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The Orville's Mark Jackson Discusses Acting Like A Robot - Exclusive Interview

From Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in "Star Trek: The Original Series" to Data (Brent Spiner) in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," there exists a long history of science fiction characters whose actions are bound by the confines of logic. When Seth MacFarlane's "Star Trek"-inspired series "The Orville" first set sail on Fox in 2017, it also came with a character whose physiology quite literally made it impossible for him to "feel" anything. Although Isaac (Mark Jackson) lacks Spock's pointed ears and Data's bright skin, the Kaylon science officer makes up for it with an inventive costume that evokes the right amount of mystery and concern.

In the years since the first episode of the series aired, Isaac has endured a variety of interesting journeys. In addition to forming an unexpected relationship with Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and eventually betraying his fellow Kaylons in favor of his friends on board the Orville, Isaac somehow discovers exactly what it means to be human. From facing his own existential crisis in Season 3, Episode 1 ("Electric Sheep") to tragically losing a foe-turned-friend in Season 3, Episode 9 ("Domino"), it's fair to say that although Isaac is not human, he understands the human condition better than most.

Looper caught up with the actor who plays Isaac during San Diego Comic-Con to talk about what led him to take on such a unique role in "The Orville" and how he approaches portraying an essentially emotionless character. We also explored some of his earliest on-stage and on-screen performances, in addition to talking about what he's currently watching in film and television.

Mark Jackson's IMDb page includes a notable error

When did you realize you first wanted to become an actor?

I came to it fairly late. I wasn't one of those seven-year-olds who went up to Mommy and Daddy and went, "I want to be an actor" or whatever. It only came to me when I was about 16, I think. My girlfriend at the time dared me to audition for the school play, which I did, and I was like, "This is great. This is really fun," so that's when it happened. 

Before then, I wanted to be a microbiologist. I probably would've been quite mediocre at that. I wanted to be an architect; that might have been quite fun. [I wanted to be a] fish farmer at one point. The point was that until I found acting, I didn't realize I could enjoy something so much, and hell, at school, it made you cool for two weeks and then you were uncool again for the rest of the year, but still it was worth it for those two weeks.

Was that your first on-stage experience?

I did a bit beforehand. I was in a very sketchy production of "Oliver" when I was about 12, but that was the first time I did it, understood it, and got that kind of feedback that all actors thrive on. It's a dialogue with the audience that you get from a live performance.

I was looking at your IMDb and it says that your first onscreen performance was in a miniseries called "That Peter Kay Thing" in 2000. Can you tell me how that came about?

I didn't actually do that. Someone's attached that to my IMDb, and I don't know why or who but no, I wasn't in that. It's funny because I don't know how to get rid of it, but if anyone ever asks me about this, I absolutely tell the truth because I don't want Peter Kay coming at me, but it's a very popular show in the UK.

What was your real first on-screen performance?

It was "The Royal Today," which was a spin-off of "The Royal," which was like a doctor's soap. I played a nasty piece of work. He was a proper bully on a bachelor party kind of thing. They all end up in the emergency room. It's quite fun, but that series didn't go anywhere. I was  24, 25, something like that. [It was a] long time ago.

Most of Jackson's early work came through theater

Can you talk a little bit about how you went from that to becoming a series regular on a full-on network TV show?

I did a lot of theater. That was the chunk of my career before "The Orville," which is very common in the UK. It's not the same as it is here in the states. In the UK, most actors are theater actors who do a bit of telly or movies on the side. The last thing I did was "War Horse" in the West End. That's a show that's known around the world, really. It was on Broadway, and it's always on somewhere nowadays. It tours a lot. I played Captain Stewart in that, and I got to ride one of the horses every night. It's the part that Benedict Cumberbatch plays in the film. 

That was good, and then I did an international tour of "One Man, Two Governors." These were both with the National Theater in London, so that was fun. I played an 87-year-old waiter who keeps on falling downstairs. I never play normal parts by the way. This is what's happened. I left drama school thinking, "I'm going to do Shakespeare all my life. I'm that kind of actor," and then I never did one ... I've not done one Shakespeare role since I left. A succession of weirdos, which is great.

With "The Orville," when the audition came through, I was like, "This is never going to happen. Moving to LA, straight to series ... a series regular, playing [an] alien, working with Seth MacFarlane ... come on. That's ridiculous." What they were doing was casting the net very wide. I know they were auditioning in Australia, in the states, they auditioned in the UK, Canada. They were really throwing the net wide. I'd not been involved in the first few rounds of auditions, and they kept on throwing the net wider and wider. 

Then I got caught in it. Seth was being very picky about what he was looking for. There's lots to do with the voice, because Isaac was going to be in the suit. We had no idea he was going to be human at that point. I don't think Seth did either. It was bizarre. It all happened pretty quickly. The next day, we'd heard that Seth MacFarlane liked my tape. That's crazy. It's mad. No actor here ever hears [back] that quickly after an audition. You'll hear a month later that you've got a recall for a movie or something, but it was mad.

Isaac's Kaylon suit was always part of the job

When you were first cast in "The Orville," did you realize you were going to be in the Kaylon suit so much?

That was always part of the deal. It's a challenge. It was an interesting challenge. It was only in Season 2 that I realized I was basically a puppeteer with Isaac when I'm in the suit. I'm a puppeteer for that puppet. That suit is a puppet.

Can you tell me a little bit about what's it like working in that costume? Do you record dialogue separately or is that spoken at the time underneath the suit? Can you see out of it?

We tried to [record] on set in the helmet, but it didn't work. It sounded like what it was me speaking inside a helmet, so we record the lines afterwards as well. You can see out of it. You can breathe. You can hear. It's full of microphones and speakers, and it's very high tech, so it works. It's very clever.

You've had three different episodes where your face is shown. Can you tell me a little bit about how that process is different for you? How did you go about figuring out what Isaac is like when you're actually seeing his face on screen?

I believe that Seth first wrote human Isaac into "The Orville" because when we are rehearsing scenes, I do it without the suit, but I'm acting it. I'm acting as if I am wearing a suit. Seth was watching this and he was like, "That's really interesting. We can use that." I believe that's how it happened. What I do as human Isaac, I've been doing under that suit all the time. I was ready and prepared for it.

New Horizons brought new experiences for Mark and Isaac

Isaac was the center of a really poignant episode this season in the premiere. I was wondering, can you talk a little bit about what it's like bringing such emotion to a character who doesn't have feelings?

It's tricky because it's not bringing emotion to him. If Isaac evokes emotion in other people, that's fantastic. It sounds like, from the fan reaction this season, that he is, and his storyline is, and his interactions with Claire [Penny Johnson Jerald] and Charly Burke [Anne Winters] are [getting that emotional reaction]. The challenge with playing Isaac is to always remember that he doesn't have emotions. He thinks logically. He only does anything because it makes sense to him, and he is not emotionally driven. To take the emotional heart out of a performance is very difficult because we're all humans, and we want to communicate in the most efficient way possible. 

When I did get the emotion chip this season, it was fun because I got to go from north to 60. He wasn't even a normal human being. He was like a kid who'd taken ecstasy for the first time and was like, "Ah," and it was magical. It was really fun to do. Playing Isaac is such a dream because he's a complete oddball. Everyone loves a weirdo. I get to play him as a human, as a robot, with emotions, without emotions. I'm very lucky.

You mentioned exploring emotions in Episode 7, and I was wondering, how did you approach taking such a significant change for the character? Did it seem like a different character on some level?

No, it was the same character, but the thing that I had tried to keep in my head was that he was experiencing everything for the first time — love, fear, loneliness and shame. It was six minutes long, and it was intense. It was a great challenge as an actor, but also, I got to take my safety breaks off as an actor and go for it. That was great fun.

This season, more than ever, has approached the story as a drama with a comedic sense rather than the inverse. Did moving to Hulu with the "New Horizons" subtitle change your approach to anything?

No, the great thing about Isaac is he's a solid constant. He doesn't change, really. He changes himself slowly, but he isn't necessarily affected by what's going on around him, quite like the humans and the biologicals might be. Moving through the seasons, no, he's evolved, but on his own terms.

Mark Jackson is loving The Great and Everything Everywhere All at Once

Do you have a favorite movie or TV show that you're watching now?

I've been enjoying "The Great," which is on Hulu as well, so that's Hulu promotion there for you. That's one of the best shows I've ever seen, and Douglas Hodge's performance is wonderful, so that's great. I went to see "Everything Everywhere All At Once" in the cinema about two months ago, and it was mind blowing. It was one of the best things I've seen for years. It's extraordinary. I didn't know anything about it before I went. I was like, "What is this?," and it was great.

Is there a dream role, whether it's been done before or not, that you would love to take on?

It's funny, isn't it? Actors often play roles that other actors have played before, but more and more, I'm not, and I quite like that. I quite like originating roles. In that respect, is there a dream role that exists already? No. I'd like to keep on originating roles. It's great fun. It's very exciting to be able to construct something from the ground up.

I see that your next project is a film called "Forever Now." What can you tell me about that?

We wrapped that in September. I flew back from LA, back to London, and went straight from the airport from Heathrow to set to start filming that. I'm not sure when it's coming out. I've got a bit of ADR to do on it next month, but then it's going to be hitting Sundance and Toronto, hopefully. I need to check with the production team. I'm super excited about it. It's a fantastic little independent movie that I shot in the UK. It has a scientific bent as well.

Do you find that you're drawn to science-based roles because of "The Orville" or is that by coincidence?

I find that any film that deals with science is always going to be pretty well written. It's got to have some smart, some brains to it. That kind of script always appeals to me, but this script also had a lot of heart, so that was good to be involved with.

Is there anything I'm leaving out?

No, but I want to say to all the fans: Thank you for your support, and thank you for watching and loving our show. It's all for you guys. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. Keep watching, get watching it on Disney+ when it hits on the 10th of August, and #RenewTheOrville.

You can catch all three seasons of "The Orville," including the Season 3 finale, on Hulu. The entire series will also be available on Disney+ starting on August 10.

This interview has been edited for clarity.