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History Channel leaped into the unknown with Project Blue Book, its 10-episode drama series based on the Air Force’s 1950s program investigating UFOs. The show, which returns for its second season Jan. 21, has turned out to be one of the top-rated cable series of 2019, averaging 3.3 million viewers — a welcome surprise for David O’Leary. The creator says he sold the network three years ago on his pitch for “a real-life X Files set in the time of Mad Men” that would follow the astronomer who spearheaded the top-secret government program, Dr. J. Allen Hynek (played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen). O’Leary, producer-writer Sean Jablonski and actors Gillen, Laura Mennell, Michael Malarkey and Neal McDonough delve into the true backstories behind the series, valuing “authenticity over accuracy” and their own UFO sightings.
David, what made you want to make a show about UFOs?
DAVID O’LEARY It’s a subject matter that has always fascinated me. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with UFOs and with the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” I’ve just always felt that the phenomena was real. It always rang true to me. I’d read books or watched documentaries on UFOs, and you could tell that the people who saw what they claim to have seen were telling the truth.
Aidan, you played Littlefinger on Game of Thrones for many years. What made you want to portray this real-life character?
AIDAN GILLEN I’d played a villainous role [in Thrones] and a few other villains along the way. So I made this conscious decision a while back to try to find some warmer, lighter characters to play. And I had a similar interest in UFOs from an early age.
Why is that?
GILLEN Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains one of my favorite all-time films. When I was 10 or 11, it gave me a real interest in the subject. And actually, one of the first things I did [when I got this part] was I got out my three-disc Blu-ray set and watched the original theatrical trailer for Close Encounters. It’s kind of like a documentary in itself, and Hynek is the first or second person to show up. I was like, “All right, this is meant to be.”
O’LEARY They actually rereleased Close Encounters of the Third Kind the weekend before the writers room opened, which was nuts. My wife and I went to see it the night before, and the next day we started the room.
How did the rest of you join the project?
MICHAEL MALARKEY I’ve always had an awareness of what was going on with some of the big UFO cases, but in no way was I deeply fascinated. I just wanted to do something completely different from the last thing I did [Malarkey is best known for his role on Vampire Diaries] and felt like [Captain Michael Quinn, who works with Hynek] was a really complicated and interesting character to play.
SEAN JABLONSKI The first time all of us met Michael was over Skype. He’s also a musician, so he was in Paris backstage, getting ready to play a set.
O’LEARY We thought it was so badass.
LAURA MENNELL I wish that was my life.
Laura and Neil, how did you board the series?
MENNELL I thought it was such an exciting project because it is really about one of the biggest mysteries of all time: Is there intelligent life out there other than ourselves? I think our show has a really compelling argument for yes, but it’s also entertaining.
NEAL MCDONOUGH For me, I think Aidan hit on it. Growing up in the ’70s, there were so many great shows — Star Trek, Star Wars, Close Encounters — thinking about what else could be out there. So I’ve always been fascinated with science fiction.
MENNELL I also loved the female aspect of it, being a woman in the 1950s. It was a bit of a different time when women had to fit a certain mold, and Mimi goes through a nice arc. She was a little stuck in her sort of rut of domesticity at the beginning, and little by little she starts to become a stronger and ballsier.
Since the show is based on the real-life Air Force program, how much research did you do into it?
O’LEARY A lot. Project Blue Book investigated over 12,000 cases, 700 of which remain unexplained. Hynek wrote a number of books, which were immensely helpful. Then the first Project Blue Book director wrote a tell-all about his experiences.
JABLONSKI Before he mysteriously died of a heart attack at 38.
O’LEARY Yeah, there were a number of mysterious deaths surrounding Project Blue Book. We explore some of those as well.
JABLONSKI But more than just Project Blue Book, there’s America in the 1950s. It’s understanding the fabric of society at the time, how women were treated back then and what was on the military’s mind with the Cold War and Korea and all that stuff. So beyond the cases, it’s understanding how it all fits together in that world.
MALARKEY The [series] would be showing the infrastructure of the whole control-the-narrative concept and fake news and all of that. I feel like it’s really timely and relevant in that aspect. We’re getting to see a time when dealing with panic and hysteria was a huge deal. Now more than ever we are realizing just how fragile the media is, in a way. And this is almost some of the beginnings of that.
JABLONSKI: The original fake news is what we like to say.
Hynek’s son, Paul, was a consultant on the show, right? What was it like to have him involved?
GILLEN The first day Paul and his brother Joel came onto set, it was kind of terrifying. It was like, are we going to get away with this?
JABLONSKI You’re playing Dad.
GILLEN But they are very forgiving and understand it’s about finding a medium between you and the real person.
O’LEARY They’d always come up with little things like, “My dad really wouldn’t say that,” or, “My mom would do it this way.”
MENNELL Paul even gave me his mother’s pin that I wear on an episode in the first season. It’s nice because the Hyneks have been so much a part of our show.
The show dramatizes real events. How do you strike that balance between fact and fiction?
JABLONSKI Every case we do is based on real stories, so you do carry a sense of responsibility and feel like you owe it to the process to dig in, research and then turn it back out as something that is both satisfying historically and as a TV show. We always say authenticity over accuracy because we’re not making a documentary.
What can you tease about season two?
JABLONSKI The second season, how we approached it, was that the mystery was up in the sky. This year, it’s about going back to find out where it began on the ground. That starts in Roswell for us. So if it was about trying to understand what was up there before, this second season is about trying to understand where the conspiracy to cover up what was known and is known about what’s going on in the sky takes place.
O’LEARY I think Sean would say the conspiracy is the case. Each case kind of builds on that, and you get more of a piece of what’s going on while these incredible events are happening all at the same time.
MALARKEY It’s a colorful season — not that last season wasn’t, but I feel like we just have these rich backdrops going on. We have the desert, we have the deep woods, we’ve got the vast open water. I think it’s just a visual treat, as well as a dynamic, nuanced character study.
GILLEN I feel like I’m having a little bit more fun, as well.
O’LEARY Yeah, season one was a drag. (Laughs.) Just kidding.
Has anyone had a UFO sighting of their own?
O’LEARY Yeah, I had something weird happen. I was walking a couple blocks away from my home near Park La Brea in Los Angeles. I was on the phone with a friend, and I saw what looked like a teardrop-shaped green self-luminescent ball of light kind of emerge out of the trees. In my mind’s eye, it sort of started to move toward me. I’ll be completely honest, I panicked. I ran underneath it. It was completely silent, and then it just flickered and continued to move on. It was the strangest thing I’ve seen. Even now when I take out the garbage at night, I’m a little like, “Eh …”
MALARKEY Every time he sees that street lamp.
O’LEARY I didn’t share it for a while partially because I was such a coward about how I behaved when I saw it, but also because I was like, “Oh, it feels so convenient that I’m writing a UFO show and I have this UFO experience.” But it was very strange.
MALARKEY Just think about the thousands upon thousands of cases that are reported of people who see things, who second-guess what they’ve seen or think that someone’s going to think they’re a weirdo for talking about it.
JABLONSKI When I was 10 in New York City, I saw something that stopped me on the street. It’s funny, I look back on it now and am like, “I was in New York City looking up. It couldn’t have just been me.” But I remember going home and telling my parents. It was so clear. It was these hexagonal shapes. I actually drew a picture of it when I got back. I remember staring up, looking at this thing, going, “Is anybody else seeing this?” You do that mental thing where you’re like, “Am I seeing this? I am seeing this.” So I was always interested after that. I actually went to Peru on a solo trip to Machu Picchu to see if the aliens built it, just because I had to go. I needed to see it for myself.
JABLONSKI I was like, “I could see people doing this.” But there was another thing called Sacsayhuaman. It’s this old military fort where there are 20-ton stones that are smooth and fit together to where you can’t even slide a sheet of paper between them. That I was like, “Oh, aliens built that for sure.” Nobody can explain that stuff.
O’LEARY There are some strange structures, like Stonehenge. Why bring all those heavy stones into a field in Southern England?
MCDONOUGH I don’t look at the night sky the same way anymore after starting Project Blue Book.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This partnered feature is produced by Hollywood Reporter editorial staff in conjunction with a paid brand partnership with History Channel.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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