By Blanton Matthews
It is a steamy summer Saturday evening at the edge of Dalark, on the line between Clark and Dallas counties. Four-wheelers zip around me and a DJ announces it is time for the kids to hop on the hayride. My brother and I are eating well at a small wooden table underneath a tree as we wait to meet a spaceman.
This spaceman is BJ Tanner, not literally from space, and barely a man having just turned 18 in May. He is an actor from the television series “The Orville”, a send-up of “Star Trek” at turns affectionate toward its televisual ancestor and irreverent, airing first on Fox and starting this season straight to streaming on Hulu. On screen, Tanner plays Marcus Finn, elder son of the U.S.S. Orville’s chief medical officer Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald). Back on earth, he has a recurring role in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff “Station 19” as Tuck Bailey, son of Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson).
When Tanner, and other Tanners accompanying him, step out of their rental car several yards straight ahead of me, I do not recognize him until he is pointed out to me by another relative. I am not sure what I expected—it is certainly too hot and too casual a setting for a suit or anything—but it was not that a Hollywood actor would dress in unassuming clothes, a plain white t-shirt and LA baseball cap. The fanciest thing on him is a small gold chain around his neck with a pendant marked by the letter B. It is not his first visit to the area, but it is the first family reunion he had been to. The family is his mother’s, the many branches of this Jones family tree folding inward to this place, a pilgrimage for many.
Tanner was born in Irving, Texas and lived there until he was seven years old. Then, he and his parents moved to California on a coin toss between there and Atlanta, Georgia. At that young age he had already decided he wanted to be an actor, and fortunately he had parents just as eager to support him in that as he was to do it. He quickly landed his first role in a show called “Will to Live”, a reenactment documentary series in which he played a boy who loses his mother in a violent incident.
From there, he got work in bit parts and as unnamed characters in several shows including “Customer #1” in two episodes of FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” before finding himself in a very secretive audition. With no title on the cover page of the script, Tanner did not even know even after booking the role what it was that he was not supposed to talk about, until his mom Beverly thumbed through the pages and, recognizing some characters, said “Boy, this is ‘Grey’s Anatomy’!”.
Around the same time as his first season on “Grey’s”, Tanner appeared in a student short film titled “It’s Just a Gun”. It came up when my conversation with him drifted to awards shows and February’s infamous slap at the Oscars, as that short film won an award once. Tanner could not remember what award it was and called on his mother and manager, or “momager” to remind him of its name. Silver prize at the Student Academy Awards, it was. Indeed it is the same Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that awards those other Academy Awards every year. Either from being too young at the time to commit to memory the scale of the film’s award, or too humble to pay it much mind, he needed a reminder that something he starred in won what is essentially Oscar, Junior.
Early in his time on “Grey’s”, Tanner got to walk his first red carpet. Or, he would have, if he had not run late and needed to run the red carpet. The doors to the theater where the series’ 300th episode was to screen were closing when someone recognized him from screen and was able to shove through to get him inside. Despite marching up and barking orders like an event authority, this person was just a fan of the show who was not supposed to be there at all. Pure luck.
300 episodes and 14 seasons prior, “Grey’s” premiered in March 2005, before Tanner had his first birthday. Despite the show’s longevity, he says he was never daunted by the pillars of the cast or crew. “The cast really makes me feel comfortable and like I belong,” he said. “Even though the show has been on for 21 seasons … they still make me feel like I’ve been part of the show since it’s been on. The chemistry goes outside of the cameras like I’m their kid, they’re my second family.” He likes to take videos on set, some of which appear on his Instagram page, like one with his TV mom Chandra Wilson talking about how much he has grown since joining the cast and the platform shoes she already needed to match his height on camera six years, eight seasons, and a “foot and a half ago.”
“The Orville” is a more recent show, Tanner joining its cast in its first season in 2017. The show owes a lot to “Star Trek”, even having Brannon Braga, a writer from “The Next Generation”, write and direct Tanner’s first episode “Into the Fold”, and his character’s mom is played by Penny Johnson Jerald, Cirroc Lofton’s TV stepmom on “Deep Space Nine”. But Tanner was not very familiar with “Trek” at the time. “Once “The Orville” came on, I started watching “Star Trek” to sort of see where it came from,” he said, before stating his bias toward his own “funnier” show, which he naturally prefers to the older series. “’The Orville is an amazing show and I love working on it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic began after the second season, grinding to a halt the development of the third. Between that and the studio moving the series from broadcast to streaming, the return of “The Orville” to screens took more than three years. The slow production began with cast meetings on Zoom before a hesitant return to active production in 2021.
“Once I saw Kai [Wener, who plays younger brother Ty Finn] that really took me,” Tanner said, first realizing how much he and his TV brother had grown since the show began. Everyone else noticed right away too, as adults often do. Soon Tanner would find his role more substantial than before, with more of a chance to show off his acting chops. Between that and the COVID restrictions, it took a lot of adapting. “We couldn’t eat or drink anything, and you have to stand on set for 12 hours,” he said of the early shoots before everyone got more comfortable and conditions improved.
The season premiere, titled “Electric Sheep” after the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired the film “Blade Runner”, puts Tanner in the spotlight from the very first scene, doing his own stunts in a dream sequence involving the starship under heavy fire, Tanner’s character dodging explosions and tumbling in a malfunctioning elevator. More impressive are Tanner’s chops in the rest of the episode. In a standard “be careful what you wish for” plot, Tanner tells Isaac (Mark Jackson), a crew member and his TV mom’s off-and-on flame from a race of genocidal robots whose actions last season resulted in mass casualties, “I wish you were dead.” Tanner gives a very compelling performance anchoring the episode as he grapples with his anger as well as his complicated grief when Isaac commits electronic suicide. “That was a really strong message,” he said of the episode, “to be careful what you say,” drawing comparison to real-life instances of people egged on into suicide. Though the TV show offers a happy ending, the robot able to be fixed thanks to the knowledge and skillsets of science fiction characters, people are less easy to fix.
Between the shows he stars in now, Tanner finds the seemingly disparate genres are easy to connect. “On both shows I play a doctor’s son,” he said. “Miss Penny [Jerald] said this to me, ‘Acting isn’t acting; reacting is acting.’” For any actor, the job is simplified by internalizing the character, reacting through them based on similar emotions felt in real life, so between a Seattle and a starship, the gap is easy to bridge.
Outside of his current TV work, Tanner is working on writing and developing his own series idea, “The Real Kids of Hollywood”, as well as secret projects he can’t talk about yet, and finishing high school. He and his family live in Texas again when not shooting. He credits his parents, Brian and Beverly, and God with helping him stay grounded in the whirlwind world of Hollywood and helping him from becoming a victim in a horror story that Hollywood is notorious for making of young actors. “My parents help me out by keeping me grounded, making sure I stay steady, making sure that I stay humble … always thinking there with me so that I can make the right decisions,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them.”