'Counterpart' Creator Justin Marks on Sci-Fi Spies, J.K. Simmons, and the Importance of a Diverse Writer's Room

Every once in a while, a sci-fi TV series comes along that changes the game, flipping the script on everything you knew about the genre. Two years ago it was Stranger Things. Now, in 2018, that show is Counterpart.

Airing on Starz, Counterpart tells the story of a man named Howard, played by Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons, who discovers that there is another universe parallel to ours, and that another version of him exists. Howard is then paired with his much more crass and violent other, also played by Simmons, and the two must chase down an assassin killing between dimensions.

Acting more like a Cold War spy-thriller than a sci-fi epic, Counterpart is truly in a league all its own, and it certainly takes a one-of-a-kind mind to bring such a series to life. With his first TV series, creator Justin Marks has undoubtedly hit the nail on the head, and made quite a splash in the entire industry.

Lucky for us, ComicBook.com had the chance to sit down with Marks ahead of Counterpart's premiere, and pick his brain about the genre-bending hit. The creator revealed just how he came up with this unparalleled idea, what actors like Simmons and Sara Serraiocco bring to the table, and just how important it is to have a diverse and honest writer's room at your disposal.

ComicBook: Where did the idea for Counterpart come from?

Justin Marks: Well, first of all for me, because I come from the world of feature [films], it's been now 12 years I've been writing features. Over time, you want to do something that's a piece of yourself.

For me, I really, I grew up on British Spy Section, Graham Green, John McCarry, those are the writers, those were my comic books, so to speak, when I was a kid. I always wanted to do something in that world. I really loved that world, that feeling of spies, but I wanted to do something that was my own. That could feel different and that could mix other things that I loved, which was science fiction.

It just sort of started to become a conversation with myself about who would I be under a different set of circumstances? That sliding doors notion. I think we've all wondered about that from time to time. We've all explored that. It's a very familiar territory. "Oh, if only I had done something different at that moment, I wonder where I would have ended up? Would I have met my wife? Would I be different? What would my life be?"

That's all fine, but what I felt like I had never seen before and I really wanted to do was what if I can meet that person? What if I can sit down with that person and feel out his life and see, is he happier? Is he more fulfilled? Is he less fulfilled? If he's less fulfilled, would he covet my life? Or if I'm less fulfilled, would I covet his? Would I like myself under a different set of circumstances? That became the really fun thing, that in the first episode, you get to see J.K [Simmons] and J.K. in that apartment together talking about favorite foods or whatever. Honestly, if I had it my way, that's all I would do in every episode, but we also have a story to fulfill. I love that we can do that and just stop and have those moments, because I think that's where we get to see something we've never seen before.

CB: The story takes a deep turn at the end of the first episode. We get to see obviously J.K.'s counterpart is not everything that he says that he is.

JM: Right. He's a lying son of a bitch.

CB: What was the experience of taking this singular person and creating two completely different lives, entities and weaving them into the story?

JM: A lot of it was about putting myself, and some of the other writers, into it. We just applied ourselves in certain ways when it came to decisions. We tend to be a very young writer's room, so we don't always have the mileage to speak to, which is why I also consulted with J.K. about the paths not taken and the sense of disappointments, just heaping down on someone. I look to one of my favorite films, "Salesman" as a perfect model of Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman type whose soul has been etched away over time by disappointment. You have that version of oneself.

There's a Ben Folds song about a man, no one even knows his first name and they're all just going to his retirement party. He's been a wallflower his whole life and your heart just goes out to that person. Who would that person be under a different set of circumstances? Obviously, Howard Kline is the tougher, no nonsense one who speaks like me when I'm angry, and who doesn't apologize for himself every time he interjects in the conversation, which you'll notice Howard does multiple times, even in the first episode. Is that person happier? Or has that person just been more willing to set bridges on fire behind him? I think that's a really interesting question.

He's actually pretty lonely and miserable and a lying son of a bitch, who has given up a lot for the success and the life of action that he has. Starting off on the first episode, I don't know which of them is really better off. I mean it like, not just as an audience member, but as a writer, we really came to that and talked about it like, I don't know who is happier and I don't care. I just like turning that card over back and forth over time as we watch the shows.

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(Photo: Starz)

CB: In the news today, a lot of people have been hearing the term "writer's room" more so than before. A lot of times in a negative connotation recently. You mentioned you guys have a very young writer's room with counterpart.

JM: We do.

CB: What's the experience in your writer's room been like in the course of putting the show together? What sets it apart?

JM: Well, we're a really tight family, in the Counterpart writer's room. Literally a family, for some of the writers. One of my things that I came into with the hiring of writers was that you understand the idea of the diversity of race, diversity of gender, sexuality, whatever it may be – you understand it in concept as something that you want more voices in a room, but as a straight, white male I understand me and some facet of my straight white male point of view. What I can not speak to, at least instinctively is what it's like to be a woman, what it's like to be a person of color, what it's like to be a person of an a different sexuality. [We strive] to really have people around you who have that diverse of point of view, and can both check your opinions, and we have a room that speaks very openly when it's like, "No, you really, that's exactly what happens to the gay character all the time, or what happens to the woman in every scene or whatever." They really keep you honest in that sense.

Also, to offer up ideas and character trajectories that I just would never have thought of. I'll give you Baldwin as a great example. You know the trope of a beautiful, young assassin. It exists in this genre all the time. I think as you see the series unfold over the course of the first season, she became this character that the women in the room fought for Baldwin in a way that I don't think a male room would have fought for Baldwin. There were only two guys in the room, and next season we've continued to expand the female ranks, so we're very much outnumbered in Counterpart.

Ultimately, there are writer's room conversations about people crossing lines and things like that. I think that the best way, at least from what I've seen in Counterpart's writer's room, to avoid that is to have a room that is open and honest with each other and willing to be vulnerable with each other and willing to confront each other when we say things that offend each other and also, willing to be confronted.

I think as a straight, white male, the thing that we have to be most open to doing is not to be defensive if someone says, "Hey, that's a little sexist." "That's a little homophobic." "That's a little racist," whatever it is. That idea, that cliche, that trope, that character you introduced, don't do it. I've found that by listening, it's made me a better writer. That's the thing that's most important, right? At the end of the day as a writer's show, it's the quality of our work and yes, we want to be human beings and we want to be doing this but I think there's an advantage to be had, just as writers, just to listen to each other in a better fashion. Every room is different, but I can't speak for others, but I can speak for ours.

CB: This Baldwin character is a wild card. So much more different than a lot of the villains we see on the TV. What can you speak to about what's coming next for Baldwin?

JM: Well, and I don't want to spoil too much, but I can just say that Baldwin is our honey badger. She's our character who just doesn't care and will do anything she needs to do to survive. She was raised in the other world and in the second episode, she gets confronted with her counterpart's life and gets a sense of who her counterpart is. The trajectory of what Baldwin does over the course of the season is, she begins to wonder if she couldn't escape the fate that she's on, that once she sees her other, she begins to realize that she can still, maybe become a more fulfilled person.

Baldwin, as a character is also gay, is an important thing for us as the writer's room to have fully fleshed out character like that. One of the things we're most proud of is that her sexuality is actually the least interesting thing about her. I think very often, when we present a gay character in a show like this, we want to lean into it and really draw attention to it and speak to it in a way and it's like, why does our sexuality have to be all of us? Why can't that just be an element of her? Over the course of the season, I think it's going to be really interesting for people to react as she begins to come out in her own way, based on her experiences on this other side.

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(Photo: Starz)

CB: One of the biggest draws to this show for TV fans is J.K. Simmons. Being a young showrunner on your first series, what was that experience like?

JM: J.K. is such a smart guy and a nice guy and a communicative guy. Problems come when you have collaborators who are not as good communicators as J.K. is. What he does is he reads the scripts well in advance of when we shoot them and we have a very good short hand and rapport where he just cuts through the B.S. and we talk about the characters on a detailed level. It was intimidating at first until you realize, so long as you have a control over your own creative material when it comes to an understanding of what it is, then the work is great. I think where it probably gets crazy with people as smart as he is, is if you don't really know your script as well as you should. Or you don't really know your show as well as you should.

We tend to be very detailed in our process, and it's a hard road map to navigate, playing two characters that for the first season, mostly shot entirely out of order. We really had to work together and link up and link arms in order to find the best way to make sure every day he knew who he was playing, where he was and who he was playing pretending to be, because very often those are different layers.

Counterpart airs on Starz on Sunday nights.