“Ascension” Exclusive: Brian Van Holt on Captain Denninger and Cougar Town
by Fred Topel
Syfy brought their newest show Ascension before the Television Critics Association before they’d really even shot anything. Premiering this fall, Ascension is about a spaceship that was launched by JFK in 1963 to colonize a new planet. Now in the present day, Ascension is halfway there with a society of people who don’t know about anything that happened on earth since 1963.
Battlestar Galactica star Tricia Helfer returns to sci-fi as Viondra Denninger, the wife of Ascension’s captain. Brian Van Holt plays the captain, and at the NBC-Universal networks party, I got to step into the captain’s quarters, figuratively speaking, with him. Van Holt is also a regular on the cult favorite Cougar Town, which has not thrown its last penny in the Penny Can yet either.
Nuke The Fridge: Have you ever done sci-fi before?
Brian Van Holt: Threshold. A TV show called Threshold.
NTF: I remember that, short-lived.
Brian Van Holt: Very short-lived. That was about as close as I got to a sci-fi show. I don’t even think Ascension is really a sci-fi show.
NTF: Well, it is on a spaceship.
Brian Van Holt: That’s true. There’s a lot more to Ascension than you would think. It’s more than just a sci-fi. It’s a really deep and interesting show.
NTF: Did you go after Ascension or did they come after you?
Brian Van Holt: Both, I think. I went after it after I met with Philip [Levens], the creator, who’s a genius. I could sit there and talk to this guy for days on end. When I read the script and he told me where the show is gonna go, plot points and the premise of the show, I was like, “I would be honored to do it. I love it.” This is a definite departure from what I’m used to doing.
NTF: Were there a number of characters you would have been right for or was this the one?
Brian Van Holt: It’s funny you ask that. Of course, I’m going to read the script and think I can do everything. There’s definitely a couple other characters I think I could’ve been right for that I would have liked to at least try to do, but in Philip’s mind I was the captain. That’s the only role I was right for.
NTF: Captain’s not a bad gig.
Brian Van Holt: It’s a great gig. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, a big role for me. It’s a different kind of character. I’ve never played this kind of character before so it’s a challenge. It’s fun.
NTF: What is his name?
Brian Van Holt: Captain William Denninger.
NTF: Who is Captain Denninger?
Brian Van Holt: Captain William Denninger is the captain of the ship, the ship Ascension. The leader of this community on his ship. There’s more to Captain Denninger than obviously what you’ve seen. It will be revealed later, but he’s a leader, a very moral man who is also a politician as well. But he also has a dark side. He also suffers a little bit from the normal human condition that we all do. He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, so there’s a lot more to Captain Denninger than just a uniform and being a leader.
NTF: Denninger would have been a kid in 1963 if he was even born yet. Is he second generation Ascension?
Brian Van Holt: Yeah, he is second generation. He’s in the middle. My character was born on the ship. That’s one thing he struggles with too because he’s in the middle. The captain who launches the ship and the captain who lands the ship will be known. The one in the middle is going to be forgotten, so he struggles with that a little bit. His place in this world that he’ll never see anything else but.
NTF: How does one train to be captain once you’re already on the ship?
Brian Van Holt: Well, the previous captain and the previous leaders that would teach you what they know. You’re taught, as we all are.
NTF: Is the previous captain still in the picture?
Brian Van Holt: Not that I know of, no. Not now. That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I’d have to ask Phil. As of now, he’s not.
NTF: Does Denninger have a family on Ascension?
Brian Van Holt: I’m married to Tricia’s character. We don’t have kids yet. We look at the ship as our family very much. Everybody on board, we look at this as one big family and it’s ours. We’re the parents.
NTF: Do you have a cool cockpit or captain’s quarters?
Brian Van Holt: We definitely have a cool cockpit. It’s called The Bridge. I have a cool captain’s quarters as well. That’s one of the benefits of being captain. You’ve got a very luxurious captain’s quarters.
NTF: Is captain at the top of the cultural hierarchy on Ascension?
Brian Van Holt: He is. We’re the king and queen in essence.
NTF: What sort of tough decisions does Captain Denninger have to make beside piloting?
Brian Van Holt: Tough decisions on a daily basis, minute by minute. We run into trouble. We run into an ion cloud. If the shielding doesn’t go up, you’ve got to make a decision on who’s going to fix it and how to fix it. You guys are responsible for everything. Everyone and everything. Saving people’s lives, you know, the normal.
NTF: Does Ascension have all the supplies they need? Were they well stocked to begin with?
Brian Van Holt: That, we supply ourselves. We’re a fully functioning ship, society. For food and what not, we have livestock. We actually recycle clothing. We’re self-sustaining.
NTF: Does Denninger rule with an iron fist?
Brian Van Holt: No. Sometimes. Not always. How’s that answer? Sometimes, when he has to, he will but it’s a different approach to being in charge and running things.
NTF: So if you’re doing Ascension, are you wrapped on Cougar Town?
Brian Van Holt: We all thought it was wrapped. We’re all shocked that we actually have another year, so Cougar Town is coming back.
NTF: Does that coordinate with Ascension for you?
Brian Van Holt: I’ll be coming back. We’re trying to work it out. We’re trying to figure that out literally as we speak. A lot of other casts got pilots and stuff because we were all told to seek jobs elsewhere. They encouraged us to look, so we’re all surprised that it was picked up again.
NTF: How much more Penny Can can you play?
Brian Van Holt: I’m so grateful for Bobby Cobb and for Cougar Town, but I think it’s time to move on from Penny Can and the boat. It’s time to get off that boat. Yeah, how much Penny Can can you play? That’s why I’m so excited about this. It’s refreshing and much different than what I’m used to doing.
NTF: Cougar Town fans were pretty passionate. Do you expect sci-fi fans to be even more?
Brian Van Holt: That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve got to say, our Cougar Town fans are really passionate and God bless ‘em. I appreciate them. They’re amazing. They’re special, but Tricia has told me some stories about the sci-fi fans who are pretty passionate as well. It’s pretty intense, which is good. Worth it.
NTF: Did she give you any tips to deal with them?
Brian Van Holt: Not yet. Not yet, but she will though.