I had the great privilege to interview one of the stars of the Netflix cult classic, Sense8, Brian J Smith, who played Will. I was able to ask him about his experience working with such a large diverse cast and working with the legendary directors, Lana and Lily Wachowski. Here’s what he had to say. I hope you enjoy and want to watch the series on Netflix after getting to know him better.
How did you hear about Sense8?
I remember I was doing The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, I think this was the winter of 2013 or 2014. It was a really happy time of my life, and I knew that whatever I did after that play would be an important step for me. My agent called one day and mentioned something about Netflix and the Wachowskis and I remember something about that combo feeling exciting. Ironically, at the same time I was getting pretty close to booking a big-budget network series and I had to decide whether to pursue Sense8 or this other job. It was no contest, really. And it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Sense8 wasn’t a career decision, it was a life decision.
What was it like working with the Wachowskis?
There’s nothing like them. There’s certainly nothing like Lana. She’s fearless. I think she’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I remember filming the very last shot of season 1, that long helicopter shot with the boat heading off into the sunset in Iceland. We had a com link with her on the boat so we could hear everything she was saying to the camera operator and the helicopter pilot. And they couldn’t get close enough to the boat for her, or low enough to the water, or fast enough. We were laughing our asses off because the helicopter would get impossibly close to the boat and you could just see those pink dredds through the window and we knew she was in heaven because that helicopter had become her paintbrush. That’s what it’s like to with with Lana. And Lilly was so unbelievably sweet. I hate to speak for her, but I know she was on the verge of transitioning when we were doing season 1. I can’t imagine what that was like for her. We miss her a lot.
How did you get the part?
It was pretty painless, actually. I taped a few scenes at my kitchen table, then heard a week later that they wanted me to fly out to Chicago to meet them. No network tests, no waiting for approval from financiers, none of that bullshit. That’s what’s amazing about Netflix. They leave the directors alone and let them have their process. It’s so different from how the rest of the industry is run.
What drew you to the role?
Well, I didn’t know much about the role other than from the audition sides and then a little later from an early draft of the first three episodes. But I immediately responded to the way they seemed to be exploring empathy and identity, and the really kinetic filming style it would take to pull it off. Plus getting to travel all over the world. I knew this would be a life experience unlike anything else I would ever do, like really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world. Again, it was a job that completely changed me. It changed all of us.
What where some of the difficulties filming Sense8?
I think the second season was much more difficult because we didn’t come in as newbies. We had a really clear memory of what 8 months of jet lag, long hours on set, being away from home and all of that really felt like, so we KNEW what we were getting ourselves into. Plus the second season was even more ambitious than the first season. The rewrites were pretty stressful, especially for someone like me who really likes feeling prepared. I kind of had to let that go, which was hard. We all hit a breaking point or had a moment of “I want off this ride”, at least once. Like, I was surprised how many times my physical courage was tested. I’m scared of heights and also am terrified of being underwater. I was able to face the heights issue, but not the water issue. It was humiliating to come up against those fears and not be able to conquer them, especially in front of a crew of 150 people. Also especially because Lana really doesn’t have any phobias like that, and I think she has a pretty low tolerance for people who aren’t interested in getting over the shit that’s holding them back.
How was filming Sense8 different from theater?
Different in every possible way! Theatre is an event that happens in one fixed place but uses stage magic to make you think it’s happening somewhere else. Sense8 literally takes place all over the planet. The world really was our stage. The audience sees Berlin or Mumbai as they actually are today, rather than a set designer’s conception of Berlin or Mumbai. Both are valid and beautiful. Just different.
What was it like being able to portray so many different characters and people?
That’s the great thing about being an actor. We get to step outside our own daily realities and we try to understand otherness. It’s a privilege, a very rare thing. You can actually see and feel empathy in action.
Which country was your favorite to film in?
Berlin was a revelation for me. I loved the nightlife and I loved the attitude of the people there. I made a lot of friends there. There’s an openness and nonchalance and directness and seriousness that’s so different from America that I really took to. I also think Iceland was a very powerful place, for all of us. Looking back I think Iceland was the location where everyone was at their best for some reason. My happiest memories from the show are all connected with Rekjavic and the beautiful places we filmed there. It was indescribably special.
What did you learn about yourself working on a show like Sense8?
I think the biggest take-away for me has been that after Sense8 I absolutely insist on working on material that has a spiritual purpose. I can’t make mercenary career decisions anymore, like working for money or because it would be “good” for my career. I’m more sensitive to what the experience of the project might be like, even if that means not being able to buy a house or whatever. I’ve learned that there are people out there in the industry who are making shows from a humanistic place, and those are the rooms I want to be in. If I get the slightest hint that I might be working for people who are in it other reasons, I’m out of there so fast.
What did you learn from working with actors from so many different countries?
Well actors are just storytellers, really. And that’s the same all over the world. Good acting looks the same wherever you go. Everyone is up against the same stuff. The same hang-ups, the same fear of not being good enough, also the same potential to be amazing. It’s really connected with the message of the show. That even though we come from different cultures, we’re all trying to grapple with what it means to be human and this process looks remarkably the same.
Did anyone get injured filming?
A few times, but nothing too serious. Doona twisted her ankle pretty bad during Season 1 in San Francisco, in the sequence where we help Jamie’s character escape from some cops in an alley. I tore a tricep and screwed up my shoulder in the scene with Naveen in the convenience store. We also had a stuntman take a pretty brutal punch to the face during the final fight scene in the Christmas Special. But there’s a lot of violence in the show, and these things are inevitable. Our stunt department is the best in the world and they do a remarkable job keeping everyone safe.
Did you do your own stunts?
Lana likes the actors to do their own fights as much as possible, especially if the camera is close to the action. We’ll frequently have the doubles do a few takes in the wider shots because they’re so good at selling the physicality. But besides that, Lana really does like us up there doing these things, especially if we’re a little wary or fearful. Again, she likes people to face those insecurities and hopefully find out that they’re much more capable than they think they are.
How hard was it to film the sequences where the whole cluster was involved?
It was mostly difficult for production because getting us all together is like herding cats. And when you get us all together that way we tend to have a hard time keeping from laughing. Especially during the group sex scenes.
How long was the filming process?
I think all told it was nine months for the second season. First season was a little shorter, but not by much.
What was the most grueling part? Most rewarding?
Most grueling part was probably the wait time on set. Lana was improvising a lot and would have us on standby in case she could squeeze an idea in. Sometimes you’d wait all day or all night and not get used, which could get tough to handle. Especially when you’re already grumpy and jet lagged. But you couldn’t get too angry about it because you knew she was working harder than anyone, and would frequently go home and write after spending 17 hours on set, then maybe get four hours of sleep and then do it all over again. I don’t know how she did it. Most rewarding were the wrap parties. Nobody does parties like Sense8.
- How have the fans been?
I’ve never seen anything like this fanbase. I ride the subway every day here in New York, and not one day goes by without three or four people coming up and wanting to talk about the show per subway trip! The show is like their little secret, and it’s made them feel seen. They all seem to have been very aware of their otherness their whole lives, and all the sudden this show comes along that celebrates that and promises that their otherness is what makes them awesome. It’s a show for us freaks, and I love that.
Why do you think they were able to get Netflix to change it’s mind about a special?
They fought for it and they didn’t give up. I think Trump getting elected had something to do with it, to be honest. He didn’t just fire up his base; he forced us all to wake up and realize that we can’t take the things we love about our culture for granted. I think people suddenly became much more aware of their otherness, and this was frightening. And then a show like Sense8 gets canceled and it was just too much. Especially during gay pride season! I was shocked at how emotionally charged the outcry was, and how persistent it was. Taken in context with what’s going on politically all over the world today, it makes a lot of sense. We the freaks are fighting back in our own way.
Why do you think the show got cancelled?
I think because there’s an inherent, tragic contradiction in the show. Telling the story properly involves a great deal of travel and infrastructure and talent, and this is unbelievably expensive. And at the same time the show refuses to obey any of the rules you’re supposed to follow in order to make a show “popular”. I think for that reason Sense8 is notable for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does do. There’s no rape on the show. The cast isn’t predominately white, or even American for that matter, which is a huge problem if you’re trying to get Americans to watch it. We don’t utilize traditional TV narrative. We don’t portray LGBTQ relationships as dysfunctional or weird. I mean I could go on and on, but the age old problem is unavoidable: commerce at some point has to catch up with art, and Netflix didn’t see the numbers they needed to see in order support the budget. But the fact that they listened to their subscribers and did such a public about-face says a lot about their ethics as a company.
Do you think there’ll be more full seasons?
I won’t even try to predict the future of the show. I never thought the 2 hour special was possible, but here we are. If enough people watch it, and I mean a truly eyebrow-raising amount of people, we’ll probably make more. But who knows.
Why do you think Sense8 touched so many different people?
Ironically for all the reasons it hasn’t touched so many other different people: because it’s not for everyone. Its weirdness and elusiveness makes it more precious to the people who connect to the idea of otherness.
Why do you think it brought so many people together?
Because that was all we were trying to do; bring people together. We didn’t do this to make money or to win awards. We made it for people who we thought might find some solace in it.
Are the Sense8 fans different than fans for regular shows?
Haha see all of the above.
Is there any message you want to give the fans?
I’d just like to say thank you, and we’re going to work our asses off to make the 2 hour special deserving of the fight you all put up.
Is there anything you want people to know about the show?
Not really. I think it speaks for itself. I’m excited to see what the next generation coming up will think of it, actually. I think they’ll see it with different, fresh eyes.
Are there any final words you want fans to know about you?
Nah. It’s all up there onscreen.