Hear from the star of NBC's new hit series
How does a person raised by a pastor dad and a Wimbledon mom become an actor and portray a lovelorn cop onboard a plane that's reappeared after been missing for years?
For Melissa Roxburgh, the answer is simple: "I'm a middle child," she says in a phone interview.
"I grew up in a household that, you know, my parents really wanted us to focus on academics and all this stuff; and I don't know where it came from or why, but I kind of fell in love with storytelling really early on."
Though she calls her first attempts at mastering the craft "horrible, horrible movies," Roxburgh found the inspiration to improve while visiting a galaxy far, far away.
"Actually 'Star Wars' was the thing that set me off on wanting to be a part of film and TV," she says. "I fell in love with the 'Star Wars' series - sadly, it was the new series - the Natalie Portman/Hayden Christensen one. But, nonetheless, I was like, 'I want to do that.' And that's kinda how I fell in love with it."
Roxburgh's parents encouraged her to take an interest in her education, and "I was part of the (international baccalaureate) program. Academics still is a really important part of my life, because I was in that program. It was a very intense, fulltime program in high school, and my parents thought it'd be best if I waited until I was done to start pursuing (acting).
"I think that they thought that it would be a phase of my life, and I would try it out and then it would just kind of fade away. But, sadly for them, it stuck, and here we are."
Where we are is watching Roxburgh star as the lead character in NBC's breakout freshman series "Manifest." Where she is, just shy of her 26th birthday, is working on a hit series that's scoring both with viewers and critics.
Where her character is, well, that's quite a story.
"Manifest": "Connecting Flights" Episode 105: Melissa Roxburgh stars as Michaela Stone. (NBC/Warner Brothers photo by Craig Blankenhorn)
You see, while Roxburgh is having a career year, her character, Michaela Stone, is downright miserable on "Manifest."
And who can blame her?
In April 2013, after vacationing with family, Michaela, her brother, Ben (Josh Dallas), and his ill young son, Cal (Jack Messina), boarded Montego Airways Flight 828 headed back home to New York City. Their flight, while turbulent, didn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary. But when they touched down, Michaela and company were informed five years-plus had passed. How, why and what happened has yet to be revealed - to them, or to the audience.
Now, in November 2018, Michaela must come to grips with a would-be fiancé, Jared (J.R. Ramirez), who moved on after two years - and married her best friend (Mic and Jared also are NYPD partners, so, yay!); the loss of her mother, who was in fine form when they visited Jamaica; and strange new voices in her head that are pushing Michaela to take action and help others.
Ben, meanwhile, has returned to find his wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis), in love with another man; his daughter (and Cal's twin sister), Olive (Luna Blaise), now a teenager; Cal headed toward remission; and inner voices of his own.
As it turns out, the passengers (who haven't aged) all share this newfound calling - and they're acting in ways that draw the attention of National Security Agency Director Vance (Daryl Edwards), and an already suspicious federal government.
Mic and Ben are racking their brains, trying to figure out what it all means, where the time went, and what will happen next. In the meantime, both the NSA and someone (or something) appears to be hunting the plane people.
"Manifest" is a big-budget, high-concept drama with heavy emphasis on sci-fi and action/adventure. It also has some similarities to ABC's turn-of-the-century hit series "Lost" - especially when it comes to theories on the characters and why they're being led by supernatural or spiritual forces.
For those reasons, audiences might've taken a pass. However, the series was created by veteran TV writer/producer Jeff Rake and counts "Back to the Future" scribe Robert Zemeckis among its executives. This creative team has added enough twists and turns that "Manifest" is far from "Lost Lite" ... or "Alive," "The Event," "Revolution" or "Crisis": The Peacock Network's other tentpole fall dramas that promised intricate storytelling, but couldn't catch on with viewers, sadly revealing only a layer or two of the onion.
With plenty of mystery, solid ancillary plotlines, well-balanced characters and standout acting performances - most notably from Roxburgh - "Manifest" is a crowd-pleaser - and a safe bet for season two. It's a fun, fascinating story with enough suspense to keep us waiting and watching each week.
"With 'Lost' already happening, I think Jeff had in mind that the game plan for our show has to be so concrete," Roxburgh says. "And he does have a plan for that. So, I completely trust where that story is going. And, honestly, I haven't been disappointed by an episode, at all. I think we're in really good hands with the show."
She adds, "I think what people are getting invested in is the characters and is the storyline. I think it's something different, too. Even though it has similarities, and it is a high-concept show, it is a standout with what we are seeing currently on TV. There's nothing like this show on TV, and I think the mystery aspect alone is really grabbing everyone's attention. On top of it, it's just like a perfect balance of mystery along with the characters and what they're going through emotionwise. I think that balance is really keeping audiences hooked."
Roxburgh offered additional insight in this BTS Q&A:
"Manifest": Shown in the pilot episode are Melissa Roxburgh as Michaela Stone and Josh Dallas as Ben Stone. (NBC/Warner Brothers photo by Craig Blankenhorn)
Q: Obviously you're further along in the series than I am, so I'll beg your indulgence here as I'm asking you these questions. But, if I go back to the very first episode, Michaela is sitting outside. She's on a swing, talking to Ben, and she just has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Obviously, you know, she lost her mother, she lost her boyfriend, her home, years of her life. These are emotions that we would normally see a character develop over several episodes, if not several seasons. What was the process for you in finding those feelings right from go?
Melissa Roxburgh: Yeah, I mean, "Manifest" really, literally and figuratively, starts off with a bang. It starts off at the climax of everyone's life. And, because of that, we see like a reverse growth with Michaela, specifically. We see her start at her lowest point and kind of build herself back up throughout this mystery.
And getting into that, it's the way that Jeff wrote that first episode. I think the whole cast can agree that it was easy - I'm sad to say - to connect with the characters, because the way that he wrote them was so real. And even though none of us, obviously, have been through this experience with missing five-and-a-half years of your life, or something as severe as a plane crash or a plane disappearing, the way that he wrote Michaela and Ben and Saanvi (Parveen Kaur) and even family that stayed back home, It was so easy to connect to and to feel what they were going through.
And in kind of imagining what it would be like to miss such important parts of the people you loved, important parts of their lives, and to not be able to experience growing with them, and the day-to-day with them, that is tragic. You know? I'm sure everyone has moments of their life where they regret not spending more time with people or investing in relationships more; to think what would happen if you literally had no choice but to miss those important parts. That kind of got us all there to think about how much regret and pain that has caused.
For me, my grandma passed away last year. And she lived in England. And so that kind of resonated with me. And it's the little things like that in your life, of people living overseas and going "Oh, I'll call them," or "We'll connect with them later," or "I'll find time next week," and you never do. To think, like, what would happen if, all of a sudden, that person was gone, or you were gone, and you missed that chance.
It kind of brought up all those thoughts in reading the first episode.
Q: Along similar lines, let's talk a little bit about the dynamic between you and your castmates because, at the same time, right from the beginning, Michaela has this meaty backstory with Ben and Jared and Lourdes (Jared's wife), amongst others. And that, again, was something that you had to start with right from the beginning. You talked about how good the script was, but what is the challenge in finding such quality chemistry with your castmates so soon - and why do you suppose it's working as well as it is?
Melissa Roxburgh: You know, I owe that to the casting directors and the producers and the showrunners of this show for putting this group together, because I had no part in that. I was lucky enough to get to read with Josh, in the audition process, but none of us knew who would actually get the role. When Josh and I did read together, it did feel good, and it did feel natural. Obviously we had no idea who each other were at that point.
I hate to say this, but it was just luck. We are so lucky with who got put in this group, because we've all bonded so well, so easily, so quickly. And I do think that's rare. I've been doing acting for about seven years, and I've never, ever had this experience, where it's just been so easy.
And Josh, specifically, him and I are on the same page with so many things, and to have that brother-sister dynamic, in just day-to-day life, as well, it makes our jobs so much easier. And J.R., as well, he's such an awesome guy and we've formed this great friendship. Working with him, it's easy.
I hate to say that it sounds so simple, but it really is luck. We've been so lucky and blessed. And then Jeff, our showrunner, has kind of been dad throughout all of this, and navigated the waters for us.
I think we have the easiest part, in just kind of being able to sit back and have fun with this story that we're telling.
"Manifest": "Turbulence" Episode 103: Pictured, from left, are Josh Dallas as Ben Stone and Melissa Roxburgh as Michaela Stone. (NBC/Warner Brothers photo by Peter Kramer)
Q: I'm guessing that there's probably not a lot that you can tell me about Michaela and Jared, so I'm gonna skip over that for now and ask you a little bit about Vance. I feel like he might become an ally at some point, but right now he's clearly a foil. I'm wondering: How difficult is he going to make things for Michaela and Ben?
Melissa Roxburgh: I think that's the beauty of this show is that anything could change at any point. And so, yeah, we've met Vance, as kind of the antagonist of the story. But what I love about the script is that no character is one note. And so, there are definitely parts of Vance that you'll grow to love, and there's parts of him that you'll hate. But the part that you love, maybe he does help in the process? Maybe he hinders? I think that we, if I could hint at something, we get to see a unique dynamic with him and Ben at one point. So, the audience has that to look forward to. And I think that he will grow on people a lot more than they think.
Q: We're also starting to see the spider web of how each passenger is linked. And, again, I know you're sort of limited as far as what you can tell me, but what can you tease as far as what we can expect with regard to these unique connections?
Melissa Roxburgh: I think what I can tease - we're at episode five now that's come out - what I can tease is that things really start to ramp up, in terms of the stakes of things. So far, it's been very, not low-key, but it's building towards something quite intense. And I think, by episode seven or eight, we really see how important these callings are, and what they're going through means to what happens to people around them.
Not everyone is safe; and not everyone survives; and there will be some people that we lose in the process.
Q: Interesting. OK. That's a good tease. I appreciate that. So, I would say more than nine times out of 10 when we talk to showrunners, we talk to producers and writers, they have the overall story - not every detail, but they sort of know what point A and point B are, and how they're going to get from A to B. Assuming that that's true with "Manifest," how much of the overall story do you know at this point, and how much do you want to know?
Melissa Roxburgh: So, when we first started this show, Josh and I were on the same page with not wanting to know anything, because we wanted to go along for the ride - and that's still true for the most part. Neither of us want to know what the mystery is of the plane.
But I gave way to my nosiness, and I really want to know some of the other details of, like, what happens with Jared and I, or what happens with Jared and someone else, or just like the little details of the personal character - like the personal stories of the characters. And I've caught Jeff at some moments where he's either been tired or just off a little bit, and he's spilled the beans!
So, I do know up until episode, I would say 13, that's as far as I know. But even by the end of season one, not all of the questions will be answered. And so, they've really kept us in the dark in terms of the long game. They've kept us in the dark there. But I do know that there are characters that we will meet by the end of season that are very important, and those people are going to be interesting. And the audience won't be disappointed.
Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) considers her actions. (NBC/Warner Brothers photo by Barbara Nitke)
WATCH A PREVIEW OF 'MANIFEST':