When an Oscar-winning actress who’s been part of one of the most popular superhero film franchises signs on to her first television series, an enigmatic science fiction thriller produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, genre fans tend to take an interest.
Halle Berry debuts Wednesday on Extant, a 13-episode CBS summer series that casts her as Molly Woods, an astronaut in the near future who returns from a space mission inexplicably pregnant, despite a history of infertility and a year isolated in orbit from her husband (Goran Visnjic), a scientist who’s built a robot resembling a 10-year-old boy.
The show promises atmosphere and intrigue alongside classic sci-fi allegories about parenthood and family. During a recent press conference, Berry revealed the many factors that lured her to take on her first small-screen venture.
On the aspects of her role that drew her to Extant:
Probably the first one was being a mother. This was a character when I first read it that was so relatable to me – I felt like it was just in my DNA. I had knowingness about this character. I had a fundamental understanding. While I'm not an astronaut or scientist – far, far from it – I still had an understanding about the human quality of this woman and her struggle to not only find time for herself, which is what she loves to do, but also to be a good mother. That's the struggle I have struggled with since my kids were born, so that drew me to her. She's also strong. She's complicated; I'm complicated. But she has a will to survive, to win. She's good at her heart, and I love playing strong, complicated characters who refuse to be victimized, and that's what our Molly is. And then when Steven Spielberg came along – I mean, a name like that, you don't really sneeze at! And I know the quality of his work, I know that he loves this sort of genre – these supernatural kind of stories are right in his wheelhouse.
On the deeper questions built into the series that fascinated her:
I don't think there's one thing that makes us human, and I think that's what this series is all about: discovering that as we're portraying these characters and telling this story. What does make us human? That's a good question, and one of the questions that the series poses is, can this robot become human? Can we teach it to become human? Can we teach it to love? Can we give it free will? Will it act as human beings act over time? And we, as humans, we love that, that is not real, that is sort of fabricated. These are all the questions that we're asking. So if you ask me what it is to be human, I don't have one answer for that, and what intrigued me about this series is to try to discover the answer to that. Can we teach someone to be human? Hopefully by the time we finish this series, we might have a better answer.
On whether her character’s mysterious pregnancy has a Rosemary’s Baby quality:
It won't be the entire element of our show, but there is a period that we're going to go through where we're going to have elements of Rosemary's Baby, because she's pregnant with something that is unknown, and it's for us to decide throughout the course of this series what this entity is. What it wants? Will it stay here? Is it really her baby? Is it just an offspring? What it is really? Those are the questions that this series is asking.
On her decision to take on a television project:
I feel like the best writing now is on television. That's been a real reality that I think all of us actors have been talking about for years now, but there was always this stigma with going to television: If you do movies, you can't do television. And I think that line's becoming very gray. What's important now with the way the industry's evolving is we go where the good material is. If you're an artist, you just want to do good work that inspires you, that ignites you, that makes you want to wake up in the morning and go to work, and that's what this series and this character has done for me.
On her own taste in sci-fi stories:
I do like a fair bit of science fiction. I was a big E.T. fan, and that's kind of my version of science fiction, which is why when I heard Steven was involved I was really excited. Because that's the kind of science fiction I think I really like: I think it has a lot of heart, but it is sort of supernatural. That's what hooks me.
On the quality of the special effects:
As you can see from our trailer, we got pretty doggone close to doing something that is on par with any film you'll ever see. I like to say Gravity was our benchmark, and I think we tried very hard to sort of hit that mark the best that we could. I think our space looks as good. I think our spaceship looks as good. There was no expense spared – CBS was very invested in making this show look really good, and they've put a lot of money into making that a reality for us.
On mastering her weightless scenes:
Luckily, because I had been Storm [in the X-Men films], I was used to flying! I've had a lot of wirework and a lot of experience that way, and so putting on that harness and those wires seemed like something that I was used to doing. And I did actually take a real zero-g flight, so I have really experienced being weightless and understanding what that is. And that sense memory certainly helps me be able to do, when I have those wires on, to assimilate being in a weightless environment.
On the experience of actual zero-g flight:
That was pretty amazing, actually. The first time I felt the sense of weightlessness, I was surprised that it took very little energy for me to move. You just kind of lift off the ground, and what also surprised me was that when you go upside down, because there's no gravity you have no sense of being upside down – you feel exactly the same when you're upside down as when you're right side up. And you start to lose a sense of what is right side up? What is upside down? And it was a very freeing experience. I can really understand why astronauts love to go up there and love to live in that medium and experience. It's as close to being a bird and having that kind of freedom, I think, one can ever get. But I also have to say, by 15 times going up and down, going through that, I did, you know…vomit. My body was done dealing! [laughs].
On her crash course in the duties of a real-life astronaut:
I spent time talking to one of the consultants, who's a female astronaut, who gave me some back information about the psychology of going on a space mission, what that entails, the training that they have to go through. We took a trip to NASA with Allen Coulter, the director of the pilot, and picked their brains there. Doing the zero-g flight helped me an awful lot, just to put that experience in my body. I've watched tons of videos of space travel and space flight. It's been about putting some of that scientific information in our heads, but at the core, at the end of the day, this is really a human story about people. The fact that she's a scientist becomes a little bit irrelevant pretty fast. That's what she does as a job, but it becomes very human. It's about a husband and wife trying to live together. It's about a woman trying to be a mother and raise a child. It's about trying to answer some tough questions for herself and for her family.
Extant premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.