Amanda Tapping chats with Sci Fi Pi about her new show Sanctuary, making the transition from Stargate, and when she's coming to Australia (soon!).
To SCI FI fans, Amanda Tapping needs no introduction. She's the current queen of Sci Fi, having won fans the world over in her role as Samantha Carter on Stargate: SG1 and Stargate Atlantis. As an actress, she's got a huge following, but now she's entering a whole new world - as producer (and director) on her new show, Sanctuary.
With it's debut on SCI FI on May 28, Sanctuary marks a bold new adventure for Samantha - and her fans. As Dr Helen Magnus, Amanda leads a team of eccentrics who must hunt down the beasties of myth and imagination that actually inhabit our earth. But she doesn't want to destroy them, she wants, when she can, to protect them. She sees them as the key to the evolution of the human race. As the saying goes, "just because you're a blood-sucking freak, that doesn't make you a bad person".
It's an intriguing twist on the 'kill all monsters' idea, and is one of the reasons why the show has been so enthusiastically received by Tapping fans, both new and old alike.
We managed to grab a few minutes with her as she spoke to us from the set of Sanctuary, surrounded by green screen, draped sets, and butlers dressed up as big foot.
You’ve spoken before about when you step into Amanda Carter’s boots you become her. Is Dr Helen Magnus’ hat something you stick on and think that, “Ah! Now I’m back!”
(Laughter) It’s more the stilettos actually. That’s my thing – from army boots to stilettos – the transformation. Helen is a lot harder for me to get into. In large part because she is so NOT like me. As an actress, there are so many choices she made, so many things she’d done that I would not have the guts to do or I would’ve done completely differently. So she’s a lot harder to wrap my head around. Not only just the accent or the clothes – the way that she presents herself – but she’s a woman who’s 157 years old. She’s seen so much and it’s interesting for me, as a woman, playing a character THAT old. Even though she doesn’t look that old, there’s a weight to it that I wasn’t expecting and sometimes I go… (heavy sigh)… she’s just really old. She’s seen way too much. So it’s not as easy as slipping on the army boots (chuckles).
Plus she’s dealing with monsters on a daily basis.
That too. That changes the way you look at things a bit.
It’s interesting that Sanctuary takes these monsters and presents them as not necessarily bad guys.
I think what we’re trying to do is take the idea of what society perceives as “normal” and turn it on its ear. So approach it from there – to NOT be highly moralistic about it but there is a morality to what we are doing. For Helen – my approach to it as an actor anyway is – she believes these creatures are the evolution of our race. She believes that what we perceive as abnormal is actually a step forward in evolution. So there’s a real intellectual approach to it all. I mean, Bigfoot is her butler and that’s a weird thing but she treats him like she would any human. Except she prefers him to most humans because he’s a really nice guy. There are times, especially when we first started, and Bigfoot would walk on set people would go, “Oh my god, this is just so weird” but after a while… he is this incredibly rich, heartfelt, funny character.
So it’s not just “Buffy for grown-ups”?
Nooooo. No! I think think there’s so much more to it than that.
Have people started comparing and contrasting your show to other shows?
They have! And I think that once they get into the show they all pull back from it. Because it’s a historical drama, it’s fantasy, it’s sci fi. There are so many components to the show that defy traditional sci fi description. It’s a hard time to compare it to anything – it’s not really like anything.
STARGATE FANS REACTION
Obviously a lot of your Stargate fans would have had a look at Sanctuary. Have you been exposed to your Sanctuary/Stargate fans and seen if there has been any impact?
There’s been a LOT of crossover first of all, which is great, but then there’s a whole new legion of fans who never watched Stargate, which I’m gobsmacked about... (Laughter)...“I actually never watched Stargate.” (Incredulously) “It’s been around forever, it’s on every television, everywhere!"
There’s a whole legion of fans who never got into that because they’re not into the idea of exploring Space, for example. What I found with Sanctuary is our demographic is so broad. There’s so many women who watch it. There are young kids who are into the monster idea. There’s an older demographic. It’s interesting that it has crossed every border of every genre, every gender. It’s a much broader demographic than I thought.
Is it still being produced 'out of the back of your kitchen' in Vancouver? Or are people starting to come in saying, “Hey! We can make you lots and lots of money”?
A lot of people have come forward saying that but we haven’t necessarily gone with any of them. There is a home-grown element to the show. We have a huge budget, although less than Stargate but we still produce, I think, the same quality. And that’s because every cent we have goes up on the screen. But we don’t have a big studio backing. This year we struggled and struggled and struggled until we finally got the money together and said, “OK. Now we can start.” We did a lot of jumping through hoops. I mean, we have had people come forward and say they are interested, which is great and I think that’s a sure sign of success when people say, “Hey! There’s the potential to make money here.” None of us are – but there’s potential (chuckles).
Where does the money go if it’s not going on the green screen or are you just shaving the budget?
Yeah. It’s all green. Probably about $1 million each episode in green paint. Not kidding! The vis effects obviously are huge. We have some built sets that we haven’t been able to amortise and we have to do some builds all the time. Set decorations are a huge cost, props are a huge cost.
Your office is a fantastic piece of set decoration
(Gasps) Isn’t that beautiful? That is one of our few standing sets and I love it.
Do you go there before each day to get into character? Does it help you in any way?
Often when we’re not using it, it’s covered up in sheets. It gets a little creepy (adopts English accent) and I get frightened in there by myself. But when I’m in there it definitely gives a sense of place. And the crew loves that set too.
Have your parents (Amanda was born in the UK) given you tips and/or scores for your English accent?
No. They’ve actually been really great about it. Because it’s a weird English accent. It’s based in Victorian era English, which is a very specific way of speaking, but it’s 157 years old so it’s a voice that has been around the world, it’s a voice that has been influenced by various different cultures, it’s a voice that’s been influenced by time. And so she still holds on to staunch Britishisms but people hear it and think it’s a British accent. But from where? What’s really interesting to me is that Brits have all embraced the accent but the Americans don’t like it. But my mum loves it.
Has your role as producer/director/wonder woman evolved over Season 1 and coming into Season 2? Are you doing less? More? And how does this affect your acting?
I think last year I had a hard time figuring out how to time manage it all. So I felt like I had balls up in the air and I was constantly dropping them. The beauty of the partnership with Damian, Martin and I is that we each know what our strengths and weaknesses are so we can lift each other up or help each other out in various capacities. This year I just became a lot calmer about it so therefore it’s a little smoother. We just did a really emotional episode, for example, and I had to turn to Martin and Damian and say, “I just need to be Helen Magnus today. I can’t be Amanda Tapping going to a meeting and I can’t sit in on the budget meeting today because I have to be Helen.” It doesn’t happen often but every once in a while I have to be really protective of the character. But for the most part I think I’m handling it a lot better this year – all the various roles. And I’ll be directing this second series.
Is that terrifying?
Am I crazy?! (Laughter) It is a bit terrifying. I actually said, “Guys, I don’t wanna direct. Seriously. I’ve got way too much on my plate. I don’t wanna direct.” They said, “No! Come on. It’s good. You’re ready. Let’s do it.” So now the episode is fast approaching and I’m starting to lose hair and sleep. I will be bald with dark, dark circles under my eyes by the time we get to it BUT I will get it done!
What direction can you see the show going? You can travel wherever you want in time, all over the world. What’s coming up for Sanctuary?
We’re playing with interpersonal dynamics in Season 2, now that everyone’s been introduced and established. There are definitely new characters coming in but we’re utilising Tesla again, played by Jonathon Young – such a great character and a really amazing actor too. There’s a lot more interpersonal. We’re going a bit “dark side” with the show this year. We’re going back to activate the feel the webisodes had, which was a little darker and a little edgier. Definitely going out a lot in terms of travelling the world. But there’s not a lot I can really tell you without having to shoot you so…
GREEN SCREEN AND ACTING
When you’re hiring people to work on the show do you find yourself starting to flip through the theatre actors more than the TV actors because of the green screen?
No. You know what, it really comes down to the best auditions and people who think who can grasp the material. Jonathon Young for example is an AMAZING theatre actor. He was recommended by Chris Heyerdahl, so he would not have necessarily been someone who made it into the casting room except if he was recommended, and as soon as he walked in I said, “Oh my god, he’s Tesla”. Brilliant! So it’s really who does the best, who brings the most interesting piece to the pie. That’s how we work. Also it’s a real mandate for us that this show must be fun to work on. We want people – our crew and our cast and our guest cast – to want to be here and enjoy it. So a lot of it, in terms of casting, is about people’s personalities too. Do I want to spend the next month, or however long that character will play out for, with this person? Are they going to fit into the dynamic of the show, which has a real family feel to it? I have to be honest. That plays a part in it. Good actors but it is also good people.
What does Dr Helen Magnus eat when she gets depressed?
(Laughter) That’s a great question! Chocolate. Obviously. Dark chocolate. There is a chocolate stash in Helen’s desk. She dips it in her tea which is completely against all the rules.
You’re used to green screen. Are there people who have difficulties just standing there against a big blank wall of green?
For sure. It’s something that you really have to talk people through, which makes absolute sense. But what’s interesting is that once you get past the idea of the green, it’s about the words, the work and the relationship and it actually makes the process quite simple as an actor. You’re not dealing with all the extraneous stuff. It becomes about the moment and about your fellow actors. It becomes a little bit more pure in some ways. So it’s not that hard once people wrap their heads around the idea of where everything is. The hardest thing with green screen is scope. You know, how big is this room? What does sitting below a sixty foot ceiling feel like? What is the light coming through at this time of day in the window feel like? How does that affect how you’re playing it? There are so many different variables but once you get past the physicality of it then it really is a simple, pure process.
What do you tell people who haven’t heard of Sanctuary? How do you describe it?
There was a log line for the show! What it comes down to is that we still haven’t figured out what that log line is! When people ask me at a dinner party what I do and what is the show about I will say that I play a character from Victorian England who is a doctor who is not immortal but has slowed down ageing and she runs a sanctuary for all manner of abnormal creatures, things that go bump in the night from modern and past mythology, and shines a light on it, believing it to be the evolution of our race. So she protects these creatures and studies them and protects them from humans and protects humans from them. So that’s a sort of a log line but it’s an intellectual thriller, it’s historical, there’s a lot of back story. Yeah, I know, we need a better log line.
Freaks are people too.
STARGATE AND SANCTUARY
You can’t walk around the Earth without people shouting Stargate! Stargate! Obviously it’s time for the movies to start rolling out. Have they spoken to you about Atlantis or SG1 movies yet?
We’ve done two SG1 movies already and now there’s a third one that we will be shooting in Fall, so I’m told, and Atlantis I don’t know about. I know they’re talking about doing a movie but I don’t think it has been green-lit yet. But for SG1 there’s a third movie that’s been green-lit.
Have you heard or seen any log line/script for that?
No. Nothing. Top secret. And even if I had, I couldn’t tell you.
Have you bumped into the other Stargate actors? Have they mentioned that they want to be put into a Sanctuary cell at some point?
Oh, I’ve asked them point blank! Chris Judge came and visited our set a few weeks ago. I knew it was him because I was sitting in my trailer and there was this POUNDING on my door. "Oh wow, this sounds familiar." And I opened the door and there’s Chris. He was, like, "why haven’t I been on your show?!" "Of course. Of course you’ll be on the show."
That’ll be something for the fans to look forward to.
Absolutely. And for me too.
Well if you can get Teal’c and Daniel together again…
…as abnormals. I’d make them go through prosthetics. Just for fun. Just for shits and giggles. “Michael, you are now playing the monster who has had seven hour prosthetics.” I wouldn’t do that though. I wouldn’t cover up that face! (Chuckles nervously)
Last time we spoke you were experimenting with cooking – you’d had a few salmon rubs and Thai cooking experiences – your life obviously goes on hold while you’re filming but I’m wondering if you get time to return to your life in the off season?
Oh, I do! But I have this crazy life that sometimes I’m not good at balancing so on weekends it’s all about family because I have a four year old and a husband. Family time is hugely important. I’m still playing with fish though. My husband goes fishing every year to the west coast of Vancouver Island – incredible fishing – and comes back with halibut, salmon… I’m still making a mess in the kitchen!
Does Olivia come on set now?
She comes to visit here. She spent the first 18 months of her life on the Stargate set because I had her with me every day. But now she’s four, she’s got her own things going on. She comes by to visit, comes for lunch and wanders about the set but she doesn’t hang out here.
SENDING YOUR DAUGHTER OUT TO DIE
The reason why I asked that question is the mother-daughter relationship on the show is frankly bizarre. What kind of mother puts her daughter in that situation?
It’s a great question and it’s something I struggled with because, first of all, why would a woman who knows in all likelihood that she will outlive her child choose to bring a child into this world? A bizarre choice for a mother to make. And furthermore, why bring this child into a place that is fraught with danger and to make her a part of work that is, albeit very exciting, incredibly dangerous? How does she reconcile that? And that’s something we deal with in Series 2. But it’s a really bizarre choice. I have still not wrapped my head around it. What’s interesting is that I talked to Emilie and asked her how does Ashley feel about it? She said, “This is Ashley’s life. She LOVES it. She’s great at it. This is what she does – it’s totally cool.” For me, especially as a mother, I could not even imagine putting my daughter in that kind of situation. And knowing that I rely on her – like “Hey, weapons expert girl, go kill this abnormal.” It’s just a bizarre choice. It’s a great question and I’m not sure I’ve given you an intelligent answer because I’m not sure that I’ve figured it out.
You think about when somebody becomes a person they have their own idea about what they want to do and I guess as a mother you want them to be happy in the same way that you want them to be safe. I guess if killing things that could kill you makes you happy then, you know, go ahead and do it, sweetie.
Go for it! Have fun. Don’t forget to wear your bike helmet.
We have a lot of artistic people – well, dreamers I guess – on the Sci Fi TV website. How do you deal with suits?
Now that I am one? (Chuckles)
Now you’re just pretending to be one. We all know that.
It’s true. No, I’m actually more a suit than I care to realise. I CARE about the budget WAY more than I should. I mean, there’s a certain amount of exasperation from the creative to the business side of things and there’s two completely separate ways of thinking so it can be frustrating. But I actually have a pretty good head for business so I understand conceptually where people are coming from with their issues and I’m able to speak with them somewhat intelligently. So I’m sort of the perfect hybrid of suit/creative in some ways. But if I had to choose, I’d choose not to be.
So you just need to speak to them in their language? Learn their language and it’ll all be better.
Yeah. That’s it! All you have to do is get the catch phrases. You just need to know how to correctly place catch phrases for a man in a suit. It will get you miles. So sad. You know when you talk about budget and putting money up on the screen, you know, deficits and amortising. Amortising is a big word. If you can speak somewhat intelligently about the pattern budget and an amortisation budget then you’re good. Then they go, “Oh! She might actually be OK with all of this.” Then you walk away and go to the accountant and say, “I said this, this and this. Is this true?” (Cackling laughter)
When are you coming out to Australia?
I shall be in Sydney in October. I’m doing a convention in Sydney, Melbourne I think and then I’m going to Auckland. I shall be around! Avec famille.
See you then! And Thanks so much for chatting with us.
You can also catch FULL EPISODES of Sanctuary, live online on Spectrum, from May 29.