J. Lee talks The Orville: New Horizons, LaMarr’s love life, and more

The Orville is back for its third season on Hulu, and it’s bigger and better than ever. Rechristened The Orville: New Horizons, season 3 boasts episode run times upwards of an hour, thought-provoking writing, and special effects good enough to make other sci-fi shows weep tears of envy. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but the Seth MacFarlane-helmed comedic science fiction drama has become one of the strongest TV series in the genre, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Like the Star Trek shows that inspired it, The Orville features an ensemble cast and goes the extra mile to make sure each one of the starship’s crew members gets their time to shine. J. Lee plays Lt. Cmdr. John LaMarr, the USS Orville’s chief engineering officer and often the one who makes sure everything keeps running smoothly. We were lucky enough to get a chance to sit down with Lee to discuss the The Orville: New Horizons, LaMarr’s love life, making the show’s complex science more digestible for viewers, and more!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the full interview on the Winter Is Coming YouTube channel:

You guys had a bit of a break from the end of season 2, which came out back in 2019. How has it felt coming back after three years to have such an overwhelmingly positive response, and still find the fans have been waiting?

It’s been nice, you know? The fact that so many fans stuck with us and waited for us. But then also, all the new fans who are just now seeing the show for the first time now that we’re on Hulu and Disney+ overseas. It’s been really nice to see the reach of the show. This season is bigger, the episodes are longer, we all put a lot of work into it, so it’s great to see the final product.

It’s amazing to see how much bigger New Horizons feels than previous seasons. Did that make the experience of filming it different at all?

We are very fortunate, because Seth [MacFarlane] is who he is. Even season 1, the ship they built…it took me six months to figure out how to stop getting lost on this set. We shot on multiple stages. The production team went above and beyond. So we sort of got introduced to the show with all the bells and whistles, and this is just a step up…It’s a challenging show to shoot, but when you’re on that ship you feel like you’re on the Orville and you’re in space.

One of the latest episodes, “Twice in a Lifetime,” featured such a thorough take on Einsteinian time travel that even The Martian author Andy Weir shouted out The Orville for its scientific accuracy. LaMarr is often one of the people on the crew who has to explain those dense scientific concepts to everyone else. How into the science are you personally? Do you ever have to do extra research to pull off those scenes?

You know, I try to do as much as I can…but look, I went to school for piano, performance and theater, and was an athlete in high school. I’m not a scientist, right? But you want to come into your job as sort of prepared as you can be. So a lot of stuff I would ask a lot of questions, I would look up a lot of stuff. But at the end of the day, my brain…I don’t understand a lot of that stuff.

Even with that time travel episode, the night before I remember texting Seth, I’m like ‘wait, I don’t get any of this.’ Got to set, and I’m like ‘oh wait, I got it,’ then they put the sandwich down and I’m like ‘nope, what’s my name?’ [Laughs]. Like I don’t understand what’s up, what’s down…so I had these sort of moments of questioning reality, because it is a lot to sort of comprehend. But at the end of the day I think I figured out…[a way] to make it make sense, and hopefully I delivered it in a way that was understandable.

The Orville: New Horizons — “Twice In A Lifetime” – Episode 306 — The Orville crew sets out to rescue Gordon on a distant yet familiar world, dealing with potentially permanent consequences along the way. Capt. Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), Lt. Cmdr. John LaMarr (J Lee), Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), and Lt. Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr), shown. (Photo by: Greg Gayne/Hulu)

You mentioned that you play piano, and that was actually something I wanted to ask you about because I didn’t know that about you until very recently. You’re actually a classically trained pianist, and you played at Carnegie Hall when you were a teenager, right?

I did, yeah. I was like 12 or 13 when I did Carnegie Hall. That’s where I got my start, classical piano.

Now that we’ve gotten Scott Grimes (Gordon Malloy) and Peter Macon (Bortus) showing off their musical chops on the show, is a John LaMarr piano solo on the horizon?

Who knows, you know? John can’t come in and save the day and get the women and also play piano. I don’t know, maybe…we’ll see. Seth does do a great job of using the talents that people have for their characters. So it may or may not be in the future, but…if it’s in alignment with John I’m sure we’ll explore it.

Since you brought up LaMarr’s love life, it does seem like he’s the one everyone comes to for relationship advice.

Yeah! I don’t know how that happened, like why are you coming to me? I don’t know, I’m fixing the quantum drive. You figure out how to ask her or him out!

We won’t get into spoilers, but there was a hook-up [between LaMarr and another character] in “Twice in a Lifetime” that surprised me when it came up, but also felt like it made a lot of sense for the characters. Is that something we’ll see go somewhere?

You know, I don’t know. It could have been just, he had a knot in his back and a co-worker was helping him out. Or…it might be something that maybe John finds something that’s pretty special that he wants to hold on to. Who knows?

I actually kind of forget what happened, because it’s been so long and I can’t give anything away anyway so it works out. [Laughs]

*The latest episode of The Orville: New Horizons, “From Unknown Graves,” delves a bit deeper into this plotline.

The Orville: New Horizons — “A Tale of Two Topas” – Episode 305 — Tensions between Kelly and the Moclans result when she helps Topa prepare for the Union Point entrance exam. (Photo by: Hulu)

You shared almost every scene involving Yaphit that we’ve gotten this season. What was it like working with Norm Macdonald? Was he ever on set when you were shooting those scenes?

You know, unfortunately I never got to actually work with him, because he did his recordings sort of separately. But in a weird way, we do have a physical Yaphit mold that we put in the set to represent where he would be, so while I didn’t get to work with him I sort of worked with him in a roundabout way. Unfortunately I never got to spend really time with him…[he] was just such a legend, and I think everybody really felt his passing.

This is super random, but on the same thread I did a voice for Lion King. I was one of the hyenas. So Jon Favreau, who did our pilot, did Lion King. I do the recording, I forget about it. The movie comes out. I’m thinking ‘it’s gonna be a hundred people in the movie, I don’t know if my part even made it,’ you know? The premiere was like a Tuesday night. I wake up Wednesday morning, my phone’s blowing up. Everybody’s like ‘you did a movie with Beyoncé and Donald Glover?’ I said ‘wait, what?’ And someone took a picture of the credits at the premiere, and my name [was right below Beyoncé’s]. But I never worked with her. But when you see it you’re like, ‘oh you clearly worked with…everybody on the move,’ but no. But I guess technically I did! So back to Norm, I worked closely with Norm even though we didn’t work together.

To close things out, can you tease what lies ahead for LaMarr and the Orville crew in the back half of New Horizons in five words?

Space, quantum drive, big boom.

The Orville: New Horizons — “From Unknown Graves” – Episode 307 — The Orville discovers a Kaylon with a very special ability. Dr. Villka (Eliza Taylor), Isaac (Mark Jackson) and Lt. Cmdr. John LaMarr (J Lee), shown. (Photo by: Greg Gayne/Hulu)

The Orville: New Horizons is airing now on Hulu. New episodes drop every Thursday.

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