War of the Worlds cast on updating a classic: 'It's extremely pertinent to the world we live in today'

Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern and the cast of the sci-fi series take us behind the scenes on their thrilling adaptation of the HG Wells classic.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 6 March 2020 - 3.42pm
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Sci-fi

Urban Myth Films/Fox

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Even though it was first published in 1898, HG Wells' War of the Worlds remains a powerful and terrifying story that is rich with possibilities for modern adaptations.

Tom Cruise took the story to the big screen in 2005, the BBC produced a period drama based on the sci-fi novel in 2019 and this year Fox are bringing a modern-day take on the alien invasion thriller.

Starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern, this latest adaptation is less interested on the alien attackers and focuses instead on the ordinary civilian survivors, who find themselves in a new world where they must work together to survive.

Created by BAFTA-winner Howard Overman (Misifts, Merlin), the series questions human behaviour under the most extreme pressure and delivers a cinematic explosion of mystery, love and aliens.

“It’s heart-breaking, It’s a real story about real people,” explains Elizabeth McGovern, who is a million miles away from the period nostalgia of Downton Abbey, in which she played Cora, Countess of Grantham.

War of the Worlds starts on Thursday, March 5 with a double bill and the cast have revealed how the epic international drama was made.

Why War of the Worlds still fascinates us in 2020

Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern in War of the Worlds Fox/Urban Myth Films

In the current political climate, it probably shouldn't surprise us that there is a renewed fascination in HG Wells’ apocalyptic text.

"I think it's extremely pertinent to the world we live in today," said Byrne.

"I think that the aliens, they're a metaphor for the unknown, the fears and terrors that are out there.

"I think in the films of the 1950s, for example, there were a great many stories about unseen and unknown forces coming to threaten the world and that was indicative of a time when the world was entering a nuclear age and a very scary place. 

"The aliens there stood in for perhaps the 'red menace', as it was known at that time."

The threats that face the world in 2020 are no less abstract, he explained.

“I think we’ve got a great deal to fear in the world that we live in today, but a lot of those fears are un-nameable and incomprehensible.

“The biggest existential threat to the human race is climate change and we don’t seem to be acting terrifically well in relation to that... Maybe we’re destined to be wiped out by aliens or the weather.”
- Gabriel Byrne

"We can’t articulate what it is exactly, so that’s why HG Wells' original story was in a way a premonition of the Great War that was to come. The story itself can be recycled again and again to meet the changing world that we live in."

The Irish actor added: "I mean all I know is that the biggest threat, the biggest existential threat to the human race is climate change and we don’t seem to be acting terrifically well in relation to that. 

"I can’t think of anything more threatening, and yet I can’t think of really any great collaborative reaction to that.  Maybe we’re destined to be wiped out by aliens or the weather."

Not so glamourous filming location

Elizabeth McGovern in War of the Worlds on Fox channel Urban Myth Films/Fox

"Well, it was winter-time in Wales and it’s not the Riviera," jokes Byrne, talking about the filming location for the series.

"So we had to battle the weather, the cold and the rain and so forth.  The studios are also cold, so it’s not like the weather or even the interiors are conducive to being in a comfortable place, but then that suits the story too, because all power in the story, electrical power and so forth, is all gone because of what happens.

"It helps to be in an environment that’s not exactly the most conducive to comfort"

Stephen Campbell Moore, who plays Jonathan Gresham in the series, agreed with Byrne that the unglamourous locations helped the cast get into character.

"None of the locations are where you'd want to go for a holiday!  It's all bunkers and things that evoke the end of the world in your imagination," he said.

"There haven't been, for my character, too many picturesque holiday spots, no."

Characters full of heart

Natasha Little as Sarah Gresham with children Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Tom (Ty Tennant) Urban Myth Films/Fox

This version of War of the Worlds is less interested in shocking you with CGI aliens and instead draws you into the story with big characters that hook you into their battle for survival.

Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern are brilliantly cast as the former couple Bill and Helen, who are trying to reconcile their relationship in the face of the apocalypse.

One of the more intriguing characters is Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Emily Gresham, whose Stargardt disease - a retinal disorder - which limits her vision.

"She has a strange relationship with the world because she has to navigate things in a way that other people don’t," explains Edgar-Jones.

Gabriel Byrne in War of the Worlds Urban Myth Films/Fox

"She relies a lot on touch and sound and she has to judge people based on the way they speak to her because obviously she can’t judge by the way they look or how they appear. 

"As the story goes along, she has a strange relationship with aliens, which she can’t really explain and she is very confused and scared, but it also feels strangely right. The way she feels towards them is quite caring and strangely motherly, I feel."

Edgar-Jones explained how she meets the particular challenges of playing a visually impaired character.

"The biggest challenge is trying to navigate how to play a scene a character who is blind when you can see.  I can look in your eyes and that’s how I communicate," she said.

"So yes, just trying to work out how I would still enter a room, now having had vision, but also needing to understand it in ways that other people don’t, because that’s how I've kind of functioned in the world as Emily."

Neatly encapsulating what makes War of the Worlds different to the many sci-fi shows you'll see this year, Byrne concluded: “The bottom line, what makes it a different story for me, is that you get involved in real, complex characters and real complex relationships between people.

"There’s been a real effort made to have dimensional people with real problems, who just happen to be contending with aliens.  That elevates their problems and it throws them into more of a glaring light."

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