The Expanse arrived on the science fiction scene with a bang in its two-night premiere last week. The series’ third episode “Remember the Cant” picks up right where we left off, with the tension building to the breaking point on Ceres and Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) working behind the scenes at the United Nations to prevent war between Earth and Mars.
Steven Strait, who portrays surviving Canterbury crew member James Holden, spoke with The TV Junkies about why his character recorded that message accusing Mars of destroying the Canterbury, his initial interest in the series and the important link between science fiction and political allegory.
The TV Junkies: What first drew you to the series?
Steven Strait: At first I was a fan of books. I had read the first two books before I got involved with the show and I really thought it was so remarkable how well the books balance all of these different tones together. This noir element of Thomas Jane’s character, Detective Miller, this kind of Alien, early Ridley Scott-esque environment that Holden and his crew reside in and the whole political thriller storyline of Avasarala. All of those tones kind of balance each other incredibly well in a really harmonious way.
I just loved how it had such a huge scope to the project and still managed to remain an intimate, character-driven piece, and then I read the script—it was amazing. I mean, Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus, who wrote Children of Men and Iron Man, they did such a spectacular job with adapting the novels and from them to Terry McDonough, who directed the first two and last two episodes of the show, did Breaking Bad, it was just such an incredible pedigree, and between the material and the people involved, it was something that I really wanted to throw myself into.
TTVJ: There have been a lot of comparisons between The Expanse and Game of Thrones. Where do you see the similarities?
SS: I think the most obvious similarity to Game of Thrones is its scale combined with the intimate character-driven drama that exists within that world. George R.R. Martin and James S.A. Corey are actually friends and you can see there’s a similar gestalt to the whole feel of the books themselves and hopefully we captured the balance between the size and the intimacy as well as the books did. I think we did, we’re all really proud of the show.
TTVJ: What’s interesting about your character in particular is how he seems to be avoiding politics altogether, but ends up unintentionally being the catalyst for a potential war.
SS: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny with James [Holden]. He’s such a fun character to play because his arc is so huge. When you meet Holden originally he is incredibly cynical and self-absorbed, doesn’t really want any responsibility over others and has spent his whole life running from authority. He just doesn’t like people telling him what to do. Through this very small act of altruism, answering this distress call in the middle of nowhere, he gets dragged into this socio-political maelstrom and becomes this inadvertent revolutionary all by accident.
What’s so fun about him and so fun to portray him is the growth that the events shape within Holden from the beginning. From the end of the first episode his whole existence has completely changed and he’s driven by those events to become the guy that he does and it’s a very fun arc to play, a lot of colours.
TTVJ: Would you say that he has any politically leaning at the beginning of the series?
SS: No; he is from Earth originally, from Montana, but he got kicked out of the Navy very early on, which is backstory that comes to light later on in the season, because James is a bit of a mystery and he’s a very guarded guy at first. But he’s unaffiliated; he’s out in the middle of nowhere on the Canterbury, which is essentially an ice hauler, so it’s like a modern day oil tanker. Everyone on the Canterbury has a backstory and has a reason for being there and James wants to be unaffiliated. He is when you first meet him, but I think if there’s any group that he aligns himself with through the story I suppose it’s the Belt, as opposed to Earth.
TTVJ: Without giving too much away, his decision to record that message about Mars attacking the Canterbury has real consequences which we see in Episode 3. Is that intentional or just survival?
SS: With Holden I think he’s just trying to make sure his crew survives. Especially within that storyline of the first three [episodes], I mean this group of survivors are just trying to survive every hour. I don’t think Holden cares who he pisses off as long as his crew is okay and as long as he can continue his mission to continue to find out why things have happened the way they have. He doesn’t have any qualms about causing problems to get to his goals, that’s for sure.
TTVJ: The cold war going on in The Expanse has a similar ring to a lot of the political tension going on in the world now. Is that something you kept aware of while filming?
SS: Well, you know, it is a heavily political show. There’s a lot of allegories and references to the state of the way the world is today, and the issues that we’ve always dealt with as a civilization. I think what’s wonderful about science fiction as a genre is that you can have these political dynamics within the narrative and not isolate your audience. It’s an easy and safe way to discuss these topics that have real world implications in the present day. We definitely don’t shy away from the political tensions, conflicts and reasons for all of those things in the show.
The Expanse airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Space Channel and Syfy.
Associate Editor Kelly Townsend always had strong opinions on TV growing up, so it was only natural to evolve from couch musings to online journalism. She can't ever choose a favorite series, so please don't ask. Her writing has also appeared on IndieWire and Tribute.ca. You can find her on Twitter at @kellybtownsend.