Of all the crew aboard the USS Orville, J. Lee’s Chief Engineer John LaMarr has been the singularly most dynamic individual in terms of personal, professional, and character development since The Orville‘s premiere on FOX in 2017.
With Season 3’s launch as The Orville: New Horizons on the Hulu streaming platform, LaMarr has continued to impress and entertain, rising to the occasion afforded by their longer format and more complex narratives.
Speaking with TV Fanatic over Zoom, J. Lee provides some insights on how the show and its cast have evolved over time.
Besides the bumps in production caused by the pandemic, the most obvious change has been the show’s move to Hulu.
According to Lee, life on set hasn’t changed, although the episodes they’re producing are more visually impressive and cinematic.
“It’s not that big of a difference for us. We kind of jumped right back in, jumped right back on that set. So, as far as the technical aspect of it goes, it’s been the same.
“The final product of it, of course, is bigger, it’s longer: you see the production value. But for the actors, it’s been roughly the same, nothing too big of a change as far as the performance and how we approach the work.”
Lee recognizes that Season 3’s significantly longer episodes have allowed them to flesh out their narratives more.
“It’s nice because we don’t have to worry about act breaks. We’re not trying to fit a story into a condensed amount of time, so it gives us a little bit more room to breathe. I think it allows us to sit in it a little bit.”
This season has seen LaMarr solve several major dilemmas for the ship, from reversing Isaac’s suicide on The Orville: New Horizons Season 3 Episode 1 to bringing the ship forward hundreds of years in time on The Orville: New Horizons Season 3 Episode 6.
“I kind of made a joke after [Season 3] Episode 1 or 2. I was hashtagging #LeaveItToLaMarr cause he’s figuring things out to save whatever [needs saving].
“It’s been fun as an actor to be able to sit in that position. I feel John takes his job very seriously. Though when we meet him, he was a little more goofy and silly. Even when he was a navigator, he took his job very seriously.
“But there’s more responsibility now. It’s been fun to play him and find that next level for him. John is coming into more of his own, and we see his progression, especially in this season.”
LaMarr’s social life is more active than other senior officers. Typically, his dalliances are unique occurrences like Irillia on “Electric Sheep,” but on The Orville: New Horizons Season 3 Episode 4, there is a distinctly flirty air to his interaction with Lt. Cmdr. Talla Keyali during the crew’s R&R in the Wild West simulation.
It goes a step further when the Xelayan Security Officer checks in on him in Engineering during “Twice in a Lifetime.” Lee is cagey about where this relationship may lead.
“She is lovable. You know, John, he’s a hard worker, and he was just trying to fix the ship. We had to go save Gordon. And he had a co-worker who, y’know, she wanted to offer to get the knot out of his back.
“It could just be a one-off thing. It could be something that grows into something. John, he deserves to be happy. So does Talla. So does everybody on the ship, so we’ll see what happens.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Season 3 has been the callbacks to narratives introduced in Seasons 1 and 2. Lee recognizes how the continuity has been maintained and cultivated by the talents of the writers’ room.
“I think Seth and the writers have done a great job of starting a story, and then when something is good on the page, it has life. There are some things that we didn’t even expect to be a storyline that were.
“I always give Peter Macon props because in [The Orville Season 1] Episode 1, when we meet him, he has that joke about Moclans only urinating once a year when Ed meets him.
“Peter — who’s such a great artist and actor — looks at the script and says, ‘Okay, I’m going to make this make sense.’ All throughout Season 1, he was saying on set, ‘What happens if Bortus doesn’t pee? Something has to happen. This is a big deal.’
“So, through all of Season 1, Peter is like, ‘No, we gotta figure this out.’ Then cut to [The Orville] Season 2 Episode 1, the Ja’loja episode. That whole episode was because Peter was aware enough to say, ‘You introduced this concept.’
“Seth being himself and the writers being great, Seth was able to say, ‘Oh, that nugget of an idea. This is a whole episode.’ I think a lot of things have been planted, and I think they can blossom.”
Being a writer himself, Lee values the quality of writing on which the show is built. Even in his role as an actor, he sees things with a writer’s eye.
“To me, everything starts on the page in this industry. That’s just my perspective. You can’t make a movie; you can’t make a TV show without some material. That is the foundation, so I always approach it from the text first.
“You can have all the lights and explosions and cameras, but if it doesn’t make sense on the page, then you’re going to have a tough time down the road.
“I think it goes Writer-Actor first, and then you get into Directing, but I also understand Seth’s writing and rhythm and timing. You kind of get into a flow.”
While this is the show’s third season, the cast and production team have been together for over five years since the network change and the pandemic both prolonged the gap between Seasons 2 and 3. Lee appreciates that they’ve grown as a team over that time, able to support each other when it’s needed.
“Any day, it’s different. That’s the beauty of an ensemble cast. Because if one day, somebody’s not feeling it, feeling sort of draggy and heavy, somebody will come up and pick the energy up, take up the slack.
“I don’t think there’s any specific person. We all do a pretty good job of trying to keep everybody uplifted and focused on what we gotta do.”
An accomplished pianist — learning to play at age three — Lee has performed at Carnegie Hall and holds a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University’s Jacob’s School of Music.
Considering that both Peter Macon and Scott Grimes have performed songs on the show this season, will LaMarr also have a chance to show off his musical skills? Lee feels LaMarr (probably) shouldn’t be expected to be everything to everyone.
“Listen, LaMarr can’t be the smartest guy on the ship, get all the ladies, play piano, save the day… Y’know, he’s gotta have some flaw. Seth does a great job of using the abilities the actors have. If [the show] calls for a storyline where John plays the piano, I’m sure he’ll weave it in.
“I don’t know if that even fits for [LaMarr] right now. But maybe, down the line, who knows? I have no idea what they got in store.”
Famously, Lee moved to Los Angeles with his last $200 in his pocket eighteen years ago. Did he envision at that time he’d be where he is today?
“Yes and no. I never expected to be exactly where I’m at, but I expected to be somewhere. When I came out, I just knew this is a space and industry that I wanted to be a part of, and — I’ve said this before — I got pretty blessed with my skill set being something I like to do.
“I didn’t know how it was going to look. I didn’t know I was going to be writing, directing, producing. I didn’t know that was a part of my journey, but it is, and here I am. I’m glad I made the move.
Where does Lee see himself in the future?
“I always say, if I can make people laugh, cry, do better, with my art, then I’ve done my job. I’m gearing up to direct a film that I wrote. I hope we come back for more Orville. That’d be nice. I’m going to do another piano concert. Got some TV ideas, so keeping all the pots moving.”
We couldn’t resist asking about his movie.
“It’s a movie called Jacob Beats Up Nate about a dude named Jacob who beats up Nate. It’s a comedy. If everything works out, we’ll be shooting before the end of this year, [and it] comes out next year. We’ll see what happens, but that’s the goal.”
One of the most commented upon elements of this season of The Orville: New Horizons has been its unflinching approach to complex social issues. TV Fanatic’s reviews have discussed the problematic history of Teleya, the current Krill Supreme Chancellor.
Lee notes that Teleya isn’t the only character whose past has shaped their present in brutal ways.
“I think Klyden is another character that can fall into that sort of genre of … It’s easy to say, ‘We hate Klyden. He’s a bad person.’ But if you look at what happened to Klyden, and from his perspective, things shift a little bit.”
Lee praises the scripts for their ability to broach these topics and leave them open for discussion. Specifically, “A Tale of Two Topas” really moved him.
“[Those scripts are] beautiful. And I told Chad and Peter during filming, after filming, after it came out, I texted them, I tell them all the time, ‘What you guys were able to do with that is unbelievable.’ And Imani, who came in and played Topa, was just so fantastic.
“The writers take these complicated issues and [don’t] preach, [don’t] hit you over the head. [They] just put people in these situations and let it play out.
“You’re going to have people who say, ‘I don’t like that. That doesn’t make sense. But then, does that make sense? Oh man, I gotta open up that Pandora’s Box.’
“It’s a lot of mirroring. If you don’t like something or you hate something, you gotta look at yourself and say, ‘What is that that I’m bumping up against?’ With this show, we try to ride the line of doing that. And hopefully, we do it well.”
Lee sees the audience reflected in this season’s aim to be complex, controversial, and infinitely interesting.
“Well, that’s what we are, right? As people. Aren’t we all of that? We’re not just one thing. I’m honored to be a part of this show because we do get to talk about stuff like that.”
Be sure to catch the further adventures of John LaMarr and his crewmates on The Orville: New Horizons Thursdays on Hulu, and keep an eye out for Jacob Beats Up Nate in 2023.
What sort of problem would you like to see LaMarr tackle next? Hit our comments with your Top 3 space shenanigans the Chief Engineer should sort out for the Union.
Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.