The protomolecule entity formerly known as Joe Miller might have disappeared at the end of The Expanse season four, but actor Thomas Jane didn’t go anywhere. He ventured behind the scenes to direct an episode of season five, one that gives us some of the most emotional moments of the series so far. Luckily for The Expanse fans, this doesn’t mean Miller is gone for good.
(Note: This interview contains minor spoilers through episode three of The Expanse season five.)
Gizmodo had a chance to visit the set of The Expanse in 2019 as the series was in the middle of shooting season five (even though season four had yet to be released at the time). During our trip, we discovered that Jane was in the middle of his television directorial debut, helming the third episode of the upcoming season, called “Mother.” Clad in an oversized scarf and what can only be described as a civilian’s equivalent to Miller’s signature hat, Jane guided actress Shohreh Aghdashloo through a scene where she, as former Secretary-General of the United Nations Chrisjen Avasarala, was leaving a voicemail for her husband while stationed by herself on Luna.
On the surface, it seemed like a pretty innocuous moment. However, like many of the scenes in “Mother,” there’s a lot going on underneath, and many people we spoke to credited Jane with recognising that and bringing it out, with Aghdashloo praising him as an “actors’ director.” After filming that scene, Aghdashloo shared how some directors would just tell her to take a three-second pause in the middle of the voicemail — but Jane, knowing actors thrive on motivation, told her why Chrisjen needed that momentary break. Because she missed her husband, who’d chosen to stay behind on Earth, but she felt conflicted that she had no intention of stopping her work to go home to him.
“He was thinking for me, which is incredible. Another thing with amazing directors is the fact that they will allow you to come in and portray the character, play the beat, and then they would come in and tell you if there’s anything that you have forgotten,” Aghdashloo said. “He did the same thing. He let us come up with our own interpretations of the roles, and then he came in and he said, ‘By the way, here, she’s at a loss for words.’ Because it’s a creative process. The more we pay attention to one another, the more we give each other info and that, it helps.”
It’s interesting watching a television director build a scene with their actors because it goes against what we traditionally see as a director’s role. For most movies, the director is the boss. The visionary. The creator. They set the tone, the scene, and the mood for the whole production. But things work differently on television. For the most part, TV brings in directors to helm just an episode or two (maybe more if they have a good rapport), which means we often see them coming into a tone, a scene, and a mood that’s already established — they’re not the instigator, they’re adapting to their environment. But what happens when the director, instead of being a new arrival, has spent years on the other side of the camera? Well, it takes some work. The Expanse showrunner Naren Shankar told Gizmodo just how much Jane did to get the OK to do the episode.
“Thomas had aspired to direct — he had talked about it very early on, and everybody was really supportive of the idea. And at the end of season four, he shadowed [director] Breck Eisner for the last two episodes of the season. He was there the entire time through prep and shoot, and he was really, really, really serious about it,” Shankar said. “We gave Thomas episode three, and it was a really good choice for him as well because I think he brought a tremendous amount of his own life experience to it…It was really a delight working with him and I thought he did a great job.”
For Jane, it meant he still had to adapt, this new task meant a lot of preparation. In a more recent interview with Gizmodo, Jane shared how he’d “absolutely approached” the producers about directing an episode of The Expanse, and he spent months getting his pitch together so they’d understand how badly he wanted to do it. Jane had directed smaller projects in the past but nothing on this scale and he wanted to do it right.
“I was the dog that just wouldn’t let go of that ball until they finally just relented and said, ‘Well Jesus, we better just let him fucking direct one. My God,’” Jane said. “They were very clever in the one that they gave me. They gave me a performance-heavy [episode] — it’s got a lot of action and there’s a lot of intrigue. But why they gave me that episode was because there’s a lot of really strong emotional turns that a couple of the lead characters make — beautifully written stuff.”
That’s not an exaggeration: “Mother” is a very important episode for The Expanse, mainly for its major female characters. We spend time with Drummer (Cara Gee), whose attempts to move forward in her life as the leader of a Belter salvage crew are derailed when the remnants of her former second-in-command Ashford’s (David Strathairn) ship are discovered. The scenes with Drummer present a vulnerability we rarely get to see in the character — both emotionally and physically, as we see her in the nude a few times as a representation of her soul being laid bare. Jane noted how those scenes were powerful but also difficult to film, as Gee was pregnant at the time and they need to conceal her noticeable bump (the irony isn’t lost on the fact that it’s called “Mother”).
But the episode’s shining star has to be Naomi (Dominique Tipper), who we see heading to a station in search of her long-lost son, Filip (Jasai Chase Owens). When we’d visited the set of The Expanse in 2019, Tipper had yet to film any scenes with Owens but told us she was extremely nervous — given how long she’d been waiting to see her character turn that corner and confront the mistakes of her past (for better or worse). It’s why Jane said he spent a lot of time with Tipper and Owens rehearing the scene — something he was well used to as an actor on The Expanse, as it’s common practice for the stars of the show to do extensive blocking before filming, but it took on a whole new role (and meaning) when he was serving as the director instead of the talent. Naomi and Filip’s reunion was a moment years in the making for The Expanse, and Jane said he understood he’d been given a big responsibility.
“When the writers sit you down as a director and you finally got the job, they basically sit you down and they say, ‘Look, this is what this episode is about.’ And that was the first thing they mentioned. They’re like, ‘Look, this episode, this — we’ve been waiting for this for a long time.’ And they put it on my shoulders. They trusted me to bring that to life,” Jane said. “We had some terrific rehearsals with our two lovely actors. We hammered it out. And I’m proud of that scene, because the way we introduced Naomi’s son is important, you know? I knew that moment had to be special and I’m glad you pointed it out, tells me that I may have done my job.”
But not everything in “Mother” has such weight to it. There was one scene in particular that stood out as sort of funny, if only because of who was filming it. There’s a moment in the episode when we see Alex (Cas Anvar) chatting at a bar with a Martian officer (who may or may not have ulterior motives), being asked details about what the hell happened on Ilus. Alex tells the truth: The protomolecule entity formerly known as Miller saved the universe. Not only did Jane find it hilarious, it was actually his introduction to the world of filming an episode of The Expanse — being stuck behind a camera as a couple of actors talked about how amazing his character was.
“Oh, it was a blast. They’re talking about Miller in the story, and I’m standing three feet away with my monitor, you know?” he said. “That was actually my first day of filming. That’s how they popped my cherry on the show.”
Unfortunately, Jane won’t have a chance to reprise his directorial role on The Expanse, as he’ll be in Australia when the sixth and final season is filming. He said he would’ve “loved nothing more” than to direct another episode of the series, especially during the final season, and added that he was “terribly disappointed” that the timing wouldn’t work out.
But what about his on-camera counterpart, investigator-turned-protomolecule entity Joe Miller? Jane was (unsurprisingly) cagey, saying we’ll have to wait and see. “I can neither confirm nor deny the rumours of Miller coming back for season six. That’s something that, of course, we’ll want to tune in and find out,” he said.
Amazon Studios’ The Expanse returns with the first three episodes of season five (which includes “Mother”) on December 15, with subsequent episodes being released weekly.
Additional reporting by Cheryl Eddy.