In today's Sci-Fi Blast From The Past, actress Ali Larter talks about playing Niki Sanders as well as her alter ego Jessica in NBC's Heroes.
They say that two’s company, but with Heroes’ Niki Sanders it’s more like a crowd. A former Las Vegas casino worker and webcam stripper, she has been raising her young son Micah alone in the absence of her husband, D.L. Hawkins, a fugitive from justice. Niki also possesses enhanced strength, not to mention an aggressive alter ego named Jessica, who, when in control of her body, commits violent acts, including murder. This nasty streak lands Niki in hot water as well as interferes with her mission to help her fellow “superheroes” save the world. While not all actors might enjoy playing someone of two minds, Ali Larter has eagerly embraced all the challenges that a role like this offers.
“Niki is incredibly well-written and complicated,” notes Larter. “I’ve found that very easy to respond to and have tried to bring as many levels as possible to the character through my performance. Niki kind of wears her heart on her sleeve and tends to get caught up in situations, so I’ve had lots of emotional beats to play with her. However, because our characters aren’t all together in scenes, we each work these intense days and then have a couple of days off. Also, the pace of TV is such that on the actual day of filming you’re always busy, so you get into a real groove insofar as telling the story, and I like that.
“With Jessica, there are even bigger challenges to playing her because she’s fearless and sarcastic. She’ll jump right into the middle of a situation without worrying about the consequences. So for me, there’s definitely more of a ‘comic book’ feel to her. I remember episode six [Better Halves] was the first time I had to play both Niki and Jessica. It was directed by Greg Beeman [Heroes co-executive producer], who is truly gifted. Even though we were filming on a tight schedule, he did a fantastic job of visually helping tell the story in addition to me just doing my thing. It was a wonderful taste of what lie ahead when it comes to my character’s dual identity.”
Prior to Heroes, Larter guest-starred on such long-running TV shows as Suddenly Susan, Chicago Hope, Just Shoot Me! and Dawson’s Creek, but is best known for her feature film credits including House on Haunted Hill, Legally Blonde, A Lot Like Love, National Lampoon’s Homo Erectus and the upcoming Resident Evil: Extinction. When asked about her film work, Larter has especially fond memories of playing Clear Rivers, one of a group of teenagers who avoid the clutches of the Grim Reaper, but not for long, in Final Destination and Final Destination 2.
“I remember reading the script for the first movie and just being thrilled to find out I’d be playing a more introverted, darker character than I was accustomed to at the time,” says the actress. “I liked the themes of both films, too, and thought they were fascinating within their genre.
“I look back at those movies and it was just a different time in my life, you know? I feel very fortunate to have been in the first two Final Destination films because so many people have seen them. I like the idea that entertainment gives us all a bit of a break from our everyday lives, so when fans enjoy the projects I do, and take the time to tell me, that’s one of my greatest joys about being in this business.”
Although she had never really been keen on pursuing fulltime TV work, the actress felt the timing was right with Heroes. “Last year was my first TV pilot season and I was curious to see what was out there,” says Larter. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do TV, but I knew I wanted a challenge and felt like I had something to say. I was also looking to play a little bit of a meatier role than some of those I’d previously done. When I read Tim Kring’s [Heroes creator/executive producer] script I was totally blown away by his writing and the complex characters. With Niki, here was a chance for me to play a single mom who’s not afraid of embracing her sexuality and who you couldn’t put in one box. I think that’s what initially drew me to the part.
“When it came time for the audition, I was sick, would you believe it. In fact, I was so sick that my mother had to drive me to the callback. As an actor, though, you have to put yourself out there no matter how you might be feeling, and, thank God, everything worked in my favor.”
Niki Sanders is introduced in the Heroes pilot episode Genesis. Having borrowed money from the mysterious Mr. Linderman (Malcolm McDowell) to pay for her son Micah’s (Noah Gray-Cabey) schooling, Niki is threatened by some of Linderman’s thugs. She is knocked out and later wakes up to discover their mutilated bodies. Unknown to her, they were killed by her alter ego, Jessica. As the show’s first season unfolds, it’s revealed that Jessica is also responsible for stealing two million dollars from Linderman and committing murders that Niki’s husband D.L. (Leonard Roberts) stands accused of. So for Larter it’s been a wild onscreen ride with her character from day one.
“I’m very lucky to have known [director] David Semel since Dawson’s Creek, so I had a rapport with him going into Heroes,” explains the actress. “He had such a beautiful vision for this pilot and I think he executed it amazingly well. As far as being directed by David, again, because we already knew one another, he and I were able to work together to keep some kind of mystery to the scenes with Niki/Jessica as well as give them a level of depth that I believe the material called for.
“One aspect of the pilot I particularly enjoyed was Niki’s relationship with her son. In many ways they treated each other as equals and still do. She talks to Micah like an adult, and it makes the bond they share a special one.”
Like any good businessman, Linderman makes Niki an offer she can’t refuse; he will forget about her debt if she seduces a congressional candidate, Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar), who Linderman has a particular interest in. Niki reluctantly agrees, and in the first season story Collision she “happens” to run into the politician at a Las Vegas casino. They immediately hit it off, but it is Jessica who ultimately ends up sleeping with him.
“I thought the scenes where my character and Nathan first meet were so interesting,” says Larter. “The writers really let the material breathe and it made for a cool connection between the two of them. I certainly think that Adrian and I have terrific on-screen chemistry, so it worked out quite well.”
One of the actress’s favourite season one episodes is Godsend in which Niki turns herself in to the police and confesses to the murders of D.L.’s crew as well as stealing the money from Linderman. Not surprisingly, Jessica does not take kindly to being locked up. “When I first read the script for this episode I didn’t want to go near it,” recalls Larter. “It required that I switch back and forth between Niki and Jessica within scenes. I was afraid I’d look foolish and my work wouldn’t live up to Tim Kring’s script. However, the writers have been nothing but fantastic to me this year, and all the risks we’ve taken with my character have worked.
“As such, I took that leap of faith with Godsend and thought, ‘OK, get over your fear and let’s make some fun TV.’ At that point I knew my character, so I just had to basically decide how Niki would relate to Jessica and vice versa. I tried as much as possible to show that through physicality and in tone of voice. In the end I got through it and everything turned out fine, which I was pleased about, and a little relived as well,” she chuckles.
In the Heroes first season finale How to Stop an Exploding Man, Niki and a handful of other heroes join forces in the hopes of not only defeating the power-stealing psychotic hero-killer Sylar (Zachary Quinto), but also preventing Nathan’s brother Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) from losing control of his superpowers and inadvertently destroying part of New York City.
“The action in that last episode was a blast to do,” enthuses Larter. “I love the scenes where Niki and Jessica are battling each other, and then we see that it’s actually Candice [Missy Peregrym] who Niki is fighting with. It was really neat how they did that and a clever way to illustrate how Niki and Jessica were kind of merging into one individual. Of course, it was great to see these characters come together. As actors, I think we were all eager to start working side-by-side more, and there was an excitement on-set that our characters were going to unite and win the war, or at least go down together in battle.”
At the time of this interview (late June), Larter and the rest of the Heroes cast were already back from hiatus and in front of the cameras filming the show’s second season. “We’re just starting episode two,” says the actress. “It’s all super top-secret because we want to keep that element of surprise for when the series returns in September. I’d love to give you the skinny on things, but I can’t. I will tell you that everything eventually leads to something down the road, so they’ll be plenty to keep fans glued to their TV screens come this fall.”
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