From the minds of Lana and Andy Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski comes the 12-episode, mind-bending Netflix series Sense8, about eight people connected all around the world who, after experiencing a violent vision, are able to see, feel, hear and talk to each other, as if they are in the same place. While they are being hunted by an organization that is out to do them harm, these eight individuals from very different backgrounds must quickly adapt to this new ability and to each other, and figure out what all of this means for the future of humanity.
At the press day for this thriller that explores identity, connectivity and humanity, actor Brian J. Smith (who plays a Chicago police officer named Will) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what attracted him to this highly ambitious project, how the first couple of scripts ended up being pretty different from what they ultimately shot, why everything about this show seemed impossible to achieve, what makes people want to take such a leap of faith with the Wachowskis, what it’s like to work with the filmmakers, his character’s journey, and trusting that everything will come together and make sense, by the end of the season. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did you come to this, and did you know much of what this would all turn out to be?
BRIAN J. SMITH: I got the first couple of scripts, which were pretty different from what we ended up shooting. The concept was always there, but the structure changed a lot. I was doing a play, at the time, and I met Carmen Cuba, who’s the casting director for this. She was actually at the opening night of this play, and we road back to the after-party in the same van. She said, “I don’t know, I’ve got this thing coming up and you might be right.” So, I taped an audition, and then the next thing I knew, I was out in Chicago meeting the Wachowskis. It just happened. I’m just really, really proud of it, and really excited.
Was it difficult to then move on to the next role, after that?
SMITH: I just did a one-episode role on a pilot, and we shot it in Atlanta. It was a great experience. You’re always so happy just to work. But, there’s really nothing like traveling around the world, and working with the Wachowskis and Joe [Straczynski], and working on material that’s asking these big questions. And every day on set, it felt so meaningful. It really felt like we were trying to do something different and important, that no one had ever done before, on every level. The logistics of this are insane. You’re not supposed to do a television series that takes place in nine cities, all over the globe. Everyone will tell you that that’s undoable. The whole idea was undoable, and that’s what the Wachowskis love. If you tell them no, they’re like, “Watch.”
What would you say to people wondering whether they should watch Sense8?
SMITH: Hopefully, it’s one of those things where the world is immersive enough that you want to keep going back. The whole idea, at least for the first four or five episodes, is about keeping the audience as off-balance as the characters are, which is a risk. As storytellers, we tend to want to force-feed everything and have everybody understand everything, right away, and we freak out if they don’t. When you have 12 hours of storytelling, the cool thing about it is that you get to really leave people with question marks, but hopefully wanting to come back. Especially in the first episodes, the whole sensate phenomenon that’s happening to them is slowly rolled out. They’re still dealing with their life junk, on top of dealing with this very scary, very bizarre thing that’s happening to them. It was never about doing a show that was a sci-fi concept, where the whole thing is about watching people shift and change, back and forth. It was always about these different people, in these different cities, who are living in these different cultures, dealing with separateness and tribalism in very different ways. And then, you bring them together for the last six episodes and see what happens. It’s really cool.
When you work with the Wachowskis, it seems as though you have to take a bit of a leap of faith because they have the bigger picture in their heads, but they don’t necessarily share all of that with everyone else. What is it about them that makes people willing to take that leap?
SMITH: Gosh, for me, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I was just starting to understand ideas and film, and things like that. And then, you go see a movie like The Matrix that absolutely blows your mind. It’s not just trying to entertain you, but it’s also trying to explore something about human nature and ask some really deep questions. It asks you, as an audience member, to take a leap of faith and believe in this concept that there is a matrix and that we’re really being harvested. For me, to be able to work with the people who were so formative in my film-going experiences, when I was a teenager, all the way up through Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas, which was a challenging film but one of my favorite movies, you have a certain amount of emotional and artistic trust in them.
What’s it like to actually work with the Wachowskis, as filmmakers?
SMITH: When you work with the Wachowskis, there’s no such thing as a typical day. You have to expect the unexpected with them. They never shoot a scene the way you think they’re going to. They never block a scene the way you think they’re going to. And even the scene itself completely changes when you show up. If you always expect the unexpected with them, you’re going to be okay. You just can’t come in with any preconceived ideas. That’s also the key to watching [their work]. You have to relax a little bit and not come in with a lot of baggage because you’ll enjoy it more, if you leave all that crap at the door. Just come in and enjoy it and try to get immersed in the story, and you’ll get something out of it. In order to have a conversation between the filmmaker and the audience, there has to be someone who’s willing to listen. The hope is that people are going to want to listen to this, and people are going to be interested in getting on this ride.
What can you say about your character and the journey that he takes? By the time we get to the end of this season, will we have a sense of who he is?
SMITH: Yeah. In a way, one character’s growth is a reflection of the growth of every single one of the characters because they are so intimately connected. For Will, it’s a journey toward this idea of what it really means to love a human being, especially when that human being is another reflection of yourself. He’s confronted with that kind of empathy that’s so deep and scary and challenging, and he’s got two options – he can run away from it, or he can embrace it. That’s his journey, toward the end of the season.
Will we learn about why some of these people might, at least initially, seem more connected than others?
SMITH: Yeah, you do. It’s all explained. Just trust me. I know, at first, you’ll be like, “What is going on?!” It’s like getting on a roller coaster ride. You don’t know when that next curve is coming. You just have to relax the mind a little bit, in a great way, and trust that everything is going to be harmonized, at the end. It really all does make sense. This is a ridiculous situation that they’re in, and to see them grapple with it is part of the joy of the series. That happens a lot more frequently, as it goes on.
Sense8 is available at Netflix on Friday, June 5th at 12:01 am PST.