Craig Olejnik

The star and executive producer of the new NBC summer series talks about the upcoming premiere and more

The Listener is set to premiere on both NBC and Canada's CTV on Thursday, June 4 at 10 PM ET and the new series' star Craig Olejnik, who portrays Toby Logan and executive producer Christina Jennings recently held a conference call to discuss the new series. Here's what they had to say.

I wanted to ask is Toby really as good as he seems? I mean is he going to stay this really good Robin Hood kind of a character or does he have some flaws?

Craig Olejnik: Well he's human. He's thankfully born with flaws which in my opinion makes him exciting. Throughout the season there is certainly highs and lows yes I don't know where we're going into season two. But season one you're basically getting him at the beginning of him really beginning to explore this ability that's he's always pushed off to the side. So of course with any new power he's really - he's learning how to wield it so it's, you know, a young Jedi basically, you know, honing his powers so trial and error. And, you know, with the help of Ray Mercer played by Colm Feore he's able to streamline his relationship with its ability. That was kind of good.

Do we find out why it is that Ray - I mean I've only seen the pilot but why it is that Ray says no one must know? I mean is someone after you? If he worried about your mental health or is there something else going on there in the back story that we haven't learned yet?

Craig Olejnik: No certainly is it Christina?

Christina Jennings: Yes I was just going to say that I think that one of the things we've said that in terms of the series was that, you know, you wouldn't really want a lot of people to know in the world that you could read minds. First of all it would really affect your personal relationships. You know, because people couldn't hide anything from you right. And the other thing for Toby I think is the fact that, you know, I mean what would happen if he got into the wrong people's hands? And you're quite right if it's (Rita) that that is actually sort of where the series drives, you know. The fundamental question it asks - Toby asks himself is, you know, how did I get this way? Are there others like me out there? And that's really what drives week by week, you know, and toward the end of the season we will realize that he is on other people's radar.

Craig, what made you want to be a part of this show?

Craig Olejnik: The script, the pilot script was so unlike anything else I had read. I read it about two years ago now in Los Angeles and it's just different. It was that simple and there's not too many shows with, you know, mid 20s male lead on it. And I thought that would be obviously something to go for.

What about the role have you found challenging?

Craig Olejnik: The responsibility of being a lead is the most challenging part playing the character enjoyable is what I live for. But it's just being the liaison through, you know, the middle of so many departments. I'm connected to so many departments and you have to deal with so many people day in and day out. And the dialogue and the scripts it's the work. The work is the most challenging part.

Have you had a most memorable moment from filming the show yet?

Craig Olejnik: Just I think the response now that the show has been released internationally it's pretty cool knowing that there's an audience for this type of show.

And why will people want to take their time to tune in to see the show?

Craig Olejnik: For the basically the adventures of Toby and his gift I think it's going to be about the relationship you have with the characters that people will connect to.

Christina Jennings: I think one of the things for us and it was right off that pilot script that Craig talked about. You have in Toby Logan in affect a reluctant hero. You know, he's someone who, you know, the gift has formed who he is, you know. He's been a bit of a loner in his life. He's a good looking guy that would really like this gift thing to go away and he can just go on, you know, being a normal person but he can't. And, you know, in the first episode, you know, he realizes that he's head a cry for help from a stranger. And he could ignore it. And if he ignores it something horrible might happen to that person who he's never met. He knows nothing. And - but that day he realizes I've been given this gift for a reason and I have to do something. And so when you ask why would people want to watch it? I think there's something so if I think inherent in that there are people that are prepared to come to the place, you know, and help true strangers, you know. So I think that's one of the reasons we think, you know, people might want to tune in. I think the other is that I think that, you know, we don't take ourselves too seriously. You know, we have fun in the show. There is some humor. And I think, you know, I think audiences are looking for that.

In 99% of the scenes in a show like this obviously Craig's character is going to know more than all of the other characters. And I'm just wondering how do you guard against the character coming across as smug? Because we're supposed to be cheering for him obviously and I'm just wondering if both, for both of you did that cross your mind? And how did you balance it so that he doesn't come across as smug even though he's more knowledgeable than everyone?

Craig Olejnik: Well smug was never a thing on my mind. Just attempted to play every scene simply and all - and I did that by playing the relationship with the other character. The only thing that the telepathy really is in my point of view as playing the character is extra bits of information. So he just has extra bits of information. And it's just about being normal and natural and that fits. You know Toby Logan acts every single day. There's constantly a white elephant in the room with him. And he, you know, he drifts a little bit in his head but I don't even think I'm answering it properly. But basically it was never something that was on my mind. It was just - each scene was treated differently and each scene was - I just tried to keep it simple.

Christina Jennings: I think the other thing Bill, you know, when we started out doing this series, you know, all of us the writers, you know, we sat in rooms and talked about, you know, as you start to think about how a series would go week by week, year after year. And, you know, the first thought was well in a way almost to what you were saying, you know, well if he knows what everybody in the rooms thinking well that's one pretty easy, you know, and makes him smug. And the more and more we got into it and over the 13 hours that we've produced you realized that what he hears and sees. Because he has this, you know, as he - as I'm thinking something I'm often visualizing my thoughts so we have the ability to do both. But what he hears or sees may not be the truth. Or what he hears and sees may not be horrible I mean he gets in the mind of a young man who's witnessed the brutal murder of his parents. And we realized that would be horrible and Craig, you know, I remember that scene you innocent where he realizes oh my God you actually saw that. So we have really tried week by week to show that it isn't so easy for Toby. And it comes - and there is a cost, you know. And he's asked in that particular episode to keep going back into the young man. The police are saying go back in. You've got to read his mind. And you realize it's taking a terrible toll on the character because the character's put in this. So I hope, you know, Bill over the hours as you build over 13 you realize it's not a - it's an infallible gift or it's a fallible gift, pardon me you know what I mean. And it comes at a price to Toby. Like this isn't just like oh it's cool I can read minds. There's a price, you know.

Yes because I guess if you had written it slightly - like maybe if it had been written in a more easy and sort of less serious way it could have just gone on too quickly. But you seem to treat the subject matter actually quite seriously.

Christina Jennings: Yes.

Craig I was wondering - I can see Toby's ability like to be an advantage but like what's the downside to being a telepath?

Craig Olejnik: You're, you know, like most people dealing with my own thoughts is room enough, you know, there's barely enough room in my head for my own thoughts. So this guy's got a lot of thoughts, a lot of images, a lot of everything else that doesn't necessarily need to be there. It's the mental - it's the sanity I think would be the down part of it all. If you can't control what comes in then it could be an unenjoyable place to be.

Christina Jennings: Yes Troy I think one of the things, you know, when, you know, again when you're shaping a series is one of the fundamentals that we're asking as the filmmakers, you know, and who am I, how did I get this way? One of the things that Toby, you know, and he doesn't know the answer to those questions at the beginning of the series. In fact it will take him many seasons to get to know them but the one thing he does know is that he has no idea who his father was. And his mother probably was a telepath. She went crazy. And she tried to kill him. So I think that to Craig's point there is a real downside for Toby that he lives with on a very real and personal way which is my mother - the voices in my mother's head drove her crazy. This could happen to me. You know, I think that we see this, you know, good looking man and one might ask why isn't he in a relationship. Well because he can read thoughts and that it allows, you know, he can never also tell anyone who he is. So there is a real part of Toby that is a loner. You know, and so again one would say well there's a downside there, you know. You can't really ever tell people who you are so.

Now Craig I also wanted to know if you possessed this ability in real life would you use it for personal gain or would you help others. It could come in handy you know.

Craig Olejnik: It absolutely could I mean I think I'd just balance it out with a little bit for me, a little bit for them, a little Robin Hood action.

Yes say like in maybe business negotiations use it for yourself.

Craig Olejnik: Basically yes and, you know, try to help people out.

Why do you think international audiences have embraced the show so much like all the way from Japan to the UK?

Christina Jennings: Yes. You know, we've sat a lot of time asking ourselves and I think, you know, I think Troy it goes in part to that comment I made earlier which is there's something about, you know, we're in tough times all of us right now, you know, the world is for all sorts of reasons not just the economic recession. They have global lifts and, you know, environmental wrath and all of it. And I think that certainly as, you know, I think the viewers have enjoyed coming to The Listener. And it's a week by week experience as I said. Don't think it takes itself too seriously. I think it allows for some humor. And I think the series has heart like it's got a lot of heart. This is, you know, we did not set out to make a hard edged, cutting, you know, whatever procedural, you know. So we did tie in all of our stories to find something that had heart. And so it is - it's fascinating Troy when you think, you know, it's a hit in Brazil. It's a hit in Japan. It's a hit in, you know, Spain and Italy. And, you know, and so as to say that's the reaction back and looking at sort of the demographic as pretty much split between male and female. So the question now of course will be will North American audiences, you know, come to it like it has done all around the world?

Craig I just wanted to ask you I was reading in your bio that you got started, you know, at a younger age with acting. And I was just wondering what made you want to pursue it at such a young age and what made you stick with it.

Craig Olejnik: Well first of all I realized that you could - when I moved to - I grew up in Nova Scotia most of my life. And three years of my childhood we actually spent in Toronto and that's when my eyes were opened and my life was changed. We went to museums and theater and I was a minority. It was fantastic. And a friend of mine's sister was on a TV show here in Toronto, a popular show. I don't know I guess it must be some Canadian come line. Well Mr. Dressup a friend's sister was on Mr. Dressup and I just never understood - knew that I could know someone in the flesh that was on the TV. It was just a bizarre thing for me. You know, I grew up, you know, drinking Coca Cola, singing to Michael Jackson and, you know, the '80s, you know, a pretty stand by me life. And, you know, I just to get to my point. But my point is was it why I wanted to get into acting?

Yes what made you pursue it when you - I think I read 14 years old.

Craig Olejnik: Yes well I moved back to Nova Scotia after Toronto and some friends of mine had agents. And I met with the agent and I auditioned. My first audition I ended up getting the film was Margaret's Museum with Helena Bonham-Carter. And I went off for about two months on my own even to Scotland and hit Brittan and Nova Scotia and was surrounded by very creative people, nomadic people. And I just really loved the lifestyle and the zest for life and they kind of confused me ever since. So I've been chasing that dragon.

And did you ever - you got, you know, grew up and got a little older did you ever think about doing something else? Or did you always stay focused on acting and this field?

Craig Olejnik: Well there is a lot of years in my, you know, 20s that acting was really on the back burner not even saying I was traveling and writing, taking pictures and just kind of living and figuring out what I wanted to do. And it just always kept on coming back. And I moved here three years ago now to Toronto with the, you know, I think I was 26, 27 in Vancouver. I woke up one day and I was like what am I doing? I've accomplished nothing and then so I moved to Toronto. I had a cousin here. And I just said all right I'm going to act and that was it. And I decided to do the work that I never did before. And here it is.

And with The Listener being a success out there already what kind of impact does that have on your life? Are you recognized more? Do people come up and talk to you more about the show and things like that?

Craig Olejnik: Nothing yet. In Toronto you're - just I guess this past week billboards are popping up on the sides of buses and subways and also in Vancouver I guess. And I'm getting a lot of messages and phone calls from friends who have seen it all. And the commercials are on so just, you know, people are popping up who haven't said hello in a while that's really it so far.

I'm just wondering how much will The Listener embrace its genre roots.

Christina Jennings: I mean it very much does embrace its sci-fi roots. You know, there aren't telepaths in the world and so, you know, we've always said that we are a soft sci-fi show. And that, you know, that's certainly as the - as we look forward to the next season and the season beyond that I think we'll see even a bit more of that come out.

And then some shows are like Friends for example are episode by episode very cool as standalones. But there's a lot of back story, mythology inside baseball type of stuff for people who watch every single episode religiously. And then Lost is one of those ones that you have to watch every episode or you're completely lost no pun intended. Where on the scale does The Listener fall?

Christina Jennings: It's very much Friends. You know, that's actually a very good example. You can watch Friends, miss three episodes and not realize there's a whole thing going on with his dad and you know what I mean. So there is, you know, we do try and answer those questions. Are there others like there out there like me? And how did I become this way? And I think probably Craig by the end of the 13 hours, you know, the 13th episode, you know, we start to get glimpses into some of those questions more. So very much you can miss a couple of shows in the middle and it won't affect your enjoyment.

I wanted to find out Christina starting out in the show what will perhaps some of the biggest writing and also production challenges you found getting The Listener off the ground would you say.

Christina Jennings: Writing and production challenges, I think the biggest probably the biggest challenge on the writing side was just making sure that, you know, we - if as you looked out over 13 hours and you sort of knew where you were driving in terms of sort of the over arching questions. We wanted for viewers to be able to see, you know, the challenges, the differences in the gift of reading minds and how that had impacted Toby. We wanted to look for stories that felt different where the gift was used in different ways. So I think that was probably it was just making sure that we had a real variety of stories so I think that was probably the writing challenge and making sure to the earlier question, you know, that we really had that sort of back story mythology as simply as we needed that didn't take away from the audiences enjoyment, you know. So again just making sure there was a proper balance. I'm not sure we really had any production challenges over what any producer has which is you never quite have enough money, you know. And you're always shooting for the stars. So I don't really think we had anything that challenges us whether it ended up being with us, you know. We pretty much got the cast we wanted when we wanted them.

That's great nothing wrong with that at all. And then Craig I just had a quick question for you. And this is going back a little bit. With one maybe you could tell us a little bit about shooting the pilot episode if you don't mind and maybe also what was some of the acting challenges you found initially stepping into this role would you say?

Craig Olejnik: The pilot it feels like a lifetime ago, a few years ago. We started - I think we started shooting the pilot on June 1 or something like that.

Christina Jennings: That's right.

Craig Olejnik: Well I look at that footage now and I just see how much - how young I looked, how angelic almost I looked. It's kind of funny. And now going to the series it was really nice - I'm going off a little bit here. But it was really nice to like find the legs a bit in your character and to pick it up and to kind of begin to own it which was really nice to be moving ahead with the character as opposed to, you know, a film where you're arching with a character. You're kind of closing things off and you're done in an hour and a half. The acting challenge is every day it was just for me a challenge obviously because of the volume that I - of work I had to do throughout the series. Every day was just trying to keep it fresh, trying to keep it maintain a consistency and a growth in the character and in myself. That was the main focus was staying focused when you're fatigued after, you know, it's mainly to work but it's ultimately very rewarding working with this production and the actors and the crew. The crew gave a lot for this thing.

Christina Jennings: I have to say to add what Craig was saying (Steve), you know, and I know it was an earlier question, you know, it is - it's, you know, it's being the lead in a series. You know, and being in almost every scene on every day, you know, it's a lot of work. And Craig I have to say, you know, if we hadn't had his personality, you know, because that person, you know, there are long hours. It's many, many months of filming, you know, and the stress is of all that. And you need the lead, the leader to come on every day and be up for it, you know. You've got to be the glass is half full guy. The guy because we can do it guys. You know, not the guys that say oh no not another day, you know. So we were very fortunate as producers to have someone who embraced the challenge. To really step up to be a leader and in someone quite so young. So we were really fortunate.

I was just curious about the, you know, in some shows, you know, it's clear that either New York is the setting and it's almost a character in the show or Chicago will almost be a character. LA will almost be a character. It seems Toronto was almost a character in the show in the way you really show it. Christina I'm just wondering the decision to go with that. Because it's not a decision that everybody would take I guess.

Christina Jennings: No I think there were two reasons. One is (Yvonne Esann) the head of CTV was determined that Toronto be a character. And, you know, we weren't going to step in for anybody else. We were going to be ourselves. And I'll never forget and then Meredith I don't know if you were in the room but I went down to have with our Head of Communications and Marketing went down to have the big meeting with NBC. Must have been 40 people around the board room table and I said to everyone. You've never had a chance to really see Toronto because everything tha'ts unique about our city we have to hide. You know, people don't realize we have streetcars. We have an island off the foot of our city where people live. We have ferries. We have, you know, and I went on and on. And each episode we actually tried Bill to find another community, another, you know... But it actually it is Toronto. I mean it truly is and I know internationally they may not, you know, a lot of people have come back and made a comment about they didn't realize Toronto was as beautiful a city as it was because no one ever gets to see it. So yes it was really fun to do it actually.

Obviously I'm assuming it was just sort of a scheduling issue for the reason that like the show would debut in various places around the world before it debuted in North America. Was it just like sort of NBC scheduling?

Christina Jennings: Well I think when Ben Silverman picked up the show which is now over a year ago and right away said I want this show to go on in June '09. And this is when I want it to go on. This is when I believe it's a summer show. It's where ER started. So right then he knew and we brought Fox International into the mix. And they really didn't want to wait. And that - what was interesting about that is international usually wants to launch a series off the success in North America.

Yes well that was just funny that's why I sort of asked because it's not the usual pattern.

Christina Jennings: No and so Fox took a huge, you know, it was a risk. And they had to mount and Craig and I both saw, you know, billboards in Bogotá and Rome and Tokyo. I mean they had to launch a massive campaign internationally. Because they couldn't say it's such a successful series. It's been on NBC and CTV. You know, they had to create it themselves. So they took a risk which paid off thank goodness. And, you know, so, you know, so that's sort of how it all came to be. And it is true we, you know, as Craig said we shot the pilot two years ago. We shot the series last summer. You know, and now it's coming on air but I have to say the time slot that we've been given which is half and battle I find. You know, Thursday at 10:00 in June with no big sporting events, you know, to surround it and a repeat certainly in Canada Saturday at 8:00. I think is perfect for this show so it was worth the wait.

The Listener premieres on Thursday, June 4 at 10 PM ET on NBC and CTV in Canada.