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Leah Harvey as Salvor Hardin, warden of the planet Terminus, in the Apple TV+ series Foundation. Photo: Apple TV+

Foundation interview: David S. Goyer, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey on tackling the Apple TV+ adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic sci-fi series

  • Show creator David S. Goyer says the new series, with its extensive rewriting of the original books and even gender-swapping, has to reach beyond sci-fi fans
  • For Jared Harris, starring as mathematician Hari Seldon was a ‘formidable challenge’, trickier even than his past roles as Ulysses S. Grant and John Lennon

If the origin of modern science fiction can be traced to a big bang, it was called Foundation: a monumental book series by Isaac Asimov that began in 1942 as run of short stories, which were later turned into a trilogy of novels, before being added to with a number of sequels and prequels.

The series had never been adapted for screen, so daunting had proved the task of visualising Asimov’s universe. Eventually, however, someone was going to have to summon the courage to do so. Step forward David S. Goyer, executive producer and show creator of Apple TV+’s Foundation series that premieres on September 24.

Goyer’s first problem, of many, was the project’s scope, which necessitated extensive rewrites of the novels, reinventions and even some gender-swapping. Was he risking the ire of diehard Asimov fans?

“That’s part of adapting great works,” he told the South China Morning Post in a multinational video call that included the cast’s biggest names. “The books exist, they’re there, no one’s changing them, but the show is not the books.

“If this is to work, it’s going to have to reach beyond those who have read the books and beyond fans of science fiction,” he added. “Something like this must work for a very broad audience. I count myself a fan who reveres the books, [but] Asimov knew that if Foundation were ever adapted, someone would have to take liberties.”

Equally aware of the weight of expectation were the actors, chief among them Jared Harris, who stars as mathematician Hari Seldon. Did he feel extra pressure in becoming a character that had countless millions of fans?

“No more so than taking on Ulysses S. Grant or John Lennon,” said Harris, who has played both during his career, “but you do have a responsibility to the legacy. Seldon casts a huge shadow over the books and over this first season, so … this was trickier than playing those historical characters, because you don’t have that reference, so it’s largely imaginative.

“It didn’t keep me awake at night any more than any other job normally does, [but] if you don’t feel those serpents of fear coiling in your stomach then you shouldn’t have taken the job, because that feeling of fear is a good sign, it means you’ve taken on a formidable challenge. And I like that.”

Jared Harris as mathematician Hari Seldon in Foundation. Photo: Apple TV+

Seldon is the founder of psychohistory, a fictional science that combines several disciplines to make predictions about the future behaviour of populations. His forecasts put fear into the iron-fisted Galactic Empire because they show that this supreme power, with its trillions of subjects, is heading for a spectacular collapse that will herald a 30,000-year dark age.

Incensed by Seldon is Emperor Brother Day (played by Lee Pace), a clone of an earlier ruler and an autocrat who, Pace said, is faced with “a riddle about inherited power and what it means when change is the one thing you can bet on. The one thing the emperor is desperate to prevent!”

But at least Pace had some help when it came to his research.

“I looked at Chinese emperors,” he said. “I find the structure that was built around the Chinese emperors very interesting. I looked at Inca art showing how the emperors were considered gods; in our story there’s this idea that the emperors cheat death and live forever, but of course that’s a fantasy.

“In this first season the emperor discovers his humanity. He’s fulfilling the office of a god, but he’s not a god. One of the pleasures of Foundation is going to be watching him suffer,” he added, laughing. “He’s going to fight like hell but he’s going to suffer. That’s a human.”

Lee Pace (centre) as Emperor Brother Day in Foundation. Photo: Apple TV+

Goyer made radical changes not only to Asimov’s story, but also to some prime characters – notably Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin, formerly male, now female. Asimov’s daughter, Robyn, “was very supportive”, Goyer said, “and felt that her father would have agreed”.

The beneficiaries are Lou Llobell, who stars as Dornick, Seldon’s protégé, and Leah Harvey, as Hardin, warden of the planet Terminus. The role of Hardin, who battles invading troops, was physically demanding, but it was in the quieter moments that Harvey perhaps saw more of herself.

“She’s an outlier,” Harvey said of her character, “but really empathetic, so much so that she struggles to be around people because she feels so much. We get to see her develop those feelings and understand that side of her.

“She’s feisty, with a lot of attitude, but at the same time isn’t quite sure of herself, which is something I can relate to. Salvor has spent her life preparing for something – but she doesn’t know what.”

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For mathematics prodigy Dornick, an epiphany arrives when “she suddenly realises she’s a lot more powerful than she thought”, Llobell said.

Meanwhile, Llobell remained in shock at having been cast. “I hope I do her justice,” she said. “I genuinely said to a few people, ‘Maybe they’ve got my headshot next to someone else’s details; are they sure I’m the right person for this job?’

“You get thrown into it and the excitement overtakes the fear. [But] it’s there, it’s there for the entirety, it’s still there to this day. I’m still overwhelmed.”

Foundation streams from September 24 on Apple TV+