Amanda Tapping, who produces and stars in SCI FI Channel’s upcoming original series Sanctuary, told reporters that she had made the decision to focus on the new show even before SCI FI renewed Stargate Atlantis, on which she was a regular cast member.
Tapping spent more than a decade playing her Stargate character, Lt. Col. Samantha Carter, and also appeared in two direct-to-DVD movies.
In Sanctuary, she plays Dr. Helen Magnus, an enigmatic 157-year-old scientist out to protect mankind from monsters of all kinds, including the monsters within. Tapping spoke with reporters during a Sept. 23 conference call. Following is an edited version of the conversation. Sanctuary will premiere with a two-hour episode on Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
You’d already done the Web-based version of Sanctuary while you were on Stargate, but take us through the process of leaving Stargate behind in order to do Sanctuary as a TV series.
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 so–this was January of 2006 that initially the script was brought to me–at that time I didn’t know 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 … 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. And then when it came down to [it], … I had finished season four of Atlantis, and I got offered season five, 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 had a lot of interest from different broadcasters around the world, and we were hoping that we would get picked up. And so 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. And 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 goodbye. I was saying, “See you later.” But I did make this enormous leap of faith whereby I said, “OK, 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.
Everything about Magnus is different from Carter, including the look, the clothes, the accent, the footwear. How conscious a choice was that?
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 vestige of Sam Carter in this character, in terms of everything from her appearance to her voice, to her walk, to her wardrobe, everything. I just felt the need 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 10 years don’t recognize me.
You’re an old hat now at dealing with visual effects, but Sanctuary is taking it to the extreme. It’s pretty much all green screen, with the actors working in front of a backdrop. How has that experience been?
Tapping: 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 does feel a bit more like theater. … 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. … 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. Whoa, OK.” But that’s the hardest thing. The hardest thing is just getting a sense of the scope.
How would you set the show up for someone who is coming in blind to it, who hasn’t seen the webisodes? What would you say is Sanctuary’s tone?
Tapping: Wow. You know, we’ve been asking ourselves that same question. I keep going to [executive producer] Damian [Kindler] and saying, “What’s the logline for our show? Come on, come on.” How would I describe it? It’s centered around 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 pulls into the fray a young forensic psychiatrist named Will Zimmerman [Robin Dunne], 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 tried to investigate are real.
So 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 [the] tone, a bit of the plot. I have this really kick-ass daughter, Ashley [Emilie Ullerup], 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 backstory.
How hands-on are you as an executive producer, and what kind of appreciation has being a producer given you for what it actually it takes to put on a show like this?
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. 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.
So 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. And I used to think, “Oh, my God, I’ve got 10 pages of technobabble today. I’m working so hard.” And now I just laugh at that and go, “Oh, my God, there are days where I just want to be an actor again.”
You’ve already wrapped all 13 first-season episodes of Sanctuary. How satisfied are you with how it’s come together?
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 features have tried to lure them 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. And I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that had I not felt so safe. So I credit the crew and the cast. … It was a phenomenal experience.