[caption id="attachment_4512" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Jewel Staite as Dr. Jennifer Keller on Stargate Atlantis. Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
No matter what the job, it is never easy on someone when he or she comes in to fill the void left by a departed colleague. That was certainly true for Dr. Jennifer Keller when she, much to her surprise, was promoted to Atlantis' chief medical officer after Dr. Carson Beckett unexpectedly died while saving a patient's life. It was a position that she neither wanted nor felt especially qualified for, but Dr. Elizabeth Weir saw potential in Keller, and she was not mistaken. The physician has since proven to herself and her colleagues that she is more than up to the task at hand. Naturally, it took time for Keller to settle into her new role in the Pegasus Galaxy, and the same is true for the actress who plays her, Stargate Atlantis' Jewel Staite.
"When I first started on the show [in season three's First Strike], I didn't have a clear understanding of who Keller was; I don't think anyone did," recalls Staite. "It was more or less a case of, 'OK, here's the part, we begin shooting tomorrow.' So I just started from the ground up insofar as building a character. A lot of it was about taking the material for what it was and going with that, but it was always important for me to play Keller as real as possible. She's a city girl in this bizarre world, and she had to get used to it in a hurry. My character also felt that she had to prove herself because she knew she was replacing someone who had the whole thing under his belt. She doesn't quite have that yet. Keller is still a little insecure, and what I liked is that they [the show's producers] weren't afraid to play that with her. Not everybody has to be a hero, and I liked that Keller wasn't. She was a normal girl stuck in a place she didn't understand.
"As the seasons passed and time went on, Keller definitely became more confident and more capable of dealing with these crazy, dire and dear situations. She gained some new skills in season five and became more aware of as well as felt more comfortable in her surroundings. At the same time, she's still vulnerable and isn't a heroic type of girl. When necessary, Keller steps up to the plate, but that's not her first choice. She would much rather have someone there to protect her, and I don't see anything wrong with that. I think Keller is still a strong female, but she's not going to be the person who fights the Wraith if she doesnt absolutely have to, and that's OK."
[caption id="attachment_4513" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Not the most comfortable of positions for poor Dr. Keller in "The Seed." Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
Jennifer Keller had no choice but to put on a brave face early on at the start of Atlantis' fifth season when, in The Seed, an alien pathogen is found in her blood and Wraith tendrils begin growing out of her torso. "My initial reaction to that script was, 'What did I do? Why are they [the producers] so angry with me?'" jokes Staite. "I was nervous, I won't lie. It's generally a thing here on-set about being in prosthetics - no one really likes it. It's usually pretty uncomfortable and requires lots of early calls and long days, but they assured me that they were going to do it in such a way that it would be comfortable for me.
"Basically, it was me lying in bed and underneath a cage-like contraption," continues the actress. "They would open the cage, I'd slip inside, they would then close the cage and put a Wraith tentacle 'blanket' over the top. So it wasn't too bad to get into and out of, but then I had these face pieces that were actually part of the blanket that they would pull up and glue to my neck. Once those were on, I was there for the day, and my hands were underneath the cage, so it was this weird way of working because there was nowhere I could go. I would watch the crew running around setting up the cameras, lighting, etc., and then we could shoot a scene. As soon as we cut, they'd be busy setting up the next shot, and I just laid there watching them go off in a flurry. It was a way of observing the [filming] process that I'd never really experienced before on this show.
"Needles to say I didn't drink a lot of fluids on the job that week because going to the bathroom was a challenge. I mean, I could do it, but it took about 15 minutes to get out of the cage, so I thought, 'You know what, I'm just going to lay off the water and hope for the best,' and it became very Zen-like. Of course, poor Dr. Keller was completely powerless, alone and frightened, you know? As for me, I was just so relaxed that I would doze off and catch myself starting to fall asleep in-between takes," she chuckles. "So it was an interesting week for sure."
[caption id="attachment_4514" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Dr. Keller is ready for action! Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
Among the more challenging season five Atlantis episodes for Staite to have worked on is Tracker, in which Dr. Keller is kidnapped by a Runner named Kiryk (Mike Dopud) while off-world on an errand of mercy with Dr. McKay (David Hewlett) and Ronon (Jason Momoa). "This was another of those episodes written by [executive producer] Carl Binder, and I don't know what the deal is, but he enjoys having Keller tied up and dragged through the woods," jokes the actress. "No, seriously, I worked with an excellent guest-star, Mike Dopud. He's a stuntman, but he's an amazing actor as well and a terrific person to be around. It was just me and Mike in the woods for two weeks. Keller does a major switch in this episode and she does something that surprises the viewer.
"One of the most memorable season five episodes for me is The Shrine. It's beautifully written, very touching and definitely different from the other stories I've done. It's a team episode that shows the humanity in all the characters as opposed to giant space battles and that kind of stuff. The story focuses on who these people are and is a huge tear-jerker. When I read the script, I cried. It was great for all of us and allowed us to really stretch ourselves that little bit more as actors."
In year four's Quarantine, Atlantis goes into lockdown as a result of a computer glitch and traps our heroes in various parts of the city. Ronon and Dr. Keller end up in the infirmary and, for a moment, it looks as if there might be a bit of romance in the air. However, it is the geeky and egotistical Rodney McKay that ultimately gets the girl, which, in Staite's eyes, makes sense.
[caption id="attachment_4515" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Dr. Keller attempts to save Dr. McKay's (David Hewlett) life in "The Shrine." Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
"I think it was the most logical outcome," she notes. "McKay and Keller started out as friends and she seems to mellow him out a lot and tolerates him much better than the other characters. I think, too, that my character finds his whining, crankiness and all that stuff funny, and Jennifer is charmed by Rodney and vice versa. They're both scaredy cats and want more than anything to be in a safe spot. The two of them are also slightly dorky, but incredibly smart as well and, again, feel like they constantly have to prove themselves.
"So they have a number of things in common, and in season five their relationship developed into something stronger. David and I have the same sense of humor and way of working. So it's easy to be around him and I think the show's writers saw that and thought, 'OK,' and decided to go that [romantic] route with the two of them, which I was super happy about."
Long before joining the Atlantis cast, Staite had acquired plenty of Sci-Fi/Fantasy experience playing such TV roles as Catalina in Space Cases and Kaylee Frye in Firefly. The actress' fans will also know that prior to being cast as Dr. Keller, she booked the part of a young female Wraith named Ellia in the second season Atlantis episode Instinct. She had no idea that this job would lead to a regular spot on the series.
[caption id="attachment_4516" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Staite as Ellia in "Instinct." Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
"I thought the [Instinct] character was so special and really wanted to do it," says Staite. "[Director/producer] Andy Mikita and the guys tell me that when I walked into the audition room they were like, 'That's Kaylee from Firefly. What's she doing here?' It wasn't anything unusual for me, though. I'm more than willing to audition to prove what I can, hopefully, do in a role.
"Luckily they gave me the job and I loved working on the series. I told them that I'd be happy to come back and they said, 'We won't forget you. One day we'll write something new for you.' Lo and behold, a year later they offered me a fulltime role on the show, no prosthetics required - at least for the first episode. I was like, 'That sounds great.' So it just kind of fell into my lap and I couldn't have been happier," smiles the actress.
Last fall, the Atlantis cast and crew wrapped production on what became the show's fifth and final season. The script for a made-for-DVD movie has been written, but filming dates are still pending. In the meantime, Staite can be seen in the upcoming Syfy Channel movie Mothman, and is also slated to begin work on a horror film, P5ych. From out-of-this-world roles to more down-to-Earth ones, the actress enjoys nothing more than creating gaps between each character that she plays.
[caption id="attachment_4517" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Dr. Keller and Dr. McKay share an especially tense moment. Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
"For me, it's really important to do projects that are as different as can be from the last one I did," she says. "And while sometimes they may be in the same genre, it's still important to have the character challenge me and to show other aspects of what I can do as an actress. When I succeed in doing that, that's what makes this job especially rewarding.
"It's nice to have viewers watch me in a show and say, 'I love what you're doing.' It was hard for me when I first started Atlantis; I knew what was going to happen, and it did. So whenever I hear people say positive things about Keller it makes me feel good because she's a part of me and I love her a great deal and protect her very much."
Steve EramoAs noted above, all photos copyright of The Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!
[caption id="attachment_1007" align="aligncenter" width="200" caption="Director Andy Mikita hard at work on the Stargate Atlantis season five episode "First Contact." Photo by Eike Schroter and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel"][/caption]
As a longtme member of the Stargate family, Andy Mikita has lent his creative talents to directing as well as helping produce dozens of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis stories. He kicked off the fifth season of Atlantis directing the opener, Search and Rescue, followed by The Daedalus Variations and The Shrine, in which one of our heroes almost met his maker. Mikita barely had time to catch his breath before he began prepping to direct the mid-season two-parter First Contact and The Lost Tribe, which guest-starred SG-1's Michael Shanks as Dr. Daniel Jackson.
"First off, I want to say how great to was to have Michael on the show," enthuses Mikita. "He just brings so much to the table and the chemistry between his character and David Hewlett's [Dr. Rodney McKay] was phenomenal. We shot both these episodes, which were written by [Atlantis executive producer] Martin Gero, together, and he did some of the directing as well. Martin did the lion's share of the scenes with Michael and David, including the one where the little Asgard alien came out of the spacesuit. So it was a really sensible approach to shooting these stories. We were able to divide the schedule between Martin and myself, which kept us on track financially and time-wise. Because Martin is also a director I felt completely confident in his execution of things, and I really enjoyed all the work he did.
"Probably the biggest challenge with First Contact and The Lost Tribe was making sure that the spacesuits were going to be functional as well as believable and have the desired impact. Real kudos go to our art department and model shop for designing and constructing some incredible suits. They had qualities of a lot of different ideas in there. Also, Iron Man was just coming out at the time we were building these suits, and while we didn't want there to be obvious comparisons to the movie, I will say that we went straight out and copied the inside-of-the-helmet shots. In The Lost Tribe, specifically, we did close-ups of Michael and David when they were wearing the suits and we literally put in an inside-the-helmet point of view using VFX [visual effects] graphics.
"The VFX team did an amazing bit of work, and I thought the effects in both these episodes were incredible, especially in First Contact where the aliens in their spacesuits came out of their ship and entered Atlantis. The whole concept that Martin came up with involving the transport bubble that allowed the aliens to move through multiple surfaces was really clever and extremely well-executed by the VFX guys. With that, you got another sense, again, of the size of Atlantis, and the concept of finding Janus' [Gildart Jackson] secret lab was quite compelling. It was a fun episode, or episodes, to shoot and I'm very pleased with how they turned out."
[caption id="attachment_1010" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mikita confers with Amanda Tapping (Colonel Samantha Carter) on the set of "Search and Rescue." Photo by Eike Schroter and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel"][/caption]
Mikita's next episode, The Prodigal, sees the return of the human/Wraith hybrid Michael (Connor Trinneer), who comes to Atlantis to execute yet another insidious plan. "This was a tremendous action-packed story with some great fight sequences choreographed by Bam Bam [stunt coordinator James Bamford]," says the director. "The Michael/Ronon [Jason Momoa] fight was really cool and culminated with Ronon actually going over the Atlantis Gate Room balcony. Then there was the big penultimate fight on the rooftop with Michael versus Sheppard [Joe Flanigan] and Teyla [Rachel Luttrell]. That was a tough sequence to shoot. We were fairly limited as far as how large in scope we could build that [rooftop] set piece. To help sell that idea, we used a large projection screen so we could see off into the background and the moonlit sky. Then there was the big sort of helicopter shot that shows the very top spire of the city and just how high up our heroes are when they're fighting. That was another impressive VFX sequence.
"Obviously, staging a fight on a ledge or precipice like that is pretty tricky. For instance, when Michael throws Sheppard down the ledge and he's left dangling, the first time we shot that, the Sheppard stunt double went right over the edge of the set. If that was real life, he would have been a goner. After that, we were joking around and saying, 'Well, that's it. Michael wins the fight, the series is over.' Also tricky to shoot were the scenes in which Major Lorne [Kavan Smith] and Woolsey [Robert Picardo] run afoul of Michael's stun bubble and we had to choreograph their falls. We had a fantastic Woolsey stunt double who looked so much like Robert that at times if you were standing a little bit away from him, you couldn't tell the difference between him and Robert. And the stunt double did such an amazing job on the fall as well. This was a real highlight episode for me to shoot and definitely one of my favorites from season five.
"Something else I thought was really cool with The Prodigal was how [Atlantis executive producer] Carl Binder, who wrote this episode, gave the character of Amelia Banks a much more significant role. We got to see her as more of an active participant in the story as opposed to just being a technician when she and Ronon take on one of the hybrid guards. The actress who plays Banks [Sharon Taylor] is quite proficient at martial arts, so she got to show off some of her skills onscreen and I think the fans picked up on that."
The director along with the Atlantis cast and crew spent a little over a week last August trying to keep cool while filming inside a very hot Wraith set for the fifth season episode Infection. "We had a fairly limited Wraith set, so as our characters were walking through the ship, we were basically reusing the same set over and over again," explains Mikita. "So we had to move things around as well as relight and redress the sections in order to make it feel like we were constantly on the move and create a sense that it was a much larger space than it actually was.
[caption id="attachment_1011" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="David Hewlett (Dr. Rodney McKay) hangs around with Mikita during the filming of season five's "The Shrine." Photo courtesy of and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel"][/caption]
"Then, of course, there's the fact that in our story, the gene therapy that Dr. Keller has been developing really isn't working as well as we hoped, so we come across these new gruesome creatures onboard the Wraith ship. They were based somewhat on the Spoils of War [season four] creatures where we saw the birthing sequence of the Wraith warriors. In this episode, we took it a step further and, as a result of the gene therapy, the Wraith lost their ability to feed with their hands. So they basically became flesh-eating monsters and needed to eat using their hands and teeth and ingesting the way we humans do. So that was another challange to make the attacks from these monsters scary and, again, believable, and I feel we achieved both to a great extent."
In mid-September 2008, Mikita took on the job of directing the 100th episode of Atlantis, Enemy at the Gate, which, ironically, was also the show's season/series finale. "I was absolutely honored to be given that opportunity," he recalls. "At the same time, it was kind of a daunting responsibility, given that the episode was shooting at the same time as Rob Cooper's [Atlantis co-creator/executive producer] Vegas. That was a big hallmark episode as well in that it was a real departure type of story that takes place in an alternate reality, so a great deal of attention was going to that one, too.
"By the time we got around to Enemy at the Gate, we had to be very careful because we didn't have any extra money or time to shoot it," continues the director. "We couldn't make it any bigger or splashier than any other story we had previously done, but we did want to make a really good, solid, conventional Atlantis episode with the stakes essentially being that the Wraith are attacking Earth. The highlight for me was having Amanda Tapping [Colonel Samantha Carter] back, which was just sensational. It was a very proud moment for the cast and crew to have made it to the 100th episode mark, but also a very bittersweet time because we'd had so much fun for five years and now the series was coming to an end."
[caption id="attachment_1015" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Director Andy Mikita. Photo courtesy of and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel"][/caption]
Although his time on Atlantis may have ended, Mikita still remains very much a part of the Stargate franchise and has already begun his involvement in the second spin-off, Stargate Universe. "I'm hoping I can take what I've learned from SG-1 and Atlantis and apply it to whatever new challenges I'm given on Universe," he says. "We're approaching that show from quite a different perspective stylistically, so that should help me grow even further as a director for sure."
Steve EramoAs noted above, photos by Eike Schroter and courtesy of and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!