This past weekend, Monsters and Critics joined “Sanctuary” star Amanda Tapping in Estes Park, Colorado for a great visit with the star of SCI FI’s latest drama
The new series stars the Stargate veteran serving as the lead actor, executive producer and even director at times.
In a former bicycle factory in suburban Vancouver, Amanda Tapping and her cast play their roles against a green screen which will be “colored in” later by a crack team of visual effects wizards, putting their character Helen Magnus into any imaginable scenario in history.
The virtual sets allows the actors stunningly realistic scenes that take the viewers in and out of time periods with minimal set dressing, if any.
Working without physical sets was something Tapping has experience with from her work on “Stargate,” where she played the popular Colonel Samantha “Sam” Carter for 10 years.
“The hardest thing with green screen is getting an idea of the scale,” she noted.
“For us as actors, we use our imagination and skills to make people believe that you’re in that space,” Tapping shared at breakfast inside the historic Stanley Hotel, the muse for Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” The haunted hotel was our three-day destination to get to know Helen, as well as other new SCI FI programming.
SCI FI Channel’s new series “Sanctuary” premieres on the cable channel Friday (tonight) with a two-hour episode.
Tapping plays Helen Magnus; she is an ageless 157-year-old doctor from Victorian-era England who runs a sanctuary for abnormals. “The stories and the mythology that is all around us, what we grew up with, the odd little things that you catch you off guard, maybe out of the corner of your eye. She protects them and studies them,” Tapping explains, sitting with us at breakfast in the Manor House meeting room, a very haunted and storied part of the 100 year-old Stanley Hotel.
“Sanctuary” got its start on the Web in 2007, shot as a self-produced, two-hour pilot by executive producers Damian Kindler and Martin Wood, as well as Tapping, all of them veterans of the “Stargate” franchise. The team soon realized that a bigger medium was need to properly tell Helen’s stories, and they brought in showrunner Sam Egan to round out their team as they moved forward with SCI FI for the transition from webisodes to television series.
Amanda Tapping, star and Executive Producer of SCI FI’s groundbreaking new series, “Sanctuary” which premieres tonight, Friday, October 3 at 9:00 pm spoke to Monsters and Critics in Colorado along with other online journalists regarding her new role as Helen Magnus in “Sanctuary”:
You played Sam Carter for so long. Is there an emotional detachment that you go through when you’ve played this character for such a long period of time and then moving into Helen Magnus and this whole new world that’s been created for you?
Amanda Tapping: Yeah, it’s a weird disconnect that you have to do because Sam Carter was so much a part of me. I mean, the line between Sam and Amanda became pretty blurry at times.
She informed so much of who I was becoming and I informed so much of who she was becoming that, you know, it was a weird – it was a very difficult disconnect.
When I finally decided to not go back to Atlantis – and I ended up doing two episodes this season – so the very first one and the very last one of the season which was great.
But when I said no and I finally had to walk away, I was driving in my car and I had to pull over, I just balled my eyes out, I was a massive emotional mess and my husband was like come on seriously, 11 years sweetheart, move on. I was like you don’t understand.
It’s sort of like cutting off your arm and going okay how do I move forward now?
But then after awhile, I mean, for me as an actor the whole joy of discovering a whole new character and of creating this woman was, you move on pretty quickly. Like I said, it’s been a very soft landing. If I had gone – if Stargate had been canceled and I didn’t have anywhere to go, then that would be I think a lot more difficult to let her go.
But because I had somewhere really exciting to leap into – the hard part for me was last week where I wrapped Sanctuary on September 12 and the following week I was shooting Stargate Atlantis.
I was like oh, Sam Carter, Sam Carter, find Sam Carter, where’s Sam Carter? You know what I mean? I put on the army boots and there she was. It was good.
How did Martin and Damian and Sam come to you for Sanctuary?
Amanda Tapping: Damian wrote the script in 2000 as a spec script when he was a writer living in L.A. and he sort of shelved it, and hung onto it, and in January 2006 brought it to Martin and I.
He brought it to Martin initially and then said I would like to give this to Amanda to look at the part of Helen in it and Martin said yeah, absolutely. And from there it just sort of like was this massive snowball.
We shot testings in June of 2006, got funding, did – in January 2007 shot two hours of Internet material and that premiered in May of 2007. Come July we were starting to get interest from broadcasters and then in May of 2008, started shooting 13 episodes of the series.
So Sam Egan got involved in the beginning of 2008. We needed another shoulder. And it was funny because Sci-Fi said we’ll come up with a list and you guys come up with a list. And there was, you know, one name on the list and it was Sam so it was perfect.
Like we said you tell us your name first. And when they said Sam Egan we were all like on this conference call going ah and we’re all laughing and high-fiving each other quietly.
But yeah, it was sort of the perfect – we all wanted him so he came in and it’s sort of been the four of us battling it out.
It’s been amazing. It’s been a really – I’ve said this before, but I’m so proud of this team.
And not to hang a lantern on it, but as a woman in this unique position, to work with three men that have such integrity and such honor, and such grace has been a real treat because I didn’t know how it would be.
It’s a big learning curve for me. I don’t know as much as – like Sam’s a pro. He’s been doing this for so long. And I just thought I don’t know how I fit into this.
But I was able to hold my own and I was able to make mistakes and fall flat on my face, and have them pick me up and dust me off and say good on you. Keep going. So it’s been an amazing experience.
How bad do you miss Stargate showrunner Joe Mallozzi and him taking pictures of what you eat?
Amanda Tapping: Oh my God. Like I was just there on Friday and he’s like okay let’s do a picture. I was like of course we have to. So I went into his office and held up one of his action figures in his office as it were.
He takes pictures of everything. He’s hilarious. I will totally miss that. But, you know, he’ll still be blogging.
Amanda, where did your interest for Sci Fi and fantasy begin?
Amanda Tapping: I would say more fantasy. I wasn’t a huge Sci-Fi fan. I appreciated the genre but I honestly was more of a Little House on the Prairie girl.
But I grew up with three brothers and they were all the big Sci-Fi shows. And I actually really got into Star Trek: Next Generation and Babylon 5. I guess I slowly got indoctrinated – pulled away from the prairie into space.
What pulls you to this genre?
Amanda Tapping: As hokey as this sounds, it’s just a limitless possibility. It’s the fact that you can go anywhere, do anything. You’re not bound by even normal human physics.
I mean, you can literally do anything and I think that that idea of possibility is what makes it so appealing. But in truth, Sci-Fi as a genre is really not that different than anything else.
We’re telling the same sort of stories. We just have maybe perhaps a broader palette on which to tell them. But I don’t think – and I think Sci-Fi as a genre is blown wide open.
It’s not what it used to be. It’s not – the demographic is a lot different than it used to be. We’re not just exploring Space. I mean, the genre is much broader than it used to be.
There’s more female audience members.There’s a lot of women watching Sci-Fi which is amazing.
What was the hook for Sanctuary for you to pull you away from Stargate?
Amanda Tapping: When I first got approached with Sanctuary, I didn’t know what the future of me and the Stargate franchise was going to be. And this was January of 2006 that it initially – the script was brought to me.
At that time I didn’t know Atlantis was going to – I was going to be doing Atlantis and I didn’t know what was going to happen with SG-1.
So we shot this little test scene and then we got the funding and in January 2007 decided to do a web series which didn’t seem at all to conflict with Stargate or how that was going to work. The timing worked out perfectly.
I had finished Season 4 of Atlantis and I got offered Season 5 and it was a really lovely contract. And it would’ve been very easy to say yes.
But I had to sort of make this enormous leap of faith because Sanctuary was waiting in the wings. We didn’t have a broadcast deal yet. We were hoping that we had a lot of interest from different broadcasters around the world and we were hoping that we would get picked up.
Had I said yes to Atlantis, I would’ve basically killed Sanctuary where it stood because I wouldn’t have been available to do it, and it would’ve gone away.
I felt really strongly – so many people had put their time and effort, and money and support behind it that I thought it’s time to make this leap. And I love the character. I love this show.
Stargate was very gracious and understood my need to sort of move on. The fact that there was still the possibility of Stargate movies and that I would definitely be involved in them made it sort of a soft landing because I wasn’t actually saying good bye. I was saying see you later.
But I did make this enormous leap of faith whereby I said okay I have to stand beyond this project. I put my money in it. I put my name attached to it and I’m executive producing it. And here I go.
So I took the leap and shortly after turning down the Atlantis contract Sanctuary started to get its broadcasts picked up around the world. So, ‘phew’ was basically the word of the week.
I just felt I had to stand behind it. And it’s a beautiful project and I’m so proud of it and I’m so proud of the people that are involved. And it felt like the right time.
Talk about your new look.
Amanda Tapping: It was a really conscious choice. When I first decided to do Helen Magnus it was a real conscious choice to have absolutely no vestiges of Sam Carter in this character in terms of any – everything from her appearance to her voice, to her walk, to her wardrobe, everything.
I just felt the end to completely reinvent. Partly as a woman, I just felt it was time and as an actress I just felt it was time to just try something completely different.
And it’s kind of great because I go places and people don’t recognize me; people that I’ve worked with for ten years don’t recognize me.
I just shot the final episode of Atlantis last week and I walked onto the set and half the crew didn’t know who I was. And I was like sweet, I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish.
And then of course I came back with a blonde wig and they went oh hey Amanda…It was funny.
Were you put off by working with a green screen?
Amanda Tapping: Initially it is but you know what, it feels more like doing theater than anything else. And that was my training so it actually feels like you’re putting on a play half the time because you don’t have a huge set to play with and you really do definitely have the fourth wall.
So it feels a bit more like theater. But initially the hardest thing with shooting an almost entirely virtual show is getting a sense of the scale.
We’ve shot in the catacombs under Rome and we’ve shot in huge chapels and we’ve shot in – the Sanctuary itself is this massive structure. And it’s really hard to get a sense of just how big it all is.
And so when we’re starting to see now the fully finished effects, you’re like oh my, wow the Sanctuary really is huge. Whoah, okay.
But that’s the hardest thing. The hardest thing is just getting a sense of the scope.
I think we set out wanting to do a lot more. I think we’re probably at about 70/30, 75/25 to green screen to practical.
We built some practical sets. Like Helen Magnus’ office, for example, is for the most part a practical set except for the ceiling and what you see out the windows.
You can’t help but be drawn into it, I think you can’t help but notice how kind of cool it looks. But otherwise it is entirely virtual. And like I said, it’s like doing theater. You get used to it very quickly.
David Geddes is our Director of Photography and he’s literally an artist.
He creates this palette for you where you believe there’s a window with sunlight streaming in and you can tell what hour of day it is by the way he’s lit it.
Honestly at the end of the day all the technology in the world wouldn’t mean anything if you didn’t care about the characters.
I think that that’s always been the case with good television is if you care about the characters and you care about what happens to them, and you’re interested in their relationships and you’re interested in how they move forward through scenes, then that doesn’t matter what’s going on in the background.
I think that at the end of the day the audience will really like the characters on the show and will care about them. And that will save us, technology aside.
Helen Magnus looks really good for 157. What’s her secret?
Amanda Tapping: She bathes in Botox. No, yeah well actually her – I’d tell you but I’d have to kill you. Wait until the episode, The Five, and you’ll get it – you’ll get the full meal deal on Helen Magnus and how she came to be who she is and why she’s still around.
The beauty of being given a 13-episode arc for our first season is that we’ve been able to sort of pull these stories out, like just create this huge mythology that we couldn’t do in the two hours of webisodes.
We sort of packed a lot into those two hours. But now we’re able to sort of draw that mythology out. So Helen Magnus’ secret is revealed in an episode called The Five.
Which is very cool but thank you for saying she looks good.
What’s the direction of the series?
Amanda Tapping: Well part of the mythology, like I said in the episode of The Five, deals with these five characters from history who have come together, these forward-thinking scientists and how they’ve come to be who they are; Jack the Ripper being one of them, Helen being another one, and a few other very cool characters from history.
So we start with that as a jumping off point. But the main focus of the show is the creatures within the Sanctuary. And it can be anything from – we have a beautiful episode called Edward where it’s a young boy who is an autistic savant and it’s his ability – he’s like a human camera.
And he’s actually a person like this in the world so it’s based on sort of pseudo fact. But, you know, there’s his story and how they get him to come out of his shell. It his back-story is really explored.
I’m loathed to say monster of the week because it’s not that but we do – every episode has a very interesting focal character that we’re dealing with.
But like I said, we also bring in, and it’s now common knowledge, Nikola Tesla is one of the characters that comes to light in the Sanctuary.
We’re pulling from that. We’re pulling from sort of the things that go bump in the night mythologies that we’ve all grown up with. We pull from that. We pull from history. We’re also just taking really remarkable human beings and sort of shedding a light on that idea. Let’s hope we get an endless well of pickups from the network.
What’s exciting about the storyline to you, tell us about the series.
Amanda Tapping: It’s centered on my character, Helen Magnus, who is a 157-year old doctor from Victorian England who runs a sanctuary for all manner of abnormal creatures.
She’s pulls into the fray a young forensic psychiatrist named Will Zimmerman who has always sort of thought outside of the box and has therefore been shunned by regular law enforcement agencies but in fact now realizes that the things that he’s sort of tried to investigate are now real.
You’re kind of seeing a lot of the Sanctuary and a lot of the creatures, and a lot of the mythologies through his eyes as sort of the everyman. But the show has a very graphic novel feel to it.
We’re shooting almost photo real, half the time you’re not sure if what you’re looking at really exists or whether it’s a visual effect and sometimes it’s very obvious that it’s a visual effect and we’re shooting with a real graphic style.
So it’s got a real edgy look to it. So that’s tone, a bit of the plot. I have this really kick ass daughter, Ashley, who is a weapons expert and a martial artist. And, you know, she’s kind of the cool factor.
And we draw from characters in history and from this incredible mythology of my back-story.
How hands on are you as an Executive Producer and what actually does it take to put on a show like this?
Amanda Tapping: Well I’m very hands on; more so than I probably should be. But I’m very hands on. I took the mantle very seriously so part of my job, I felt, was to go out and try to get us the funding to continue to make the show.
So I’m in touch with our financial guys on a regular basis and that’s kind of my job, is to go and get beaten up. Why does television cost so much money? And I have to answer those questions.
I’m involved in the casting and editing, and making sure that the crew is all put together. Now I’m doing post production, mixing shows, color correcting and the sound and everything.
This is a whole new learning curve for me. And I literally found that I do not have a spare minute in my day. As soon as I get to work, which is usually a couple of hours before crew call, if I’m not sitting in the makeup chair or actually acting on set then I’m in a meeting or a conference call.
So my appreciation is that I think actors are wimps. Now I used to think that I had the hardest job in the world. Sam Carter was a really intense character in terms of the volume of dialogue that I had.
I used to think oh my God I’ve got ten pages of techno babble today. I’m working so hard. And now I just laugh at that and go oh wow, there are days where I just want to be an actor again.
How pleased are you with Season 1 as a whole?
Amanda Tapping: Totally, totally proud of it. I’m really thrilled. I think we have some really killer episodes and I’m proud of the fact that our crew stuck around. We wanted to start in February. We didn’t end up starting to shoot until May.
A lot of the people we have are feature quality crew members and who have actually been tried to been lured away and they stayed with the show.
I think it speaks volumes about how much faith people have in this project. So I’m proud of the look of the show and the feel of it, and the attitude on set, and the fun that we had.
But I’m really proud of the product. And I think there’s some shows coming up – there’s an episode called Requiem which for me personally was the bravest work I’ve ever done as an actor.
I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that had I not felt so safe. So I mean, I credit the crew and the cast for just – it was a phenomenal experience.
Talk about your crew.
Amanda Tapping: It is the joy of working with people like Damian and Sam because at the heart of it they write really great character centric shows. And Damian and Sam will often go to Lee Wilson, our visual effects producer, and say this is what we want to do. How doable is it?
And, the vis effects sometimes — and more often than not — will take a backseat to what’s really happening. And when we’re shooting in the catacombs under Rome, it’s basically hey Lee, can you build the catacombs under Rome? Hey Lee, can you build a cathedral?
What are some of Helen’s relationships with her daughter in this first crop of episodes?
Amanda Tapping: Well it’s really an interesting relationship between these two. I mean, first of all the fact — and this is something that I’m still trying to wrap my head around how to play this out but — Helen made a choice to bring this child into the world knowing that she could quite possibly watch her grow old and die – not knowing if Ashley has the same gift that Helen has, not knowing if Ashley will have the longevity.
So she brings this child into the world knowing that she may lose here which as a parent is like the worst thing ever to imagine your children dying before you.
So starting from that as your jumping off point of a relationship is just a weird place to start. And then what happens is they’re comrades. They’re colleagues.
I mean, she’ll fight to the end of the earth to protect her daughter but in the end of the day, it’s often her daughter protecting her.
Which again turns the whole mother/daughter dynamic on its head. There’s a huge amount of respect and there’s a huge amount of chemistry between these two women.
And then there’s times when the mother/daughter dynamic flashes up and it sort of feels weird. It’s like Ashley be careful out there, you know, and yet you’re sending her out to fight a, you know, an invisible monster in the caves underneath the city. It’s like this weird dynamic.
So it plays out – I mean, like I said, at the end of the day there’s a huge amount of respect but there are times when you’ll see flashpoints between the two of them and it makes sense only because they work so closely together.
Because of what they’re facing everyday, there’s these flashpoints. But at the end of it there’s a massive amount of love. But again, I have to stress that it’s a weird jumping off point because she’s made this choice to bring this child into the world.
And she doesn’t know whether Ashley has the gift of longevity.
With Sanctuary starting out as a web series, had the intention always been for that to be a showcase or a springboard to a traditional TV deal or were there aspects to the web format that were kind of appealing and interesting in their own right?
Amanda Tapping: Well we, in our infinite naivety, actually envisioned staying on the web. We never really set it up to be a model for a television series.
Our initial hope was that we were going to, you know – that the shifting paradigm that this convergence of new media, we were going to do games and having, you know, a full social networking site so that Sanctuary for all became a place where fans could go not just to watch the show, but to get involved in other aspects.
And in ideology it’s great and monetization not so much. And we wanted to make a really spectacular show. We spent a lot of money and it needed it. We wanted to do something that was really big and really flashy, and that we would all, you know, be proud to watch.
We probably could’ve used even a few more million dollars to make the vis effects better.
And the thing you need to know about the webisodes is a lot of those vis effects were rendered in 12 days which is crazy…
There are also ancillary revenue streams so we were thinking we would make money this way, this way and this way and still be able to produce the show.
And that just didn’t happen. I mean, the Internet being what it is, the (bit torrent) sites, the streaming. It was like – we knew it was going to be pirated and that was cool. We wanted to get the name out there.
What it ended up doing for us was bringing a huge amount of eyeballs to the show from around the world.
And then it sort of became well we don’t want to lose this great intellectual property. We don’t want to lose the idea of the show so let’s go back to what we know and what we’re good at, which is making television. Suddenly it all made sense. It’s like the clouds parted and the sun stream – the little god rays streamed through and we went oh, of course we’re going to do television. What were we thinking?
Now we’re on TV and it makes sense. And we’re all very happy to be here. But I think still our goal is to get back onto the web in a different presence.