For two seasons now, fans of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys have watched as James Cole (Aaron Stanford), Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), and the rest of Team Splinter have traveled the past, present, and future trying to thwart The Army of the 12 Monkeys, a nefarious cult that wants to destroy time and create the Red Forest—a place where neither time, nor death, exist. Unfortunately, their prophet called The Witness—who they believe will be the one to bring their world-ending aspirations to fruition—seems to be Railly and Cole’s son. Now that the identity of The Witness has been revealed, season three is a very personal race against fate to try to save the world.
We visited the Toronto set of 12 Monkeys in April to chat with the cast and showrunner Terry Matalas about season three, which will air on Syfy over the course of three nights in a binge-weekend event beginning Friday, May 19 at 8/7c. Here’s what we found out.
WARNING: This piece contains mild spoilers for 12 Monkeys season three. If you’d prefer to go in spoiler-free, bookmark this piece and revisit it on May 22.
1. EACH NIGHT IS LIKE A SELF-CONTAINED MOVIE.
Matalas says the writers didn’t find out about the binge weekend until they were late into writing season three, so it didn’t change anything about how they told the story. “The thing that I pushed for was that episodes one through four would be on night one, because it was like kind of one big movie with the right ending,” he says, “and that the second night would be five through seven because they’re like a whole movie. Each night is like a season’s worth of stories. I hope it’s something that’s successful and they do it again, because this show in particular, even though it’s very, very episodic and each one is a different thing, the threads are all united and I think if they’re fresh in your brain, the more satisfying it will be.”
According to Stanford, the binge weekend didn’t change anything on set, but he is excited to have the season shown this way. “I think the show lends itself to that format,” Stanford says. “Particularly with a serialized show like this, where every episode ends with an incredibly high-stakes cliffhanger and you just can’t wait to find out what happens, well, now you don’t have to wait anymore. You can watch the next one and make an evening out of it.”
2. EPISODE ONE IS MATALAS’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.
Episode One of season three is Matalas’s directorial debut. “It’s scary because it’s a whole new language to learn,” he says. “You know more than you think you do and so much less than you want to. But I loved it.” Matalas enjoyed directing so much that he’s directing episode two of season four as well as the series finale. (You can also spot him making an unforgettable cameo in one episode this season.)
3. AMANDA SCHULL TAKES REALLY DETAILED NOTES.
Matalas has often said that he and the writers didn’t use a whiteboard or any other method to track where and when the show’s characters have been—they could mostly keep it in their heads. But thanks to the introduction of a unique new form of time travel, they did have to start tracking things more closely at the end of season three.
“It’s fun, but it’s challenging to say the least,” Matalas says. “You have to know what came before it and what came after it and what’s going to be happening two years from now. That’s the maddening part. It makes you long to write a nice doctor [or] lawyer show.”
The actors all have their own strategies for keeping it straight. For Hampshire, it’s more important to know where her character is emotionally, rather than time-wise, before she shoots a scene. “In the first episode, when I'm in 1921, the fact that I just splintered there by accident was the thing that was important to me more so than what time I was in. Then the time became important,” she says. “The emotional arcs are so perfectly narrative and come full circle—that’s what I connect with.” Ditto for Stanford, who notes that the show shoots multiple episodes at once, “so you can’t just read one episode and keep that all in your mind at once; you have to juggle multiple episodes at once. But what’s nice is that Terry has written the show so that no matter what’s happening in terms of time travel, emotionally, it tends to be linear. It’s easy enough to track the emotional journey and the overall arc of your character because that all makes very, very clear sense. So that’s what I focus on for the most part.”
For Barbara Sukowa and Schull, though, it’s all about putting pen to paper. “I write a timeline for my character,” Sukowa, who plays temporal scientist Dr. Jones, says. “I write down what I’m doing in every scene.”
“I take a lot of notes,” Schull says. “Maybe it's a product of me taking so many notes, but I have a pretty good memory for episodes, and some of the other actors will ask me questions about things, so I have this sense of responsibility that I have to be the one to remember some of the details. But it is a challenge; we shoot really quickly and we shoot multiple episodes simultaneously, and things can get a little bit garbled. So I take as many notes as I possibly can, on the script, on a notebook—whatever I can.” According to Matalas, Schull has “kept us honest a couple times. It’ll be like, ‘Well don’t forget I said this!’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, right, OK,’ and we’ll alter a line or two. Yeah, she takes a crazy amount of notes.”
4. ONE SCENE HAD MATALAS WORRIED HE’D END UP IN “DIRECTOR JAIL.”
One of night one’s best scenes is a musical sequence that takes place inside Jennifer Goines’s head. (We won’t spoil what she sings, but: It’s in German. And you can watch it here, if you want.) Matalas describes the sequence as a Katy Perry video, and the result is Hampshire’s favorite scene of season three. “Terry told me that really early on I was going to do that, and I learned the whole song,” she says. “I did some crazy dance moves. The best thing to come of that is the party trick I have now for karaoke.” Her German, Sukowa says, is “very good!”
The moment is sandwiched between two very intense scenes, and it’s just the breather the viewer needs—a wonderful, laugh-out-loud moment. And it’s true: Hampshire’s moves are great. “This show can get real, real dark,” she says, “but whenever it’s Jennifer, it’s processed through her logic and her brain, and that’s exactly how Jennifer would process it.”
When they watched the sequence in the editing bay later, when most of the season had been shot, “My editor was really happy,” Matalas recalls. “But I was so tired. I was like, ‘We’ve jumped the shark, we need to cut this out.’ He said, ‘It’s great—just test it.’” Matalas spent his Christmas break showing the sequence to people, who loved it as much as his editors had. The one big question is how viewers will react to the sequence: “Either we’ve earned this and I’m going to be able to pull this off, or I’m going to director jail forever,” Matalas jokes. “We’ll see if I’m cuffed by the end of May 19.”
5. NATURE VERSUS NURTURE IS A BIG THEME.
By season three’s opening, Railly—who discovered at the end of season two that she’s the mother of The Witness—has spent her entire pregnancy imprisoned by the Army of the 12 Monkeys. “This pregnancy is a very challenging thing for her, because she's not really sure what she's carrying,” Schull says. “She doesn't know if it's nature—that she's giving birth to the devil because this is just what's meant to be—or if it's nurture, that [the Army is] going to create this hideous, horrible person.”
Railly has, at this point, spent two seasons in pursuit of The Witness with the goal of killing him to stop the plague that ends the world, but it becomes a lot more complicated when she realizes The Witness is her son. “I think her arc for this season is really trying to figure out what she’s capable of changing on the huge grand scheme of the fate of the world,” Schull says. “What she can do about it—if she can do anything about it.”
Schull wore a silicone baby bump in her costume that was so realistic it even had a belly button. “When I would touch it, I could actually feel the silicone rubbing my own stomach,” she says. “I found myself sitting down and holding the belly. It was like, ‘Get a hold of yourself, you’re not actually pregnant!’ But I did feel this ownership of it, and you can understand how, even if you've been told that you’re going to give birth to something that is completely beyond your control, how you would hold out an iota of hope that you can change things.”
6. ONE OF HAMPSHIRE’S COSTUMES WAS INSPIRED BY THE KID.
After accidentally splintering directly into the trenches of World War I, Jennifer lives in Paris into the 1920s, where she eventually becomes an actress. Before she gets there, though, she's basically living on the streets. “I knew I was going to be in the ‘20s, and I did my Pinterest research, which I love to do,” she says. Her search brought up photos of the titular character in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921), and bam: She knew exactly what Jennifer should look like, pre-acting gig. “The picture of The Kid is exactly my costume, which is what I wanted—the little hat and everything," she says. "The costume also reminded me a bit of Éponine [from Les Misérables]. Sometimes I feel like Jennifer really is Éponine—she’s always the one that isn’t Cosette.” Goines becomes a more integral part of the action this season, and Hampshire kills it, providing hijinks, heart, and heartbreak in equal measure.
7. SCHULL HAS SOME MAJOR FIGHT SEQUENCES.
Fans of 12 Monkeys know that it’s not just the dudes on the show who get to kick ass. Schull has her fair share of fight sequences throughout this season—and she does as many of the stunts herself as she can. “I have this ridiculous chip on my shoulder, having been a dancer, that I feel like I really ought to be able to do everything myself—but there are some things I very clearly cannot,” she says. “Jen Murray, my stunt person, is totally comfortable getting thrown into a cabinet and onto the ground or getting hit by a car. I, on the other hand, am not. Nor would it look great on film, so she does it. But there are times—like the fight in night one—where I did everything I possibly could. At the end, there's a person on the ground that I'm supposed to jump over, and take out somebody else afterwards. The angle that they ended up using, I'm not sure if it’s Jen or if it's me. Because I have a feeling she probably caught a little bit more air than I did doing it, so I don't know. But she’s really giving and gives me great corrections and advice, and we get an opportunity to do as much as we can.”
8. STANFORD’S ‘80S OUTFIT MADE SCHULL LAUGH UNTIL SHE CRIED.
One episode of night two takes place in 1989—which, of course, means era-appropriate outfits. Hampshire alone had five looks (“they're so amazing, and on paper they're the craziest,” Schull says), but Stanford’s Marty McFly-inspired getup got the biggest reaction on set—“particularly the 1980s mom jeans that I was wearing,” he says.
“I actually collapsed to the floor when I saw Aaron,” Schull says. “I laughed so hard that they had to redo my makeup—it was streaming down my face.”
Costume designer Joyce Schure sourced the outfits from thrift and vintage stores in the Toronto area. “I did a lot of shopping myself on that, and I had the best time!” she says. “Baskets and baskets [of clothes], the uglier the better, because you wanted it to be very iconic. Our leads, they laughed so hard. Once they were in it, they loved it.”
Stanford is loving the fact that the show is now at a point where they can have some fun with time travel. “When the show began, it was strictly future apocalypse and the present where there’s about to be a plague,” he says, “so it’s really fun to jump back to Victorian London and wear a bowler hat, or go the 1980s and hear all the music.”
9. CHRISTOPHER LLOYD HAD AN IDEA TO MAKE HIS CHARACTER EXTRA UNSETTLING.
Matalas knew going into season three that he wanted to explore the origins of the Army of the 12 Monkeys and their leader, the creepy Pallid Man. When it came time to cast the Pallid Man’s father, Zalmon Shaw, Matalas knew they’d need a tall, angular looking actor to play him. “I was like, ‘How cool would it be if it was Christopher Lloyd?” he says. Matalas got on the phone with Lloyd—who had heard about the show at fan conventions—and pitched him the character, and Lloyd said yes. “The coolest thing about it was how much he embraced the role and the mythology,” Matalas says. “To be having these theological discussions about the Red Forest with Christopher Lloyd was so surreal.”
The actor came to the role with lots of ideas for his character, from costume to ... eyebrows. Specifically: Lloyd didn't think his character should have them. “He said, ‘I think it would be really weird, you'd look at him and know something is off but you wouldn’t know what,’” Matalas recalls.
At first he hesitated, but, Matalas says, “There was this voice in the back of my head that was like, ‘This is an American icon who wants to shave his eyebrows for your show. Goddamn it, you’re going to let him shave his eyebrows if he wants to.’ And he did, and it looks great. It was just really cool to collaborate with somebody you have such deep respect for, for so many years.”
10. MENTAL FLOSS INSPIRED A LINE.
Late in the season, Team Splinter heads back to Victorian era London to track down The Witness. So—as the writers and all of the show’s departments must do whenever they start plotting out a trip back in time—Matalas hit the internet to do some research. “I was sitting here in Toronto, it was on a Sunday morning and I was like God, I’m never going to be able to find anything on Victorian slang,” he says. “Victorian slang was exactly what I Googled, and a Mental Floss article came up.” We won’t tell you who says it, or in what context, but the line is “Hello, chuckaboo.” The word is, according to the 1909 book Passing English of the Victorian Era, “a name given familiarly to a favourite chum.”
11. THE COSTUMES FOR THE BIG MASQUERADE WERE MADE ON THE GROUND IN PRAGUE.
“Like the people on our show, we’re always battling time,” costume designer Schure says. Case in point: The epic Victorian London masquerade the travelers attend in 1899, which was shot on location in Prague. Schure couldn’t design the main characters’ costumes until a freelancer she’d hired went to London and picked costumes for the extras. “The company she was dealing with had been completely picked over,” Schure says, “but she managed to pull together some really nice things. [Our costumes] are all original; they had to work with what we were getting, and I didn’t know what we were getting until I got there.”
The costume department designed the costumes (which are actually from the Louis XVII era—"in Victorian times, they would wear clothes from an earlier time period; that was their idea of dress up," Schure says) and did fittings in muslin in Toronto, then brought those along to Prague, where they had around five weeks to actually create the ornate costumes. Each outfit has little details that reflect a part of the character wearing it. “I tried to keep what we’ve established as their character costume looks to this point,” Schure says. “For example, Jennifer’s a double sock girl—she always wears tights with double socks—and we repeated that little motif in her costume.”
Schure’s team also had to create doubles of the costumes for things like stunt work and photo doubling. “And we’re killing people, left, right, and center,” she says, joking, “I’m always up for a clean strangulation, but they like to shoot or knife people, so there’s always blood.”
The Victorian costumes came with an added challenge: There was a lengthy exterior scene, and it was very, very cold. “The second set of costumes, I fleece-lined them all—basically you could go skiing or snowboard in any of the fleece-lined versions,” Schure says. “We used the fleece-lined version if it was a stunt double or photo double or [on the actors] when we actually did the exterior portion.”
12. IT ENDS ON A CLIFFHANGER.
It wouldn’t be 12 Monkeys if the season didn’t end on a cliffhanger, and season three’s finale, “Witness”—which sets up the final confrontation in a totally unexpected way—will definitely have fans screaming for more, like immediately.
The cast and crew are currently shooting the final season of 12 Monkeys. “Going into season three, we had to know how we were going to end, because it is a finite story and it felt like at the end of season two we were kind of at the midpoint,” Matalas says. “The most gratifying thing is knowing for sure you’re going to be able to tell that story. When you don’t know you have another season coming you might be like ‘Oh, well, we have to do this now because we may never do it again,’ but when you know that you’re not you can tell the story as it organically wants to be told.”
And yes, he knows what the final scene will be. “I definitely knew what the last scene was from day one. I think you kind of have to, right? It just influences so much [of] where you go. So yeah, it’s going to be very strange in a few months to actually shoot that scene. It’s going to be very, very bittersweet.”