One of the most long-awaited television series this year, HALO, had its world premiere at this year’s SXSW (Read our review of the first two episodes). The show takes place within the world of the fan favorite video game franchise and takes a deeper dive into the main character, Master Chief.
Recently, cast members and executive producers sat down with members of the press to discuss the upcoming first season. In attendance were stars Pablo Schreiber (Master Chief Petty Officer John-117), Natascha McElhone (Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey), Olive Gray (Dr. Miranda Keyes), Yerin Ha (Quan Ah) and Jen Taylor (Cortana) along with EPs Steven Kane and Kiki WolfKill. Below are several takeaways from the media event.
Taking Off the Mask
When the teaser and trailer were released, some in the video game community had reservations about seeing Master Chief’s face. This was a concern for the people on the creative side during development. Wolfkill shared, “I think we’re going to see a range of reactions. For some people, this has been 20 years in the making. We’ve shown glimpses of his eyes in HALO 4 and we’ve shown him as a child in multiple executions. For others, they feel very protective of the mystery of the Master Chief that they have in their head. They own part of who Master Chief is by virtue of playing him as a character. It was a hard decision knowing that there were such strong feelings about that.”
She continued, “On the other hand, it was also a straight forward decision once we really started to understand the story knowing it was always a goal to tell a story about the Master Chief. Always a goal to really tell a story about John which isn’t something that we’re able to do in the games or haven’t done in the games. Having the benefit of this amazing long form story telling medium in television where we can really do great character development meant it was important for the helmet to come off. It was important to see the man inside the armor and really experience his journey right there in front of you.”
From the Man Himself
As Master Chief, Schreiber has some lofty expectations to meet from a passionate fanbase. The actor explained the process of developing the television counterpart. “The armor is obviously the iconic parts of Chief that we all know from the video game, but let’s be honest. The video game is a first-person shooter video game where you’re asked to play as the Chief himself. That’s why the character has been kept as kind of as a symbol and very vague. There is not a lot of character development with him. He is, for us, he represents bravery and courage but all the subtleties and nuance of who he is as a human, we fill in the details ourselves as gamers. Making a television show is a very, very different medium. And when you make a television show, it’s no longer a first-person shooter video game. You now are being asked as a player to put the controller down, to sit back on the couch and enjoy a universe that you have come to know and love for so long but to experience it in a very new way.”
He then discussed what to expect from Master Chief and how he hopes viewers approach his character. “The process of John discovering who he is as a human being over the course of the first season is a similar process to us as audience members learning who the Chief is. All of those elements of his persona that we’ve filled in with our own personal details for so long, we are now filling in in television story telling format. If you can get on board and enjoy the experience of that, then I think for avid HALO fans, it’s going to be a very, very rewarding experience to get to take that journey in a different way. For new people who have never experienced the HALO Universe before, it’s an opportunity to be exposed to this incredibly rich and well thought out universe that we’ve all come to love over the past 20 years. I’ve very excited for both types of people.”
Schreiber added, “The process of the first season is really the process of discovery for John where he begins to have access to his emotional life and some personal memories that he didn’t have access to before. The question of “Who is the Master Chief?” is really spooled out over the course of the first season and it’s done in concert with John really discovering who he is himself. It’s an opportunity for us as an audience member to learn things about the Chief that we didn’t know before or that we filled in with our own personal details.”
It can be a difficult when adapting a known entity into a new medium. You want to keep it true to the source material to satisfy the current fans, put your own slant to it, and also make it approachable for new viewers. Kane talked about how the story came to life. “First, we started with…a story about John and his journey of self-discovery. From that point on we were committed to telling our own story that existed within the universe that people know of HALO. It gave us a chance to build that world, either some new ones, or in many cases, worlds that were canonical, in a way that allowed fans who know the game to really get the chance to visit those places like the Rubble or Madrigal. And of course, for people newly initiated into HALO, a chance to see new worlds for the first time at all.”
“We didn’t consciously run away from retelling stuff from the games but we also realize that why tell you stuff you can see in the games when we can tell you a story of our own and keep it in that same world and expand on the world of it. I think it really started organically with the story of John and then from that point figuring out our themes. The themes are everything from what does it mean to be human, to how much of your own humanity are you willing to risk to save humanity, or how much are you willing to risk of humanity to save humanity. So, questions of warfare and questions of sacrifice come in. Then in the Halsey story, she was just as fascinated with what humanity could be and her own vision to preserve it and her ideas of what artificial intelligence can do for that and is AI as human as human. It just snowballed; it took on its own momentum to the extent that we could bring in stuff that people would love from the games we absolutely did but at the same time we focused on telling our story.”
Looking at the characters, there are plenty of recognizable names but only one actress appears in both mediums. Taylor returns to reprise the role of Cortana from the video game. She spoke about differences between the two versions. “The character’s in a different place on her journey, for sure. We’re going to see a different part of her relationship with Master Chief, the building blocks of that relationship that we haven’t seen before. So that was new for me. Also, because we get to know the Master Chief in a different sort of way in this show, a little more intimately, I get to experience the same experiences he’s having, which is different for my character and that was a lot of fun. It was a little more intimate. So that was a difference for me. Technically it was similar, slightly more challenges, but that would be the biggest difference I think.”
The series does introduce new faces into the HALO universe as well including Ha’s Quan Ah. The actress discussed the benefits of playing someone without the long history as her colleagues, “[b]eing able to have the creative freedom and sit with it and mold her into what I want her to be and how I want her to be portrayed, that gave me a lot less pressure.”
Quan is portrayed as a dreamer with hopes of leaving her outer planet but an encounter with Master Chief changes her world. Ha described her character’s journey: “I think at the beginning, we see her, she doesn’t understand where her father is coming from, his mission and why he’s doing what he’s doing. In a way, I think she was a little bit selfish and self-centered and she only thought about what she wanted and not what her father was doing for the greater good. Later when we see her actually being able to witness the galaxy and everything around her for the first time, I think her purpose has really shifted and it’s not about experiencing the outer world, it’s actually about finding what her inner purpose, who she is. I think that’s what she actually finds. It’s not about what’s out there, it’s about what’s in here. That’s the shift that happens.”
Any good series develops its characters and their connections to contribute to the drama and storytelling. Those familiar with the video game will already know how Halsey and Miranda are linked and it leads to some tension between the two. McElhone shared her character’s perspective. “Our characters have very different versions of the relationship and different versions of culpability if you like. I think for Halsey, she was put on this earth to pursue one thing. She has been gifted with this ability to, well, not just to create and invent and be a terrific scientist, but also with the march against time, she feels the human race is about to be destroyed. She wants to find the quickest route in order to ensure that doesn’t happen and she wants to defeat the Covenant. She’s willing to do anything. Short term pain, long term gain and has this utilitarian attitude that is worthwhile saving billions of future generations than looking after the immediate biological progeny that she has. She just sees that as largely irrelevant.”
On the flipside, Gray talked about how their character’s view. “I think that word influence is such a good one because I think that is the main difference. That is the thing at the epicenter of how that relationship affects each of them. I don’t know how much influence Miranda has on Halsey and the way she lives her life. I’m fairly certain that, I mean, I am certain that a great deal of who Miranda is, the way that she operates, the way that she approaches a lot of things within her environment is directly informed by the relationship that she has with Halsey, and also the absence of that relationship. I think that’s probably the hardest thing actually for Miranda is in some ways witnessing somebody who has such a deep impact on her and on her life story, watching that person not be greatly influenced by her existence.”
It was a real pleasure hearing from the cast and EPs to gain insight on the upcoming series. Don’t miss it when Halo premieres March 24th on Paramount+.