It is one of the last days of shooting for the Syfy Channel miniseries Riverworld and Jeananne Goossen is back on-set this afternoon to say goodbye to everyone she worked with. The cast and crew spent several weeks together last spring filming this project, most of which is set on another planet called Riverworld, and became quite close in the process. Like some of her fellow castmates, the actress portrays a real-life historical figure, 12th century Samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen, but, despite any factual knowledge, her performance was not set in stone.
"Tomoe was a war captain for a very recognizable historical figure in Japan [Minamoto no Yoshinaka], who was involved in a big kind of in-fight between cousins, uncles and so on," explains Goossen. "As the story goes, Tomoe was his lover - they were never married - and one of the only women in world history who fought as a woman and actually engaged in combat. Tomoe killed hundreds of men and led hundreds of others into battle.
"During this family 'war' or feud, Yoshinaka lost the battle and committed suicide. Tomoe then ran off to become a Buddhist nun and died in her 90's. When Riverworld begins, my character has been reborn in her twentysomething-year-old body, having been a nun for more or less 60 years, and must once again bear arms to protect her friends. As an actor, it was really interesting to play someone who has gone from being an opportunistic warlord to finding both enlightenment and peace as well as letting go of wants, desires and ambitions in a way that she really enjoyed in her youth, only to then make the decision to fight again.
"What's also interesting about the real Tomoe is that she almost fits better into fictional text. Her story is immortalized through theater and poetry. In Japan, she's not in any specific history books and there is some debate as to whether or not Tomoe really existed, but a lot of people think she did. There are a series of books on Tomoe [The Tomoe Gozen Saga], which is much more of a Western take on her story and she's a bit more of a feminist and self-possessed. I did some research on her and it talked about how she wasn't allowed to be present during Yoshinaka's suicide because it would have soiled his moment of courage and pride in killing himself after losing a battle and whatnot.
"So Tomoe still played a submissive role in her relationship with him, and that was fun to explore in Riverworld because there's a flashback with her and Yoshinaka [Peter Shinkoda] where I tried to further flesh out that relationship. It was definitely a challenge to play an historical figure, but, again, it was made a little easier by the fact that she was a fictional historical figure. Because there isn't that much established about Tomoe, there were no set expectations on how I should be playing her or what the tone was or anything like that. So I had a great deal of freedom to come up with who I thought she was. That was pretty cool. It really is the role of a lifetime; I couldn't believe my luck in getting it."
When auditioning for Riverworld, Goossen had to demonstrate solid acting skills along with athletic prowess. "When I first read the script I clicked with the character right away," she says. "In fact, I wanted the part so badly that I went straight out and died my hair dark - I'm half Asian and normally my hair is quite fair - and I took sword fighting lessons as well.
"Because Tomoe was also a Buddhist nun, the first audition I put on tape was quite philosophical, contemplative and conversational in the scenes. With my second audition, they [the producers] wanted to see more action. I'm quite confident in my physical abilities, but I didn't have any prior experience using a sword. So that's why I went out and took lessons. In the middle of my second audition I busted out into a sword fighting routine, and I think that's what ultimately secured the role for me."
As the actress previously mentioned, her character of Tomoe has been reborn in Riverworld. She and everyone else living on this mysterious world has been reborn along the banks of this massive river, including war correspondent Matt Ellman (Tahmoh Penikett) and his fiancee Jessie (Laura Vandervoort). The couple is separated when they arrive on Riverworld, and Matt turns to Tomoe as well as Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens (Mark Deklin) for help to find her.
Their travels are fraught with peril as well as ruthless adversaries, among them Sir Richard Burton (Peter Wingfield), and Tomoe's fighting skills come in handy when facing such dangers. Eager to embrace the physicality of her character, Goossen had to go through a certain amount of training before the cameras began to roll.
"The stunt team that worked on Riverworld was fantastic," enthuses the actress. "I got along very well with both the fight and stunt coordinators, particularly the fight coordinator, Larry Lam. He's a fantastic choreographer and himself a really accomplished martial artist. I think Larry is a world champion in seven different martial arts and has been working in the industry since he was a teenager. He's trained people like Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel and Tom Cruise, so I was in very good hands.
"We didn't have as much prep time as we wanted because of scheduling and various other things," she continues. "I got to Vancouver the weekend before we started shooting and had my first lesson right away. I only had four or five classes before we shot the big fight day, but I practiced a lot on my own time, which I really enjoyed. And Larry was really excited about how excited I was about the process. He was very encouraging and threw a great deal at me. Because he's been teaching for so long, he can immediately spot how much someone is capable of learning in a short time. So Larry just jammed my head full of all this choreography and I was literally practicing it in my mind in my sleep.
"Because there were so many stunts we wanted to do it all in one day, so I fought for nine hours straight in a fifteen-hour day. I knew that was coming, so every day I was building up my stamina and making sure I was in good enough condition to do a whole day of physical activity, and I loved it. I thrive on that. It was the hardest workday of my life, and one of the best. The entire cast was involved in some type of action and every single one of us was really gung-ho about it. The stunt coordinator kept talking about how happy he was that the cast picked up everything so quickly and made it look believable."
Although Matt is focused on finding Jessie, it does not preclude him from developing feelings for Tomoe, and vice versa. "I made specific choices beforehand about what my character's sexual history was," notes Goossen. "For example, having been a nun for so long, there was very little [physical] touch that took place. So what was really wonderful about the dynamic between Tomoe and Matt is that there's this real love, attraction and appreciation without it immediately going to anything physical or the way that we all think of romances happening. It's a mutual admiration and respect and seeing someone who is a kind of mirror image of yourself as well as your own ideals and heart. Tomoe and Matt have a very similar heart and relationships to loyalty and the way they think about the world and see things.
"At the same time, in my mind, Matt is young enough to be Tomoe's grandson, or great grandson for that matter. Initially, she plays a little bit of a sage to him, and with Matt, having been a war journalist and experienced so much war and then had time to reflect on it, there are a lot of ways in which they help each other. And he helps Tomoe out as far as rediscovering herself as a woman, not that being a nun isn't being a woman. I mean, it's very much being a woman, but in Tomoe's case it's about a woman's relationship to a man. It helped, too, that Tahmoh and I get on really well because I think it played right into our onscreen chemistry and our characters' understanding of each other."
When asked about her favorite Riverworld scene, the actress has two. "There's a point that Tomoe commits suicide in order to be reborn and find someone," she says. "Normally I play quite flamboyant characters with very large personalities, so to play someone like Tomoe, who's held so much emotion in, was a challenge. Acting-wise, it's tempting to play really big strokes and indulge in sort of the heightened emotional stuff, but this was different. It was something contemplative, and I enjoyed that.
"There was also the flashback scene with Yoshinaka and Tomoe where I had to find my understanding of the difference between being an old woman in a young woman's body and vice versa. So in the flashback, Tomoe looks exactly the same age as I do in the rest of Riverworld, but her mind is 60 years older than her physical body, if you see what I mean. So to play that youth along with the energy, passion, desperation and sense of mortality that filled Tomoe with fear as opposed to acceptance, was also challenging.
"That scene was done in Medieval Japanese, too. I speak Japanese but I speak conversational Japanese, and Medieval Japanese is very much like Shakespeare in that it's very verbose. The conjugation of the verbs is very complicated, and then even within the writing itself, the hierarchy in the relationships between people is indicated in the way you are speaking to another person. So there is a lot of submission in the language that I use with Yoshinaka, so that was a challenge as well."
Watching Goossen interact with the Riverworld cast and crew, it is obvious that the actress is sad to see filming coming to an end. "There have been times in the past where I've enjoyed a job and, in retrospect, I'll look back and think, 'Oh, that was one of the best times I think I've had,'" says the actress. "This was the first time, though, where as it was happening, we all knew it was happening. Every morning we'd arrive on the set, smile, hug each other and say, 'Isn't this amazing. I can't believe it's this good. I feel like we're dreaming.' It lasted for the entire shoot, and we could actually appreciate in the moment and as it was all happening that that this was a unique and special experience."
Goossen was in her early 20's and studying biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, with plans to become a gynecologist when she decided to change career paths. "I always fantasized about acting, but was never exposed to it," she says. "No one I knew did it as a profession. I come from a very academic, literary and political family, and as the youngest, my way of establishing my own path was going the math and science route. But to be honest, and this is going to sound odd, but what drew me to want to become a doctor is the same thing that still draws me towards acting, which is a love of people and a desire for a deeper understanding of the human condition.
"When I was little I was horribly shy, but I would stand between a wall and a curtain and perform entire musicals for myself from beginning to end. My father is a professor of Japanese literature and films, so I grew up watching a lot of great foreign films. I'm also a collector of Japanese comic books, which are very cinematic in their framing, so my mind was always focused on movies, but I was never truly aware of it. When I finally discovered acting, I thought, 'Oh, my God, there's this profession that encompasses everything I enjoy in my life. It requires my mind as well as my love of words and the emotional side of things.'
"I tend to sort of live on gut decisions, and my gut was telling me that there was something to this acting business and that maybe I should give it a try. So that's when I left school and auditioned for some acting programs at university to make the transition a bit easier on myself as well as my parents. That's how this all started."
The actress made her TV debut playing a French Canadian goalie in the Canadian comedy series Rent-a-Goalie. She has since appeared in a number of other shows including Falcon Beach,Wild Roses, Aaron Stone and, most recently, Republic of Doyle as well as several made-for-TV movies. Again, seeing how well she gets along with people, it is no surprise that the collaborative creative process is what Goossen appreciates most about her profession.
"I love when everyone is game, wants to be there, and is excited about the work everyone around them is doing," says the actress. "Riverworld is a prime example of that. We were all excited to see each other work, and we were comfortable enough with one another to talk about the work we were doing. We weren't directing each other or anything like that, but there was certainly a freedom of exchange of ideas. Every single person on that set had a role to play, and when you're working on a production where everyone is recognized and contributing to the storytelling, that for me is very satisfying and what really makes the magic happen."
As noted above, all photos by James Dittiger and copyright of the Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!