After a bumpy first season, “The Orville” is returning to Fox for a second season on Dec. 30, and Penny Johnson Jerald has a lot to do with that.
The sci-fi series and “Star Trek” homage starring and created by “Family Guy’s” Seth MacFarlane perplexed critics last year, but hung on, supported by a vocal fan base. Viewers enjoyed the impressive special effects and strong ensemble, of which Jerald is a standout. The veteran actor, known for stints on “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “24” and “Castle,” plays Dr. Claire Finn, chief medical officer and single mom raising two kids on a spaceship. Space isn’t easy — she’s been captured on a far-off planet and endured incessant come-ons from an amorous intergalactic blob (“SNL’s” Norm Macdonald), but it’s the parenting advice from a synthetic life-form she can’t abide. “Don’t tell a mother how to raise her kids,” she declares.
It’s those surprisingly real moments, amid the comic banter and adventure, that she believes keep viewers intrigued. Jerald, 57, spoke by phone from her home in Los Angeles with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Do you think your previous experience on “Deep Space Nine” influenced your work on “The Orville”?
With “Deep Space Nine,” I learned that when you get a script, you should give honor to the writer. On “Larry Sanders,” even on “24,” you could make up stuff. [She chuckles.] Here . . . if you’re in a table read, and about to shoot, and you’re feeling relaxed and think, “Oh, maybe I can throw this [idea] out there” — you know what? No, you can’t. On “The Orville,” like on “Star Trek,” we remain true to the page.
I would’ve thought Seth MacFarlane might be into improvising.
Mind you, we pitch ideas — but it’s got to be a really great pitch. You have to understand — when Seth is writing and we have our table reads, he’s listening. He knows how the voices should come together. It’s like writing classical music, and someone does a gospel riff. I don’t think that’d fly.
Back when the original “Star Trek” debuted, space travel was new. Now it’s old news. Has that affected how people watch sci-fi shows?
The short answer is yes. I wasn’t an avid watcher of the original “Star Trek.” But they’d pull out this thing to communicate — without wires — and you thought, “Yeah, right.” Now . . . we’re doing that with cellphones. So I think our minds are more open to the unimaginable. We have Elon Musk — Mr. Tesla, himself — saying he’s going to invest in artificial intelligence. And you think, “He must be out of his mind.” BUUUUUT, wait a minute, it could happen.
What can we expect on "The Orville" in Season 2?
I’m sitting at my desk right now and in front of me are all the scripts from this season. When I get one, I turn back all the pages where there’s any reference to my character, or a new technical term. I was just perusing these scripts, and realized there’s definitely a different tone. Last year, fans kept us on the map, by being so vocal. We were advertised as this sci-fi comedy . . . and we truly weren’t. We’re a dramedy. So last year [was spent] trying to find the proper balance of the funny and the drama. This year, we’ve found it. Now . . . there IS FUNNY. Because [and she starts to laugh] there’s always going to be funny when you get this group together: Seth and Scott [Grimes] and J. Lee. Our chemistry off camera translates onto the camera. But we do go deep this season. We hit on some issues that some people are afraid to even touch.
Sounds intriguing. And what’s up for you in real life — what do you do for Christmas?
Well, traditionally, my husband and I go back to our farm in Virginia — but we do Christmas every day. We truly do. For us, it’s about giving. We are of the Christian faith — we believe that if people can see God in us, then we’re actually doing our job. I’m praying for a miracle for a couple of people who definitely need it — and I’m not going to stop till that happens.
You grew up in Baltimore. Do you enjoy returning East?
Yes, I do. I actually believe more in outer space in Virginia, because I can look up at the sky and count the stars. And I have this app, which tells me what I’m looking at. When I was in grade school. I never saw anything that anybody ever saw. I never saw a bear, I never saw a cup. I never saw anything. But with this app, I look up and . . . I can actually see it all.