In The 100, The CW Network’s hit new science-fiction adventure series, Thomas McDonell plays Finn Collins, one of a group of delinquent teenagers sent down to the surface of planet Earth a century after the world has been devastated in a nuclear holocaust. Finn is a reckless, fun-loving pacifist whose burgeoning relationship with fellow explorer Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) is threatened by Finn’s own secret past. We chat to Thomas about life as one of The 100…
STARBURST: What appealed to you most about The 100, was it the script generally or the potential of your character Finn?
Thomas McDonell: It wasn’t so much the script as it was the character and talking it over with the creator and the producer, Jason Rothenberg. So when we figured out what the character might be it started to seem like an attractive role to play. In the pilot he’s a very unpredictable kind of wildcard character about whom you were meant to know hardly anything relative to the other characters, whose story and history you get to know and understand more about. Also I’d never worked on anything sci-fi before. I seek sci-fi out more now. I used to like movies which were sci-fi but not just because they were sci-fi but because they were good movies and stories in themselves.
We believe you weren’t necessarily looking to work in TV when The 100 came along.
That’s true. I was having a pretty good time doing what I’d been doing, trying to work on movies and doing different roles because I like the timeframe of making films. I worked a little bit on TV as a guest on friends’ shows but it seemed to me specifically that TV would be less fun because of the time commitment but at the end of the day when The 100 was offered to me I thought ‘why not try it out?’
As an actor do you find it easy to get inside the headspace of a character in a futuristic or outlandish situation?
That was one of the things I had the best time doing. It’s not like playing a cyborg or a Klingon, it’s about playing an ordinary person in some pretty extraordinary circumstances which is not unlike a lot of roles in film and TV even with more realistic genres where you’re just a normal person in extraordinary circumstances. So it was really fun to imagine these particular circumstances with all the stuff about being on Earth for the first time, breathing proper air for the first time, all that stuff. That was all really fun to play with and a bit like real life where I try to seek out new experiences.
So what do you most enjoy about playing Finn?
What’s cool about him is that you’re not given altogether that much information so he remains pretty mysterious. You don’t know about his family or where he came from, what it was like for him growing up. You only really know why it is he’s in jail which is for an illegal spacewalk where he used up all this oxygen that was meant to be for everybody on The Ark, [the network of space stations housing the survivors from the nuclear devastation]so that was a pretty big crime. But in a way that, I’m sure you can imagine, it was a crime that was kind of heroic to the other characters, especially the other juvenile delinquents so he’s a kind of hero to them because he’s brave and wild. It turns out later on that we find out that it’s not all exactly the way it seems. There’s the love triangle aspect of it too – he has a girlfriend, Raven, back up on the spaceship, but he vies for the affection of Clarke and that develops later on as the show progresses. They don’t hit it off immediately but they’re eventually drawn to one another and it turns out that Finn’s actually involved with this other girl up in space, a girl he grew up with and that creates all kinds of problems for everybody – not just for the three of them but for everybody else too.
Is there much opportunity for you to feed things into the character yourself?
Sometimes explicitly but more often that happens in a kind of implicit way and sometimes I don’t even realise that the choices you make as an actor can lead to the writers thinking about the character in a new way. They’re writing the show as we go along so when we’re filming episodes 2, 3, 4 they’re writing 5,6,7,8 and so on so I think that in that less explicit way it definitely happens. But in reality it’s hard to go up to the producers and say ‘hey, can we do this with my character’ and take him off in different directions.
Do you have a general idea where the show and Finn are heading?
We have a very specific idea and it’s pretty exciting! I always have a really hard time not saying exactly what happens because I know and because it’s fun to talk about. The second season sort of continues on in a trajectory which you could say is downhill; things just get a bit like entropy but that’s the only constant and that can change as the characters change and Finn in particular has a big switch.
How have you taken to filming largely on location in Vancouver?
I think some of the time it’s really fun and some of the best times are had when the terrible storm happens and we’re there late at night and it’s all fucked-up but also it’s sort of unpleasant sometimes. The days are long and the weather’s gnarly cold and people are trying to concentrate so it’s not always like a total riot but I like it. Sometimes it can make you cranky but it does help to make you feel a bit like the character would feel in that survivalist situation. It’s a little bit ridiculous to think ‘wow, this is so uncomfortable it helps me to feel as uncomfortable as they might feel’ but it’s true that it does help if you’re actually out of breath when your character is supposed to be out of breath. Some of my favourite stuff is getting to do all the stunts and action scenes. You could almost describe the show as people running around in the forest because that’s what we were doing some of the time, just running around! All the fighting stuff was cool too. We did zero gravity stunt stuff in the pilot and that’s all really wild.
Have you had a good response to the show from the fans?
Yeah, it’s been mostly good. You do get an instant response from social media but how reliable is that stuff in terms of what it means? I think maybe it means that people are either paying attention or they’re not, whether they’re watching or not and that’s often all that matters; if they’re watching it’s good, if they’re not it’s bad!
The 100 seems to be a show where, potentially, anything can happen and no-one’s safe. Do you worry for the future of your character?
In the beginning you kind of just have to get with the tone of the show and what it’s doing otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time and energy worrying if your character is going to go away or not which isn’t as much fun as just giving yourself over to the bigger picture of the project which is, like you say, that things can just happen. You have to just go with the flow and see what happens.
Speaking to both Eliza and Bobby Morley (who plays Blake Bellamy), we discussed how The 100 is a much grittier and darker show than audiences might have been expecting from The CW Network.
The producers were actually a bit shocked that they were able to get away with some of the show’s content! But I think episode four was where the floodgate was opened and after that things just became more and more brutal the whole time because I think that the creators, producers and directors proved in a way that, as weird and fucked-up as it might seem, it’s effective and it helps really establish the show and what it‘s trying to do.
You have a number of other interests including music and art. Do you find it easy to balance those interests with the show’s gruelling schedule?
I try to make it so that it’s all of a ‘piece’ which is tricky but you make it so that working on the TV provides material for making a piece of artwork or for making music so they all sort of feed into one another. Sometimes it’s hard to make that happen but that’s the goal, so that one doesn’t stand in the way of the other.
And what do you say to those who compare the show to The Hunger Games?
I actually think the comparisons are totally fair. They share so much: they’re broadly Young Adult – you can make a fair comparison from that alone – and then further down the line into more specific things like kids being dropped into the wilderness, extreme violence. All that stuff makes it pretty similar and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the people who are behind this show used Hunger Games as a template for the commerciality of the show. I’m sure it was in the pitch for the show: “Look at Hunger Games, people love it!” So I think that while it might make actors like me or Bob uncomfortable because when you work on a thing you want it to be unique, I don’t think it’s unfair to compare things because we’re all in the same business and there‘s no harm in feeding off other projects occasionally.