Sci-Fi Teen #3 / November 1998
WHEN 'ANIMORPHS' ATTACK
Teenagers can be animals sometimes, but never quite like this before.
Imagine a small town--Anywhere, USA--where five teenagers, good friends, are on a mission to save the world from alien invasion. They have come across a dying extraterrestrial being named Prince Elfangor, who has warned them of the coming attack. Imagine that they are the only ones who know of the world's fate, and that they must battle it alone.
And then, imagine that from Prince Elfangor they have acquired the power to change themselves into animals at will, merely by touching the beast they wish to become and absorbing its DNA. To fly like a hawk, to bound and roar like a lion or tiger, to slip unobtrusively into the night as a cat. The possibilities are limited only by the breadth and scope of the animal kingdom, and the teens' own ingenuity. And the premise of connecting with animals in order to save the planet is a direct commentary on the next generation's awareness of a world threatened by man's exploitation of nature.
These are the basics of Animorphs, a new fantasy/action series debuting this month on Nickelodeon. Filmed in Toronto, Canada and based on the popular books by K.A. Applegate, Animorphs, says executive producer Deborah Forte, "is about change. Morphing, one of the series' most visually exciting elements, is a metaphor for the awkward physical and emotional changes adolescents face as they mature into adults. These are five very identifiable teenagers who demonstrate heroism, loyalty, and respect for nature's creatures as they struggle to rescue the world."
"We take as much as possible from the books," explains Maria Gillen, director of development for Scholastic Productions, "though we wanted to keep the series much more grounded 'on Earth.' It's action-adventure as much as sci-fi, and that's why we were so lucky with the cast. They make it utterly believable."
"These are great characters in a cool story," says Shawn Ashmore, who plays Jake, on the set. "It appeals to a lot of people. Although aliens are big right now, and there's a lot being done, I think there's something special about the Yeerks [the sluglike invaders that enter through a victim's ear and take over his or her brain and personality] and the undercover plot and the kids having all this responsibility placed on them. They have to do it and get though it. It strikes a chord."
Ashmore himself grew up as a fan of sci-fi and fantasy. "The first books I got into were the Narnia stories and Dune," he remembers, excited to now be a part of a series in the grand fantasy tradition. "Getting this role is just excellent," he says. "There are FX, action, cool characters, that kind of stuff. It's perfect."
Boris Cabrera plays Marco, the most cocky, macho member of the gang of young shapeshifters. "Marco has been through a lot for someone of his young age," Cabrera says. "His mother is dead, his father is falling apart. He's a person who is very cautious." Cabrera, a three-time California state wrestling champion, is the only out-of-towner among the otherwise Canadian Animorphs. In order to take the part, he had to leave his family and his girlfriend behind in California. He misses her, he says mournfully, but his fellow cast members have taken him up socially and they spend time together off set. "I like Shawn a lot," he says of his co-star. "He and his brother and I usually go out a lot on weekends and do stuff with Nadia, who plays Cassie."
Nadia Nascimento is a wisecracking force of nature. Although clearly delighted with having been cast in the series, she is entranced by the prospect of working with the animals as she is with the possibility of becoming a TV star. "I worked with a lion," she recalls. "We were all in this cage. Everyone was saying, 'Don't talk, don't breathe, don't move.' But I thought, 'I'm African, man. I can take this lion business.' He came up to me and started nudging my back." Nonplussed, Nascimento continued her scene. "His eyes looked painted," she says wonderingly. "It was like looking into the face of a baby. It was so sweet. I felt no fear."
Hanging with the Animorphs is like being in a very hip high-school clique who are smarter, wittier and better-looking than most. For today's shoot, the studio set in downtown Toronto has been designed as a barn, complete with bales of hay, floating dust hanging in the air like a veil and a menagerie of animals (the day of SCI-FI TEEN's visit, the cast included two skunks, four ferrets, an arctic fox, a potbellied pig, and a hawk). Ron Oliver, the director keeps up a lighthearted banter with the young actors. "I've worked with a lot of teen ensemble shows, and without question this bunch is the most charismatic and interesting to watch," says Oliver, whose credits include Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? "And talented--usually in a show like this, there are one or two kids who are kind of weak, but on this show they're all great."
"He picks on me a lot," jokes Cabrera, whose rapport with his director clearly has to do with the fact that they are the only two Californians on the set. "But that's cool. It's not boring. Work is a lot more fun with people like that."
"I love him," says Nascimento. "He gave us the chairs with our names. I want to be a director one day, so I draw a lot from him. He plays music on the set, which is great, and he lets us put ourselves into our parts. He has it down to an art."
The animals are pacing restlessly under the lights, eager for something to happen. Brooke Nevin, the stunning young actress who plays Rachel, prepares to enter with a hawk perched on her wrist. The hawk has other ideas, and violently flaps its wings. The trainer mists the bird with water to cool and calm it down, and Nevin enters and gracefully places the hawk on its perch.
In the episode being filmed, Tobias (played by Christopher Ralph), the fifth Animorph, has changed himself into the hawk and hasn't returned to human form in the allotted time, and his fate hangs in the balance. Ralph isn't on set today, but Nevin is enthusiastic about discussing the series. "The books are very well-written," says the actress, who has already read 15 of them. "I think I'd enjoy them just as much if I wasn't playing Rachel. They help me to get into character if I read them before we film. I start visualizing the action in my head."
Of her co-stars, whose chemistry will ultimately be the series' key factor, she is as enthusiastic as
the other Animorphs. At the end of the day, the concept of teenagers with the power to change into animals
will draw its power from the unity and the teamwork of the group. "We've been told that we have great
chemistry together," Nevin says. "People like to work with us, and we're fun to be with."
© Sci-Fi Teen / Transcript by Pam