American interviews with Claudia Black must plot complicated courses across time and space, much like the pilot she plays on Farscape. When I spoke to the actress, it was a bleary Thursday close to midnight in Washington D.C., but the middle of Friday afternoon for her in her native Australia where the show films. "So it's already futuristic as you speak to me," laughed Black from her trailer, where boxes of Lucky Charms cereal - a gift from the producer - make her feel connected to real-time and to the U.S.
Black plays former soldier Aeryn Sun on the new Sci-Fi Channel hit, co-produced by the Jim Henson Company and featuring some of the most complex aliens ever seen on television. One of the former captors of the crew of Moya - a living spaceship which was also a prisoner of the Peacekeepers who bred and trained Aeryn - she was thrown into uncharted space along with the rest of the crew following a jailbreak. Now they have a common desire to get back to familiar territory, though Aeryn can never really go home again: her extended contact with the prisoners has made her an outcast.
Farscape is by no means Black's first genre credit: in addition to the film Pitch Black slated for release this year, she played Cassandra on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. "I know it's an incredibly popular series, but it's amazing that people have remembered my face on it," she said of the latter. Black appeared in two episodes, "Atlantis" and "Hercules on Trial," plus flashback sequences in later installments which used footage from her appearances. Her character's prominent mythology as well as Black's striking appearance probably have a lot to do with her memorable role on the show.
The film, however, was her connection to Farscape. "Gradually over the years I've done more work for American producers, and I was shooting Pitch Black, which was written and directed by David N. Twohy, who wrote the screenplay for The Fugitive and G.I. Jane," she explained. "I was working on that when I got a call about Farscape." Originally asked to read offscreen lines at the casting agency's studio for actors auditioning for other roles on the series, Black was told that she'd be perfect for the role of Aeryn Sun but that the part was being cast in the United States.
"I loved the idea of the character and I knew I would really enjoy playing her, but at the time I didn't think it was a possibility because it's a complicated agreement, several nationalities working together in Australia on a hybrid show," she continued. "But they said to me, this part is made for you, and suddenly I got a call out of the blue asking if I'd come to Sydney and test. It all started to happen very quickly from there."
Needless to say, the Sydney native was offered the role, "and it's been really exciting - it's a fantastic part to play. I think the production has become bigger than we'd ever imagined. On this show, we are really honoring in a creative way everything they had hoped to do with the series. It's so imaginative visually, and it's such a creative team working on the show, we're getting terrific results, I think. I'm really enjoying watching the effects." Though the series will not air in Australia for several months, the cast and crew have access to the finished episodes, of which they have just completed the sixteenth of twenty-two episodes for the year.
All Black knew at the beginning was "that Aeryn has been brought up since birth on a ship, most likely a test-tube baby, and she has been bred from birth to be a pilot. Several areas have been left unexplored so that the writers have opportunities to fill in the blanks as they see fit." She believes the original plan was to cast someone slightly younger than herself, "so she would be less worldly in a sense. Now that I'm playing Aeryn, I don't know."
Black does, however, know what appealed to her immediately: "She's quite brash. She did for awhile only seem to be able to express annoyance!" Because the character had to repress her emotions while her world was subjugated, "not really being given permission to express her feelings because that's a kind of weakness in her background," it gives the writers and the actress opportunity to show her dealing with new experiences and feelings.
"As an actor it's wonderful: there's a naivete about her, yet she's been around the block a couple of times, or the space equivalent, she's been around a couple of planets!" noted Black. "I think the audience needs to relate to her. Sebaceans are not that dissimilar to humans. She can have extra-super strength, but if she is in pain, I imagine they would want her to express that."
Where, then, is the chemistry between Aeryn Sun and displaced Human Commander John Crichton likely to go? "We don't want to patronize the audience, they're not stupid and they've seen sexual tension onscreen for years," the actress quickly responded. "We've taken quite an adult approach to their relationship - the writers, and Ben and myself. I think it would be cheesy if it was to be some incredibly romantic love affair. I don't think their circumstances really permit that type of relationship."
Still, they make an appealing couple, and Aeryn expressed both jealousy and desire in a recent episode when John was drawn to another alien. "There's enormous sexual attraction between them, that's undeniable, and certainly when the stakes are high and they think they are going to die, it gives them opportunities to in a way express how they feel about one another," Black agreed. "But I'd say it's more adult lust than romantic love at this point. If they have feelings for one another, that's one thing, [but] the reality and the logistics of playing out that relationship in space as prisoners on the run...I don't know if that particularly works in the long term."
What about the complexities of performing in scenes with creatures which look quite real on television, but are after all sophisticated Muppets? For instance, John Eccleston, the puppeteer for Rygel - a two-foot-tall colorful alien monarch who has been a prisoner for centuries - performs the character on the set, but in post-production, the voice is dubbed by actor Jonathan Hardy.
As Black explained, "John Eccleston gives us a beautiful performance on set, so we have a very good sense of the character of Rygel. With the creatures, we've been dealing more with animatronic creatures on set rather than things which require enormous amounts of CGI afterwards - so the live performance we are receiving as actors is pretty close to the final product. It's just that logistically, some of these animatronic creatures will require six men to commandeer the facial muscles and the arm movements! The creativity has been realized in a fabulous way, so legitimately it doesn't leave much to the imagination for us as actors; it's understandable that we are looking at aliens."
Does the actress need to believe that she is an alien while she is playing one? Black laughed a little at the suggestion. "I think on a practical level, working on a series, long-term, fast turnaround, you have to know the essence of who your character is, how she would respond in certain situations...and get on set and just be, just go for it. Make interesting choices that amuse you, that add interesting color to the storytelling. I don't analyze it too deeply - you don't have time - but that's not to say you can't add depth and texture to the role. I think as long as the audience can see energy onscreen and honest interaction between the characters, then we are really doing our jobs."
Black said her study for roles tends to focus on the physical life of the character she will be playing. "For me as an actor, it's how the body would move, depending on what they do for a living; Aeryn's quite militaristic. I think I have to convince the audience that I could possibly be that character, so it's important that I look physically fit and athletic."
As a result, she tries to resist eating the Lucky Charms her producer brought her after hearing that Black - who discovered the cereal when she and her family were living in London - mentioned that they were her favorite. "I said, what are you doing? It's a lovely sentiment but I'm trying to be healthy! I quit coffee and soft drinks, and now Lucky Charms...all that sugar!"
It sounds like the cast and crew have very good relationships, at least! "It's a lot of work but I am having a ball," she admitted. "I'm having a fantastic time with the cast and the crew - the directors have so much enthusiasm. Australia hasn't really had an opportunity to make a show like this before, and a lot of that has to do with the input from Henson. It's all the things that one dreamed of as a child - the sorts of creatures that we used to imagine, the spaceships we wished we could have flown - we're walking onto them every day and it's as good as flying them!"
Because the stories are self-contained, each is a separate adventure that Black characterized as "like a mini-feature film each episode; we get to create quite a filmic scale for television." She praised the "humor and life and energy" of her co-stars as well. "The interaction among the cast is superb; we really have a terrific time together. We're really happy with the development that the characters are experiencing, everyone's been really open to our suggestions and our input."
Particular praise was reserved for Ben Browder, who plays John Crichton, since "the demands on him are far greater than anyone else because the series revolves around him." She expressed sympathy as well for Kevin Sorbo, who will reportedly leave the title role on Hercules after his contract expires. "Poor Kevin, the guy needs a rest!" she exclaimed. "The hours that guy puts in! He's terrific to work with, he kept his humor, but I couldn't believe the hours that they expected of him. It is an enormous task being the lead role. It's five or six years that he's been doing it and it really takes its toll."
Black had done a weekly series prior to Farscape, a "very young, fashion-oriented show" called City Life on which she played a Greek lawyer. Raised in Sydney, she has spent the majority of her adult life abroad, including stints in New Zealand and Europe.
"The last thing I did in Europe was a tour of Merchant of Venice - I loved playing Portia but I have such a devastating memory of one of my performances!" she moaned. "I dried onstage at the beginning of 'The quality of mercy' speech, which is just catastrophic. I could hear people in the back row going 'tsk, tsk, tsk.' It's a nice test of whether you really want to be in the industry or not, because if those things don't faze you and you come out of it more determined, you probably have a bit of longevity."
Constantly aware of the high unemployment rates for actors, Black said she reminds herself every day of how lucky she is to be working. Her long-term goals? "I used to say that I'd be in this industry as long as it would have me; if I can get better, if I can develop more skills and a better craft and really solid technique as an actor, maybe one day I'll go back to university and study language," she replied. Then she laughed. "I don't think you should give up on one dream before you've got another one. Probably every actor has practiced an Academy Award acceptance speech, using various props from the kitchen as the statuette! Right now I just want to take each day as it comes."
While she said that she isn't a rabid science fiction fan (though she did rush out to see The Matrix), Black added that it was a main event in her family when each Star Wars film came out, and that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner made a tremendous impact on her in her youth. "I enjoy futurism - I think it's an exciting genre because we can establish the rules," she noted. "There are no precedents, and as long as you stick to the rules you've created, the audience will stay with you."
The new owner of a G3 laptop, the actress has recently begun to read some of the posts on the Sci-Fi Channel's web site about Farscape. "It's like a Tardis: you sit there and it will suck your time away from you!" she joked of the Internet. "It's a wild concept that you can be talking to people on the other side of the world...who must be insomniacs!" The actress enjoys meeting people and counts travel among her favorite pastimes. "If I can't travel on the job, I will most likely travel immediately after; I'll set aside some money for travel, that's one of my joys."
Since it seems likely that Farscape will be back next season, her off time may be limited, but that's fine with Black. "I'm happy to go with it as long as we're all still enjoying it and the audience is continuing to enjoy it."
She added that she hopes people who watched the early episodes will stick with the series which has grown so much. "For us, there's almost a cringe factor at the thought of the earlier episodes, because we've come such a long way since then - it's been terrific as it matures, so it's a scary prospect that people are watching our earlier ones. It's like your mother bringing out baby photos and showing them to this guy on your first date. 'Oh no, not those!'" Given how positive the reviews and fan feedback have been to the early episodes, one imagines that Aeryn Sun's following is only going to increase.