I was lucky enough to interview Aaron Stanford (who plays James Cole) regarding his role on SyFy’s 12 Monkeys, and the amazing second season. If you haven’t caught up through episode four, just know there will be some minor spoilers! With that note, onto the interview!
WNA: I feel things this season have changed so dramatically for Cole. He’s become a more compassionate person and is a lot more conflicted, and a lot less willing to kill. And while that really started last season, I feel like this season is where we’re really seeing it come to a head and come to fruition. As he said, saving a person, really sparing someone’s life, is the only thing that changed time. It seems to me, that truly has stuck with him. What’s it like playing that side of him now, and having him come to the realization that maybe the way he used to do things is not the way it needs to be done anymore?
Stanford: Well it’s always rewarding to have a character who has a very very wide arc like that, and has a radical sea change in fundamentally who he is. So it’s been great. You are correct, he was definitely on the way there in season one; he was influenced by Cassie and influenced by the things he saw in our time, in our present day– everything he saw changed his way of thinking. Probably what really tipped him over, though, was saving Ramse. When he makes that decision, when he makes the choice to save Ramse and go against, you know, what is perceived as his fate, he sees that as the one thing that really made a difference.
WNA: I think it’s interesting that Cassie is the one who really keeps saying that there’s no such thing as fate. But really the only person who’s ever changed fate is Cole, and he has done that by saving people’s lives. It’s such an interesting concept. Speaking of Cole and Cassie, one of the things that I noticed is that she blames Cole’s change on Ramse and Jennifer, but it was Cassie who changed him more than anything; her compassion and her showing him how things could be different.
Stanford: Absolutely. It was an argument that started in the very first episode, in the pilot, when she discovers what his mission is, which is to kill a man. That goes against all of her morality and what she knows to be right. At that point, Cole’s thinking of it is pure mathematics: seven billion people for the price of one, and then he sees that it’s not as simple as that. As the season progresses, it moves onto another assassination mission and that doesn’t work, either. You begin to listen to what Cassie has to say. What is great, and what makes things really interesting, is that Cassie ends up doing some serious time in Cole’s future and really, truly sees what happens to the world, and how bad it gets. That changes her completely and now suddenly she believes that the ends do justify the means.
WNA: And it’s heartbreaking to watch Cole’s face when Cassie is talking about how hardened she’s become, and it is a testiment to your acting. To watch the scenes play out like that, it’s clear that he blames himself. What is it like playing that dynamic now, where they’re pretty much on diametrically opposed sides, but it’s the exact opposite of where it began in the first season?
Stanford: It’s actually a lot of fun, and the kind of experience you want. For the characters, obviously, it’s painful and it’s a difficult time, but that’s when things really start to cook for you as an actor. It was really great. We shot that months ago, but at the time it was really fun to explore that new dynamic with the characters. Season two is great with that in general; there’s all sorts of shifting allegiances and mixing and matching of characters. Sudden new relationships pop up, and it’s been a lot of fun just in general.
WNA: I feel Ramse and Cole’s relationship is still a very interesting, very fluid, dynamic situation as well. How do you feel about that relationship, and playing that out now? As an audience member, we tend to side with Cole with most things, but it is very difficult to trust his judgement when it comes to Ramse.
Stanford: Yeah, Cole has generally been the voice of reason, but he definitely has a blind spot when it comes to anyone whom he has an emotional attachment to–not just Ramse. In season one, he was asked basically to cut Cassie loose on a few occasions, but because his heart was telling him differently, he didn’t want to follow that order, and he sort steers by that compass [his heart]. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it might not work out. I think it’s Ramse who also realizes this weakness about Cole, too. I don’t know if he’s said it yet, but in one of the episodes that’s even a quote from him [Ramse]: that Cole can be loyal to a fault.
WNA: Cole is understandably being torn in all the directions right now. Ramse has his own agenda, Cassie has her own agenda, Jones has her own agenda… and it seems none of them agree with one another. There’s that great scene in episode four, when they’re all back in 2044 and they’re all yelling at each other and Cole really puts his foot down and says we’ve got to work together on this. It’s one of the first times we really see Cole try to take a leadership position and really bring people together. Cole has always been part of the mission, but up until now, he’s always tried to minimize his leadership and try to make out that he isn’t important. Are we going to see Cole try to take on a larger leadership role now, and understand that he may be special [like Vivian told him], or is he still struggling with that?
Stanford: He definitely becomes a leader in season two, and I think it’s a situation where the position is thrust upon him. I don’t think he’s ever had any interest in being a leader. He’s always had his own agenda and he wanted to be a part of the solution–and was going to get something specific out of that. But now he sort of sees with all these different factions and infighting and everything else, that the overall goal of the mission is in jeopardy. Somebody has to step up to the plate and take the reins, and that’s what he does this season.
WNA: Oh that’s excellent and I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s about time.
Stanford: It’s been a long time coming.
WNA: One of my other favorite dynamics is Cole and Jennifer. I love the way that they interact. I really love how Cole really treats her like a younger sibling and there is that tension between them, but he really tries to take care of her. At the same time, Cole tries to allow her to have her own power and her own agency, when everybody else has been trying to control her life. By doing that, we get to see the fruition of that in 2044. Can you tell us if we’re going to see Cole interact with the older Jennifer?
Stanford: It’s really interesting. I think you really hit it on the nose: Cole has a very paternal relationship with Jennifer. I actually heard somebody describe it as a father dealing with an unruly two year old. He’s the one who takes care of her and sort of watches to make sure she doesn’t spin out too hard, and offers her sage advice. It’s an interesting, fatherly position that he sort of takes, and when he gets to meet the older her it’s a very different dynamic. She’s now the one with the years on him, and she’s the one with the wisdom. She knows a lot of things that he doesn’t know. So that was a very interesting thing to play with.
WNA: Terry and Travis have done an amazing job with the show, kind of putting everything together, and obviously they must have an outline of the show going forward, due to the way that the spokes and wheels of time have all spread out. Do you guys have an outline or an idea of what’s going on, or do you guys find out as you are provided the scripts?
Stanford: We get a very rough outline early on in the season, and then it’s a matter of filling in the details. That happens when you get the script– and that happens a couple days before you shoot. So it’s a different process than something like a film where you get to read the entire story from beginning to end, you know what’s going to happen. In a film, you have an opportunity to plot things out for yourself and figure out what your journey is going to be far ahead of time. In this situation, you can do that for the basic skeleton of the story, but for everything else, we just have to react fluidly and figure it out as it happens.
WNA: Going back to the 1940s seemed like a lot of fun. I spoke to Amanda [Schull] and she utterly enjoyed doing all the period stuff. What was your experience?
Stanford: Well she was born to wear those forties dresses. We definitely had a good time. Yeah, I love it. I am a big fan of science fiction and time travel, so it’s a lot of fun this season to actually use the time machine [to] get to travel to all these different time periods that hold a lot of nostalgia for everyone. The first season there wasn’t quite as much of that, and this season we’re going to go to the forties, the fifties, the seventies…the whole thing was a lot of fun.
WNA: I was curious, if things were corrected in 2044, do you think Cole would choose to stay in the future, or would he stay in the world he’s found in the past? He seems to enjoy the past a great deal, but at the same time, the future is familiar for him.
Stanford: You know, interesting question, and I don’t 100 percent know the answer to that. It would have a lot to do with whom he might be with in the time period–I think that would dictate it. To him, it’s about the people, not the place, or the time he’s in. It’s the people around him that matter.
Tune into the next episode of 12 Monkeys, every Monday at 9/8c on SyFy!