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Countdown to The Event, Part IV: Blair Underwood and Bill Smitrovich

On Monday, NBC launches its new sci-fi/conspiracy thriller The Event, and Spinoff Online is here to get you ready. The pilot was a hit in July at Comic-Con International, and readers haven’t been able to flip through a comic book for weeks without seeing ads for what the network hopes will be must-see TV.

All this week, Spinoff Online presents interviews with the cast and crew of The Event. Today we feature Blair Underwood and Bill Smitrovich, who play President Elias Martinez and Vice President Raymond Jarvis, respectively.

Underwood, best known for his seven seasons as Jonathan Rollins on L.A. Law, recently played supporting roles on series such as The New Adventures of Old Christine and Dirty Sexy Money. His portrayal of a traumatized fighter pilot during the first season of HBO’s In Treatment earned Underwood his second Golden Globe nomination in 2009 for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Series or Mini-Series or Television Special. He was nominated for the same award in 1991 for his work on L.A. Law.

A veteran character actor, Smitrovich (Life Goes On, The Practice) told Spinoff Online that while he has played more than his share of military types, including a recent turn as General Gabriel in Iron Man, he’s never held such a high post as vice president.

Be sure to check back tomorrow as we present cast members Laura Innes (ER), Ian Anthony Dale (Surface, Charmed) and Scott Patterson (Gilmore Girls, the Saw franchise).

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BLAIR UNDERWOOD on PRESIDENT ELIAS MARTINEZ

Spinoff Online: Do I have to address you as Mr. President during this interview?

Blair Underwood: [Laughs] Yes. At all times. But seriously, it could be some pretty heady stuff if you let it get to you, but I’m having a ball.

Did you study President Obama and other past presidents for this role in an effort to get a better understanding how a president carries himself and to establish that sense of gravitas?

For me, he’s a really a culmination of a lot of different presidents. And while I did go back to study different presidents from history, I also studied different actors that have played presidents. But I focused more on the actual presidents – they are all so different. I mean their gait, their cadence, how they present themselves, each one is so different, but what I found was the one common denominator that exists in presidents is that you have to engage a lot of people so they have to believe in you. So that’s something that I’ve focused on in everything he does; to how he speaks to people to how he treats people.

Creator Nick Wauters told me that originally the president was to be of Cuban descent and he was looking for a Latino actor to fill the role. But when you came in to read he knew he had his president. After you were cast, he wasn’t sure he would be keen on keeping the Cuban background for the character but that you assured him it was the right choice. Why did the role intrigue you as it was originally conceived?

I came on about a week before they started shooting the pilot and I sat down with the creator of the show and the producers and they laid out not only what the first episode was but really – and this is what is so impressive about this creative team – they shared what they have planned for five years in the future. Now that’s how far they’ve planned it. At the time, you only hoped that it would be picked up for series. But it was impressive that they had plotted it so far into the future and the character arcs and the mythology were so well defined.

The Event is about 95 percent political intrigue and 5 percent science fiction, so there is that science-fiction element and you really have to figure out what all those elements are, and they did.

And one of those elements was the fact that this was a president that was, of course, born in the United States but was born to Cuban refugees. So they asked me if I wanted to keep that and I said, “Absolutely.” Just ethnically, he’ll have to be Afro-Cuban. And for a number of reasons, they wanted to keep that background, too. I had a sense that this was a president that was historically – at least his family was – from another country. And was an outsider of sorts because his people came to this country. And that’s important because the biggest issue on this president’s plate is the release of these detainees that are different from us. How are they different? Why are the different? All of these things and all of these questions will be answered.

And because he’s from a family that was an outsider at one point, he can relate to the detainees’ situation. So that’s one of the many reasons that they wanted to keep the Cuban descent aspect to it. And it’s great. I get to work with Lisa Vidal, who plays the first lady. And she’s Puerto Rican, originally from New York. So there is a true Latin flavor to this presidency.

You mentioned The Event was 95 percent political intrigue and 5 percent science fiction. I was looking through your biography in preparation for this interview and, despite your long history in film and television, you don’t have a lot of science fiction on your resume, if any. Are you a fan of sci-fi/fantasy?

I’ve really only done one science-fiction role really, which was Deep Impact. I played the shuttle commander on that. Ironically, Morgan Freeman played the president in that one. But this genre, I’ve always enjoyed. And I tend to lean more towards the type of science fiction that’s rooted in a certain amount of reality. Something that’s very authentic. And then I gravitate towards those elements of “what if?” Just the hypothetical. Other life out there in the universe is absolutely fascinating to me.

In speaking to the other cast members, I’ve been asking them if they are one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. I don’t have to ask you, right? President Martinez is one of the good guys. Isn’t he?

Well, I’ll tell you this, everybody has secrets. And I’ll also say is when it starts off, absolutely, he is a good guy. And for all intents and purposes, morally, ethically, and otherwise, he is a good guy. And that’s why he wants to release these detainees because he feels otherwise, he’s being un-American. And he’s very strong on that position. But things begin to change in this world [laughs]. And certain things are put upon certain characters that really force you to check where your head is at. And that’s when a character turns when they’re faced with life and death decisions. And in The Event, all of mankind is affected.

No doubt we get to see President Martinez in action, but do we get to see the personal side of him and his family life, as well?

The majority of what we shot and the majority of what you see in this presidency are from behind closed doors – in the Situation Room, in the White House, in the living quarters with his wife and his 8-year-old son.

We know from all of the commercials that in the first episode, there is an assassination attempt on the president. How that is processed by an 8-year-old child, who is the son of the president and the first lady, we delve into that a little bit. “Can we speak about it?” All of those things are very internal, so we look at that and he’s a family man, as well. So we see that. And his emotions definitely run the gamut from fear to anger to understanding to compassion, we really see this president go through a lot.

Do you think President Obama will be tuning in to see how you do as the president?

I think his plate is pretty full right now. But I did see the first lady a few months back and mentioned it to her, and she said she’d keep an eye out for it, so we’ll see.

BILL SMITROVICH on VICE PRESIDENT RAYMOND JARVIS

Spinoff Online: When you signed on for The Event, did you think it was going to be such an event?

Bill Smitrovich: I’m so used to coming in the back door. This coming in with so much hype can be daunting, and I hope that people don’t get turned off by all the hype because what’s behind all the hype is pretty damn good.

But you enjoy working in the sci-fi/fantastical realm?

Absolutely. It’s imaginative and creative and I think a lot of the fans that like this want that kind of imagination and creativity and I think we’ve got the goods. We have wonderful actors on this show, seasoned professional actors and seasoned professional writers that have worked on a variety of shows in this genre, and I think it’s going to prove to be a tremendous ride. It’s really a lot of fun.

I was looking through your past roles, and while you have lots of fictional military experience I don’t think you’ve gone to the White House.

I’m actually collecting my military pension now because of all the generals I’ve played, but I did get close to the presidency when I played Alexander Haig in The Reagans when I uttered the famous phrase, “I am in charge now.” So that’s as close as I’ve got to the White House is playing Alexander Haig and, I guess, being there as part of Thirteen Days or being in the Oval Office for Air Force One or Situation Room or things of that nature, but no, vice president is new. And it’s a pretty cushy job so far.

And while it’s fictional, is there a weight that comes with playing the vice president?

Only when they come over and put makeup on me, I feel just like Joe Biden [laughs]. But no, I just enjoy playing this character. He’s a multi-faceted politician and it allows your imagination to run wild when you think about an administration that includes a president and a vice president like Martinez and Jarvis.

He [creator Nick Wauters] wrote this before Obama was in office. He had the concept before there was ever a black president, maybe on 24 there was, so it’s another reality and it just happens to mirror the political reality we have now in this country but that’s about where it ends. It’s just a fun, imaginative, creative role and the people I’m working with are a pleasure to be around.

We just got another guest star for the show, Hal Holbrook, and I’m excited about that. We have a lot of great guest stars so far and they are coming to us because I think they see the quality in the show too, not just the hype.

What do we need to know about Raymond Jarvis coming into the series premiere? What kind of vice president is he and, more importantly, what kind of man is he?

He’s from Louisiana but he doesn’t do a Cajun bayou accent [laughs]. I look at him as a guy that’s willing to cross party lines as well as in his own party. I look at him as somebody who has the president’s back. It’s going to get complicated because there are some seeds that are sewn in the first couple of episodes with my character that I really don’t want to ruin anything for anybody, but the seeds will be sewn and in later episodes we’ll start to investigate those seeds and have them grow a little bit and I think Hal will be involved in that, too. But I’ve got to say, I really love to see what they throw at us from week to week. It’s a lot like when you wake up in the morning you don’t know what you’re going to get.

You mention Jarvis has the president’s back, but what’s his relationship really like with Martinez?

It’s strong. Inherently and sub-textually, we look to one another as comrades and as people looking to solve these big problems. I think we look at each other as friends and political allies.

Does Blair Underwood deliver on what it takes to embody a president, albeit a fictional one?

I’ve never worked with Blair before, but he’s a dream. He’s a real class act and I think he’s got the gravitas and class to handle and flourish in that role.

I also like the animosity between me and Blake Sterling, who is played by Željko Ivanek. I really like the way they’re setting that up. I know Željko from the New York years. We both started on Broadway in the theater. Same thing as Laura [Innes]. I’ve known Laura for a long time, before ER, when we were doing theater at Actors’ Studio in Louisville and Williamstown Theater Festival and Lincoln Center, we come from that background. And I hadn’t met Jason Ritter before, but he’s a dream, man. He’s a fine actor and I think he’s got a great charisma about him. He’s very likable and he’s a guy you’re going to root for and want to see succeed. I think he’s going to be a big star. And I’m so happy he’s leading this pursuit and I think he’s doing it really well. They’re doing really interesting things with him and I think he’s going to knock it out of the park.

And it’s not without humor, either. The show does have humor, too, which I really, really appreciate. I think that’s the sign of good writing.

When I spoke with Željko, I asked him if he was one of the good guys or one of the bad guys and he teased that it kind of depends who’s asking. Does the same go for Raymond Jarvis? Or is what we see is what we get with the vice president?

I think everybody on this show has some secrets. I really do. I think there is duplicity to a lot of the characters and I’ll leave it with that.

Before I let you go, will your character General Gabriel from Iron Man be returning to the Marvel shared universe of movies?

No, I’ve got nothing there. But I’ve got a movie coming out with Johnny Depp that will be out sometime next year. It’s called The Rum Diary, and I play a fun character in that. It’s Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel. Actually, his only novel, and it was written 40 years ago and it was just copyrighted and published a few years ago.

The series premiere of The Event airs Monday, Sept. 20 at 9/8c.

For more coverage of The Event, please check out the following features:
Countdown to The Event, Part I: Creator Nick Wauters
Countdown to The Event, Part II: Željko Ivanek and Lisa Vidal
Countdown to The Event, Part III: Jason Ritter and Clifton Collins, Jr.

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