In Netflix’s “Sense8,” Brian J. Smith plays a Chicago police officer whose personal empathy makes him the perfect “sensate”—a person who can connect psychically and emotionally with seven others in his group.
Smith’s own worldview made “Sense8” the perfect project for the 33-year-old, a 2014 Tony nominee for “The Glass Menagerie” who starred in “Stargate Universe” and “Gossip Girl.”
“To be working on a show that is all about connection and all about empathy and making someone else more important than yourself and about learning the real meaning of love—as cliché as it sounds—this is the real stuff,” Smith said during a recent phone interview.
Created by Andy and Lana Wachowski (“Matrix” trilogy, “Cloud Atlas”) and J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”), the 12-episode “Sense8” explores ideas of identity, gender, sexuality and common human needs through the eyes of eight strangers who are reborn as sensates in the premiere.
Their newfound ability to sense each other’s thoughts and emotions and to use each other’s talents and capabilities as their own make them targets for a sinister group led by an evil sensate named Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann).
Smith plays Will Gorski, who while in Chicago hears and sees things that Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a DJ from Iceland, is experiencing in London. Then he sees Riley in his mirror and eventually they talk.
At first he’s freaked out—who wouldn’t be?—but after meeting a mysterious fugitive named Jonas (Naveen Andrews), Will is one of the first of his group to accept and explore his new abilities.
Smith was drawn to Will because of the character’s need to help people. It’s this savior complex created by traumatic events in Will’s childhood that make him a good sensate, Smith said.
“He really becomes his best self when he is helping other people, which I think consequently—or not accidentally—is the reason why he became a cop in the first place,” he said.
Although the series delves into the individual stories of all the sensates—transgender “hacktivist” Nomi (Jamie Clayton), German safe-cracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), closeted Latino actor Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), Indian scientist Kala (Tina Desai), Korean business exec Sun (Doona Bae) and Kenyan bus driver Capheus (Ami Ameen)—Will remains at the center of the story as he works to unravel the mystery while falling for Riley.
Jonas recognizes Will’s police skills but learns first-hand during a thrilling high-speed car chase under the Chicago “L” tracks that Will’s a take-action kind of guy who can’t turn a blind eye to someone in trouble.
“That’s put him in a really great position emotionally to be someone who can be helpful in bringing all these people together and helping them and saving them,” Smith said.
In later episodes, Will physically travels to Europe to help Riley. The scenes between Smith and Middleton are some of the most wrenching—and tender—of the series.
Of all the actors, only Smith and Middleton shot in all nine international cities where “Sense8” was filmed. Spending so much time together allowed the actors to get to know one another, which was a plus when their characters were sharing each other’s thoughts and emotions.
“Tuppence and I, man, we had so much fun. I mean the stuff we got to do in some of these cities together was just wild. And that bonds you,” Smith said. “It’s nice to look into someone’s eyes who you know is going through the exact same thing and who shares this whole experience with you from beginning to end.
“I think that that allowed us to share some of those intimate, connected moments, I hope, in a great way.”
Smith talked more about their adventures filming “Sense8,” about Will and about how “Sense8” delves into “really big questions” he’s been exploring since college. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What does this story mean to you?
To me it’s all about empathy and tribalism. People say the world is worse now than it’s ever been and we’re heading toward something awful. I think every generation has felt that way. But I do know that something it seems has really happened is that even though we’ve gotten more connection and more information about each other, we don’t feel closer.
I don’t feel closer. I don’t feel more connected to the world. I feel more connected to data. That makes it really, really easy to lose your ability to empathize with the people all across the world or even the people in your own freaking city. It happens to me every day.
We’ve become more polarized. We’ve become more tribal. We’ve become more black-and-white in our thinking about human behavior, good and evil with capital letters.
I think what Lana and Andy or Joe are asking for is that human connection where you cannot differentiate between your needs and the needs of someone else. That’s when we really care and that’s when this thing called love really, truly, truly exists.
If we’re going to survive as a species, we’re going to have to relearn how to empathize and how to love.
Do you think that filming in nine different cities using this international cast was the best way to get the story across?
Oh, for sure. For sure. They didn’t want to shoot this on a sound stage in front of a green screen and fake it. If it happened in Nairobi we were going to shoot it in Nairobi.
The same thing in Berlin. I’d say we shot a couple of pickup scenes on the sound stage in Berlin and maybe a little bit in Iceland. It was just little close-up moments or little inserts of hands and things like that. Everything else is live action.
I think there’s maybe one moment where there’s a green screen in a fight where they painted something out that didn’t need to be there.
We really wanted to use the entire globe as our sound stage and that’s what they did.
Following your Tweets and having interviewed you before, I kind of feel like this was sort of meant to happen for you because the spirit of the show is really a lot of your personal philosophy, isn’t it?
Oh my God, these are questions I’ve been dealing with, asking myself for years. And it’s the kind of writing that I love. Even with “Stargate Universe,” we were really starting to get in that second season into some really deep shit … Asking really big questions.
You’re not just trying to keep people mindlessly glued to the television by feeding them a lot of sex and violence, but you’re actually trying to engage them on the most personal level you possibly can.
It’s the same thing with doing “The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway. I think it’s one of the more personal performances I’ve ever given because the scenes in that story are so, so, so resonant for me.
Then came along “Sense8.” I’ve been looking into and reading about Buddhism and Eastern thought for a long time—since college. …
I’ve always wanted to be involved in writing and projects that just weren’t about going in and shooting up a bunch of stuff. That can be fun and I’m sure I’d have a much bigger career if I were drawn to those kinds of things.
But I don’t know. It’s got to mean something to me personally if I’m going to do it. “Sense8” is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done.
Tell me your thoughts about Will, the Chicago cop you play.
There are so many things. I think the striking thing for me was this idea of someone who had a savior complex. You learn that he had some pretty traumatic experiences when he was a kid with a young girl [Sarah Petrell] who he basically witnessed being killed. It also destroyed his father and his father’s career.
I think at such a young age, to foster this sense of helplessness in him and his inability to help people, consequently made him feel subconsciously that he had to help everybody. … He’s one of the people who’s very involved in trying to figure out what exactly is going on and what can be done about it.
Viewers need to pay close attention to what’s happening, but if you do that, it’s not too complicated, don’t you think?
You’ve got eight balls in the air—eight lives that are all intermixed. But it’s a funny thing. I find that the more you get into the story the less confusing you realize it is. That really these people live in really violent cultures that they’re all trying to survive. Really that’s all you need to know to enjoy it.
And then you just kind of get on the ride hopefully and enjoy being surprised by what happens to them as individuals and then also what happens to them as they become more connected and try to come together and work together.
And each character’s story is good on its own.
Yeah, that was cool. That was a really great part of the writing I thought. I felt [they could have] actually made a television show for each of the eight stories. But they’re all something very, very different.
Even Will in Chicago—there are a lot of Chicago stories and a lot of cop stories and a lot of television shows and films about police. But I felt that the way the [“Sense8” writers] look at race relations between the cops and the community was something I hadn’t really seen a lot of people have the balls to tackle in scripted television yet. It was interesting that Lana, Andy and Joe wrote those scenes months before all this stuff started happening—[the protests] in Ferguson, Staten Island and certainly in Baltimore.
Who’s ever seen anything that about the Matatu bus drivers in Nairobi? I’ve never seen someone deal with that before. Who’s got a television show about a safe cracker in Berlin or a DJ party girl or a transgender hacktivist in San Francisco?
On their own all the stories are just something you’ve never seen before. And then you kind of put them together in this salad—this story salad—and it just makes for a really unique experience.
Is that one of the things that attracted you to the project?
Yeah, the diversity of it [was attractive]. I do think a lot of television is—I’ll even just say—whitewashed. We’ve got this weird idea that we can only tell one color of story at one time. It’s got to be a show that just appeals to white people or it’s got to be a show that just appeals to teenage girls. Or it’s got to be a show that appeals to just African-Americans, or whatever.
Audiences now are more exposed through the Internet and media to other parts of the world. I think people are able to handle, or are actually hungry for this kind of diverse storytelling.
Several of the characters have issues with their fathers like Will does. Is this a theme that we’re going to see repeated throughout the stories?
I think that’s an interesting observation. I hadn’t really thought about that too much but yeah, a lot of us do have daddy issues. Of course, you’ve got the character Riley who has a really great relationship with her father.
But fathers do play a really important role in this.
In a weird way you’ve got the character Jonas, who becomes in a way of a father figure to all these people. He is the one bringing them all together and then telling them, “Actually yes, you have a mother and you have a father and you might have sibling, but they’re actually not your real family.”
Speaking of fathers, I screamed “Joey Pants!” when I saw your father on the set. How was working with Joe Pantoliano?
It was amazing. It’s like watching someone just who completely drove himself off a cliff into the unknown. I’ve never seen an actor who’s just that completely comfortable dealing with a scene in a very, very free and participatory way while still saying the words that Lana and Andy wrote. It was a real lesson for me because I come from the theater and it’s just in my DNA now to show up and you kind of got a couple of ideas about what the scene is. We don’t have a lot of time. It’s probably from doing a lot of television, too.
I think he comes more from the film background where there’s this amazing freedom that you’ve got to take a moment in five different directions with five different takes that you never could have anticipated when you read it. It was like a real master class for me just to be in those scenes.
What was it like working with the Wachowskis?
Gosh, yeah. It was nerve-wracking at first because if I look back on the most exciting film-going experiences I’ve had of my life … the Wachowskis and the stuff that they’ve done, they really truly are my favorite filmmakers. I love their aesthetic. Even when they get blasted for certain films—the way that they take risks, the way that they shoot things, the way that every single film is trying to figure out some really central human problem. It’s just the kind of filmmaking that I really, really like.
So getting to work with them was first of all really, really, really scary. I should have let myself relax at first, because they’re honestly the two most gentle, shy, brilliant people you’d ever want to meet. They’re just like kindred spirits and they’re very, very private and they don’t do a lot of press. They’re very, very protective of their private lives and their personal space.
I think they’ve learned that in today’s culture and just the nasty way it is out there you have to be [private]. So getting to know them and getting to work with them was just an absolute mind trip.
I’ve had conversations with Lana and she’s all of those things—just so thoughtful, interesting.
Her mind works on a whole different plane. It’s an interesting thing because she and Andy make commercial art films. I think sometimes that can be a really uncomfortable relationship to have when you’re trying to make something that’s supposed to make like $600 million but it’s also supposed to be very smart and very philosophical in a lot of ways. Often those two things don’t mix.
When you talk to Lana and you see the way her brain works and how in touch she is with her life experience, it all makes sense what it is they try to do as artists.
They directed the Chicago stuff so obviously they directed the bulk of your stuff. But you filmed everywhere, right?
Yeah, Tuppence and I, for whatever reason, I think we were the two who went to every city, which is not like anything to brag about. It was fantastic but it was also very difficult. We didn’t really have any down time. We were always on a plane waiting in line for security or something like that or spending time in hotels. But yeah, yeah, she and I both shot in all nine cities.
Did you go to each city to shoot all your scenes there at once or were you going back and forth?
We block shot in every city. So we started in San Francisco. Everything that happens in San Francisco was shot there and all the actors came out. It was the same thing for Nairobi. …
I think Terrence Mann, who plays Mr. Whispers, had a couple of cities where he literally showed up just to like cross frame. [Laughs.] I mean its wild going out there and getting put up and it was literally just for like one look.
When you’re shooting those scenes where your character and, for instance, Tuppence’s character flip locations within the same moments on screen, but you two filmed those weeks apart in Chicago and London, was it hard to get back to that same spot in your character’s psyche?
It was something we talked a lot about because it was a big question, “Are we always going for like perfect continuity emotionally?” “If we shoot a scene that happens in Chicago and London, am I in the exact same emotional place in London that I am on the sort of A side in Chicago?”
We found out that was really a flexible thing because sometimes if you’re in someone else’s experience and you’re in someone else’s head while they’re in Nairobi you’re also experiencing their emotional state as well. So you don’t have to carry over necessarily what you’re experiencing in your physical life. You can play around with their experience in their own city. So we didn’t have to worry about a complete emotional or physical match between cities. It was very fluid.
You and Tuppence share a lot of scenes. Did you guys have a process where the two of you as actors sort of prepared for that kind of intimacy or was it just constant conversations?
We just hung out a lot and had a great time together. [Laughs.] It was one of those things about day-to-day life being on a show. For instance, when we were working in San Francisco I really didn’t have much to do until like the last week-and-a-half of shooting there. So before that really Tuppence, Miguel and I were sort of a trio and we would go out and do a lot of stuff together. We’d go to the gym or go out and get dinner or just hang out at the hotel. So we sort of bonded in an off-camera way that sort of gave us a familiarity and kind of comfort level.
Joe Straczynski has said that each of the actors “came to the party knowing that they were in a way representing their country. So like the Olympics they came prepared to excel.” Would you say that was true for you and true for everyone you worked with?
I think we make so many films and shows in the United States. For this we started in San Francisco and then we went to Chicago. There’s something about American crews and American actors—when we work in those cities, afterward we’re going to go off to some other show immediately. The same thing in London.
When we were working with people in places like Nairobi or South Korea and in Mexico City, you really got a sense from the local actors and the local crew that there was this amazing sense of pride that finally someone was coming to tell their story.
Not that it wasn’t personal to us in Chicago and London and San Francisco, but for those people—especially I think in Nairobi—there was this amazing energy. It didn’t matter if you were doing makeup or hair or if you were holding the boom mic or whatever—they felt like they were representing something that they wanted people around the world to see. And that was really powerful.
It sounds like you were really busy when you were in Chicago shooting “Sense8.”
Yeah, yeah. That was full on. Yeah, that was crazy.
It looks like you filmed a lot on the South Side or West Side in Chicago. How was your experience?
We actually did go I think to the South Side with the picture car, which is any time you have a scene which takes place in a moving vehicle there’s this huge sort of trailer that they set up. And that was wild, I mean, going through the South Side of Chicago the energy was so amazing because people would be like, “Hey, it’s a movie! What’s going on?”
Then we’d go to other parts of Chicago [where they were more used to filming] and everybody just knew that they were in a movie. They wouldn’t look at the lens. They tried to play along in a weird way. And they were probably a little more boring.
It was just amazing to see how the energy changed from block to block in Chicago like that.
What was your favorite part of doing this?
Oh God. I loved spending time in Berlin. That was a trip for me because I studied German in high school and twas fascinated with the history and the culture, the food, the people.
I grew up in Texas, which is great. I can’t think of anywhere in the world that’s more opposite to Texas than Germany, Berlin in particular. There’s just such amazing decadence about that city. I don’t mean in terms of like money. It’s one of the few places in the world you can go and not have to be rich and you can feel like you’re involved in the city. It makes you feel like you’re really, really, really living and not just scrambling to survive. You could be a bellhop or a waiter or a barista there and they all go out at night and have an amazing time and they live life in a way that I never thought you were allowed to. So that was amazing.
Actually Berlin, just in terms of my own personal baggage, was a place where I really felt I did a lot of growth, believe it or not.
We don’t see much of Mr. Whispers early on, but is he going to become a big problem for the sensates?
Oh yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah. He rears—I don’t want to call it an ugly head because let’s face it, Terrence Mann is a handsome guy and he’s charming—but he becomes a force as the sensate connection plot thickens. I’d say probably starting around Episode 5.