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November 09, 2012

‘Firefly’: Sean Maher wants Whedon to make ‘Serenity’ sequel

Posted in: TV

Sean Maher played Simon Tam, a doctor, fugitive and devoted brother, in Joss Whedon's short-lived TV series "Firefly" and its movie sequel "Serenity." (Fox)

Sean Maher, right, played the title character in the 1999 television series "Ryan Caulfield: Year One." (Fox)

Mekhi Phifer, left, and Sean Maher in a scene from "Brian's Song," about the real-life friendship between Chicago Bears football players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. (Peter Stranks / ABC)

Paula Cale, left, and Sean Maher in a scene from "Brian's Song." (Peter Stranks / ABC)

Sean Maher, left, and Summer Glau played brother and sister in "Serenity." (Sidney Baldwin / Universal Studios)

Joss Whedon directs Adam Baldwin, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Sean Maher and cinematographer Jack Green on the set of "Serenity." (Universal Studios)

Jose Molina, left, Tim Minear, Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, Joss Whedon, Summer Glau, Sean Maher and Adam Baldwin address fans at the "Firefly" 10th anniversary panel during Comic-Con International 2012. (Science Channel)

Nathan Fillion, left, Tim Minear, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Adam Baldwin and Jose Molina. (James Aronovsky / Science Channel)

Cast members and writers of "Firefly" discuss the show in a scene from "Firefly: Browncoats Unite." (Science Channel)

Few stories inspire the kind of passion and devotion shown by the fans of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.” The short-lived sci-fi western followed Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew as they stole and scavenged their way across the universe, trying to keep their raggedy spaceship Serenity afloat. “Firefly” was canceled a decade ago, but support for the show has spawned a movie sequel, comic series, packed comic convention panels and now a one-hour reunion special on Science Channel.

“Firefly: Browncoats Unite” features a roundtable discussion with cast members Fillion, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin and Sean Maher and writers Tim Minear and Jose Molina, as well as separate interviews with Jewel Staite, Gina Torres and Morena Baccarin. The discussion reveals closely guarded plans for the second season that never was, including a child for Zoe (Torres) and Wash (Tudyk), more dastardly deeds for Jayne (Baldwin) and a brutal attack on Inara (Baccarin). The documentary special airs Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT following an all-day “Firefly” marathon on Science Channel, but fans can unlock several additional videos from the interview by tweeting “#FireflyNov11″ to the handle @ScienceChannel.

One of “Firefly’s” most memorable characters was Simon Tam (Maher), the doctor who abandoned a successful career to rescue his sister, River (Glau). Simon serves as Serenity’s tether to the civilized world, and his moral code and mysterious past land the crew in several places and situations they’d rather avoid. Hero Complex caught up with Maher to talk about Simon, “Firefly” and what’s next for Serenity.

MORE: Jewel Staite: ‘Firefly’ was ‘the one that got away’

HC: What was it like to reunite for this anniversary special?

SM: We were sort of poking fun at it because it’s not really a reunion for us because we see each other all the time. The cast especially, we’ve stayed in very close contact. I consider them my family at this point. When we’re all in the same city, Capt. Nathan is usually the ringleader who will organize get-togethers, but I would see Jewel and Morena a lot on my own. When we’re all in the same place, we do our best to get together, and we stay in touch otherwise. It was really lovely. I hadn’t seen Tim Minear probably in a good six years, and for me that was just remarkable. I forgot how much love I have for that man. And it was just nice. When we get together, we don’t always sit around a table and talk about the show, and so to be placed in that environment and to have somebody [Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen] ask the questions and spark our memories to talk about the show was really lovely. We always talk about the show when we do these conventions, but the fan questions are a little different. The moderator was kind of encouraging conversation. It was emotional. I was surprised at how emotional we all got, especially in San Diego.

HC: Is that sort of relationship among cast members unusual?

SM: I think for everyone to stay in touch the way we stay in touch, I think that’s very unusual. I have friends from work that I had done previous to “Firefly” that I still am quite close with, or an actress I had worked with last year who has now become one of my closest friends, so it’s not unusual to create these bonds, but I think it’s pretty phenomenal for us all to jell. I really feel like that’s what really drew people to the show. There was a chemistry between the actors that you saw as the characters, and there was no denying it, and there was no getting around it. It was just so palpable. That really was the case, on screen and off screen. And so I do think that, for everyone to sort of be in the same soup, so to speak, is rare.

HC: Which came first? Did your experience on “Firefly” help develop the bond, or did the bond between people make the experience?

SM: For me, it was the people. It was instantaneous. Starting a new job is always scary, or at least for me it’s always scary. It’s like the first day of school. Am I going to make any friends, are people going to like me, am I going to get fired, am I going to do what the producers want of me? And there’s so much fear involved and jitters. With “Firefly,” a lot of it was Joss, because it was my first experience that when I stepped on a set, and there was just one man, and his name was Joss Whedon, and he was so accessible and so laid back, and there weren’t all the looming studio executives and network executives standing by video village, watching the monitors, making sure that we get what we needed to get. That’s always very nervous-making. So when you have just Joss Whedon kind of leading you through your process, that kind of peels away all of these layers of fear, and then you’re with this group of people, and there was not one person that didn’t get along. We certainly had dynamics, like any family does; there’s sort of like the bickering brothers, the paternal, the youngest in the group. There’s all these dynamics within the family circuit, but we were all this family unit, and it was really lovely. And before we got into the nitty gritty work of the pilot, we had the read-throughs and we were getting to know each other, and I think it was instantaneously a connection between ourselves as people and as artists. I can’t think of a group of people who I respect them all as people and as actors. I was so, so, so grateful to be in their company. And from there, Joss will say that he watched us as actors and started to write from what he was seeing off-screen. And we didn’t know that that was going on until a few episodes down the road, but he was watching us hanging out in between takes or hanging out in our trailers, and we were all doing game nights after work, and there was just sort of these dynamics, and I think Joss drew from that to further create these characters, and everything just came from such an organic place.

MORE: Summer Glau reflects on Whedon, sci-fi women

HC: What drew you to the role of Simon?

SM: When I read it, I was living in New York, and my agent came over one evening to my loft, and we went over a list of the upcoming pilots for this year, and he got to the Joss Whedon, and he was like, “Oh, and there’s the new Joss Whedon, and it’s on Fox, and nah, it’s sci-fi.” And I think back to that conversation as such a generalization of what that show was. And he was like, “But it’s Joss Whedon. You should look at it.” And I was like, “Great, I’d love to read the script.” And he said, “Well, there is no script.” And I was like, “Huh?” But there were the sides, and the sides were, in the pilot episode, Simon has this whole speech where he tells everybody sort of the back story of his sister, and how he ended up on the ship. It’s a chunky bit of dialogue, and that’s the only thing I had to go on, but that alone, I was like, “Wow, this is something really special.” Obviously in that speech is Simon’s love, dedication, all the sacrifices he made for his sister’s well-being, and I was drawn to that immediately. But then when I ended up in L.A., and met with Joss for “Firefly,” and there still was no script, obviously my first question was, “Please tell me about the story.” And then I just sat there and just listened to him, for 15, 20 minutes, tell me about this world that he created. And to hear it from his mouth, for me, was what sealed the deal. And I remember I left that audition, and I called my agent, and I said, “I know there’s no script, and I know we were kind of pussy-footing around this whole sci-fi thing, but I love this man, and I want to work for him. I don’t know him, and he’s kind of goofy and quirky, but there’s just something about him.” It was just like an instant, I want, I want, I want, I want to be working with him. So it was a little bit of everything, a little bit of the character from the snippets of the sides, and then meeting Joss, that I was just like, “Oh my goodness gracious, what an extraordinary man.” Everyone knows he’s a genius, but he’s also just, I always use the word “accessible.” There’s no guard up with him. He’s of course now a dear friend and a mentor, and I love him dearly, but when I first met him, it was just so easy with him, and that’s exciting for an actor because you feel creatively uninhibited. So you feel safe, and then all these layers of fear are removed, and you can go full steam ahead, and he helps steer you in the right direction.

Joss Whedon directs Adam Baldwin, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Sean Maher and cinematographer Jack Green on the set of “Serenity.” (Universal Studios)

HC: What was your audition like?

SM: It was pretty standard. I auditioned that one time. You audition and then you go and do what’s called a test, your network test. So you have to go in front of the network and do it, and the network has to sign off on you. So the network wasn’t for a few weeks, and I was still out in L.A. going on other auditions, but I had “Firefly” in the back of my mind. I kept saying, “Mmm, I’m not sure about this other pilot, because I really, really, really want ‘Firefly,’” and everyone was saying to me, “Well, if ‘Firefly’ doesn’t work out, you’re really going to let these other opportunities go?” And I’m like, “I think I’m gonna take that risk, yeah. I feel so good about this one.” Granted, Spielberg wasn’t knocking down my door or anything. But it was pilot season, so I was pretty busy, but I was reading all these other pilots, and being like, “Yeah, I’m not feeling this one as much as ‘Firefly,’” and “Eh, I’m not really going to go after this one because I’ve got my heart set on ‘Firefly.’” And in the interim, the script surfaced, which was remarkable. And then two weeks later we had the network test, so I just needed to go and read for Fox, but I was supposed to test for another pilot as well that I liked, and they were testing on the same exact day. So I was supposed to go in and do my “Firefly” test, and then leave the room, and then hang out, and then go in and do the test for the other show. And they said to me, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have you test for both shows, and then give you the verdict. Because if you test for ‘Firefly’ and you don’t get it, we don’t want it to affect your second test.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s a great idea, because I don’t want to know until we’re all done.” So I went in and tested for “Firefly,” and then I came back out, and we were waiting. And they said, “I’m sorry, Sean, can you come back in?” And I’m like, “Oh, God, what did I do?” And I go back in, and there are 20, 25 network executives, and there’s Joss, and I’m standing there sweating bullets. And Joss is like, “I’m gonna have to ask you to do it one more time…” And I’m like, “OK, OK, what do you need, what do you need?” And he’s like, “… on set!” And then we hear all this, “Yeah!” and everybody’s clapping their hands, and I’m like, “No, shh, shh,” because there are other actors outside in the hall who are testing for the same part, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings.… It was fun. But he says he really took his time to feel us out as people. There are so many actors, and so many great actors, and he saw a lot of wonderful, wonderful actors come in and read for this role, but he really had his feelers out for people, and I think that again goes back to the whole, “Of course, that makes so much sense,” because it was such a beautiful group of people who were just so open and loving and amazing, and my hats off to Joss for every little detail of why this show became what it became. I think it was him.

Sean Maher, left, and Summer Glau played brother and sister in “Serenity.” (Sidney Baldwin / Universal Studios)

HC: In the show, you work closely with Summer Glau. How did you develop that relationship?

SM: It was so perfect because Summer, it was pretty much her first job, and I had this sort of protective thing with her that was perfect for Simon and River, and I loved, loved, loved, loved every time I got to work with her. I felt like the work we were doing was so — I just loved the connection that we had, and there was a protective nature that I had toward her as an actor, and I think that’s exactly what people felt when they saw the beginnings of the Simon-and-River relationship. She was really nervous and scared, and it was like her first big anything, and she was just like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing,” and I was like, “Are you kidding? You’re doing really extraordinary work, and let’s just keep doing it.” That was one of the easiest character relationships for me to find. I just love her.

HC: Did you know the secrets your characters would have known? How much back story were you aware of at the time?

SM: Just a little bit of the bond that he and his sister had was first and foremost, and obviously my medical history and my schooling, and the career that I had that I dropped everything for to save her, I was aware of that. But I still wasn’t privy to everything that had been done to her. I think we were still trying to figure that out, and trying to go down that road to see what exactly was done to her when she was away.

MORE: ‘Avengers’ stars: Joss Whedon should be your hero

HC: One of the coolest parts of the Science special is hearing the cast talk about what they knew about the plans for their characters in Season 2. What can you tell us about what would have happened with Simon?

SM: You know, I don’t know specifically, but I just know the direction we were going with him. Obviously we were trying to loosen him up a little bit, and he’d be more a part of the crew, and he would get his hands dirty a little more. And, you know, roughen him up a little more around the edges. But in terms of specific story lines, I wasn’t sure. I think, obviously, the story with River, we’d figure out what had gone on, and we would be safe, but I think we would probably choose to stay on the ship. I knew that was happening. But I mean, there was sort of like a slow transformation that Joss was doing. With my clothing alone, even just down to like the colors of what I was wearing were less Alliance and more of the crew. So there was sort of a slow evolution, but we never really got there 100%.

Sean Maher in a scene from “The Playboy Club.” (Matt Dinerstein / NBC)

HC: Do you ever worry that your continued association with this show has held you back? Do you find it difficult to break free of the character?

SM: Oh gosh, no, not at all. I don’t think so. Especially within our industry, it’s interesting, because there are the “Firefly” fans who are incredibly loyal, and there are so many of them, and they know every nook and cranny of the show, and their heart is with us wherever we go. But when I walk into a meeting or an audition for another project, most of the time, people don’t really know what “Firefly” is. It’s usually like people either know it and they love it, or they’ve never heard of it. And I was talking to somebody else about the “Rent” phenomenon, an actor from “Rent” who was saying somebody asked her, “Oh my gosh, how does it feel to be part of this thing?” And she was like, “You know, it’s this thing to a certain number of people, and there are these other people, you walk down the street, and they don’t know what ‘Rent’ is, they don’t know the songs, they don’t know anything about it.” So it’s interesting. But when I do get recognized, I get recognized usually for “Firefly.” One time I did walk into an audition for a pilot, and the character couldn’t have been farther from Simon, and the producer was like, “I just have to say before you do anything, I’m the hugest ‘Firefly’ fan, and your work is extraordinary, and anyway, go ahead.” And then I go and audition. And I got the role, but I didn’t feel like he necessarily felt me only as Simon. I actually haven’t had any roles like Simon.

MORE: Nathan Fillion, a pop culture king beyond ‘Castle’

HC: And you actually play the villain — Don John — in “Much Ado About Nothing.” What was that like?

SM: Sooo fun. So fun. It was my first time ever. It was my first villain. I mean, I’ve auditioned for villains before, and I’ve just had the best time, but…

HC: You look so nice.

SM: But aren’t those the best villains, though? That’s what I just love. I loved with Don Jon, he wasn’t just a mean guy, he was super calculating and manipulative and so seemingly earnest to your face, all the while he’s got this whole other deceptive plan for you, and that was so fun for me…. “Much Ado About Nothing,” it literally was an email. Joss was like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. What sayeth you?” And I was like, “Oh my God, yes! Yes, yes yes!” And now this movie’s taken on a life of its own.

A scene from “Much Ado About Nothing.” (Bellwether Pictures)

HC: You have two young children. Are you planning to show them “Firefly”?

SM: Of course I will. My son is 2 1/2 and my daughter is 5 1/2. She knows. I’ve shown her the box set, and she’s met Morena and Jewel and Nathan and Alan. And Joss. We keep it simple. She knows there was a show that I worked on. It was funny, we were stuck in traffic the other day, and I was on Pico near the Fox lot, and there was our soundstage, and right outside where my trailer used to be. I rolled down the window, because we were in bumper-to-bumper, and I just took a picture. And she was like, “What are you taking a picture of?” And I was like, “That used to be my home.”

HC: I know it’s not likely, but it seems that now that Joss is getting so much recognition, that if there was ever a time for a “Serenity” sequel …  plenty of fans are hoping.

SM: You know, I’m one of those people. When I see him, I’m like, “I don’t get it. Aren’t you like king of the world right now? Can’t you do anything? And I know we can’t do another show. I get that. A television show would be very tricky with all of our availability, and I don’t think that’s in the realm of possibility. But what about another movie? You just shot ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in 12 days. You’re kind of amazing at that. You made that happen.” I wish I could wrap my head around it a little more. So when people ask me if there’s another one, I say, “You know, I don’t think so, but I don’t know, and I kind of don’t understand why.”

MORE: Joss Whedon’s favorite ‘verse? Firefly.

HC: What is it about this world that unites fans the way it does?

SM: I feel like it was such a universal show, there was something for everyone. People have all their favorite characters, and there’s a character for everybody to call their favorite. And it was so unique. I still have not seen anything quite like it. And I do think there’s something about the fact that it was taken away. There’s a loyalty to something that’s snatched away before it’s time. I don’t know. It’s a tragedy in some ways, and that brings people together. If the show had gone on for seven, eight, nine years and then got canceled, would there still be this sort of phenomenon of a fan base? Probably. But I do think there is something to be said for something that’s taken away before its time, that people feel that they want to fight for. By celebrating it and coming together, and with all the conventions and all the Browncoats, it’s almost like what Joss says; the story does live. It goes on, and we owe that all to the fans.

“Firefly” cast and writers address fans at the “Firefly” 10th anniversary panel during Comic-Con International 2012. (Science Channel)

HC: It’s unbelievable that 10 years after this show was canceled, it’s getting so much love and attention and conventions and this reunion special. Is it strange for you to still be talking about a project that’s so far in your rearview mirror?

SM: It was so funny. San Diego was crazy, but you know, Joss was there. In New York it was me and Jewel, and Nathan surprised us. But Jewel and I were standing backstage before our panel, and we’re looking out in the audience, and we were like, “Oh, it’s so empty!” And we were like, “Oh, that makes sense, that’s OK. It will be fun anyway. It’s all right.” And then we checked back 10 minutes later, and it was packed with only standing room, and apparently there were thousands and thousands of people who were still trying to get in, who had waited. And just when we had a moment of, “That’s OK, it will be a small panel, but we’ll have fun, and it totally makes sense — it’s been 10 years. C’mon, who wants to talk about it anymore?” But then it just became again this huge event. It surprises me every single time. Every convention that I go to, especially if I’m there alone, and there are other actors, and I’m the only “Firefly” actor, and I show up to my “Firefly” panel thinking, “Oh, it’s just little old me. Nobody’s going to come hear me talk.” And then nobody can get in. People are just waiting and waiting and waiting. I’m just so grateful. I was talking to Nathan about that in San Diego. We’re just so grateful to be first of all part of the show, but being part of the show made us part of the Whedonverse, and to be considered a Whedonite, it’s a title I wear well, and I’m so proud of it, and I’m so grateful, and I feel so blessed.

HC: What do you have coming up?

SM: I wrapped a couple of movies. Ironically enough, they have the same name. Well, similar names. One’s called “Best Friends Forever,” and one’s called “BFFs.” They’re very different movies. “Best Friends Forever” is like an apocalyptic “Thelma and Louise.” Two best friends are taking a road trip, and unbeknownst to them, there’s an apocalypse going on, and they’re not aware of it, so they’re kind of traveling cross-country and finding their way through a disaster. It’s a really interesting take. It’s a smaller film that they wrote themselves – Brea Grant and Vera Miao — and it was so smart of them to write the story so all the apocalyptic, disaster stuff is not on screen, it’s happening in our imaginations, and it’s focused more on the road trip and the bond between the girls. And the other one, “BFFs” — they’ll probably change the title — it’s sort of a romantic comedy about two friends, one of them gets a gift certificate to a weekend away for a couples retreat given to her by her mom for her birthday, even though her boyfriend has dumped her five months prior. So she and her best friend go to this couple’s retreat, and they pretend to be lesbians. And it’s pretty hysterical. It’s been a while since I laughed so hard. The two girls – Andrea Grano and Tara Karsian — wrote, starred in and produced it. It was a blast. Again, small movie, very short shoot, but I had a great time.

– Noelene Clark
Twitter.com/@NoeleneClark

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