Richard K. Morgan & Chris Conner
By Sergio Burns
Rebirth – Takeshi Kovacks wakes up after 250 years. His memories and consciousness have been poured into a disc and implanted into the back of the neck of a new body called a ‘sleeve’. In the book Altered Carbon, now a Netflix series, Kovacks is brought back to solve a murder.
The story escapes from the fertile imagination of the novel’s writer Richard K Morgan, reborn and rehashed on the page to take form as a beautifully crafted sci-fi television series produced by Skydance Media and released through Netflix on February 2, 2018.
“I mean you are talking about, what?’ Morgan pauses to think, gently expels air from his lungs, and calculates time. “Ah, 16 years waiting for it to happen. So, yeah, it was fantastic to finally see it happen. What was very nice for me was that Laeta Kalogridis (who adapted Altered Carbon for the screen) loved the book. What is on the screen… follows the book very closely for most of the time, and I mean there are scenes in the show that are almost word for word lifted from the text of the novel. An enormous amount of it is just transcribed over and even when it is not there, everything, almost everything, that is in the book thematically and conceptually… all shows up in the show.”
Richard falls into silence. I can sense him as he moves across the fantastical landscape of his novel. Walking through its translation to screen, wandering between those beautifully designed futuristic and dark backdrops, playing out this reconstructed reality on the streets of his sci-fi city.
“I was expecting the movie to get made imminently and yeah I was very innocent back then,” He admitted after Warner Brothers bought the option on the book in 2002. “I assumed that if someone paid you an enormous amount of money for an option on your book that was because they would get on and make the bloody thing into a film. I think it was seven years before they finally got fed up and pulled the plug. Then it got taken on again by Laeta Kalogridis. Initially she wanted to make a movie as well, but that was in production for years and we just couldn’t get it made, couldn’t get the backing she needed.”
The show was eventually given a generous budget by Netflix and, at last, made, with the first season running to ten episodes.
“This thing that I dreamed up a couple of decades ago,” He starts up again. “Bang! There it is on the screen as I imagined it and it’s full of life and it’s got all of the violence and the colour, the power and everything that I tried to pack into the novel. I really can’t overstate how amazing that has been.”
But, Bay City (Richard’s vibrant, bustling, dystopian metropolis in the novel) is a long way from Hethersett, East Anglia, where the author was raised.
An almost idyllic and happy childhood was followed by a place at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he read history. After obtaining his degree, restless and wanting to travel, he decided on a career in teaching English abroad. A decision that has fed back into his writing.
“It is obviously…all grist to the mill,” He says of the experiences he has recycled into his literature. “I mean, you know a couple of the books I have written have been filled with names and characters I have borrowed liberally from people I have met from other corners of the globe. So, it has added an international flavour to my writing.”
A successful 14 year career as an English teacher allowed Morgan to travel the globe, but Richard had always wanted to be a writer. His break came when Warner Brothers bought the rights. This gave him the opportunity to shed his day job and reinvent himself as a full time writer.
“J.K. Rowling nailed it rather nicely,” He said, as he reflected on my question about when he decided he wanted to be a writer. “I saw an interview with her quite a few years ago, and they asked her the same question and she said: ‘As Long as I have known that there were such things as writers’. That pretty much gets it for me.”
“The Best Character in ‘Altered Carbon’ is a Hotel: Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect detective’s companion.”
In the original novel, Morgan themes the hotel around rock star Jimi Hendrix. Unable, however, to get the rights from the Hendrix estate to use on screen, the production team switched to The Raven run by artificial life form Edgar Allan Poe.
The Boston-born – author, Poe, once attended school in Irvine for a period. At age two he was fostered by John Allan of Richmond, Virginia, and then, in turn, lived with his spinster sister Mary at Bridgegate House, Irvine. The young Edgar Allan Poe attended Kailyard Grammar School at Kirkgatehead in the town and has ancestors traced back to Fenwick.
It is a change from the original text that Morgan approves.
“The whole Raven / Poe thing just kind of popped up in there… I didn’t like it, I was…very uncomfortable with it,” Richard confessed. “It was very instructive for me, and instructive for anybody who is one of these purists who doesn’t like any changes from the original book when the book is adapted. In actual fact that flew, it was an incredible success and I realised that very early on. I went out to Vancouver and looked at the set where they were filming and I saw this beautiful artwork they had done for the interior of the hotel. They had these kind of Escher effects, ravens on the ceiling and… you know you’re woken up by a raven it’s his alarm clock. Then Poe, you’ve got Chris Conner and Chris Conner just knocked that out the park with an amazing performance, and it just works, it just absolutely works, it flows. So, in the end I am forced to admit, I don’t like to, but I am forced to admit that I think the ‘Raven’ plus Poe was, from a fiction point of view, a far better construct than my original Hendrix. It gets my full stamp of approval, I really love it.”
In a strange twist to Poe supplanting Hendrix, Morgan knows Ayrshire well having lived previously lived in Glasgow.
“We used to go down there quite a lot,” He said of Ayrshire.
“I mean one of the nice things about being a full time author is your time is your own. So, if you – on the rare occasions that the west coast would give you a decent day – okay right… pile in the car and we’d go down to Ayr or to Largs or to anywhere along that coastal strip. Just go and hang out on the coast. I had one of my close friends in Glasgow who was from the Isle of Arran originally. We went across there a few times as well. Yeah, we spent time down there. I know Ayr and Largs well, spent a lot of time there and Ardrossan as well to some extent.”
Series two of Altered Carbon is now underway, while Morgan ponders his next book after his latest novel ‘Thin Air’.
Meanwhile Takeshi Kovacs appears in two further novels : Broken Angels (2003) and Woken Furies (2005), so, it seems there is plenty of scope for more series of this very successful Netflix adaptation.
With Poe and Morgan, himself, having strong connections to Ayrshire are we surprised that the Altered Carbon franchise has been such a success? No? Didn’t think so.
Actor Chris Conner talks to Ayrshire Magazine.
He plays the part of Edgar Allan Poe to critical acclaim – the poet (Poe) having spent some of his formative years in Ayrshire.
The author of Altered Carbon, Richard K Morgan, whose book was adapted for the screen by Netflix, describes his performances as ‘awesome’. In the series, New Mexico-born actor Chris Conner plays an artificial life form and owner of The Raven Hotel, named after the bird taken from Poe’s famous poem of the same name.
Immortalised in literary history as one of the originators of the short story, detective fiction and as having a significant influence on the burgeoning science fiction genre, Irvine schooled Edgar Allan Poe is also celebrated in pop culture.
Global cartoon phenomenon, The Simpsons, have celebrated the Poe legend in their show: ‘The Simpsons Present Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven’ as part of ‘Treehouse of Horror’ (1990). Narrated by James Earl Jones and played out by Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta), the team remain pretty true to the doom-laden poem – though please note the line: ‘Eat my shorts’ (attributed to The Raven via Bart) does NOT appear in Poe’s original work.
“It was a last minute audition,” Chris Conner told Ayrshire Magazine. “They had a couple of pages of dialogue, because in Richard’s wonderful book the character of the hotel and the sidekick to Kovacs…is Jimi Hendrix the rock star guitarist. They couldn’t get the rights from the Hendrix estate so they were trying out several different ideas and Edgar Allan Poe luckily stuck. Oh, it had some wonderful language. Laeta Kalogridis who adapted the book for the screen wrote some wonderful juicy scenes and it was language that I was immediately attracted to, all based on Poe’s writing. It was just one audition, and a couple of weeks later my wife and I were pleased to find out that we’d be relocating to Canada to shoot the first season.”
The first series was shot in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, but for Chris Conner, this was not just about playing a character: Edgar Allan Poe.
“It is interesting,” He agrees when I ask him how difficult it was to try and play Poe as an android. “The very beginning of meeting with Laeta Kalogridis and Steve Blackman who were the show writers for the first season, where we had come up with the idea of really trying to humanise the artificial intelligent life form that was Poe. Part of the reason why we chose Edgar Allan Poe to inhabit, is to seek out and reach for what is human, what it means to be and what humanity truly is. Edgar Allan Poe and his writing is constantly seeking that out. He tried to investigate the human soul and I think that’s partly what we wanted to try to do with the artificial intelligent life form. Now this Poe (as an android) is to reach and seek out what is love and what is human.”
It is a clever reversal – I mean an artificial life form taking the form of a historical character and trying to work out what it is to be human? Poe, himself, with his Ayrshire connections would have appreciated the lovely little teasing twist in the storyline.
Acting has always run deep through the veins of Mr Conner, ever since he played Miles Standish as a seven year-old in a Thanksgiving play. What is even more remarkable is the fact that he can still remember his line!
“I pretty much wanted to follow that path to the chagrin of my parents,” He said of his early dreams to become an actor. “Eventually I thought about going into public service of some kind, maybe becoming a lawyer, (or) going into government work. Thank goodness I didn’t do that, but who would have thought that being an actor would be more reputable than being a politician?”
We laughed, a little uneasily, at his observation.
“Oh it is just a grind,” Conner said of his early days in acting. “You know I was really fortunate because I had the same agent for 21 years now, Gregg Klein, and he’s been supportive. Even during the early years, where you know you hit the pavement and are just trying to get any work you can. But, overall I have been very lucky to have several people who have been my advocates over the years, and all the way to now getting to work for Skydance and Netflix doing Altered Carbon. It has been a joy to have people who are supportive of you. It is so rare to have good assistance in that respect, I have been really lucky. The early years though were very lean, there was a lot of soup, of not eating that well and being a starving actor.”
We laughed and discussed the hardships of various difficult occupations, with starving writers and musicians, as well as actors, taking top billing.
“Probably the first audition was for the show Friends,” Chris remembered. “I auditioned for a guest star on Friends. I didn’t get it, but I just remembered being so nervous I was trembling I could see my hands trembling. Then a week later I got a guest star on E.R. that wonderful medical drama with George Clooney and Noah Wyle. That was… the first professional part I ever played on that show. I think I played a guy who had cut his leg on a shipwreck in Lake Michigan and was getting operated on by Noah Wyle and Julianna Margulies. I was terribly nervous shooting that as well, because I had no idea what I was doing in front of a camera at that point.”
Since then Conner has taken on a substantial body of work culminating in his role of Poe in Altered Carbon.
“It’s been lovely,” He says of working on the Netflix series. “We are currently spending the holidays in Oregon but then we head up the coast just to start season two, coming up here in January. It is a life changing experience, you don’t get to do such a huge television show, and something that is seen worldwide, there are over 100 countries that Altered Carbon is played in. Its a true gift if you are wanting to tell good stories to people around the world and entertain. To be able to have that wide an audience is transformative.”
Conner has also written a television show based on Billy The Kid which he hopes to get started on later in 2019. He also wants to get back to the stage.
“Oh I want to grow old as an actor,” He says of his remaining ambition. “I think it is a wonderful challenge because we have such a short career as an actor, but the parts only get deeper and deeper as you get older. I mean Glenda Jackson is doing King Lear right now in New York, and it is phenomenal to watch these older actors work. I just want to grow old just like some fine wine on the stage, and on the screen somewhere, and keep telling good stories.”
We look forward to watching Chris Conner in future iterations. As Poe, a complex, artificial intelligent life form trying to work out how to be human, he has proved a revelation.