Inside Scoop: Wesley Snipes & Philip Winchester Talk NBC’s THE PLAYER

NBC’s new high action drama, The Player, premieres Thursday, September 24th at 10p.m. OHSOGRAY was on hand at NBC’s summer Television Critics Association presentation, the show’s executive producers/creator took the stage alongside stars Philip Winchester, Charity Wakefield, Damon Gupton, and Wesley Snipes. Here’s what they had to say.

[For Philip] [I]t seems like if you maintain the pace in the pilot, you’re going to be pretty banged up by Season 2.

Philip Winchester: That’s true. […] For me, it’s great. We’re working ourselves into Episode 3, and, you know, it’s a pace that we’re going to have to find out. We’re going to have to find the balances and figure out what works and what doesn’t work. We’ll get there, you know. When you’re having this much fun and working with great people and great writing on the page, it takes care of a lot of the work.

It looks like a lot of [the action] is you, up until the stuntman has to come in, which I have a sneaking suspicion might be the way “Strike Back” also worked?

Philip Winchester: Yeah. There are rules that let you do things and don’t let you do other things. “Strike Back,” we got a lot more stuff when we were in South Africa, Budapest. But, having said that, NBC and Sony have been amazing, and they said, “If you want to get in there and ride that bike, you want to do that stuff, go ahead.” So we’re pushing that out. You know, we’re this is a shown where we’re bringing back ’80’s action and we’re putting it television on a Thursday night, and we have we’re having a good time doing that.

[For Charity] What’s your take on Cassandra? Do you think she really wants to do good, or does she have maybe more self interest and you’re excited to explore?

Charity Wakefield: I’m not going to tell you that at this stage. What I can tell you is she definitely has her own agenda, and she has… Well, this is the thing. You can’t say. It’s very method. She absolutely has her own agenda. We know that she has a connection to Ginny and to Alex. And I know what that agenda is, but I don’t think I can tell you yet. But what’s nice is it’s breadcrumbs through the end, and I feel that it’s a show that works on so many levels. It’s a huge adventure, each episode. The game is so thrilling. You want to know what happens. You’re rooting for the victims, when Alex does…Alex has got this like raw, pulsing heart and cares so much about them. And yet, you’ve got the power play happening in the house. It’s so nice to be a female in that role, too, like, in that position of power and responsibility. And Cassandra is so clever. She’s like 12 times more clever than me. She has an amazing relationship with her incredible computer system and, yeah, she…

Wesley Snipes: Did you know that I auditioned for the “Cassandra” role?

Charity Wakefield: I did not know that. Why didn’t you get it?

Wesley Snipes: Non traditional casting. I don’t know. It’s politics.

Philip Winchester: Screen test will be on you two.

Charity Wakefield: We are going to switch roles at some point.

Wesley Snipes: Sounds good.

Charity Wakefield: I’m working on my martial arts.

Wesley Snipes: And Mr. Johnson in a dress.

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2015

[For producers] Can talk a little bit about the action choreography from the series and designing sort of a distinct action style for each of your stars, since you’ve got a lot of experience up on stage?

John Rogers: I can do that, actually. Sure. John Fox and I met in features back when we first started and first created the show, and worked on big action features. When we created the show, it was really, “Let’s do a big showcase. Let’s do a big kick in the doors action sequence or two.” It’s kind of averaging out to three an episode. And what show supports that is a big pulp high-concept, big fun conspiracy for the audiences to figure it out, and really great characters who are not just super capable, but also don’t much trust or like each other for a good, long chunk of the show. So they have their own rivalries and dangers along with it. So we want to keep the audience completely off balance. So we’re really drawing from everybody’s experience from our feature experience. Philip’s experience, doing “Strike Back” was crucial for the pilot. That’s him on the back for almost the whole thing, and he did it’s him running down Hollywood Boulevard in his underwear. It is him doing as much as he can. We were lucky enough to get Wesley, who is, of course, a fantastic martial artist. The stunt guys had a very easy day the day they had their fight. They just kind of sat over and had coffee while the two of them tussled. And Cassandra Charity of course has actually been doing some cool weapons training. She can actually you can do the fast rope–right–the fast repel?

Charity Wakefield: Yeah. I’ve been hanging off the side of buildings. I can assemble a sniper rifle in under 20 seconds.

Philip Winchester: It was amazing yesterday. She stuck this sniper rifle together.

John Rogers: It was a matter of working with each of them and figuring out the way that each action fits each character style, and each actor’s style. And we’ve been very lucky that they’re all very capable, and all super enthusiastic. There hasn’t been a thing we’ve asked, they’ve said no. And we’ve asked some fairly insane stuff already in three episodes.

[For John Rogers] Can you talk about how arced this is, and how stand-alone this is, and what amount of answers we will get by the end of 13?

John Rogers: I like to say it’s consistency, not continuity. The idea that when you show up every week, you’re going to get a story. You’re going to get a closed end story, beginning, middle and end. You’re going to have a great ride. You’re going to watch Alex face a lot of moral consequences, do a lot of dangerous stuff. You’re going to work with Mr. Johnson, dealing with the giant conspiracy that’s lurking behind everything. You’re going to wonder what Cassandra is going to be doing, how she’s playing them off each other, and if somebody’s playing her. And if that’s all you want, that’s great. But I’m not a big believer that you string people out and make them show up for the and we’re not I say me, but all of us are not a big believer that you string people out for those answers. Stuff is revealed about the backstory, the connections, the history of the house, the big conspiracy that the audience should be able to figure out, some of it. We play fair. We’re not making it up. There’s clues in there. And by the end of 13, you’ll have a good, satisfying answer as to how these people came together.

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2015

[For Wesley] Lots of big film stars are finding joy in doing television series. Talk about the process and the decision to do this, and was there any stipulations that you made that you would make your decision to come to television the chance to, you know, show off your martial arts skills, or anything like that.

Wesley Snipes: Well, the biggest challenge is to be on the show that you like and that you’re intrigued by. What they put together was something that I was highly intrigued by. The premise itself is intriguing, but the idea of playing a character that’s somewhat ambiguous, somewhat mysterious, that is manna from heaven for an actor, and also gives me an opportunity to explore some other type of character development, languages. The biggest concern is how much time I would have still to focus on feature film. And thankfully with these guys, they were able to work it out in a way where I can focus on this, and still do some movie-star stuff every now and then.

[For the producers] I mean this as a compliment. The premise is a little ridiculous. Did you yourselves have a line between what is, you know, too ridiculous and what is just right for this show; and, second question, what do you have against people not named “John”?

John Rogers: “Ridiculous” is a valid, artistic choice. They’ll slowly force Patrick out the powers…

John Zinman: Patrick John. Massett.

John Rogers: I’ll start when, you know, Patrick and John kind of came in as we were doing the show, but the original idea was “ridiculous” is a strong word. “Pulp” is the word we really landed on when we were developing the show. You know, to me Shonda Rhimes is “pulp.” “Pulp” is any story that’s high velocity, big characters making big decisions, big emotional stakes and every episode is a thrill ride. And it doesn’t matter what context it is. We just decided to do it within the genre of action. And, nicely enough, we’ve all done a lot of action. And, of course, Wesley has done a lot of action, Philip has done a lot of action, our stunt guys are some of the best in the business. So we all have a very good idea of what you can really do and what goes overboard, mostly when Philip and the stunt guys and Wesley are really doing it. So we want to be very careful about that. But, look, you’re showing up to have a good time and have your fun ride, so we’re going to knock your socks off every week.

John Zinman: I would say, add to that that the show has the benefit of not only being hyperbolic in its action, but it has three very interesting, mysterious characters. There is a mystery to unpack over the course of the season. So the reality of their human drama tames down the heightened reality of the action. So that’s a balance we’re very consciously trying to strike in developing the stories, in developing the arc for the season, to always come back to what’s emotionally driving them. And, fortunately, the show just is rich with mystery, so it’s not once you buy into the premise…

Wesley Snipes: Mystery.

John Zinman: That’s a great engine to drive our episodic, stand-alone stories. But the overarching mystery is really the heart of the show. And, for example, the Ginny mystery is the emotional heart of Alex’s drive. So everything comes back to a need for the character, and that we really feel strong is going to ground the show in reality.

John Rogers: And might I add, mystery and conflict a lot of these shows start up, and it’s like, “Hey, we’re a happy crime fighting team by Episode 2.” None of them trust each other. He loathes the game, he supports it, and she has her own agenda. So the emotional turmoil of working with people you’re saving other’s lives, occasionally trying to kill each other but they’re the people you’re wrapped up in the story. Every episode has an internal conflict that very much drives it, along with the external.

The Player - Season Pilot

Can you talk about keeping up this pace? Story-telling-wise, you burn through a lot of story really fast.

John Zinman: We heard a pitch for Episode 10 today. And part of that is very specifically designed to give production the amount of lead time to be able to pull off the kind of action that they accomplished in the pilot. So as long as these guys stay healthy, and we all stay sane, it’s stable.

John Rogers: I would say just as far as burning through story, we have a full multi decade-long history of the conspiracy of their histories the characters’ histories, how they’ve collided. We knew going in very much how we were going to execute the year. So the story and the great thing is the conspiracy, there’s their personal stories, there’s the adventure of the week, and then the Ginny mystery underneath. So even if you’re flipping a lot of cards over every week, you’ve got a lot to flip. It is a very layered structure. It’s not one central … at the center of it. There is a lot of different agendas and a lot of different…

John Zinman: I would say also, while there are three of them, that’s a lot variables. So these mystery stories interweave, gives us a great amount of opportunity for misdirection, for going down blind alleys, and then turning around and finding that it wasn’t this. It was that. So it was very sustainable. It’s a wonderfully sustainable mystery story, and we’ll have no trouble with 22. And then we reinvent and reload for Season 2. So we’re feeling very good about the trajectory of the story.

[For the producers] Would you liken Mr. Johnson to Red Reddington?

John Fox: Yeah. Sure. I mean, there’s commonality. Just in terms of the kind of mystery and the enigma I actually think weirdly, Red and as enigmatic as Red is we, going in, knew a little bit more about Red, than we know about Mr. Johnson. And I think that’s what we’re going to unpack in the first season. I think we’re going to get to know Mr. Johnson in some interesting ways. But, yes, there is definitely commonality, and they both exist in the same kind of, you know, morally ambiguous criminal universe, yeah.

Wesley Snipes: They both like to wear cool clothes and cool hats.

John Fox: That too. That too.

John Rogers: I like to imagine there’s some London haberdasher somewhere. They miss each other by like 10 minutes all the time.

Wesley Snipes: Yeah.

The Player - Season Pilot

[For Damon Gupton] Is your character the sort of straight man voice of sanity, or do you also have a sneaky aspect we are about to discover?

Damon Gupton: That’s a good question. I would hope he has a sneaky aspect I am about to discover, but actually, he is kind of a character that views everything maybe from the audience’s viewpoint. Right now, he’s kind of outside this world. He doesn’t actually know what’s going on, which is a lot of fun to play. So he has lots of discoveries to make about Alex and these people that Alex is tangled up with, you know. So he is kind of separate from the team of the three.

Wesley Snipes: He’s a sneaky cop.

Damon Gupton: Oh, he’s good, though.

Wesley Snipes: Yeah, he’s sneaky.

John Rogers: If I could hop in. One of the nice things just as the show has been going, you make the pilot as the show you think it is in your head, and then you see the dailies for the first four or five episodes, and what’s great is it is a genuine. It is a very honest, emotional friendship between the two of them in a way you don’t see a lot of male characters have. There’s a lot of bluffing, a lot of barriers. They are both two very open actors. The relationship is very genuinely friendly. Cal is genuinely concerned about his friend Al at the same time he realizes he’s wrapped up in something. So he’s not just going to be outside. He’s going to be digging into the conspiracy to try to help his friend, and the closer he gets to the middle of it is the closer he gets to a bullet. And so that’s going to be part of the suspense of the season.

Wesley Snipes: Mr. Johnson makes him an offer he can’t refuse maybe.

John Rogers: Probably.

Damon Gupton: We’ll see.

Patrick Massett: But I would also say it’s one of our goals as writers to always subvert expectation with characters, you know. We want people to believe one thing about them and then flip that and just keep opening up the characters and keeping them interesting. So whatever you think a character is, just know that there’s something around the corner that you are not expecting that will add another dimension to that character.

Wesley Snipes: So cool. That’s so cool.

Patrick Massett: That’s the fun for us, to keep you guys guessing.

The Player - Season Pilot

Do you have a lot of action experience in that sort of thing?

Philip Winchester: Side note. Can I just say, the fact that you guys are all here, we appreciate this. This is the last day.

Charity Wakefield: Yeah.

Philip Winchester: It’s 4 o’clock on the last day. Well done. Well done for showing up. We appreciate that.

Charity Wakefield: Thank you for being here.

Philip Winchester: There was being well, again, going back, I don’t want to bring my daughter up too much, but doing it and being a dad, that was a whole different kettle of fish because you just don’t have a lot of time. It was a little different from “Strike Back” in the sense that, again, it’s more ambitious than anything I’ve worked on before because of the time constraints. And so we are doing huge action scenes, and we are tying in this wonderful drama that the writers have given us, and there’s no time to think twice about it. You just go into it, and you can make these decisions. We were out there the other day, driving around in the desert in a Jeep and doing all of our driving ourselves, and the camera truck was right next to me. And we were bumper to bumper, doing about 50 miles an hour and then spinning out of shots together. It was just the fact that I mean, even being here, I just pinch myself. That we get to do this for a job is incredible. We are really fortunate.

Is everything shot in Vegas? Where are you guys shooting at? Is most of the story set there?

John Rogers: Yeah. We are actually shooting in Los Angeles. The resources here are great. The stunt team is great. The location is fantastic. L.A. is a great place to shoot, and it’s great to be in the city. And, we hope to be not uncommon. More shows should come back here and take advantage of it. We are going to take a second unit to Vegas and grab stuff in Vegas for the car chases, the extra stuff, just to pick up that footage that’s necessary to fill in. And, yes, most of the first season, in the beginning, is set in Vegas.

John Zinman: The show is centered in Vegas. That is home base, but the story, as the series goes on, is going to start that we are the North American house. So, in the first run, we go to Los Angeles. We are going to go to Chicago. We are going to eventually go to New York. But the bulk of the first order is in Vegas to ground the show and ground the characters in their home turf, and then we are going to go further and further afield.

Which came first, the idea of a machine that could predict the future or the idea of we want a show about gambling on people and what would be a way to have that?

John Rogers: Well, actually, I’ll tell you, it was John called me. John is a creator by credit on the show. It’s not it hasn’t been on the pilot yet, but he’s fully a co creator on it. He actually called me and said, “I have this idea.” He had pitched the gambling on crime. And as we were talking about it, I said, “Look, you don’t need a machine that can predict crime. That’s just a magic black box.” What’s interesting to me as somebody who has worked in technology and done this sort of writing is that there’s a lot of this tech that will work. We have predictive policing. We have predictive profiling. The way we describe Cassandra’s character, it’s Jessica Chastain’s character from “Zero Dark Thirty” if she broke bad. Everything in the show is real tech. A little bit of the display stuff, we are pushing about 10, 15 years, but there’s nothing in there you can’t find if you are a clever human being with access to every database in the world. Their power is they got in early, and they got in deep. And it’s not some magic box off somewhere doing the work for them. And that’s part of the fun for us and, really, what was what happened. How do we gamble on crime? Well, you need to be able to lay odds. You need to be able to predict it. We pulled all of the research in for predictive policing and for predicting as much human behavior as we could, criminal behavior, how you track terrorists, how you track criminals, and, then, we gamified it. And, then, we said, “Well” it was actually, really, the birth of the show itself. I said, “Well, who would bet on that? You’d have to be the most powerful, powerful evil.” Oh, okay. That’s who it is. And, then, the show just locked into place immediately. It actually says it would take almost infinite resources to do this.

John Fox: Yeah.

John Rogers: That’s one of the reasons the conspiracy is so old.

John Fox: Actually, I don’t know if I ever told you this. It sprang from, just in terms of the human side of gambling on crime I was at a…my wife has this friend whose husband is a degenerate gambler. I barely even know the guy, but we were at a kid’s birthday party, and he was telling me that he gambles so much now that there is no thrill in it for him anymore. There’s no rush. And so, at the time, I was breaking stories on “The Blacklist” and had crime on my mind. And so I said to him, “It would be interesting. What if he gambled on crime? What if – will the kidnapped girl be found? Will the murder be solved?” And his eyes lit up, I mean, just lit up, and I thought, “Okay. Maybe we are on to something.”

John Rogers: This also is what allows the show to have the flexibility it does. We bet on any crime. And the fun for the writing staff is we brought on this really wrong writing staff and said, “All right. Name one. Name the offbeat crime story you could never tell on another show. Name the murder mystery or the kidnapping or the cold case you could never make work. We’ll do it, and we’ll bring the stakes up, and we’ll put a timer on it. We’ll do the ‘pulp’ version of it.” And we’ve got a really wide range of exciting stories to share.

John Zinman: And, additionally, we are not constrained by law. This is not a law enforcement unit. They will win or lose the bet by their own device or their own means, and it is any means necessary. So that gets us into the moral grays and the ambiguity of the show, which is also a lot of fun to play with.

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2015

Does the house always or sometimes sets up its own crimes to have something to bet on if it’s a slow crime day on a machine?

John Zinman: Thus far, we have decided no. They only bet on what is going to happen. Now, that may become a story point down the road because that does become decidedly more evil and not so it’s a potential question, and that goes into the ambiguity of the morality of the show.

John Rogers: To a great degree, the players is what gives that heat. There is an almost infinite amount of crime happening all the time. We live in a very high tech crime world, a lot of stuff going on. The player is the wild card. The player is what makes it interesting. And so he was actually that the structure of the house was invented to give more action for the gamblers. So the house tries to stay neutral at least for now.

John Zinman: But these are great questions from a character and story standpoint because when you get to choose which crime you intervene in, you are making moral decisions. You are making qualitative decisions on which is more important, which life is more important, and these are the positions we want to put a player in where he is an agent of good in his heart, but he’s going to constantly be put into a position where he needs to choose between the lesser of two evils. That becomes his good. And that’s the push and pull between Johnson and Alex, and it’s a lot of it’s great conflict, and it’s great fun for the show.

Mr. Snipes, will we get to see you do a bit more action ever?

Wesley Snipes: Well, yeah, that is part of the plan. He’s not just going to be a guy standing behind a desk and barking orders. He’s going to be a man of action. So he’ll be able to bring some interesting things to the table and some nice martial arts as well.

[For the producers] Can you talk about that character a little bit more?

Wesley Snipes: Right? Right?

John Rogers: Yeah.

John Zinman: Oh, yes, absolutely.

John Rogers: I just read a two and a half page fight scene for you.

Wesley Snipes: What?

John Rogers: Yes.

John Zinman: Wesley, rest up.

John Rogers: Rest up. Yes, absolutely. Look, Mr. Johnson is a fascinating guy. He’s actually probably one of my favorite characters because he’s in theory, the house is a big, horrible thing. They bet on crime. They play with human lives. He absolutely believes it’s the best possible thing to be doing for a lot of very good reasons when he explains it, and we really like half the time, when he gives his opinion, you go, “Yeah. Actually, that, kind of, makes sense. I’m on his side right now.” And so Mr. Johnson, as that representative of order in a world of chaos, is a man who makes life-and-death decisions every day. One of the first meetings we had, we talked about is he a moral man or an ethical man? And those are two different things. And unraveling that incredibly complicated guy who spent decades in this game, walking the corridors of power with the greatest conspiracy in the history of the world, that’s a great guy to explore for six to seven seasons.

Patrick Massett: Yeah. The short answer is he’s going to kick a lot of ass.

Can you guys talk about the moral ambiguity?

Wesley Snipes: Right. The ramifications and the stakes are very high. Yes. I’m sorry.

John Rogers: Yeah. Yeah, I think, absolutely. This is the this is what’s when we built the show was we wanted the organization to be believable. We wanted there to be a full history where things that happened, that the house arrived at the form it is now for a reason. It’s the best possible solution. So we’ve got, actually, a whole timeline of when the house was first formed and how it went wrong and why the game was first formed and why the house was invented. When did the player become part of the format? When did the pit boss and the dealer come in? And so, really, we really want the audience to think, every week, he’s being put in an impossible moral decision. He has to choose between innocent people trapped in a game that’s horrible, but maybe, if it wasn’t there, it would be even worse. And we just constantly want the audience push/pulling on that. And, you know, at the same time, we want you to think is Cassandra trying to bring down the house? Has Mr. Johnson got his own agenda? Is Alex trying to destroy the house, or is he being seduced by it? Who am I rooting for?

John Zinman: I’d like to just add one we are getting into the grays and the darkness, and I want to just really reiterate that there’s a certain joy in this. There is a great joy in this, and this is part of the seduction of Alex, and I think it’s part of the seduction of all of us as audience members is, ultimately, they are stopping crime. Ultimately, they are doing great good. It’s the means that are questionable. So it gets into questions of vigilanteism. There’s a great tradition of worshiping vigilantes in movies and in literature because you want the results. We all want to stop the bad guy. And for Alex, it’s a question of, yeah, I am actually doing what I want to be doing, which is saving lives serving justice, but the means etch away at his heart. And so that’s the push and pull, and it is, we think, the fun of the show because, at the end, you are going to go, “Yeah. Hmm.” And so I think that’s the target we are going for.

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2015

When you were running down the boulevard in your underwear in the middle of the night was there a thought, going, “I hope this pilot gets picked up as I’m running down the boulevard in my underwear in the middle of the night”?

John Zinman: Body doubles.

Philip Winchester: I though the handcuffs were mine. I’ll just let you know that John Rogers very kindly offered right before we did that, he said, “You know, Philip, I never write something for my actors to do that I wouldn’t do myself.” And so my eyes twinkled a little bit, and I said, “Really, John? Really?” And here we were.

John Rogers: Then Dave was…we were on the…

Philip Winchester: We were on Hollywood Boulevard. He comes by in his boxers.

John Rogers: And he said, “So, John.”

Philip Winchester: And he looks at me, and he’s, like, “So, John, did you wear clean underwear tonight?” He did. He wore really nice ones.

John Rogers: Just in case.

Philip Winchester: Just in case.

John Rogers: I wasn’t going to strand him.

How many times did you do it, and what were the logistics, having to clear out Hollywood Boulevard?

Wesley Snipes: And how did you prepare? [Laughter.]

John Rogers: By the way, just before he tells the story, I would like to say a lot of network shows are very exploitive of women. We like to give a little something back.

Philip Winchester: As much as we can.

John Rogers: Yes.

Philip Winchester: I mean, it was they shut down Hollywood Boulevard. They shut a stretch of it down, and we it was actually really neat because I was we were running around the alleys in Hollywood. So they had these the five finger toe shoes? We painted them skin colored, and we stuck those on, and I was running around in those to make it look like I was barefoot. And we probably did it all night, didn’t we?

John Rogers: Yeah. And, then, we went to Vegas.

Philip Winchester: And, then, we went to Vegas, and we ran down…

John Rogers: Fremont.

Philip Winchester: Fremont Street, which, actually, nobody paid attention to because it’s Vegas. They were, like, “Ah, it’s no big deal. Boxers and a gun? He probably lost a bet.”

How tough was it to get Hollywood Boulevard shut down for a night?

Philip Winchester: We just did it.

John Rogers: A couple of GoPros.

Wesley Snipes: The thrill of filmmaking.

John Rogers: You throw up some cones, and people just go around. It’s amazing.

John Fox: But it was pretty great because it was like “I Am Legend.” It was just…

Charity Wakefield: It was cold.

John Fox: Hollywood Boulevard. Yeah, it was great.