Written By Steve Pond
From the classroom to the local diner, the kids on “Roswell” bring new meaning to “Teen Alienation”
To all appearances, the scene that’s being rehearsed this afternoon on the Hollywood set of “Roswell” is a harmless chat between a father and his teenage daughter. The father, played by onetime alternative-rock icon John Doe of the band X, talks uneasily to his daughter Liz about an upcoming camping trip and how he’d like to go along, even though he doesn’t know any of the other dads. Liz, played by Shiri Appleby, agrees with him-but she hesitates when he adds that it’ll be a good chance for him to get acquainted with three of her high-school friends.
“Well, Dad, they’re not humans,” she explains gently. “They’re aliens.” “What!?”
And then both actors laugh-because, in the world of “Roswell,” Appleby’s ad-libbed line is the kind that should never, ever be uttered. Yes, it’s true that in the show her pals Max, Isabel, and Michael (played by Jason Behr, 26, Katherine Heigl, 21, and Brendan Fehr, 22) are aliens, who as embryos survived the rumored crash of a spacecraft in the New Mexico desert in the late 1940s. But their extraterrestrial identity is a closely guarded secret; the only reason Liz knows the truth is that Max was forced to reveal it to her in the show’s pilot episode, when he saved her life. Now Liz and human friends Maria (Majandra Delfino) and Alex (Colin Hanks) are the only ones who know-though the town sheriff, played by veteran actor William Sadler, has his suspicions and pursues those suspicions zealously.
“Roswell” is a show about secrets, about the feelings of alienation that everyone has in high school and about the feelings of alienation that only true aliens would have. It’s a delicate balancing act, juggling love stories, teen drama and science fiction. Call it “Dawson’s Creek” – meets – “The X-Files – not, perhaps, the most encouraging premise.
At least, it wasn’t an encouraging premise to some of its cast members. “The market is saturated with teenagers and teenage film and television stuff, and the majority of them are bad,” Fehr says. “When I first heard about “Roswell,” I figured they were just jumping on the bandwagon of all these teen shows-and then you throw aliens in the mix, and that’s just a recipe for disaster.” Behr adds, “You really have to have the right kind of people running a show like this, because in the wrong hands it could be very silly.”
The hands entrusted with keeping “Roswell” on track belong to executive producers Jason Katims and David Nutter, both of whom are well aware of the pitfalls they face in developing a series based on the Roswell High series of young-adult novels by Melinda Metz. “We have to walk a tightrope with the story line and characters, which is a very tough thing to do,” says Nutter, a veteran of such sci-fi shows as “The X-Files” and “Millennium.” Katims, a former playwright whose television background involved such shows as “My So-Called Life” and “Relativity,” adds, “We started out saying that the goal here is to make this believable and true, and not give the audience a chance to dismiss it. Because if you give them a reason to dismiss it, they will.”
So the producers downplayed the wilder sci-fi elements and gave young viewers who were interested in more earth-bound pursuits a cast full of good-looking teens and twentysomethings, including Nick Wechsler as the sheriff’s son Kyle and Tom Hanks’s son Colin as Liz’s pal Alex. “There’s a lot of cardboard out there,” says Nutter of young actors, “and this cast is not that way at all.” A crucial step, he adds, was filling the alien roles: “What was important was to find three actors who really had their feet on the ground but who also had something about them that was just a little bit off.”
On the Paramount Studios lot where “Roswell” is headquartered and shot, the aliens share a long trailer that’s been divided into three dressing rooms. On one end is Jason Behr, a veteran of many shows on WB. “I did a ‘Buffy,’ and then I went to ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ he says. “Before ‘Roswell’ came along, I kind of figured that the next thing up was doing some kind of job on ‘Felicity.’”
At the other end of the trailer is Katherine Heigl, who moved to television following a string of motion pictures that included a costarring role with Gerard Depardieu in the 1994 comedy, “My Father, the Hero.” And in the middle (except for a spell when he was relocated because he played his Metallica tape too loud) is Brendan Fehr, who began acting only two years ago.
Fehr is the most outspoken cast member, and he embraces the role as the group’s good-natured troublemaker. He describes some of his sillier stunts (such as making rude noises while off-camera) and proudly points out that fellow cast member Delfino, with whom his character has an edgy but flirtatious relationship, couldn’t stand him when they first started working together. “She just hated me, and she readily admits it,” he says. “I’ve asked her why, and she says, ‘I don’t know. There was just something about you I hated.’ And once I figured that out, I’d go out of my way to kiss her and hug her good morning and good night every day, just to tick her off. But she knew I was doing it because it bugged her, so she wouldn’t admit that it bugged her.”
Now, he says, the two of them have settled into a nice “love-hate relationship,” which the other cast members can certainly understand. “Brendan’s like the brother that you just love, but you want to punch him half the time,” says Heigl, who has learned to ignore Fehr’s heavy-metal music booming through the dressing-room wall and to concentrate instead on her sketch pad or her copy of “Anna Kerenina.” (“I think she’s starting to like Metallica, but she won’t admit it,” says Behr, who considers himself an impartial observer in the dispute.)
Behr, Fehr, and Heigl play three of the most normal-looking aliens on television. They may have special powers (the ability to change the molecular structure of things, for instance), but they’ve spent their lives passing for regular kids. “I think I’m playing Isabel more as a girl who doesn’t really know who she is than as an alien,” Heigl says. “She only knows the human part of her; she doesn’t really know the alien part of her. She’s trying to figure out who she really is, on a daily basis, when what she really wants more than anything is to be the girl next door.”
Appleby, an actress since the age of four, agrees. “Granted, they are aliens, but they don’t look like aliens,” she says. “And at age 16, everyone feels weird. So we’re talking about emotions that everybody has-it’s just that the story lines aren’t normal. My character has to explain to her best friend that her sort-of boyfriend is an alien. That’s nothing you run into very often.”
The actors got together for the first time about a year ago and shot the pilot for Fox in January, right around the time that the network was bringing in a new president, Doug Herzog. Katims and Nutter turned in the pilot in early May; then they waited. “Fox had 12 or 13 drama pilots that they had shot, and room for about three or four,” Katims says. “We knew that the odds were against us, and I didn’t know Doug at all, didn’t know if our show was something that appealed to him or not.”
“Roswell’s” scores from test screenings were high, but the network remained uncertain. The show didn’t make the fall lineup but was considered for a mid-season replacement slot, but didn’t make that, either. “It really went down to the wire,” says Katims. “The show was at moments very close to being dead, and then things suddenly turned around, miraculously, when WB came in. I appreciate that Fox let the show go, because they didn’t have to; a lot of times in that situation they don’t.”
WB also gave the series a 22-episode commitment, which means “Roswell” has at least another few months in which the aliens can try to learn about themselves and track down the mysterious “fourth alien,” an apparently homicidal extraterrestrial who can answer questions about their origins. As he walks back to the set late in the afternoon, Fehr gripes about the pace of those revelations-about how the aliens will find a crucial map one week but then not deal with it for the next two episodes, “while my character argues with Majandra’s character about a napkin dispenser.” He shrugs. “I know ‘The X-Files’ mixes in shows that don’t have anything to do with the big conspiracy, but it’s frustrating for me that we discover these things and then ignore them.”
The other actors are more willing to let the show proceed at a slow pace, to discover a few new things about who they are each week. “If I’m learning new things about my character at the same time that he’s learning more about his past, I think that’s wonderful,” Behr says. “It’s a new discovery for me, for the character and for the audience.”
Coming up in the next few weeks, several discoveries will be revealed to viewers, including the identity of the fourth alien. We’ll also see a different side of Max and find out how Michael’s relationship with his foster father reaches a breaking point.
Back on the set, a bouquet of balloons bears testament to the fact that it’s Appleby’s 21st birthday. Between phone calls in which she plans a relatively sedate celebration (“I have to be back to work tomorrow morning”), the soft-spoken actress sits in the soundstage’s greenroom, whispering so that she won’t disturb the shooting going on nearby. “You always hear people talking about how when you work so many hours on a show it becomes like a family,” she says, “And that family stuff never seemed true to me. But it does now. I feel very safe and protected around these people.”
Meanwhile, outside the greenroom, the three alien high schoolers are gathered around a set made to look like a clearing in a forest, examining a mysterious symbol in the grass. This symbol, which has a clear connection to the aliens who crashed-and presumably, to the one other alien who’s still alive-is a central motif in the kids’ quest to learn about their extraterrestrial background.
It’s also the kind of thing that can lead to a little tomfoolery.
As they crouch in the clearing, Behr, Heigl, and Fehr can be seen in the background of the shot but cannot be heard; the real action is taking place in the foreground, between the sheriff and his son. As the lengthy scene plays out, the two boys decide that the strange symbol-a dot surrounded by curving lines-resembles a breast. Under the guise of examining it, they begin to caress it lewdly.
Heigl keeps a straight face until the scene ends, and then she erupts as the guys laugh. “You idiot!” she yells, whacking Fehr on the back with her flashlight. “That was so bad. You idiot!”
Watching the good-natured melee, Behr thinks back to other on-set jokes, and shrugs. “When the scenes are very intense, we don’t lose our focus,” he says. “But when the scenes are lighter, we all laugh till our sides hurt. And don’t let them fool you-the girls can get as crass and as base as the guys.”
After she stops pounding Fehr, Heigl laughs off the typical high school-style hijinks-because, after all, what is “Roswell” but a show about typical high-school kids who turn out to be not so typical? “At this age, everybody is trying to figure out who they are and where they’re from,” she says. “The only difference is, we’re also trying to figure out what planet we’re from.”
Written By Steve Pond