The Orville: New Horizons is continuing its reign as one of the must-see science fiction shows of the summer, and its latest episode, “Midnight Blue,” brought things to a whole new level. Created by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad), The Orville blends high concept sci-fi drama and stunning special effects with sharp comedic beats and strong storytelling. Its third season is airing now on Hulu, where it’s receiving a great reception after a three-year break following season 2.
One character who’s seen quite a lot of focus this season is Isaac, played by Mark Jackson. Isaac is an artificial lifeform who was programmed to turn against his companions at the end of season 2, kicking off an intergalactic war with the robotic Kaylon. However, at the last moment, Isaac turned the tides and helped his fellow Orville crew members save the day…for now.
With only a few more episodes to go in New Horizons, Mark Jackson stopped by Winter Is Coming to take us under Isaac’s helmet, talk about how his character is a symbol of the show, the difference between Isaac and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, inspirations for his expressive hand movements, 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’ve been playing Isaac since The Orville’s very first episode. Obviously there are some complexities that come with playing an artificial intelligence-based character with a full body suit. Has your approach to playing Isaac — or the technical aspects of the suit — changed at all over the years?
Yeah, absolutely…loads of challenges, loads of technical issues…also performance problems…it’s been a whole rollercoaster. But each one has been overcome and…the character himself has developed in a positive way because of that. The suit has evolved hugely. The pilot, I couldn’t see or hear or breathe, so yeah…that was quickly fixed.
Listen, all suits…they are constrictive and liberating in equal measure, because they tell you how you can move, really. And how you move hugely informs how you play any character. The suit was temperamental, it was full of electronics and my sweat, which is not a great combination. So it would often misbehave. But you know as I say, it all fed into the performance itself, and people often go…’how did you develop those specific movements for Isaac?’ Well, you put the suit on, and you’ll have fifty percent of that done for you.
But the emotional, or the ‘character journey’ of Isaac, has been much more interesting to develop and to work on. So that’s been my greatest honor I think.
New Horizons came out of the gate swinging with a very Isaac-centered episode that dealt with some pretty heavy topics. What was your reaction to getting the script for that episode, and seeing the things you’d have to go through?
I was very lucky. I mean the way that this show is written…I spoke to Seth [MacFarlane] before the season started, and he gave me Isaac’s arc for the season. I’m not gonna tell you how it ends, but it was fascinating. Because yeah, he’s been put center stage for this season, and it’s such an honor to play that.
But I kind of see why he is, because Isaac’s journey very much embodies the journey of the Orville, the ship and the crew itself, and the show. You know the show has gone from tonally being something that’s quite comedic and moved to something that’s a bit more serious…but still subversively comedic, which I think is Seth’s genius strong point. You know, and Isaac was the butt of a lot of jokes, his misunderstanding of humanity and biologicals was always a great source of humor. But then he goes and starts a war, and finishes a war. And is technically responsible for a lot of deaths, but technically saved millions as well. And then his relationship with Claire and the kids…in a way he’s The Orville in a nutshell.
And with the first episode and his attempted suicide…Seth said to me, ‘look, we have to address Isaac’s position within the crew straight away. You can’t leave that festering…because he’s alone on this ship, no one likes him, and it’s the elephant in the room really.’ So [the writers] felt they had to address it straight away. Interestingly, Isaac doesn’t feel he has to address it, until he’s told by Marcus [Finn].
Jumping forward to one of the latest episodes, we got that beautiful dance scene between you and Penny Johnson Jerald after Isaac underwent the emotion procedure. And you got to act without the suit for the second time this season! You had to go through an enormous range of emotions in that scene. What was preparing for that like?
Well I knew it was coming. Luckily, before I did The Orville I was a real actor, and a real boy, and I got to use all my emotions and my face on a regular basis. So it wasn’t a shock to the system in that respect. But what was bizarre is experiencing the full spectrum of emotions in one go. And it’s not a long scene. And all for the first time, his childlike wonder at it. His childlike wonder at experiencing emotions, but also his wonder at the freshness of it all and the newness of it all. It was so lovely to play. You don’t often find characters that are like that. It was great.
And playing opposite Penny is always such a joy. She’s just such a class-act. She’s perfect every time, and always gives something different every time. So that really helped with how I could respond and how I could feel…she made it really real for me, which was great.
In terms of having a character like Isaac on the show, it’s almost like The Orville is continuing this tradition that Star Trek had of having an A.I. character, or like a Data-type character on the crew. To you, what does that bring to the show in terms of its storytelling? What does that allow it to do that maybe it wouldn’t be able to do without a character like Isaac?
I think the important distinction between Data and Isaac, because they are often compared and I get why they are, is that Isaac was never designed for humans. He was never created for humans. His entire ‘character journey’ is very much trying to reprogram himself to work better with humans, particularly Claire obviously, but the rest of the crew [too]. And that’s not an easy thing. I know we met the Kaylon makers, which I suppose you could argue are fairly human with a bit of makeup. But it’s a big distinction. Data was always there to be and created to be an efficient compatible human design whereas Isaac is not.
But I think in the greater scheme, having a character like Isaac or Data on a ship and in this show, is very useful for…giving some context to the human stories in the show. And you know really, Isaac is very fair. He’s very curious. In many ways he embodies all the best human qualities, but because he doesn’t have any of the bad human qualities, he is distinctly unhuman. So I think as a comparison, as a sort of benchmark for the human stories to be written against, I think he’s invaluable. You know it would just be a soap in space without the weird alien characters, wouldn’t it?
It’s cool to hear you talk about Data, because you obviously know quite a bit about him. You were into science fiction before doing The Orville, so I have to ask: are there any characters that particularly inspired you, or that you’ve maybe tried to take a little bit from in your performance of Isaac?
It’s interesting, I’ve been watching [Star Trek] Discovery, which aired at the same time as us. And watching Doug Jones in that is just mind-blowing. I just think he’s so fantastic. And in many ways…I don’t know I wanted Isaac to be…weird, right? I mean weirdness is so important. And it’s that disconnect from human beings that makes him weird. And watching Doug Jones in Shape of Water…was such a joy. There’s something about his performances that really inspire me with Isaac.
I could totally see that, with the hand movements too.
Well, yeah…you know, I think you’re absolutely right. Because in season 2, I make [Isaac’s] hands much more expressive, and even more so in season 3; the gloves changed, which helped. Watching Doug Jones play Saru with his wavy, beautiful arm movements behind him, I mean it’s just inspired…I think did make me think, ‘I need to loosen Isaac up a little bit.’
If The Orville gets a fourth season, what are some things you’d hope to explore with Isaac in the future?
[Crosses fingers]. I’d like to explore how far he can push understanding human beings…without losing his own identity.
Alright, last question: can you tease what lies ahead for Isaac and the rest of the Orville crew in the rest of New Horizons in five words or less?
Absolutely not, I’d get fired.
The Orville: New Horizons is airing now on Hulu, with new episodes dropping every Thursday.