When an alien crash-lands on Earth and takes over the body of a small-town doctor in Syfy’s “Resident Alien,” he spends hours rewinding and mimicking the same lines of dialogue from “Law & Order” in order to learn how to walk, talk and interact with humans. But as much as he intends to utilize those lessons when venturing out in town, “life comes at him fast,” Alan Tudyk, who plays the alien, admits. And this, more often than not, sees him reacting as his honest self as a “novice human” in many situations. For that, Tudyk tells Variety he drew upon his own tutelage of clowns.
The alien, called Harry because that is the name of the man whose body he is inhabiting, may be on a mission to wipe out humanity, but Tudyk is quick to explain the clowning style he has studied is the “Cirque du Soleil, European school,” not “It.”
“That approach to clowning is clowns are human beings if they grew up never being told, ‘No.’ They’re out for mischief and they feel things deeply,” Tudyk explains. “This is just something I love, something that attracted me to the role. It has the physical element of trying to learn to work a body and everything’s brand new — trying to get all of the pieces to work together in concert, to varying success — and also that he’s very sensitive.”
“Resident Alien” was adapted from the Dark Horse Comics book series of the same name, but in bringing the character to life in a more physical way, showrunner Chris Sheridan made a number of tweaks to the story, including adding Harry’s mission to destroy humanity in the first place.
Harry’s plan initially is to kill everyone and fly back to his home planet, but crashing and losing pieces of his ship under the snowy tundra of Colorado makes him have to live among his would-be victims for an indeterminate amount of time. And being that he took the body of a doctor, he ends up becoming a valued member of the community, not only in looking at the ill and infirm, but also in helping with a murder case.
“He’s very smart, evolved as a species with space travel and he knows more about the universe than humans do, but he’s very ignorant in the ways of humans and has no intentions of interacting with anyone,” says Tudyk. “He makes a lot of mistakes, and it’s a lot of fun to play somebody who thinks he’s so smart [when] he’s very stupid about the world that he’s been set down in — to the point where a 10-year-old child outsmarts him.”
That child, Max (Judah Prehn), just happens to be one of the extremely rare individuals who have the ability to see the alien in his true form. But because Harry doesn’t know much about humans, he doesn’t realize that adult humans will likely dismiss a child’s claims about aliens, and so he decides the best course of action is to kill Max.
“There’s so much content on television you’ve got to come out of the gate pretty loud,” says Sheridan. “In the moment he realizes this kid can see who he is, there’s a big difference in telling the audience what this show is going to be if he says, ‘Oh he’s a kid, thank God no one will listen to him’ or, ‘OK, well, I’ll just kill him.’ The fact that he’s making the choice to kill the kid, it tells the audience straight up top that this alien has a way different way of living his life.”
Over the course of the first season of “Resident Alien,” Harry not only has to grapple with his ability to carry out his original mission, but now these new tasks that are beginning to pile up in front of him, from dealing with Max to the whodunnit of the crime, and throughout all of that, his biggest challenge, Tudyk says, will be that he begins to feel very real human emotions for the first time and does not know what they are, let alone how to deal with them.
“When feeling loss for the first time — and loneliness — he thinks he’s hungry because he feels a pit in his stomach,” Tudyk says. “I think everybody knows that feeling, but he can’t identify it because he didn’t grow up with it, he’s suddenly given it, so he’s learning as he goes [about] what they mean and how they might help him or stand in the way of his mission.”
Sheridan confirms that by the end of the first season the murder mystery will be solved, but Harry’s journey of understanding will take a lot longer.
“One relatable things about the show is it feels like an immigration story,” he says.
After watching news of parent-children separation at the border over the years Sheridan was working on the show, he became acutely aware that “it is important in this show to celebrate what we have in common. It’s not just about an alien, but learning, when you’re human, how to care for another person,” he says. “I want to show that humans are stronger when they work together, I want to show that just because somebody’s different, doesn’t mean they’re bad and we should celebrate people’s differences, and even people you think aren’t worth saving are worth saving because we’re all part of the same thing and we’re all connected and there’s love in all of us. I want it to be a five-year journey for this alien totally getting there.”
In order to build a story that would have legs for multiple seasons, it couldn’t all be about Harry.
“My goal when I set out to create the series was to figure out what the show would be if there was no alien — and to make sure that the show would work if the alien never showed up — that there were characters who were interesting and funny and quirky and had their own journeys,” says Sheridan.
The ensemble around Harry was fleshed out to include characters such as the young Mayor Ben (Levi Fiehler) and Sheriff Mike (Corey Reynolds), “who look at the world in two completely different ways [but whose] offices are right next to each other” to up the ante on conflict, Sheridan says. There is also Asta (Sara Tomko), who in the comics can see through Harry’s human form, but cannot in the series. She still becomes an important catalyst for change within Harry, though.
Asta is a woman who was adopted as a child and raised in a Native American community, but “she doesn’t truly know what her roots are,” Sheridan says. “That has left her with a sense of not belonging, and we’re using that to connect her journey to Harry’s journey.”
“Each day he’s learning new things about humans and he’s approaching the world with the wide eyes of a child,” Sheridan continues. “A child on a playground has no qualms about pushing another kid over until that kid falls and starts to cry and the child who pushes him over feels bad because he’s learning empathy — ‘Oh I don’t like how I feel when I push people over.’ [Harry] is feeling feelings he doesn’t know what they mean and feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere, and then he goes to the reservation [on which Asta was raised] and sees how they live with such a sense of belonging. He does approach it with wide eyes and he realizes, ‘There’s something here that these people have that is a strength that our people didn’t know about.’”
“Resident Alien” premieres Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. on Syfy.