Not Another Teen TV Star: Connor Jessup on Playing the Conflicted and Tormented Ben Mason on FALLING SKIES

An alien series would not be as spine-tinglingly intense and captivating if not for the one human survivor who has to fight against his own nature, and perhaps the enemy within, to survive. In the first season of FALLING SKIES, desperate father Tom Mason was driven to rescue and help his teenage son, Ben, who was one of the harnessed children abducted by the aliens. In portraying one of the harnessed abductees, stuck in captivity for months, young star Connor Jessup had a lot of heavy and complicated emotions to wrestle with and convey.

Yet, like Tom and Connor’s brothers Hal and Matt, as fans we became obsessed with how the rescue would be accomplished and whether it was really entirely possible for any of the harnessed children to return to some semblance of normalcy. Would they be able to fight off the powerful mind-control and compulsion instilled by the metal spikes driven into their spines? When it became apparent that Ben’s time in captivity and affixed to the harness had left residual physical effects, his father did the unthinkable and accepted the aliens’ invitation to come aboard and perhaps discover whether there was any hope for Ben. As seen in the second season premiere, Tom’s blind hopefulness was short-sighted and it made him a captive for a time aboard the mothership. Like father, like son, Tom and Ben’s time spent subject to alien torment has not left either unscathed. In an exclusive interview, Connor Jessup talked about the tough journey of Ben Mason and the emotional scars it has left the character with as he continues to retain his humanity.

So this season the show has really ramped up the storyline involving your character, Ben. Last season was about rescuing him, and this season seems to be about dealing with the repercussions of him returning. Can you expand on that a little bit?
CONNOR: Yeah, the first 5 episodes last season I was not in it that much really, but when you did see me, I was pretty much zombified. As Ben, I’m captured and one of the main goals was to rescue me. Then I’m back and at the end of last season and the entirety of this season is about, like you said, dealing with the repercussions of that. Last season was very much the context of Ben versus Rick, like what are the differences between the two. ‘Cause I had just been rescued, the harness process was not that far alone. But now, three months have gone by between Season 1 and Season 2 and a lot has happened. The effects have become much more exacerbated and Ben’s started fighting. He’s a lot more colder and more distant. A lot of stuff has changed with Ben and now the effects are really quite far along, and he’s having to come to grips with it quite immediately. It’s hard because his dad was gone and presumed dead, they lost a lot of friends — a lot of people from the 2nd Mass who had been killed in some way or another — and it’s a hard time. It’s a hard time in any teenager’s life, but it’s especially hard when you have to deal with this stuff. I like to call it “puberty on steroids.” There’s strange things growing out of strange places. It’s difficult for Ben and he’s not dealing with it well — especially since he’s had the opportunity to become a fighter, so now he’s violent in his life and he’s become more violent and more aggressive. He’s trying to take out all his anger, confusion and fear into that. He’s trying to funnel it all into the fight against the Skitters. He’s quite hate-filled, but he’s also fearful obviously. He’s just really an angsty character.

Was that interesting for you as an actor to portray somebody who is so filled with simultaneous rage and fear?
CONNOR: I think it’s interesting. I think either one by itself is kind of dull. I think most of the time when you’re fearful it manifests in some way, whether it’s rage or whether it’s hope. Everyone in the 2nd Mass — everyone on the planet, I assume — is terrified and they show it in different ways. Ben just so happens to be a little bit more terrified than most, because of the circumstances of his life. His mom is dead; his dad was missing and presumed dead. So he’s running around basically with a military organization, and it’s not exactly conducive to therapy — and, of course, because it’s TV, therapists don’t exist. So he has to deal with it by fighting and that is not very helpful. So he really does have a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder. What I found interesting this year was the fear and anger. When I first got the scripts, it was such a drastic change in Ben from last season to this season. Last season, he was kind of cheery and somewhat light-hearted, or outwardly optimistic and naive, and in a sense, childlike. But this season when I got the script, he was so drastically different. Everything he was doing was hateful, hate-filled and angry — and I wanted to make sure that it came across, or at least try my best to make sure that it was not just pure anger. That people got the the anger was really fueled by fear and confusion — that the old Ben was not completely gone, so to speak. That he was still here, just kind of mutated. So any time you get a character that has that level of complexity or nuance written into it is nice, and it makes it easy as an actor. Not exactly easy, but it makes it fun and interesting.

Is this going to be a bonding point for Ben when his father returns because they have both gone through captivity and coming back and everyone being suspicious of them and fearful of them?
CONNOR: It could go either way. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it very well could. But on the other hand, Ben seeing his dad go through something that is similar to what he went through — it wasn’t identical, but similar, and coming out of it and Tom maintaining his resilience, his optimism and his sort of All-American perspective, it could also be different. Ben’s attitude is a stark contrast because here is someone who has gone through a lot of suffering and pain at the hands of the aliens firsthand and he’s dealing with it significantly better than Ben. To be granted, Tom didn’t have it quite as bad as Ben did or as long as Ben did, but with his dad gone — there was even a discussion where Hal tells Ben, “Do you think Dad would want that?” and Ben says, “How do you know what he’d say? He’s been gone for three months.” So Ben’s creating this image of his dad in his head and he thinks that when Tom comes back it will be interesting to see if he lives up to that image. Whether Tom disrupts Ben’s image of himself or even of Tom. Because Ben is afraid more than anything that his dad — well, maybe not more than anything, but definitely one of his top fears is that his dad does not approve of him. That his dad will look down on him or be afraid of him, more than anything. Ben is afraid of himself and he worries that his family could be afraid of him. So it definitely adds complexity to the mix.

You do have the more complicated character of the show at the moment. That’s a lot of weight for a young actor. Were you kind of enthusiastic when you found out how deep they were going to go?
CONNOR: Yeah, like I said, it’s always fun and interesting when you get nuance and complexity written into the script. ‘Cause often times when you’re an actor — especially when you’re a supporting character — that’s your job: you get a character and you tried to build nuance into it. But when it’s kind of handed to you on a silver platter, it makes your job exciting, rewarding and I want to say easier, but it is challenging. Because this year I worked more this year in terms of hours, the number of days, the number of scenes and my scenes were a lot more complicated and nuanced than any of the scenes I had last year. So that was a challenge. But, at the same time, I was a little bit nervous because I was surrounded by all these amazing, experience actors — I’m one of the least experienced – and suddenly I have to hold my own in these scenes with Noah and Will and Moon and Drew, and all these other actors. But at the same time, it’s reassuring ’cause they’re all good people and they’re all good actors. It kind of feels like if you’re really screwing up, they will come in and help you and that you kind of have a safety-net there. It’s a very safe net.

A lot of what you have gone through as this character is just momentous, particularly as it looks like for the rest of the season he may be falling apart. Were there any moments where you just got to breathe a little bit and enjoy being the character?
CONNOR: Yeah, it’s funny. There’s all these scenes. Ben, as you’re finding out, is a super angsty character. Which is fun most of the time. It’s always fun to play angsty, especially when you’re young. But when you’re watching it, you see all these scenes where you are somber and sullen, even when he’s fighting it looks like it’s all hard and depressing. But often times, those scenes, the ones that look like the most “bummer” scenes are the most fun to film. You don’t really find yourself getting into that mood at all. I kind of forget when I look back on this season that most of the scenes I was in I was portraying someone depressed because I never felt it. It was always a blast to shoot. We had these action sequences where things were blowing up and I got the opportunity to do really cool stunts and witness really cool stunts. So it never really felt — Ben’s depression never really carried over to me. There was plenty of time to laugh and joke and be playful on set.

You also got to work a bit more with the puppeteers, particularly with what they are calling “scarface,” the new Skitter. Can you talk about what that experience was like working that closely with the puppeteers?
CONNOR: I can’t give them enough credit. The puppeteer team that we had was absolutely amazing. It depended on the scene, but in full puppet-mode, what it was — it was full Skitter suit for the upper body of the Skitter. So this actor — there’s an actor, he’s very physical and a very talented actor — and he has to wear this suit. He puts on this very warm — and I’d imagine, very constrictive suit. Then he puts on this animatronic head and a couple of puppeteers have these remote car things that control the eyes and the mandibles and all the movements of the face. The there’s another group of people lying on the ground who use these legs — it’s basically the Skitter legs on sticks and they are moving them up and down to make it look as if the Skitter is moving. Because if you’ve seen the shots of the Skitters, even if they are moving, their legs are always kind of moving up and down a little bit. So it’s an amazing coordination of human effort that is quite spectacular. They all have to do it in time to make it look as if it is one creature. So to work with them, it was really quite impressive. They are all incredibly talented and work together seamlessly. And they’re all these really cool people. A lot of the puppeteers that we had are actually the people who come from the studio where they build the suits, so they all it intricately. They know all the details. You’ll look over and they are constantly spraying stuff ’cause the suit itself is quite rubbery, so they have to make it look like it’s living. So they are constantly pouring slime and water and various things on it. It’s quite an interesting job, I’d imagine. But they do it with amazing cheer and skill.

Is it hard to stay in character when you’re facing something that is that grotesque and with all that going on?
CONNOR: No, it’s actually no more ridiculous than the other stuff we do most of the time. [Laughs] ‘Cause sometimes we’ll be doing a dialogue scene and it’s supposed to be quite intimate and most of the time behind the person you’re talking to will be 60 people, 2 cameras, lights and a whole bunch of things. You kind of get used to distractions. I actually found it to be helpful ’cause it’s much better to be in a scene with a guy in a suit acting than it is to be with a tennis ball on a pole. So everyone is very professional, obviously. It’s actually a bit of a comfort to have them there.

It just seems a bit intense, particularly in this next episode when Ben comes face-to-face with the “scarface” Skitter and I wondered, “Whoa, I wonder what that was like?”
CONNOR: There’s some moments — not just with that — but throughout the entire show where you’re there and you’re standing in a group of 200 people who are dressed up and covered in dirt and their clothes are all ripped up and there’s wind machines with rain coming down and people are shouting lines, like “Get down!” “Shoot the Skitters!” And you just kind of have this moment where you think, “This is completely ridiculous.” So every once in a while, you have this feeling of absurdity. But it’s always a positive absurdity. It’s kind of like realizing that your childhood fantasies are coming to life — but with a whole bunch more people and a lot more money. So it is kind of absurd and I think you can never take yourself too seriously when you’re working. But I think that kind of adds to the fun of it.

Looking at the mindset of Ben, during those 3 months his father was presumed dead, it was remarkable that he was kind of able to keep off John Pope’s radar and avoid him. What was Ben’s method for keeping invisible and away from Pope?
CONNOR: I think the thing with Pope is that while he does hate Ben and he constantly calls him “Razor-backs” and “Coat-hangers” and all these wonderful charming nicknames he has, what he admires more than anything is someone’s ability to kill Skitters. I think he admires that ability more than he hates the back. I think Ben proved himself in those three months with his ability to fight and there’s no doubt anymore by anyone. So I think Pope kind of has grudging respect for Ben now. He may always be willing to make a crack about it around Ben’s dad, because he knows it gets him riled up, but in Pope’s heart all he really cares about is: how many Skitters can he kill? It’s kind of like, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I think the entire 2nd Mass has that attitude. There’s a dialogue in the 2nd episode where Weaver says, “If we didn’t need you so badly, we would tie you up and leave you for the dogs,” or something along that line, which is basically how the entire 2nd Mass feels towards Pope. So I don’t think Ben’s alone in that.

What would you describe as the over-arcing theme of the second season?
CONNOR: I think the over-arcing theme of our entire show has always been “life goes on.” It’s a simple and cliche way to put it, but I think that’s the idea. That the aliens, the mythology, this mystery is a backdrop and setting for human drama. For the relationships between fathers and sons, brothers and brothers, friends and lovers, so it very much is about “life goes on.” It’s very different from other apocalyptic stories, where basically the theme is that after the apocalypse or after destruction of all that we know, people revert to barbarism, or people revert to cannibalism, tribalism and all these different things. Whereas, we are presenting a very different picture of humanity, I guess, or a very different picture of the eventuality of humanity. That we are saying, “No, we’re not going to fragment and attack each other. It’s actually going to be a solidifying force. It’s going to bring us together and bring out the best in us — rather than the worst of humanity.” So we’re presenting a different and more optimistic image of human society after the collapse. So that’s been the theme throughout both seasons. Then this year, things haven’t been going so well for them, but I think you’ll see that while the bonds might be strained at times, people can manage to stick together.

As so eloquently and succinctly described by Connor, humanity has not given up on itself and is fighting to preserve all that they have achieved. FALLING SKIES is not just about survival and fighting back, it is about the preservation of our society and the qualities that we hold dear. To see how tenaciously and valiantly, the 2nd Mass continues in its quest, be sure to tune in for new episodes of FALLING SKIES on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on TNT. We have only just begun to fight!

Photo Credit (2): Benny Haddad

Tiffany Vogt is the Senior West Coast Editor, contributing as a columnist and entertainment reporter to TheTVaddict.com. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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