Imagine you’re writing an action-packed television series in which you occasionally paint yourself into a corner with a seemingly impossible dilemma for your characters to contend with. Wouldn’t it be nice to dial up a bona fide genius who just happens to be an expert at finding solutions to high-stakes problems?
That’s actually the case on the new CBS action/procedural Scorpion, loosely based on the life of Walter O’Brien, a brilliant computer expert who eventually turned his skills into a dramatic career as an elite consultant specializing in solve dramatic life-and-death scenarios. He also happens to have the fourth-highest I.Q. ever recorded at 197 – exceeding even that of Albert Einstein – and through his Scorpion Corporation employs a team of more than 2,000 genius-level intellects across the globe, generating an annual income of $1 billion.
Now 39 years old, he’s also a bit of a real-life superhero: Among his accomplishments, his out-of-the-box analyses have reportedly derailed more than one nuclear detonation.
The best part of possessing his uncanny intellect, is that “you can walk in somewhere where people's lives are at stake, and you see something no one else saw,” O’Brien tells Spinoff Online. “You came up with a hypothesis or theory going, 'I have a crazy idea – why don't we try this?' And it actually works! Every other solution had casualties, and we came up with one that had no casualties and thank God it worked. You're like, ‘OK, we got the optimal outcome. Nobody got hurt. Everyone lived.’ That's an amazing feeling. I can sleep at night going, I've done good in the world.”
But he’s not exactly Tony Stark in the charm department. O’Brien readily admits his social skills, and, in fact, his very ability to experience and process emotions the way most people do, are inhibited by his overwhelmingly mathematical brain. “The bad side of it is there are many times I wish I was normal, so I could just fit in,” he says. “Veg out on the couch. Go to sleep without trying to shut my brains down. Especially in earlier years – high school, elementary school, that was tough. Where you don't fit in, and you don't know why.”
“Working with Walter is a mind-bender,” admits Nick Santoro (Prison Break), the creator and executive producer of Scorpion. “He knows things that you never knew existed. He figures out things that you thought were unsolvable, and he makes you think in a way you never thought before. Getting to know him has been an enriching experience.”
O’Brien’s entrée into Hollywood came from a seemingly unlikely source: talent manager and record label owner Scooter Braun, best known for guiding the careers of Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen and The Wanted. “Our relationship started in my living room,” Braun tells Spinoff. “My buddy Scott who works with me knew about Walter through his dad, who works in Washington, D.C. He came over to my house and we started hearing this incredible life story of this man, this genius who hacked into places where he should not have hacked and then got involved in a life that was just so interesting. And as soon as he left my house I looked at Scott and said ‘Why did you bring him here?’ Because now that he knows where I live, I’m on the grid: if I don’t make a great show with this man, he could just erase me! I actually did think that and laughed about it.”
Braun’s connections put O’Brien on the radar of some heavyweight industry players, including Santoro, who would craft Scorpion around a Mission: Impossible-meets-The Big Bang Theory premise, and top-tier screenwriter/producer Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek), who signed on to oversee the series for CBS. O’Brien has been amused to swim in Hollywood’s creative waters, where he finds himself “the dumbest guy in the room, literally, because I've never done Hollywood before,” he says. “They all know what they're doing. It's my first rodeo, so it's nice to sit back a little bit and just collaborate and know that I'm not in charge.”
After hearing bits of O’Brien’s real-world war stories, the writing staff build episodes around the various scenarios he’s described, and later return to him for additional bursts of authenticity and inspiration. “They'll come to me and ask ‘What's a cool way of breaking into this place, or getting out of prison?’ or ‘What would you do if you had to steal a car?’ or things like that,” O’Brien explains. “I give them the gadgets, the tools and techniques of the way I see the world, because I see the world as digital plumbing. In any situation, I look around for the loopholes, having a hacker mentality. And then they put that into the script, and then the whole thing comes alive. It's a somewhat magical process for me.”
“We will say, ‘Let's put these guys in an incredible difficult situation,’ and then we write on the writer's board ‘A.W. – Ask Walter,’” Santoro says. “He checks in every once in a while – you never know how you're going to get in touch with Walter. You just can't. He's like Batman: You don't know where he is, you don't know what he's doing, but he'll check in periodically. You'll get a phone call, and he'll say, 'What questions do you have for me?' And I'll just have a list of questions that I keep pinned on a bulletin board in my office, and I'll bounce them off of him. And he has an answer for every single one – the tech stuff, the problem-solving stuff – which makes the scripts go.”
“He'll give us really cool solutions on how to get internet data up and running again in a children's hospital where the internet has gone down and preemies are going to perish within a couple of hours if you can't fix it,” adds Santoro. “And how to determine which batch of blood has been tainted in the blood banks of Los Angeles, when you have absolutely no idea which bags are tainted. And he just comes up with these brilliant solutions. He doesn't have a 197 I.Q. by accident. He uses it!”
O’Brien says the writers have been diligent about keeping the show’s situations grounded in reality. “There's a few times where I've struggled a bit,” he says. “Like, ‘Let's not go too Hollywood and let's try to rein it back in to something that makes sense technically.’ And the writers have been really good about that. They don't want this just to be the cartoon-y version.”
For his part, he’s remained committed to not revealing certain secrets the world isn’t ready to hear. “We're crystal clear on what I can and cannot talk about, what's on our non-disclosure, what isn't. The good news is a lot of the things I can't talk about have an expiring time of three years, or five years – and I've been doing this 25 years, so by the time we're on Season Three, the stuff I can't talk about now, I will be able to talk about.” Meanwhile, he continues at work on his increasingly busy day job, where addressing tense situations in the Ukraine and Malaysia and with the terror group ISIS are currently on his plate.
Despite the Jack Bauer-like glamor of his career, it’s the unique human element O’Brien offered that Santoro couldn’t resist. “He's so open that geniuses are very funny people, often unintentionally,” says the producer. “And he lets us explore that without making fun of the characters. And the show's just getting funnier every week.”
Elyes Gabel, who plays the show’s fictionalized Walter O’Brien, has made every attempt to peer behind O’Brien’s mathematical left-brain curtain to understand exactly how those somewhat impaired emotions work. “Elyes has done a wonderful job of spending all of that time with me, asking thoughtful questions,” O’Brien sayd. “What am I like when I'm frustrated? How do I act when I panic? What do I look like when I'm scared? Humanizing that enough for the audience to still connect with him, because if he's a pure robot, there's no character to love there. But he can't be too goofy either, or he's not playing the role. So he has a hard job of walking that line, and I think he's doing an amazing job.”
“I think the way the fictional Walter O'Brien is accessible is kind of like the real Walter O'Brien is accessible, in that both Walters are aware of their flaws,” says Santoro. “The real-life Walter is incredibly bright, he is incredibly kind, but he also knows that he doesn't always have the ability to pick up on all those social cues. And as a result of that, our fictional Walter also has that flaw. He's a good person. He wants to be a better person, but he knows that he has to work on getting along with normals better.”
When one speaks to O’Brien, he seems to have mastered conversing with “normals,” but he quickly reveals that he’s just gotten good at approximating “normal” social interaction. His everyday emotional responses “seem normal to you,” he explains. “They're simulated. I've had to simulate what people would expect someone to say who had a personality. And that's the question: if you simulate long enough, does it grow on you, or are you still faking it? I don't even know.”
Scorpion premieres tonight at 9 ET/PT on CBS.