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April 2, 2015

Star Tom York and director Nick Willing on why you should watch Olympus


Tara Bennett / Blastr

Syfy (Blastr’s corporate parent – Ed.) is trying something new with Olympus, its twist on the epic sword-and-sandal genre. Written and directed by Syfy event veteran Nick Willing and produced by miniseries legends Robert Halmi Sr. (The OdysseyGulliver’s Travels) and Robert Halmi Jr., Olympus is angling to be the rowdy, naughty cousin to more typical family fare. The 13-episode series has sex, violence and the Greek gods messing about with humanity, especially a young man named Hero (Tom York). An orphan seeking his destiny, he collects a variety of unpredictable travel partners, from Daedalus (Matt Frewer) to the Oracle (Sonya Cassidy), as they all seek answers.

Will this be a truly unique spin on the Greek tales of yore? We called Nick Willing and series star Tom York in London to get their take on why they think you should give their Olympus a try …

Nick, you wrote and directed the Syfy miniseries TinmanAlice and Neverland.

What sets Olympus apart from those prior works?

Nick Willing: The one thing it has in common with all of those other projects is Robert Halmi Sr., who sadly passed away while I was shooting the first episode. The ancient Greeks was one of his passions. For him, I made Jason and the Argonauts, which was the way we always see the ancient Greek mythology portrayed in film and television. What’s unique about Olympus is that it’s different from all those show and TV programs. The ancient Greek tragedies had never been done before. We’ve always done the myths. But the ancient Greeks wrote mostly about people rather than gods, and they say more about the human condition than any other drama I know. So I thought, “Hang on a minute. Is there a way to bring the ancient Greek tragedies to a modern audience? How would it be done?” The touchstones for our show are the same ones the ancient Greeks used, but it comes out like Tarantino is making it. My touchstones are Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro and The Prisoner. It was more ambitious than anything I’ve ever tried. By the end of it, our heroes discover the meaning of life itself, that’s how ambitious it is!

In tone and content, this is a big departure for Robert’s sensibilities. Was it a struggle to talk him into this?

NW: It was new territory for him, but we were incredibly close. I explained to him how to do it as the Greeks would have done it, which is as a grown-up, adult, hard-hitting show. They wouldn’t do it like a family drama. It’s not an action-adventure. This is dark, sexy, violent, full of intrigue storytelling. He said, “Yeah, go for it.”

Hero is a very on-the-nose character name. What’s behind that?

NW: The reason our character is called Hero in the show is because he doesn’t have a name. He is called to his face, the son of Aegeus, who was his father. Eventually his father gives him the name Hero, but the reason he has no name is because his name is cursed in a very profound way.

Tom, that’s a very ominous way to contextualize your character. What’s his journey about?

Tom York: Firstly, for my character it’s not a conventional, mythological, Hercules-like character. He’s not a fully formed warrior; steel-faced, unemotional and cold. He’s a young man brought up in the forest alone with his mother, and he doesn’t know why. Then he sees his mother killed before his eyes, and everything that follows is this young ingenue going on this adventure to try and find out who he is and what his place is in the world. It’s through all the darkness and violence that his humanity gets stripped away through the 13 episodes. By the end, if I’ve done my job, we should see an angry, prepared assassin ready to challenge the gods of Olympus.

What was the most difficult aspect of playing your character? Chafing leather?

TY: No, the hardest thing was my weapon that Nick so wisely gave me, which was a rope. There was a steep learning curve as they gave me that three days before filming. The producers were like, “Don’t worry, it will be all CGI.” No, that did not happen. Apparently, everything is just me and the rope. I broke some lamps in my apartment because I was practicing every moment I wasn’t learning lines.

The Greeks like to imbue lessons in their writing, so what themes are you laying into your story?

NW: Hero represents us, the audience, who needs to find their way through the story. He is the classic rite-of-passage victim, picking his way through this complex labyrinth the gods have laid out for him. All of the other characters represent the other aspects of the human psyche: greed, cowardice, envy and all the things that drive our emotions. Daedalus is a great scientific mind who represents intellect. The sorceress Medea (Sonita Henry), who is one of the greatest witches known to man, represents the alchemy and magic. Then the Oracle has visions of extraordinary power, and she represents intuition. In other words, our show has many levels to it.

Hero gets to battle a Cyclops, but how much of a part does magic play in the story?

TY: It’s not a big, magic-using, supernatural show. We have monsters and magic used by specific characters, but the gods, for the most part, are absent. Their presence is felt, but their direct interaction is not felt so strongly, and that makes it more interesting. The story is what the gods mean to them and what is their task for us? Gods show themselves more and more towards the end of the season, and by the final episode, it’s a whole crazy trip of gods and magic.

Nick, your shows are often a showcase for lush CGI worlds.

Does Olympus follow that path?

NW: Yes! One of my passions is designing new worlds. What does it look like, and would I want to live there? We have the luxury as fantasy creators to create a world from our own imagination, and that’s an enormous privilege. With that comes the responsibility of pulling of something special. This the first time I’ve been able to achieve a certain level of “Wow!” We built 55 different virtual 3D environments. They are all incredibly beautiful and complex.

Tom, this is your first professional job outside of drama school, so was working in a green room for weeks what you hoped it would be?

TY: There is nothing you can prepare for going into a green room every day for 12 hours pretending a tennis ball on a stick is a Cyclops. It’s amazing how quickly it becomes normal. But I’ll tell you what, being in that green room day after day makes you a little crazy. At the end of the day, when I was exhausted, I would get weird headaches. If you didn’t have someone like Matt Frewer around to keep you sane and laughing then it could have been a whole other thing.

I’m sure the color green is wiped from your wardrobe for months?

TY: You don’t want to be out in nature, and I love being outside! Your eyes can’t deal with that much green!

How much of what we’re going to see will be CGI?

NW: The show is more or less 70 percent virtual. But I also wanted to make those environments part of the storytelling. There are clues in every one, and gradually we start to realize they are part of the story. The characters start to unpick those locks, if you will. And to me this is Halmi’s swan song, and I pulled out all the stops to make this one special. I think it’s the biggest thing we would have done together.

Could this be a project that evolves into a longer series?

NW: Because it’s a show with such epic scale, it could break beyond its world and go on and on. You’ll see that by the last episode. If we go one after that, I won’t say I would do it, because I almost killed myself making this one, and I don’t finish until June [with post-production]. I might need a big rest after this one.