Benjamin Bratt: No “Strain” No Gain

Benjamin Bratt Starring In The Andromeda Strain
In many of his roles — often as a cop, in shows like Law & Order and movies like Abandon and Miss Congeniality — Benjamin Bratt is called on to catch the bad guy. But for his role in the new A&E miniseries adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (May 26 and 27), his prey is much more elusive.

As Dr. Jeremy Stone, Bratt leads an elite team of government scientists — dubbed Wildfire — trying to stop a deadly virus that came to Earth aboard a fallen military satellite from spreading beyond the remote desert town it has already devastated. The team will have to overcome internal tensions, government conspiracies and a race against the clock to save the world.

Bratt shared with us what it was like trying to master the difficult technical dialogue that went along with the role, and the even stiffer challenge of injecting some humanity into the proceedings.

How familiar were you with the Michael Crichton book and the 1971 movie version of The Andromeda Strain?

Benjamin Bratt: Not familiar at all really, other than its high name recognition. I understand that when Michael Crichton wrote that book that it was the beginning of that genre in fiction writing.

There’s a lot of technical dialogue here. Was that a particular challenge, to master that and sound like you knew what you were talking about?

BB: One thing I kind of appreciate about what the writer [Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan] did is he didn’t shy away from the minutiae, the detail of that technical jargon. It’s vitally necessary for us to understand that dimension, the limitations of the Andromeda Strain itself. When you’re reading it, it could seem to be a little dense, but I venture to guess most audiences are pretty savvy these days, especially when they’re being given long expositional paragraphs of dialogue that revolve around scientific evidence or explanation of phenomenon. With the onslaught of CSI, and other kind of forensics shows and medical shows, audiences are pretty savvy. It wasn’t really a concern for me; what was was how to make this compelling. It was one of those things where when I finally saw the end result, it was like, “Oh, that’s how they make it compelling, millions of dollars on special effects.” They’re really big and really impressive. I’m partially kidding about that, because what really comes through, I find, is that the only way to make the special effects have any kind of real emotional register is if the story itself kind of holds up. The ticking clock aspect in how it’s structured really does compel you. I saw it all in one sitting.

The character you play, Dr. Jeremy Stone, is a pretty low-key guy. Is that harder for an actor to play than someone who’s more expressive?

BB: You’re putting it nicely [laughs]. The honest truth is that was probably the one feature of the whole endeavor that gave me some pause before saying yes. While I had an appreciation for the detail that was paid to the story itself and the rules, if you will, for what Andromeda is, and what its capabilities are, I was concerned from an acting point of view that Dr. Stone, or the leader of the hero group, had some dimension. I felt that he primarily serves as an expositional device. I don’t know if we ever really corrected that, so it was sort of my responsibility to bring some human dimension to him. I don’t know how much I succeeded in that, but I think that at the end of the day, the specific role of that character is to kind of be the expositional source for what’s going on. Ultimately, I try to tack on a little humanity, because otherwise it’s just an empty vessel, and an audience member can’t really root for anybody if you can’t feel emotionally connected to them.

Did you have to do a lot of green screen work for this?

BB: There was a small amount. I expected there to be a lot more. The sets that were built up in Vancouver were really, really impressive, especially the stuff in the Wildfire lab, [it looked] so real. A lot of detail was paid to it. In that environment, which could tend to feel claustrophobic, especially given the ensemble nature of the group that was assembled there, it actually was pretty nice. I was relieved as an actor to get on and stay in that set. For me the stuff that’s less interesting is the introduction of the character, setting up who he is, because there’s nothing terribly compelling about it. It’s not until we directly engage with the Andromeda Strain where it got a little more exciting.

Does working on a close set like that with the same group of people form a bond among the actors?

BB: It does, and I think it’s fairly reflective on the experience of working on something together in a foreign country. [Many of Bratt’s scenes were filmed in Vancouver.] The good news is we all got along swimmingly, and spent a lot of time going out to dinner with one another. In particular Daniel Dae Kim, Rick Schroder whom I’d met years earlier and done another miniseries with [1994’s James Michener’s Texas], Christa Miller. It’s funny, I think actors tend to see themselves as gypsies — I know I certainly do — gypsies performing in a traveling circus. So when you’re in another city like that, staying in a hotel, I sort of take on the role of social coordinator, organizing dinners. I’m a people person, I come from a large family, and I derive a great deal of pleasure in a big dinner, socializing that way. We hopefully brought it to the characters we play. I remember one night in particular, where Andre Braugher, who may or may not be a villain in the piece, joined us, we probably spent a good hour and a half debating the rules of Andromeda, and how they applied and how they changed, how they shifted, and what was pretty funny is we all had a different understanding. We eventually arrived at some kind of consensus, but it does have a chicken or egg circularity to it that is fun to kind of ponder.

Since the novel was written back in the late ’60s, a lot had to be changed to update it. Do you think there’s an effort in there somewhere to also comment on the current political state of the world?

BB: I don’t know how much of that was an intended goal of the writers or producers, but I did feel that subtext when I read it and actually have a healthy appreciation for it. I actually encouraged it along. The fact of the matter is whether you’re talking about the U.S. government or any other government of any other country, those governments are run by people, and people are not infallible. They’re flawed, greedy, power-mongering, and they’re in and amongst people who are well-intentioned and have the public good at heart. That creates drama because they have different agendas. The same is true for the world of Andromeda and the people who populate it. In our story, yeah, we’re talking about the U.S. military and while it is fiction, some of the players involved that appear to be villainous, they’re not too far from our imagination. Take a look at current government machinations and actions. [Pauses] I’ll keep it there.

This is a miniseries, so it’s not quite a TV show, but it’s longer than a feature film. What’s it like, shooting-wise?

BB: It’s kind of a hybrid. One of the things I enjoy most about doing features, in particular independent films, is that more often than not there’s a greater opportunity to explore the depths of playing a complex character, really someone who’s multidimensional. I’ve had that opportunity much less in studio fare and TV. I’m doing a new series for A&E called The Cleaner, which allows me to do that to a greater degree, which I’m really excited about. In a miniseries format, it’s kind of a combination of the two. It’s shot at a slower pace than a television series, and not quite as slow as a feature film would be. And depending on the subject matter, the characters aren’t as fully drawn as they would be on a feature film.

This is a Ridley Scott and Tony Scott production. How much effect did that have in you taking the role?

BB: That was definitely one of the things that drew me to it. {Ridley Scott] never showed up on the set, but when I initially went in to meet with the producers and with [director] Mikael Solomon, he popped his head in, gave a nod, and rather confidently said, “So you’re going to do it, right?” And just as quickly popped out. I was thinking, “That was Ridley Scott, I think I better say yes.” His involvement and that of his brother gives the impression that everything at all levels is going to be grade-A, top-notch, and it was. Not only were we well-treated, but the material really needed to be serviced at a high level. The production values, the design and the effects. It’s clear to me having seen it now that they spared no expense. It’s really going to be a television event in no small part due to the fact that the effects are really cinematic.