Viper's Heather Medway has been with the series for three of its four seasons, but she wishes the show were just starting. "I feel - and I know I'm not alone - that this show is a quantum leap over last year, and certainly the premiere year," she said in an interview this winter, taking a break from shooting in Vancouver to visit her home in Los Angeles.
"We've come up, we've come into our own. I'm afraid a lot of people have sort of made their decision about the show without really seeing it, because it's a different show now. I hope they try it again."
Medway, who plays detective Cameron Westlake on Viper, joined the series in its second season when it moved from NBC into syndication, which saved the show but condemned it to the vagaries of local programming schedules.
"I got a letter from my mom, she said it airs at 3 a.m. on Thursday mornings where she lives. Ouch! It's different in every market," groaned the actress. Excellent overseas ratings have kept the futuristic action series in production, and the return this season of original driver Joe Astor, played by James McCaffrey, has been well-received by viewers and cast alike.
McCaffrey came back to replace Jeff Kaake, whose character Thomas Cole has been reassigned from the Viper team. While Medway was careful not to criticize Kaake, she also wanted to stress that she thinks McCaffrey's acting skills bring the series to a higher level than it achieved the past two seasons. "I feel so lucky, because I had never met Jim, neither of us really knew anything about each other - they offered him the role when they realized he was available because the producers had worked with him before, and liked him, and felt that having him back would help make the series more cohesive even with a lead change," she explained.
As for how the change is working out, "It's been a blessing. Jim is a delight to work with, he's got a lot of ideas, a great sense of fun, sort of a playful side that brings it out in everyone around him. So he's been a really positive catalyst on our show. It's helped everyone's performances, it's helped flesh out a lot of the characters, and that's given the writers kind of an inspiration to go with."
Along with McCaffrey, the series got a new Viper this season - a blue GTS Coupe with "battle bumpers" and an amphibious mode so the car can operate as a hovercraft.
"The hydrofoil came out really cool! I was shocked at how good it looked," laughed the actress, who said she's not particularly a fan of cars or science fiction. "I really enjoy the action beats, though," she added quickly.
"We did an episode which I think will be one of the best ones of the year, there's an insane amount of action that he and I are involved in - we're trapped hostage in this building. Jim wanted us to do a stunt where both of us are jumping out a second-story window. I do the stunts as much as possible, but we have a stunt coordinator and I have a terrific stunt double. I said, 'Call me from my trailer so I can see it when you're rolling!' We try and do our own stunts as much as possible, but always keeping it safe."
Sparks flew between Astor and Westlake early on, so the writers have taken advantage of the chemistry. "There's a lot of humor between the characters, a lot of ribbing and teasing, so that just sort of goes throughout more serious storylines. We've done an episode where he's undercover as a treasure hunter and I'm a psychic, and it's all set up to bring out more fun and humor in the characters out of the situations.
"Nobody is really committing to where it is going to go, but it certainly feels like there's going to be a tug of war, should we get together or shouldn't we? I think that the characters are going to go through a lot of that in different circumstances. The character and the relationship have become more compelling. I think that may help broaden our base for an audience, because there's something more than just car and action - suddenly there are what I feel are real people there."
Medway had very little time to prepare from the time she was cast to the start of shooting, the entire show was recast except for Joe Nipote's Frankie Waters, who played the mechanic, though increasingly his character works undercover. The actress received some firearms training and drove around with members of the Calgary police department, but had very little time to immerse herself in police work before she had to become a detective.
Although she enjoys the potential for romance, what initially attracted Medway to the part of Cameron Westlake was her independence - after having played mostly girlfriends and wives, she wanted to play "a strong, independent woman. She's not attached to anything, nobody's wife or mother or sister. What I liked about the role is, it's a woman who's an individual."
She uses phrase "the Pet Fly family" to talk about the production company - echoing Richard Burgi and Bruce Young of The Sentinel, another Pet Fly production - which seems to characterize the comfortable atmosphere on both sets. The actress is engaged to Danny Bilson, an executive producer at Pet Fly whom she met while working on Viper, though much of the time, he is in Los Angeles while she works in Vancouver.
"Up in Canada, people start working and they don't want to leave. They have great Christmas parties and company picnics - it's a nice group of people, and they've groomed a bunch of directors out of the people who were involved in making the show. Everyone's really inspired and motivated because they're reaching to do more."
Given the rebirth of sorts which the show has experienced, Medway is hopeful that Viper will run for several more seasons. "I honestly never imagined that this series would be going as long as it has - not that I didn't think this show would work, just I'd never done anything longer than a couple of months, so to be doing a third year is really strange for me."
Ironically, Medway - who has appeared on Seinfeld, Friends and Models Inc. - became an actress more by fate than choice, and had not done many shows when she was cast on Viper. She had gone to college on a scholarship to study oceanography, but wanted to switch schools and needed money to transfer.
"People said, 'Oh, you should model,' so I thought I'd give it a shot. I modeled for about seven years - and it was never 'it' for me, I was really bored, but I worked, and it served me for living in New York City," she said.
On her first commercial audition, "when I was about as clueless as they come," Medway was cast by an enthusiastic director who advised her to become an actress. "He said, 'What do you want to do with your life?' I wanted to be an oceanographer. And he said, 'I know plenty of oceanographers who are pumping gas in Los Angeles. So if you want to make a living, you should get into acting. Work with the best person you can find.'"
Medway, who "liked the self-exploration" of acting, took his advice and started looking for an acting teacher, ultimately studying Meisner Technique in New York with Meisner disciple Bill Esper. Medway's co-star McCaffrey also has considerable stage training, which may explain why they work so well together.
The actress would like to work in film, since she prefers it as a medium; "it's a slower pace, while the compression of experience in working on a TV series is something completely different. There's so much to do that it's hard to get bored, but I'd like the opportunity to work in a slower pace, more deeply. I just like to be creatively challenged. I do like the action, but I would like to do a drama."
"I was involved in theater in high school, just because my friends did it - I thought that people were nuts to think they could have a career in that!" the actress recalled. "I was hoping one day I would run into that director and say, 'You know, I took your advice and it worked,' and I actually did run into him in Los Angeles. I took a sharp, sharp turn, it's very strange."
Maybe she was also destined to connect with a vehicle that has taken some sharp turns of its own.