Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell in Battlestar Galactica. Photo copyright of Syfy.
Once again, I have decided to open up the interview vault and revisit some of the many interviews I have had the pleasure of writing over the years and that just appeared in-print and not on-line. Today's interview is with Mary McDonnell, who talks about her work in Battlestar Galactica. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
Having survived not only the initial Cylon sneak attack on the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, but also a bout with cancer, Laura Roslin faced yet another upheaval in her life when, at the end of Battlestar Galactica’s second season, she lost her bid for presidential reelection to Gaius Baltar. Roslin subsequently took up residency on New Caprica and began teaching again, only to have her future and those of her fellow humans threatened with the arrival of the Cylons. When the show’s third season opened, the ex-president went from educator to underground insurgent, giving her alter ego, actress Mary McDonnell, that much more to think about when playing Roslin.
“It was wonderful to step back into the role at the start of season three because I love playing my character so much,” says McDonnell. “From Laura’s standpoint, it was fascinating to step back into the position of teaching, and she really did enjoy being with the children again in that little schoolhouse. I wish the circumstances on New Caprica weren’t so abysmal because it would have been quite interesting to explore her natural talents as an educator.
“The fictional situation of living in an occupied nation, on the other hand, was basically a nightmare, and the realty of it was very difficult for us as actors to process insofar as what it means and having to come to terms with one’s response to being occupied. Not only that, but also coming to terms with young people making choices to become suicide bombers, and to join forces as an insurgency was an intriguing and very humbling experience. It would have been nice, though, if we’d had a little more time to spend really fleshing out some of the issues and to dig deeper into what went on there. However, Battlestar has such a big story to tell, so we had to move on.”
And move on they did. After a few months living under Cylon occupation, Laura and most of the colonists were rescued thanks to a daring plan executed by the Battlestars Galactica and Pegasus. In the second half of the third season two-parter Exodus, the Cylons abandon New Caprica, now in ruins, taking Gaius Baltar (James Callis) with them. His forced leaving allowed Laura to resume her presidential duties, but the woman who stepped back into office wasn’t quite the same after her time on New Caprica.
“I think Laura has become more economical in her position,” muses McDonnell. “The realities of being part of an insurgency certainly created in her, I wouldn’t call it a cynicism, but a toughening that I don’t believe she had prior to that. So when she regained presidential office, the issues were easier to wrestle with and there was less ambivalence when making a decision and standing by it.
“Her surge in confidence was borne from experience and her being out there in a war zone in a way she had never been before. It helped her feel more at ease in her position. I mean, up to this point, other than being on the Galactica during moments of Cylon attack, and the one time when Cylons actually boarded the ship, Laura was never a ‘soldier,’ do you know what I mean? She was never on the front lines or truly participating within the military. Granted, an insurgency is a whole different thing, but it also requires the participation of many people, of which she was one. Once you take that step I think it changes how you perceive yourself as well as how you perceive reality, and that’s the case with Laura. She’s since become a tougher individual and, perhaps, a little bit of a darker one, too.”
Halfway through Galactica’s third season, a standoff between humans and Cylons results in the robots returning Gaius Baltar to his own people. The episode Taking a Break from All Your Worries, which was directed by Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama), opens with President Roslin physically threatening to eject Baltar out an airlock if he doesn’t reveal tactical information regarding the Cylons and their knowledge of Earth. That particular scene was an emotional tour de force for McDonnell, who took great pleasure in being directed by her co-star.
“It was really quite extraordinary,” notes the actress. “First off, Eddie and I work so well together as actors. It’s very impulsive and there is great trust, which allows us to go to so many places in our performances. I think that’s part of why Adama’s and Laura’s relationship has evolved rather impulsively as well and that they’ve grown closer. So when that person, in this case Eddie, steps into the role of director, you already have that trust to begin with. I should preface this, too, by saying that it’s the same with James Callis. The two of us also share a tremendous trust. He’s phenomenally talented and really wonderful to work with.
“So there were the three of us trying to figure this episode out, and it became apparent to Eddie first, I have to say, that the story had to be driven with Laura’s energy, and I wasn’t very clear about that at the beginning. So Eddie had to challenge me to do it, and I was happy to take up that challenge. And we went at it with full throttle when it came to that scene with Laura and Baltar, and I must tell you that on the day we shot it, our crew was truly a marvel. They didn’t expect what we were going to do and weren’t necessarily prepared for it, but they were right there for us. It was especially gratifying for them after three years to finally get to see Laura Roslin cut loose if you will.”
In Galactica’s third season finale, the two-part Crossroads, Gaius Baltar is finally put on trial for his crimes against humanity and, much to President Roslin’s disgust, he is acquitted. For her, it comes on the heels of more bad news. “Unfortunately, my character’s cancer has returned, and that’s going to be a pain in the-you-know-what,” says McDonnell. “It’s not something, though, that Laura is going to dwell on. She’s going to put as little attention on it as humanly possible. I’m sure there will be issues that come from it, but that’s how I see Laura coping with it, and she’s going to fight it [the disease] with more traditional medicine.
“At the end of season three, Laura’s focus was not on her cancer, it was on Baltar. His getting off at that trial isn’t something she’s going to forget. It’s not a good thing from her point of view, and I don’t know where that will sit inside her or what it will motivate in her. There’s an even bigger question, however, and that is what kind of presence will Baltar be in season four. On top of all this, we find out at the end of Crossroads that there are more human-form Cylons among us, or are there? We don’t know for certain whether or not they are Cylons, but if that turns out to be the case, then what are they up to? We’ll have to wait and see.”
While receiving treatment for her cancer in Crossroads, Laura Roslin is surprised to discover that she can access the thoughts of Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer), who is trying to mentally contact Athena’s (Grace Park) baby, Hera. “My character’s ability to ‘step’ into Cylon projections is opening up a whole new kettle of fish,” says McDonnell. “For me, it was a neat opportunity to shoot a scene with Grace and Tricia. Prior to that, the three of us had never been in the same room together.
“As far as Laura is concerned, I’m guessing that the connection she has with the Cylons has to do with the blood or DNA that she shares with both Hera and her mother, Athena, and God knows what other Cylons. I wonder what that will mean to Laura and, in fact, humanity as a whole. Could my character having Cylon blood ultimately provide a bridge between humans and Cylons? I assume they’re both going to end up on Earth together. What are they going to find when they get there, and what will both species be to each other by then? Those are two questions that are very interesting to me as we approach season four.”
With production already up and running in Vancouver on Galactica’s fourth season, what are McDonnell’s hopes for her character going into these new episodes? “My hope always is that a character grows spiritually,” says the actress. “I think Laura has grown a great deal as far as understanding what it is to be president. She’s come to terms with the power of the office and being rather comfortable with it. So how do you maybe take that to a level of spirituality or humanity that she’s as yet been unable to achieve? Again, perhaps the idea of her shared DNA with the Cylons will allow her to perceive a bigger solution to her peoples’ current dilemma. Only time will tell.”