When you’re talking Battlestar Galactica with Edward James Olmos, it’s hard for him to stay on topic.
Maybe that’s because he believes the show — on which he plays Adm. William Adama — touches on so many aspects of modern-day life that absolutely nothing is off-limits. Ask him about the fans’ involvement with BSG, and he’ll go on to tell you how he feels electronic media have forever changed not only how artists communicate with the public, but how they create art. Mention the show’s place in history, and it eventually leads to him singing the praises of Barack Obama while lamenting the lack of U.S. holidays honoring minorities.
It’s not surprising, given Olmos’ well-documented social activism. But he seems just as committed to Galactica, which has defied expectations about what is possible in science-fiction television, having become a crossover hit and winning a 2006 Peabody Award. It is a drastic departure from the beloved but kitschy 1970s original, using humanity’s war against the Cylons to tell stories that touch on the hot-button issues of our own world.
As Galactica winds down its four-year run, with a conclusion that Olmos calls “heart-wrenching,” he talks with us about how hard it will be for him to say goodbye.
Battlestar Galactica airs Fridays on SCI FI Channel, with the series finale March 20. Olmos is currently putting the finishing touches on directing Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, a movie that retells the story of the show’s initial miniseries and first two seasons from the perspective of the Cylons. It’s set to air later this year.
How are you feeling about Battlestar Galactica coming to an end?
For me, it’s been really, really hard because basically I’ve been still working on it. … I’m the only one left. I’ve been editing and finishing The Plan. And it’s been really heartbreaking, a very difficult thing to see come to a close. It’s been a wonderful experience all the way around artistically, and probably one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences I’ve had. As far as the people I’ve worked with, it’s just a tremendous crew. I think in the years to come people will realize how impactive this show was and the kind of talent that was on it by the work that these people will go on to do.
Are you still in touch with the cast and crew?
I’ve never had this experience with anything — any of the shows I’ve ever done — I’ve never kept in contact with the actors and the artists involved. But here we’re keeping in contact. People e-mail me constantly and they’ll e-mail a lot of us and say things that will be e-mailed back to everybody, so everybody’s reading everybody’s comments about everything that’s going on. It’s been fantastic. I think the course of electronic media has really changed the course of communication among people, and it’s really changed the course of the arts. I think that this show is one of the most extraordinary experiences in the usage of communication between the artists and the people who enjoy their work. It’s an instantaneous relationship, because they can blog and get into talking with one another immediately, and this show has really become a better show because of that. There’s been a tremendous amount of attention given to the kind of relationship the writers had with the directors and actors and the way the pieces were elevated from the paper to the screen. And it went to postproduction and they elevated it even more, and then it went out into the community and people got to see it and they blogged their experiences and they elevated it even more and found things in it that triggered understandings in them that were even more than anyone expected. Those bloggers then contacted the writers; those writers then augmented their understanding of it and the next time it came down to writing, they were writing even more intensely. It’s become a tremendous life and world that we’ve created — not only the world in front of the camera, but the world outside the camera.
Having that communication with the fans had to help keep the show fresh in their minds during the writers strike.
Well, it was more than that. … You find a certain thing in there and the person sitting right next to you will say, “Oh, wow. I never thought about it that way. I was thinking about this.” And you go, “Oh. That’s far out, because I didn’t think about it like that, either.” And that’s what happened. It’s happened with this program to a point where it’s become what it’s become. I think this is one of the best usages of television I’ve ever seen in my life. … I gotta tell you, if you’re a fan of the show, you’re as sad as we are. Because you know you may never see another one like it. It’s like Obama, we may never — I don’t know if this is the beginning or like Martin Luther King. You would think that Martin Luther King would have triggered off a tremendous understanding of cultural heroes that deserve to be given the highest honor possible of giving them a day when the whole country says thank you to this one person of color. I dare you to tell me — you’re an educated person — name me one American hero born in the United States, male or female, of Asian ancestry that you’ve studied in your lifetime. There’s only been one person of color given that status of national hero, and that’s Martin Luther King. … I can’t believe that there isn’t a national hero for indigenous people. My God, please! When are we going to get off the goddamn understanding that the only people that really deserve to be put down as national heroes are Caucasian people? That’s it. And you know, the indigenous people, the Asian Americans, the Latinos of course … But if you’ll stop and remember, Latinos have been here before the Caucasians were here. Didn’t they do anything? They give Christopher Columbus the Christopher Columbus Day, when they should have switched it and given it to the indigenous people.
Were you surprised that, despite the show’s success, the decision was made to end it after four seasons?
That was the plan. Ron always said it: “I’m going to start this thing and I’m going to end it. I’ve got a beginning, a middle and an end.” … You could follow the “A” story, which was the story that was started at the beginning of the miniseries and would not be complete until the very end of the show. That was the ongoing theme of the entire piece. And then the “B” story was a story that would take maybe two or three episodes to complete, and the “C” story was one that could actually be completed in the time period of one show. If you were an avid fan of the show, then you got something by watching all the episodes. If you were just sparsely looking at it, you could kind of get something out of watching one show. You wouldn’t understand the full arc of what they were talking about, but it was OK. And that’s what this show did, it definitely has an “A” story, which is the story of what brought us in here and what’s going to happen to humanity. It completes itself, and boy it’s heart-wrenching, to say the least. It’s a tremendous piece of work. It’s a wonderful story. It’s like a great novel. Ron Moore should be applauded and given a special place in television history as creating and imagining a tremendous piece of work that actually went on to speak of its time. I think Battlestar Galactica, like Blade Runner (in which Olmos also starred), will be better received on its 25th anniversary than it was on the year that it finished.
This is a such a dramatic departure from the original, so were you surprised when you saw that they were treating it seriously?
They weren’t as serious [at first]. I gotta say, we brought in a tremendous amount of understanding of the reality that it was going to hit. I told them in my contract that … the moment they brought in a four-eyed monster or some creature from the Black Lagoon, I was going to faint in front of camera and I was off the show. They could write that [Adama] had a heart attack or whatever they wanted to, but I was not going to perform against something that wasn’t based in the reality of the situation. And if they wanted to find creatures from another planet, then that was going to have to be something we would really have to talk about. Are they going to be martians or look like E.T.? I don’t think so. Not for me, and then I said, “We opened the door in Blade Runner, and I’d like to go into that world. If you guys are willing to go into that world, then I’ll walk in there with you.” Because, basically, no one’s ever gone in there. No one’s tried to do dramatic stuff just using the future and really putting human situations and current event situations in a futuristic understanding. Not like this.
Have you sat and thought about why this show connected the way it has with fans?
When a problem is posed, it is handled in a very concrete and humanistic way. It may be a science-fiction program, but the decisions that the characters make become really the reason why people watch the show. Those decisions, those choices, those humanistic feelings are so true like they were in Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue or The West Wing — any one of the really strong human dramas that allow you to laugh and cry and think. This does it, and it was much more prolific than those shows because it could deal with situations in a manner people were not ready for. In other words, when we were dealing with waterboarding, and then you saw it done in our show, you started to realize what that meant to the life and death of the people they were dealing with. … When it dealt with abortion, when the little girl wanted to abort her baby, and Adama says, “You can’t do that,” then Laura says, “But where we come from, she has the right to choose.” And I turn to her and say, “As of right now, she has no rights at all. It’s over. You’re not allowed to kill any human life. Stop it.” Everybody had to stop it, they had to let the babies stay alive, and that was the whole idea, they could not give that right to that woman because for whatever reason she wanted to do it, humanity overtook the right of choice. Now, is that right or wrong? Who knows, but I’ll tell you one thing, every single person who believes in the right to choose had to really think it through and sit there and go, “Wow, you know what? Shit, I don’t know. This is a real hard one.” That’s what happens. It makes you think about what that means. It’s the same thing with suicide bombers. I never thought of it — we’re the good guys and we’re doing stuff that the bad guys do, supposedly. And yet you had to think about it, and it really posed situations that made you just — I mean, there are people who have to turn the program off. “I can’t go on with this. It just blew me away right now. I gotta stop.” Because they cannot take it. And then they come back to it later once they’ve calmed down and they’ve thought through what the problems were that they were facing, then they put it on again and they continue the episode. But it’s amazing what’s going on with this program. And again, it goes back to not the brilliance so much of just one aspect … it’s a combination of the script, the writing, the production, postproduction, and the key ingredient was the fans. What they blogged, what they talked about, elevated the show, then the show went to another level. When the writers ended up reading the blogs, they’d go, “Hmm. Interesting. I never thought about that, but you know what, if that’s what it meant to them, then watch this.” And they went higher. It just made sense. … They’ve elevated it to a level now where, I’m telling you, you’re in for a hell of a ride. This last season could be the most prolific season of television history when it comes to human drama and stories being told on episodic television.
One of the most notable aspects of the show is its crossover appeal. A lot of people who watch it wouldn’t consider themselves science-fiction fans.
That’s like our biggest group now, people who have never watched even Blade Runner. Nothing. They just don’t like it. They’ve now turned on and really come to see this not as a science-fiction show, but as a human drama of the highest caliber. We’re facing this. In the year 2025, which is not that far away, people will be looking back on this show and saying, “You know what? Jeepers creepers, Blade Runner and this show are really holding strong.” They really do talk to exactly who we are as human beings. And it’s in the future, all these are in the future. These are visionaries, like Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury and all these guys that really are great — their imaginations are just beyond our understanding and they just come up with stories that make you just sit there and go, “My God, this is fantastic!” They pose a tremendous gift to society that we can look at them and heed the call, or we can turn around and just let it go by. Technology is at a point right now that if the Indians in India decided to nuke Pakistan, or Pakistan decided to nuke India, or the Israelis decided to just drop a nuke over in the Gaza Strip, it’s over. People would just completely lose it. We’re lucky that Obama is now in and Bush is able to just go off and live the rest of his life, and not be commander in chief, because him and Cheney — wow. Tremendously difficult people to be around. In a state of war, those guys are really dangerous. They do not know anything but what they’ve shown us. I understand it, they have [at heart] the best interest of the United States of America, but they don’t have the best interest of the planet.
This is a pretty heavy conversation for a TV show.
(Laughs) That’s what happens when you talk about Battlestar. You don’t talk about Battlestar as the story you’re talking about, you’re talking about how it relates to us as human beings in today’s times. Period. And that’s what they’ve done. And there’s no way you can talk about Battlestar and not come into a constant understanding of what’s going on right now. Right this second. Somewhere. And that’s due to the writing.
What are your thoughts about the upcoming BSG prequel series, Caprica?
I saw [the pilot]. I loved it. I thought it was really, really interesting. I’m dying to see what they do with it. Where are they going to go with it? What are they going to do with this? I don’t know if it can be as strong as [BSG] was, because this allowed you some possibility of talking and relating to humanity in current times. That one, I’m not sure, but the pilot is really good. I liked it a lot. It’s a completely different story. I think I’m 9 years old in that story.