The Expanse's Steven Strait Looks Back On James Holden's Journey To The Series Finale [Interview]

With the final episode of "The Expanse" airing this Friday, /Film had the chance to talk with James Holden himself — actor Steven Strait — about the end of the show.

Read on to get Strait's thoughts on portraying Holden's arc through the six seasons of the series and what it was like going back to play a very young and naïve Holden for the show's X-Ray short. There's also some cat talk (if you know, you know), for your enjoyment.

And warning! Spoilers for the series finale of "The Expanse" lie ahead.

"He never stops being an idealist."

This must be a big day for you, now that the last episode is finally out.

It is, it is. It's really hit me in the last 24 hours. I'm so proud of the season. I'm grateful that it's out and people are able to see it, but it's bittersweet, for sure. It's definitely a bittersweet moment.

Absolutely. I know in our first conversation, we talked a little bit about some of your scenes in season 6, but we didn't really get to dig into the end of the series, and Holden's big moment when he becomes president of the Trade Authority, and he turns it over to Drummer. Can you just talk about that scene, and what you think it means for Holden as a character, and how you approached it?

It was a scene that I was looking forward to, one of the scenes I was looking forward to the most this year. I think it's really emblematic of the kind of evolution Holden has made from the time we meet him on the Canterbury. He never stops being an idealist, but his version of idealism matures over time. 

I think by the end of the story, his particular kind of strength is very much one of humility and empathy. He's a hero who chooses not to kill more often than not. He's someone who turns away from violence most often. It's a very different kind of masculinity than we often see in these kind of stories. His empathy and humility is the linchpin that allows all these sides to come together in the end. They look to him to be the figurehead of this because he's neutral, because each side knows that, ultimately, Holden has humanity's best interest at heart, not any one side. He has frustrated the hell out of all of them at different points in the series, but he does what he always believes is the right thing.

[Holden] has a moment to really cement the change that is necessary to break the wheel of violence and oppression, and he takes it. It's a moment of real courage and bravery and strength. He knows two thirds of the system will hate him for this, but he knows it's right. That, to me, is the thing about Holden that I've always loved playing with over the years, as an actor, because that quality in him, as much as it always remains there, really does evolve. He's naive in the beginning. He's an idealist, but it's a naive idealism that is shaped through hard, awful moments of experiencing genocide, and blowing up doctors, and connecting circuits that sees vast death of an entire civilization, and all of this stuff that almost breaks him. And he always finds a way to pick himself up and learn from it and move.

Through the years, I think his world view gets more and more solid in his decision making, based on his sense of empathy. I think he knows that if humanity's going to have any chance of dealing with things that are truly existential, it has to be that quality that guides us there. Holden represents that in the story. He is the personification of that within the story structure. So for me, it was showing that in a realistic and believable way, so that by the end of the story, we believe this man is capable of being in this place and doing these things, and then stepping away because it's the right thing to do.

"I'm grateful we got to where we got in the end."

All the characters end up in different places than when we saw them in episode 1, season 1. And the relationships between these characters have also changed. Obviously, Holden and Naomi's relationship has changed, but also Holden's relationship with pretty much everyone else. Was there any particular character you enjoyed acting against as Holden in terms of that arc, in terms of how things changed from where you started and where you ended?

Yeah. There's Naomi and Amos, in particular. I loved being able to show a committed relationship based on respect and love. That felt real to me. Holden loves her, and trusts her, and respects her. They are each other's rock. Again, that's a very unusual thing to play, because so often in stories, there's these side plots and triangles and things. It's not what Holden and Naomi's relationship is; it's a committed relationship that has its trials, because the world is hard enough without any of the other stuff. The situations they're in are hard. These two people cling to each other in this storm, and become so solid by the end of this series.

With Amos too, it's a realistic evolution of a friendship. They were each about to kill each other in the beginning of this series, for different reasons and at different times. But I think Holden being able to empathize the way he can reaches Amos. Amos, with his own perspective of the world, based on intense trauma, who's shut off from so many people, does connect with Holden.

To be able to show those relationships evolve over time in an earned way, I'm grateful we got to where we got in the end. Six seasons was the plan — we were aiming at this very specific point. There's no other way to really have a meticulously plotted show without having that. But to be able to actually do the arc, you dream of that as an actor. You just cross your fingers and hope you get there, because if you only got to season 3, most of Holden's arc is not even there yet. So you just hope. And it did. I'm grateful for it. I know how rare it is.

"I went and got a shave and a haircut, put on some civilian clothes, and went back to set."

I had a chance to see the X-Ray short of Holden before the beginning of the show, before he joins the Canterbury, which is fantastic. I'd love to talk a little bit about that. First, on a practical level, do you film that after the season?

Yes. I filmed it the day after we finished. I went and got a shave and a haircut, put on some civilian clothes, and went back to set.

What was that like after shooting your last scene, which I believe was the scene, not in this last episode, but the scene between you and Naomi in episode 4? Was it a weird shift to have to film that, and then have to go way back to before the show started?

It was a trippy shift to do to begin with. To shoot the beginning and the end first [the cast shot episode 601 and 606 back-to-back and then the other episodes] was an interesting process for us anyway, because you really have to know exactly how your arc is going to go for it to make any sense at all. But to then, at the end of this last scene that I did in episode 4, and then go all the way back to before the Canterbury, was a trip.

But it was fun. The beginning of that X-Ray was great for me and cathartic for me to play Holden without the weight of the system on his shoulders. He's just a carefree guy enjoying himself at a bar on Ceres. Yet, we still, we do see the qualities in him that allows him to bring every side together. It's there ... You see it in him. But you just see a young man, he's just kicked out of the Navy. He doesn't have a care in the world. He's just happy to be there. McDowell approaches him with this gig that seems fine and safe, and it's good money and whatever ... it was fun for me to show that in him. It was so long ago within his development as a character, but it really emphasizes the length of the arc from the beginning.

"What the hell do those cats mean?"

It must have been an interesting bookend for you, just having the Canterbury captain, the actor, who you probably haven't seen in awhile.

Years. It's been years. Yeah. It was wonderful to see him. But yeah. McDowell and his cats.

We don't really know about those cats. Maybe you know the backstory.

No. That's the greatest mystery of "The Expanse," what the hell do those cats mean? [laughs] But yeah, it was cool. It was a great opportunity to show that piece of Holden that circumstance just strips from him. The ethical core and the trustworthy core of everyone feeling that from him remains all the way through to the very end. But there is none of that lightheartedness by the end of the series. He has really developed into this incredibly competent leader.

That was my dream when we started was to be able to show that, was to like, "Okay. How do leaders really develop?" They go through all this awful stuff. No one's born that way. They have to evolve into that. It's usually a very, very messy process to get there. I was given the opportunity to do that. I am so grateful for it. I know it's so rare to be able to do, but yeah, it was a nice little bookend to be able to do, just put an exclamation point on it.

"Gaining your strength through humility."

Now that the series is over, there's obviously a lot of emotions for you, and I'm sure for the fans as well. What do you hope fans walk away with having watched the final episode? What do you hope they have gotten out of the show?

There's so many different pieces of why "The Expanse" is important to different people. The allegories of all different kinds, that I think have always felt important to me, sparking those conversations out there, and being a disarming vehicle for talking about things that really matter to us as a species and as people.

But I think if anything, just from my own perspective and I think from Holden's, from playing Holden all this time, is that, ultimately, doing the right thing by others, and gaining your strength through humility, and empathizing, to the best that you can, with everyone around you is the only way we all will get through the things that really challenge us. If there's any hope that we have, it's going to be that. It's going to be that quality that pulls us through.

So from a very Holden-centric perspective, that's the thing that I hope people take — that as naive as Holden can be over the years, and as infuriating and frustrating as he can be, that quality in him, I think, is the key to dealing with so many of the really important existential problems that we have as people.

All six seasons of "The Expanse" are now available on Prime Video.