Halo's Natascha McElhone Previews Halsey/Master Chief Dynamic: 'We Go to a Different Place Than in the Game'

Halo Halsey

Natascha McElhone is no stranger to spectacle (watch her Ronin car chase vs. DeNiro), outer space (having shepherded The First‘s Mars mission and haunted Clooney in Solaris) or scale (as a part of the reality-warping Truman Show).

Yet despite such credits, Paramount+’s Halo series broke new ground for the English actress.

In playing Dr. Catherine Halsey, a bleeding-edge scientist with the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) and the creator of the Spartan-II supersoldier program that begat the iconic Master Chief (played by Pablo Schreiber), “There’s a ton of green screen to deal with, which, for an actor, is not gratifying. You come into this to work with people, not air!” she notes with a chuckle. “But it has to be done. That’s where we’re at, and that, in of itself, is really challenging.

Halo Cortana Halsey

Dr. Halsey checks in on her divisive project….

“I mean, I had a scene where I’m playing against myself,” she previews. “It sounds crazy, and I won’t tell you any more than that, but I’m in a scene with myself, with the camera going 360 degrees around us, so there was tons of very cool tech stuff that was definitely new for me.”

Premiering Thursday on Paramount+, the series inspired by the globally popular video games takes place in what is being called the “Silver Timeline,” which is adjacent and thus familiar to what Xbox fans know from the FPS and its many sequels. As Halo opens, “We’ve just had another huge battle” (between the Spartans, the extraterrestrial members of the Covenant, and rebel forces on the planet Madrigal) “and I’m being asked to come up with some solutions” for improving outcomes, McElhone shares. To such an end, “I have already been working on my idea in secret” — an A.I. dubbed Cortana — “and it’s illegal, but I don’t really care, because I’m transgressive. I have a whole different idea of what the future could be.”

In other words, Dr. Halsey will oft rub her colleagues and superiors the wrong way, while inviting intense debate about the ethics of her agenda.

“She has an arrogance,” the actress posits, “but if you’re a scientist, and if you’re looking at it through the portal that she is, there’s a rationale behind all of it. We spend most of our resources killing one another or going to war. How is that progress? No, we need to advance our species, or we’re not going to survive.

“It’s a bit like a farmer burning the crops so that they’ll then grow better the next year,” McElhone explains. “She thinks, ‘I have to sacrifice a few lives, in terms of the Spartans, in order to get past, and over, war, to get past that phase of our development as a species.'”

Halo Preview Schreiber

Spartan soldiers Kai, Master Chief, Vannak and Riz

Given her role in siring the Spartan-II program, Halsey enjoys a special relationship — well, as much a bond as one can have with an emotionally muted supersoldier! — with Schreiber’s Master Chief aka John-117. And that dynamic may catch the button mashers out there off-guard.

“It’s interesting, because I think we go to a different place in the TV show than in the game, in that you get to see her be surprised by John’s behavior,” McElhone previews. “There’s a moment at which he becomes disobedient, and personally, it’s a bit of a hit to her ego. She has always believed that he’s easy to control, and she’s been proved wrong.”

Master Chief’s bold move in the premiere in fact leaves his creator’s scientific mindset “fed, and excited, more than her ego is bruised,” McElhone teases. “She’s amazed by his change, and no doubt also slightly worried about it. But she’s constantly exploring, constantly not accepting the status quo and smashing it.”

Halo Keyes Halsey

Miranda and her mom

Interestingly, Halsey’s dynamic with the almost-robotic John-117 is quite warmer than her relationship with her own daughter, Dr. Miranda Keyes (played by Olive Gray), who is a Commander with the UNSC.

“In terms of human relationships, Halsey is not invested in those in a way that perhaps a normal person in our world might be. She’s not really interested in her progeny,” McElhone observes. “She’s interested in how she can upscale and improve our brains, and our minds, and how we can better create predictive systems” — which is the foundation of her mysterious, controversial Cortana project.

“Her argument for building Cortana is that she will enable us to win the war, because she will have an ability to compute probability, and outcomes… all these sorts of things that we can’t, as human beings,” says the scientists’s portrayer. “She’s very interested in tapping into consciousness, or intelligence that she believes exists already in the universe…. Panpsychism…. It’s quite fun to explore that, and decide what I can get away with tethering her motivation to, and what’s going to eventually fall away.”

Having researched for her role the science of mushrooms and mycelial networks versus neural networks, McElhone ventures that “maybe that’s where [Halsey] got her ideas from, and actually she’s been on psychedelics this whole time! Which is why she can see what no one else can see.”

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