Eric Dane and Adam Baldwin Eric Dane and Adam Baldwin

"Welcome aboard!" bellows Adam Baldwin, right hand extended and cigar clenched firmly in his mouth, on the deck of the USS Dewey, currently stationed in Naval Base San Diego. "You know the difference between a ship and a boat?" he asks with a knowing smile. "Boats ride on ships!"

On this mid-March day, the 510-foot-long, 66-foot-wide guided missile destroyer is lending its impressive exterior for the titular role on the new TNT action drama The Last Ship. "She's No. 1 on the call sheet," says Rhona Mitra, who plays one of the ship's few civilian passengers, virologist Dr. Rachel Scott. "It is the mother ship; we all bow and worship."

For the series, this active vessel has been given the fictional moniker USS Nathan James, the floating home and only safe haven for Capt. Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) and his crew of 217 sailors after an airborne virus kills 80 percent of the world's population. It's up to Dr. Scott to identify the origin of the disease and manufacture a vaccine before mankind is annihilated. "The captain says they left these shores as members of the United States Navy and now their duty is to the entire world," says executive producer Hank Steinberg. "They're the world's last hope — and he's got to keep them believing in that."

"Technically, you don't have to call me captain today," Dane says as he sits down on a director's chair perched on the ship's bow. The Grey's Anatomy alum admits to actively searching for a role different from the one he played for seven years on the ABC medical series, and he found it with The Last Ship, executive produced by Transformers franchise director Michael Bay. "This was something I couldn't pass up, and if you're going to do action, you don't look any further than Michael Bay," says Dane, who conveys pride when discussing the vessel's state-of-the-art defense system and artillery, including a gun affixed to the bow that can shoot accurately within three meters up to 13 miles away. "I've been on every square inch of this ship, save for a few areas that we're not supposed to go," he says. "Right now, we're very safe."

Safety is not a luxury for the crew members of the Nathan James after they learn of the deadly pandemic. The search for fuel, food and supplies needed to facilitate a cure takes them on a global journey, starting in the Arctic before heading to the coast of France, Guantanamo Bay and the jungles of Nicaragua. "It isn't like a typical TV show, where you can go downtown and shoot on a normal street," says executive producer Steven Kane, noting that most interior scenes were shot on Manhattan Beach soundstages, while other Southern California locations substituted for the more tropical settings.

The show has the full cooperation and blessing of the U.S. Navy, which allowed producers access to its fleet and its civilian and military technical advisers, known as SMEs (subject matter experts). "It took building a level of trust, but they want to make sure you're showing them in a light that's honest and fair," Kane says. "They're as enthusiastic as we are [about the show], if not more enthusiastic, because they see that we're being true to the Navy's core values: honor, courage and commitment."

In addition, the actors received munitions training and military education from these advisers, who schooled them on even the most minuscule of details. "They make sure our uniforms are proper and our pants are bloused correctly," says Chuck vet Baldwin, who portrays second-in-command executive officer Mike Slattery. "But we'll certainly make some mistakes, and there will be some nitpickers out there. Our response is, 'Well, it is a television show, so we do have to heighten the drama a bit.'"

And as the sun begins to set over the San Diego Bay, the cast and crew find themselves involved in a drama of their own as they prepare to shoot a crucial and emotional scene for the sixth episode. "We're losing light!" yells Dane as a gaggle of extras pull the limp body of one of their own onto the deck, a reminder that other enemies besides the virus are lurking in the ocean. The sailors are also plagued by concerns about their loved ones. "Obviously, we all want to get back to our families to see if they're OK," Baldwin says. "However, the bigger picture is that we need to save the freakin' world!"

The Last Ship premieres Sunday, June 22 at 9/8c on TNT.

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!