Sebastian Spence and Rob Labelle:
Riding the Wave
If you think Fox Mulder's got it bad, consider Cade Foster. Former test subjects for genetically disguised aliens, he is virtually the only human being aware that the first wave of an alien invasion has arrived on Earth, with plans to steal resources and enslave the population.
A former criminal, Foster has become a man with a mission. He must expose the aliens who killed his wife and threaten the planet. But the aliens are in pursuit, and the police think he's really his wife's killer. The only things he's got going for him are an eccentric journalist called "Crazy Eddie," and a lost book of Nostradamus with clues to defeating the First Wave.
The Sci-Fi Channel was so impressed by First Wave, created by Chris Brancato and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, that it bought the entire first season and optioned two more before they knew how audiences would respond. "It's huge to get picked up for 44 episodes, especially a show like ours, because a lot of these shows do one season and then because of the lack of publicity, they get cancelled because of the numbers," said Sebastian Spence, the actor who plays Cade Foster. "We're lucky enough to be able to film the show for three years."
Across the Border
First Wave is the brainchild of Brancato, who with writing partner Ken Biller wrote for The X-Files and other genre shows. Now executive producer of Star Trek Voyager, Biller went to college with Rob Labelle, who plays Crazy Eddie on First Wave and who has also known Brancato since his teens. If it sounds a little incestuous, it has the advantage of making for a comfortable set of people who know they like working together. Filmed in Canada under the strict new Canadian content regulations, First Wave's regular actors and directors must hail from north of the US border.
Incestuous is nothing new for Spence, who portrayed a young deputy in the controversial X-Files episode "Home" - the story of an amputee mother who procreates with her own sons. "I played the typical Canadian - X-Files has a tendency to kill off its Canadians really quickly!" laughed the actor. "I lead Mulder and Scully up to the creepy house and as I'm entering, I get my head lopped off. There's a great reaction from Gillian Anderson, 'Barney! No!' There goes another Canadian actor getting his head lopped off!"
The son of two playwrights, Spence grew up around theater people and started acting in his mother's plays as a way to make pocket money. Initially terrified of the spectacle, he got great feedback from his first appearance "and I thought, maybe I've got something to bring to it." He later starred in the critically acclaimed The Boys of St. Vincent and Drive, She Said. In Toronto doing a NASCAR series called Fast Track with Keith Carradine, Spence auditioned for First Wave and was called for a screen test in Vancouver.
Labelle, who learned of First Wave from his friends Biller and Brancato, thought the project would be ideal since he was in the process of becoming a Canadian legally. Another X-Files alumnus ("Ghost in the Machine") who loves Vancouver and is married to a Canadian woman, Labelle was enthusiastic about playing the "bit whacked out" character of Eddie, but found himself in the middle of a casting controversy.
"It came down to matching up Cade Fosters and Crazy Eddies," he recalled. "There were two potential Cade Fosters, who naturally would be matched up with two different Crazy Eddies. So if Sebastian was picked, it would be Rob Labelle, but if it was the other one someone else would be Crazy Eddie. It was this bartering system."
Spence recalled having little confidence during the casting process that he would get the job because the screen test was so difficult. "It was hell, about twelve pages of dialogue, the first scene alone was five pages - my character explaining things to four or five people in a board room. I think originally they saw the character of Cade being older, mid-thirties, and the character of Eddie being a young computer guy; then they switched the roles, and Eddie became the older crazy computer guy, and Cade was the younger alien-hunter. I must have managed to do okay, because I got the bloody role, but I didn't walk away from the screen test thinking I'd be in the running anymore."
Though neither actor professes to be a professional genre fan - Spence comes from a theater background, Labelle has degrees from Brown University and NYU - both have resumes packed with genre roles. Spence appeared in episodes of Sliders, Poltergeist, and Outer Limits. Labelle guest starred twice on Voyager, first as the Talaxian hero of "Faces," then as a humanoid leech to a Ferengi leader in "False Prophets." He also performed in the seventh Nightmare On Elm Street feature.
"I'm into watching it if it's creepy," said Labelle, who was a big X-Files fan in the early seasons, before he had the new baby which now curtails his television time. "I'll watch some newer Star Trek as well, but the first Star Trek was it. In grad school, we would get done and get home at a quarter to twelve and it was like a unifying thing in our class, we all watched Star Trek."
Aliens Among Us
Neither Spence nor Labelle knew much about Nostradamus or conspiracy theories, either, before they were cast on First Wave. Now they get an education not only from their scripts, but also from their fan mail. "Most people have this idea of Nostradamus as being this sort of ancient devil saying the end of the world is just around the corner," noted Spence. "We used to talk about him when we were teenagers, because we all grew up under the threat of nuclear war - Nostradamus predicted World War III. But we're using Nostradamus in a positive light; he's here to save us, which I think is kind of interesting."
"I had not been all that familiar with Nostradamus prior to doing this show except tabloid stuff," agreed Labelle. "I don't know about there being worldwide conspiracies on every level, but I remember when I was in college, I started doing a lot of research into stuff going on down in Nicaragua and Central America with the CIA, and the same guys who were dealing drugs in Vietnam were doing it in El Salvador. There's a lot of those kinds of things, so I think there's a lot of evidence to support links on a political-economic level. There's no question that money and power control the world in many ways. I'll listen to conspiracy theories and I'm certainly fascinated by them, but I think people put a little too much stock in them."
"I think that First Wave is developing, I hesitate to say a cultish kind of following, but the people who write in really, really dig the show," Spence added. "They want more information, they're really hungry about where's the show going. Of course you always get asked, do you believe in aliens and do you believe in Nostradamus, which I have a very hard time answering. I just kind of go, well, it is a fictitious TV show. I've never met an alien."
The Catholic-raised Spence has a harder time with the religious aspects of the show than with the conspiracy theories. "Sometimes I get a chill on the set, they're calling my character the twice-blessed man, and you get kind of caught up in it - my Catholic conscience screams bloody murder! I'm sure my father would have something to say about this if he were alive - 'You can't be the twice-blessed man!'"
Although his character is extraordinary - as subject 117, he was the only long-term survivor of the alien experiments - the actor has been pushing to move away a bit from messianic overtones of the sort that plagued Keanu Reeves' character in The Matrix and Scott Bairstow's in the short-lived Harsh Realm. "I hope my character becomes a leader down the road in the resistance against the aliens, not as a Christ-figure, because he can't do this all by himself. It just doesn't make sense, with thousands of aliens out there."
"I'd like to see the character of Cade Foster wake up an underground movement to tackle the alien problem," Spence added. "I don't know if that comes from inside, because I play the character every day of my life, and there's this building frustration as I go from town to town, I can't seem to expose the aliens, nobody believes me. It just seems natural that he would build a movement."
Because he gets scripts only a week before he begins shooting them, Spence doesn't have the opportunity to discuss them point by point with the producers. "I discuss where I see the character going, but I don't even break down the scripts till a couple of days before we shoot. They've given me a sort of general outlay, but mostly we talk about where the character is in the arc."
What would he do if he were in Cade Foster's position? "Hide in a bomb shelter and warn my closest friends!" laughed the actor. "I think the human side of the character is a lot of me, and the emotions that I bring to it are the way I would feel if I found out aliens were taking over the planet, but all the hero stuff is not me. I don't know if I'd be running out there putting my life on the line that quickly.
"Some of the episodes are really hard - you meet this kind of infallible female character and by the end of it, the aliens have screwed with her so badly...I think my reactions to that, the compassionate side of it and the aggressive nature of the character, I bring to Cade. I think that's how I'd respond if I thought the aliens were here."
Will Cade get more friends? Allies? A girlfriend? "They keep throwing around a love interest - okay, it's second season, you're over the death of your wife now, you're able to fraternize with other females." The actor groans. "I'm going, oh god! That's always tricky. They want the show to be a little bit sexier and they want me to be sexier in it, which makes me crazy. They want to get Cade naked and they want to put him in bed with women. A lot of that is fun, but it can make you very nervous as an actor! There have been a couple of female interests, but they've turned sour - one in particular you find out at the end of the episode that she's working for the aliens. Nooooo!"
His favorite episodes are the first two of the first season, "Subject 117" and "Crazy Eddie." He thinks several second season episodes are excellent as well, "but I can't really talk about them because nobody's seen them yet! There are some surprises, I think, but because of the nature of the show, it's not like a through-line that runs from one episode to the next. All the stories are different."
The character's background and childhood will be fleshed out more. "I was lucky because the first episode was his old life, this aspiring security salesman guy, life is life, and then all of a sudden the aliens come along and it gets dumped upside down. I got to develop the character basically from scratch because his life on the show started after the aliens got here. Whatever was his life will never be that way again. They gave me a five-page breakdown on what Cade liked to eat for breakfast - a lot of it I didn't use, but a lot of it is really helpful."
Eddie was originally conceived as a recurring part rather than a regular player, and has been developed considerably from the original notes. "There's an episode coming up, I think it's going to be called 'All About Eddie,' he basically goes back to his high school reunion and you meet a lot of the people from his past," revealed Labelle. "I think the writers are having fun writing for Crazy Eddie and being able to play with him a little bit. In the second season, he's out and about a lot more. There's still a few episodes where he's stuck in his trailer, but for the most part I'm out with Cade Foster a lot more, which is always an exciting thing as an actor."
Labelle's favorite episodes from the first season are "Motel California" and "Blind Witness." The latter is about a young woman from South Central who is having an eye transplant operation in a decrepit hospital, "and the aliens essentially are running the hospital, conducting experiments. It's creepy and scary. I tend to like the ones that get odder and creepier." Though Eddie brings levity to many of the episodes, and "Motel California" is more playful, Labelle prefers "freaky."
"As certain as Eddie is of his own knowledge, he does f*** up a couple of times and that does get Cade into trouble," observed Labelle. "I'd like Eddie to provide more assistance to Cade by being out in the field, and seeing more of the character in various situations, what makes Eddie tick. Here's this guy who's taking medication, he's got some real diagnosed biochemical problems, but when he's with Cade, we both let our hair down with each other. It's the only time you can see Cade in repose. There's a tendency to be too comfortable, because he chooses to be on his own the way he likes it."
Labelle will be directing an episode of First Wave this year - something Spence, too, hopes to do down the line, though he works so many hours in front of the cameras that it will be more complicated to schedule, whereas Labelle works only a few days a week. "I've directed a lot of theater and had been working towards directing sitcoms," said Labelle. "I've been observing for about a year and a half a number of different directors, but doing First Wave precluded my ability to pursue directing in the States. When we got picked up for another two years, it was a real important thing for me to say I'm going to take advantage of that opportunity." Though neither man defines himself as a writer, both have written plays as well.
Spence was too busy with First Wave even to attend the science fiction convention which invited him to Toronto, but Labelle has a few days off each week and tries to find other projects to fill them. "The show is my first obligation, but I shot a cable movie for Showtime with Peter Gallagher and Billy Baldwin, about a right-wing neo-Nazi group from the '80s who killed a Denver radio host. I'm playing that guy. It's just tough to coordinate. Sometimes people have to book me certain dates, and that's too far in advance for TV to know if they're going to need me certain days."
A fan of dramas like The Practice and NYPD Blue (on which he has appeared), Labelle is no stranger to prosthetic makeup. In addition to Star Trek, he did a Saturday morning action series called The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys, "which was three hours getting into makeup in 110-degree weather in Valencia, California. We shot eleven episodes in seven weeks. It was hellish conditions. But you see the transformation in front of you - you can't help but get into character by the time you're done, to be a Talaxian with the freaky teeth and that hair."
Labelle studied a mask performance when he researched non-Western theater in college, traveling to India to learn about different styles of performance. "I like the idea of masks, so I love putting on stuff like that."
Labelle is very busy now with his new baby, while Spence is trying to get his new computer online so he can check out some of the information floating around about the show. "I did an online chat for an hour which was really spooky, I wasn't expecting to have to answer that many questions, but apparently there were at one point 600 people there!" he exclaimed. "There are web sites not connected to the show, and they've got all this information about me - I don't even know where they're getting this information from. I draw a pretty fine line when it comes to my personal life. Like, someone asked me what my nickname was, and I just answered honestly. Then I thought about it afterwards and they don't need to know my nickname!"
Though he has several scripts on his desk as well, Spence isn't sure he wants to think about other projects over hiatus just yet. "My whole life revolves around this show. When the weekend hits, I do my laundry and I clean my kitchen and try and sleep. It's eight months of Cade Foster. The last break we had, I just had to get away from acting for a month - I was exhausted and burnt out. This season more offers are coming in because the show is doing well, so I think I will do something over hiatus. It's like three months down and then I'm back up again, so it's kind of tricky. Should I rest and not do this?"
Both Spence and Labelle believe the second season plays very strongly, and hope viewers will check out First Wave. "I hope people who enjoyed the first season will stay tuned for the second because I think the second season is ultimately better than the first," said Spence.