Colin Cunningham discusses playing John Pope in Falling Skies

Actor Colin Cunningham discusses playing John Pope in Falling Skies, working with Noah Wyle, his other upcoming TNT show Perception, and more

TNT debuts its brand new series Falling Skies tonight, July 19 with a special two-hour premiere. I have actually watched the first four episodes (the two-hour premiere and the next two episodes), and I have to say that my favorite character has to be the baddie John Pope, played wonderfully by Colin Cunningham,

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The series centers on a global alien attack, and a handful of survivors in Boston known as The Second Massachusetts unit. We first meet John Pope when Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) is sent on a recon mission to look for more supplies, when they are ambushed by John Pope and his group of renegades in the second half of the two-hour premiere. He is not your ordinary rebel, though, an intelligent leader (and, surprisingly, a great chef), who just happens to prefer his anarchist ways to the solidarity of The Second Massachusetts.

I had the chance to speak with Colin Cunningham over the phone recently about his colorful character in Falling Skies. Here's what he had to say.

We don't normally see shows of this scope and nature on TV too often. Can you talk a bit about your initial reactions to the script?

Colin Cunningham: Sure. It's always funny to hear actors say, 'Well, I looked over the script and I thought I could put my own particular spin on it.' Dude, nine times out of 10, you don't even get the script until you land the part. When I saw the sides, or the text, for the audition, if anything I will say that, in some parts I was thinking, 'Hmm, ok. I'm not totally sure what to do here.' I know that they had a little trouble casting the part. I loved the stuff that was written edgy, but they always try to find a sense of humor in it. A lot of actors would try to play the hardcore heavy and there's really no life going on behind it. This one was a little more dynamic. Fortunately for me, I got the chance and I'm lucky enough to do it. When the scripts started coming in, after I got the part, I said, 'Wow. This is very, very cool.' What would really blow me away is just showing up on the set. You'd look at the script and it would say, 'The Second Mass. prepares to move out,' or whatever. That's all it says in the script, but when you show up on set, there are 300 people there and trucks, weapons, and everybody is there in full-blown makeup and they look like they haven't bathed in six months. It's just this massive, gigantic set. You walk onto something like this and it's like, 'This is not a regular show. This is something special.' I think it really started to sink in when I had some days like that. It just blew everybody's mind.

Can you talk a bit about your character, John Pope? I know he was an ex-con before the invasion started, but do we get more of his back story as the season progresses? Do we get to know more about who he was before the invasion?

Colin Cunningham: Yes and no. John Pope, as with everybody, they give it to you in little pieces. There are such pressing things happening in these scripts, in terms of survival, having to pick up and move all the time. You get these little snippets of who they were back then. I think that's the neatest thing about it. You don't get to meet these people up front. You do in spirit, but you don't necessarily know what their backgrounds are, at least specifics. You almost have to watch the whole season to put all the pieces together, which I think is one of the coolest things about the show. Yes, John Pope was a bit of an outlaw, he was a bad guy before, an ex-con. Unfortunately, when all this stuff went down, even though about 98% of humanity is gone, within that two percent left, there are going to be some good guys and some bad guys. Without something holding society together, you're going to have roaming bands of outlaws, and he happens to be one of them. I think the most interesting thing about John Pope is he's extremely intelligent, but he happens to be hanging out with these underlings, not because they're intellectually stimulating, but because it's a matter of survival. He finds a common mind in Tom Mason, Noah Wyle's character, because he's a very well-read guy and a very intelligent guy. They intellectually stimulate each other.

Is there any part of John that wants to "conform" and join up with The Second Mass.?

Colin Cunningham: No. I think he's a complete, and total rebel. I think he's a reluctant bad guy, but I also think he's a reluctant good guy. John Pope is, at the end of the day, out for himself, at least that's how he starts. Towards the end of the series, he starts bending towards helping out the good guys.

Where did you actually shoot this series?

Colin Cunningham: We shot it in Toronto, which we went to for the sake of taxes and stuff like that, which is unfortunate because I grew up here in Southern California. As a kid, every other house was either a grip or a carpenter or a painter or a sound man, or something. Unfortunately, California taxes sent them all away, but we shot in Toronto. As an actor, I'm just grateful to be working.

Are there any notable guest stars that show up in Season 1 that you can talk about?

Colin Cunningham: I'm not sure if I'm able, or how much secrecy has gone into the project.

How big of a presence was (executive producer) Steven Spielberg on the set? Was he very hands-on when he was on the set?

Colin Cunningham: Absolutely. In the beginning, for the pilot, he was there and he was very hands-on. Later, as the season was going on, he was hands-on, but from afar. With technology today, you really can do that. It really is amazing. You can go into a soundstage in Australia and do lines and it goes immediately to Burbank. He was very hands-on, in terms of the scripts and the cuts. As brilliant as Steven is, you have to give credit where credit is due, because there are a lot of brilliant people on this show. Everybody just knocked it out of the park and I'm just in awe to be surrounded by so many talented people.

When I first heard about this show, I was excited for the genre aspect, but I was really excited for Steven and (series creator) Robert Rodat to be working together again. I loved Saving Private Ryan and he's a great writer. Can you talk about working with Robert Rodat? was he writing a lot of the episodes as well?

Colin Cunningham: Well, Mark Verheiden wrote most of the episodes and he was more of the on-set presence. I know notes were being shuffled back and forth, but he was basically our on-set guy for Falling Skies, yeah. All of those guys were a part of the writing process, and everybody had an eye on this thing.

Can you talk about the special effects in the show? Were you shooting against a green screen a lot?

Colin Cunningham: No! Surprisingly, there was very little green screen. The special effects, or the visual effects, have become so sophisticated today that it almost seems like green screen is becoming a thing of the past. It's pretty amazing what they can do. You just shoot whatever you want, and they have certain markers in the background, tennis balls or whatever they've got, and then they fill it in. It's pretty amazing.

Do you find that kind of work more challenging though? I've talked to some actors who don't enjoy this kind of work, and others who actually prefer it, because it opens up your imagination. You have to imagine this big spaceship or big creature is there.

Colin Cunningham: Yeah, that's an interesting point. I am cool either way. I started as a theater guy, and my training was all imaginary-based. There are a lot of method guys out there who I can see wouldn't be a big fan of the green screen, because they have to tap into something else, and it's all about reacting to what you see. If you have to generate it in your own mind, it might be harder. Either way, it's a blast, but it is a little weird because there's nothing there. So yeah, that is strange because it's real piecemeal stuff. There's nothing you can compare to stage work, you know.

I'm sure it will probably be awhile before we hear if there is a Season 2 or not. Are there things you may have in mind that you want to see happen with John Pope if Season 2 does happen?

Colin Cunningham: Absolutely, but I will say that the writers have done such a great job thus far, I'm almost afraid to even say anything. These guys know more about this character than I do. That's the truth. I've got my own kind of thing in my own head, but these guys created this character from the seed and cultivated it and grew it.

Is there a favorite episode you have or maybe just a scene that really sticks out when you think about Season 1?

Colin Cunningham: For me, it was probably one of the scenes I did in the gymnasium with Noah Wyle, which I believe is the second part of the premiere. That was great because, at least for me, it set the tone of the show, that it was not going to be all about visual effects and explosions, and it was going to be about people. Everybody has a story and has come from somewhere, and they're all trying to survive. John Pope is a bit of a bad guy, but we all need to come together and you make strange bedfellows when the real heavy stuff comes down. It's all about surviving another day. The dialogue between John Pope and Tom Mason, I thought was really neat for a TV series.

You're also on another new TNT TV series called Perception, which comes out later this year. Is there anything you can say about that show, or your character?

Colin Cunningham: Yeah, with Eric McCormack, that was a blast. Eric is a great guy and I was really happy to hear that the show got picked up. The show is based on schizophrenia and Eric McCormack's character has another personality, which makes him an expert on schizophrenia. I play, I suppose, a personality of his, on the show.

That sounds awesome. Will you play like this shadowy character behind him, or something like that?

Colin Cunningham: No, I basically play a guy who, when his detective mode kicks in and he's trying to figure stuff out. You might see a show where a detective is talking to himself? Well, he's doing that, but he happens to be talking to me. Yeah, no one else can see me, but that's how he figures things out, by voicing his thoughts to a person who's not really there, as opposed to thinking to himself.

Nice. Do you know when you start work on Perception?

Colin Cunningham: I'm not sure. Right now, I'm just doing a lot of stuff for Falling Skies.

To wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who is curious about Falling Skies about why they should tune into the two-hour series premiere on Sunday night?

Colin Cunningham: Enjoy it. There's nothing else like it on television. It is absolutely epic, and I hope you all enjoy the ride.

Well, that's all I have for you. Thank you so much for your time, and best of luck with both of your shows.

Colin Cunningham: Thanks buddy. I appreciate it very much. I'll talk to you soon.

You can watch Colin Cunningham as the awesome villain John Pope when Falling Skies debuts with a special two-hour episode tonight, June 19 at 9 PM ET on TNT. After tonight's premiere, the show will air on Sunday nights at 10 PM ET on TNT.