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Catching Up With... Battlestar Galactica's Edward James Olmos

October 27, 2009  |  9:31am
Catching Up With... <em>Battlestar Galactica</em>'s Edward James Olmos

Paste caught up with Edward James Olmos the day before the debut of Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, which he directed. Olmos plays the commanding, intelligent and taciturn Admiral Adama in the series. Olmos, himself, proved equally commanding and intelligent but quite loquacious. To hear him tell it, BSG holds the cure to what ails humanity. If he overstates the case, it’s still refreshing to see such enthusiasm for one’s work and a burning passion for the betterment of mankind.

Paste: Can you talk a little bit about The Plan, how you came to it and what you wanted to accomplish?
Edward James Olmos: It came by way of the incredible storytellers that have been writing the show over the last five years. And I have to tell you—what a complementation to an already extraordinary ride that we’ve taken. This just becomes the icing on the cake, in a big way. The Plan got to be understood by way of what the show was based on—the base of man’s creation of technology that ended up becoming the destruction of humanity. And so we get to see how and why the technology that we created comes back to annihilate the human species…. It just put it into really stark reality as to what was going on and how close the annihilation of the human species really was. We were within the grasp and hand of the annihilation of the human species at any given moment. And had it not been for love, the whole understanding of what the Cylons were trying to do would have come to pass. But the one ingredient that destroyed the Cylons ability to annihilate us was the lack of understanding how much love had to do with it. I should write a song about that, right? [laughs] What love has to do with it.

Paste: Wth this, the basic details of the plot—you know where the story is going, from the humans’ perspective anyway. How challenging was that, to really get into the emotions from the Cylons’ perspective, knowing that we didn’t have the surprise of new plot developments?
Olmos: Well, I thought that what we did have was the ability to answer a lot of questions. And I think we did. You know, from the very beginning of the show, we start to answer the question of how did they do what they did. The very first opening sequence is the annihilation of the entire human species and you start to see it. And that’s something that you never saw in a miniseries or any time. You just heard about it, that they would have been annihilated. But then you start to see it. So you got to get a lot of the answers right off the bat.

All I can say is that I think it was really a stroke of beauty to have gone through all the years of this storytelling, only to be given, at the very end, a movie that gives you the perspective of the threat and why it did what it did and how it did it and what caused that threat not to succeed, which to me is the key. I think we all knew as the show was being evolved… you started to feel that the Cylons were taking a different perspective. And then all of a sudden, you saw toward the end—the last season, especially—that we have to reconcile with the Cylons, even though they have annihilated us. And we had to trust them, or else we would have never got to the next level of understanding of our own species.

So, they actually help us survive and that in itself was enough. But when you realized how it was building and why some of the things that they really wanted to do didn’t really happen—had Boomer killed Adama, instead of shooting him in the stomach had shot him in the head, the story would have evolved in a completely different way. Had they been able to annihilate the Battlestar Galactica at the beginning when they were trying to…you know, Jesus, it would have been a whole different—well, the story would have been cut short. It would have been a real short series.

Paste: As an actor, did anything in The Plan change your perspective on your character?
Olmos: No, not on my character. What it did was, it enhances how the fear, the tension—we always knew that there were Cylons amongst us but we had no idea that they were right there. They were inside of our system in such a way that—[Exhaling a strong “Oh”] it’s breathtaking, when you realize what the stories mean. I mean, once you see The Plan and you go back and see the beginning of the series and you take the ride again, you’re gonna really realize, “Oh, my goodness, this is unbelievable.” Because, I mean, never did I think that you’d be able to tell that story in that manner, to build that kind of tension. Now when you go back and see it, you’re gonna realize how close we were to the annihilation of the human species. It’s amazing. I mean, these writers—Ron Moore has done an extraordinary thing.

Paste: I got to see a lot of your castmates at a Dragoncon convention, and I got the sense from them and from talking to you right now, that this cast was unusually invested in the storyline and really enjoyed the twists and turns and the details of their characters. Is that true and is that an unusual thing in most TV series and Hollywood movies?
Olmos: I think people start off—I mean we had a great relationship with the kids on Miami Vice. But something else happened here. I think that the story itself became one that we were caught up in. The stories of—West Wing had great stories, and I’m sure that their artistry is just, you know… Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Shield, ER, The Wire, Lost—those shows have all had incredible ensembles that have gone on to really feel that what they did was extraordinary and their relationship was one of magic. And we are no different. If anything, the only difference is that what we showed to the planet, right now. Putting out these DVDs, especially The Plan accompanying it, has really given us one of the most prolific mirrors that has ever been held up to the entire human race. There’s no show that speaks so clearly to what is happening to us at this precise moment in time—not in the artistic world, but I’m talking in the reality that we’re living in right this second. We are looking at the possibilities of total annihilation of the human species on one person making one mistake and sending off a nuclear weapon that in turn cause other nuclear weapons to be exploded on the planet.

I remember back in the 50s, they used to say, “If 19 atomic bombs were exploded at the exact same time, it would knock the planet off its axis and would careen us into the sun.” Now this was in the 50s, and everybody said, “Well, nobody could explode 19 bombs at the exact same moment in time. That’s ludicrous; it’s impossible for that to happen.” Well, today, that not only is a reality, that’s what would happen in the case of somebody throwing one nuclear weapon. The response would be 30 or 50 or 100 launched at the exact simultaneous time. Now the quality, the power of a nuclear weapon today [compared] to the power of an atomic bomb or a hydrogen bomb in the 50s, I got to tell you—if it only took 19 then to knock us off, how many would it take hitting the planet at the exact same time to knock it off now, with the nuclear weapons that we have? It’s really stupid what we’ve done to ourselves, and only humanity itself can look in the mirror and say, “Holy mackerel, have we really done this? Have we created… ” How many nuclear weapons do we have in the United States of America spread throughout the planet? Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. We don’t really know how many. How many do the Russians have? How many do the Chinese have? How many do the North Koreans have? How many does India have? How many does Pakistan have? I mean, think about it for one second and you have to stop and say, “Wait a minute. I’m going nowhere here. All I’m getting is depressed and it’s over.”

Well, watch Battlestar Galactica if you want to learn how to reconcile with your worst enemy. Every Palestinian, every Jew should have to watch Battlestar Galactica. Every Irish person and every English person who have ever fought each other for hundreds of years should have to watch this program. That’s why they took this to the U.N. We were in front of the U.N. on March 18. And if you never saw this, download the whole three hours speaking to the assembly at the United Nations. Battlestar Galactica was brought into the U.N. to speak directly to the issues that we deal with on the show—like reconciliation; like children in war; like terrorism, suicide bombings. Things that we see today on our planet were expressed to us in this show and you see the consequences. You’re going to, one day, have to look at it. And that’s what The Plan is doing. And now on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s become a joy because you don’t have to go through the commercials. [Laughs] It’s a much better experience.

Paste: The show—and this kind of relates to what you were saying—the show had an unusually direct take on God. They talked a lot about gods and the one God. What’s your take on what the show was saying and where it was going?
Olmos: I think that they asked the same questions that we ask ourselves on a daily level. You ask Christians what they believe in, you ask Jews what they believe in, you ask any Buddhist what they believe in, and you’re going to get a solid understanding of the humanity that we live in. That’s exactly what this show did. The show just shows you that the complexity is there, and it’s gonna be there. And we kill ourselves over that issue more than any other one. And that’s exactly what happened on this show. You know, God and the gods were at each other. One God vs. many gods. And who won? Humanity lost, is what happened.

I gotta tell you, the older I get, the less I really know. And you realize how much you really don’t know and it humbles you out. And I’ll tell you, religion has a long way to go. The day that the Catholic calls the Protestant to call the Jehovah Witness to make sure that they’re not late to the Bar Mitzvah is the day that I’ll say, “OK, religion is getting it together. They all kind of understand that they all kind of belong in one direction. We all believe in God, so let’s all go there and visit God, our mother.” That should freak people out. “God as a woman? Oh, my goodness” [Laughs.]

Paste: How have you changed as a director—this experience vs. Miami Vice years ago?
Olmos: To me, [the purpose of a director] is really to help complement the story and bring the story to life. The stories that we’ve brought to life on Battlestar Galactica make Miami Vice look pale. Not even pale—you can’t even use them in the same reference. One is almost for escapism to the maximum and the understanding of how to waste your time, and the other one is the most stunning way of how to watch something and then end up turning it off and thinking about it until the next time you go into watching this place and space. You know, the show itself is just awesome. The writing is… you know, it grew.

One of the things, I must say, that is different than anything I’ve ever experienced before—because of the technology that we have developed over the last six years, since the show began, has really changed the course of how we watch something. Because this is what happened: The writers do what they normally do. They write and they try to tell the story to the best of their ability and they try to tell something that’s entertaining but maybe also socially relevant and provocative, making you think as well as entertaining you. Then the production gets it and they elevate that story to a reality by putting in a visual form, and then we complete it and elevate the story. Then we hand it to postproduction, and postproduction puts it together with sound and effects. And they edit it, and they make every single breath become a part of the story and every little edit becomes part of the story. And the story then is told and it elevates it even higher. And the writer is blown away by what the production does, and then the writer and the production are overwhelmed by what the postproduction does. And then they put it on the air or they put it in the movies and they let it be seen. And then the magic began in a way that’s never before done. What happened is that then the people saw it throughout the planet—throughout the entire planet; they saw it simultaneously…. Somebody got The Plan. I don’t know how they got it, but they got it about a week ago. And they put it on the Internet, and bingo, I mean, it went around the world in a matter of seconds. As fast as they could program it into the computer, people downloaded it. And people from all over the planet started to see it. Well, that’s what happened with the show on the air. And immediately upon it playing for the very first time, somebody downloaded and somebody could see it in the furthest regions of the planet, and then they started to talk. The blogging started. And the blogging then elevated the show to another higher level by quantum leaps. Because now you had millions of people talking to each other about what their experience was on this show. And, guess what, the writers started to blog with the audience. And the writers were elevated to a higher level. So the next time that they wrote on the project, they took into consideration what they had learned from the experience of what the audience had told them and where they went…. So when we came back to this next season, forget it. People were at a much more intense and higher level of understanding. And that was the first time that any show, that I know of, in the history of the planet, connected and was talked about by the entire planet at one given time. And blogging became the ability for us to communicate as humanity, at any given moment. And I gotta tell you, it elevated this show to a point where I don’t think that anybody expected this to happen. Nobody could have predicted this—not the creators of it, not Glen Larson, not nobody. They don’t even know what they’ve done. The same way that Blade Runner became what it did over 30 years, Battlestar will do the same. Battlestar will be more prolific and more profound 30 years from today than it is today, right now with us talking about it.

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