J.J. Abrams: Alias (2001) | poster excerpt
Jennifer Garner in Alias (2001) | poster excerpt

Alias’ Carl Lumbly and Michael Vartan on Its Legacy and Streaming Rebirth

Alias actors Carl Lumbly and Michael Vartan recall their work with J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Garner, and others on the spy/sci-fi action thriller, now airing on Disney+.

J.J. Abrams

Despite premiering in an era that had many empowering female leads to choose from, ABC’s spy/sci-fi action thriller Alias exists in its own lane entirely. Indeed, the series introduced a mythological style of storytelling that would only reach its peak mainstream popularity when creator J.J. Abrams debuted Lost in 2004. Similar to other strong female characters of the period, Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) enduring appeal is her human connection to the often-outlandish things happening around her. Her influence is felt throughout much of modern television storytelling, as it’s hard to imagine the human connection surrounding the breakneck lives of surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy or any number of Shonda Rhimes programs if Alias hadn’t already laid such groundwork.

While fast-paced CIA missions and recurring occult-type storylines are what classify Alias in the genres of espionage and science fiction, the series is ultimately a family drama with soap opera tendencies, anywhere from its old-fashioned orchestral score to its ability to convince us that cloning and centuries-old prophecies concerning everyday people are possible. “What you want to have in your mind [as a writer] is you’re telling a metaphor,” explains screenwriter and producer Robert Orci, quoted in Mark Cotta Vaz’s Alias: Declassified: The Complete Companion, “For example, [Buffy the Vampire Slayer] is a metaphor for teen angst; jocks turning into werewolves is how we thought of people in high school who stuffed you into lockers. One of the organizing principles of Alias is it’s about a screwed-up family who happens to be spies. That’s the disguise—this is about a dysfunctional family.” It’s that very dysfunction that allows Sydney to embrace the full breadth of her emotions throughout Alias.

Although its first episode aired more than 20 years ago, Alias loved to predict the future through innovative technologies and outlandish prophecies dictated by a fictional Da Vinci-type figure. As we stumble to start recording the Zoom with actors Michael Vartan and Carl Lumbly—who played Special Agents Michael Vaughn and Marcus Dixon, respectively—Vartan chuckles at the irony of modern technology’s foibles. Having starred in a series where main character Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a spy turned CIA agent, once made a phone call from a flip phone while buried alive in a coffin six feet under, it’s interesting to look back on Alias’ take on technology. In the US, fans can now relive all five unforgettable seasons courtesy of Disney+.

“When I read the pilot, I knew the show would have staying power. It’s one of the best TV pilots I’ve ever read,” says Vartan. Lumbly agrees. “That first pilot script was ridiculously brilliant.” Both actors had roles that were important career-wise before Alias, but it’s evident from conversing with them that the series gave them a place they could call home. Lumbly was already a network television veteran who starred for seven seasons as Marcus Petrie on Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday’s groundbreaking police drama Cagney & Lacey (1981-88)—a character he believes helped lay the groundwork for his tenure as Marcus Dixon. “My faux detective work helped me learn how to be an observer,” he says. “All of the traits that Marcus Petrie was developing [definitely] came to fruition in Marcus Dixon.”

Vartan, meanwhile, describes Michael Vaughn on Alias as his first big job. Sure, he had done high-profile guest spots on ‘90s notables like Friends (Krane and Kauffman), and Ally McBeal (David E. Kelley), and he even played Drew Barrymore’s love interest in Raja Gosnell’s romantic comedy, Never Been Kissed. But he speaks about his time on Alias with such affection that it’s clear it was the show that put him on the map, both professionally and personally. Was the series a pivot from the mostly comedic work he had done up until that point? Vartan responds, “Yes!” without hesitation.

“The audition process was terrifying,” he says. “I met with J.J. Abrams in his office, and he said, ‘I’ve got a part that I think you’d be right for.’ So I read for him, but horribly. I was sweating, had zero confidence, and I told him that I didn’t think I can do this. But he believed in me and coached me for a couple of days. When I tested with the network, I was still a nervous wreck, but I got through it. It was exciting but terrifying at the same time. I thought, ‘Better get your backpack and sharpen your pencils when I saw the cast. You’re in with the big boys now.’ Frankly, it was such an honor to get [the] job.”

Alias, along with other series of the era like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon), Xena: Warrior Princess (various), and Dark Angel (Cameron and Eglee), are considered part of a wave of television programs from the late ‘90s and early 2000s that featured strong female characters in leading roles. It thus grappled mainly with themes of empowerment and the sense of vulnerability that often accompanies stories with women leads. “I might be wrong, but at least in my memory, it was one of the first shows that portrayed female characters in a powerful way,” recalls Vartan. “[Sydney Bristow] was a goddess on every level, a force of nature. I think a string of copycat shows came on after [Alias] that might’ve done well and I never really watched them, but it was clear that this was a special female character at that time.”

Carl Lumbly and Jennifer Garner in Alias (photo courtesy of Disney+)

Though he too played a supporting role, Lumbly feels his character’s hard exterior hid how soft and vulnerable he really was. “I’m not being facetious. I think that most people who need a shell need that shell for a reason because they’re aware of just how tenuous life can be, how special true moments of love and grace can be, and if you have a family, you want to return to them,” he says. “And if you feel like you’re working with a family, it increases your desire to protect them. So the shell is, in part, vulnerability, because you want people to know that they can depend on you, no matter what.”

The development of Lumbly’s character often took a backseat to the more thrilling goings-on of the CIA and the evil masterminds the cast of Alias fought to take down, but a defining moment for Dixon—and the series at large—was when his wife was murdered under orders from Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). When we meet Dixon again in the flash-forwarded third season, he’s in a new position of authority as director of the Joint Task Force for the CIA, and a more paternal and supportive role for Sydney. But Lumbly finds this was a low point for the character since he believes Dixon belongs in the field. “In my view, just the practical nature of what he had to do had cost him, and I think that life will exact a price especially when you follow what you believe to be true. You can’t blame anyone, but that’s it,” he says. “Dixon is a man in the field, and that is where he felt most comfortable.”

Alias was also known for toeing the line between character-driven and plot-driven in a simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous way. For the most part, the romance that comes to envelop Vartan’s character with Garner’s Sydney came to define most of the character-driven portion of Alias. The actor finds that the writers and producers were very smart in their decision to wait until well into the second season to put the characters together romantically finally, but that it also represented difficulties and challenges going forward.

“I remember Jennifer and me joking several times, ‘When is it going to happen?’ It had to happen,” he says. “And then when we got the script [where Sydney and Vaughn get together], it was a really odd moment for the cast and the crew, and certainly Jennifer and I. There was this buildup over so much time and all of a sudden we were kissing on camera and the dynamic of that relationship pivoted 180 degrees and complicated everything. But that ended up making the relationship between the characters more interesting.”

Michael Vartan and Jennifer Garner in Alias (photo courtesy of Disney+)

That’s not to say that the series didn’t have its fair share of bizarre, head-scratching moments. The blend of espionage and science fiction on Alias was avant-garde for network television of the era, but that doesn’t mean it was without its faults. “I’ll be honest with you. The last season was the most disconnected because I genuinely did not understand anything about the Rambaldi situation,” Vartan remembers, causing all of us to burst out laughing. “I remember so clearly that one day I was sitting next to Victor [Garber] on set, reading episode nine of season five, and he turns to me and asks, ‘Do you understand what’s going on?’ And I told him, ‘I have no effing clue.’ I swear we were just reading lines externally for that episode because internally we had no idea what was happening.”

Still, the actors cannot help but look back on Alias’ legacy with gratitude and nostalgia. “The show touched on many subject matters, and I think there’s something for everyone on [Alias], which was really appealing,” observes Vartan. “Not just the wigs and the fancy gadgets, but there are very strong storylines that deal with friendship and betrayal, like Francie and Sydney. God, it’s been so long since I’ve talked about it [this much]. But I think it’s a show that will stand the test of time and people who have never seen it will enjoy it. We certainly loved making it.”

Lumbly is thrilled that Alias will now be available to stream on Disney+ in the United States—but mostly selfishly since he actually wants to binge-watch it himself. “I watched very few of our episodes [when they aired], so I’m looking forward to bingeing them now because maybe it will give me a better sense of what I did,” he says. “People who are fans of the show remember more than I do about what took place in the story. My memory is confined to what was going on in my personal and professional lives in that wonderful world.”

It’s been two decades since Alias first aired, but it was a series that fostered a sense of family among its cast members—bonds that appear to have lasted. In response to Vartan’s recollection of being nervous while auditioning, Lumbly expresses disbelief and says he believes him to be the epitome of grace as a versatile actor, a comment that touched Vartan. And while getting caught up in memories of working on the show, both good and bad, Vartan insists that Lumbly look up Alias gag reels on YouTube. “It will bring the biggest smile to your face. It’s nothing but laughter and hijinks and ridiculous things happening. I laughed for two and a half hours watching them,” he says.

They both credit this bond to J.J. Abrams’ creative vision. “I think along with his genius as a writer, creator, and director, was his genius in being able to put together a family,” says Lumbly. Elaborating on my question concerning the character-driven portion of the series, Vartan maintains that the cast members were as close to one another behind the scenes as they were onscreen, which he believes contributes to Alias’ lasting legacy. “The bonds I formed with Carl, Jennifer, and all my other castmates over the first three years were real. We were real friends. It was less of a workplace and more of a home for all of us.”