9-1-1 Star Oliver Stark on Bucks Its a Wonderful Life Coma Dream Twists, All Those Easter Eggs and What Comes Next

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from Monday’s episode of Fox’s “9-1-1,” entitled “In Another Life.”

Well, “9-1-1” fans, you can stop holding your breath, because Evan “Buck” Buckley (Oliver Stark) came back to life following his literal shocking “death” from a lightening bolt strike during the March 6 episode. But before he returned to us, and the 118, Buck had to journey through a world created in his coma brain in which his older brother, Daniel (played by “Mad Men” alum Aaron Staton), had lived and Buck never became a firefighter.

During the episode, Buck has a very “It’s a Wonderful Life” experience in learning what the lives of Bobby (Peter Krause), Maddie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Eddie (Ryan Guzman), Chimney (Kenneth Choi) and more of his friends and family would be like if that one thing had changed.

Variety spoke with Stark about Buck’s death and return to life, all the Easter eggs hidden in Buck’s coma world for “9-1-1” fans and where Buck goes from here for the rest of Season 6.

How did the “9-1-1” writers let you know you would die this season, and what was your initial reaction to the plan?

Oliver Stark: [Showrunner] Kristen Reidel called me and said, “So I have some news.” I said, “OK…” She said, “You’re gonna die,” and I didn’t want to answer immediately, just in case there was more to that statement, and she did in fact follow up with, “Obviously, not forever.” To which I said, “Is it obvious?” And she said, “It is to me.” It was nice to get that phone call before anything came out. The most fun part for me, because in the original version of the script, and it ended up changing by the time we shot it, it does literally say, “Buck is dead.” And I had various crew members who aren’t necessarily privy to what comes next calling me and being like, “No! You’re kidding me!” That was very touching, to see that they actually cared.

There are a lot of nice things in Buck’s coma world — like his older brother being alive, but there’s also some terrible things. Maddie is still with her abusive ex-husband. How does Buck weigh these when he’s working to get back to his real life?

Stark: It plays nicely on the fact that in life, often there are sacrifices that are made. So if you want one aspect of your life to be really nice, then maybe sometimes you’re giving up another aspect. Obviously, in this case, by being able to have an old brother has left his sister in a worse situation. I think, as positive as that world is, he definitely, for the most part anyway, comes away from it feeling more at peace and fulfilled by his real life. I think if you gave him the opportunity to choose between the two, and in some sense he kind of does have that opportunity, he’s choosing his real life every single time.

When Buck wakes up, he notes how almost everyone was different in his coma world, except Hen. Why do you think, in Buck’s subconscious, Hen wouldn’t be any different without Buck?

Stark: I think it goes to show that Hen is kind of a character who has always been a guiding light to him. And as we explore in the episode, he has had such an impact on all the other 118 members’ lives. It’s not that he hasn’t [made an impact] on Hen’s life, but it’s much more in a way where he’s been able to learn from her, rather than him offering life-changing or life-altering advice in the other direction. I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing and, in fact, quite a positive thing, that he just sees her as brilliant the way she is. And that’s from his deep, dark subconscious.

Why do you think Bobby, who is dead in Buck’s coma world, is ultimately the one who pushes Buck to wake up?

Stark: I really see it as, and I know a lot of people do, a father and son bond. I had imagined scenes in the past, when I first knew that the Buckley parents were coming to town, of Buck telling his father, “You’re not my dad. This is my father figure.” I really believe that’s how important that relationship is. So I think it’s only right that it’s Bobby that helps bring Buck back to himself. In episode 10, there’s a scene with Buck and Bobby, and Buck’s trying to work out the recipe for Bobby’s chili and he says to Bobby, “You’re always the one that helps me figure things out.” And obviously, that is the case as we move forward.

The episode is peppered with many callbacks to important moments from Buck and the 118’s lives throughout “9-1-1’s” six-season run. Which were your favorites?

Stark: I loved that stuff. As a fan of the show, I think that’s such a fun thing to get to do. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, because you can’t miss what you don’t know about, but I know there were even more that they wanted to try and fit in, but for practical reasons it didn’t end up being possible. One of the ones that didn’t end up in the show that I most loved the idea of was of me and Bobby. We had a really fun scene in the first season where we delivered a bunch of babies at a yoga studio. I know there was an idea of us walking around the hospital and walking past three women, clearly pregnant and in yoga clothes.

In his coma life, Buck is a teacher, like his parents. Do you that’s actually because he is following in his parents’ footsteps in this world where he has a good relationship with them?

Stark: I think the big difference for me that sets everything in a different direction from his real life is the fact that Daniel’s alive. I think so much of him being a firefighter came from this, even on a subconscious level, idea that he was born to help people. He failed in the real world to be able to help Daniel, and I think he stepped toward firefighting, in part, because he’s trying to make up for that and he’s trying to be the hero that he was born to be. Whereas, in his coma dream, Daniel is alive, and so he doesn’t have to, in such an obvious way, go about being a hero. He doesn’t have to run into fires and pull people out of them to fulfill that need to be the hero that he was never quite able to be. So he’s taken a different route. And he’s still a person that obviously cares and wants to help; as a teacher, it’s in a slightly more muted sense.

How did you work to build a relationship with Aaron Staton, who plays Daniel, seeing as Buck never had a chance to build one with his real brother?

Stark: It was funny because in the world of television, things sometimes move very quickly. He wasn’t actually — when he first came to shoot — aware that he was dead in the real world. I was like, “Oh! Do I have a story to tell you,” and got to break down everything that we were doing and what the real world was like for Buck and who he is to Buck in the real world. And so I think through me being the one that got to explain that to him, we very quickly built up a really, lovely rapport. He was just really great to have around. In fact, when he was done, Jennifer and I were like, “Can you just be alive in the real world now? We just really love this and can we just find a way to bring you back and then we get to continue doing this as three siblings?”

Where does Buck go from here, not just personally, but also in his relationship with his parents and getting back to work?

Stark: We actually don’t see his parents again this season. I think it’s implied that they stay around for a little while, but by the next time we find him, they’re not necessarily there. While he is left at the end of episode 11 in quite a positive place, one thing I really enjoy about this story is that sometimes a thing on television where the story has to move quite quickly, we find ourselves as if it never happened, very quickly; that’s not the case here. This is something that’s going to weigh on Buck’s minds a lot, the fact that he came so close to death. It’s not necessarily going to be the smoothest of roads back for him. He’s somebody that outwardly wants to make it look like he’s okay, but he’s going to struggle with how close it all came to ending. It’s going to take him a little while to go back into the field, and I will go as far as to say that when he does come back, he’s going to find himself with some new skills.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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