Stranger in a Strange Land
It's not surprising that Leni Parker feels like an alien on the set, where she plays the Taelon leader Da'an on Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict. What's more surprising is that she feels like an alien off the set.
As long-time resident of Montreal living in Toronto, and an experimental theater actress working in commercial television, Parker claims it's relatively easy for her to get inside the bald, oversized head of an androgynous extraterrestrial living among humans.
"I thought the series would run maybe a year, and I would move back to Montreal," Parker admitted during her hiatus this summer. Her family, her agent, her accountant are all there, and the New Brunswick-born Parker maintains a residence.
"I think I packed a few boxes and thought, I'll be back soon, and I'm still waiting to go back home. I feel like Toronto is a place you come to earn a good living, but Montreal is a place where you cultivate your creativity. I've made wonderful friends and I really respect my colleagues on Earth, but it is an awfully long time."
Earth: Final Conflict has been picked up for a fourth season, so Parker will spend at least one more year working on the series Star Trek's Roddenberry created but did not live to see produced. Asked whether she would consider staying for a fifth season - or through a seven-year run like the last three Star Trek series - the actress sounded unsure. "I really love Da'an, so it would be heartbreaking to say goodbye to that character. This character has been through a lot, I've been through a lot, and Da'an in a way has been my escape. I can go there and feel very safe and be very creative."
Parker refers to the androgynous Da'an most often by name, though for simplicity's sake, both she and many commentators resort to male pronouns in discussing the character. The powerful Taelon has evolved quite a bit since the first season, when it was unclear whether the enigmatic alien had any real feelings for the humans with whom he came into contact. The Taelons put an end to many human problems such as starvation and disease, but they brought some of their own problems with them from their homeworld - including their enemies.
"I think you've seen a real compassion in the character, maybe as much as we can," noted the actress. "I've been trying to get back to the real alienness of the character. It is frightening in a way - Da'an is not evil, but is willing to sacrifice people for the greater good of the Taelons and Humans. I'd like to see the struggle in my character, how protective I am with my own race. How I will go to great lengths to protect my race. I think we can explore that more."
Parker did extensive research about androgyny, and though she expressed skepticism about extraterrestrials on Earth when she first got the part, it is now something she considers more seriously. "In creating this character and originating all of those movements and working very hard at it and subconsciously drawing on things, I've thought about aliens coming down. I think there are aliens up there watching me and I think they approve! And when they do come down, I'd be willing to go for a ride." An X-Files fan, Parker said that if she could meet Da'an, "I'd want to touch this being, do the palm to palm or some sort of energy transference. I'd ask him about centuries before us, I'd want to pick his brain. And I'd want to go away with him, and I'd want him to show me the Taelon homeworld."
The initial notes indicated that the character would be "graceful and dignified," explained the actress, so she played Da'an with as much nobility as she could muster given the alien qualities with which she needed to endow the Taelon ambassador. "I drew from my image of kings and queens in Elizabethan England - that was a bit of a reference point for me. I was extremely protective of the character in the first season; I've loosened up a bit. But it was hard for me to explain to the new actors why I moved in a certain way, why my hands moved like this. I would give them sessions, I would try to teach them how to do these things, but it was almost impossible to relay this character, because it came from something extremely spiritual in me. I just sort of let it happen, other than doing character research."
Not much of a science fiction fan, Parker had occasionally seen the original Star Trek but did not know the names of the actors until she started attending conventions. "I started watching a little bit here and there to kind of bone up on that, but the fans know everything - I took a fan on tour of the set the other day and she was doing the tour, noticing things I never did. On series television, I think the key is humor; if you can find humor, it will get you through the three and a half hours of makeup!"
Though she wore prosthetics in the horror film Hemoglobin, the actress believes that "it takes a special kind of person who can really take the makeup and go with it for five years. I don't know how Michael Dorn did that for ten years!" In addition to the large cap which pins her ears down and the heavy forehead which limits her facial expressions, the constriction of the costume helped determine how Taelons express themselves. "I had very limited movement," she explained. "I expressed myself through my fingers, my hands, which were the thing that could move on me that people would understand, like a blind person - very tactile. I decided the Taelons would take in information through their fingertips, so there were sensory elements that would pick things up from humans through the air. I could choose which digit I would be taking information from, and what I would be taking in and what I wouldn't. That was the basis for the finger movements. It's all very organic."
Parker's vision was impeded by the costume as well, which affected the way Da'an moves. "We've got these new contacts that are smaller and thinner, but they do impede the vision - when I tried them on the first time, I had extreme tunnel vision, so the head movements came out of that. Then it kind of adapts itself. I would ask myself, how would Da'an express himself in this moment? My voice is processed too, they digitally alter it down a tone. When I first heard it, I thought I'd never get used to it - I felt like I had given away everything - but they do a really nice job with it. Depending on how I use my inflections, it has a really nice rhythm to it. They process it differently in different scenes, and it really is quite effective."
Because she created the prototype Taelon, actors cast as new alien characters rely on Parker as an expert. "Most of the others took tapes home of me before their callbacks, which is really strange," she noted. "I think it was hard for some of them, coming in and having to do this stuff which was very natural to me and very unnatural to them. It was nice seeing Anita have her own take on it after I taught her how to move. I was really tortured, trying to find new things to do, but Richard Chevolleau [who plays Augur] said, 'Leni, remember, it's about consistency. It's about giving the same thing all the time. The way they see Da'an, that is Da'an for them. They want to have that comfort in seeing the same thing every week. I'm a perfectionist so I will keep going, but it's easier on everyone not to try to search all the time."
Parker came from an experimental theater and dance background, so the relative monotony of television - even a show like Earth: Final Conflict, which has a strong arc and a cast shaken by character deaths and major new developments - creates its own difficulties for her. "I just want to be in an 18th century gown on the moors in Scotland, weeping my eyes out over some gorgeous red-headed Scottish count, but I don't picture Da'an going there!" she laughed. A graduate of Concordia University in Montreal with a degree in performance, the actress traveled for several years with the prestigious theater troupe Pigeon International. "After this series, I'd like to return to Montreal, or I'd like to go to Europe to pursue the experimental stuff that I was doing - lots of dance and movement, beautiful collective creations.
On the series, she would like to spend more time on the Taelon homeworld to reinforce the alienness of Da'an. "I did suggest to the writers that there be a comrade, another Taelon I can be in cahoots with. He or she could be younger, and I could teach this Taelon the way of the Taelons and take him to the homeworld to show him what it was like. I'd like to explore all the Taelon rituals that involve anything with the hands, and the Taelon language. There could be good cop-bad cop going on, or animosity between the characters. I think for fans it's fascinating. For us, it's really interesting work. You never think of it as science fiction; you always think, this is a live being that exists. So how does this character act and react in situations? I'd like to really delve into that this year."
"It's always funny to me that humans are never the most evolved species," added Parker. "There's always a species that is more evolved, yet I think what's interesting with the Taelons is that you see we are flawed as well. We are in fact so 'human' that we make the same mistakes. When the Taelons came to Earth, we said, we wiped out world hunger, we wiped out pestilence, we cured incurable diseases, but we're still seeing problems. My sister had the funniest line, she said, 'Leni, you came to Earth and you fixed the ozone layer, so why are you still using styrofoam cups?'"
The series is set mostly in Washington, D.C., though the characters have been in New York and South America. "They went to Ireland, and there was one scene in Canada where the character Maya was teaching the Inuit up north. We have a lot of snow here so we might as well use it!"
At one point the series purported to be set in 2008, but Parker is not sure what year it is now in series-time. Having worked for years in Quebec, where she had French friends who were separatists, she finds the politics of the show less progressive than one might hope in science fiction. "I know Da'an would want to wipe out world hunger and global wars; you still need to go through violence, though. You're still going to see those machine guns strapped to somebody. The thing with Taelons is that you're battling with energy, and energy can take many different forms. They could explore that."
"In terms of the politics I think we're still seeing a bit of the stereotypes," she continued. "I object to the Taelons being all white. Why would a higher being have a white head, unless it was see-through? I know this is our human facade, but why is our human facade so Anglo-Saxon? I think on TV you see cultural stereotypes, but what's interesting about our show in terms of the racial values, we've got quite an eclectic mix of people. I'd like to see more interracial stuff because that's what's on Earth now."
The sexual roles on Earth: Final Conflict could scarcely be described as stereotyped but the show has yet to explore all the ramifications of having androgynous beings interacting within the human binary gender division. "I really think television is a bit afraid of androgyny - or we could really go further than that, they're afraid of sexuality, unless it's between a man and a woman and the man is dominating and powerful," Parker agreed. "The androgyny is the drawing card about that show. As soon as you start to see these aliens having sex with females on the planet, that's the problem, you start dividing and the camps start dividing. I find it just so fascinating to ride that line down the middle. I would hope sexuality will maybe evolve, there won't be any boundaries; bisexuals or eunuchs will be quite normal. It would be interesting not to have to define it in terms like that."
Parker praises the writers as being very receptive to input from the actors. "We can give story suggestions and character suggestions, which is great about this production. We've always had carte blanche on the set about dialogue; if there's some Taelon text that isn't correct, because I know how Da'an speaks, I will change it, they are fine with that.
Next season there will be a couple of new faces, including "a female character who's coming in that's fantastic," and Parker warns that "in terms of the alliances on the show, you'll see a lot of people switch camps. You know that's for an eventual reason, but right now it's not clear to any of us why this is happening. I've got about five scripts ahead of where we are, so they don't tell us too much, but there's a big whammy that they gave us about the Taelons - Anita and I were like, whoa! It's great, because it gives us something to play with right now."
Over her recent hiatus, Parker intended to travel to the west coast, "going out in the bush to get away from society for a bit, which will be really nice - I want to get out of the city." She thinks working in television has changed her, and likes to take a break from the environment. "My mother says I'm harder, I'm not a very nice person! I think it's because television is a business, it's a multi-million dollar business and being a creative theater actor and coming into that environment, it's very foreign. There's the whole business aspect of this art that you have to deal with as a series regular, and that's hard for me. I'm extremely non-confrontational, so it's sort of wised me up a bit."
Though she anticipates remaining an actor all her life, "I will be 87, I'll be onstage and I'll just drop dead, just drag me offstage, I will be working until my last breath," Parker is trying to write an autobiographical script with her sister "that we've been trying to get off the ground for a year," which she would like to produce as a short film. "It's about the business, and it's so funny; I know people do stuff like this all the time, but I'm making it for myself. There are so many funny stories about people out there which aren't just funny for people in the industry. You can actually look at these people and think yeah, they're real characters."
Parker said that she would like to get former Earth: Final Conflict co-star Kevin Kilner on board to play one of the characters. "I really miss him," she admitted. "I think our two characters together were a moment in science fiction which was really unusual. That will go down in history, Boone and Da'an. Hopefully I can start doing conventions with him. That first year was great for me, with him. But Majel Roddenberry is coming back, she'll be up here much more, and I love her; she's so funny, I can barely get through a scene. I'll crack up."
If the show does run for seven seasons, Parker - a dedicated vegetarian and animal rights volunteer - thinks she'll manage to remain content in Toronto. "Instinctually, I knew this character when I read the first script," she recalled. "There was an immediate connection, which rarely happens in film or TV. I was watching myself during looping yesterday, and I looked at Da'an sitting in the chair, and I thought, that will be an image I will keep: this lonely, displaced soul."
If the aliens arrive, Leni Parker will be ready to serve as ambassador.