Any Game of Thrones fan can tell you that George RR Martin likes to spin twisted tales, but unless you’re familiar with the rest of his cannon, you might not know the author also has a knack for horror. With Syfy’s Nighflyers, inspired by Martin’s 1980 novella of the same name, one of the author’s best horror tales comes to the screen in an event series adaptation that follows a team of scientists and explorers on a mission to contact an alien race called the Volcryn before the Earth dies. Each member of the crew is passionate about the mission for their own reasons, but none more so than Karl D’Branin, the resident astro-physicist who believes the Volcryn possess the power to reunite him with his dead daughter.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join a group of journalists on the stunning sets of Nightflyers at Troy Studios in Limerick, Ireland, where Martin’s tale of terror came to life on an expansive series of sets across the sound stages. From the seemingly infinite corridor to the uninviting steel workrooms, each space was created with tangible detail — including that nasty flesh-covered Little Rabbit probe. While we were there, we also had an opportunity to chat with Eoin Macken about taking on the complicated role of Karl D’Branin. The actor discussed his character’s Ahab-esque obsession with his daughter, how his character diverges from the book, what makes for good science fiction, how his experience as author does (or doesn’t affect him as an actor), and a whole lot more.
Tell us a bit about your character and his background.
EOIN MACKEN: So, Karl D’Branin is a brilliant astrophysicist whose father was a brilliant astrophysicist. And so he’s got a bit of complex about achievement and he ends up discovering that there’s potential for alien life out in space based on some …He extrapolates based on movement and so forth, all these stars that don’t exist. But he doesn’t want to go to space because he’s quite happy to just stay at home with his wife and kid. He just doesn’t really have the adventuring gene to go do that. But then, when his daughter dies, he figures out… He ends up pitching the idea a lecture on the [existence of] an alien life. And when people don’t believe him, he gets more and more intense about the idea of proving that alien life does exist, and then he’s offered the opportunity where he has to go into space to prove it. And then because his daughter is dead, and his wife is acting super weird, he’s like: “Fuck it“.
But he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the Volcryn because the thing is that he could actually… if he meets them, they can bend space time, he could find his daughter and go back in time to basically, you know, have her not die. That becomes the big focus of it. So, it’s not about him trying to like find space aliens and shit. It’s about trying to talk to his daughter again or trying to bring her back.
Does he become Ahab level obsessed?
MACKEN: Yes. He goes way out of spectrum.
How much fun is that to play?
MACKEN: We haven’t quite gone there yet. He’s already kind of a little bit nuts… Because [his daughter] starts turning up as projections of herself and starts talking to him, but then it’s Cynthia Eris. She’s sort of playing games with him. That really fucks with him. And then his wife is doing some memory release whereby she decides she doesn’t want to remember anything. So, she starts taking away the memories of Skye and then also of him. He chooses to let her go.
He starts seeing his dead daughter everywhere. And then when they do encounter the Volcryn, he realizes that it means that they can bend space time and therefore there’s a possibility he can, he definitely can, if he convinces them to… to… flip it on its head, he could meet Skye again. He becomes obsessed with that idea. It’s really what drives him. That’s more far interesting than “just go find aliens”.
The show seems to have a lot of parent issues going on — D’Branin and his daughter, Lommie and her father, Eris and his mother. Is this a thing we should be looking for?
MACKEN: Sure! Have they thought about the Oedipus Complex, Jeffrey [Buhle]r? I don’t know. The next time I get drunk I’d love to ask him. [Laughs].
Yes, that is true because Lommie has that as well. I guess it’s more interesting to send broken people into space, right, than people who are kind of like — you know, if you send Matt Damon into space, it’s kind of like, “All right, cool.” So, he’s on a ship. That’s great, but you want to have these people who do have these kinds of issues in the first place. I guess that Lommie’s parental issues aren’t quite as cut and dry and specific. Roy’s are very fucking weird. D’Branin doesn’t have parental issues… I mean, his father was brilliant but he’s not really relevant.
D’Branin is the parent though.
MACKEN: Right, sure… Yeah, but even then everyone is a parent or a kid.
Is there anyone in his life or on his crew that can keep him in check?
MACKEN: At the moment, yeah, it would be Agatha and Mel. He’s kind of in check relatively anyway, but I think after that happens, Agatha is the only one who can keep him in check. And then she starts dealing with her own psychosis based on the fact that she is a telepath and she’s becoming torn apart by that. So she will be the only one who can keep him in check because, gradually, every scenario with D’Branin has been — there has been conflict in the power struggle with Eris, then there’s change and the same with everybody. He’s kind of gradually superseded all of these relationships. So he gradually starts to be more and more important. Even though he doesn’t want to be a leader, all of the sudden everyone is kind of deferring to him. And I think that kind of happens just circumstantially a lot. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but in my head, it should keep going that way and then he just doesn’t listen to anybody at all. That’d be fun.
Can you tell us a little bit about the audition process for this part?
MACKEN: I didn’t do an audition process. That was great. I read the script and I spoke with Mike [Cahill] and we had a conversation about it. And then they asked me to do a little tape, but it wasn’t it wasn’t like a screen test tape or anything, it was more just to play with the flavor of it. And I think because worked with these guys and NBC before. I sat with Mike for a big long conversation for a couple hours, we talked about movies and stuff. We talked about the characters. It was one of those questions if I wanted to do it and they wanted me to do it, which I always think is a more a constructive way than doing a tape and stuff. You actually discuss about what the character should be and vice versa. Because I think that when you look at people — I cast a lot for my own stuff, I like to meet people for a beer, and then go, “I know you can act and do this stuff, do you fit in what I want to do?” That’s kind of how they did it, which is different. I like that.
Your character seems to be very different from the book— in the book, he’s much older, kind of a teacher figure.
MACKEN: I think all the characters are different from the book. They just used the book as a source material and they changed it all. When I was reading the book, the character — I bought the fuckin’ book 3 times and they kept delivering it somewhere else I don’t know why. I bought this really nice first edition for $150 and it got delivered and I don’t know where it is. It never came to me. I had to read the book on a PDF, which I hate doing. I find it really hard to read books like that.
I think because they just changed all the characters so much the source material became less relevant. And then also, once you start doing it, you kind of end up changing the characters. They’ve done things with Rowan’s character, Angus’ character, whereby now the dialogue and the script is very similar to how he talked anyway. And they know that if they don’t do that, he’s going to say what he wants to say and talk about it for a long time. So they’ve started to do that anyway, and it’s very different to the book. I Think the book has just become more of a guide as opposed to an actual specific character trope, I guess.
Jodie [Turner-Smith] said that she hadn’t watched a lot of Sci-fi movies, but she brushed up on the classics. Are you a fan of the genre?
MACKEN: Yeah, I read pretty much every Asimov book, in general anyway. I love Sci-Fi. It’s pretty much all I watch. But I’m also disappointed because a lot of sci-fi pisses me off. It’s not been great.
What doesn’t work for you?
MACKEN: I don’t know if I can say. Can I start criticizing stuff? [laughs]. Did you see fuckin’ Mute? I love Duncan Jones, but what the fuck is Mute all about? you know what I mean? And Altered Carbon is nonsense. Anyway…
People say that a lot of space movies are just about a haunted house in space. And you don’t want to do that again, of course. Do you think that’s one of the things that can bring down some stories?
MACKEN: I think that one of the things that brings down a lot of SF stories is when it starts becoming just totally ridiculous. Because once you start going past a certain kind of parameter, you can’t do anything right, and it just usually becomes crap. People start walking through walls and that type of stuff. It needs to be grounded in some solid form of reality. And what they are doing with this is that, even 7 or 8 episodes in, it becomes very much about character detail and very specific human details, like people getting pregnant, having a kid and all that type of stuff. It doesn’t just become about aliens all the time, it’s very much about the relationships and the psychological aspects of them. Which I think is important.
What I like about The Martian is – you know, a guy is in space and it sucks. And he can’t go anywhere. That’s almost more interesting to me, in addition to just having an alien kind of come through a wall or something. I think that they tried to look at the atmosphere of of Alien and 2001, where it’s kind of weird and trippy, but it can also still… you can still project some of your own ideas into it ’cause nobody knows what’s going to happen. Otherwise it becomes too easy, if you kind of told us what’s going to happen on board and everyone fully knows the rules about it. As long as it doesn’t go too far out there, we still know the rules aren’t quite correct. I think that’s what they are doing.
How much does the claustrophobia play in to the emotional adventure breakdown of its people? Even if the ship is huge, you are confined to a limited space and you’re basically stuck with your own demons, right?
MACKEN: It does. It starts to; initially it didn’t so much. I think that’s an important part of it. Because you can’t go anywhere, and that’s when it gets really interesting. Rowan, for example, starts going to the terraforma and starts chopping down wood and doing stuff that is related to nature. Other people are stuck in the bowels of the ship; Lommie starts doing things like that. I think it’s important yeah because, if you were stuck in this room for like ten months, you’d start going crazy. So there has to be that kind of element to it without it just being about the fact that they’re all stuck in these rooms. Everyone is dealing with it in a different way. So I think It’s part of it but it’s not the overriding factor of it.
When we spoke to Brian [O’Brien] yesterday, and he was expressing some concerns about if the show doesn’t take off, it could be a choice for Limerick and Troy Studios after investing.
MACKEN: Jesus Christ!
It’s a bit of a gamble, especially since a lot of people consider it as the next Game of Thrones, and as something that is really important for Ireland. Are you also concerned?
MACKEN: I don’t think that’s really relevant to kind of what we are doing because we didn’t spend the money on the show or the studios. I don’t think that the studio would live or die based on whether the show did very well or not. I think that the studio would live or die based on how accessible it is, how cool the studio is now, and how well it operates. I don’t think any studio should be kind of under the thumb of whether or not their show is. It will help obviously, but it won’t stop Troy Studio from ever being a studio. And I also don’t know if the comparison with Game of Thrones — it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s a very different show anyway. I wouldn’t be too worried about that, because it’s not my job. But I also don’t think it’s relevant.
What do you think about the show’s potential to bring Ireland to a global stage?
MACKEN: Isn’t it already on a global stage? I think if the show does really really really well, I think that it makes everything easier the same way when Vikings did, or even when The Tudors did, for example. It all depends…It’s like when I was working in Albuquerque and they were going to change the tax rate in Albuquerque, and obviously Breaking Bad did change everything in Albuquerque, but Albuquerque became viable when they brought in other shows that worked.
At the same time as Breaking Bad was working, they were doing Terminator, and doing big movies so it wasn’t like just this one show. And they are still shooting stuff in Santa Fe. If there’s other stuff concurrently going on, like with Into The Badlands or stuff that can replace Vikings then it will become more relevant. If you don’t have those shows, then it becomes less relevant. I think that changes very quickly. I don’t think it becomes…I don’t think companies wait 5 years to go ” Oh this is still of ok, we’ll go back there” I think that they have to be more specific with the tax rates like in Canada and Louisiana or Ireland, to think where they wanna go, and they make changes very quick. On one hand what you’re saying is right and on the other hand I think it’s wrong.
If your character doesn’t go back in time and save his daughter, what will happen for him? What would the consequences be?
MACKEN: I don’t know if he’s thought like that, I don’t know if I’ve thought like that. I think that if that doesn’t happen the show might be fucked. I don’t know. I think he’s very certain that he’s correct. It’s to the point whereby he’s so dogmatic about being right, it doesn’t matter if he’s actually in any way incorrect; he won’t see it. He’s just very single-minded and has tunnel vision about that. If it happens as you say and it was an impossibility, he would probably just go crazy and still try do something like that and try to fix it. Try to figure out a way, another way, to make the impossible possible. I think that’s what would be happening. And also, because his wife has emotionally and intellectually left him, his daughter is dead, Earth is dying, he’s in space, space is really fucked up… You’re going to try to do shit or you’re just going to kill yourself.
As an author yourself, you’re working on a show that’s an adaptation of a book by a well-known author. Have been more sensitive regarding the adaptation? How would you react if you were adapted?
MACKEN: No. I say no because I adapted Rob Doyle’s book, called Here Are the Young Men. And myself and Rob get on pretty well, but I found that I have to go past following the rules of his book and kind of his dialogue, to be able to write it my way, and make the script the way I want to make it.
So if someone was going to do my stuff, I’d see it the exact same, I think you have to. Purely because everything’s subjective anyway, so you’re going to want to change certain things so… Rob hasn’t read the script for a year and a half, and I have changed quite a lot now. But he’s cool with that because we get on and is trusting me to adapt it and saw previous versions. It’s not drastically different but there’s a lot of subtleties that you have to change to make it fit. It depends on if you adapt somebody’s book to make it into a play, or cinema, movie or TV series, you’re gonna naturally have to do a different thing. I don’t think you can be too precious about it, beyond a certain point. As long as it’s respectful and you’re not like, doing weird shit.