Alcatraz creator Liz Sarnoff explains how to keep actors in suspense

Alcatraz might be the most mysterious and creepy J.J. Abrams production yet — it involves criminals from the famous island prison disappearing in the past and reappearing, without having aged at all, in the present. These time-displaced criminals wreak havoc in present-day San Francisco.

But what's Alcatraz really about, and how do you keep a premise like that going? We sat down with show creator, producer, and writer Elizabeth Sarnoff (Deadwood, Lost) a while back, to talk about Alcatraz, airing Monday nights starting January 16th.

Alcatraz creator Liz Sarnoff explains how to keep actors in suspense


How much have you told the cast about the overall plot of Alcatraz?

I've told them what I can. I brought all the actors into the writer's room so they could sit with us and talk about the characters. There was a big separation on Lost between the actors and the writers, and I want us to work more like a team for the show. I tell them what I can, what I think they need. Some things that I'm not sure of (plot wise) I just hold back, because you don't want to send the actor down the wrong road.

Alcatraz creator Liz Sarnoff explains how to keep actors in suspense


Was the location of Alcatraz always in place or did that come later?

The idea of the prisoners coming back and Alcatraz was always integral to the show. I just said "I would do this, that, and the other thing" to mess it up.

Alcatraz creator Liz Sarnoff explains how to keep actors in suspense

Does the first season have an arc that delves into the time travel aspects or will it be more of a "criminal of the week" based show?

There is definitely the "criminal of the week" aspect of the show. The strong has a very strong story engine, which is these guys are coming back, and they are bad, and we have to get them. But, at the same time, for it to be fun, we want to find out why they are here? Why haven't they aged? Who sent them to the present? Also, the characters are really important to me. Each of the characters have a very personal reason for doing what they are doing in the series. I want to see them achieve their goals or not. I want to get to know them better. This is very much a character show for me.

Alcatraz creator Liz Sarnoff explains how to keep actors in suspense

Do you have a set plan, like a five year plan? Do you have an exit strategy?

What is that quote? "If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans." All we can do is come out with the best, most compelling thirteen episodes we can, and we'll take it from there. You never know what is going to happen with a television show, you just do the best job you can and hope for the best. For me, I'd love to be writing the show for a while. I find the subject matter fascinating and I love the cast and working with Jack Bender. I feel very lucky to be in this creative pod right now and I hope we get to keep going.

Alcatraz creator Liz Sarnoff explains how to keep actors in suspense

What was the casting process like?

Casting is always a crazy jumble of things. The first question I was asked was, "Jorge (Garcia) is looking to do another show. Would you like him?" I said, "I would kill to have Jorge." We had this role, and it was sort of a different role, and I said, "Let me re-write it for him." I re-wrote it from him, and that was the first thing that came along. Then they said, "Sam Neill is in town, and he would like to meet." I was thought they were kidding me. (The casting of) Rebecca (Madsen) was in some ways the hardest and took the longest, and then Sarah (Jones) came in one day and read and I'd seen her on Sons of Anarchy, and I just said, "that's her."

Alcatraz airs Monday nights at 9 pm ET on Fox.

Images courtesy of Fox & Bad Robot.