Countdown to <i>The Event</i>, Part II: Željko Ivanek and Lisa Vidal

On Monday, NBC launches its new sci-fi/conspiracy thriller The Event, and Spinoff Online is here to get you ready. The pilot was a hit in July at Comic-Con International, and readers haven’t been able to flip through a comic book for weeks without seeing ads for what the network hopes will be must-see TV.

The series follows Sean Walker (Jason Ritter), an everyman who investigates the mysterious disappearance of his would-be fiancé Leila Buchanan, and unwittingly begins to expose the biggest cover-up in U.S. history.

All this week, Spinoff Online will present interviews with the cast. Today we feature Željko Ivanek, who plays Blake Sterling, Director of National Intelligence, and Lisa Vidal, who plays First Lady Christina Martinez.

Ivanek is no stranger to genre fans, having appeared as Emile Danko on Heroes, Andre Drazen on 24 and, most recently, Magnus (the Magister) on True Blood. Vidal, a veteran of dozens of television and film projects, had a cameo in J.J. Abrams’ reimagining of Star Trek as the barracks officer. She's also shared screen time with two of her co-stars from The Event, Laura Innes (ER) and Blair Underwood (High Incident).

After reading today’s interviews be sure to check back Wednesday as we present Jason Ritter and Clifton Collins Jr.



Spinoff Online: Before we tackle The Event, I wanted to ask you if you thought producers considered you a good luck charm. You’ve played great roles on so many groundbreaking series over the years.

Željko Ivanek: Most of the stuff has kind of been established by the time I show up, so I can’t take much credit for it. But I’ve just been very lucky that I’ve been able to work on the caliber of shows that I got to work on. And in some cases, from the beginning, like Homicide and Oz, which were both Tom Fontana shows, and in other cases it was just stuff that came up as the seasons went on, so I don’t know if I can attribute it to too much more than very good luck. Most of the stuff seems to choose me rather than I choose it. I’m just very, very happy to have kept working.

For The Event, did the casting director have you in mind based on a previous role that you played, or did you go in to read for the part?

A lot of the guest stuff over the past few years, I’ve been offered and that’s been really nice. But I’m definitely still auditioning for movies and television. For The Event, I went in and read for it with some very high-caliber, and very different, actors, all for the same role. A lot of the time, they’re trying to figure out what elements they want and what they want to throw into the mix. I know that I play a certain kind of role that has a sort of niche to fulfill that I can recognize on the page some of the time. But also, hopefully, you get to play with that and subvert that a little bit as the show goes on.

While you’re not always the bad guy, you usually play a guy who is perhaps on the surface doing good or presented as doing good, but often times is pretty bad. Is Blake Sterling one of these types of characters?

I’m sure there are parts of Blake that we’re not going to like too much, but one of the things that I liked about the show and what they’re doing, and in general a lot of the characters are doing, is as it goes along, subverting your idea a bit about who they are and what they’re motives are. And finding that people that you thought were maybe the good guys are not so good. And often the people you thought were the bad guys are doing things maybe not the way you wanted them to do them but out of motivations that are understandable and justifiable, and hopefully your allegiance will have to kind of keep shifting as the show goes on. And that’s one of the most fun parts about it so far.

When you first learned about The Event, how was it explained to you? I know the original concept was more conspiracy thriller than sci-fi epic.

I just read it. I didn’t speak to anybody before I went in for it. It was one of my favorite things I read that pilot season. And so I didn’t really get to see where they were going with it. I had conversations, later on, in particular with Jeffrey Reiner, the director of the pilot and one of the producers, talking about what they wanted to do and what they wanted to accomplish with the show. And what pitfalls they wanted to try and avoid. So I knew very little going in. And I know almost as little now, because I still don’t know what "the event" is. Some actors may think they have a clue, and that may be true, but I don’t. So I’m in for as many surprises as the audience is.

Your character, CIA Director Blake Sterling ...

I got promoted actually. I am now the Director of National Intelligence.

Congratulations. Well done.

I don’t know when that happened but I’m formerly the CIA Director, currently, the National Director of Intelligence.

So beyond your recent promotion what else do we need know about Blake Sterling heading into the series?

What do we need to know? He’s protecting the world as he knows it. And that may make some people uncomfortable. And he may make some enemies, but I think what’s going to be interesting is discovering what’s behind people’s motives for what they do. And why are people doing good things out of bad motives and bad things out of good motives. And maybe out of naïveté. I think he just has a very, very clear view of the world. And he thinks that world is threatened by this new President. And he is determined to protect it, no matter what. And that’s going to puts him in situations that are distinctly uncomfortable but he justifies them to himself. And then as we go on, hopefully, somewhere down the line, maybe, he’ll wonder, “Well, maybe I should do what’s right.” So I’m hoping that will kind of bounce back and forth as we go on.

So it sounds like his relationship with the administration is a little shaky, especially with the President.

That’s for sure. This is a fairly new administration. And I have been shepherding these secrets through several administrations and managed to keep a lid on things, so to have that threatened, even with good intentions, is a very scary proposition but at the same time, he is the President and so there is a lot of political manoeuvring that goes into maintaining the secrets and maintaining the status quo. And I find that all very interesting.

As for the Vice President, people are allies and competitors all at the same time, and I think that’s a relationship that’s going to develop in an interesting way. And in some surprising ways because sometimes people are allies out of convenience rather than out of conviction and allegiances can shift pretty quickly.

From the pilot, and from what we’re hearing this week from the cast and crew, is that there is definitely some sci-fi elements to The Event. You mentioned Blake Sterling guarding secrets. Is he guarding secrets to protect Americans or is he protecting the prisoners, who or whatever they are, up in Alaska?

I think he’s guarding these secrets to protect the world as he knows it, and the main threat is kind of from the unknown. I don’t think the show is deliberating commenting in any big way on our current political situations but there is definitely stuff that really resonates. When you feel under threat, how much can you justify doing to protect your world? How far do you go to protect your world? And he feels under threat, primarily because he just doesn’t know yet what the motives are behind these people and what they’re really up to. Some things are revealed very quickly. In Episode 2, there is one very big reveal, very early on, so I like that about the show, as well. But they certainly want to keep a sense of mystery and suspense going but at the same time, answers will be answered as we going along. And one of the big questions gets answered very early on, like I said, in the second episode. It reminds me of 24 in that sense a little bit because there is a cliffhanger moment at the end of every week. Things happen and you go, “Oh, Jesus, now what?” It will take the whole season to play out and as the ground keeps shifting below our feet and then everybody has to adjust to a new reality and the tension begins again so hopefully we’ll be able to maintain that as the season goes on.

Before I let you go, your last show, Heroes, was canceled this summer and it doesn’t look as though you’re going to get a chance to give that show a proper ending. Is that disappointing, the reality of serialized television – the fact you might get canceled? And secondly, do you hope Tim Kring and NBC can figure out a way to give Heroes a proper sendoff?

Yeah, I hope so. You want an audience and you want the creators to have a chance to kind of leave things on their own terms and wrap things up in a satisfying way. You get committed to a show and you get committed to characters and you get committed to a whole world and it’s frustrating to have the rug pulled without some sense of completion or just some sense of an arc getting the opportunity to run from beginning to middle to end. So yeah, I hope they get a chance to finish it up.


Spinoff Online: Are you a fan of these big "event"-type shows like Lost or 24?

Lisa Vidal: You know, funnily enough, I never actually watched Lost on a regular basis. I caught a couple of episodes during the final season but that’s it. However, I was a big 24 fan. And I watched that pretty heavily, and it’s funny because Evan Katz is one of our executive producers so he knows I was a big fan of that show. I just loved all the suspense and all the action.

When you came into read for The Event, how did the producers pitch the show’s high concept to you?

I really didn’t know what I was getting into. Actually, Blair Underwood called me about the role first. He told me that he had just signed on for this project called The Event and that he was going to playing the President and that he thought that it was a really, really hot show and that there was a role for the First Lady in it and that he thought I should look at it because I’d be perfect for it.

And so on I got the script and I read it and I was like, “Oh, my God. This is good.” So I called him and said, “Blair, this is really good.” And I said, I’m definitely going to have my agents get a meeting for this and it just so happened to be, unbeknownst to me, that Jeffrey Reiner happened to be one of the executive producers and I worked with Jeffrey on a show I did for fours seasons called The Division. He was one of our directors, and so just knowing Jeffrey’s work and from my experience with him and then reading script, I was very excited about the show. You mentioned Blair Underwood. Had you two worked together before?

Actually Blair and I have been friends for about 14 years. We met on a series, a Steven Spielberg series, called High Incident, where we played police officers and we were partners. And we’ve just been friends ever since. We’ve always been looking for an opportunity to work on something again, something really great and it just sort of never worked out with our schedules or projects and then this came along and we saw a perfect opportunity and obviously, credit to Blair first, because he called me about it.

You get to play the First Lady. Did you go back and look at some archival footage of past first ladies or get some biographies from the library or even watch recent clips of Michelle Obama to prepare for the role?

Funny that you ask that. I was actually just telling Blair that first of all, I’ve always been a fan first ladies. I always thought, “What is it like to be a first lady? How cool is that?” All eyes are on you and your etiquette and how you speak and what you say is watched by everyone. And a few years prior to The Event even being in my life, I had gone out and bought this book called History of the First Ladies. And it was just because of my own curiosity and being a fan of Jackie Kennedy. I’ve read several of her autobiographies and I’ve just always been kind of fascinated by her as a person, as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, and all that, and also as a first lady, so I just happened to already be doing research and not even know that I was going to be playing a first lady.

So it was really kind of funny and of course, Michelle Obama, the kind of first lady she is – so intelligent, so strong, so chic in her own way – a very different kind of first lady. So I took a little bit of all of that and thought, “OK. Who is my First Lady going to be?” And also, it’s being the first Latina in the White House. So I just put that all together and developed my own version of that.

Do you take extra pride in that even though it’s fictional, you are the first Latina first lady? And does add some extra pressure?

I actually do take pride in that because even though it’s make-believe, television makes a big impression on all of us – on our thinking and the way we view things and the way we see things. I think television is full of ideas that penetrate America and I think playing the first Latina first lady on television is pretty cool. I’m going down in history in my books [laughs], even though it’s only make-believe.

So, yeah, I definitely feel an extra sense of responsibility playing this role and how I want to portray the First Lady. And I definitely communicated that to the producers. And I think that’s why I feel like this is a blessing in disguise because the kind of First Lady that I want to play is exactly what they were looking for. So, it’s a good match.

What you can tell us about First Lady Christina Martinez?

Christina Martinez is very intelligent. She was an attorney when she and Elias Martinez met. So she’s definitely somebody who knows the game and she’s very influential in her husband getting the presidency. And she’s very supportive. She pretty much gave up her career so that she could support him and also raise their son but she’s very involved and very opinionated. And definitely not a wallflower. She is very outspoken and very charismatic. And I would say that she is definitely going to be very involved in the President’s decision making and what happens in the White House.

What about what happens before, during and after "the event"?

I don’t even know what "the event" is. But The Event, as far as I know, is a ride, man. It’s a roller-coaster ride. It’s action-packed. It’s so high-octane. It’s serious. It’s exciting. It raises a lot of questions. It answers questions pretty immediately. We don’t keep people guessing very long but it’s definitely an "edge of your seat" kind of show. And it’s a love story. And a conspiracy thriller. And an action flick. It’s got so much going on, and it’s very political. It’s an idea type of show. And it’s built on an idea, which is pretty cool. But we just keep telling people to buckle up because we’re going for a ride. It’s very exciting.

The series premiere of The Event airs Monday, Sept. 20 at 9/8c.

For more coverage of The Event, please check out the following features: Countdown to The Event, Part I: Creator Nick Wauters

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