Almost a month ago at the Machinima upfronts in New York City, I sat in a swanky, modern backroom of a swanky, modern bar with Orlando Jones.
Two glasses of Jack and Coke sat in my stomach while finger foods I pigged on began to break down internally. I’m not Hunter S. Thompson, so I’ll never recklessly intoxicate myself before I do my job. But between the booming club music outside and Orlando Jones’ incredibly friendly, laid-back demeanor, I didn’t even think I was working at all.
We were supposed to talk about High School 51, but can we just talk about superheroes and 7-Up commercials?
“What superhero movies would you want to do?” I asked him. “Speaking as a fan.”
He pauses for a minute. “I wanna do X-Men.”
“You wanna do X-Men?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he confirms. “And I want to redo Blade. Even though I know Wesley and love him.” Then Jones tells me his final wish: “Black Lightning.”
As tempting as it was to ask him about his voice over work in Halo, I chose to focus the rest of the interview on his life after Sleepy Hollow and the exciting new projects he has coming up, as well as the overall state of geek culture. I couldn’t quite shake off the man who told me to “Make 7-Up Yours” when I was an impressionable 8 year-old, but just talking to the passionate man that sat next to me made me put carbonated soft drinks going up my rectum to the back of my head.
This actually wasn’t the first time I interviewed Jones. Back in October I spoke to him at the press rounds of New York Comic-Con when he promoted Sleepy Hollow. Months later he recognizes me here at Machinima, somehow. Does this make us best friends? It does, right? I’m going with “does.”
A half hour prior, Jones was on stage to announce a partnership with franchise producer Roberto Orci (who was not in attendance) a new project set to be distributed on Machinima in the coming year: High School 51. Described as a sci-fi teen drama, the series follows a normal teenager transferred to a high school populated by aliens who live among us.
I shouldn’t be surprised it was a Roberto Orci project, given his noted penchant for conspiracy theories. But Orlando Jones? I wanted to know everything about it. So I asked.
Before we get into the big news about High School 51, I want to talk about Sleepy Hollow. I actually had no idea you were leaving until you said it on the Machinima stage. What can you tell me about leaving and your overall experience on the show?
Orlando: I had such an incredible time on the show. Amazing show, amazing cast, amazing producers, and it was one of the greatest times I ever had working on any show. And [High School 51] this was an opportunity to work with one of the same people who put me on the show, Roberto Orci, and work as a writer and producer and sort of create a new world. I think Cliff Cash is gonna kill it on Sleepy Hollow. I think they’re gonna have an awesome season, and I’m excited to work with Bob on something fresh and new. So for me, it’s all good news. I have no shade in my heart, it’s really been a great experience.
High School 51 is of course your newest project. What can you tell me about your particular involvement?
Orlando: I’m obviously one of the writer/producers. I’m not one of the co-creators, other guys and I sort of fell in love with it.
I would describe the world to you like this: We keep hearing about Area 51, we keep hearing there were aliens there, since the ’40s. But we never think about [things like], well, do they procreate? Did they give us technology we never had access to? Do some of them want to go home? Do some want to get rid of us? And what that ecosystem looks like if you have children. And when you’re trying to contain that level of secrets, that kind of information, over that period of time. It just seemed like a crazy world that was sort of untapped.
I always joked that Hollywood is like high school with money, and Washington is like high school with power. [laughs]
That’s an amazing way to put that!
Orlando: So [High School 51] is like high school that has both of those things at their disposal. Who do you trust in a world like that?
During their presentation, Machinima touted that they cross so many different genres, from comedy to horror. High School 51 sounds like a teen drama mixed with science-fiction. Can we expect both or one lead towards the other?
Orlando: I think it will lean in both directions. I think it’s really about building a credible world, and building stakes and elements that make sense in real world terms. So, in my mind, I think we would expect it to be the same way Sleepy Hollow was very much like. It was biblical, it had a little history in it, a comedy, it had suspense, it had this whole mythology. I think we’re definitely looking to build a world that is equal parts of all things as are required in the real world. And I think that means it will be a mish-mosh, but hopefully a crazy, suspenseful ride.
From Sleepy Hollow to Area 51, you seem attracted to projects that take history and play with it. What do you find fulfilling about playing with history?
Orlando: People of color are often not represented at all. And when they are represented, it’s in a way that sort of denies them any acknowledgment of the culture they’re a part of. I really like the idea of being able to tell a story and integrate those elements organically into the story, and I really like exploding tropes. Things that I feel like we’ve seen a thousand times — a damsel in distress for the female character, the Asian guy is always the smart guy, or the badass, those sort of elements that are like, really?
I’m tired of that too.
Orlando: Yeah! It’s like at a certain point you go, “There’s more to that community and culture, and it’s not even based on the real tenets of what that culture is all about. So the idea to tell stories and incorporate these different people in different ways so everyone is represented, and it’s still a story of science-fiction and espionage! [laughs]
All the fun stuff!
Orlando: Yeah, all the fun stuff! And it’s not necessarily about their culture per se, but also they’re not indivisible in the world. And that was exciting about Sleepy Hollow, getting to work with John Cho, and Tom Mison who’s English, and Nicole Beharie, Lyndie Greenwood, and John Noble, and myself, and Amanda Stenberg, Jill Marie Jones… It was such a multi-cultural show. I think it was the most multi-cultural show in history.
I spoke to you about that at New York Comic-Con. As a person of color, it means a lot to see people just be people.
Orlando: Exactly! To continue down that road, to me, is what attracts me to these things. I often like to do it in a place that’s sort of wilder and supernatural that gives me more room because I don’t want to tell — no shade on Gran Torino, but that’s not a story I want to tell. I want to tell a story that puts that kid in a different universe and allows us to talk about other things.
I assume that kind of parable will be in High School 51?
Orlando: Often. Yes. I think lone human, but you’re also looking at different species within the alien world as well. So it’s not just aliens and humans, it’s different people and I’m sure there are cases where people whose allegiances are to both because their parents are both. The idea to me is to build a world that has all the intricacies in it where there isn’t anything that is black and white. It’s got a lot of gray.
Speaking of these species, you have to build entire alien races and societies from the ground up. Was that exhausting at all?
Orlando: [laughs] It can be. But I think rather than species, we thought of it as character. And then we chose to make those characters be different species. Some of them have the ability to be multiple. It was really just focusing about the characters and how they fit into that world.
Cinematically speaking, because we only saw glimpses of the series, what can we expect High School 51 to look like? Are we talking teen drama on a network, or a docu-reality kind of deal?
Orlando: I don’t think a teen drama [like on a network] is an exact match to Machinima’s core audience. I think you can expect something more in keeping with superhero/espionage-like. One of the ways you do this type of show and one of the ways we’re looking at is putting fans in the show. We’ll make an announcement in the next couple of weeks, “xxArray,” which is a machine that will allow us to put fans in the show, in 3D reality.
Orlando: We basically create a photo-real version of you and we put you in the show. But [it’s] just another way again to look at fan interaction and storytelling that isn’t about just telling a linear story. It’s about trying to create an engagement, and a nuance that often doesn’t exist.
Why do you think this kind of engagement is so — it’s obvious why it’s popular, but why is it just now catching on?
Orlando: I think it’s always been there, it’s just Hollywood is now interested because they’re trying to monetize it. I get it, that’s the kind of business they’re in. But what’s most exciting to me is about, I’ve met people in fandom who I’m not friends with. To me it’s the communication, the engagement. If we’re being honest, there are two kinds of communication in history: one to one, one to many. Twitter is many to many communication. That’s an exciting new form of communication that hasn’t happened existed in any part of human history, and it’s a fourth grader. It’s nine years old. No one knows where it’s going. So, the idea that we can connect and be doing theatre on our phone is shocking. It’s incredible.
That has actually happened, people have done Shakespeare on Twitter.
Orlando: Exactly. So to me, connecting to some kid in Germany is like, insane. And realizing he’s a fan of this and I’m a fan of this, and she’s a fan of that, and now you’ve made a connection for the rest of your life.
Machinima touted their millennial audience onstage and High School 51 is in some way giving them a fictional story about them. What do you think of the show — different from the rest of Machinima’s lineup — going after them directly?
Orlando: To me, you tell a compelling story. Game of Thrones is not trying to appeal to millennials. They’re just telling a really badass, kick-ass story that people want to engage in and people want to see. Our job is to tell a really badass, kickass story. That’s not [in anyway] demo-stereotyping … so I don’t really see it that way. I see it as, “Here’s an interesting story world, here are some interesting characters, let’s tell the most compelling story we can.”
About that story. We don’t know too much about the meat of High School 51‘s story. What can you tell me about the central character and his journey that we’re in for?
Orlando: The most about his journey that I can tell you right now is that his life gets sort of uprooted, he finds himself in a place where he’s a lone species in an ecosystem of various types of species. He’s lived in a world where he’s been the majority, [and now] he’s entering a world where he’s the minority. And he’ll have to make the adjustments that go along with that. I think the problem is, how did he get there? And what role does everyone who put him there play?
What’s the most exciting thing about this particular project that is getting you amped?
Orlando: I get to tell stories for a living, and the opportunity to put those stories in front of people is a really difficult thing, particularly with a machine like Machinima pumping it out and pushing it out. These opportunities don’t come that often, there’s a long arduous process to get to the point where you’re launching your new show with a network or studio.
So for me, when I get to this point and I’m not excited then I don’t want to do the show. That’s like showing up to the Super Bowl and you don’t want to play. [laughs] I’m hyped because this is the game, this is a big opportunity to work on a really big platform with a huge audience and turn out some content that doesn’t look like anything else out there. If that doesn’t excite you as a performer or a storyteller, then you dead. [laughs]
And Orlando Jones is alive.
Orlando: Exactly, I’m super alive, and I’m super excited.
We’re talking about audiences and geek culture on the rise, that’s why Machinima is doing what they’re doing. As someone who has seen this culture rise, what do you think of it in its current state now?
Orlando: It’s always going to be messy. It’s no different than sports culture. Sports culture is messy, there’s a lot of voices, there’s always yelling. There’s a lot of passion. Guys get dressed in green and yellow paint, thirty below zero and yell for their Green Bay Packers. What I want to see is fan culture no longer ostracized for their passion. Because we don’t ostracize sports culture for its passion. We don’t treat them as weird for dressing up like wild people because they love their team.
So cosplay should be totally normal, and geek culture and fan culture should be totally normal. I hate the fact that that happens to people, and I think it’s disgusting. I’m a proud member of this culture, I’ve been doing crazy shit since I was a kid. For me, I had the hurtful things said, I know what that feels like. So an opportunity for this culture to explode and really take ownership of what it is, because these are the people that love entertainment. These are the hardcore storytelling fans, and I have been one of these fans my entire life.
As one of those fans, what are you most excited about? Besides High School 51, of course.
Orlando: I’m so excited about Tainted Love, the next iteration of that we’re doing. I’m excited about the Ted Patrick story, that we’re getting ready to do about the father of cult deprogramming. Crazy, crazy, amazing story. Google Ted Patrick, you’ll see it.
I’m excited about the show I’m about to do on the History Channel where I ask the crazy questions nobody wants to ask about crazy points in history. So I’ll give you an example: Richmond, Virginia. 1849. Guy puts himself in a box, ships himself to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pays $89 to do it. The company, Addams Express Company. First FedEx of this country in 1849. This guy comes out of the box and he is free. He is in the box for 27 hours, if he makes a noise, they kill him. All he has is a beef bladder. He travels New Zealand, Australia, and the UK telling his story being shipped to freedom.
I went to Richmond, Virginia. I asked somebody to put me in a box, and I shipped myself to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
You already did that?
Orlando: I did that.
What was that like?
Orlando: It was crazy. I’ll be releasing the show I’m doing with History about it in the next couple of weeks where I’ll be able to get into a bit more detail. But I’m excited, and I’m going to do a big special. I recreate the shit you’ve never heard of where somebody back then did something crazy and I just go into it. A guy says to me when I ask him about Henry Brown, “Henry Brown was a very successful slave.” And I ask him, “How do you become a successful slave?!” [laughs] So the question is, how do you become a successful slave? The answer, Henry Brown. That’s how you become a “successful slave.”
I’m still trying to wrap my head around you being in a box.
Orlando: Six and a half hours I was in this box. They had a camera on me. I had to use three modes of transportation just like he did. So I get on a train, then I get on a boat, and then I get on a pickup truck.
And you mimic the same time that he was in that box?
Orlando: I did it shorter than him because transportation was different. He had a train, a steamboat, and a horse and carriage. It was 1849, there was no Uber then. [laughs] So yeah, it took him 27 hours, it took me six and a half.
High School 51 is set to premiere on Machinima later this year.