Quantum Leap stars Raymond Lee and Caitlin Bassett speak to DQ about making the NBC time-travel series, taking on their first ever starring roles and the ‘terrifying’ prospect of reviving the classic 1980s show on which it is based.
For an actor, the chance to play an astronaut, a boxing champion or a grizzled gunslinger could be the role of a lifetime. But for Raymond Lee, it’s just another day on the set of NBC’s science-fiction drama Quantum Leap.
The show is a revival of the 1980s series that starred Scott Bakula as Dr Sam Beckett, a scientist who becomes trapped in time by his own experiment, leaping between the bodies of different people. He is only able to move on when he corrects something that went wrong in the past, while he is guided by his holographic adviser Al, played by Dean Stockwell.
The new series, which debuted on US network NBC in September 2022, picks up 30 years after Sam vanished into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and the project has been restarted by a new team. But when Dr Ben Song (Lee) becomes trapped in the past, he too must live the lives of other people and change history in the hope of getting home.
Meanwhile, in the present, project employee Addison Augustine (Caitlin Bassett), who is also Ben’s fiancée, works to bring him home while also appearing to him as a holographic guide, just as Al did for Sam.
Quantum Leap is the first series lead role for Lee, who has previously appeared in Here & Now, Kevin Can F**k Himself and Top Gun: Maverick.
Starring in Quantum Leap is “a dream,” he says. “Growing up, in your journey of being an actor, you play out everything. You’re the cop, you’re the robber, you’re the person being shot. There are so many things, and your imagination runs wild. What’s incredible is that this show gets to explore every corner of your imagination. Nothing’s out of the realm of possibility. So to me, as a person who likes to explore every part of their imagination, it’s a dream.”
Lee describes his character as very adventurous and someone who holds lofty ambitions – and expects to achieve them. “I’d like to think he’s a calculated guy. He’s fairly smart, even though he finds himself in really dumb situations,” the actor says.
Ben also resonated with Lee because he resembles some of the actor’s favourite screen characters. “What’s incredible about adventure and science fiction is you get to place these people in extraordinary situations. I think we’ve learned that Ben is this type of person who is part MacGyver, part Indiana Jones, part Marty McFly – and he is also a wholly different person, too. But he does have a very great sense of adventure.”
Season one saw Ben trapped in the bodies of a private detective, a flight attendant, a public defence attorney and a naval commander, with each episode leading Ben to solve a problem in the life of the person he is trapped inside. Meanwhile, present-day events focus on Addison, Quantum Leap chief architect Ian Wright (Mason Alexander Park), head of security Jenn Chou (Nanrisa Lee) and project lead Herbert ‘Magic’ Williams (Ernie Hudson) attempting to bring Ben home.
While Lee was too young to watch the original series when it first aired on NBC for five seasons between 1989 and 1993, he was introduced to the show when he was older by a friend who loved watching the re-runs.
“I remember being completely enamoured with it. The idea that somebody could travel back in time and change history is a very cool concept,” the actor says. “I remember it just blowing my mind as a kid.”
Little did he know that his first lead role in a television series would come in a reboot of that iconic series. It was while he was working on comedy Kevin Can F**k himself in Massachusetts that he got a phone message and an email offering him the role in the reboot.
Suspicious of the authenticity of the messages, Lee called his manager, who was also unaware of the offer. But after reading the email again, he was convinced it was genuine.
“I was like, ‘This is so good. This is everything I’ve ever wanted to do as an actor, going back to action, science fiction and adventure. But because it’s such a huge decision, I have to sleep on it.’ So I slept on it,” he remembers. “My thoughts were still the same in the morning and I thought, ‘I have to do this.’”
Lee completed screen tests for the network and the studios – the series is produced by Belisarius Productions, I Have an Idea Entertainment, Quinn’s House Productions and Universal Television – and a few weeks later he was on a flight to Vancouver to make the pilot, before wrapping Kevin Can F**k Himself and then returning to film the full first season of Quantum Leap once it was greenlit.
The pilot Lee shot, however, wasn’t the one viewers watched when the series first aired. “Although it was very good, perhaps it was not exactly the pilot they wanted to launch [the show with]. So incredibly, because our staff is so brilliant, and with a little bit of reshooting, a little bit of ADR [automated dialogue replacement] and a little bit of clever work, that was retooled to be episode six. We shot a whole new pilot. That’s why episode six has such high production value. That’s the most expensive episode six that’s ever been shot on network television.”
With each episode filmed across seven or eight days, one or two days will be spent shooting scenes set at the Quantum Leap headquarters in the present, before the remainder of time is taken up filming the ‘story of the week,’ in which Lee is supported by a different guest cast for every story.
“Our show has a very special vehicle for our guest actors,” Lee notes. “They get to really explore the full spectrum of an arc within a character, more so than other shows because it’s about them. A lot of times, I say, ‘I feel like I’m the guest actor in your show.’ So I have a very intense focus on how they’re approaching the episode. They got cast for a reason, and I want to I start building the world around how they see it. It’s a lot of fun for me to just be present and to see what they’re offering to me and see what I can give back.”
However, Lee spends most of his time on screen with co-star Bassett, a former army intelligence analyst who only recently moved into acting on television. Quantum Leap is her first ever TV role.
“Given her background, she doesn’t have to act. She just is,” Lee says of Bassett. “She’s the on-set consultant for it all too, and a phenomenal actress. She’s one of my closest friends now and we get to lean on each other a lot in these scenes because the world around us is manic and crazy. We are in a different time period. We’re in a different chaos. And the only constant is each other. I feel very fortunate to be acting with someone like Caitlin.”
After leaving the army, Bassett spent her days attending law school in Brooklyn and her nights participating in theatre and comedy classes. The idea of spending so much time in the military only to “blow it” by becoming an actor “didn’t make any sense,” but the prospect of living to regret never having tried to make it as an actor prompted her to leave her studies.
She graduated from theatre school in March 2020, and while taking online classes at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was spotted by the head of casting at US network ABC and entered into an acting showcase that previously helped to launch the careers of Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, Pedro Pascal and Meghan Markle.
“So that was what took me to the next level,” she says, speaking with Lee at the Monte Carlo Television Festival before the ongoing actor’s strike in the US began in July.
The idea of reviving a beloved series in her first major role “terrified” Bassett, who was immediately “smitten” with the original when she started watching it. However, she was determined to find a way to avoid replicating Stockwell’s performance as the person who guides the time traveller from one leap to the next.
Having Lee by her side was a huge benefit. “He’s a monster. He’s perfect. He’s a phenomenal number one,” she says. “He has an endless amount of energy on set, and he talks to everybody and knows everybody’s kids’ names.
“I just remember sitting down [after filming season one] and just thanking him. I was like, ‘I just wanted to tell you thank you for giving me such a safe space to learn,’ because he never looked down on me for being new. He never made me feel stupid. He let me ask questions like, ‘How do I ask to go to the bathroom?’ I would be trying to help out a camera angle and he would be like, ‘No, don’t compromise yourself and your performance for that.’ He’s just been a mentor and a friend and he’s a great guy. I hope he has this show forever.”
Lee was similarly nervous about revisiting Quantum Leap for a new generation of viewers, but he believes the show brings familiarity in uncertain times. In each story, viewers are also encouraged to empathise with one or more of the characters – a quality the actor believes is required to deal with real-world events.
“When you walk a day in this person’s shoes, perhaps you won’t be so one-sided about something, and I love the fact that our show – and the original – stands for that. I love the fact that the feeling we leave audiences with is the sense of, ‘Perhaps I can try to be slightly better today.’”
Despite the ongoing actors’ and writers’ strikes in the US, season two of Quantum Leap is due to debut on NBC on October 4 after the showrunners had the foresight to film eight new episodes after season one had wrapped. The show is currently airing on Paramount+ in the UK and Channel 7 in Australia, among other international territories.
Lee promises a complete story arc across the limited episode count – with the promise of more to come should there be enough time for more to be produced after the strikes conclude but before the end of the traditional US network season ends in May next year.
“Our showrunners, Martin [Gero] and Dean [Georgaris], were very smart in saying that there would be a writers’ strike, and so we didn’t take a break between seasons and ran straight into it so we could get some episodes,” he says.
Bassett adds: “We went for 10 months and shot 26 episodes straight. We were going hard, but I’m really excited about it. I’m also really excited about the second season in general. The first season had its problem of ‘Why did Ben do this? How are we going to wrangle this technology? What is this show? What is this family?’ In season two, they’ve shaken up the rules a little bit. It’s really cool to watch and I hope people dig it.”
But will Ben ever find his way home? “If I go home, the show’s over, so I hope I don’t go home for a long while,” Lee jokes. “Martin and Dean dream this world and I just live in it, so they’ll have an idea of where the show wants to go and where they want to end it.”