The overall arc of [Helix] is something completely different and unexpected.
Mark Ghanimé is one of the fresh faces on our radar going into 2014. The 36-year-old actor currently stars on Syfy’s new thriller Helix, which was co-developed by Ronald Moore of the Battlestar Gallactica reboot. Born in Calgary and raised in Montreal, Ghanimé was once knee-deep in his real estate ambitions. But it would be acting that ultimately vies for his undivided attention. With a lengthy list of TV work already under his belt, Ghanimé is making his biggest move yet with the aforementioned Helix, bundled up by a group of some behind-the-scenes giants.
If you didn’t catch the first two episodes (they aired back-to-back as a series premiere on January 10th), the premise is as follows: Major Sergio Balleseros (Ghanimé) guides a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control to a mysterious private research center in the Arctic to investigate a possible viral outbreak. As it goes, nothing is as it seems and they quickly find themselves pulled into a terrifying life-and-death struggle that holds the key to mankind’s salvation or total annihilation. Just to be clear, we’re completely sold on this show.
Anthem spoke with Ghanimé on the eve of the premiere of the show’s third episode. (Episode three is also available for advance streaming at syfy.com and On Demand.)
You can catch new episodes of Syfy’s Helix on Fridays, 10/9c
This is an incredibly fast-paced show. It mirrors the narrative structure of 24 in that each episode in the season represents one of thirteen consecutive days. Do you feel that kind of frantic energy on set when you’re working?
The pace of the episodes where each one spans 24 hours in one day is certainly interesting for the story. But it didn’t impact the pace of the set in any negative way. The set kind of operated as usual. The actual sets, the characters, the storyline and the things we got to do really established the overall atmosphere. You’re on set every day in these ominous locations, which is definitely a driving force. When you have one episode to tell a day’s worth of stories, it’s great for the audience. It didn’t really affect us, maybe other than the fact that our daily arcs for the characters had to be pretty sharp. Then we have the full story arc over the span of thirteen episodes. That’s maybe a little bit quicker than what people are used to. I think it was just business as usual.
The show set a unique tone right from the get-go, taking the horror/elevator music mash-up as an example. How did they pitch the overall tone of the show early on?
Right off the bat, we had Ron Moore’s name attached if you’re familiar with his work on Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Caprica or whatnot. They already had an idea as to where they wanted the tone to go, but it was just a matter of seeing the full script. When I auditioned for the show, I only had sides and a short description of my character. By the second audition, the character’s description had completely changed. They were just really trying to flesh things out on the fly like a lot of TV shows nowadays do.
So you were left in the dark about the season’s full story arc.
We didn’t know anything about the season arc. We were only given little details for the backstory and where our characters might’ve come from. Then it was up to us to just flesh that out. When we were given the pilot episode, it was just a few days before I had to leave for Vancouver to shoot. That’s when you see how things really unfold. I tried to get a little bit more information from other people’s audition sides as far as what their characters are doing to inform my own, but there was a lot of secrecy. Everything was pretty tight-lipped. I think they were trying to figure out the season arc themselves at that point because it was still in infancy. Ron, Cameron Porsandeh and show runner Steven Maeda were working feverishly to get it all set up so we can shoot.
Are you good at keeping secrets? Not in terms of talking to the media to promote the show, but in your daily life if it comes up at the dinner table, for instance.
It has been very difficult because we’ve been given specific instructions as to what we can and cannot release. You spend five months, thirteen episodes of filming and you store all of these amazing things in your head about what your character gets to do. You really want to share that with everybody, but you can’t. It’s very important to keep the integrity of the structure of the story a secret. Getting to develop your own hypotheses as to what happens is part of the fun. You don’t want to give away too much.
I understand Helix is Cameron’s first-ever show. Can you give us the full story behind that?
I believe this is one of the first things that Cameron has written and pitched to networks. He hit a bit of a lottery ticket with this one. I believe he was working for the World Bank prior to this, which was a completely different world of finance and business. The passion for writing took hold of him and culminated to write this piece. He did very well in getting it produced for direct order to series as opposed to shooting a pilot to pitch it, which is how most shows are done these days. His hard work and passion for it paid off in the end. We’re excited to do everything that we’ve received in the scripts. We had a lot of fun with the actors involved. The whole crew has been great and we’re all excited about it.
Your pre-industry background seems to mirror that of Cameron’s. You studied business and finance in school, while going into real estate when the acting bug got you.
It is funny because Cameron and I do have a very similar path coming from the business world to the creative world. I had never done anything artistic or creative as a kid. I didn’t take drama in school or play any musical instruments. I was focused on academics with the idea of becoming a business man. I think when I was in my early 20s, I started tapping into it. I was taking vocal lessons and took some hip-hop dance lessons to explore my creative side because I found that I was actually really passionate about that stuff. I was having fun with it and it made me happy.
What was it about acting when you caught a glimpse of it that really changed your perspective?
Out of the blue, I did extra/background work on a project. Literally as soon as I walked on set—it was suppose to be set in Afghanistan and we had this bombed out village to shoot in—I thought it was amazing. I knew I wanted to be a part of something like that. The production, the magnitude, the excitement, all the people and the work involved. I knew I had to give this a shot. I had no idea how to act for the first time. [Laughs] I went to an actor’s studio, gave them my money and asked them to teach me. It was a challenge and you set aside the ego that you’ve built up as a business person, this persona that you have to put out there. It was really stepping onto that one set that let me know what I wanted to do. I was working seven days a week and taking two night classes. I eventually got an agent and here we are now talking to each other.
Did you go through the traditional auditioning process for this one?
Yup, standard auditioning process. I was living in Vancouver and the breakdown for my character came through my agent’s desk as usual. She had a good feeling about it and thought I should really read for this character. They were looking for a South American to play a U.S. military role. I myself am half-Lebanese, so being half ethnic my team and I thought I suited the role physically. So I taped an audition with one of my closest friends and sent it out, which generated some interest over at the studio and the network. They called me in for a Skype audition for the second round. I think the whole process took about a month and a half to get the part. It went from the first audition to submitting my test deal. After that contract submission is when I waited a few hours for the decision.
I noticed that the first string of episodes featured different directors. I don’t know if this is a trend that will be ongoing for the rest of the season, but how does that affect your work as an actor when you have a different person in charge?
I think they’re doing a lot of that now with television, bringing in guest directors for single or multiple episodes. This is my first time working with a bunch of different directors on a show, so it has been exciting and a little bit challenging at the same time. Each director has their own ideas and their own level of engagement with the actor. Some are full-on actor’s directors and love to challenge you by pulling you in different directions. Some directors will just see what you brought, make small tweaks if necessary, and then shoot it. It really depends on what kind of director you’re working with and what they want from you. It’s exciting because you get to see these different styles and as an actor, I get to gain experience from that. The more people you work with, the more you learn. Everyone has something to offer, something to teach you.
I really enjoyed your scenes with Catherine Lemieux in the pilot episode. I’ve always been a huge fan of the set-up where you throw opposing personalities into a strange scenario.
[Laughs] Catherine Lemieux is hilarious and a fantastic woman. She comes from a really strong theater background, so she’s fairly new to film and television. That’s why it surprised me to see how great she is with the camera. It was fun to come in and get paired up with someone with a theater background, which I don’t have much experience in myself. I learn from her, she learns from me and we support each other. It came across well on screen.
We already talked about how everything is under lock and key, but what can you reveal about the upcoming episode “274”?
A lot of people have seen episode three actually because it was available on syfy.com and On Demand. So I can talk about this episode a little bit. But I obviously don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Let’s just say it’s going to change your views on where you thought the story was headed. It’s not what people originally gave us credit for being. It was one type of show, but you’ll see that it’s not about that at all. The overall arc of the show is something completely different and unexpected. You’re definitely going to want to tune in. Episodes four, five, six, seven… It all just starts unraveling really fast. I think we’ve got something interesting with Helix. A lot of people are speculating. I’m sure you’ve read comments and reviews online. People were sort of expecting another zombie show and comparing us to The Walking Dead. It’s none of that. It has nothing to do with zombies or the standard stuff that you’ve seen before. I think once you start giving it a chance, the people that are giving it a one stroke brush over will be caught by surprise. I think they’re going to get hooked as well.
I hear you’re about to travel again. Where are you off to now?
I’m going back to Vancouver this Sunday. I’ve been in Montreal doing post-production and finishing the ADR work for some of the episodes of Helix. My family’s in Montreal, so I spent the holidays here with them. Then I’m quickly going to L.A. at the end of January/early February for a few weeks to attend some meetings. Let’s see what’s coming up in 2014!