‘Past Life’ is the new drama on Fox that follows a group of detectives who take a look a how past lives can affect current reality. We had the pleasure of talking with Kelli Giddish (Dr. McGinn) and David Hudgins (executive producer and creator of ‘Past Life’) about shooting in Atlanta, their thoughts on the ideas of past lives, and plans for the future of the show!
My first question actually is for Kelli. I wanted to find out if maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you first became involved in the series, and maybe about some of the acting challenges you found stepping into the Dr. McGinn role?
Kelli Giddish: Well, there is a pilot season every year and this is actually one of the first projects I went out on probably about a year ago — last January. I really, really loved the character and went right in for it. Actually David and Deran Sarafian, the director of the pilot, and Lou Pitt, were all down in Baltimore and I was living in New York at the time. I went in and tested and it went from there. They had found Nick Bishop and so it kind of just rolled into a project from there.
When I first got the script looking at Dr. McGinn it was just someone that I immediately connected to, in terms of just a through-line for me. It was immediately a character I felt like I didn’t have to take a lot away from myself to play her; I just got to add on layers, one being that she believes in a system of reincarnation and past lives and that’s her way to help people.
A challenge which I think is really nice to see her overcome as a character and one for me as an actor is to really get people on your side and to get the patients on your side. I think she really acts as an emotional conduit to people that are having trouble or experiencing trauma, from what she assumes and is from their past lives.
Then if I could just follow up that question for David. Could you tell us first where your inspiration for this series came from, and then for you maybe some of the challenges creative-wise, production-wise getting the show off the ground.
David Hudgins: Sure. First let me add on to what Kelli was just saying. The way we cast Kelli Giddish in this role was very unique. Here’s what happened. I got her audition on tape, which is actually an e-mail they send. I was sitting at my computer and I queued it up and I watched it and I was absolutely blown away. In the moment I said to myself that is Kate. That is exactly who I had in mind so we flew Kelli down to Baltimore and we screen tested her for this pilot which is not that common anymore these days.
As soon as we screen tested her and showed it to the studio and the network everybody agreed that she was perfect for the role. I just think that’s – there was good karma from the beginning with Kelli. In terms of my inspiration the series is inspired by a book called The Reincarnationist written by M. J. Rose. I had a pilot deal with Warner Brothers. They sent me the book and asked me to read it and I did. Frankly, I didn’t really have any expectations when I picked up the book but as soon as I finished it I was immediately engaged. I said this is an incredibly cool world. It was a world that I was not that familiar with so I immediately started doing research, started talking to people. I happened to see a three-part special on Oprah that she was doing with a guy named Dr. Brian Weiss about past lives and regression. I just got hooked immediately and thought this is just such an interesting, different, unique world.
From a storytelling point of view what I love about it is it is so wide open. There are so many different stories you can tell based on this world. I came up with this franchise of The Past Life detective team and building around that just sort of went forward with the series, and created the characters. The inspiration really for the project was this book, The Reincarnationist by M. J. Rose.
As far as – let’s see you asked about some challenges for production. One of the great things about the show and frankly, something that we were pretty surprised with when the pilot and the first episode started coming in is there are these regression episodes within the shows where the patients are having – they’re basically flashbacks. They’re going back and they’re experiencing their past lives and we really wanted to have these sequences – we really wanted these sequences to have a unique look.
Deran Sarafian, who directed the pilot, did an amazing job with that and he came in and he created this visual style that’s very filmic. It’s very cinematic, it’s scary, it’s fast. What we ended up with were these really interesting sort of mini thrillers that play throughout each episode which were a challenge to shoot because there is a lot of different coverage and a lot of different pieces that you have to get. We developed a whole system for shooting those regressions with a second unit. It required a lot of cutting and a lot more visual effects than we originally anticipated. We actually hired a special editor to do the visual effects and to edit those sequences. That was a challenge to do the regression episodes. The rest of it was really just a dream. It’s just an amazing case and we had a really great crew in Atlanta and it was a great time.
I was wondering is there any similarities between you and your character that you could tell us about?
Kelli Giddish: Well, yes, I think so. In the script Kate McGinn is a girl from Texas. She drives a big old pickup truck, which I drove a pickup truck for a long time, a stick shift with a camper top. On an emotional level I think, yes, she tries to calmly guide people, not by beating them over the head with her agenda or with her beliefs but in the way that she gets people on her side and allows her to heal them I think is a very – as a Southern woman you can kind of get in people’s heads in a way that maybe other people can’t. Like I said with this character there was just a lot of stuff that I didn’t feel like I had to take away from myself to play her. It was just kind adding layers on.
And David, as far as putting the show together, what have you learned from the experience and from the past lives research?
David Hudgins: The past lives research, well, number one is to be open-minded. One of the things about the show that I think is really interesting and that people are responding to is this question of “what if?” We’re not out here preaching to the world about reincarnation. We’re not saying it’s this way or that way. What we’re basically saying is let’s go on a ride here. Let’s ask the question what if this were real. Think about all the possibilities that that opens up and all the stories we could tell.
I have learned to be incredibly open-minded about it. I’ve learned that there is an entire world of people out there who are fascinated by this stuff. Obviously not only in the United States, but all over the world. Really there is just this fascination with past lives that I really feel like it’s something that we’re tapping into. It’s wish fulfillment in a way; it’s a fantasy show in a way, there is definitely a sci-fi and a paranormal element to the show, all of which comes together with these great characters and Kelli.
It’s funny you asked about the similarities between Kelli and her character, let me say this, Dr. McGinn is a very empathetic character. That’s one of the great things about her, she has this ability to connect with people and to read them and to understand them. She’s a healer, and that’s Kelli. She’s also a woman who doesn’t take any shit and I promise you that’s Kelli as well.
I was wondering if you’d tell anything about the relationship between your character, Kelli, and Richard Schiff’s character?
Kelli Giddish: Well, he’s her mentor. I think as the series goes along we’re going to find out more about what exactly they mean to each other in terms of personally, but professionally they think very similarly. They respect and are highly educated within the field in which they work.
I think it’s also a very special relationship because we don’t know – in terms of father figure, in terms of he kind of thinks around things in a way that maybe Kate hasn’t gotten to quite yet. Sometimes he can simplify things in a great, creative way that maybe she misses. It’s kind of great to see his character and his perspective inform the work that she’s doing.
Will Kelli’s character will have any romance on the show?
David Hudgins: Oh, yes, she will. I mean, you can’t look at that character and not wonder is there a romantic interest in her life. It’s interesting, any time you have a show with a male and a female lead there is always the question of romantic relationship between the two of them. What’s great about Kelli and Nick Bishop is there is obviously chemistry. We saw that in the screen test. We saw that the first time we got together and we put them on film and it really translates onto the show. We all know that it’s there but as a storyteller and sort of the creator of the show, I just think that’s something you have to be careful with.
You know, hooking your two leads up, I guess would be the phrase. For now I think the relationship is strictly professional. They’ve got a lot of issues to work out in their personal lives and professionally right now they’re just friends. But, yes, there is definitely chemistry between the two of them, and as to whether that goes anywhere hopefully people will tune in to find out. Dr. McGinn is single and she lives at home right now with her dog and her mother, who is very interested in her getting out there and meeting people.
She is so wrapped up in her work at the moment that she’s trying to make time for her personal life but I don’t think you can watch that character on screen and not say to yourself she’s going to end up with somebody at some point, she’s too great, and too bubbly and attractive.
A question for Kelli, David told his take on this but has the material, the ideas, any research that you might have done, or people that you met, has it challenged or changed your belief system in any way?
Kelli Giddish: Well, you know as David was saying, it’s kind of been interesting to see how much of an interest there is in all this stuff and belief in reincarnation and past lives. I actually went and did my own regression, mainly to check out the woman that was giving them. It’s like – I went to go see if she was a kook, you know, and see to see what kind of character she was that’s in her personal life doing past life regressions as a job. She wasn’t – she wasn’t a kook. She actually has blonde hair, she’s like 32, from Texas, it was like Kate McGinn in real life. I did that regression and what was interesting about that, it was on the Upper West side in New York and she pulled me back out of the hypnosis and she said, “How long do you think you were under?” I was like, half an hour, it was great though, thanks. She said, “An hour and forty-five minutes.” I said, “No kidding, wow!” I have an hour unaccounted for there that I was off being an Alaskan boy and a fruit picker in the 1930s. Whether or not I really believe I was an Alaskan Native-American, I’m not sure but I came out of her office really feeling light on my feet and looking around at things with a little gleam in my eye. It’s nice. We play the what-if game with ourselves all the time and this is certainly a wide open world in which to play that.
I know you were really excited about being in Atlanta filming. Are you still happy about that situation? Are you still in the area or have you moved on since?
Kelli Giddish: No, I’m out in LA now, I’m being a snowbird and dodging any kind of East Coast weather that you guys are experiencing. It’s 65 degrees out right now outside.
Hey, do you have any special message for those guys in your home town who might be checking out the show, Kelli?
Kelli Giddish: Well, it was such a great experience to be able to come home and know that there’s biscuits and gravy just around the corner, that there’s chicken and dumplings being [made]. The teamsters fixed chicken and dumplings out in the parking lot during one day of filming. There was sweet tea always on the tables at lunch so that was certainly nice to come back home and really explore the city. You know I left when I was 18 so you can’t really go down and listen to music and have a drink when you’re 18 in the big old city so it was kind of great. It was like being introduced to a new city. Atlanta has changed so much in the last decade.
David Hudgins: Atlanta was fantastic. That was my favorite part about the whole experience was being able to shoot there. The crews were incredible. We got so many looks out of Atlanta. It was just an absolute pleasure to be there. By the way, we can’t wait to come back. Our sets and our wardrobes and our props are all sitting on our stage behind a locked door. We’re ready to come back.
Kelli, what has been your most memorable moment so far from filming Past Life?
Kelli Giddish: Gee, you know you go in for 10 to 15 hours a day and you’re just – I was on set all the time and it was such a joy. It all kind of runs together. No, but my most memorable things that happen on set were with the guest stars that came down, being surprised by their ability and their talent to go into all these regressions that we had them go into and seeing each person do it in a completely different way.
I have to say my favorite, I think, was Juliette, the girl that played Sarah. She was like 12, I just remember being on set with her and she knew more words to Beatles’ songs than I did. I was just so impressed. I was so impressed. I was like youth is not lost. They are not lost, they’re okay.
David Hudgins: What about the improv dance at three in the morning?
Kelli Giddish Yes, that was amazing. We were on set, it was, David it was the last scene, right, of the day?
David Hudgins: It was the last scene, it was three in the morning.
Kelli Giddish: We had Dean White there who is our directing producer, producing director, however it goes, and so he had been with us the entire time in Atlanta and he was directing that episode and David was down in Atlanta. It was three in the morning, and we’re shooting the last scene of the day, and of that episode I think and it was the last scene and he just – he put on, what song was it David?
David Hudgins: It was ‘Ooh-la-la’ by Rod Stewart.
Kelli Giddish Yes. It was ‘Ooh-la-la’, and we just started dancing, me and Nick Bishop in the middle of Talmadge Center and it got captured. It was such an organic, beautiful thing that moved out of this really great conversation that had been written. We just started improving with each other and all of a sudden I’m begging him to dance and we’re laughing our heads off. It was great.
David, why don’t you tell us why exactly people want to tune in to watch Past Life?
David Hudgins: Well, first of all I think they’re going to be immensely entertained. It’s a mystery show, we’re solving a mystery each week, but we’re doing it in a way that is different because of the past life angle to the show. It’s a very satisfying viewing experience because you’re seeing a mystery be solved from start to finish in a very different and unique way. We’re also doing it with characters that are arguing about it as they go along, that are agreeing on certain things, that are taking different approaches, and that are – the conflict part of it, I think, is very entertaining and informative, but it’s also fun.
At the end of the day the episodes are really about hope because patients are, in 90% of the cases, being healed. They’re not always going to be healed but most cases they are. It’s just a very satisfying experience and very emotional, I have to say. It’s sort of a roller coaster ride in each episode. There are great comedy moments in the show, there are also very scary moments in the show with these regression episodes, but you know, each week in doing all the cuts, what’s consistent each time are the performances of Kelli and Nick and all the actors. It’s really great just to go on the ride with them each week and see them do their thing.
David, I wanted to know, how do you think the way a person acts is connected in some ways to the energy of a past life? Like current karma and someone’s destiny?
David Hudgins: What interested me as much as anything in this whole project was this idea of consciousness and I don’t want to get too technical and pretend like I’m a super expert but, putting the idea of reincarnation aside, I got into this whole idea that I think started with Carl Jung about consciousness. Basically, all people are connected and the idea is that some people are able to sort of access this level of consciousness and others aren’t.
Where it really popped for me was, for example, the idea of dejà vu, which I think everybody has experienced. Even something like – the show touches on all sorts of things related to it such as, I mean people are always coming up to me and telling me a ghost story or telling me about somebody that they met and say, “I swear that was my mom in a past life.” The more I researched and the more I got into it I realized that the world is really out of body experiences, it’s near-death experiences, it’s this whole idea of the science of the soul, which I think is tied up in consciousness.
There is a line that Kelli has, that Kelli’s character has in one of the episodes where somebody says to her, “You know you only go around once.” And she says, “Actually, not really.” That was kind of my takeaway. One of the other characters in another episode has a line, “Live like you’re going to live again.” I guess for me, again, not getting into technical definitions of karma, for me it’s kind of like, this is going to sound corny, but kind of like the Golden Rule. It’s like just do right, live like you’re going to live again and you don’t really have anything to worry about.
Now, for both of you, why do you think viewers are open to a show like Past Life? Like 10 or 15 years ago I think they’d still be fearful.
David Hudgins: Yes, I mean, you know, I certainly don’t want to ever underestimate the American public and the American viewing audience. I think people are a lot smarter and a lot more open-minded than we generally give them credit for. Look, this is an entertaining television show. As I mentioned before, we’re not preaching anything to anybody, we’re saying just come along with us on this ride. There was a line in the book that really landed with me when I read it, which was one of the characters, I think it was Dr. Malachi, it was Richard Schiff’s character, said, “For me the question isn’t why should I believe in this, it’s why not?” And that’s sort of the attitude that I tried to infuse in that character and in everybody who works at Talmadge. It’s this idea of what if? Come along for the ride and I think people will do that. People get on board and they see these exciting teasers and they figure out what the case of the week is going to be. Then it’s about solving the mystery, and then it’s about the twists and turns that happen because of the regressions with Kate and Nick and everybody sort of taking us along for the ride.
Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the team. I know, Kelli, your character Kate who’s got a partner named Price Whatley. He’s a cynic, so how important for the show to have a cynic on the show to challenge Kate and the other team members around her, their thoughts and their hypotheses?
Kelli Giddish: Well, I think it’s a pretty important character for the audience. If I were watching it I’d want to see the other side and I think that he does that very well and a lot of humor comes out of it. I think he’s a very – his character plays a very important role. He does it with much aplomb.
David Hudgins: He does. I think that’s right. You know, look the skeptic and the believer, it’s sort of a classic twosome, but what Kelli and Nick did is they brought a lot of nuance to it. Price Whatley, who is played by Nick Bishop, he’s not completely one note. He’s not just sitting there saying, “I don’t believe,” every episode. He goes on a journey and Kate takes him on that journey and that’s what I think is interesting to me. Price is sort of voicing the other side of the coin in a lot of the episodes, but he’s also going on a journey because of his back story with his wife, who died accidentally.
Kelli Giddish: He’s coming to this with a very personal question in something that he doesn’t know about, which is his wife is dead. Is she going to come back? I don’t know, he’s just been through some trauma himself. I think that represents a lot of what David and I and the writers have found talking about this subject to people, that everybody – he’s kind of like I did want to think that, that she was my grandma, you know? It’s like this little personal question that maybe, it’s not out in the open but it’s underneath everything that – all of his actions.
Also, maybe both of you can tell us about – a little about the rest of the team. We heard about Richard Schiff’s character, but there are a few other characters, maybe you can shed some light on them?
David Hudgins: Yes, maybe I can give you a little shorthand. There are four people working at the Talmadge Center on this team. I look at them as a family, both personally and professionally. On a professional level, Richard Schiff’s character, Malachi Talmadge, is the boss. He’s the namesake of the center. He’s the one who sort of all cases, questions, and decisions go through. He puts the team through their paces each week; it’s sort of like the Socratic Method. They bounce ideas off of him and he sends them off on their certain journeys and tasks.
Of course, you’ve got Kelli’s character, Dr. McGinn. She was actually one of Malachi’s graduate students, is her back story. She is a psychologist. Then Nick is a former NYPD detective, his job is to essentially take the clues that Dr. McGinn gets out of the regressions and use his detective chops to solve what happened in the past life. Ravi Patel plays Dr. Rishi Karna who is a great character. Dr. Karna is the medical doctor of the team. His specialty is cognitive research and brain science. He’s like this really smart, quirky, funny student of the human brain. He is involved with the patients medically each week, sort of looking at all the possible physical causes for the symptoms. He’s also the rookie of the group. He’s sort of like the young brother to Kelli’s older sister. Nick is kind of like the new fiance and Richard is kind of like the Dad.
We always hear of actors calling soaps a great training ground for future work in prime time and film and having now landed this huge prime time vehicle. I’m wondering if you feel that way and what lessons you did learn on All My Children that you’re carrying with you on this experience.
Kelli Giddish: Yes. You know, you think on your feet. When you’re on a soap you get one page, you better damn well know your character. You better know what she would do in every situation because it’s a very, very fast paced business. You do 90 pages a day in a soap. It’s insane. It’s such a small world, the soaps. It’s all contained in this little studio. It’s so nice. One thing that’s so different, you get to explode and you get to see the director’s vision of a particular scene and what he’s trying to do with it with the camera work. In the soap it’s a proscenium so it was so nice to move out of that small box of a studio and actually get to incorporate everybody’s ideas and really collaborate on what’s happening in the scene between the cameramen, even the focus puller. It’s a whole other machine.
David, I have kind of the same question for you. I am a huge fan of a show that you helped produce and write called Friday Night Lights. My understanding is that that show is filmed and put together in a way that is radically different from almost any other television series. I’m wondering what lessons you learned working on that show that you’re carrying with you on Past Life now?
David Hudgins: Let’s see. You’re correct. Friday Night Lights is shot very differently from a lot of traditional network television shows. I learned a lot from that experience. Number one is trust your actors and your directors. Surround yourself with good people and just sort of have faith in the process. We were able to do that here with Dean White who is our producing director and Deran Sarafian, he directed the pilot and sort of set up this great template for us. What we ended up with is in the body of the show the past life episodes, it’s traditional camera set ups and lighting for the most part. Then these regressions are much more similar to Friday Night Lights; they were very run and gun, often unrehearsed, often a lot of improv and we found a lot of those scenes in the cutting room. What I love about the way Friday Night Lights works and is shot, is it’s a very organic set. That sounds like a nerdy technical term. Basically what that means is you get there on the day to shoot the scene and you sort of find it with the actors. You don’t sit there and say this has to be recited word for word as it is in the script. You let everybody find the scene, you collaborate, you take suggestions. You just go for it. I found that a lot of times you get great stuff. They’re smart people. People have good ideas, especially people who know the characters. That was my takeaway from Friday Night Lights and I try to apply that because I really think it works.
Well, David, you said that Fox seems very solidly behind you guys and they have a verifiable history of taking concepts like this that are kind of out there and making them huge hits, The X-Files and Fringe and even 24 and House were revolutionary in their own way, do you feel lucky that this is the network that you’ve landed on?
David Hudgins: I do. I do. I felt that way when we originally sold the pitch. There were other networks interested, it just felt like a good fit at Fox, and they’ve been behind us the whole way. We’re excited and I think the fact that we’re getting this preview after Idol next week speaks volumes.
Do you have any concept of soul mate in this series?
David Hudgins: Absolutely. We do an entire episode about that. It’s the episode called Soul Music. I believe it’s the third episode to air, so it will air a week from next Thursday. It’s an episode about that exact concept, about a girl and a guy who are soul mates and who keep finding each other in lifetime after lifetime. I can tell you when we got in the room, Meg, with the writers, that was one of the first ideas that came up and it came up over and over again. This idea of do we have a soul mate out there and if so, how do we know who it is and can you find each other across lifetimes? That was something I responded to personally.
You mentioned going back to filming and I was wondering how many episodes do you have filmed and how long, if you have any idea, how many episodes will happen and what Fox is looking for in terms of whether they give you the green light to make more?
David Hudgins: Sure. We filmed a pilot, plus six, so we have seven episodes in the can that will be broadcast starting Tuesday night. Again, I think Tuesday night is the launch and the regular time period is Thursdays after that. Obviously, you know, once the episodes go on the air Fox and the studio and us, will all look at the ratings and hopefully there is an audience. If there is an audience for the show Fox has said that we will get a second season order and we’re ready to go.
Kelli Giddish: And go back to our studio down in Atlanta. I’m all ready for it.
David Hudgins: We’re ready to get right back to work.
Official Past Life Site: http://www.fox.com/pastlife/