“First Lady of Sci-Fi” Amanda Tapping Talks Sanctuary

Cadence recently chatted with Sanctuary-star, Executive Producer, and sometimes-Director Amanda Tapping, and what a pleasure it was.

As series-lead Dr. Helen Magnus, Tapping heads-up a team – rounded-out by her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) – that tracks, studies, and protects the bizarre and horrifying entities that live among us.

Though she’s best known for her role as Air Force Colonel Samantha Carter in TV’s Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, as well as DVD-movies like Stargate: The Ark of Truth, the UK-born, Toronto-raised actress’s career certainly doesn’t revolve around said role – even though it’s gained her the title First Lady of Sci-Fi among loyal fans.

A graduate of the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Arts, Tapping’s performed in numerous plays – just a couple of which include adaptations of Steel Magnolias and The Taming of the Shrew. Also, she’s refined her comedic talents as co-founder of the comedy-troupe Random Acts.

Outside of acting, Amanda’s dedicated time to charities like The Coast Foundation – a support agency for the mentally disabled – the Waterkeepers Alliance, and co-founded Sanctuary For Kids, an organization that supports children in crisis, locally and abroad.

With all her acting, production, and charity experience to look back on, and Sanctuary set for it’s Season Four premiere, the lovely Amanda Tapping had much to offer in conversation.

If a season has a unifying vibe or tone, then what would Sanctuary, Season Four’s be?

Wow . . . I think the general vibe for Season Four is it’s a real shake-up – we sort of throw out the rules that we’ve been working with for the last three seasons, the sanctuary itself goes rogue so we don’t have the support of the world governments, there’s a lot more autonomy but it also means that we have to scramble a bit more to protect the mandate . . . I would say there’s a lot more shake-up this year . . . We’re under a lot of scrutiny – there’s one government organization that’s pretty intense for us, and for me, for Helen Magnus, she has a very clear mandate through the season but we don’t actually know what it is until the very last episode. She’s quite mysterious – she does a lot of things where you go “what? Why would she do that?” All will be revealed at the end.

How have you grown from collaborating with the Sanctuary cast and crew?

I have to say that this is unlike any show, in terms of it’s collaboration, that I’ve ever been on. When Martin [Wood], Damian [Kindler}, and I formed our company, our mandate was really to start a company where there was no above-the-line below-the-line (as is typical for production), where it was more of a collaboration, where there was this sense of “we”, no “us” and “them” but a “we”. Everyone from our grip to our craft-service to our caterers to the cast, every member of the crew felt like a part of a collective, so as a result everyone’s really jumped onboard with that.

It’s not unusual to see people helping each other out in different departments – you know, if our Set-Dec guy’s overwhelmed suddenly half the crew’s rushing to help move furniture for him. It’s just a really familial vibe on our set, and I think it’s really important to us – and to me as one of the producers – that everyone feels really respected and appreciated, and I think that’s translated. I think it translates on the screen – to the point where cast is not afraid to come up and ask questions and talk individually to the writers.

It’s a very cool vibe . . . and I think the coolest thing that I heard this year was from our Casting Director, who said “everyone wants to get on Sanctuary.” It really is a fun show to work on, and we really make an effort to make everyone feel welcome. It’s really easy to say “welcome to the family” and “come on in” and, as a result, most of the people we bring on the show end up coming back, if it serves the story. We’re in love with the people that we bring onto the show. For example, this year we brought in an actor named Brian Markinson, who’s got the most incredible resume – we brought him in for one episode and he fit in with the vibe, he got it, so we kept bringing him back. We do that a lot with our guest-stars, and we hope that the background-performers feel really appreciated and welcome. That sense of collaboration carries our show – it’s a big sci-fi show on a relatively small budget. I think we’re probably the most budget sci-fi show out there, yet I think our results are as good as, if not better than some of the other shows out there.

You said there’s a very familial vibe, so I’d imagine that the creative dynamic between everyone involved has really evolved too over the course of the show’s four seasons.

Absolutely . . . we’re willing to listen to any ideas and people feel really safe. It’s a safe environment – when you’re in the writer’s room people will throw out crazy ideas, and sometimes they stick. I feel safe on that show, and I think that everyone who comes on feels safe – they feel safe saying how they feel about things.

Since the webisode-days, the show’s been pretty much green-screen exclusive when it comes to filming, was that really challenging to get used to in the beginning?

Initially? Very much so – I had been used to working with green-screen in a certain capacity on Stargate, but when you’re in a room where the floor’s green, the walls are green, and you’re surrounded on three sides by green, initially we did a lot of running through walls (laughs) . . . I think the hardest thing to get used to is the scope, because the sanctuary building itself is so huge – our library is this huge, vast space, and the foyer and the lab is huge. it was sort of getting used to the idea of the scope of what we were working in.

The acting part of it is much easier in a lot of ways, because it becomes just about the words and the scene and your acting-partner, and so it has a very intimate vibe. That’s actually quite joyful – I really enjoy the scenes where we’re just on green, you literally can’t chew the scenery because there isn’t any (laughs). It’s like doing theatre, it feels very pure. A lot of our show is green-screen, but we do have some really beautiful standing sets, and the other thing that helps with the green-screen – our Set-Dec department is astounding, and our props department is as astounding.  We have a lot of little things . . . (laughs) that makes it easier.

You mentioned it being like theatre, and you’d gone to the University of Windsor for dramatic studies, so I was wondering if you’d called upon a lot of that theatre-training for the green-screen shoots.

Absolutely, and – I mean, the hard part with television is the time-line, what I love about live-theatre is that you have this beautiful rehearsal process where there’s this sense of discovery and things change. Through the course of starting from a read-through to actually presenting a play, so many ideas come into play, and you don’t have that luxury necessarily on television.

What our cast tends to do is – we read through every script before we shoot it, but after blocking . . . we’ll start writing the scene over and over again and different ideas will come up. It’s great that we get to do that but, again, it’s in a very finite period of time (laughs) . . . Again, after four years, the characters know each other so well and the actors are so comfortable with each other that it makes it a lot easier. When I’m home at night running lines, I can hear the other actors’ voices in my head, you sort of can tell how they’re gonna say their lines, there’s a lot more comfort there.

That must have really helped out when you directed a couple of the show’s episodes.

Yeah absolutely . . . I mean, directing is a completely different animal, and because I’m an actor on the show and I know my fellow actors so well – everyone is so supportive. When I started directing, the entire crew was there for me. This year Robin Dunne directed an episode, it was his very first directing gig (pause), it’s just so supportive, it’s so safe, there is no – you know, he kept saying “I don’t wanna screw it up,” and I said “there’s no way you can fail, a) because you’re prepared, and b) because everyone is here for you.”

Speaking of the production-side of the things, is that something you’re planning to pursue further in the future?

Absolutely . . . sadly, as an actress in this society, I realize that the roles are getting fewer and fewer the older I get. I don’t wanna say it’s an exclusively North American-thing, but I know that in Europe women are valued (laughs) – you have shows like Prime Suspect where Helen Mirren can blow people away, or Judi Dench can have a television series in her 40s and 50s . . . (laughs) It’s okay to see them on the TV, whereas here – it’s changing, but here we tend to go for the younger demographic, and I think we tend to do ourselves a great disservice. I started to realize that as much as I love acting and I wanna keep doing it, I really enjoy the visual medium of directing, and producing’s been such a fantastic learning-curve that I definitely wanna keep doing that.

On that, you’re actually collaborating with – of all people – William Shatner on The Zenoids . . . are you pretty starstruck right now?

Jacob, honestly – I met him at Comic-Con, not this year but last year – I was asked to do an interview, he wanted to interview me for myouterspace.com, and it was after that that the producers called and said “William really loves Amanda, he wants to talk to her about this project,” and literally, I think I flew home . . . My brothers are big sci-fi fans so I immediately fired-off e-mails to my brothers saying “Bill,” as I call him (laughs), “and I are working together.”

When I went to LA to actually lay down the voice tracks, I was so nervous and I was like “why am I nervous? He’s just an actor,” but he’s iconic. We just had a blast, we had a great time doing it. He’s a really funny man and within five minutes I was at ease and joking around with him . . . but yeah, definitely starstruck.

It’s funny, you were talking about Shatner being an icon, and I saw an interview where you said that, at that Comic-Con, you’d seen someone dressed-up as Samantha Carter (laughs). You’re being seen as an icon too. so that must be pretty surreal.

Yeah, I can’t wrap my head around that . . . Stargate was such a phenomenon, the fact that it lasted so long – I’ll tell you a funny story, I dropped my six year-old daughter off at a little yoga class at our community centre, and this little girl came up to me and said “are you on television?” I said “uh, I dunno, am I?” She said “yep, you’re Sam Carter,” and I said “yes I am,” and she said “oh my god! Oh my god, my brother and I watch Stargate every night.” “How old are you,” she said “seven” and I was like “oh man, wow I was on that TV show before you were even born, holy . . .” A) I feel old and b) how cool is that, that there’s a whole new generation of kids watching Stargate (laughs) . . . Her mom was there and she was like “mom, it’s Sam Carter! It’s Sam Carter!” (laughs).

Speaking of the kids, you’ve co-founded – and everyone on the show’s involved – Sanctuary For Kids, how have you grown from that experience?

You know, it’s my passion-project, it’s something that I feel so strongly about. We really had hoped that other shows might rise to the challenge, and I think that that’s still in the offing, but we felt not only a responsibility, and it was born – I’ll go back to the beginning quickly – out of the fact that sci-fi fans, unlike a lot of other genres, are incredibly socially connected, they’re incredibly socially aware and unbelievably generous. I had found that, when I was raising money for Waterkeepers Alliance and other charities, if you stand behind something and you present a solid argument, the fans will stand behind you, and they have – in the most remarkable way – supported Sanctuary For Kids.

I realized that there was something we could do – the financial crisis was hitting globally, we were hearing all these reports of the big charities really suffering and knowing that the smaller charities were being all but obliterated – so we said “well lets set out to help really small groups with no overhead,” and our mandate was children in crisis. We spent a year before we actually launched the charity – during a ton of research we met with corporate advisors, we met with non-for-profit people – we really wanted to do it right, we didn’t just wanna launch this initiative without understanding fully what we were getting ourselves into, and it has so exceeded our expectations. We thought maybe in the first year we’d raise $50,000, and I think by the year-and-a-half mark we had raised almost $250,000. Often it’s through little fan-initiatives – people go “I’m gonna jump out of plane, who wants to sponsor me? The money goes to Sanctuary For Kids,” or “we’re having a car-wash at our high school, the money’s gonna go to Sanctuary For Kids.” It just sort of took off around the world, little groups have been doing these incredible fund-raising initiatives.

Jill and I, who co-founded the charity, we went to Nepal last year to meet with Nepal Orphans Home – which is one of the major projects that we support – and just seeing what small amounts of money can do to change the lives of these children was awe-inspiring. You go to a country like Nepal and you just think “jeez,” the poverty is so surreal, and you start to get overwhelmed and think “we’re barely, barely dropping in the bucket, we’re barely helping,” and then you realize, you go to the orphanage and there’s 150 kids who are now getting better quality rice and more fruits and vegetables and more chicken. Their pharmacy bills have gone down by 70% since we’ve started helping them with their nutritional needs, and you go “okay wow, that’s 150 children who are then gonna help more children and so on,” you realize the ripple-effect.

I think what I’ve learned is that you can’t get overwhelmed by how big the issues are, you can be inspired by what you can do on a very small scale, and the fans have really, truly been an inspiration in that regard.

Visit Sanctuary’s official site for the latest news and show info.

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About Jacob Goguen

Raised as he was on Beatles LPs and '80s action flicks, it's little surprise that Toronto-native Jacob Goguen -- who's been interested in writing and the arts from a very young age -- today holds an Honours B.A. in Film Theory, History, and Criticism from York University. When not writing for Cadence, Jacob loves to explore music -- whether he's writing it, playing it on his guitar, or experiencing it live -- run long-distance, and travel.