[caption id="attachment_3466" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mekhi Phifer as FBI Agent Ben Reynolds in Lie To Me. Photo copyright of Fox Television"][/caption]
In the season one Lie to Me episode Blinded, FBI Agent Ben Reynolds enlists the help of Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth and his team to help in the hunt for a serial rapist. This marked the debut of Mekhi Phifer as Reynolds, who by the end of the episode is made a member of Lightman's team.
Perhaps best recognized for his starring role on ER, which garnered him two NAACP Image Award nominations, Phifer is also known for his many successful feature films. He began his acting career in Spike Lee's Clockers and then went on to star in such movies as 8 Mile opposite Eminem, O opposite Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles and Soul Food with Vanessa Williams. The actor's other TV credits include The Tuskegee Airmen, Subway Stories: Takes from the Underground, Brian's Song and Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Additionally, he earned a third NAACP nomination for the film A Lesson Before Dying.
At the end of September, I joined several other journalists on a conference call with Mehki Phifer. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!
What are the similarities and differences between your role on Lie To Me and your character of Dr. Gregory Pratt on ER, which you were so good in?MEKHI PHIFER - Thanks, I really appreciate that. The only similarity is that they're pretty strong characters. They have different backgrounds and things of that nature, and, while both men save lives, they do it in different ways. Obviously, being able to, for example, carry a badge along with a gun and having gone undercover adds more layers to my character in Lie to Me and makes him different from Greg Pratt. So I'm having a lot of fun unveiling all those layers.
As the season goes on are we going to find out a lot more about your character and get more into the personal side of things?MP - Yes, definitely. Shawn Ryan [series executive producer] and the rest of us really want to delve into this character and see what makes him tick.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you first become involved in the series and your audition process for the role of Ben Reynolds.MP - Fortunately, they [the show's producers] knew my work and loved it, so I didn't have to audition. This job was an offer to come do the last two episodes of the first season and see how it all worked out, including how we gelled as a cast, and it worked out great. So once hiatus came I was officially asked to join the cast for season two.
What were some of the acting challenges you found first stepping into the role, and how have you seen your character grow and develop so far in year two?MP - It's always hard, especially those last two episodes I did for season one because my character wasn't at all scoped out yet. Starting out, you kind of have to make it up as you go along, so you're sort of walking on egg shells when it comes to character choices that you're making because those choices affect the next episode and the one after that and so forth. I just knew that I wanted to portray someone who could go in many different directions, so I tried to bring a three-dimensional side to Ben. In season two, we have a little bit more clarity on the way we want things to go. You will get to see into Ben's past as an FBI agent and even him doing undercover work and how that affected his professional as well as personal life and what he's had to deal with because of that.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your production company; as an actor, how important do you think it is to have a role behind the camera as well as in front of it?MP - I guess it's personal preference. Me, personally, I like to be able to tell the stories that I want to tell and do the things I want do to. It takes a little bit more work, but that's what the production side is. You're still going to have to sell [the idea] to someone who's going to give you the money and things like that. However, it does give you a bit more control to tell the story that you want to tell as opposed to just reading a script that somebody else wrote and saying, "Yes, please, can you hire me for this job."It allows you to be a bit more hands-on and closer to the heart.
What influence do you ultimately hope to have or leave in Hollywood?MP - The point for us actors, just from the creative side, is to entertain and affect people. It's always the best compliment when people come up to you and say that they were affected by your film or performance on a TV series or whatever. I don't know yet what my ultimate legacy is that I want to leave. I'm still a fairly young man and hopefully I have a lot more to do.
You character on Lie to Me is kind of like the "cops and robbers" type while everyone else is more scientific. Can you talk about the push and pull between the characters and what that friction is like?MP - You're right, Tim Roth's character and all the other guys at The Lightman Group are a bunch of scientists who may want to do something that's beyond the limits of the law if you will. My character is kind of the liason between them and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We do bump heads a lot because I don't necessarily understand, at least right now, how much their methods really do help solve cases. As the series goes on, he'll come to better understand that. Ben Reynolds has his own methods and it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but ultimately both sides come together for the betterment of these cases.
In terms of your breadth of work, you seem to be drawn to drama more than comedy - is that correct, and if so, why do you think that is?MP - I can do comedy but it's a certain type. I'm not a physical comedy guy or slapstick. That's not my style. Even when I was on Curb Your Enthusiasm I wasn't playing this over-the-top crazy character. I was playing it kind of straight, but it was funny because the situation was funny, do you know what I mean? That's how I portrayed him. I like dramas because you can laugh and joke and still be serious and real. I like the realism of the genre.
You did such a great job in The Shield, which was such an edgy show. Are we going to see the same thing in Lie to Me? Is it going to be a little edgier and darker this year?MP - Yes, I think so. It's already kind of going there. The networks are different so they have a different approach. Obviously, The Shield was on the FX Network, so they had a bit more leeway as far as the dialogue was concerned, as well as with the content and what they showed viewers, which is a great thing. But on Lie to Me we will push it to the limit as far as Fox will let us go, that's for damn sure.
What sticks out most in your mind about our first day on the Lie to Me set and shooting your first episode?MP - The first day, in particular, is always one of those weird days because you're thrown into your trailer, given your wardrobe, haven't really been on the set, etc. Fortunately I had been watching Lie to Me, so when I walked onto the set for the first time it was like, "Wow, this is what I've been watching on TV." You're also meeting people for the first time. I had never met Tim Roth before, even though I've always loved his work. It was the same thing with the rest of the cast, and to come on and have everyone welcome you with open arms and really be there for each other was definitely a breath of fresh air. It was the same thing on ER. We had a great camaraderie and that's more or less what I was concerned about more than anything else. It's a great group of people here and we're having a lot of fun.
What did you enjoy most about working on ER and playing the character of Gregg Pratt?MP - I was able to be here [in Los Angeles] and be close to home and my kids every night and all that kind of stuff. Again, though, it was the people. The cast and crew on that show hung out together, we travelled together and did so much together. I always like having that sort of rapport with the people I work with because life is too short not to.
What would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?MP - What makes a career rewarding is being able to do good work and know that people respect and appreciate your work. As an artist and a creative person you always want to receive the accolades of others who are watching you or you wouldn't be doing it, do you know what I'm saying? No one wants to do this if people say, "Man, you stink." Actors want to do well and, to me, that's the basis of having a stellar career, earning peoples' respect. When your name comes up and people go, "Oh, yeah, he's a good actor, and I loved him in this or I loved him in that." It's a good feeling to have people appreciate you.You're on a show that has a multi-cultural cast just like ER. Can you talk about the importance of having a multi-cultural cast and what that brings to television?MP - I just think it opens up the viewership. The beauty of watching a good television program or a good movie is that, yes, you may have a multi-cultural cast, but those roles could go to anyone - they could be played by persons of any color, you know? To show the world that we have more in common then we have different from each other is, to me, the ultimate goal. It helps reinforce in peoples' minds that thought that we're all the same. Yes, there are going to be cultural differences, but for the most part we are all the same as human beings.
Was the character of Ben Reynolds written with you in mind?MP - Yes, I think so. I know that they wanted to introduce a character who could go toe-to-toe with Tim Roth's character and be a sort of on-site lawman with a badge and a gun to deal with crisis situations right there without having to outsource or try to find an agent who was willing to work with The Lightman Group.
As a Black man in Hollywood who is specifically doing drama, can you talk about the challenges of that. Do you feel there are challenges in finding work, having been fortunate with ER and now Lie to Me?MP - It was tough, just like anything else. I've been in the industry for 15 years and throughout that time I've mainly done dramas, but I've always tried to portray each character differently and make them three-dimensional. Lie to Me came up as a testament to my work in the past. Again, I didn't have to audition for it; the producers and director had seen my work as well as heard about my work ethic and asked me to come on. So in order to really be respected in this town, you have to have a foundation of good work. Without that, you have a shell of a career out here, rather than the meat and bones of it all.
As noted above, photo is copyright of Fox Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!
[caption id="attachment_2258" align="aligncenter" width="224" caption="Allison Scagliotti as Claudia Donovan in Warehouse 13. Photo by Justin Stephens and copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
Knock, knock - everyone is familiar with this opening to an age-old joke, right? It is no laughing matter, though, when a nameless hacker uses this as a calling card to announce that they have gained access to the US government's top secret storage facility for a myriad of strange objects, artifacts and relics, all of which possess unusual powers. Its caretaker, Artie Nielsen, is none-too-pleased with this trespasser, and is shocked to discover that the intruder is someone from his past - Claudia Donovan. She has a proposition for him, one he cannot refuse. It is literally a matter of life and death for her, but for Allison Scagliotti, who plays Claudia in Warehouse 13, it was the start of a brand new acting venture, thanks to not one but three people from her past.
"I know a couple of the guys in the [Warehouse 13] writers' room, Deric Hughes and Benjamin Raab; we had worked together on a web series for NBC called Gemini Division with Rosario Dawson," says Scagliotti. "We'd stayed in touch, and when the role of Claudia surfaced among the scripts in development, they called me and said, 'Allison, you're so right for this part.' They talked with the show runner, Jack Kelly, who, coincidentally, I worked with five years ago on a pilot. So everything sort of aligned perfectly. I spoke with Jack, who explained to me what the show was all about, and then said, 'Let me send you a copy of the pilot script so you can make sure you're even interested in being a part of it.'
"As soon as I read the pilot I was hooked. I was riveted by the chemistry between the Pete [Eddie McClintock] and Myka [Joanne Kelly] characters, not to mention how fascinating Saul Rubinek [Artie] is to watch, and, of course, with the prospect of being part of a show that balances fantasy with comedy. So I went in to audition with Central Casting at NBC, and within a week I went from a full-load school [university] curriculum to working long hours in Toronto. It was awesome."
Scagliotti makes her Warehouse 13 debut in the aptly titled season one episode Claudia. In it, her character of Claudia Donovan kidnaps Artie from the Warehouse and takes him to an abandoned makeshift lab. Since she was a young girl, she has blamed him for an experiment that killed her brother Joshua (Tyler Hynes). Now, however, Claudia is convinced that he did not die but is, in fact, trapped in an alternate dimension and she wants Artie to re-create the experiment in order to get him back. While Artie's colleagues, Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering, try to find him, he sees for himself that Claudia is right. The actress laughs when asked what sticks out most in her mind about her first day on the job.
"That's easy, Saul Rubinek. I was nervous. I don't get nervous a lot, but I love this project so much that I really wanted to make sure everything I did was just right. You can't always be perfect, but you are capable of being great, and I remember connecting with Saul immediately. We had chemistry like we had been working together for 30 years. He is an amazing guy and I've learned so much from him. The scene I shot on my first day is actually my first scene in the episode, and if you saw it you know that it was long and complicated. Saul and I both worked up a sweat and I roughed him up quite a bit. I was concerned that I was going to hurt him, but Saul was like, 'No, let's go. Let's commit. Let's do this.' After that day working with him, I felt right at home. I can't think of a more creative, fulfilling experience than doing scenes with Saul. It's a dream come true for me.
[caption id="attachment_2259" align="aligncenter" width="224" caption="Enemies turned allies - Artie (Saul Rubinek) and Claudia. Photo by Justin Stephens and copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
"As far as working on the entire episode, it was definitely a challenge because the show has this neat balance of comedy with the action-adventure of pursuing artifacts and the fantastical elements and powers they possess. So it was always in the forefront of our efforts - Saul, director Steve Surjik, and me - to make sure that there was a balance. If we were delivering witty dialogue, the emotional stakes could not be compromised, and if we were in the middle of a very dramatic moment, we didn't want things to get too melodramatic and that there was some lightness as well. The [shooting] days were long, but I never got tired because I was having so much fun. I had never worked with that level of special effects before, so that was really interesting to watch. We were filming underground in a church, which was dressed as a lab, and they pumped dust and smoke in there every day to make it look mystical. It was just so exciting."
Although he is an unwilling participant at first, Artie ultimately helps Claudia save her brother. In the following episode, Elements, Artie uses his influence to get Joshua a government job where he can put his scientific genius to good use. As for Claudia, it is decided that her talents would be better served working as part of the Warehouse team as opposed to against it. While it would be easy for Scagliotti to play the stereotypical brainy young know-it-all, she has made her character much more than that.
"Claudia is smart and sassy and has an attitude, but she's also efficient and adds an important skill set to the Warehouse," explains the actress. "She identifies set goals and goes after them with passion, whether it's bringing her brother back from interdimensional space, or showing Artie what can be done with a sort of steampunk take on things, rather than his old, possibly crotchety, set-in-his-ways methods," jokes Scagliotti. "You definitely see my character go from angsty, bitter and possibly lost to feeling really at home in the Warehouse as well as having a genuine gratitude and love for her newfound family and a desire to help in every possible way.
"If Artie is our all-knowing uncle, then Claudia is like the little punk sister to the Pete and Myka characters. Myka would be the overachieving, honor student, older sister, while Pete is the goofball jock. Eddie is the best. There is never a dull moment with him on-set. We're all constantly trying to find ways to mess with each other, Eddie especially. He's kind of a prankster. For example, right before a take, he'll do something to make me laugh and then I'll have to try extra hard to keep a straight face. Eddie does a Don Knotts impression that would blow you away. It's kind of an odd impression to do, but he does it with style."
Having started out in an effects-heavy episode, the actress has grown used to working with green screen along with other visual/special effects and is enjoying that aspect of her involvement in Warehouse 13. "There's an episode coming up where my character becomes magnetized to the Warehouse ceiling," she says. "I was literally 20-something feet up in the air and perched on a steel girder, while behind me it was all green screen. I got to do a lot of cool stuff up on a wire, and I used a zip-line at one point as well. In the episode after Claudia, my character is fixing what she broke while hacking into the Warehouse and she causes a little spark in the power grid that shoots off some fireworks. That was interesting because I wasn't expecting the spark to be as big as it was during the first take. So my reaction was pretty authentic, especially when a spark landed in my hair. Fortunately, I didn't suffer any scalp burn or hair loss," jokes the actress.
[caption id="attachment_2263" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Claudia is put right to work in the episode "Elements." Photo by Philippe Bosse and copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
When it comes to her favorite Warehouse 13 episode, Scagliotti wastes no time in choosing one. "It's the one where we chase after Edgar Allen Poe's pen," she says. "I geeked out over that episode because I'm a huge Poe fan. In fact, the shirt I'm wearing right now has a Poe quote on it. We had the chance to shoot inside a college of theology within the University of Toronto, which was just beautiful with its high ceilings and vaulted, Gothic-style architecture. There are a lot of stunts in that episode, too, including one where I full-on tackle a guy.
"There's also a scene in the episode, again right after Claudia, between my character and her brother Joshua wherein she becomes emotional because he's decided to move on with his life and Claudia has to figure out what to do with hers. It's sort of a transitional feeling, which was a challenge. It's always a challenge to become emotional in a scene, but the director [Ken Giotti] was extremely accommodating as far as whatever I needed, and Tyler, who played Joshua, was great in the scene, so I hope it comes across as touching as we all hoped it would."
Looking ahead to the first season finale of Warehouse 13, the actress hints at what fans can expect. "It starts hot," notes Scagliotti. "In the opening teaser there's a fire going on and the threat of a villain. I can't go into specifics, but the threat is extremely real because this individual has a past connection to the Warehouse. And there's also suspicion that security has been compromised by someone on the inside.
That's about all I can tell you. It was very, very exciting to shoot and the director [Stephen Surjik], who also directed Claudia, is a fantastic guy. During the final days of filming, we were shooting underground in this abattoir, so it was freezing and really smelly. I didn't have to work on those last few days, but I hung out on-set just to spend time with everyone because I could not imagine this amazing ride ending. We were there until four in the morning on that last day, but it was worth it. We've become quite the family team," enthuses the actress.
At the age of five, Scagliotti did an impression of actor/comedian Bill Cosby for her family's pool man. When her Mom saw that, she knew what she had to do. "My Mom was like, 'We've got to find an outlet for this [talent],'" she recalls. "So I joined my elementary school drama department. I also took ballet for eight years and learned piano as well, so if I hadn't moved to Los Angeles I would have gone to a performing arts high school and possibly moved to New York.
[caption id="attachment_2264" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The Warehouse 13 family - Allison Scagliotti, Saul Rubinek, Joanne Kelly, Genelle Williams (who plays Leena) and Eddie McClintock. Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
"When I was 11, I met an acting coach who was giving a seminar at a Barnes and Noble in the small town of Mandeville, Louisiana where I was living. He encouraged me to try my had at [TV] pilot season, so my Mom and I did our homework and I gave it a shot. I was very lucky to get an agent along with a manager and book a pilot with Chevy Chase, which is pretty much unheard of for an 11-year-old just starting out in the business. But that was the beginning of all this and I never looked back."
Prior to Warehouse 13, Scagliotti appeared in a handful of made-for-TV movies as well as guest-starred on several other TV shows including One Tree Hill, Drake & Josh, ER, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and most recently in an episode of Mental, House of Mirrors, which was shot on-location in Bogota, Columbia. "I had never been to South America before," says the actress, "so that in itself was an experience. It's a place with a lot of layers, and [the city] is at the base of the Andes, which is just beautiful.
"The role itself was a tricky one for me. My character was born a boy, but through a botched circumcision was raised as a girl, her Mom committed suicide, and she developed a condition called dysmorphia. Even though it's a small statistic, it's something that does occur and I read up on the original story that this episode is based on. My main concern was making sure I was truthful as well as respectful to those who were either affected by it or know people who experienced it. It's important to me to never fake emotions going on in a scene, so in some ways I feel like perhaps I committed too much to the emotionality of what was going on. However, I don't regret it because I wouldn't have wanted to fall short of my goals for the impact of the episode.
"The hardest thing to shoot was the suicide scene. The fire was all CGI [computer-generated image] except for one flame bar that they held in front of my face for the lighting. We shot that scene for a while because of the various angles and pouring that bottle of rum, which was actually water, and lighting the match. I had worked with the director [David Jackson] a couple of years ago, and the two of us sat down and talked about how it should go. I was exhausted afterwards, but at the end of the day I'm happy with the episode. I hope it resonated with people, and for people who didn't know that that kind of thing happens, that it educated them and made them aware of this unfortunate condition."
[caption id="attachment_2265" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Claudia tries to put her own "steampunk spin" on trying to solve a problem in the episode "Elements." Photo by Philippe Bosse and copyright of The Syfy Channel"][/caption]
This summer, the actress can be seen in National Lampoon's Endless Bummer and My Name is Jerry. Next month, she starts work on a play being directed by Alden Ehrenreich, who appeared in Frances Ford Coppola's Tetro. Besides her acting commitments, she is a full-time college student and majoring in English. To some, this might sound like a lot to have on your plate, but Scagliotti would not have it any other way.
"I like to have focuses outside of the business," she says. "It's so easy to develop tunnel vision and become obsessive over projects, characters or just the way the whole machine works. And I find if I'm taking a class, it expands me as a person. I become fuller and more aware of the world as well as people and history, all of which I can bring to a performance as opposed to manufacturing it with only a script. So far I've been really fortunate to have professors who have worked with me and allowed me to continue to take my classes as I'm acting. If the workload gets too much, then I trim things. I took 10 units during season one of Warehouse 13 and it worked out just fine. I flew home to take my final and it was all good."
Steve EramoAs noted above, all photos by Justin Stephens or Philippe Bosse and copyright of The Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!