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During the series premiere of Starz new sci-fi espionage drama Counterpart, J.K. Simmons’ character came face-to-face with none other than himself.

In Counterpart, the existence of a parallel reality — thanks to a Cold War science experiment gone awry — means that everyone has a doppelgänger on the other side of a metaphysical wall that serves as a crossing point between two worlds. The differences between the two versions of each person were forged over the 30 years that have passed since the one single reality split. Differences in societies, politics, and technology have changed each realm, along with it the people who exist within them.

In the pilot, J.K. Simmons’ character is made aware of the split reality and is confronted with his other self. He is, obviously and understandably, shocked and has little time to come to terms with it before his alter ego — who has been aware of the two realms and Howard’s existence for some time — starts grilling him.

The show’s EP Justin Marks shares some insight into that fraught moment in the pilot where Howard Prime (so named to distinguish between the two Howards) and Howard sit down together in Howard’s living room in a scene that gives us a taste of the scrupulously structured narrative to come.

“I’m fascinated by the idea of meeting a version of myself who had made different decisions, not just to see how my life would be, but to see how my attitude would adjust or change,” says Marks. “Prime projects his own inherit self-hatred onto Howard. We all have certain things that we’re angry with ourselves about or wish we were better at. Prime looks at Howard like the weakest part of himself. That may not be true and this scene really gets into what this show is in a lot of ways: a boxing match between these two selves.”

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Credit: Starz

“That ‘or right’ is a key line for the whole season,” says Marks of Prime’s assumption that Howard has somehow gone wrong in his life. “Who’s to say this other man is the more fulfilled version? That’s the sort of tension between them that I really love. The story is wrapped up around that idea of which self is the better self?”

When it came to writing Howard/Prime and casting the actor to take on both roles, Marks had some firm ideas. “I didn’t want to make Howard a younger person,” says the EP. “I wanted to make sure he had some mileage and history of choices to compare to himself. Playing Howard Prime is just a question of playing Howard without the nonsense, but playing the main Howard — whose wife is in a coma — that takes a lot of vulnerability, and it’s a really hard thing that only J.K. could do.”

Counterpart airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.

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