Elizabeth Lippman/CBS
June 14, 2018 at 08:40 PM EDT

Getting your idea for a dramatic series both noticed and made in the age of peak TV isn’t quite rocket science — but it’s not all that far off.

When Black Swan scribe Mark Heyman cracked open a biography about trailblazing rocket engineer Jack Parsons, though, he says what he discovered in its pages left him little doubt that he’d found his next project.

“It blew my mind a little bit,” recalls Heyman. “It’s not often that you read something you know you have to work on and that you have to write, but this really was one of those, Eureka, I-have-to-try-to-do-this! moments.”

That was four years ago. Strange Angel, which lifts off today on CBS All Access, envisions Parsons’ life as the stuff of prestige drama, with Sing Street and Transformers: Age of Extinction actor Jack Reynor stepping into the role of the polarizing pioneer. While an ingenious researcher by day, Parsons wasn’t your average egghead; he spent his free time fraternizing with devotees of Aleister Crowley and gaining stature within a sex magick cult. 

The 10-episode drama — which costars Bella Heathcote as Parsons’ wife Susan and Rupert Friend as his magnetic new neighbor Ernest — strikes a delicate balance between science and mysticism, depicting Parsons as a figure straddling two irreconcilable worlds and equally enamored of each.

“He is belief personified, whether that’s spiritual belief or belief in himself,” says Heyman. “Whether or not he’s doing things you necessarily believe in, he believes in them, and that carries you along.”

Heyman worked with a starry team of executive producers on the project, including David DiGilio (NBC’s Crossbones) and David W. Zucker (Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle.) Alien director Ridley Scott exec-produced, as did A Ghost Story auteur David Lowery, who additionally stepped behind the camera to helm the surreal pilot.

DiGilio came aboard two years ago and was first tasked with helping Heyman build a team of creatives. “I’ve always been attracted to stories of really twisted prodigies,” says DiGilio. “My favorite film is Amadeus, and my favorite series are Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and this tale following the story of Jack Parsons captured the idea of the prodigy with the most twisted setting I’d ever read.”

Nailing that setting — 1930s and ’40s California — was critical to Strange Angel, both agree. “We’re bridging the worlds of Caltech in the 1940s and the world of an Aleister Crowley sex cult,” explains Heyman. “They couldn’t be further apart in terms of the kinds of activities and people involved, as well as from a visual standpoint.”

Luckily, both were well-suited to the tonally tricky task. Heyman has worked outside genre boxes for much of his career, whether exec-producing mother! for his Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky or penning The Skeleton Twins with Craig Johnson for the latter to direct.

“It’s always this delicate dance to make things feel as rooted as possible,” he says. “You want to make them feel as grounded and real as possible even as you’re exploring the fantastical.”

DiGilio, meanwhile, was attracted to the idea of Strange Angel as “an existential action-adventure,” one that could span decades and cover huge swaths of thematic ground. “There’s a great line in one script,” the exec-producer explains. “‘Jack Parsons strove to leave this earth in body, while people in the cult of Crowley wanted to transcend in spirit.’ That’s what makes it resonate.”

The pair say they have five seasons roughly outlined that would complete Parsons’ compelling life story. “I hope that we’re so lucky,” says Heyman. “Jack’s life consisted of many different chapters, and we intend ultimately to tell every single one of them, with the constant through-line of a man seeking transcendence and the sublime.”

The series premiere of Strange Angel is available now on CBS All Access, with new episodes available every Thursday across its 10-episode first-season run.

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