On a hot afternoon, amid a crowd streaming into a concert, two men struggle with an ice chest.
It could be an innocent tug of war over who gets first dibs on the drinks, but it isn’t.
One of the men is an undercover FBI agent; the other a terrorist. The ice chest contains explosives.
And the scene is unsettlingly real.
The cast and crew of “Sleeper Cell: American Terror” were at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, filming the seventh hour of the eight-part limited series, which airs Dec. 10-17 on Showtime.
Last December, when the first edition of “Sleeper Cell” wrapped, the executive producers didn’t know for sure whether a second season would be ordered. With their hopes invested in the future they didn’t want to paint themselves too conclusively into a tight corner.
But they also didn’t want to settle for a teaser cliffhanger. So the season ended with major tragedy averted by the actions of FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) and the arrest of cell leader Faris al-Farik (Oded Fehr).
With Faris in custody and two of the original cell members killed off, the creators had some problems to solve.
“What is interesting about the new season, and I think really cool from a viewers’ perspective, though very challenging for us as executive producers, is we pick up pretty much exactly where we left off, which means that we follow totally separate plot lines,” said co-executive producer Ethan Reiff.
There are essentially three strands to the plot: Darwyn, a black American of Muslim faith, penetrating a new sleeper cell; Arab extremist Faris, who’s in custody while being interrogated by the CIA; and Bosnian terrorist Ilija Korjenic (Henri Lubatti), formerly Faris’ right-hand man, who’s on the run.
New cell members include Mina (Thekla Reuten), a young Dutch woman who has converted to Islam, Benny Velazquez (Kevin Alejandro), a gang member converted in prison, and Salim (Omid Abtahi), an Anglo-Iraqi confused about his cultural and sexual identity.
The multicultural nature of the terrorists, the producers say, reflects reality.
Reiff also emphasizes that the show is as much about character as action.
“This is much more about who these people are and how they are going about day to day, whether as terrorists or FBI agents, and human beings in general. And then we just have splashes when some kind of disturbing violence blows on the scene, and I think in a way that kind of makes it more scary, because in a way it’s more realistic.”
“We couldn’t repeat the exact sort of structure and format of the first season. It would be just sort of ridiculous,” says co-executive producer Cyrus Voris. “If the show had any traction at all it was because it felt somewhat realistic and we knew if we just went down sort of the standard television road of all the terrorists staying together, and they have another mission or another adventure, it would jump the shark instantly. It would be, ‘Well, this isn’t real!”’
“This show makes you think a little deeper about a lot more than just terrorism ... it’s more of a cerebral show. It really promotes a lot of thought,” says Ealy, who previously starred in the “Barbershop” movies.
Scariness tied to reality
Fehr, best known as the glamorous warrior in “The Mummy,” had hesitated to take on the role of Faris, a character whose actions he deplores. But he now feels “very strongly that this is a show that is very important for people to see. It’s very timely. It creates dialogue and it’s really our responsibility as artists to tell these kind of stories.”
Specifically, scary stories.
The word “scary” pops up constantly in the conversation of both producers and stars. But it’s important to all that the scariness is firmly tied to reality, not exaggerated Hollywood-style.
“I think there is an assumption on the part of people making TV or movies that they always have to enhance the reality, that the real version is going to be boring,” said Voris, adding that though they may occasionally “adjust a detail” to avoid being some sort of primer for potential terrorists, their aim is to be as truthful as possible.
After the 9/11 attacks, terrorists disappeared for a while from movies and TV. When, inevitably, they seeped back, Reiff was disappointed to see depiction of “stock character” villains, and determined to create something more complex and truthful.
“I know in reality that there are people, my fellow human beings in this world, who really would like to set off a nuclear device in a major American city, so I thought, ‘Couldn’t we try to do a show that deals with them?”’