Stargate: SG-1 star Amanda Tapping discusses her latest role the 157-year old Dr. Helen Magnus in ITV4’s latest sci-fi signing, Sanctuary.
Can you tell us a bit about your character?
I play Helen Magnus who is a 157-year-old doctor from Victorian-era England, and she took over the Sanctuary from her father. He was one of those very forward-thinking scientists back in the day, and he introduced her into this incredible world. How she came to live as long as she has I can’t tell you, except to say that in a later episode everything is revealed. But she has a very interesting back story and a very interesting history with certain nefarious people from history – she didn’t always keep the best company. But she is a scientist in the purist sense, she was one of the first female scientists at the royal college and she’s always been an envelope pusher. The Sanctuary is her life’s work and she believes that these abnormal creatures are the key to the evolution of our species. They’re not to be derided or hunted or killed, but instead studied and protected. Well, most of them – some of them she’ll go after because they’re rather nasty and dangerous. But for the most part she runs a very altruistic Sanctuary where she takes care of these creatures. It’s in her blood.
What’s she like as a person?
She is sexy, savvy and unapologetic. She doesn’t suffer fools. She’s been connected with enough famous people through history that she can see when people aren’t being honest with her. She’s an incredibly fun character to play because a single look from Helen Magnus can bring somebody down, so it’s quite fun in that regard. She’s so different from me – she requires a great deal of confidence. I don’t have that, but it’s great fun to put on her shoes.
The creatures in the Sanctuary are what most people would call monsters – why do you think Helen sees them differently? Her interest seems to go beyond dispassionate scientific enquiry.
Absolutely. She has a huge humanitarian passion and that’s why she brings on board Will Zimmerman. She sees that he has a gift that she doesn’t have, an ability to connect things and find out the real story, to empathise with these creatures and the ability to get them to open up. So she’s definitely a humanist. She chooses to surround herself with people that can do the things she may not necessarily be as good at, and it’s all because she cares about these creatures.
How would you describe the mother-daughter relationship between Helen and Ashley?
It’s very interesting. There’s a huge amount of respect between the two of them. Ashley knows that when her mother says she needs to do something then she says it for a reason. And Magnus has a huge amount of respect for Ashley because Ashley can do things that she can’t. Ashley is this young and vital gun expert, kick-ass kind of girl. What’s interesting is that Helen made the choice to have this child knowing that in all likelihood she might outlive her. That’s a very wild choice for a woman to make. But it’s also interesting that she puts her in harm’s way all the time, and knows it. She respects her daughter enough to know that she can hold her own, but it’s gut-wrenching for her every time she puts her in danger. So it’s a really interesting dynamic between the two of them. And their relationship is put to the test when Ashley’s back story is revealed, when it’s revealed who her father is. In the webisodes that came out right away, but in the series they stretch it out a bit longer – and when she does find out it’s pretty devastating because her dad’s not the greatest guy in history. So that puts a bit of a strain on the mother-daughter thing.
And what about Helen and Will? What do they make of each other?
I think Helen finds him fascinating. He’s so idealistic, she see in him all the qualities that she admires, but all the qualities that she knows will probably get beaten out of him over the course of time. His idealism and purity of thought and the way he analyses things… she absolutely respects that, but I think she also realises that there’s going to come a time when he’s going to become a bit jaded. The world is not as kind as Will Zimmerman would like it to be! But she has a lot of respect for him.
There are a couple of episodes where there’s been this bizarre sexual tension between the two of them, and it’s by virtue of what’s happening in any given episode, especially in an episode called Requiem where Magnus goes a bit crazy. But generally there’s just a huge healthy respect – he’s the first real protégé she’s had.
UK audiences will be impressed with your English accent. How long did it take to work on, and were you using anyone in particular as a guide?
Well I was born in England and I get back there all the time. I grew up in a very British household. For a long time there were so many Brits in Canada, it was the place to go, and instead of moving to the States where you lost everything that was British, in Canada it was embraced and there were British stores you could go to and we got a lot of British TV. So I grew up in a household that was not totally cut off from the UK. My father has a very British accent and my mum and my aunt have held onto to their accents.
But for me Helen’s is a difficult accent because it’s born out of Victorian England, which is a very specific way of speaking. She clings to that eccentricity a bit, to that Britishness – perhaps more than some people who’d been around for 157 years would! So I listened to a lot of different voices. I get the BBC here and there’s an international flavour to a lot of the reporters because they’re from around the world, and I had to factor in the fact that she’d lived all over the world.
Most of the show is shot in front of a green screen – what’s it like working in that environment?
What’s interesting is that you get used to it. You kind of forget that the green screen is there, because David Getty, who’s lighting our show lights it so beautifully that you can get this sense, when there are windows [in a scene], that you can tell what time of day it is. The hardest thing is the scope. Helen’s office has a huge vaulted ceiling that we’ve never seen. With the Sanctuary itself the lab is five stories high and it’s really hard to get a sense of that scope, that’s the most difficult thing. Otherwise, if you have the right props and the right set pieces so you know where to look, you get used to it. But at first you have a headache from staring at all that bright green – it makes your eyes go funny.
What was the rapport like among the cast?
There was an instant connection. It amazes me. This industry kind of breeds that. You’re thrust into this environment and you have to act like family pretty quickly and become one pretty quickly. And then it ends, which is such a weird thing. But with this cast… I mean I knew Chris Heyerdahl very well, Martin Wood (the director) had worked with Robin Dunne, he brought Emilie in, Ryan Robbins who plays Henry, we’ve known him for such a long time. And there’s also no delineation between the cast and the crew. A lot of our crew have been with us for a long time. I went up to the Arctic with some of them for the Stargate Continuum movie, so there’s a real sense of family.
We just had our wrap party and there’s no hierarchy, no us and them feel on our show. Everyone’s really polite. And a lot of people turned down high profile jobs to work on this. One of the things I’m most proud of is that all the guest stars who’ve come on the show have said what a great show it was to work on. That’s the kind of atmosphere you want to foster.
Other than the presence of so many old friends from Stargate SG-1, what attracted you to the show in the first place?
It was a great script. A really fast-moving, intriguing script. And these great characters. For me Helen Magnus is this wonderful, eccentric character – she’s a gift for an actress. And I cared about the characters. I flipped through that script for the pilot so quickly and phoned my agent right away and said “Oh my God this is great, let’s do it!”
What do you think Stargate SG-1 fans will make of Sanctuary?
It’s totally different. I mean, a lot of Stargate SG-1 fans have watched the show, they’ve seen it on the internet and loved it. What’s interesting to me is that we’re getting a whole new fan base who never watched Stargate, and that to me is really cool. But it’s totally different. I think what sci-fi fans in general love is a good story that’s intelligently told and that gives them some great visuals. And they care about the characters. At the end of the day sci-fi fans are really stalwart in their support of characters. So I think that we’ve given them characters that they can really care about.