Rocket ships, sex cults and Scientology might seem like a strange combination of subjects for a TV show. CBS Interactive is bringing you all of them in Strange Angel, which premiered at the ATX Television Festival. The festival, promoted as “TV Camp for Adults,” ran June 7-10 in Austin, Texas.
Strange Angel, brings us the true-life story of Jack Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Proving the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction, the series takes us to 1930s Los Angeles where the future rocket scientist works as a janitor in a chemical plant.
During the day, Parsons dreams of building rocket ships that will take man to the moon. At night, he uncovers a new occult religion created by Aleister Crowley. He performs sex magic rituals to bend the world to his will and along the way interacts with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
This intersection of genius and madness comes to the screen thanks to series creator Mark Heyman (Black Swan, The Skeleton Twins), based on George Pendle’s book of the same name.
TV fans at ATX listened to Heyman, Director David Lowery, Producer David DiGilio and cast members Rupert Friend (Homeland), and Jack Reynor, who plays Parsons, discuss the show with moderator Michael Schneider from IndieWire.
Schneider asked the panel how they became involved in the project.
Directory Lowery explained that he was excited about the project. “I heard about Parsons and thought. ‘Someone is going to make this story.’ So, I got involved.”
Reynor, who bears a strong resemblance to Parsons, was also enthusiastic. “I grew up reading pulp fiction and H.P. Lovecraft,” he said. “Then I found out about Aleister Crowley online and that led me to Jack Parsons.”
Friend, who plays a strange and somewhat threating neighbor of Parsons, said, “After Homeland I wanted something different.”
He got it.
Schneider asked if recreating 1930’s LA was challenging.
Lowery replied, “Not as many challenges as you’d think. We just needed to find certain pockets were history was less obscured. There are places like that. Our location scouting was a tremendous history tour of Los Angeles. It was time traveling.”
Producer DiGilio praised Lowery. “He’s a master of making period pieces feel contemporary,” he said.
Reynor said he enjoyed acting in period pieces. “I’ve done a lot of these in my career,” he said. “This one was different because the way it was designed it feels so authentic and natural. The best thing was all the sweet cars I got to drive.”
Lowery said that everyone slipped into the environment easily. “One challenge was to teach people how to use dial phones,” he said.
Heyman said that as the show progresses, World War II will play a larger part. He observed: “The 30s were a moment of hope. That brief moment of time, full of whimsical ideas, had to come face-to-face with the wickedest war that ever existed. The story encases you in something of a bubble, but then reality permeates it.”
Schneider asked if JPL and Caltech were helpful with providing background information.
Heyman explained that JPL wanted nothing to do with the story. “They wouldn’t even give us a tour,” he said. “But Caltech has fully embraced the show.”
Strange Angel streams though CBS Interactive. You can watch a trailer below.