LOS ANGELES — For at least an hour, one of the biggest stars on the planet was the center of attention at the premiere of CBS’ science-fiction drama “Extant” at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. Hundreds of invited guests sampling appetizers and wine inside the center’s Samuel Oschin Pavilion seemed awe-struck last month as the pavilion’s permanent exhibit, the Space Shuttle Endeavor, loomed above them like a weathered behemoth, giving the event a heightened atmosphere.
But even the grandeur of the five-story-high Endeavor paled when Halle Berry finally appeared. Clutching the hand of her husband, French actor Olivier Martinez, and trailed by an entourage of friends and colleagues, Berry, decked out in a luminous green dress, moved through the throng with the assurance and grace that has landed her in the top ranks of Hollywood’s glamorous actresses.
Few looking on would have imagined that beneath her apparent calm she was a mass of bubbling anxiety at this crucial juncture in her career.
“I was more nervous at that premiere than I’ve ever been at any other premiere in my life,” Berry recalled recently. “I found it hard to breathe that whole night. It was nice to hear the audience respond to the pilot — they seemed to like it. But it was very hard for me. I felt like they were watching something that wasn’t quite finished.”
Sitting in her trailer a few weeks later at the lot of Culver Studios in Culver City, she was noticeably more relaxed, though she admitted to being nervous about the launch of CBS’ high-stakes entry into TV’s highly competitive summer season, which used to be relegated to reruns and second-tier reality shows. Broadcast networks, unwilling to cede the TV landscape to new fare on cable, are now enticing viewers with prestige projects featuring A-list talent.
“Extant,” which premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday, certainly qualifies. The futuristic drama stars Berry as astronaut Molly Woods, whose life is turned upside down when she returns home from a yearlong solo mission to discover she is inexplicably pregnant. It pairs Berry’s cover-girl beauty and Oscar cred with the blockbuster pedigree of executive producer Steven Spielberg.
Like “E.T,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “A.I.” and other Spielberg films, the series tackles many of his favored themes including space travel, alienation, strained family dynamics and the creation of artificial intelligences. While Woods grapples with her troubled family dynamic, an investigation is undertaken by the International Space Exploration Agency into Woods’ mission. Not everyone is who they appear to be.
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said the network had “very high expectations” for “Extant,” hoping the series at least measures up to the breakthrough of last summer’s “Under the Dome” from author Stephen King. “Dome,” which attracted a weekly average viewership of nearly 14 million and launched its second season last week, also has Spielberg attached as an executive producer. The network made an immediate order for 13 episodes of “Extant” after hearing the pitch, bypassing the usual pilot process.
But for Berry the show represents greater, more personal stakes. Although the 47-year-old actress has dabbled in TV before, most notably in her Emmy-winning performance in 1999 as actress Dorothy Dandridge in HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” the drama marks her first leading role in a regular series.
The project comes more than a decade after she made history for her searing performance in 2002’s “Monster’s Ball” as the love-starved wife of an executed prisoner — becoming the first and only African-American actress to win an Oscar in a leading role.
The years since that milestone have been a mix of ups and downs, professionally and personally. There were hits: She played a memorable secret agent in the James Bond thriller “Die Another Day,” and she was also the white-haired Storm in the “X-Men” franchise, including the recent “Days of Future Past.”
But other films, including “Catwoman,” “Perfect Stranger,” “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “Cloud Atlas,” failed to impress audiences or critics, and her Golden Globe-nominated performance in 2010 as a dancer with multiple personality disorder in “Frankie & Alice,” which was briefly re-released this year, was mostly bypassed (“Ms. Berry does as well as anyone could with the formulaic script,” wrote Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times).
In addition, 2012’s “Dark Tide,” where she starred as a shark expert opposite Martinez, was barely released. Last year’s “The Call,” in which she played an emergency dispatch operator who sets out to rescue a kidnapped teen, was a modest hit.
Attracting more notice and tabloid headlines is her off-screen life: a divorce, a romance, breakup and messy custody battle with model Gabriel Aubry, the father of her first child, and her relationship with Martinez, the father of her second child.
Without specifically addressing the past, Berry made it clear she sees “Extant” as the start of an era.
“I’m so very proud of this,” she said. “When I started out, I wasn’t even able to dream about the position that I’m in now. I’m going into my second half, and it’s very empowering. It’s very tangible that I have more control, and it’s really exciting.” Even after several hours on the set, Berry appeared fresh, displaying an upbeat, warm demeanor.
On the show, the revelation of Woods’ mysterious pregnancy puts more pressure on her already strained relationship with her husband, John (Goran Visnjic of “ER”), and their son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), an android boy created by John that is starting to display disturbing tendencies.
Executive producer Mickey Fisher, who came up with the concept and wrote the original script, said that although “Extant” is fueled by thriller elements, the core of the show is based on how humans connect and don’t connect: “We want to explore what it means to be human, what it means to survive.” Fellow executive producer Greg Walker added, “The show is very much rooted in family — that’s what keeps the story grounded.”
Spielberg had direct involvement with the series, enhancing the original premise and story line and engaging in weekly conference calls with Fisher and Walker.
Both executives said Berry brought a resonance to the material that heightened the original concept: “Having Halle really opens it up,” said Fisher. “We can really use her in painting this portrait of a very complex woman who is at the core of this mystery. Even though she starts out a little disconnected, Halle has this immediate warmth that the audience just loves.”
Berry, also a co-executive producer, said she identified with Molly and relished playing a character with flaws. “What I’ve learned from playing this role is that Molly is as complicated as I am, and that’s what I hoped she would be,” she said. “I’m fascinated by what drives her, what she’s made of. I can relate to her struggle — she has a career, and she has a family, but she’s not being defined by either one. She’s very flawed but trying really hard to get it right, to be good in her job and in her life.”
She added that she felt a connection to Molly’s internal struggles in standing her ground: “As a mother and as a woman I’ve struggled with the feeling that I had the right to express my truth. I’ve learned to be OK with that.” The motherhood aspect of the role was a particularity important touchstone: Berry gave birth last October to her son Maceo. Crayon drawings by her 7-year-old daughter Nahla are prominently displayed in her trailer. “Being a mother is the most important thing I do,” she said.
The actress is getting used to the faster pace of filming a TV series and the logistics of production. Although “Extant” has several elaborate sets, she spent much of a recent day shooting a tense scene with Visnjic inside the studio’s underground parking garage. But Berry and the cast and crew maintained a breezy interaction as they filmed take after take. At one point during a break, the actress started bouncing up and down, hugging her costar and chatting quietly as the crew around them set up for another take.
For now, her focus is on “Extant” and spending time with her family. She wants to increase development at her production company, 606 Films, and continues to be a model and spokeswoman for Revlon.
“My wish is that ‘Extant’ becomes a big hit,” she said about her plans. “I have about four or five projects that I hope to produce, not appear in. I’m in a position now where I get to tell great stories. It’s my empowered second half.” She paused and smiled: “It’s so not over.”