It may not seem natural to have live-action series on a channel called Cartoon Network, but the net has made that concept work. And Unnatural History, the channel’s newest live-action effort, seems like the most natural fit of them all. It plays out much like a cartoon, in fact, with plenty of high-flying action, quirky characters and mysteries along the lines of Scooby-Doo. That might have much to do with the fact that the series is created and written by Mike Werb, who wrote the similarly cartoon-flavored film The Mask.
The actors are indeed real, and the star, Kevin G. Schmidt, was impressed by the scripts’ ability to “not dumb down our content. … Unfortunately, when I was growing up, there was a huge void of entertainment in this teen genre that we’re going for. We’re trying to go after the smart thinker, the kid that can go on a mystery. It’s a treasure hunt every single episode.”
Schmidt’s character, Henry Griffin, gets involved in these treasure hunts when his globetrotting parents drop him off to live with his Uncle Bryan and cousin Jasper in Washington, D.C., after years of traveling the world. Henry finds himself attending high school on the grounds of a national museum that has acquired thousands of mysterious and historical objects. The object sought in the pilot episode is the first submarine — the Alligator, built during the U.S. Civil War, reported to be carrying thousands in gold pieces when it was lost, and over the hunt for which someone close to Henry was murdered. On the quest to solve the murder and find the sub, Henry bonds with Jasper and the two cousins meet a fellow student, Maggie, who looks like she will prove key to further investigations.
“With Jasper and I, we have such a yin and yang relationship,” says Schmidt, “and [the writers] are using Maggie very much as the balance to that so I think it’s better to look at the relationship between me, Maggie and Jasper as the Three Musketeers.”
At times the action gets pretty physical, as Henry uses his worldly skills to run from and fight bad guys.
“A month before we started,” Schmidt says, “I kind of got into the basics of martial arts and got my kicks and my punches, and I trained a little bit in parkour, but we’ve really kind of been winging it as we go. Our scripts are coming in as we’re shooting an episode right before it, so it kind of makes everyone be on their toes and bring their ‘A’ game every day. … I’m trying to do as much [of my own stunt work] as I can. The last thing I want to do is put myself out there as this whole action star, and then have kids come up to me and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so cool when you did this,’ and I [have to say], ‘It was my stunt double.’ I’m trying to do as much as I can, but it ends up being like about 40 percent because we have some pretty intensive stuff on the show.”
Although he plays a high-schooler in Unnatural History, Schmidt, popular among soap fans for his role of Noah Newman on The Young and the Restless, in real life is 21. But he doesn’t find it difficult playing a younger character. In fact, he thinks it’s for the best.
“I remember when I was 16 and going out for 16-year-old roles, and every 21-year-old in the world took it. I couldn’t figure out why. But flash forward a couple years later. I really understand why they ended up hiring older people because it takes a lot of maturity. We’re working really insane hours to deliver this show. You really have to come and put your best foot forward every day. It’s not an easy task to do.”
But it is something Schmidt loves.
“This is my morning, noon and night,” he says. “I started in this business as an actor and soon fell in love with all sides of the camera. I love telling stories, that’s where my passion is. I write and produce and direct. I have a web series called Poor Paul [poorpaul.com] that’s starting its third season, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is out on DVD right now. I’m trying to get the third Cheaper By the Dozen [movie] going right now. I wrote a draft for it, and it’s on its way to Fox. So hopefully I’ll have that gig going on for the fall after this show’s first season is done.”
And like his Unnatural History character, Schmidt even wants to find time for a little travel and adventure.
“My plan this year is to finish up the first season and probably take a jaunt down to Brazil. Our stunt coordinator on the show has a house down there, so I think that’s my big trip this year.”
Unnatural History premieres June 13 on Cartoon Network (HD).