By Laura Hertzfeld
Updated January 12, 2012 at 01:42 PM EST
Max Morse/Getty Images

The red carpet is typically the focal point of any premiere. But at last night’s party for Alcatraz, the new J.J. Abrams-produced sci-fi show on Fox, the infamous prison itself was the star. Creepy enough during the day, with rows of vacant cell blocks and park rangers telling stories of how prisoners stared longingly at the San Francisco skyline, last night the nearly full moon cast an even eerier chill over the Rock. (The show is now mostly shot in Vancouver, where they’ve re-created the prison.)

From interviews with the cast in the shower room (“It’s creepy!” Parminder Nagra, who plays Dr. Lucy Banerjee, admitted) to the tin plates and cups at dinner, Fox and Warner Brothers pulled out all the stops to make it feel like a place where strange things might happen.

The mythology of Alcatraz looms large in the show, which follows a special task force in modern-day San Francisco hunting down more than 300 criminals who disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963 and mysteriously reappeared in the city nearly 50 years later, armed and dangerous.

“If you sit in one of those cells and actually imagine what it would be like to spend the rest of your life there, it’s a real eye-opener,” director Jack Bender told EW on the red carpet, adding that while organizing another shoot on the actual Alcatraz would be challenging, they “would be mad” not to try.

Bender is one of several Lost alums reuniting with Abrams for the new series. Jorge Garcia (Hurley on Lost) plays Dr. Diego Soto, an Alcatraz expert helping the police hunt down the reemerged criminals. With dozens of Alcatraz fan sites already live on the Web before the show even premieres, Garcia says he has nothing but love for rabid fans, which he’s used to after Lost. “I always love enthusiasm, so if they are enthusiastic about my new show … I’d love that,” he said.

Most of the cast was last on Alcatraz for shooting last year, but for some it was their first time on the actual island not as a tourist. Sam Neill, who plays Detective Emerson Hauser, seemed particularly struck by the space. “It just feels completely wild to me. We’ve been living Alcatraz for months so being here in Alcatraz is the wildest thing,” he said.

Jonny Coyne, who plays Chief Warden Edwin James, was impressed with revisiting the site: “I’ve only been here as a tourist. I’m astonished how right we got it. I think we’ve done justice to the place.”

While some of the cast noted their love for Alcatraz movies like Birdman of Alcatraz and Escape From Alcatraz, others researched their parts in more traditional ways. Sarah Jones (Detective Rebecca Madsen in the show), said she “picked the brain” of a friend on the police force to get ready for the role, and “read books about the inmates and their experiences.”

The key for Alcatraz’s success will be if they can use those cultural obsessions to create a passionate audience. Jason Butler Harner, who plays Associate Warden E.B. Tiller, thinks the show has all the right ingredients to make that happen. “When you have an iconic thing like Alcatraz and you can twist it so it’s also modern,” he said, “that’s J.J.’s strong suit.”

Alcatraz premieres Monday Jan. 16 on Fox.

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