Alison Pill Would Love to Explain Quantum Physics to You
Many sci-fi shows hope to make you question the tenets of your known universe. Westworld wants us all to wonder if we're robots living in a simulation. The OA claims that we can travel through dimensions just by doing a few sick dance moves. But right now, Thursdays are for the real weird stuff, as CBS All Access' Star Trek: Picard and Hulu's Devs both debut new episodes. Although both shows sci-fi, they're entirely different: Picard follows the immensely popular Patrick Stewart character on a new mission, while Alex Garland's Devs debates the nature of free will through the lens of a dystopian computer company. The one commonality: Alison Pill.
On Picard, the Canadian actress -- whose memorable credits also include HBO's The Newsroom, the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer -- plays Dr. Agnes Jurati, a brilliant cyberneticist who joins Jean-Luc Picard's makeshift crew on the promise of discovering new forms of synthetic life. On Devs, she is the enigmatic Katie, a high-ranking employee at a mysterious quantum computing tech company that appears to be tampering with the fabric of the known universe. Both navigate completely different worlds, but each wields Pill's legendary deadpan and giddy excitement for complex scientific concepts, which she shared with Thrillist recently in an interview about the shows, along with a crash course in quantum physics.
Thrillist: You're all over TV right now! And new Picard and Devs episodes premiere back to back essentially!
Alison Pill: Thursday night suddenly became like a two-hour fest at my house of incredibly different shows. It's just so interesting, now that they're both on, where I'm like, Whoa, this is a weird ride to go from one to the other.
You're playing scientist types in these shows, and yet they're so different.
Pill: Yeah, they kind of couldn't be more different as people. They're both smart, and they're both in science, but that's about where the comparison ends.
One I'm rooting for, and the other one I'm deeply afraid of.
Pill: Listen. [Laughs.] I don't know if people will end up rooting for her, but I think Katie will get more love as time goes on.
It's so cool that you've joined the Star Trek family now. How did they approach you about Dr. Jurati?
Pill: I talked to Alex Kurtzman, who's, you know, Mr. Star Trek at CBS now, the keeper of the canon in many respects, and I got to read the first two scripts and then he took me through where it was heading, how [Jurati's] good nature is manipulated into what we've seen in the last few episodes. I thought that sounded so cool. And he took me through the general story of everybody and the different character ideas and the surrounding worlds we were interested in and I thought, This is gonna be so fun, and I was right. It's the most fun. I get to play pretend with a glorious group of humans, and have this overarching message of the basic goodness of creatures and the imperfections but striving of humanity and humanity's constructs, and I was just all for it, you know?
That's what I love the most about watching Star Trek projects. A lot of sci-fi now is very doom and gloom and very apocalyptic, but Star Trek is always about light in the darkness.
Pill: Yeah, and that it's okay to be optimistic, and that it's okay to be optimistic about humanity. And exploring different elements of humanity through these different other creatures has always been an important part, too, and the message on difference being this central theme throughout, this concept of intergalactic diplomacy being the first contact, you reach out your hand and you do your best to learn and you figure it out. I think that what has brought so many disparate groups together to love Star Trek is that message.
Was there a scene or moment in the scripts that made you think, Oh my god, I can't wait for that?
Pill: I think for me, it was so much about finally meeting a synth, because that scene is literally like, what would you do if your biggest dream came true? And Jurati having to deal with her betrayal of her own principles in the face of the thing that she's most desired to see in her lifetime that she's been told is wrong. There's this moment of being told something's an enemy, something's evil, something's bad, and then going face to face with it and realizing it just doesn't feel like that. It's a really interesting thing to play. So rarely do you get to play somebody's greatest dream coming true.
Usually it's the opposite. Were you a Star Trek fan before this or were you more casual about it?
Pill: I was aware of it and casual, but also you couldn't be casual about TNG [Star Trek: The Next Generation] when I was growing up. Even as a casual viewer, you were so aware of each of those characters. I'm just remembering all these covers of magazines, how much I knew about these people even without really being aware of it. So, even in not fully understanding all of the intricacies of the universe, which is ginormous and a lot to keep track of, the touchstones were already there. We were looking at the Borg episodes and looking at Romulan episodes, looking at some special Data episodes to know. All of that stuff was both informative and also informative on the level of like, Oh, I knew a lot of this already, weirdly.
Yeah, I don't think there was a time in my life when I didn't know who Captain Picard was, or Captain Kirk.
Pill: Yeah! And Data too! And so much of the writing and so many of the performances, man, they were doing really exciting, cool stuff, really kind of avant garde stuff for primetime TV at that time.
How crazy was it to see Patrick Stewart in character?
Pill: It was really thrilling. But the nice thing about it, and Patrick has spoken of this, is that he honestly lost track of where he begins and Picard ends. And so, there is definitely an element of once you know Patrick, you kind of know Picard, they are very closely related to each other. And they're both awesome. [Laughs.] So meeting Patrick and listening to him quote Shakespeare, listening to his thoughts and stories about RSC days -- just the best stories. But as to getting into the groove of him being on the ship, that was all very exciting. The first time he said, "Engage," we all did get chills.
I definitely teared up, just watching it on TV. Speaking of which, I also want to talk about Devs -- it's insanely good and insanely weird. How did that come about?
Pill: Alex [Garland] reached out to me, and I was so fucking excited because I don't think there's anybody working today that has just consistently turned out such interesting art. I was so thrilled by Ex Machina. I don't watch that many movies. I don't really like that many movies. [Laughs.] But I kept thinking about it, the philosophical discussion, the technological discussion, the gender discussion, the makeup of this group of humans sitting in a house, the glorious way it was shot. So when he sent me these eight scripts, I was pretty much like, I'm gonna love this. It inspired me and I hope it inspires others to feel that they're more capable of asking big questions than they might think. I think a lot of us struggled with high school math, and then didn't think we were capable of even understanding science or higher math. I mean, I don't understand the equations, but the actual thought process involved in it is fascinating. I wish we read more about the history of science and math, because the progression of ideas I think is really fascinating and really helpful. Our minds are more capable than we think. I think there's an invitation to be that smart. I don't think it's meant to be like, We're cooler and smarter than you. Like, please, no, come along on this ride, because these are crazy concepts. They are unnatural concepts for our brains to even comprehend. This invitation to think big thoughts is my favorite part of the show.
Could you give me a rundown of quantum physics real quick?
Pill: Sure. Okay. So, one of the most important experiments is the double slit experiment. Niels Bohr did it. This is, like, 100 years ago. They were able to see in sending particles through, like, you could either see it on the back -- oh my god, it's so hard to explain without a drawing. Okay, so there's a wall in front with two slits, and there's a wall in the back with a sensor. And, basically, sending particles through, you expect to see them going to random sides, but you end up, on the back, seeing a pattern that makes it look like they're operating like waves in their effect on each other. You can see how one going through one side and one going through the other, they kind of bump up against each other the way that waves would bump up against each other. But you've only been sending one particle through. Right?
Pill: So, how are they operating like waves bumping into each other, and showing a pattern like that on the back? They've bumped in a kind of -- I'm doing a lot of hand movements right now. It's like the way you see water lapping up against something, and then if there's a wave that comes in from a different side, how that wave gets knocked off course and cut short. So, the thing can't decide between being a wave and a particle. It acts as both. So that's crazy. And then there's this whole thing about the physics of the observer. A particle will seem as though it's gone through both slits until you put a sensor on one of the slits, and then it seems to decide which one it went through. And then you get into spooky action at a distance, which is, you know. [Sighs.] It's really mind-blowing. So, there are two related particles, they can be literally light years apart, and their spin-up spin-down will be the same, no matter how far apart they are. There's not enough time for them to communicate. It's an instantaneous reaction. They've done experiments across the globe with two related particles, and they behave in the exact same way at the exact same time. There's no time for them to communicate, because according to time-space you need time to cross that space. There needs to be a lag in their reaction. There's got to be a lag in the same way that there's a lag when you try to sing with somebody on FaceTime. But there's no lag. They seem to be communicating with each other. They're tiny particles, they've moved in the exact same way at the exact same time. There seems to be some sort of connection that defies the time-space continuum.
Pill: [Laughs.] So there's a lot of shit that you're like, This defies everything that I believe about the physical world. Things are not the binary sense that we have. This is not the way we operate in the Newtonian universe.
We can't wrap our minds around it because it just doesn't make any sense.
Pill: It's really, really unnatural to try and make sense of it. But it's really cool.
Did you guys have a lot of philosophical conversations on set about all this stuff?
Pill: Of course we fucking did! Oh my god, every day. I would go into rehearsal one day and I'd be like, "Alex, Alex. Physics of the observer! What the eff!!" I read David Foster Wallace's book on infinity. You know what's crazy? Infinity! What does that even mean? What does that even mean? What does infinity mean? Right? It doesn't make sense in our physical world. We can't believe in infinity, so everything is near infinite. Okay, so if everything is near infinite, what does that mean? There's an end to the universe? What does that mean? It'll fuck you up, these discussions. And in the book, David Foster Wallace brings about thinking about his death, and he talks about finding it really hard to get out of bed because what if this is the day the floor doesn't hold you up? Because everything in the physical universe is actually mostly empty space. Right? And we're not even getting into antimatter. We're not even getting into dark matter. What the fuck is that? You know? Anyway. Yeah, we had some philosophical discussion. And that's not even getting into the morals of determinism. Like, if you were always going to do the thing you were going to do, are you culpable? How can you have jail in a deterministic universe?
And it gets even deeper into that as the show goes on. As far as I'm aware, Devs is a limited series.
Pill: It is, yeah.
There's no hope of coming back to it?
Pill: What there is hope for -- and Alex is currently working on it and has spoken about it, so I can chat about it -- what it would be is an entirely new story with hopefully the same cast. He loves a company. That's our goal, for us to do chapters of this that are entirely different stories with entirely different characters. You can call it an anthology, sure, but it's just things that interest him while writing roles with us in mind. In the midst of shooting we were like, Is it done? And it's obviously done. Like, you get to the end, and you're like, Oh, yeah, where do you go from there? It would just be disappointing if we tried. And we all knew that, but we're like, "But we love you!" And we love each other, this cast of people, these wonderful humans who are smart and kind and good at their jobs and so game to try weird stuff, and take it as seriously as we can and and just like-minded in that way, that it was just such a disappointment. This is one of the best working experiences of my entire life. I just loved it. So the idea that we would be able to do it again and in different iterations is honestly keeping me alive in the midst of Armageddon.
In both of these shows, you have such wonderful ensemble casts that you never want to see go away because you come to love them so much.
Pill: I've got group texts going on both and I love everybody in both shows so much. I feel very lucky. And as I get older and now having a kid, it's just so much more important, like I don't have time to work with jerks. Toxic jerks are out for me. I can't do it anymore.
I hope everybody else feels the same way.
Pill: Yeah, it seems like we're heading in that direction. I hope.
It's a refreshing trend, given how often stories have come out after the fact with all the crazy dumb stuff.
Pill: Yeah, 'cause there's so much dumb stuff. But I think we're also now realizing, Oh, that's dumb stuff! Like, you don't know! I've been doing this for 20 years. I didn't know that was dumb stuff. It was just stuff.
And it's nice as an outsider to hear, Oh, these people are having a good time making something that I like!
Pill: Yeah! Except for Nick Offerman, who's terrible at everything. Other than that, everybody's cool.
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