“I won’t dance around it; this has been one of the scariest professional experiences of my life,” admits show creator Justin Marks in our exclusive webcam interview (watch the video above) about the Starz sci-fi spy thriller “Counterpart.” “Honestly there were times where I wondered is this show going to make any sense to anyone? It’s so nice in fact to know that it does,” he admits. “The nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me from time to time is ‘there are times when I’m completely lost in it and yet I still care about what’s happening,’ and that I think is because of the actors, it’s because of these characters,” he says.
“Counterpart” is a spy drama with a sci-fi twist, starring Oscar winner JK Simmons as Howard Silk, as an ordinary UN bureaucrat in Berlin in the twilight of his career. He discovers that the agency he has worked at for so many years has been protecting a huge secret: a passage into an alternate parallel world, where he meets his counterpart, another Howard that looks and talks like him but that is perhaps everything that this Howard wishes he could be.
Marks was keen to tackle the alternate reality sub-genre in a different way, pitching the two distinct stories at a more personal level. “What if we just built a story about these two people,” he asks, “who just happen to be the same person, or were once the same person, and then begin to covet each others’ lives and compete with each other and form this Darwinian sense of competition with each other over the future trajectory of their lives.”
“I wanted to do a classic Cold War-style thriller, but I didn’t want it to be historical,” he says when explaining how the show came to be. “I wanted to tell a story like this in the present day, and to do a Berlin Wall-style thriller where the Berlin Wall was not this physical construct but more a metaphysical construct; a divide between two identical worlds that would allow us to explore.”
“The big thematic question in the first season is can you escape who you are,” Marks explains. “With one choice different or one circumstance different or one little moment that happened to you, you could have gone down a very different path,” he says, pointing to the age old question about why you are who you are, i.e. the nature versus nurture debate. It is a question that Marks has enjoyed exploring further, revealing that “in season two we definitely are pushing the boundaries of that, now that these characters are all confronted with each other, maybe you can escape the template of your destiny.”
Audiences and critics have taken to the stylish “Counterpart,” largely because of the characters and the labyrinthine plot that Marks has come up with in telling this story. The two worlds, the Alpha and the Prime, are distinctly different, but not in an obvious way. “Everything in the look and feel of this show is done on a very specific level of detail to achieve something very specific,” he explains. “You would always have cues when watching a scene on the other side to know that it’s on the other side … where it’s specifically a melancholy that’s driven from this idea that the other world had suffered a flu epidemic that they had then survived, so there are fewer people, there’s less clutter, there aren’t cigarettes over there. There are all of these choices that we hoped are to cue the audience into not being able to consciously identify the differences between the world but to just say I know that this is the other side and I can’t tell you exactly why.”
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