Based on the feature film, the CBS series Limitless is a fast-paced, action-filled drama about Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), who discovers the brain-boosting power of the mysterious drug NZT and then finds himself working with the FBI to use his extraordinary abilities to help solve complex cases for them. Able to use 100% of his brain capacity, Brian is more effective than all of the FBI agents combined, which Special Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter) is trying to use to their advantage. But unbeknownst to anyone, Brian also has a secret relationship with Senator Edward Morra (Bradley Cooper, reprising his role from the film), a presidential hopeful and regular user of NZT who has plans of his own for his new protégé.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-stars Jake McDorman and Jennifer Carpenter talked about what drew them to the project, the show’s unconventional approach to storytelling, opening up the world of the movie, the uneasy relationship between Brian and the FBI, Eddie Morra’s questionable motives, and what viewers can expect from the journey this season.
Collider: This show has an unconventional approach to its storytelling, with so much of what’s going on coming from the thoughts in Brian Finch’s head.
JAKE McDORMAN: Yeah. In the movie there was a lot of voice-over from Eddie Morra’s perspective, and that carried over into the show. The way it’s written and the way Marc Webb put it together set the bar for future episodes, and it’s very much in Brian’s head. Brian has an enthusiasm about this opportunity that is a little bit delusional. People ask, “How are you going to maintain the action from the pilot?,” but we definitely will. Being on NZT consistently is going to lead to things and instances like the pilot, but there’s a big wake-up call where he’s told that he’s already a huge liability who’s very much at the bottom of the totem pole. Even though he’s a genius, he’s a little drug addict experiment. With the way Marc put it together, it has a unique, cool point of view about it that’s very exciting.
As an actor, is it cool for you to learn so much about this character because you know what he’s thinking?
McDORMAN: Yeah, I think it’s great. A lot of the subtext is said out loud, in a lot of instances, which gives more insight into who he is and what makes him tick. Honestly, it’s been such a joy to play a character that is already so fleshed out. Obviously, when he’s on NZT, it’s an insight into who he is, as a person, by what he chooses to do with that unlocked brain capacity. There are huge monologues that he goes on. It’s just been like surfing on a wave. I just want to do justice to Craig Sweeny’s source material. The character is really fleshed out, in the first couple of episodes of the series, so it’s really great for me.
When this opportunity first presented itself and you guys heard there was going to be a TV adaptation of this movie, was it something you were immediately hesitant about or immediately curious about?
JENNIFER CARPENTER: I was 8 ½ months pregnant when we shot the pilot. I threw my hat in the ring, not thinking anyone would pick it up. I made a tape in my kitchen with my guy, who’s got an accent that’s worse than mine. I think I even sent it in with an apology. But I saw all these heavy-hitting names, and once I recovered from being knocked out by that and read the script, I realized that it wasn’t what I expected and I wanted to be a part of it.
McDORMAN: I had seen the movie, and I think the movie really touches on a theme that everybody can relate to, which is basically being the best version of yourself, accomplishing everything you put your mind to, and getting out of your own way. There’s that wish fulfillment aspect to the movie, and that translates onto the show. We also have all the producers from the film producing the show. When I got the material, it was armed to the teeth with all of these creative powerhouses. A lot of times, that’s true, but they’re just hedging their bets and will be very detached. With this, they’re all very involved. Bradley Cooper committing himself to being in front of the camera and reprising his role is such a vote of confidence in the quality of the show. Also, the fact that we’re not remaking the movie or acting like the events of the movie don’t really exist to take the franchise and start it fresh, was really exciting for me when I read it. That happened, and this just extends that timeline further and expands that universe. The title character from the film is going to intersect with the plots of the title character in the show, and it’s from such a different perspective. You see the world through Eddie Morra’s eyes in the movie, and now you’re seeing him as this political figure with ambiguous intentions. I don’t know if he’s a villain or what. I don’t think any of us know. He’s somebody who’s been on NZT, day in and day out, for years. His plan has got to be so advanced with so many moving parts that you don’t really know if it’s sinister, if it’s for the greater good, or what.
Jake, do you think you would have even considered this, if you were just replaying the character from the movie?
McDORMAN: No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. If Craig [Sweeny] wrote it, I would definitely give it a read because Craig is a genius. Now knowing what the show is, hearing that as an option sounds gross. I wouldn’t want to do that. People sometimes say, “In a way, you’re taking a similar role to what Bradley had in the movie. How is it following that?” But, it’s not following that. It would be following that, if they were recasting the role of Eddie Morra and I would have to play him my own way. That would be way more intimidating and feel weird. The congruency between the film and the show would get muddy. The fact that we’re two different beasts is really exciting and it opens up our show to the prospect of peripheral characters, or even very crucial characters taking NZT at a certain point in the story. I think Brian could run into his biggest adversary, who is somebody else in another organization that’s been on NZT, or Jennifer’s character could take it to aid him, in some way. We’ve got hours and hours to play in this sandbox, as opposed to a 90-minute movie.
Especially watching what Brian is going through, would Special Agent Rebecca Harris want to take NZT?
CARPENTER: I think after how she lost her father, it would never be an option or even a temptation.
McDORMAN: It would have to be some crazy circumstance.
CARPENTER: Or it might be the opposite. In order to understand her father, she might want to do it. I’m just glad it’s not in my hands.
McDORMAN: The reason the FBI is even using Brian is because he’s somehow immune to the side effects. Everyone knows that, if they were to take it, they would suffer almost to the point of dying. And they don’t know why he’s immune. Brian knows he’s immune because of Eddie Morra, but he can’t tell anybody that. The FBI has had a program where they’ve given test subjects NZT to do exactly what they’re doing with Brian. Those people had much more formal training than Brian and were probably top agents that they sacrificed to this program, after they succumbed to the side effects from using NZT for a long amount of time. The only reason that they even consider working with Brian is because his body doesn’t react negatively to repeated doses of NZT. If any other character were to take it without the antidote that Morra has, it would be dangerous.
So, is the FBI begrudgingly working with Brian, or are they just happy to have someone taking NZT that they can work with?
McDORMAN: The FBI hates Brian. I guess it’s a give-and-take relationship.
CARPENTER: We work very, very hard to get what he gets so easily. Sometimes he comes up with these nuggets of information and has no idea where to place them until he can put them in our very capable hands, and we know how they apply. In a weird way, there’s competition, jealous and ego at play.
McDORMAN: Through the events of the pilot, and indirectly through working with Brian while he’s a fugitive, she has had a more intimate experience with him on this drug and hopes that he is a good enough person, or naive enough, or just him enough that he’s not going to go rogue and do something dangerous. She vouches for him because she knows that Brian could potentially be facing a lot of jail time for everything that he does in the pilot. There are a lot of things that the FBI could throw him in jail for. She saves him, in a way, and presents his salvation to the FBI, in the manner of using him as a resource.
CARPENTER: It happens in an instant, and she has to stand by that choice.
McDORMAN: There’s a lot of babysitting. He goes into it like, “It’s the fucking FBI! This is awesome!” And she’s like, “Stop that! Put that down!”
Does Rebecca regret involving Brian with the FBI?
CARPENTER: Oh, yeah. He’s my responsibility and it’s like trying to scoop up water with your hands. It’s just impossible. The other thing is that there’s this strange pull to him because he’s average, in a way, which for someone as trained and capable as Rebecca, it’s gotta be like looking at a funny furry animal. She’s like, “I don’t hang out with people like you very often. It’s neat.” There’s also this innocence about him that warms up her surroundings in a way that she’s not used to. I don’t think that this FBI world that we’re living in is as cold as it’s perceived on television, day in and day out. It’s not as black and white. I think she actually has a lot of fun. It’s wonderful that Hill Harper and I have the rapport that we do because it’s easy to let the loyalty of our relationship translate onto the show. But there’s a need that Rebecca has to keep Brian around because it makes her feel more human, in a weird way. That’s why it’s going to be an even bigger disappointment if he doesn’t succeed, or just put his hands in his pockets and be quiet.
Is this FBI world something that you had to research, or did previously playing a detective help with that, at all?
CARPENTER: When I first was jumping into Debra Morgan (on Dexter), I did a massive amount of research on what it was to be a cop in blues and a cop behind a desk, and on and on, up and up. So, I felt like it was a very easy transition. I didn’t need to go through that again because I knew it, probably like she knows it, 10 or 12 years in. That was easy. But when it comes to the characters, you can like music, but one musician can be worlds away from another. There aren’t really a lot of similarities between Rebecca and Deb, other than they both look a lot like me.
And they’re very different in the type of language they each use.
CARPENTER: I don’t want it. I never did. I never really enjoyed it in the way that audiences wish I did. I spent a lot of time in ADR, covering up the f-bomb.
What can you say about what’s to come on this show, past the pilot episode?
McDORMAN: We have a couple of different fronts. There’s Brian and Rebecca, and that partnership forming at the FBI. You have Eddie Morra’s role in the whole thing, which is a giant question mark. And then, you have Brian’s relationship with his family and his father. I think Craig does a really good job of inching every front forward, on each episode. The bulk of the episodes are about the relationship between Brian and Rebecca, what it means to have this guy come into the FBI, and what he’s allowed to do. It’s very disappointing to where Brian thought he’d jump in. He imagined getting a gun and badge, and running around chasing bad guys, right off the bat, and he fights to do that. The biggest part of it is the cases we’re working on and how those cases establish more trust between her and I, which ripples into more trust with the FBI, and getting bigger and more exciting cases as the series goes on. In each episode, there’s a development with Bradley Cooper’s character, either directly or indirectly. Those things move a bit more forward, in every single episode.
CARPENTER: After making the pilot and then watching the pilot, I was like, “Oh, man, how are they going to do that 22 times?” And then, after getting the second episode and shooting the second episode, and then seeing the third, I was like, “This is okay.”
McDORMAN: I think my biggest fear of joining a procedural was that we were going to have a banger pilot and then devolve into a serious cop procedural, and it’s so not like that. There’s a procedural element from episode to episode, but I’m so comfortable with it. There’s the difference between Brian on NZT and off NZT, and the relationship between Brian and Rebecca is so fun. The show is very self-aware, and that’s a huge asset. Brian would be a fan of TV, and of cop movies and cop shows. Craig uses that naivete about what that’s really like to the show’s advantage.
Limitless airs on Tuesday nights on CBS.