachel Pirzad, took a break from the Alphas set to join the call. Like Cartwright, the Afghani actress thoroughly researched her part, although she felt she had more in common with her character due to their similar familial backgrounds.
“[I] understood very quickly what it was like to live in a conservative home. I’m a child from Afghanistan and grew up with very strict parents in the United States, and that was part of Rachel’s journey from the pilot,” Ghanizada said. With a heightened form of synesthesia, her character Rachel can enhance one sense at a time –taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight — to superhuman levels, but at the cost of all her other senses.
“I think Rachel is all heart,” Ghanizada said. “You see her being the authority in the pilot because she has the ability to track all of this evidence in all the cases. But she’s not very confident because she’s been told her whole life this is a condition — if anything, a disease — and it’s created a lot of fear.”
Like Gary’s autism and Hick’s psychological problems, the actress pointed to Rachel’s complete sensory shutdown while using her power as her Alpha downside. “It’s a curse for her entire life — she hasn’t been able to date, she hasn’t been accepted at home, she hasn’t been accepted out in public — people look at her like she’s weird,” Ghanizada continued. “You definitely feel her struggle the most with her family as the series progresses.”
Turning to the larger plot and tone elements of the show, Behr felt fans of his previous science fiction TV show The 4400 will also appreciate Alphas. However, his palpable frustration with the way The 4400 ended seeped through his enthusiasm.
“[It’s] another quality show with interesting characters, a different but equally fascinating mythology,” Behr said. “Obviously the major difference is that we were unable to add much in the sense of humor to The 4400. We were always being called a dark apocalyptic show in their line-up, which is why we were ultimately pulled off their line-up. But every time we tried to put humor in the show they would yank it out.”
Pausing, the producer laughed and softened his tone: “The simple way of saying it is this is The 4400 with a sense of humor!”
However, with the overtly comedic Eureka and Warehouse 13 serving as lead-ins, Behr ultimately told reporters that Alphas stands apart as the serious, dark drama in Syfy’s Monday night lineup. “While lighter in tone — and we have a lot of humor in our show — it does tend to get dark in the plot lines,” he said. “I think we’re the 10 o’clock show and we deserve to be the 10 o’clock show.”
Alphas premieres Monday, July 11 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.