A Global Actress Goes Local
The X-Files may be the most popular American TV show in France, but Acapulco H.E.A.T. is a close second. And why not? It looks like Baywatch, has plots like La Femme Nikita, features gorgeous secret agents in stunning fashions, and centers on an anti-terrorist organization which engages in high-speed chases, dazzling martial arts, and occasional mysteries which have an apparently supernatural element.
The show has made British-born actress Alison Armitage - who plays burglar-turned-crimefighter Catherine Avery Pascal - one of the most popular actresses in Europe, though she's only beginning to get noticed in the U.S. Recognizable in over 70 countries around the globe, the athletic brunette is as bemused by her huge popularity overseas as by her relatively low profile in the industry here.
"I got on the web recently, and found out that there were so many sites on me!" she marvels. "One of the reasons that I'm not really pursuing film and not trying to really get some big major acting projects is that I really don't want to lose my privacy. It's great to be online, it's great to have a little series, it's great to get some magazine covers, but to get to an extent where no matter where you go in the world, people recognize you - it's like, whoa, wait a minute."
Cat is an immensely popular character for a few obvious reasons - she's athletic, she's sophisticated, she looks great in a bathing suit - and for a few less-apparent traits like her talents as a burglar and her duplicitous wit. Her projects have included stealing gems from professional jewel thieves, protecting innocent family members from Mafia hits, and standing in for the threatened wife of a South American politician.
She's also had to debunk a psychic, track a mystical religious icon coveted by Hitler, and prevent a hijacking by someone who used to track terrorists himself. When she's not on the road pursuing criminals, however, Cat's home base is a beach fashion boutique in Puerto Vallarta - the perfect cover for three beautiful women and a young Adonis who fight international intrigue in their spare time.
"Look at where I go to work," laughs Armitage, who grew up in Hong Kong and has relatives all over the globe. Acapulco H.E.A.T. films in Mexico and the Caribbean, with occasional trips to South America. Though the settings are magnificent - a luxury hotel in Puerto Vallarta, the beaches of the Mexican Riviera - the L.A.-based actress is happy to be home for awhile. "We usually film June to December, and the last time I came back two days before Christmas - there's no way you can get your shopping done. This year we're doing January to June, and that will be really nice."
Armitage is one of the rare actresses who's had to learn to hide her British accent rather than to gain one for classical roles and period drama: she was told to lose the accent during the six weeks after she was cast on Acapulco H.E.A.T., which originally featured aristocratic English star Catherine Oxenberg. The producers felt that two accented women might be too many, but after an international search for a second female lead, they were eager to have Armitage on the new series.
"I had, like, six weeks in which to lose my accent - fortunately, since I'd been in America for a long time, I could easily listen to people and imitate," Armitage explains. "Most parts are for non-regional Americans. Now I play Americans all the time, but if I call my mom, I will be instantly English again. It's hard to switch back and forth because words will come out somewhere in the middle, it can be incomprehensible!"
The role of Cat appealed to the former competitive swimmer and self-confessed tomboy because of her independence and physicality. "I like when people write female characters like that - it's a little atypical, which is nice, it's a lot more like me personally," she notes, rolling her eyes about the number of roles for women in which they're little more than token wives or girlfriends. "I've always been athletic, I was sports captain for all female teams at my high school in Hong Kong, I started competitively swimming at age four. I was brought up in a male-dominated society, Hong Kong, Victorian parents, and I was treated as a woman, which is not equal - not even close. No one encouraged me in my athletic endeavors and my acting ambitions got scoffed at. So if I can be a role model, that's great."
Armitage isn't a fan of industry expectations for female bodies - though her own spectacular figure has been a great asset in getting her work, she's the first to admit that she has to make time to work out and can't eat as much as she'd like. "It's completely and utterly ridiculously unrealistic, and it's a real struggle to maintain," she sighs. "But as women, we allow what they dictate us to look like - we go, 'You want us to be really skinny? OK, I'll be really skinny for you!' If we all looked at them and said, 'What are you, insane?', then the standard would probably be different. In my profession, if I said today, 'You know what, I'd rather be healthy, and I'm going to eat what my body wants,' I would be at least ten pounds heavier - and if I gained that weight, there are fifty women lining up to take my job from me. So I'm stuck in this!"
Ironically, Armitage came to the attention of many in an ad for Carl's Jr. hamburgers, in which she wore white and had ketchup spilled on her outfit. Over the course of the twelve-hour shoot, she took hundreds of bites of hamburgers. "By the time four o'clock rolled around, I was starting to heave! I thought I wouldn't be able to eat hamburgers again. But I recovered by about two weeks later." Because she commits so much time to maintaining her shape, she prefers to do her own stunts: "Vain as I am, though I want it to be me or somebody who looks just like me - I work out really hard to look the way I do, and then to have somebody up there who's three times as big - it's kind of a bummer, because people don't know it's not me, they think I've gained weight, and you're just not allowed to gain weight."
She also enjoys the stunt work, which has required some training at the Beverly Hills Gun Club and some coaching by co-star Michael Worth, who choreographs the show's martial arts sequences. "I'm trying to get better at that because we'd like the fight scenes to be more intricate and more interesting," she notes. "Now and again a double will step in when it's really dangerous. There's nothing worse than having an actor on the beach in a bathing suit with a cast on her leg! But I like to skydive, and I've bungee jumped, and I've hang-glided, I like to do all those things, so it's nice to be able to say yes."
And she's quick to add that her concerns about the standards for actresses in Hollywood are superficial. "I think there's just so many more opportunities for women in America - the standard of living is a lot higher, and I also think that women are far more equal to men in this country than anywhere else in the world. We're not all the way there yet, but we're closer than anywhere else." While she says she has had to fight on occasion for her character's integrity, she hopes that this year, her position as one of the series leads will give her more clout.
"Last year, we had different writers writing the show, and nobody was consistent with our characters," she admits. "One particular writer wrote my character kind of mean and bitchy, and I didn't want to go there because I don't think that's particularly interesting to watch, unless you're watching Melrose Place. I wanted to change the dialogue to be consistent with my character, but we had a new director who insisted that that's the way women are - the guy on the show is the leader, and we have to be jealous and insecure because he's got his eye on another girl. Next year I'm not going to do that. I'm established now, I have a rapport with the producers, and the most important thing is to keep my character consistent."
When she arrived in this country, Armitage didn't have any thoughts of becoming a performer. She studied computer science as a foreign exchange student, but dreaded the thought of working nine to five in front of a screen. Though she'd traveled widely with her family - her father worked for I.B.M., and took the family from Hong Kong all over the world on his vacations - she fell in love with southern California watching Charlie's Angels on television. "L.A. was such a beautiful place - I said, that's where I want to go, that's where I want to be. But I had never thought about acting at the time." She arrived with one suitcase - two pair of shoes, six outfits - and worked as a chef in exchange for a place to live.
Acting was liberating for the strictly-raised Armitage, who says she didn't know whether she could learn to open up emotionally when she first got started. "I was brought up in a strict English Victorian type family where you weren't allowed to show emotion, you're not allowed to cry, you're not allowed to be human - I spent my whole childhood trying not to cry, and to be stoic and unemotional. It's really hard to let go of all those things you've learned. I'm not a natural-born actress; I have to work very hard at it, and learn and study and try to grow. It's great to do something different every day, but it's been the biggest challenge for me, too."
Armitage is amused with the similarities between Acapulco H.E.A.T. and Charlie's Angels - they both feature glamorous women who investigate crimes. Her most recent film, The Hunter, "is cops too - I think there's just a large amount of shows in that genre." She made a recent appearance on The New Adventures of Robin Hood for which she got to use her own accent. "They hired me to get them publicity in Europe, because Acapulco H.E.A.T. does so well there, which is really nice - it's so nice to get a call, 'Would you like to do an episode?' You don't have to go in and audition, which is the worst part about the business."
John Bradley, who plays Robin Hood, says he really enjoyed working with Armitage and hopes she will return to the new series. "She's huge in France, and what a nice person. She's such a pro. I'd love to have her back." Armitage is also remembere for her gritty character on Silk Stalkings, a murderous heroin addict, which the actress found very challenging to play as she has no experience with drugs and didn't know anyone who had ever had a problem with heroin.
"I don't know what it's like to be a heroin addict, and that out of control and that unhappy, and having to cry on cue is not easy for me because I've taught myself since childhood to suppress that feeling," she observes. "I've got to tell you, I'm a real fan of fun, light family programming. It can be fun to play a really-far-gone character once in awhile, but last thing I want to do is go to work every day and try to think of horrible, miserable things so I can cry. I want to go to work and have a blast, not be there and go, I'm really scared of doing this. Every now and again, yeah. But not all the time. I don't think of myself as this major thespian. I want to do a lot of different things, you want a variety, you want to be playing different characters. That's what makes it really interesting, and a bigger challenge."
Armitage's favorite genre to watch is nature shows: "I'm into National Geographic, the Discovery Channel's my favorite. All the other stuff, I do, and I'd rather be doing it than watching it." But the actress is spending her hiatus catching up with Acapulco H.E.A.T., which she rarely watched while she was shooting. She has ideas for next season, but adds quickly, "It's not my show, I'm not an executive producer. I can make suggestions, I'd like to explore my character's dark side, but I don't think they want to go in that direction with it, even though I think they could." She points out that in most countries, Acapulco H.E.A.T. is considered a family show, "so you don't see a lot of blood and guts kind of thing - people get shot, but you don't really see the gore."
But she has plans to develop her own series, which she could film over her hiatus from Acapulco H.E.A.T., which would permit her to make her own decisions about what to explore. "I'm not a writer, I don't have any desire to direct, but I'm dying to produce, and I'm already getting projects together," she reveals. "There's a lot to learn in that, too, but it's really fun and interesting. I'd love to be a producer of a series that I'm in, whether I'm in it in a major way or in a small way, and to be working on it every day - that would be awesome."
But in the meantime, working on sun-drenched beaches with a cast she's very comfortable with, Armitage has no complaints. "I'm really happy with my life and where I'm at," she exclaims. "I love America! I'm here to stay! As a woman with an attitude of 'Yeah, I can do it,' that makes me American, no matter where I'm from."