Interview by Alfred Rohrmoser
Hi Darren, NORTHERN EXPOSURE is a success story. The series continues to captivate fans. What do you think is the reason for that?
Ultimately the measure of a show’s success is its fans, so that this seems to be a question better directed to the fans of Northern Exposure. Without its fans there is not even a season two of Northern Exposure. That being said, it has been my observation that there is such a variety in those that consider themselves to be fans of NoEx that this variety is surpassed only by the variety of reasons these fans are drawn to the show. Northern Exposure seems to find a commonality in touching many different people for many different reasons. I suppose that it is this to which I would most attribute the show’s longevity.
Your character of Ed is a Native American and a „film geek“, which is VERY original, especially since in 1990 „film geeks“ hardly played a role in movies. What did you think of the role, how did you get it?
I did not consider this in auditioning for Ed. As a practical matter I auditioned maybe four or five times for the part… I do not remember exactly the number now that so much time has passed. The first meeting/audition was for the casting director, then Universal Studios, CBS, the creators of course; and I was eventually offered the role. Then, in respect to playing “Ed”; as we know from science, there is not a “race” gene, there are only hereditary traits. We are all human. That is to say we all feel, we all know the excitement of discovery, we all wish to be loved, fall in love, desire acceptance, suffer loss, feel pain, loneliness. This then is how I approached “Ed” as a human orphan child finding his place in this world.
Today, Ed would probably be cast as a Native American. Were there any casting restrictions?
The first time my agent called me about the part of “Ed” the project was casting for Native Americans and I turned the meeting down. My agent called again a few weeks later and said they had rewritten the character to be half Anglo and half Native and would I take the audition and I did.
Ed has such great lines like „Sex is like ALIEN. Everyone tells you how good ALIEN is, then you go in and realize it’s even better.“ Do you have a favorite line or scene?
One of the reasons I really enjoyed playing Ed, was the way he could say just about anything, and it always seemed to come out in a very unique way. I think Ed could have read the phone directory or even just a dictionary and made it seem interesting… that being said I think my favorite line? I always liked saying “Hi” to everyone… perhaps that began with the first time we meet Ed and he introduces himself with “Hi, I’m Ed.”
What freedom did you have in the play? Was improvisation conceivable or desired?
The writers and producers did not want improvisation and for the most part expected that we actors say the dialogue word for word. So, the writers and producers in Los Angeles told us what to say, but since they were in Los Angeles and we were filming two thousand miles away, they could not tell us how to say it. And so, this became something of a game or challenge to me (and this speaks to the preceding question) to say the writer’s words in a way that perhaps they had not meant or understood them.
If you look at the different seasons, one thing stands out. The first 4 seasons seem very original and authentic, you immediately feel transported into Alaskan life. It seems original. In the last two seasons, the professionalism shines, perfect film quality, well-considered scenes – even the themes perfect.
However, one has a little feeling that from the 5th season too much Hollywood-market analysis has flowed into the production. Is that deceptive? The first seasons give a very authentic picture – not always so perfect – but just that gives the series the charm. How did you experience the production of the different seasons?
This is a big question… I think that this perception of yours is not yours alone; but that this is the critique of many that are fans of Northern Exposure. In my opinion Northern Exposure was the sum of many parts and players (not the least of which were Joshua Brand and John Falsey) all of which contributed to its initial success and as it turns out now, we see even a certain appeal that has extended well beyond its timeliness in the 1990’s. I have always said even at the time that we were still in production that the greatest boon to NoEx was that we did not shoot a pilot episode per se. Universal had an order for eight episodes from CBS. CBS’s plan was to air the show during the summer months when all other programing was re-runs and syndicated episodics; the thought I think being that audiences would tune in to watch simply because it was the only original show on, regardless if it was good or not. And that would be the end of it, eight episodes of Northern Exposure and done. And so very little attention was paid to us by the Studios and powers as we shot our shows, developed our characters and their relationships with one another, and brought our town of Cicely to life. As we know now our audience connected with us and we connected with them and the show became such a hit that more episodes were ordered. Joshua Brand and John Falsey leaving the show after the third season was the beginning of the end. We that had been involved with the production from the beginning felt the sea change. …The hand on the ship’s rudder had changed. And the new captains while competent did not have the same feel or understanding or dare I say, even love for the vessel as the builders. Had they, I think that the show could have righted itself and continued, but it was not to be. In my opinion it is this fundamental lack of understanding of the intangibles that made the magic that was Northern Exposure that proved unsurvivable, this lack of parental love, if you will, for Northern Exposure that I believe is apparent in the last seasons.
If you look at the series today one thing stands out, the themes of the series are still current. It’s about the issues of progress, climate change, the advent of new technology. Sometimes you get the feeling that the authors had a glimpse of the future. How do you see it?
My perspective is that these issues have always been with us and in fact are part of the human condition. It is the inhabitants of Cicely’s humanness; they feel, they love, yet are very different in thoughts and views, still they have a bond of caring for one another as souls, that transcends these differences. This is what it means to be human. It is what separates us from the animals. In my opinion it is this truth, rather than current events, that continues Northern Exposure in relevancy. For truth is timeless.
How are you personally? Corona made it a difficult year. On the other hand, it also gave us time for reflection. Suddenly the simple things have become much more valuable again. You live on a farm, how did you experience the Corona period?
In America we have not suffered the reaction of authority to the virus as in Europe for which I am grateful (though that may come), even in the cities where we have lockdowns; and as you note I live in the country on a small farm… Someone joked with me that I was “social distancing” before it was cool.
You are the son of the actor Billy Drago – how is the enthusiasm of your children for acting or the film business?
I have seen very little enthusiasm from my children for acting as a profession; thankfully I might add.
You’ve worked with many filmmakers – from series directors to John Waters, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. What character groups do they fall into? On „Northern Exposure“, was there a director you most enjoyed working with? Why?
From my perspective, I consider myself fortunate to have been hired by and worked with such a diversity of talented directors, including those not mentioned here… All I can say to this is few of them made the same mistake twice, and of those that did, none to date have hired me for a third time. In regards to the different directors we guested on Northern Exposure I think it relevant to point out that the role of a TV series director differs immensely from the role of a director in film. In film, as the title implies, the director is responsible for the entire direction of the film. In a television show such as Northern Exposure the direction is already set by the creators and set in motion by all of the episodes that have come before. So that while the television series director plays an important role it is more one of storytelling and shot selection and less performative, particularly when it comes to the regular cast. How did I enjoy our directors Northern Exposure then? I enjoyed them all, most likely to the degree that they enjoyed me.
I know the Northern Exposure team was like a ingrained family during production. Is there still contact among former colleagues?
I cannot speak for others. For myself I have some contact. And on social media there is interaction with others. You referenced that we were like a family during production. This is true. And so we will always be, for better or worse; with or without contact.
What about a revival? I know you yourself were very intense on a revival and took care of a new script and financing of a production, we had talked about it several times. Now, about 2 years ago, Universal and CBS took the matter into their own hands, because they saw that there was great interest in a continuation of the series. What is your state of information? Some preliminary work has already been done on the revival, but it seems to be at a standstill again. Do you know more?
I do not know more. For a moment there was a window when I thought I could make this happen. I worked very hard to make it happen. Ultimately Universal chose a different direction then the one I was advocating for, one championed by others. I do not know what became of that effort.
Apart from „Alaska of all things“, you have also acted in other film productions. If one follows your engagement – then one sees that the series has a special value in your life. Why is that, how do you feel about it – what makes this production so unique?
For myself, my engagement on Northern Exposure occurred in my twenties and lasted five years. I met and married my wife during this time and had my first son. All of these life events and many more for me, are intertwined with the five years of many long days and nights required in the production of Northern Exposure; so that the television show and my life at this time are inextricably linked.
When you come back to the production site in Roslyn (in the series Cicely) you have the feeling that time has stood still in the place. If you walk through the streets you can recognize many buildings. Is the place a canned Cicely? What would you recommend to the fans if they come there?
I note that Roslyn was as it is, long before it was Cicely and so for fans of Northern Exposure it may remain Cicely, but I suspect the citizens of Roslyn might argue that it remains Roslyn. That being said it is true that much of the town is as it was in the 1990’s at the time we were shooting Northern Exposure, and fans may experience certain moments of “entering in through the looking glass” to perhaps a magical place and time that can be recognized from the show and perhaps imagine their favorite characters walking down the same sidewalk and crossing the street to The Brick or Ruth Anne’s store.
Would you take part in a new production as an actor if the film studios approached you? How could a follow-up production look like, what is the best way to start the continuation of the series. After all, you will have to let some characters in the series play again so that there is a reference? Of course, it’s been a couple of years since the last production and the actors have gotten older. What would your idea be?
To your first question, no one has approached me in regards to this. To the rest of these questions, my perspective/opinion on all of these was wrapped up in my effort to push forward a reboot of the show; an effort that did not bear fruit, and so I must leave these to some other.
So that´s the questions. We are pleased that you are participating.
Thank you for your interest in my thoughts, and your invitation to participate! Most of all I would like to thank all of the fans that have supported me with their interest in my work, and continue to support me to this day. I wish each and every one, all the best of everything.
/// A quick note of interest… Darren spends much of his time these days creating art in metal and his work can be seen at etsy. Much more insights are available in his book, „Northern Exposed“, available on Amazon Kindle.
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