Blair Underwood and Zeljko Ivanek discuss new episodes of The Event

The actors who portray President Elias Martinez and Blake Sterling talk about what viewers can expect from the second half of Season 1

The Event returns with brand new episodes on Monday, March 7th star with a two hour episode at 8 PM ET on NBC. The show returns to its normal time slot on Monday, March 14 at 9 PM ET on NBC. Two of the show's stars, Blair Underwood and Zeljko Ivanek, who play President Elias Martinez and Blake Sterling on the drama program, recently held a conference call to discuss the second half of this gripping first season. Here's what they had to say.

Can you guys both talk about how your roles and working on The Event has impacted how you look at the dynamics of government and world events?

Zeljko Ivanek: You know, the first thing that really comes to mind is just watching how the plot developments are just coming fast and furious in this second half of the season. It's just you get this sensation of events just hurdling at you. And kind of when you watch from the outside, you - you know, you're certainly watching like what just happened in Egypt. You think oh this is kind of astonishing but just that shear momentum of events coming at you and finding yourself in the middle of things that are just moving way faster than the kind of human mind can really process. You know, and I'm not comparing this to reality, but it's certainly within the world of the show. We're having to constantly kind of like reassess what's going on and within every episode practically there's a moment where you think like What the Hell! And just the sensation of the pressure and this caldron that they're all in is really, really vivid to me.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. You know, for me it's - you know, as Zeljko said, the events are coming fast - The Event's; no pun intended. But they're coming fast and furious. But it makes me think not only of Egypt but I mean Iran last year and everything that's always going on in the world's stage; especially in the shows of the President. Just the sheer weight and gravity of the office and the responsibility of the President of the United States. How daunting that must be to try to sift through that and try to stay one step ahead of what's really going on. So it's definitely given me more of a keen awareness, if nothing else, and interest in the world of politics and foreign affairs.

What appealed to you about the premise of The Event that made you each want to audition for it and as actors, did all the secrecy surrounding the plotlines make it more difficult for you to create your characters?

Blair Underwood: Let's see. What intrigued me was the world itself and the fact that it was envisioned to be and has become a hybrid of certain genres. And many people have alluded to it being like Lost meets 24; a political thriller/science fiction even. So that was fascinating to me and to find out how to navigate through the blending of those two genres and beyond that, the character itself. I found him very fascinating in how he was initially drawn and even more so, and as Zeljko said a few minutes ago, not only the plotline, there's a lot of twists and turns but our characters are constantly evolving and evolving pretty rapidly right now.

Zeljko Ivanek: Yeah. I think I had a very similar reaction. You know, the stuff that I find really intriguing is always how do ordinary people behave in extraordinary circumstances. And, you know, that's why we have a lot of cop shows and lawyer shows and medical shows is that you're looking for situations that just always heighten the stakes. You know, and this was a situation with very heightened stakes and very real characters caught up in them and watching them kind of try to maneuver in a world that is so quickly getting past their grasp. It's the kind of thing that I just really respond to and I really like him and that's certainly kind of held true as the season has gone on because you find him constantly having to shift gears and reassess where they are because The Event's are just coming at them so fast. And in terms of the secrecy - I should answer that part of your question. I still don't know what The Event is. I don't know how many or if any of our cast members do. And in some sense, (mind) you I respect the process that the writers have and that there's a story that's still evolving here and you're trying to figure out at what pace to tell it and in some sense, you know, I'm - I know as much as my character does in that moment and that's kind of not a bad place to be.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. I feel the same way in terms of the secrecy and I just haven't really pushed the issue and not asked too much because I kind of don't want to know. I just want to take the ride as the character takes the ride.

As a fan myself and for other fans, it's been a little frustrating to have the show off the air for as long as it was. Can you guys talk about that? Was it frustrating for you as part of the show to not be on the air?

Blair Underwood: You know, I'll say when I first heard that - yes. I was frustrated and concerned just because, you know, momentum is always a good thing and people need to become more and more engaged and care about something. It takes time to garner an audience. And for that reason I was frustrated but for that reason I understand that's why we were taken off for three months so when we come back as Akiva said in the opening, we'll be on for two hours initially, starting at 8'clock on March 7th and then we can be on the air for 11 weeks straight, without any interruptions. We'll have a chance to have momentum but we needed a three month window off the air to create the episodes, to put them in the can and not have any interruptions.

Zeljko Ivanek: Yeah. And I've got a similar reaction. You know, it's difficult. You obviously want to build an audience and this doesn't make it easier. The people who liked you have to come back and you have to try to get new people to come in. So, you know, obviously the hope is that starting with an episode like this double episode will get people hooked back in. I've also seen the ad for the first time just a couple of nights ago that they've done. I think the new ad campaign is terrific as well and intriguing and we just hope that it will bring some new people into the fold.

Zeljko, some of your characters were a little bit disturbed and sometimes so much disturbed. So I was wondering how disturbed Blake is because he's so perfect and so obscure that we are not sure if he was really a good man.

Zeljko Ivanek: I think that's one of the things that I've really liked as the season has gone on is, you know, I think the assumption was because I was playing this part, automatically he must be the bad guy in all of this. And I've been happy to find out that there are worse guys lurking in this administration in this world. So, you know, and I think also what I've liked is that things really change and shift gears as the season has gone on and there have been big changes and shifts in the relationship between Blake and the President which has been really fun to work on as well. As things happen, they each kind of change their positions and find themselves kind of making the opposite arguments at each other than where they started. So I think I am anybody who reaches a position like the one I'm supposed to be holding I'm sure has a lot to answer for but at the same time he's, you know, clearly a patriot and clearly is trying to save the world and then you get into the nitty-gritty of what is he willing to do to do that and that's kind of the crux for a lot of the characters is how far are you willing to go to protect the things you think need protecting. And we're constantly kind of challenged as the storyline ratchets up the stakes.

Do you find any similarities in the character in your personal life?

Blair Underwood: As the President? I guess if there are any similarities, you know the fact that I am a father. I am a husband. I am very much a family man and that's, you know, aside from that in terms of the issue and things you have to deal with and confront. Of course, there are no similarities there dealing with non-terrestrials and whatnot but that aspect of being a family man and a father and a husband, is very important to me and how President Martinez is portrayed. It's one of the many conversations I continue to have with the writers and the producers to be sure we show that side when we can. And we are beginning to see more of that with some of these new scripts that you'll see in the next year - because - and the next upcoming episodes because I just think it's important just to show different dimensions of all the characters which I think they've by and large have done an incredible job of doing so I'm happy about that.

Obviously, you guys are looking to generate some excitement about the return of the show. What are some of the things that are exciting to you guys about the scripts you've seen and what sort of things can you tell us about some of the episodes coming up in particular.

Zeljko Ivanek: I think for the in particular would be shot. But it's really hard to answer that because, you know, most of what is coming is just like one surprise after another and one turn after another and I think that's exactly what they don't want us to be discussing but I would say what's coming up very soon is like a major shift in the relationship between, you know, Sophia and the President. And that's kind of a driving force for the rest of the season in a sense as far as I can tell and that's been fascinating to me to see that again, you know, I had assumptions about where things were going and how things would play out that have been upended pretty much with every script that I've read. And I'm hoping, you know, obviously it will do the same for the audience and make you go like oh my God, now what - over and over again. And hopefully just keep you in suspense and let you ride through the rest of the season.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. I have to tell you, listen, maybe I'm biased but I fell in love with this story and these characters from the very beginning. So I'm very excited about where it's going. But what I'm most happy about, I have to tell you, is the fact that we are - the construct of the story telling is more linear. So one of the complaints I heard a lot of, and I think most of us heard a lot of, was the fact that people were saying I love the show but the time jumps and the flashbacks are confusing me. And it's important I think for people to know that watched the show, like the show and maybe felt like they got lost or left behind, that we're no longer doing that. It doesn't change the quality of the show. It doesn't change the intensity and the integrity of the story telling but the way in which we tell the story in linear from beginning to end so it's much easier to flow, it's much easier to understand and much easier to follow. So I'm just excited about that because I felt like that was our Achilles heel.

Zeljko Ivanek: Yeah. I can't remember the last example of a time jump thing at all now. Yeah. It's been quite a benefit.

I'm curious from an acting standpoint when you maybe don't know a ton about what's coming down the line how you handle that and if you prefer to work that way or if you'd rather have a little bit more information about what might happen down the line so you know, you know, maybe how to play something now or if that even figures in.

Zeljko Ivanek: Yeah. I mean that may different for different characters. I don't know. You know, it's not something we kind of sat down just amongst the actors, amongst ourselves to sort out if we're all having the same experience or different experiences. I've been satisfied that I know as much as I need to know to play the scenes I'm playing. That whatever background information I've asked to get about something, whatever my character needs, knows up to that moment, they have been, you know, free with and have fully explained and brought me up to speed. I kind of liken Blair alluding to his - well, kind of the excitement of the script arriving and going like oh my God. Let's see what happens next. It's actually exciting just to kind of read through and realize how much the ground just keeps shifting under all these characters as the plot evolves. I went through a similar situation a little beyond Damages where I was given a kind of overview early on about a sort of general ark of the story but it was pretty generalized and vague and, you know, and again the sense was just to tell me enough so that I know kind of, you know, as the character, where I am in a particular moment and be able to play that. So as long as I feel up to speed enough to play the scene that I'm actually having to play next, I'm fine with that and, you know, the rest is for other people to worry about.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. I feel the same way. Once in a blue moon, something will come up and you just feel as though, you know, you need more information in order to play the scene accurately. But, you know, accurately is you know - it's - it changes. I mean what's important in that moment could possibly change and, you know, Zeljko and I both worked in serial television, serious television for a while and we know that it's a whole animal unto itself and it can shift according to what the audience wants to see or the producers change their mind. So by and large I feel the same way. I know what I need to know at that time and if I need some more information, then you know, you ask the producer and the writers what do you think and because they're usually three, four, five steps ahead of you. Zeljko, you notice I said usually. And sometimes you get the script the night before and you say, okay, maybe one step ahead of us.

Well, you say that the show has a lot of flashbacks. So do you think that maybe that kind of narrative is complicated for the audience and also maybe the rating has not been as high as you want?

Blair Underwood: Yeah. Well, I have to say I don't think the show is because of the flashbacks is complicated. I think because the context of watching a television show at home and life is so fast paced and people are multi-tasking, I think if you don't pay attention, it becomes complicated and complex. It's not that hard to follow if you're able to pay attention and it's just the way life is. It's not always the case. And also I think the ratings weren't as stellar as we hoped not because of the show or the interest in the show but because of the competition we were up against. We were up against two, really three, but two iconic TV shows; Monday Night Football which is an American tradition of course, Dancing with the Stars, which has become iconic in and of itself and then Two and a Half Men on CBS the first half an hour which is the number one comedy on television. That's a crossfire of intense competition. So it's another reason I'm glad we took three months off because we come back, we're not in the middle of that kind of competition. I know what's been great for us have been the DVR recording ratings. In other words, people who tape the show. By and large every week, our audience has increased 29% to 30%. That means people are recording the show and enjoying the show. So all that comes into play.

I just wanted to know, you know, what have you pulled from the current President and previous Presidents to guide you through this series for the show.

Blair Underwood: Well, what - the biggest lesson is that they're all so different. I mean their personalities and their backgrounds make them all so uniquely different. So that was important to understand. I mean people talk about being presidential. What is presidential? And to me it's someone who has - can engender trust and people will believe in him to follow his gut and his instincts to lead the country in the right direction, whatever that means. I mean that's different for everybody. But you have to believe in that person. Beyond that, I think it's trying to be as truthful and as honest and sincere as possible to do whatever you feel is the best way to lead a country.

Zeljko, you mentioned earlier that people assume that you always play the bad guy. So are you afraid of being typecast as always being, you know, the serious, dark type of character or do you find that a good thing.

Zeljko Ivanek: I find it a good thing to keep working. So the typecasting doesn't necessarily bother me as much as you might think. You know, I don't know whether I just look sinister in a suit or if people are prone to see you in certain character and certain series and kind of respond to that and that's kind of what you get. I'm not sure where all that comes from but it's interesting stuff to play. It's fun to play. It's fun to play characters who can be one thing on the surface and kind of another thing down below and there's a lot of kind of variety and juice in all of that. So I don't feel, you know, straight jacketed by it. Yes. It would be nice to get a laugh once in a while and a little change of pace once in a while and luckily that still happens. But as long as the characters themselves are interesting, I'm just happy that they keep asking me to do it and that I get the chance to work and stay in the business and grow and work with people. I just love being part of something. I love being part of a series. I love being part of a working environment and a working family. So anything that makes it possible to keep doing that I'm perfectly happy with.

The show has a pretty substantial social media presence; especially on Twitter. So do you guys think that's an important outlet for the success of the show?

Blair Underwood: I do. I think any way you can reach an audience and have a conversation about it and bring awareness to it is important. And, of course, that's such a major way to reach people through technology, Twitter, Facebook and whatever else.

Zeljko Ivanek: I don't tend to follow that stuff but I know it's out there. It just intimidates the hell out of me.

What have you found as being the biggest challenge for you to bring your character to life on the screen?

Zeljko Ivanek: What comes to mind to me is, you know, there's what I always liked from the beginning of the show was just how strong these characters were and how many kind of different worlds you were following and, at the same time, there's this overwhelming story ark going on and sometimes it is, you know, you feel you are everyone's needed to push the plot along and then you, you know, want to raise your hand. It's like yes. But what's going on inside of me at this moment and you don't always kind of get to, you know, play that out fully. Luckily there's plenty of moments and plenty of scenes where the reverberations among the characters and how they are each individually kind of struggling with these things are played out. But there's also a good deal of time where we just, you know, are looking after this jug not of a story that's - that everybody is dealing with as best they can and sometimes that just has to take precedence.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. You know, for me I tell you one of the bigger I'd say not even a challenge really, it's a concern or a thought process is - and it seems like a very simple thing but it's to not get caught into the trap of being presidential in playing this particular character. And it can be a trap. When you start to play for results and just make him as human as possible. It's a subtle nuance and it's all in how you approach it but it can be a trap I think for an actor. The same way an actor tries to be intelligent or smart or, you know, it's all playing for results and not doing that because it's such - everybody has their idea and notion in their own heads and minds what a president should be. But you know in terms of that, it's just the character - it's other character stuff. And the writers, when we receive the scripts, they've done such a good job of kind of just telling and constructing the story and putting it all together.

In the beginning of the series, President Elias is an honest and fine man. Will we see him lose his values when the aliens become more dangerous.

Blair Underwood: Will we see him lose his values?

Yeah. Because when the alien's threat becomes more dangerous.

Blair Underwood: Right. Right. Wow. That's a great question. I hope not. I mean I can say we haven't yet but I mean he's tested. As Zeljko said, I mean the story's accelerated so fast and it makes us all question who we are. I mean in many ways I think the overriding and undercurrent of the show is the idea of identity; who are we and who are we in certain circumstances and as circumstances keep shifting and changing and evolving. So to answer your question directly, that's such a great question. He hasn't lost himself. I think his values have been - wow. He's rethought a lot of his values but he has not shifted as of yet; not to say that I won't.

Zeljko Ivanek: It's fair to say I think for him and for Sterling and for a lot of characters that people have found themselves doing things they never thought they would do. You know, whether that's changing your values or just having your values kind of confronted with reality. You know, I'm not sure which it is but certainly everybody has found themselves caught short in ways that they never anticipated and behaving in ways that they, you know, would not have predicted for themselves.

I read that for the fifteenth episode, the show is supposed to be bringing in an Oscar Winning cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, to direct. First I want to ask is there any truth to that and are you all nervous about being directed by him?

Zeljko Ivanek: He did direct the fifteenth episode and it was fantastic. I loved working with him. He just brought a very unique energy to the whole process and a very different eye I think. Obviously I haven't seen the episode but it was kind of astonishing watching him tell a story as if it was kind of all in his head already in a way. You just kind of had to translate what was in his eye and in his mind to all of us to get all the pieces he needed. He was very, very clear, very driven and, at the same time, it was not just about oh, here's a cool shot or this is an interesting visual. It never felt about that. It always felt like what story am I telling in this moment; not just in this scene but in this moment. And he kept a really clear eye on is he telling the characters dilemma right here, right now, for each character in the scene. And kind of how he kept track of all of that I don't even know but it was, you know, you might have expected oh, he's a cinematographer. He's just going to be interested in the look of things and you realize very quickly the look of things is all about story telling and so I had a terrific time with him.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. Well said. I mean we've been very fortunate to have some great directors starting with Jeffrey Reiner, our executive producer but I tell you, Janusz Kaminski, who as you said has an Oscar - he has two Oscars. You know, he's done most of Spielberg's movies, if not all of them since Schindler's List He has an Oscar for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. And given just that whole pedigree of who he is and where he comes from, it was fascinating to watch. Just as Zeljko said, the fact that yes he had a certain specific look and when you see episode fifteen, you'll probably see a different look and style to the show but it was all informed by what is the story and who are the characters and what are the characters doing at this moment. That was fascinating to watch and just personally, Janusz Kaminski, is a force of nature. Just that energy. I wish I had that much energy on any given day so it was fascinating to watch and experience.

So with you guys not knowing what's going to happen pretty much week to week in the script, has anything that your character done completely surprised you kind of to the point where you're like had to kind of rethink the character.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. Every week.

Zeljko Ivanek: Yeah. I mean I, you know, lose a moment at the end of this double episode that's coming up where it's a real kind of action adventure episode at least for my character on the one hand. A real kind of change of pace completely. But ends with a real kind of moment of having to kind of reassess his view of this whole situation and his view of the aliens and it just comes out of The Events that happen that lead him to that. And it suddenly put him in a place that, like I was saying before, you never kind of expect him to be in and gives him a shift in perspective. We'll see if it lasts and how circumstances kind of affect it but I think there's a real moment of clarity for Sterling that he didn't see coming.

I'm wondering when you're away from the set and you're out on the street interacting with fans of The Event, can you tell me, you know, both regarding positive and negative aspects that fans have told you they feel about both your characters in the show?

Blair Underwood: Wow. Yeah. I'd say the positive is that people, you know, from what I hear. I mean people say one thing. You never know, where people are necessarily coming from but it's the positive. It's kind of generic good stuff about the president and playing this character and he's trying to piece it all together for the good of his country. So that's all positive. You know what I found fascinating is that I've had a number of people say they weren't crazy and mostly men, in how the president allows his wife to voice her opinion; which I find fascinating because Christina Martinez is such a strong character. We don't see nearly enough of her but I love that aspect of having that female component and that opinion voiced to the president. So I was just taken aback by that and I think it said more to me about those individuals and mostly people close to me or friends or whatever than it says anything about the character itself.

Zeljko Ivanek: My experience has been that generally when people make the effort to say something to you, it's because they're going to be nice about it. You know, luckily they'll say nice things about the show or the character that they're watching and interested in. And I think I've certainly heard some frustration with the show being off the air for as long as it's been or kind of, you know, waiting to figure out where is the - kind of the thrust of the story going and not wanting to lose the, you know, the thread of that as we've been off for so long. But usually if people are going to stop you to say something, they're generally pretty nice about it and whatever else they may feel, they've kept to themselves.

The Event has such a large cast that you don't always get to work with each other. I'm just wondering which cast members would each of you like to have more scenes with?

Blair Underwood: You know, as I said, most of my scenes are really with Zeljko - Blake but I would love to have more with my family - with my - Christina Martinez and my son. Geez. We haven't seen my son since the pilot I don't think. But yeah. But that's it.

Zeljko Ivanek: I don't know how this would even work plot wise but, you know, I'd love to have some scenes and get a chance to work with Jason (Ritter) because I think that's sort of the every man kind of heart of the story is watching him kind of navigate all these worlds and all these things that are happening and I love what he's doing on the show and just how much you get pulled in emotionally watching him struggle with all of this. So I just really admire his work and what he's done so I'd love to be able to work with him at some point.

I was wondering if you guys and the rest of the cast try to figure the mysteries of the show like the audience does and how is the atmosphere in the set and it's a double question. And when the show first started, it was called the new Lost. Did this comparison annoy you in some way?

Zeljko Ivanek: You know, to some extent, that's marketing. You're trying to tell an audience - find an audience and tell an audience, you know, please come because here's the hook. You know, this is how we want to get you in the door and you know you do the work and you want it to be seen by as many people as possible. I think it's a fair comparison. Calling it a sort of mix of 24 and Lost I think is actually an accurate description but basically you're just trying to get people in the door and start watching the show and build an audience. So I never think of it as like a fair or unfair comparison. It's just the reality of trying to get people to see what you're doing.

Blair Underwood: Yeah. I think in terms of unraveling the mystery, I really tend not to do that outside of what my character would need to know as we said before. But I have to say I am challenged funnily enough by my 13 year old son and 12 year old daughter and 9 year old son and the two older ones oftentimes will run lines with me and they're very good about being secretive; not giving plot lines away at school. But they're really into the show and they come up with questions that I tell you I hadn't even thought of. And, of course, most of answers - I don't know where it's going but they do challenge me and force me to kind of thing from all kinds of different angles and perspectives of where the story is going.

You can watch Blair Underwood and Zeljko Ivanek when The Event returns with brand new episodes on Monday, March 7th with a two hour episode at 8 PM ET on NBC. The show returns to its normal time slot on Monday, March 14 at 9 PM ET on NBC.