PH Exclusive: A Chat About Netflix's New Space Force and Why It's the Show to Watch Right Now

We talked to Silicon Valley's Jimmy O. Yang and The Office boss Greg Daniels.

PHOTO BY Aaron Epstein/Netflix

(SPOT.ph) Imagine if you had a boss with ridiculous demands (it’s a stretch, we know)—demands like, for example, putting you in charge of a brand-new team that has to build an entirely self-sustaining community in one month. Now, imagine if your boss was the President of the United States and the demand was to put people—or more specifically, a base—on the moon, with a department that’s still trying to find its feet. That’s pretty much the predicament in which General Mark Naird finds himself on Netflix’s upcoming new series, Space Force. Naturally, comedy ensues.

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The show’s beginnings sound like something out of a sitcom fan’s dream: Netflix approached Steve Carrell, well known for starring as Michael Scott in The Office, with just the title Space Force and not much else. Carrell teamed up with The Office showrunner Greg Daniels, who also created Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill aside from writing for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. Together, they came up with this fresh new take on the workplace comedy.

The fact that U.S. President Donald Trump actually established a Space Force under the U.S. military in December 2019 adds to the show’s satirical possibilities, but even without that real-world development, Space Force the show, set to premiere on Netflix on May 29, has enough star power to make it a must-watch: John Malkovich plays Dr. Adrian Mallory, straitlaced chief scientist, Lisa Kudrow plays Gen. Naird’s wife, Maggie, Jimmy O. Yang of Silicon Valley and Crazy Rich Asians fame plays astrophysicist Dr. Chan Kaifang, and Ben Schwartz from Parks and Recreation plays Naird’s sometimes-maddening media manager, F. Tony Scarapiducci.

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We got to talk to Greg Daniels and Jimmy O. Yang about what went on behind the scenes of the show, an unforgettable "Kokomo" scene, and what it takes to please old-school Asian parents.

John Malkovich has excellent chemistry with Steve Carell. Was his involvement in the show decided early on?
Greg Daniels [GD]: Yeah, well, it was really cool, actually. So the way it came about was, you know, this idea was sort of generated by Netflix in a meeting to Steve and we had been having lunch and trying to come up with a new show to do together, because we had so much fun the last time. And so I get a phone call from Steve out of the blue saying, hey, two words for you. “Space Force.” What do you think? And so we really started enjoying coming up with this idea for a general who would be, you know, really, over his head, a person who is like a somewhat inflexible military person who had, you know, spent his whole career going up the chain of command and then was given his first time when he was completely in charge of a new branch. And it's it's this very audacious, but somewhat implausible mission of “Boots on the moon by 2024.” You know, it's really hard, he has to negotiate with all these scientists that he's not used to, and there's politicians breathing down his neck in the media and everybody's coming at him and it's kind of difficult. So we pitch that they said yes to the show. And they made an announcement right away before we had anything, we didn't have a script. And, and then turns out, John Malkovich had heard the announcement. And he reached out to us through his agent saying, you know, if there was a part for me, I'd love to be involved.

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So right from the beginning, we had this sense of maybe we could get John Malkovich if we could do a part that was, you know, worthy of him. And so we always pictured, we named the character Mallory because of Malkovich, and we always pictured Malkovich as being the guy that would play it. And, and it became this good sort of counterbalance to Steve's character that Steve was a sort of conservative guy, and Malkovich was this liberal scientist and they kind of played off each other.

John Malkovich's Dr. Adrian Mallory is the straitlaced scientist.
PHOTO BY Aaron Epstein/Netflix
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Jimmy, you’ve already got Silicon Valley and Crazy Rich Asians on your resume; what was it like getting this role?
Jimmy O. Yang [JY]: I mean, when I heard Greg Daniels and Steve Carell and then—it's like an infomercial. It's like Greg Daniels, Steve Carell, but wait. And then there's more. There's John Malkovich. There's Lisa Kudrow. So it's incredible. I think both Silicon Valley and Crazy Rich Asians, we all started as just no names, right? And then it's because of the show, because of the movie that created a career for many of us. Whereas Space Force. I'm going in as the kind of like kids’-table people working with these legends. And it was incredible. I got to say the first day I was quite nervous. Even in the audition, I was quite nervous. But there's something about Steve and John and Greg, they're just so friendly. And doesn't have an ego doesn't seem like a big time, celebrity, anything like that. So a couple weeks in, you just feel like a big family vibe. And now we even have like Zoom happy hours and stuff. So it's been a great, great family vibe so far.

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Jimmy O. Yang plays Dr. Mallory's second-in-command, Dr. Chan Kaifang.
PHOTO BY Aaron Epstein/Netflix

We read about that Zoom happy hour in an interview that you did with People. Can you tell us what happened? Or anything about it?
JY: Oh, there's nothing crazy, but I mean, I mean, it's Zoom happy hour with John Malkovich, what else do you want? I feel like people will pay like a $500 ticket for that. And it's very cool. He just, he's a great storyteller. Even in between scenes in between setups. We just make them tell us stories like how Being John Malkovich was made and what his cadence, with his tone of being, you know, him being John Malkovich is just so cool. And then you can just tell even the actors and even all the crew members and other background actors even will just gather around and all want to listen, so he just kind of has that magnetic energy to him. And it's been it's been really fun. And me and Ben Schwartz have been playing a lot of Mario Kart. Let's just say he's much better than me. So that's been hurting our friendship a little bit.

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We loved the "Kokomo" scene—who came up with Gen. Naird's habit of singing to relieve stress?
GD: I would say probably Steve, I think that we talked about him having some quirky, weird stress-relief habit, and I’d written in the first draft that he that he was a big fan of the Bee Gees. And he liked falsetto. And Steve pulled out “Kokomo” right before we shot and that was like a meaningful sign to him and he was prepared for that. I think it's a great choice. Because if you're the age that we are, that song is just like, the perfect antidote to stress. You know, it's just like tropical drinks and, like, you know, the happy place that people go to, so it was a funny choice.

Lisa Kudrow (right) plays Gen. Naird's wife, Maggie.
PHOTO BY Aaron Epstein/Netflix
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Why does Naird put up with Scarapiducci?
GD: [Laughs] Well, I think somebody told him that, you know, he has to tweet. He's a general and it's very funny to see these senior military people like General McChrystal, or you know, people feeling the need to to be the face of their branch and having to, you know, do YouTube and to tweet and stuff and it's just, it doesn't seem natural to him. So he tried to fire him in the pilot, but it's hard to get rid of him. He's like a cockroach.

Jimmy, what kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?
JY: Ah, you know what, actually, back in the day, a few years ago, I did a podcast with a buddy of mine. He's a very up-and-coming stand-up comedian that happens to be a Cal Tech nuclear physicist. So he will bring guests like Kip Thorne, Nobel Prize winners, and even Bill Nye the Science Guy. So I learned a lot about science and space stuff from these guests, so I kinda already kind of have a basic knowledge of space, right? And then I guess it's just doing the work of backstory to inform your own character. A lot of it kinda developed as the show went on. And I think much to the credit of Greg and everyone in the writers’ room, everyone was so open to the actor's ideas I went in and you know, kind of pitched a couple of stories in my own life a couple times, and some of those things ended up being in the in, in the story, for example, like the [relationship between me and the character Angela Ali, played by Tawny Newsome], it came from a little bit of that and yeah, it’s just been a fun, really collaborative effort to come up with the characters. It's not just me, it's the entire team.

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Tawny Newsome (center) plays Angela Ali.
PHOTO BY Aaron Epstein/Netflix

GD: And Jimmy's joined the writing staff for season two. We don't have a pickup yet, but we've started already planning out the season. So every day, we have a Zoom call for two hours and we figure out what's happening.

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JY: It's the coolest thing in the world. It's a like I'm getting paid to take this masterclass with all these master writers and same thing on the acting side: Sometimes when I'm in the lunchroom, seeing just watching Steve and John go at it. I'm very fortunate to be here. And it's been great to work with these guys.

How would you feel about fans of The Office seeing similarities between Mark Naird and Michael Scott?
GD: Well, you know, it's interesting, maybe we're so close to it. But for Steve and me, we don't see any similarities at all. You know, it's such a different character. Michael is such a poor leader, and he's lonely and he'll change his mind at the drop of a hat. And Mark Naird is this, you know, excellent leader, and he's got a family and he's very successful. And he's in charge of this billions and billions of dollars budget and this, you know, this team of people, and if he has any character flaw, it's that he's very inflexible, and not creative. And so, there's like… to us, they're very, very different. But of course, I'm sure people are going to see Steve Carell being funny and they're going to, you know, remember other times where he's been funny. But I see him as quite different.

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Jimmy, you described your Silicon Valley character Jian Yang as diabolical. What's the most fun part about playing a good guy this time?
JY: [Laughs] Maybe my parents will finally be proud of me. Everyone I've played is very questionable in character. And it's fun to play those kind of outlandish characters, but this guy is very grounded and he gets to be kind of like the straight man bouncing off a lot of stuff. But I think at first sight, he seems like just to be like a straitlaced scientist that's very capable. But as the season goes on, as you see, he interacts with other characters. That's what I found interesting. That's where the layers came from is when, what does he think about the Scarapiducci character when he's interacting with him, what does he really think about the Angela Ali character when I'm interacting with Tawny? So those scenes are all extremely fun. And yeah, I think something about putting on a lab coat makes you feel taller and just little more confident. Kind of [like] a cape. So I love it.

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Jane Lynch plays the Navy chief.
PHOTO BY Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Doing a show for a streaming platform gives you a little bit more freedom in terms of the jokes and the budget. What did you let yourself splurge on?
GD: Well, to me, the biggest splurge was the music that we were able to get amazing composer Carter Burwell, who did a lot of the Coen Brothers movies, and he only does it when he has a full orchestra to work with which is quite expensive and a real luxury for a show. But I was able to kind of make the case to Netflix that, you know, this needed to sound like a Ron Howard Apollo 13 movie, it has to have like grandeur and sort of, you know, Hollywood emotional power, and that a full orchestra would do that. I was quite looking forward to going to Nashville and observing the recording sessions, but the pandemic hit just before and so I didn't fly there. But it was great to hear the music that he came up with.

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What's the one thing you can reveal about your plans for season two?
JY: Oh, I'm gonna leave that to Greg!

GD: Um, let's see, what can we talk about? Well, you know, if you watch the show, we left we left it in quite a cliffhanger situation. So I'll just say that the first half of the season is you know, basically trying to dig our way out of the cliffhanger that we created.

Space Force starts streaming on Netflix on May 29.

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