Saturday night was the 9 th evening of this year's William S. Paley Television Festival – an annual festival hosted by the Museum of Television & Radio held at the DGA Theater in Hollywood – and it boasted a "Heroes" screening and Q&A. And that gang was all there: After a screening of the episode "Homecoming," and an exclusive clip from the upcoming episode ".07%," moderator Tony Potts ("Access Hollywood") introduced panelists Tim Kring (series creator and executive producer), Santiago Cabrera (Isaac Mendez), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder Suresh), Jack Coleman (Horn-Rimmed Glasses AKA Mr. Bennet), Greg Grunberg (Matt Parkman), Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli), Adrian Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli), Ali Larter (Nikki Sanders), Noah Gray-Cabey (Micah Sanders) and Leonard Roberts (D.L. Hawkins).
"Heroes," which is a decidedly far cry from Kring's earlier shows like "Crossing Jordan" and "Providence," was a conscious effort on the creator's part to reinvent his career. "I think it just comes from a short attention span," Kring said. "I do something for a while and I start to feel like I used that muscle too much and I wanna try something new. I was looking around at what was not on this particular network and they didn't have one of these big ensemble, serialized dramas. I was very interested in trying to tell that kind of storytelling, rather than the closed-ended storytelling that you normally do on procedural shows. I was really fascinated by the idea of digging in and telling a much longer story that unfolds slowly and allows you to dig a little deeper into the character." ABC's "Lost" paved the way for the current trend of serialized storytelling in television, and Kring said seeing how that show succeeded and how it failed greatly informed the development of "Heroes."
"'Lost' also made a huge mistake," Grunberg said. "They killed me. Take notes, Tim, take notes." Grunberg, a childhood friend of "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams, played the ill-fated pilot of Oceanic Flight 815.
Potts then prompted the assembled actors to recount their casting stories. Roberts recalls getting his hands on the "Heroes" pilot early in the pilot season, and the small-boned actor was taken aback when he read the character description for D.L. Hawkins. "Big, big, BIG," Roberts said. And sure enough, when he got to the casting session, Roberts was confronted with "some of the biggest brothers I've ever seen. But I got so into the possibility of who this guy was and the loss and the pain he felt by not being able to provide for his wife and son, and just tried to commit to it, and I got the call. And I was like, 'Okay, let's see where this goes.'"
"In my case, what happened is, I was doing a guest appearance on another show, and it just so happened that the trailer for the audition for 'Heroes' was on the same lot," Gray-Cabey who plays the electronics wizard Micah said. "I ran over when I was supposed to be having a costume change. I auditioned, and I came back, and I think I was one of the last people there, so it was just very lucky."
Ali Larter's experience when she picked up the pilot script was the exact opposite of her on-screen lover. "I remember reading it, and it said, 'Nikki Sanders, internet stripper with a heart,'" Larter said. "I'm in! I read the script and I loved it, I loved what a complicated woman she was and I hadn't had a chance to play that kind of character before, so I was really excited to get the chance to go out for it. And when I actually went through the process, I had the stomach flu, and my mother had to drive me to the audition. So I put all that in the role, and read for it, and the rest is history."
"I realized there was going to be kind of two personalities," Larter went on. "So when I went in with the writers and talked about it, I was really struck with this fear, I wasn't sure that it was something I could handle. When I started reading the script, I felt like I was really surrounded by a team. That I think was the most incredible thing is that I put myself out there and I feel protected by these writers and by the forces that take on our show." Larter did make it clear that despite playing both Nikki and her evil counterpart Jessica on "Heroes," the acress still only receives the one paycheck.
"I signed on for this, I thought it was called 'Heroes,' I found out through the course of it it's turning into 'Survivor,'" Pasdar quipped. While Pasdar was waiting to audition for the role of Nathan Petrelli, he'd had something of a premonition that the next person to go through the door would get the part. Since he was already late for another audition, Pasdar was bumped to the front of the line. "I was lucky, because it was at the end of the casting process. I didn't have to jump through a lot of hoops, because they were pressed. They had to pull the trigger on this character, so to speak."
Kring added, "Both Milo and Adrian were late in the process, that particular pairing of brothers was probably the most difficult part to cast, because of the chemistry and because of the dynamics between them."
Ventimiglia joked that he got the role of Peter because, with the shoot date pending, he was their last, best hope. Ventimiglia got the call while he was shooting "Rocky Balboa," and was already locked into another television show, but agreed to at least read over the script. "And I got the script, and you just see the gravity and the magnitude of it and you wanna be a part of it. And again, I was the last actor there, they had nobody else to go to."
"When you read the script, it was brilliant, every character was so well-drawn," Oka said. "And Hiro Nakamura, this is a guy I could totally relate to. He had to be fluent in Japanese, was comedic and had ample experience in American television. And I'm like, 'This is such a niche role, if not this, what else am I gonna get?'"
Oka went on to explain an early contribution of his to the show. Hiro was originally scripted to exclaim "Bonsai!" after successfully using his powers for the first time. "And it was so hard for me to grasp that, because the world 'bonsai' in Japanese means 'little tree,'" Oka said. The actor eventually realized that the word Kring had been looking for was "banzai," which is a Japanese victory cry. "But banzai usually has, like, a wartime connotation, or when you're really drunk. And I asked Tim if I could change it, and he said 'go to town.'" And so was born Oka's fan-favorite line, "Yata!"
Panettiere recalls sitting in the casting office with her mother with a handful of Isaac Mendez hopefuls. One actor in particular stood out, who was decidedly Method in his preparation. "There's this guy on the floor, with no shoes on, shaking in the corner, and you could hear everyone's audition going on in the room, and he's going, 'I can't listen to this, I can't listen to this!' and runs out of the room," Panettiere said. But the young Panettiere could at least understand the actor's sentiment. "When you're reading a script and you have a scene that you have to go and audition, the last thing you want to do is listen to other people do their versions of it. It was kind of a mess, but it worked out."
Grunberg was the only one among the cast who failed his first audition. "I had just done a pilot, I did a pilot for NBC that was really funny that didn't get picked up," Grunberg said. "Then I heard about this, and they sent it to me and I read it, and it just blew me away. Just captivated me form the minute I read it. And I'm like, 'I am the perfect Peter Petrelli.' I'd just worked with David Semel on 'House,' he was directing the ["Heroes"] pilot, so I called David up and I said, 'David, I'm coming to see you tomorrow, I'm gonna read, I'm gonna be Peter, man, it's gonna be great.'" Grunberg likened the silence on the other end of the line to the recent Cingular TV spots about dropped calls. "And [Semel] said, 'you couldn't be less right for this role.'" But, I said, 'I'm gonna come in, and I'm gonna do my best.'"
"Turned out, as I was driving home, they said 'Good news/bad news,'" Grunberg continued. "Bad news, you're terrible for that role. But, there's another role, we're sending the script to your house, and hope if NBC gets behind it, we'd love you to consider playing this cop. And when I read it, I just loved everything about it. I just think it's an emotional character, and the power is really cool and identifiable, even though it's fantasy. I get people coming up to me all the time, you know, 'What am I thinking?'"
"Greg didn't realize that I was writing this part at the time," Kring said. "So when he walked in, I got this immediate hit off of him for playing this other part. That's what kind of fascinating about the whole casting process, it's very organic. Sometimes someone walks in the room, and it changes everything, changes the way you're thinking about the role."
"You were thinking about a Matt Dillon character for this," Grunburg said. "I mean seriously, he was. And then he decided, 'Let's go better looking.'"
"My character's I think the only one that was not ever conceived as a series regular," Coleman said of his role as HRG. "So I didn't have the multi-layered audition process, I had a one-page audition for a guest spot."
"It's a testament to Jack," Kring said. "That part started as not the biggest part on the show, and there was just something really exciting for all of us writers who were here to have an actor sort of start to really show up on screen in a really big way, and to give you possibilities, and like I said, it's a testament to Jack."
Another large change that came about during the casting process was the age of Mohinder Suresh. Mohinder was originally supposed to be closer in age to the character that became his father. "I knew that the character was 55 or 60 or whatever, so I thought, you know, 'Perfect,'" Ramamurthy remarked, dryly. "I didn't feel any pressure, which was great, because I just thought, 'Well, I'm just wrong for it. They're just bringing me in for giggles.' But I just kept going in and kept reading, and I think Tim was changing things up in his mind, and saw the potential for the mythology angle of the son chasing after, finding out who killed his father, and saw more avenues for the story to go with."
"I'd just arrived in L.A., I'm one of the lucky people that gets into this town and lands on a show like 'Heroes,'" Cabrera said. The actor went on to relate that he'd bought a car at an auction in Anaheim the day before, which broke down on the freeway before he'd gotten five miles. "I got to bed at 3, my car was broken, I didn't care. [It was] the most relaxed I've ever been [for an audition], because I get really nervous for these things, especially a screen test where they're all in the room. And I remember I was putting water in the broken down car a few hours later, I get a phone call and they're like, 'The part's yours.' I remember just throwing the bottle."
Potts brought up the "Heroes" drinking game, which Ventimiglia elaborated on. "It was started by our own prop guy," Ventimiglia said. Players are obliged to take a shot anytime Peter Petrelli moves hair out of his face, Hiro pushes his glasses up, or Mohinder says "My father's research," among other times. When Ramamurthy then quoted the oft-spoken line at the moderator's behest, Oka and Ventimiglia went straight for their water bottles.
Potts suggested that it isn't until the second or third episode that a show finds its stride. "I think in episode two, there was a character revealed," Grunberg said coyly. Grunberg did recall watching the pilot with Roberts, whose character also did not appear in the first episode. "It was nerve-wracking, because we thought, 'Okay, well, we're cut out of the show.'"
"And your actor's sensibility kicks in, and it's like, 'I must have done something real bad,'" Roberts said.
"Pilots are often weird though, because they're often not the best episode, even though many times it's the most time and money spent," Coleman said. "The actors often don't sort of find their legs till the third or fourth episode, when you start to stop auditioning at some point and play the part. Go back to almost any pilot you can think of and you will see a bunch of nervous actors trying not to get fired."
"You know what's really fun is all the discussions like internally in the writers room and in prep, when we're talking about things like, 'How would somebody land?'" Kring said. "And they're pretty crazy discussions. And so people are acting out, 'Is it more like a surfboard, or is it more like a skateboard, or is it like skiing?'"
Pasdar explained his own landing choice, which included skidding on the ground and hurting his feet. "The director kind of looked at me like, 'What are you doing?'" Pasdar said. "I don't have super feet," he had told the man. "I wanted to have bugs in my teeth, but they said no to that. Anytime in a show like this I think the writers will tell you that first and foremost that you want to counter the unbelievability aspect of it with reality, and that's what the show has tried to do, and I think it's achieved on so many levels."
"It's kind of a gelding process," Coleman quipped.
"I die often. That's not comfy," Panettiere countered. "My character is like a meat. She gets stir fried, filleted, broiled."
"When I started, we did body casts for me, because I break a lot of limbs," Panettiere went on. "And they layered me with this algae type stuff, and it hardens on you, and they basically mummify you without taking your organs out. It literally starts feeling at the end, you're like, 'Okay, I'm not claustrophobic, but I'm feeling a little weird here.' Trying to get out of it, and it gets harder and harder and heavier on your chest, and you start hyperventilating. They did the same thing for my head. It was weird, because all you have to breathe out of is your nose, and they put such a thick layer that as it's being done you're going, 'Oh my God, if I had a problem, if I couldn't breathe, I couldn't get this off, and that'd be the end of me.'"
"They're all talking, but until you have to strip on a pole…" was Larter's retort.
Kring said that when he was developing the characters, the rule of thumb was he'd let the character inform their powers, and not the other way around. "I thought of the characters first, and then backed into what I thought their power would be," Kring said. "Masi's character for instance, I wanted to do a character that was trapped in a life that was not of his own desire. When we first meet [Hiro], he's in a sea of cubicles that just goes on forever and ever. And I thought that an interesting power for somebody who felt trapped and confined in a life that they didn't want to be in was the ability to transport themselves out of that life somehow, which led me to the idea of teleportation."
One fan asked the obligatory question: "What powers do you wish you had?"
"I'd enjoy flying, that'd be cool," Roberts said.
Gray-Cabey wanted to be able to talk to his three pets.
"I want to get my boyfriend to do the dishes," Larter said.
"The ability to dodge that question," was Pasdar's response. "That's the one question we've all been asked more than any other, and we've made up so many answers."
Ventimiglia wanted the power of persuasion. "I always saw the power of persuasion as something that's a little more serving of the community."
"I can help you with that, dude," his co-star offered.
"Teleporting," Panettiere said. "I love you all, but I'd be on a beach in Figi."
"Uh, super metabolism," Grunberg quipped.
"I always thought being invisible would be cool, but I was invisible for most of the '90s," Coleman joked. "Now it's just world peace."
Ramamurthy and Cabrera both chose flight, Cabrera with the caviat, "Flying faster than the speed of light, because then I could teleport as well."
"You know, I've never been asked that question," Kring mused. "And I'm thinking about it, the power to break an entire season of stories very quickly and painlessly."
Kring went on to talk a bit about what goes into writing a season of "Heroes." "I had big kind of tentpole ideas I wanted to do in the first season, and I knew what the main story was and how it would resolve in the end," Kring said. "But when you do series TV, you want to leave yourself open to the organic nature of the process. The story starts to speak to you in a way and tell you which way it wants to go. So anybody who says they know exactly where they're going, especially on a story as big and complicated as this, is either lying or a fool.
"We set up a kind of central dilemma of this apocalyptic event that's going to happen, and we address that in the course of this first season, and wrap up that story, and then move on to volume 2 of our series," Kring said. "So there is a sense that you can jump on or jump off if you want after you've seen one of these closed-ended stories. There are obviously continuing characters and continuing ideas and continuing stories, but a central theme and a central idea and a central storyline will be wrapped up within the course of each one of these."
"Tim came up with this great vision, setting up this amazing world with these characters, and they have this very special writing process," Oka said. "Typically on a normal drama, one person writes the episodes, they break down the story and that person writes it up. But this one, everybody writes every episode. I guess you guys [gesturing to the writing staff sitting in the second row of the theater] divide it up by characters. And then they'll all go out and write that scene, and then they'll put it all together, and then the writer on record will polish it up, is what I understand. But because of that, everyone's invested in every episode and it just makes it so much better because you have so many creative minds so passionate about each script."
"I think when you're shooting something, you know that it's special," Larter said of the show. "There was a synergy happening from the very beginning with this show. And it's been incredible that the fans and the people that watch it have really come out and supported it, because all of us are just so excited to have characters that we love to play. So to actually have fans come and love it too, to have that added bonus, is the true the rarity, I think, in Hollywood."
"Many of our emails still to this day end with three words: 'Best show ever,'" Kring said. "The entire staff is so committed to the show, and I think it shows on the screen."
"Heroes" returns to NBC on April 23 rd with ".07%," the first of the final five episodes of season 1.
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