Producer Simon Kinberg talks to ET about the elaborate casting process and why Peele was the most surprising on-camera hold-out.
A Twilight Zone reboot had been in the works long before Jordan Peele ever came into the picture. But it was the mastermind behind Get Out and Us that was the missing piece to the puzzle. At least that's how executive producer Simon Kinberg explains it. A confluence of factors had failed to bring the project to life years earlier (i.e. timing, a fresh voice), but Peele -- who was coming off monster success with 2017's Get Out -- was a genuine fan of Rod Serling's revolutionary sci-fi anthology series.
"From the beginning, Jordan and I really felt the pressure of living up to the original Twilight Zone that Rod Serling created and we feel it every day," Kinberg tells ET. "I think we sweat this one a little bit more than we would anything else, because it is such a tough mantle to take on. Any kind of validation, we will take."
In the new Twilight Zone, socially-relevant themes and issues such as celebrity, fame, police brutality, racial profiling and toxic masculinity are dissected with a fine-toothed comb and garnished with Peele's trademark twist. Hosted and narrated by Peele, the creative team behind the series assembled a stellar list of Hollywood stars like Kumail Nanjiani, Adam Scott, Seth Rogen, Chris O'Dowd, Sanaa Lathan, Jacob Tremblay, Ginnifer Goodwin, Tracy Morgan, Steven Yeun and Greg Kinnear to take the helm.
With the first two installments of the new Twilight Zone now streaming exclusively on CBS All Access, ET spoke with Kinberg about the genesis for the revamp, why he and Peele's visions aligned so well, the elaborate casting process to lock in the A-list ensemble and if Twilight Zone means something different in 2019 than in the '50s and '60s.
ET: You've been wanting to bring The Twilight Zone to life for years, and it finally came to fruition when Jordan Peele jumped on board. What about the property did you feel made sense for reinterpretation in the modern day?
Simon Kinberg: I loved the original series. It was one of the things I watched with my dad growing up. It's one of the things that was seminal in the way that I tell stories, the kind of stories I wanna tell. Four or five years ago, I'm not sure it was the right moment for The Twilight Zone. As much as I wanted it to be, we were living in a time of perceived stability. So I don't know that the world needed The Twilight Zone in quite the same way. And I also think we were living in a time, because of that stability, where social activism was not as prominent and noisy, in a good way, as it is now. I don't know that we would have been able to be as provocative and daring with our episodes four or five years ago. In today's world, we live in a completely different culture than the one we lived in five years ago. We live in a world where all of the social, moral and political issues are being talked about in a much more lively, more diverse, more everyday context. But it took the world changing a little bit and it took finding the right partner, who really knew how to combine those two things -- great genre storytelling with social messaging. There's nobody in the world better at that than Jordan.
What made this partnership with Jordan work? Did your visions align?
We have very similar sensibilities. We were raised on the same kinds of TV shows and movies. Our taste is very similar; the tones we are attracted to are similar -- the way that Jordan and I are both interested in telling mainstream entertaining stories that also have some sort of deeper message to them, like Get Out and to some extent, Us. We have a similar sense of humor, even though he's a lot better at bringing that to his work than I am. We're both very collaborative, I think that's an important thing. And he's a great partner. He's someone who is interested in other people's perspectives. He's someone who brings the best out in other people. He makes it fun. At this point in my life and career, I want to have fun in addition to doing good work.
Right now, it seems everything he touches turns to gold. What surprised you about working with Jordan that you didn't quite expect when you agreed to do this together?
He's incredibly thoughtful and takes his time with the stories and how best to tell them. You're in it with your partners and he's great at inspiring people around him to do their best work. He's also someone who's in touch with what's happening in today's world socially, politically, and his work reflects it. It feels fresh and real and relevant because of it. That's part of why everything he's touching is turning to gold, is because people feel like he is a fresh voice that is still telling very digestible, fun stories.
Are there specific real-life topics, real-world experiences that are happening right now that you, the producers and writers, felt were important to tackle in these 10 episodes?
There are a lot of things in this first season that are issues that are important to me, and I feel are important to add to the dialogue that's already happening in our world. Issues like toxic masculinity, Black Lives Matter, that's very much obviously a part of [Sanaa Lathan's episode, "Replay"]. There are issues of the obsession with celebrity and fame and how dangerous that can be with Kumail [Nanjiani] and "The Comedian." What you're going to see, in episodes going forward, is every episode has something it's tackling -- some social, moral or political issue. Political corruption is something that is very much front of brain for all of us these days. To have this vehicle to be able to explore these issues, to get people talking about them, to get someone saying that an episode of television stuck with you, made you think about something that we're thinking about anyway because of what's on the news, is an amazing opportunity.
You've assembled a "who's who" in Hollywood right now with the cast. How elaborate was the casting process?
The No. 1 way we got these amazing actors to all come together is that people really have a relationship to The Twilight Zone. A lot people just raised their hands and said they would work. They would contact me or Jordan directly, or their agent would contact us and say, "Hey, Seth Rogen or John [Cho] or Kumail [Nanjiani] loves the Twilight Zone. If there's ever an episode they may be right for..." We would have that list of extraordinary actors that we could write toward or we could think about for characters. The other part of it is, Jordan and I have a lot of relationships with actors from our other work or films that we could reach out to, like Betty Gabriel from Get Out is in one episode. Zazie Beetz, who I worked with on Deadpool 2, is in one of the episodes. It was this great combination of feeling like we were building this little family of actors, this repertory theater company.
Who was the toughest person to get?
I wasn't shocked by anyone, because I felt the Twilight Zone carries a lot of appeal and weight to it. I'll tell you who the hardest person to get was: Jordan Peele. Jordan did not want to be the narrator. Jordan felt like those were huge shoes to fill. Rod is so iconic; he's probably one of the most iconic characters in the history of television. He's certainly the most iconic narrator in the history of television. He really resisted it and felt like he wasn't sure how he would do it and make it his own, but also honor Rod. Honestly, Jordan was the hardest actor to get for the show.
His voice is perfect for the narration, so he quite possibly should be the only person who could do it.
Well, I could have used you to help convince him. I agree with you and I think the world will agree with you as well. But in the same way that Jordan and I were mindful, the point of being reluctant at first to take on the mantle of the Twilight Zone as a series, I can relate to not wanting to take on one of the most iconic performances in the history of television. There's a lot of downside and not a tremendous amount of upside to taking on that challenge.
Are there specific performances that you think will surprise people?
I think for a lot of people they will see some actors who are best known as comedic actors, like John Cho, like Seth Rogen, like Adam Scott, like Kumail, like Tracy Morgan. They'll see elements of humor to the characters they're playing but they will also see intensity, tension, suspense, drama and -- Greg Kinnear's on that list too -- they will be surprised by how raw and intense these actors who are mostly known for comedy can be.
Does The Twilight Zone mean something different in 2019 versus the '50s and '60s when the original series was on?
I think it's sort of a yes and no. Sadly, a lot of the issues that Rod was exploring and exposing back then, issues of race, of gender inequality, general issues of political corruption and scapegoating, that was part of communism and The Red Scare witch hunt. I think a lot of those issues are unfortunately still with us. While things have gotten better and we are definitely living in a culture of accountability, he was not. We're still dealing with these same issues. And I think sadly, our time is even more insane than his time was because we are in very surreal space where the media is confusing and sometimes intentionally confusing, in terms of what is true. Today, it's probably murkier than it was back in Rod's day. If anything, right now needs something like The Twilight Zone, which is storytelling with social parable, with messaging, getting people thinking, talking about issues that deflate our time.
Watch the first episode in its entirety below.