Interview with Robert Falconer

by Robert Falconer, Senior Editor
Hollywood North Report
2003

It may be raining on this dull, winter afternoon in Vancouver, but inside the soundstages at Vancouver Film Studios – on the set of Battlestar Galactica – thoughts of being soaked by ubiquitous winter deluges are far from my mind. They seem far from the minds of the cast and crew as well. While not quite ebullient, the mood is certainly upbeat.

It’s made all the more amusing by the arrival of Jamie Bamber in between takes, apparently just back from makeup and sporting a ’70s style wig, prompting a crewmember to remark, “It makes him look like Steven Tyler.” (Ironically, it makes him look more like Richard Hatch – but, alas, that’s all I’m going to share on that subject.)

As the crew enjoy the joke and laughter abounds, director Michael Rymer turns to me with a grin and shrugs—just another day on the set of this ground-breaking program; and yet, not just another day. The series is shooting its last couple of episodes, and everyone is doubtless a little celebratory as the show wind-downs a successful and critically acclaimed second season.

However, on this particular afternoon the focus isn’t on Jamie Bamber – who is merely “loitering about” to show off his new “do” – but rather Edward Olmos and Mary McDonnell, who are filming a scene from Part I of “Lay Down Your Burdens”.

Rymer (who, I happily learn, often visits HNR) chats with me during the break. Among other things, he mentions that he has a personal film project that’s been gestating for quite some time, and once Season Two is wrapped, he’s off to London to work on it. But for now, despite the joviality on-set, you can see that Rymer’s focus is clearly on making the season finale of Galactica the best it can be—and he tells us it’s a doozey.

In the story, the presidential campaign is in full swing. The election’s outcome hinges upon a core debate—whether or not to abandon the search for Earth when the Galactica crew discovers a habitable planet. When the election begins to swing in favor of Baltar (James Callis) – a man whom Roslin is now convinced is a Cylon collaborator – the incumbent president must decide whether or not to take drastic measures for the greater good.

Things become even further complicated when the Cylons, led by Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) and Sharon (Grace Park), find the planet and offer humanity a stunning proposal of peace.

Rymer calls for quiet, and as the hubbub of crew voices once more settles to a hush, McDonnell and Olmos begin coursing through their dialogue. I watch them play out the scene in Adama’s quarters – no more than 40 feet away – via the director’s video monitor.

Suddenly, the quiet dialogue is punctuated by more laughter, but this time it’s not from the crew, it’s from McDonnell, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, from Laura Roslin. “No. Don’t get me started – no, no… don’t,” Roslin implores, stifling back a full-blown cacophony of guffaws. “I used to get… the giggles… before high school… debates…”

There’s a wonderful humanity to the sequence, as the president – preparing for an upcoming debate against Baltar – discusses with Adama the little rituals we all employ to ease our nerves before entering into a particularly stressful situation. Yet eventually, Roslin gives in to all the pent-up nervous energy and erupts in laughter.

It’s a scene that the experienced actress must repeat take after take, as the production team provides as much coverage as possible for the final edit.

It’s also a wonderful example of the thespian’s craft at work. It’s been oft repeated that “crying on cue” can be a difficult task for an actor, and directors from Steven Spielberg to Sydney Pollack have discussed the subject in interviews. But laughing repeatedly on cue gives the impression of being incrementally more difficult still.

In between takes – as a woman touches up McDonnell’s makeup – I make a quip about the strange sort of concentration and focus it must require for her to laugh over and over again, on demand.

“It’s the difference between being a professional and being an amateur,” McDonnell tells me with a disarming smile, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Of course, she’s absolutely right. And Mary McDonnell is nothing if not a consummate professional. A native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, McDonnell became renowned for her stage work on the East Coast – working with a variety of companies, including the Long Wharf Theatre Co. – for over 20 years. In 1990 she had her breakthrough film role in Kevin Costner’s epic, Dances With Wolves, playing “Stands with a Fist”, a white woman raised by Native Americans. The role garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

In 1992, she received a second Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actress, for her role in Passion Fish, a complex drama about a self-absorbed soap star who must learn to accept both herself and others after an accident robs her of the use of her legs. It was a performance that demonstrated amply McDonnell’s keen awareness of the finer points of what it is to be human.

Other notable films include Grand Canyon (1991), Sneakers, opposite Robert Redford (1992), Independence Day (1996) and Donnie Darko (2001). In Donnie Darko, she played Mrs. Rose Darko, Donnie’s mother.

Though remarkably self-assured in her performance as Laura Roslin, McDonnell is wonderfully approachable and gracious when it comes to discussing her character on Battlestar Galactica. This is a woman who conveys a tremendous sense of grace and calm in her demeanor, and you can feel that energy when you’re around her. She’s also keenly aware of Galactica’s growing importance in the mainstream of popular culture, and I spoke with her briefly about this and aspects of the Laura Roslin character on set…

Robert: So much is going on in this series…it takes place in a universe that incorporates so many epic themes: Armageddon, war, intelligent machines, monotheism vs. polytheism, the importance of faith and mythology, etc, etc. Dances with Wolves excepted, is Galactica the biggest canvas upon which you’ve had a character drawn?

Mary McDonnell: Yes, absolutely…it is the biggest canvas. And what’s also interesting to me about this project is the evolution. I’ve never really done the ongoing drama…the evolving character. I’m able to bring forward issues with this character that were established in the very beginning that I’m still dealing with, alongside issues that are coming up now. And I can have that evolution ongoing inside as I’m building this character.

It’s so complex and so layered, and Laura has so many different things to cope with, but what’s been exciting about it, is that it’s sort of been a lesson in acting. And by that, I mean that Laura constantly pulls her mind into the priority, which is to get these people to Earth. And she comes back again and again and again to that simple truth. It’s really become her reason for being. Otherwise, wouldn’t she have died? So with all of these complexities going on, she keeps bringing it back to this simple action.

Robert: It seems as though the rag-tag survivors have a unique opportunity here; a silver lining in the dark mushroom cloud, if you will. We now know that the Earth is not apocryphal; that there may well be a real goal to shoot for. They can start a new society and attempt to cast off the very things that led to their destruction, or they can go down the same old path, learn nothing, and perish in the fray. How do you see this journey relating to each of our journeys as human beings?

Mary McDonnell: Well, I do think that we’re on the same path as they are, really. I think the most important thing any of us can learn right now – the essential element to our survival – is that the concept of “the other” is the wrong path. Because essentially, it’s within. These people in the fleet are in a very, very painful moment in their evolution as they come to terms with that, and the Cylons are there to provide a lesson. The question is, what does it take for a society to recognize the reflection of themselves in the enemy and lay down their weapons?

So it seems to me that we’re on the same path right now here on our planet. Unless we stop pointing fingers at one another and taking up weapons, we’re going to destroy the whole schmegegge, as they say.

Robert: Some people have chided that the series is too grim; too bleak, while others opine that it’s offensive, particularly after the rape scene in “Pegasus”. Do you think the writers and producers on this show have a pessimistic worldview? Or do you think that given the circumstances in which the world currently finds itself – wars, terrorism, hurricanes…sneezing chickens – that the world really is a pretty screwed up place right now and real life is just grist for the Galactica mill.

Mary McDonnell: I think the sincere commitment here is to reflect what’s happening in the world through a sci-fi genre, which gives us license to go into some different kinds of reverberations. So we get to materialize the metaphysical, as well as the flat out, down to earth struggle every day; war, famine, etc. So to me, the show isn’t really any bleaker than life, but it is bleaker in the sense that there is a relentlessness to it because they’re stuck on these ships. So that can be difficult. But I also think there is a relief in the sci-fi elements of it that we don’t have in life.

Robert: Speaking of bleak, you had some pretty strong feelings about how people reacted to that rape scene at the end of Pegasus, and the overall problem of how violence against women tends to be portrayed on television.

Mary McDonnell: I have strong feelings about this as a woman; it’s a huge button for me, the issue of violence against women on television and how much of this stuff we’re going to pump out there before it becomes an accepted point of view that that’s what happens to women, and no-one takes responsibility and there’s no consequences.

But there’s a big difference between crystallizing it inside a genre that doesn’t do it very often; making it part of one story one week, and the mainstream, non-sci-fi television where we become used to seeing women being raped and killed and mutilated—and other horrible things. That’s the sad thing.

So for me, the fact that it was so upsetting to people when presented on Battlestar Galactica is a very good thing. It should be upsetting. It needs to be very, very upsetting. One should watch it and think, “I don’t want to see that!” We shouldn’t be using the fragility or vulnerability of the female body as a “technique” around which to build entertainment.

I believe if Galactica were doing that sort of thing all the time, then the show would have a problem. But the way it was portrayed enables people to dialogue and talk about these sorts of things. Fires should be lit. And we should hear. Then you know if you’re in the ballpark of something that is really relevant, or if you’re being exploitive. And I have a lot of respect for the people who got upset as well as the people who wrote it.

Robert: In the Season One DVD documentary, “The Lowdown,” you mention that rather than shrink from challenges as a result of her breast cancer, that the disease has, in a strange way, actually empowered Laura, because she realizes that life is short. You and I both know that not every person would have the courage to carry on given such a disease and the plight in which these people find themselves. Would you at least entertain the possibility that Laura’s strength – though catalyzed by these events – actually comes from another, deeper place in her psyche?

Mary McDonnell: I think what happened was that the situation of being diagnosed with cancer and facing her own mortality, combined with the apocalypse, put Laura in a certain place where a latent capability for strong leadership and ruthlessness emerged. Sometimes it takes a series of negative events in life for us to evolve. And in this case Laura was pushed to power, rather than being handed power. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it was pulled out of her. It’s my feeling that this power was always there, simmering, but that she didn’t have the freedom to manifest it until a catalyzing event occurred.

Robert: As Laura Roslin’s character has developed, we’ve learned more and more about her, post Armageddon, if you will. Yet it occurs to me that we still know very little about her past. For example was she ever married, did she have a family, that sort of thing? It’s common for many actors to develop back-story to help flesh out a character in their minds, and I’m wondering if you can tell us who Laura Roslin was – in your estimation – 20 years ago.

Mary McDonnell: I believe that 20 years ago Laura was a very bright student, very interested in government and very interested in teaching. I always got the feeling with Laura that she was a very private gal, but certainly did have a social life. I think Laura had a lot of long-term relationships when she was younger, and then, my feeling about this is that she was distracted from that part of her life by two things: 1) The events of her mother who did die of breast cancer after Laura nursed her through a long eight-year period in which her mother went through chemotherapy and she watched her go downhill. Laura therefore has a strong echo of this whole thing, and it’s one of the reasons she refused to go to traditional medicines to begin with; 2) She got very, very involved with the administration and the president, as a worker. There was something about Adar that took her focus for an awfully long time at the expense, perhaps, of a personal life. He pulled her into it, since she made a big splash as a young teacher because she stood up for the school board over an issue. He noticed her and brought her into his campaign early, then kept bringing her along until finally making her Secretary of Education. So she was with this guy for a very long time. She wasn’t really a political creature by nature, but she was so good at teaching and so good at educational administration and so he kept her close by. And that’s where her life went.

Robert: So clearly Laura was a very good, very committed teacher. Now we have a situation in the fleet where we have all these displaced people, a significant percentage of which are likely children, who have no infrastructure, no schools, no educational system to speak of. It’s an interesting scenario to imagine that Laura must be thinking about those children out there and the situation they find themselves in.

Mary McDonnell: Certainly it’s a major issue for her, but one she can’t get to. Nine months of survival at every turn.

Robert: And so school can’t be the most important thing…

Mary McDonnell: No. But it should be. It should be and it hasn’t been, and that’s not OK for her. And it’s an area that needs to be developed, and it remains Laura’s passion. This whole thing – the Secretary of Education and the administrative aspects of education – she did very well, and now she’s doing the President thing pretty good too, but teaching is what she loves, and it’s been very difficult for her to not be around children because she doesn’t have any of her own. So that’s been a very hard, private thing for her.

Robert: Do you think Laura will ever teach again, or at least find herself in a more direct educational role with children in some capacity?

Mary McDonnell: Well, you never know. All I can say is watch the end of the season and you’re bound to see some interesting developments…

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