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Why The Orville Had To Move A Set Across The Country To Make That Dolly Parton Cameo Happen

Dolly Parton on The Orville: New Horizons
(Image credit: Hulu)

The Orville: New Horizons delivered just about the most mind-blowing cameo in science fiction since politician Stacey Abrams appeared in Star Trek: Discovery, and that seemed like it’d be hard to top. Country singing icon Dolly Parton played herself in the recent episode “Midnight Blue,” which is something I’m not sure Hulu subscribers saw coming. It may not be something the crew even saw happening at one point, considering – as the director shared with CinemaBlend – they had to move a set across the country to make it happen. 

I had the honor of speaking to The Orville’s Jon Cassar, who split directing duties of Season 3 with Seth MacFarlane and personally helmed the episode “Midnight Blue.” Given the substantial cameo, I had to ask him about working with Dolly Parton (who manages to stay busy in unexpected ways these days). He explained how great it was to work with her and the challenges in pulling it off during the era of COVID restrictions. Cassar broke down the experience and how they built and shipped half of a Hollywood set across the country specifically for her scene: 

It was just an absolute honor and a pleasure. It was a very complicated thing to do because she wanted to do it, but there was no way she was getting on a plane then. She said, ‘Look, I’ve got my own studios. So I’d like you to go to my studios with my people, they’re all tested.’ So were ours, but that was how she would do it. She wouldn’t do it any other way. We were a little nervous of that because we have our own crew and our own production designer. We wanted to make sure we kept that continuity. The only way to do it was virtually to build a set in LA, light the set, rehearse all the shots with doubles, and virtually cut the set in half and send half of the set to Nashville by truck. Then we flew in.

The Orville: New Horizons moved a set from Los Angeles all the way to Nashville so that Dolly Parton could do her pivotal scene in which a historical hologram of herself swayed the Moclan Haveena to come clean about breaking the treaty in order to protect Topa. It was a surreal scene to see to witness, considering Parton isn’t exactly someone commonly associated with science fiction, but that made it all the more incredible to see. 

Jon Cassar continued on with the story about the scene, which was filmed in two different places. Only Dolly Parton’s bit of the conversation filmed in Nashville, but Cassar explained that she did allow actress Rena Owen to come anyway so they could work on the scene together: 

We were there less than 24 hours. It was Seth and I, Rena [Owen) who plays Savina and a makeup artist. That was it. Then we worked with their camera people, and they knew exactly where the lights went. We had all the marks on the ground of where the cameras would go and so that’s the way we did it. We didn’t have a lot of time with her, so that was the only way we could do it…The nice thing is she let us bring Rena so she had someone to play with off camera. So we got to do all the over-the-shoulder [shots] with Rena there in her full makeup.When we came back to L.A., we shot the other half of the set that was still sitting there to get all of Rena’s coverage.

It all sounds like a tremendous amount of work that the casual viewer wouldn't know about if Jon Cassar and others weren’t telling the story of the lengths The Orville crew went to make it happen. It certainly would’ve been much easier to scrap the idea and replace Dolly Parton with someone else, so fans should appreciate the scene that much more. 

No doubt some of The Orville fans are interested in the work it took to get Dolly Parton in the episode, but obviously, many also want to know what it was like filming with the country singer. Jon Cassar didn’t exactly shock with his response and confirmed that Parton was as warm and professional as fans might expect: 

She was just fantastic. She knew her lines. There was a teleprompter there, she didn’t need it, she had it down and she was just a real pleasure to work with and all smiles the whole day. It was just a win-win all around.

The Orville: New Horizons is nearly finished with Season 3, and after that, fans will wait and see if they watched and supported the show enough for Hulu to greenlight it for Season 4. After the massive universe-changing events of the penultimate episode, I know I’m hoping to see it happen, but only time will tell.

Fans can catch up on The Orville: New Horizons right now by streaming Seasons 1-3 over on Hulu (opens in new tab). The series will also arrive on Disney+ on Wednesday, August 10th, which should be a great opportunity for new audiences to check it out. 

Mick Joest
Mick Joest

Mick likes good television, but also reality television. He grew up on Star Wars, DC, Marvel, and pro wrestling and loves to discuss and dissect most of it. He’s been writing online for over a decade and never dreamed he’d be in the position he is today.