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September 23, 2011

‘Alphas’ and autism: Ryan Cartwright channels a special role

Posted in: TV

alphas2 Alphas and autism: Ryan Cartwright channels a special role

Gary Bell, played by Ryan Cartwright, in a scene from "Alphas." (Syfy)

The first season finale of “Alphas” airs Monday and the SyFy series has carved out its own personality after starting with a concept that sat somewhere between “The X-Files” and “X-Men.” The characters are a collection of oddballs and outsider souls and at the top of that list is Gary Bell, the autistic young man who can “see” energy and communication signals in the air, making him a walking antenna and the world’s supreme electronic eavesdropper. Ryan Cartwright, a familiar face to fans of “Bones,” plays Gary, and Hero Complex’s Geoff Boucher caught up with the 30-year-old Brit to talk about the show. This is part 1 of the interview.

GB: Portraying a character with autism is a bit of a tightrope act especially in a show that values a grounded reality and humor. Talk a bit about finding the Gary we see on “Alphas.”

RC: Even from the page you could tell it was going to be a piecemeal effort; there were several elements I’d have to figure out. Usually my only problem when I’m putting a role together in the States is just figuring out if I can do the American accent but this obviously had the autism thing and his abilities with all the electromagnetic wave lengths that he can see. So I had what was on the page but I had to research everything else and also come up with imaginary hand signals and stuff and then just conglomerate everything together and find that happy marriage.

GB: As far as autism, how intense was your research?

RC: We determined exactly where he was on the autism scale. Originally we weren’t sure if it was Asperger’s or how severe the autism was or should be. I read a load of books and met with people and eventually everyone [on the show's creative team] would defer to me because I did do all that research because, as you say, there is a certain sensitivity and we didn’t want to upset anyone.

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Gary Bell, played by Ryan Cartwright, in a scene from "Alphas." (Russ Martin / Syfy)

GB: When you say you met with people, what was the setting for that?

RC: It was toward the end [of pre-production]. I was already up in Toronto and they had a specialist come by at the read-through but by that point it was so late in the day that I had already kind of got the character down. Everything I asked her — “I was going to do this,” “I was thinking he might do this” — she said was on board and on the right track. There’s also another lady, who I have not met,  who they run all the scripts by. I was offered, just before I came up [to Toronto], a chance to go to a center and meet some autistic people at a therapy session but by that point I felt I had found what I needed through books and watching documentaries. What was nice about researching the neuroscience behind everything [was that] I could base the performance on the reasoning behind it. I wasn’t just imitating people. You could go and meet autistic people but then you might end up mimicking them instead of getting to know what’s actually going on inside. And I would have felt weird asking them specific questions about their conditions. I think it would have been rude.

GB: Gary has some distinctive hand gestures that go along nicely with the visual effects team’s efforts showing what the character sees in the air. Did you work in tandem with the effects folks to devise all of that?

RC: No, no, the egg came before the chicken, man. I just had to figure it out. I worked out some hand gestures and tried to imagine in my mind what I was seeing. Actually I think that I did speak with the effects people in the middle of filming the pilot. They asked what I was doing and I said, “When I do this, I see this…” So for the series they filmed me explaining what I was doing and what exactly I would be seeing as I did my hands. Gary isn’t manipulating anything with his hands. He obviously isn’t touching them with his hands, it’s all just a guide of sorts… For me it’s an invented tic to physicalize this world and this light show he sees all the time.

– Geoff Boucher

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