We’re living in an age of plentiful science fiction and fantasy shows. One of the surprise hits of the season is The Orville: New Horizons. Born from the creative mind of Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad), The Orville blends comedy and high concept sci-fi drama into a compelling series that pays homage to Star Trek and all the other sci-fi that came before it.
While the show has always had its fans, it’s seen a huge resurgence after switching to Hulu for its third season, subtitled New Horizons. Episodes are each over an hour long, with special effects and writing that are as good as anything else out there, on the big or small screens.
Penny Johnson Jerald plays Doctor Claire Finn, the ship’s doctor and one of its main crew members since the start. With New Horizons nearing the end of its season, Penny stopped by Winter Is Coming to talk a bit about the series, acting opposite Mark Jackson (Isaac), her time on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, hopes for season 4, and more!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the full interview on the Winter Is Coming YouTube channel:
The Orville: New Horizons is so much bigger and more ambitious than anything the show has done before. Have you been surprised at all by the overwhelmingly positive response this season has gotten? Or did you guys know you had something special during production?
At the beginning when we were told we were going to Hulu, I had no idea. But once we started filming I thought ‘we are really doing something explosive here, this is not episodic television. We are doing movies.’ And knowing that while we were filming and as long as it took, I thought ‘the fans are either gonna love this, or they’re gonna want that old school episodic…’ which I’m sure they don’t really. So I’m happy about the response.
Maybe more than any other character on the show, Doctor Finn is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. She’s one of the few crew members who’s a parent, she has multiple romances, she’s obviously crucial as a doctor, and she’s been spending more time with Commander Grayson as a friend this season. What’s your process like for playing such a multifaceted character?
It helps that I am actually a woman, and we are multifaceted [laughs]. We do all kinds of things, I mean never underestimate who we really are as beings. We’re three-dimensional, and I think that the beauty of the way Claire is written is that she is three-dimensional, like a real person. And I give kudos to the writers and definitely the creator Seth [MacFarlane] himself.
But also just the fact that wanting to represent…and not leave anyone out. You can’t please everyone, but every person who identifies as a woman knows there is so much about us. We have careers, we raise children, we are bosses, we are caretakers, we’re all those things…and so I’m just ecstatic that I’m able to play that, because mostly you don’t get that on television. You get a one-dimensional character, and you just go with that. You always know what that person is going to do, and I think that the world and the fandom…I think it’s ready to see everything, all encompassing, you know?
One thing that has gotten quite a bit of screen time this season is Claire and Isaac’s romance. Ever since that was first explored in season 2, fans have been curious to see where that would lead and have really enjoyed watching you and Mark Jackson (Isaac) play those scenes out. What were the behind-the-scenes discussions like about their relationship going into New Horizons?
Oddly enough, we didn’t have those discussions too much with Seth. But Mark and I, we’ve been talking about it from the beginning. Because it was really so odd. I’m thinking ‘I’m the only one with kids, and I end up with these objects that I’m enamored with. Not only that, I’m falling for!’
Mark and I would always play the game behind the scenes, ‘what if?’. What if this happened, what if that happened? And sure enough, I think that Seth being the kind of writer that he is, he listens to not just what’s around him, he does read what the fans say, or what they enjoy. And I think that colored their relationship a lot.
I did think it was odd, because I thought ‘how are we going to do this?’ I mean, Claire is smart. She’s not just in love with some metal, there’s something about him. And so Mark and I, we had that discussion, and she has to fall in love with…if he were a person, what he would be.
You and Mark got a scene together in “From Unknown Graves” where he didn’t wear the Isaac suit, which happens very rarely. What was filming that scene like on the day?
That was the first scene after the pandemic, when we returned. Mark and I were the first ones to go back. And when we went back, we went back into rehearsing the dance sequence. So we were rehearsing the dance before we started shooting, and it was scary at first because…we were both away, he was in the UK and I was at my farm, and so we had to trust one another. Because we rehearsed in our masks, we did everything right…but once we got in front of the camera and we were in full costume — and Mark without [his Isaac] costume, but in full costume…it was a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers moment.
And we took it very seriously, because we wanted to sell it to the audience. I’m sure that a lot of people were thinking ‘what is this with this robot and this doctor?’ but we wanted it to be completely genuine. And so there was no masking: Claire was…I took away the doctor. Mark took away the suit. And together we were exploring that first time. It’s kinda like the first time you see your kid discover that they have a leg and they can stand on it. So everything was an element of surprise for us, and that’s what we went with.
The Orville is a show that’s clearly been inspired by the various Star Trek series and other sci-fi stories that came before it. But you were actually on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Have you always been drawn to science fiction? And if not, what is it about these stories that hooked you?
Glad you asked, and fans don’t hate me on that one (but still follow me on Instagram and Twitter) [laughs]. I was not a sci-fi person at all, and most people who’ve been in any of my talks they know that. As a matter of fact, I thought it was phony television, and I didn’t understand how and why an actor would take a job doing something like that…until I did Deep Space Nine. And when I did Deep Space Nine, I thought ‘wow you must apologize to the entire fandom, because this is way better than Shakespeare,’ coming from the theater. You have to take this elevated speech, or this elevated time that people have not experienced in real life, and you have to make it real, and you have to be put in a situation where they can identify themselves so that they can keep watching. And that to me is what hooked me. The stories on Deep Space Nine were relevant stories…about situations that people would happen upon today.
And The Orville, oh my goodness gracious. Every time there’s a table read and I’m looking and hearing these voices and the story for the first time, I have to look over at Seth and go ‘whoa, this is deep.’ This is something I wanna watch. This is something I wanna be a part of.
You kind of led right into my next question: how is it different working on something like Star Trek versus The Orville, and what it is about The Orville that drew you to it?
I think that the big difference is in the storyline. Because there’s so much going on…in the last year, last five years that we could draw from. Not that nothing was going on in the ’90s, we had our share of things. But there’s so much that’s going on in today’s society, and it’s so much that’s going on that’s effecting so many different kinds of people. And I think that’s the drawing card, and that is the big difference…that we are in an age where we can tell these stories and we can start these conversations, and people can understand or at least begin to understand why others are different to them. Or why it is that we’re just alike, and we’re just experiencing these things in real time.
If The Orville happens to get a fourth season, what would you most like to see for Dr. Finn’s future?
Thank you for asking that. I am a firm believer in that The Orville cannot finish [with] season 3. I know the future episodes that are happening, and they’re standalone…but I don’t think fans will be satisfied…[they’ll say] ‘wait a minute, are you kidding me? I want to know what happens…’
As far as Claire is concerned, I would love to see how her children mature. They’re already big now, but it’s wonderful to see the development of the real future, and kids are our future. And so I think that storyline would be very important. And I would love to see some kind of…scientific discovery as far as diseases, and something like that that would give someone hope. I mean, who knows, maybe we’ll say it and maybe it’ll happen? I would love to see something like that happen in the future for Claire.
I’m game to do as many seasons of The Orville that I can physically do. What can I say? I’m game.
Ok, let’s end things with a couple of fun rapid fire questions. What member of The Orville cast would be most likely to injure themselves repeatedly and need Dr. Finn’s help on a regular basis?
[Laughs] Wow, oh my gosh. Peter Macon (Bortus). Because he has so many kids and he’s moving so fast. Well he only has two, but he moves fast! He’s always parenting, so…Peter.
Last question: can you tease what lies ahead for Dr. Finn and the rest of the Orville crew in the rest of New Horizons in five words or less?
Give us another season!
The Orville: New Horizons is airing now on Hulu, with new episodes dropping every Thursday.