Based on the novel of the same name by William Brinkley, TNT’s The Last Ship stars Eric Dane (Tom Chandler) as commander of the USS Nathan James, a guided missile destroyer forced to deal with a pandemic virus that has killed most of the earth’s population. Other cast members include Rhona Mitra (Dr. Rachel Scott), a paleomicrobiologist frantically searching for a cure; Adam Baldwin (CDR Mike Slattery, the ship’s confrontational XO); Charles Parnell (as CMC Hugh Jeter); Travis Van Winkle (as Lt. Danny Green) and Marissa Neitling (Lt. Kara Foster, Lt. Green’s love interest). In this roundtable interview, I posed the following questions to cast members who revealed their likes and challenges in working on this exciting new series.
What’s it like being the commander of a guided missile destroyer?
Eric Dane: I love being saluted. You haven’t lived till you’ve been saluted, man. Long hours, heavy workload, but I enjoy it.
How did you prepare for the role?
Dane: I put the uniform on—very literally. You put that uniform on and 90 percent of the work is done. You walk a little taller, you stand a little straighter. We have great writers. I found that if I just keep in mind the things that I have to keep in mind, follow the process that I have as an actor and say the lines, things work out. I haven’t modeled this character after anybody. I haven’t found any inspiration from any other characters; I just try to play the moment and keep it as truthful as possible.
Will the show go into more of Tom Chandler’s backstory?
Dane: My family’s in the woods with my father in his cabin, isolated from the virus, or so I think. We come in contact with them later on in the season. Chandler has to make sure that the choices he makes are not colored by the fact that all he wants to do is get back to his family. He has to make decisions based on the greater good of the mission.
You have this long title—paleomicrobiologist—did you research the technical aspects of this role? Doctor Scott certainly sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.
Rhona Mitra: For my own personal reasons, I’ve been involved in the study of the world’s neurotoxins. For the past two years, I’ve been learning how the human race has been impacted by the pandemics that seem to be appearing everywhere. Everything from the problems with water and fracking to GMOs. I’m interested in the remediation to these problems. When this project came along, I had been doing a lot of physical action roles, so it was a lovely opportunity to explore a more cerebral character. It allowed me to talk to virologists and paleomicrobiologists.
Your ship is involved in some highly technical stuff. Did you have to bring yourself up to speed on Navy jargon and tech details?
Adam Baldwin: Yes, to a certain degree, but we have to speed it up a bit. We have to rely on our writers and technical advisors to give us things that are technically accurate and not too much of a mouthful to recite for the storyline. We’ve taken some tours of the ship, but these guys train for years on these things. It’s very humbling to be among these professionals.
You’re the perfect CMC. How did you prepare for the role?
Charles Parnell: We got prepped by going into the Navy dining hall on the first day. As we were seated, in walked all of our real life counterparts. We talked for a while over lunch and they then took us aboard and walked us through the ship with “their eyes,” so I know what I’m looking at, what I’m concerned with and where things are.
In portraying the leader of a Naval Mountain Warfare Unit, did you undergo any special training in weapons and tactics?
Travis Van Winkle: We did have a couple of days of weapons training. I have Navy Seals watching everything I do. They help align me with what I’m doing mentally. It’s beautiful to have. They tell me how to hold my gun, how to navigate with my gun, how to load it, shoot it, even how to look through the scope. And then they’ll watch the takes and go, “okay, I loved it, but don’t do that, do this.” As much as it’s uncomfortable sometimes and I mess up, they steer me on the right path. As we got into the season, I’d get it right more often and they’d say, alright! These guys have such mental, emotional and physical endurance through training; they can handle anything and kill you 15 different ways, yet they’re the gentlest human beings.
So what’s going to happen with your character?
Van Winkle: My leadership ability is really challenged. And I let things get in the way of my service and my responsibility. What happens the rest of the season, as much as I’ve lost touch with what my duty is, I also feel I’ve lost the respect of some of my crew members who don’t know what I’ve done. Inside, I know I’ve been jeopardizing their lives. I regain my trust, and it’s that climb throughout the season to once again become the leader I know that I am, and that I’ve lost touch with. So you’ll see that slowly develop. You’ll also see the push-pull of trying to have a relationship that’s forbidden on the ship.