SDCC 08: ‘Stargate Atlantis’ Conversations

At this year’s San Diego Comic Con we caught up with Stargate Atlantis cast members Joe Flanigan, Robert Picardo and Jewel Staite in the press room for a brief chat.

We first spoke with Joe Flanigan (Lt. Colonel John Sheppard) who started things off by asking about the device I was recording with, my Creative Zen (look for my review of the Zen soon). He’s into gadgets and thought it was pretty cool. I asked him what he thought of the con, but he said that he just got there and was told he wasn’t allowed to go to the floor, but if he did he would buy out his own action figures. He recently received two boxes of his own action figure and one of the most satisfying things in his career so far has been to send his action figure to his friends and god-daughters. He joked that is what everyone gets from him for Christmas. “I can’t think of a more beautifully self-involved gift then to send someone your own action figure.”

I asked him if he had any idea what he was getting into when he signed up for Atlantis a few years ago. He answered, “Vaguely, not really…no. I didn’t expect it to run as long and as strong, having done a lot of TV and seeing the nature of the television industry. It’s rare when an audience comes out with so much passion. It’s doesn’t seem to happen in the television business all that often. It’s been a really nice surprise.”

Prior to Atlantis Joe had done eleven pilots in a row. He was on a show called First Monday, which was about the Supreme Court with Joe Montegna and James Garner. It only lasted 13 episodes. Then he was stuck under a contract at Universal for a very long time due to the pilot movie Thoughtcrimes and he wasn’t allowed to work on anything else. He says it was a very complicated situation, but about a week or two after he was released from that contract he was tapped for the Stargate gig. “It’s more a series of what TV shows didn’t make it would be the more appropriate question.”

I mentioned that we had previously spoken to Paul McGillion and Joe said it has been great having him back and that they are really good friends. If he could, he would have Paul back full time. “I give him crap all the time and he takes it. He’s got a fan-base, too. If we had a lot more money we’d probably have him on the show all the time.”

When asked for any spoilers for the new season, Joe deadpanned: “I sleep with everyone. And then I hate everybody. And then I sleep with them again. That’s pretty much the way that one goes. But stay tuned, because it’s how you sleep with people that’s really interesting.”

On the subject of new villains in the series, Flanigan replied: “That’s what we need, a really good villain-ess. You know what, that’s a good idea, I’m going to go pitch that story in about 5 minutes to Brad [Wright] (laughter).” Joe pitches stories all the time, previously to Wright but now to Paul Mullie and Joe Mallozzi. He has written a few episodes, but none for the current season. He finds himself overwhelmed with traveling from Vancouver to LA every weekend to raise his three boys. “My goal is to not get totally worn down.”

Getting a little more serious, Flanigan stated he would love to direct Atlantis at some point. He says one the few discouraging things this possibility is that he is getting stonewalled by the Canadian unions not letting Americans direct. Being the star of a show that’s been running for five years, and an American owned show, and he believes there should be some considerations for Americans to be able to direct. It’s a situation that he is not happy about.

Next we spoke with Robert Picardo (Richard Woolsey), who was familiar with Pop Culture Zoo! We have been endeavoring to schedule an interview with him for a few weeks prior to SDCC and we will continue to do so as the series progresses. It’s very apparent that Robert relishes playing the character of Richard Woolsey as he greatly enjoys talking about him. About his character, he said he starts to get sucked into the action. He described Woolsey as a man who is used to being in a business suit in his leather chair in an air-conditioned conference room. Now he will find himself racing down the corridor in a new uniform and holding a big gun, falling down an entire flight of stairs as he hits a stun field.

Over the coming season of Atlantis, Woolsey will have emerging relationships with crew members and gain their respect as they realize there are more sides to Atlantis’ new commander than seen at first glance. “This guy puts his worse foot forward when he’s in a new situation and he’s nervous about his new job. That brings out the worst qualities in him. As he gets to know them he opens up and shows new sides. He has other qualities and he’s really trying to turn himself into a good leader. His most redeeming quality is that he really, really cares about doing the best job that he can. It’s just that he’s not good at showing things really well as he’s not good inter-personally. He’s not a warm guy.”

He goes on the say how intimidation is a tool that can be used when someone is put into a command situation. “When you’re sent in to evaluate someone, you don’t want to buddy up to them – because they’re under your microscope. It’s been a career strength for him that he’s not a cuddly guy. He’s the one who has come in, gathered the data, done the interviews and written a report that assigns blame, points the finger at someone. Now, he’s the one who is going to have the finger pointed at him. Now he’s the guy who’s in the hot seat. That’s inherently the irony of that situation. And inherently cool and interesting for me as an actor. Now I am on the playing field and I cannot simply sit in my armchair and watch the game.”

Asked if there will be new villains, Picardo says yes, but that he’s not good remembering their names. “Remember, I come from Star Trek where we had a different rubber forehead every week, so I’m not necessarily good at remembering the names.” He can do equivalence examples, such as Borg + Replicator = Wraith. There are certain conversion equations from Star Trek to Stargate. But there are definitely some cool new villains coming up.

Earlier, in the Stargate Atlantis panel there were comments made about the ‘softening’ of Woolsey. I was a little concerned about that and brought it up to Robert. He said that it wasn’t so much of a softening, but when you meet a character you don’t initially like but eventually grow accustomed to, it’s because you discover little hints and insights into what makes that person the way they are. “The writers are building in enough revealing moments, often when I’m alone, and they’ve been very anxious to hear my input. I had a suggestion that was put into the end of the third episode. I thought it would be fun if when Woolsey goes back to his room to relax he puts on a business suit and a tie and sits and listens to music and has a glass of wine. But he dresses up to relax. That to me would say there is a part of his old life that he misses, the civility. Many men that live in a business suit hate it, but I think there is something about him that that is his old uniform of 35 years and he misses it. He likes the new job, but he misses the civilized nature of having a crisp shirt on, a tie, a perfectly groomed suit and relaxing that way. We play on that maybe two times so far. It’s referenced a third time, but now to show that he really feels comfortable in his new uniform. That shows a man who is growing into his new job… or filling Amanda Tapping’s shoes.”

I was curious what, after Voyager, made him decide to jump back into another sci-fi show. He said that enough time had gone by and he likes the routine of being on a television series, the sense of family. It gives you great freedom to do other things. “In your time off, if you want to go do a play, you have the money to go do that. You don’t have to make decisions based on financial concerns because that part is taken care of. So, it gives you all kinds of freedom to do creative and different things, whether it’s travel, take time off, write a book or do something with my children or go on an extended college tour. I have the freedom to do all this other stuff because I’m now working steadily for seven months of the year. But more than that, Star Trek has given me a dedicated group of fans who like to watch me and they watch me in any other show I pop up in. They’re particularly gratified to see me pop up in another science fiction show that they like anyway. It’s been a win-win for me. And I also think I’m the first actor to play a regular part in both of the major science fiction franchises. Straddling two studio franchises like a colossus!”

Then is was time to talk to the lovely Jewel Staite (Dr. Jennifer Keller). When asked about her experiences this year as opposed to being the new member of the cast last year, she said that she feels more at home. She doesn’t feel like the newbie, more like one the gang. The cast has been very welcoming. “They tease me and pull my hair and I think that’s ’cause they love me. Like on the schoolyard when you’re kids.”

I asked if she had any trepidation going from Firefly to another popular show. She said the only trepidation she had was that she was coming in after a very well-loved character (Dr. Carson Beckett) was leaving. “That’s the only thing that stressed me out. I knew that no matter what, people were going to be sad about it. I had huge shoes to fill. I just kinda had to let go of that and get it out of my head and do my own thing. I feel better about it now, especially since Paul McGillion is coming back.”

Speaking of Firefly she looks at it as being bitter sweet. “It was such an amazing time and all of our lives. We were so very close, but at the same time it’s so nice to be with a show that has their groove and it’s a well-oiled machine. Everybody keeps saying that. but it’s true. It’s nice coming on to something where everybody knows exactly what they’re doing and it’s a very relaxed environment.”

I speculated that perhaps since Jewel had played Kaylee (in Firefly) it enabled fans to be more accepting of her in a different sci-fi show and she agreed. “Kaylee was such a lovable character and I was really lucky to play that character. That’s all Joss (Whedon). I hoped that since people accepted her that they would give me a chance a little bit and I think they did. Last year at the Comic Con panel I notice people wearing the Jayne hat and being there in the audience to support me and that made me feel really good.” I pointed out that at this year’s Atlantis panel when Firefly was brought up, the entire room when nuts. “Yeah, the little engine that could I guess. Who knew. We thought no one was watching us.”

Concerning the development of her character, Dr. Jennifer Keller, Jewel said she was really excited about this year so far. Last year they didn’t really know what the character was about. This year, the writers are coming up with more comedy. “She’s quirkier and very loving. More friendships this year and more warmth. And Possibly romance.” On the romance front, I asked if she could confirm whether Keller chooses to another character to become involved with. “Romance makes the characters more real and shows tend to shy away from that.” We both agreed that Stargate is probably at its best when it focuses on the character moments.

Jewel said she is not interested in directing because there’s so much pressure and the actors that direct always end up looking stressed out. Writing perhaps, but she would like a professional writer working with her. Again, less pressure. She’s very willing to pitch ideas and help in the writing process, but no directing.

That was the end of our time with the actors. I want to thank Joe Flanigan, Robert Picardo and Jewel Staite for taking the time to talk to us and also the folks at SCI FI for making it all possible.

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