Exclusive: Nat Geo Channel’s Mars star Esai Morales, EP Justin Wilkes talk microbial threats and more

Nat Geo Channel's Mars star Esai Morales
Nat Geo Channel’s Mars star Esai Morales. Pic credit: Nat Geo

National Geographic Channel’s groundbreaking series Mars season two is a fascinating drama with loads of action that is really compelling viewing. It is more than a psychological yarn.

It’s about relationships, bigger ideas of environmental stewardship and a new kind of pressure on these established characters who are entrusted with a new planet.

The second season of executive producer Ron Howard and Nat Geo’s exciting Mars is set in the year 2042, five years from the end of the first season.

All of this fiction, too, is underscored with a gravitas of real-life scientific supposition interspersed with the narrative.

Life on Mars is now quite a challenge for these intrepid first residents and their not-for-profit research organization when a for-profit mining operation arrives and starts drilling.

Season one of Mars was looking more at the premise of the journey and the harsh environment of the planet would kill the humans that go there. Season two now flips that script and poses the ideas, would humans willingly or inadvertently kill Mars by depleting it of its resources?

The wildcard in all of this is the executive behind that venture, the CEO of Lukrum Industries, Roland St. John, played by Esai Morales.

At the television critics association summer press tour, Monsters and Critics caught up with Esai and the show’s executive producer, Justin Wilkes, to discuss the premise and twists of season two as Mars blends real science and commentary with scripted action-packed drama and intrigue.

Joining Morales in the second season are Jihae, who portrays Mission Commander of Olympus Town; Jeff Hephner, who portrays the Commander of Lukrum Industries; Mae Jemison, Scientific Advisor, and former NASA Astronaut.

At the TCAs this past summer, Esai Morales was also joined on panel with Stephen Petranek, Co-Executive Producer, scientific advisor and author of How We’ll Live on Mars; Casey Dreier, Director of Space Policy at the Planetary Society; Executive Producer, Justin Wilkes; Executive Producer, Ron Howard and Antonia Juhasz, an expert on the conflict that is playing out today in the Arctic.

We spoke to Esai and Justin after the panel wrapped:

Monsters and Critics: Elon Musk has gotten a lot of flack with the media criticism about his tweets and his ego.

Justin Wilkes:  I think in general, a show like Mars is indicative of that we have to be able to rise above the Twittersphere and getting to space, go beyond space and eventually get tomorrow’s meaning. That what he’s doing.

What he’s accomplishing and Space X, the engineering feats that company has accomplished. Not single handily because there’s a lot of input from NASA and the aerospace community.

It’s mindblowing, it’s most exciting stuff that’s happening on our planet today to get us off of our planet and we need somebody who can be provocative.

We need somebody that can take action and he’s one of a number of people that are all playing in that space and that in the long run is going to be so much more important to all of us than a, than a kerfuffle of Twitter.

M&C: So with water comes viruses [that] are going to do us all in and there are probably viruses on Mars that are horrific. So do you explore a viral threat?

Justin Wilkes:   Essentially, Yeah, absolutely. In the arc of the first season it was all about how are we going to get there, why should we go and what happens when we get there?

We just have to survive the elements that the planet’s throwing at us. So by the end of it, they were able to set up a more formal colony for the six people who were there at the time.

They found a source of water that they knew could become the beginnings of a civilization. Disaster struck, but then at the very end, they discover life on Mars in the form of nascent microbial matter, all very similar to what’s playing out in the news today.

We wanted to see, well, well what would happen if there were more people on the planet if this colony has grown. In fact, a big plot in episode four there, there’s a contagion that’s a result of essentially private enterprise drilling for water.

Esai Morales:  I think viruses are part of an ordered bigger picture. And where spores or fungus, they, they break down everything. Fungus, if we didn’t have it, we would have no soil. I tend to look for the purpose of things. So if there’s a disease… what’s the purpose, culling the herd?

M&C: Why can’t there be chaos in nature?

Esai Morales: There is chaos, but that there’s an underlying order as well and we just haven’t discovered the other words. A death to you may seem like the end of the world until you experience in your life.

There are more dimensions. All of this that we’ve evolved. It’s not happenstance for just no reason. I think there is an intelligence behind it and I believe in evolution and I think evolution is all part of intelligent design.

M&C: And the virus will kill you in the immediacy…

Esai Morales: But the virus will kill you if you’re weak to it and if you’re susceptible. This is what a lot of scientists – I was going to get into the don’t understand – Ebola or bird flu. All these things can actually be addressed so simply and cost-effectively that nobody in the media will talk about it because they’re selling fear.

They want you to be afraid because the more afraid you are, the more you will buy whatever they’re selling.

The Mafia did this many years ago. They break your windows and they tell you, “hey, we can stop that” and they don’t tell you that, you know, you can do it too, buts it’s fear.  Viruses are part of nature and they serve a function and purpose, but if you are well defended, if your immune system is stronger…

M&C:  But what if you aren’t? Here you are on Mars, you don’t know what well defended is there…

Esai Morales: You have to figure it out.

Justin Wilkes:  In episode four there is a discovery of this new contagion that sweeps through the colony and the colonists at Olympus town and Lukrum to band together to figure out what is it, what’s causing it, and how do we stop it.

It’s a very real concern that’s based on real science. It’s based on the real possibility of finding bacteria that has been basically flash frozen on Mars for many years, and then if put under the right atmospheric conditions, its brought inside and warmed up inadvertently.

We mirror that in the documentary portion of the show, which is how we have this balance with the same thing that’s happening in Siberia right now with Anthrax outbreak that started amongst the indigenous people there as a result of permafrost melting and this bacteria being released for the first time.

M&C: Talk about Roland St. James, the WASP-iest villain name ever!

Esai Morales: I saw many possibilities of his upbringing, including is being adopted into another family that got him his education, but I look, I’m not exactly Anglo, but I’m not necessarily indigenous completely or African completely. I have a little of everything.

M&C: How bad is he? Your character is obviously there for the money.

Esai Morales:  He’s a hero in his eyes. Without him, without the success of this mission, millions of people aren’t going to eat even back home. He’s a captain of industry.

His success fuels the livelihood of so many people, so he doesn’t see himself as a robber baron. He knows that’s what everybody plays off of that, but his charm is to break that wall down.

Now you may disagree and that’s why we’re not black and white. We want people to want to have that very much varies him to be.

Justin Wilkes: He wasn’t playing out right. Now, if you look at any of these industrial billionaires, they are straddling the same line, their tweeting activity and does that taint public perception, that particular person in that company and yet here they are in any these instances, doing things that actually have a tremendous impact, positive for the planet.

Esai Morales: Look at Israel, they say, “Well, it was a desert. We came. We created something out of nothing.”

Now Palestinians might disagree with that, but it is a form of… like my friend, he’s a real estate developer. He goes, “I buy an empty lot. I invest $500,000. I create $2,000,000 worth of value. I create value.”

M&C: This screams gentrification.

Justin Wilkes: Not yet!

Esai Morales: Not yet! That’s season 10 (laughs) This is more like a Columbus sailed the ocean blue. My character does not see himself as a bad guy. If anything is a misunderstood guy and he understands that he’s on a tightrope, he has to get his mission or else his stock prices fall or else his company can literally, his business at home, could fail because of that flux splash back upon this mission.

So it’s an all or nothing. He’s afraid himself, he is terrified. But the first rule in business is never let them see you sweat. Never let them know how desperate you are.

Isn’t that with all negotiations, even Donald Trump, is he a good guy or bad guy? Depends who you ask. Certain people…Maybe the average Joe thinks he’s handled than the other average Joe worships him, right or wrong. I do define that.

M&C:  Talk about Roland St. James’ mission…

Esai Morales: My concerns is to make sure that the commander… that I have the commanders ear and respect. So for them, I don’t. That doesn’t register to me What registers is that they [the colonists] not stray, that they do not treat this incredible resource [water] too preciously.

[My character thinks] It’s a rock! It might have good stuff, let’s find out!  I just find it in my character’s nature and find it terribly arrogant of humans to think we can destroy the planet earth or Mars, they’re going to be here long after we are, whether we try to or not.

So I think that Roland thinks it’s all leftist “fake news.” They’re selling fear from the left side.

M&C: Any teasers?

Esai Morales: I will tell you an interesting teaser. There’s a very, very intense hour between my character and the commander of the IMSA played by the wonderful Cosima Shaw. That’s a great teaser. It’s beautiful, but there is a very wicked, almost brutal power play between them.

Mars (Season 2) airs Monday at 9/8c‎ on National Geographic Channel.

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