A Valentine For Andromeda
Lisa Ryder, who plays Captain Beka Valentine on Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, doesn't mind trading reality for science fiction. The actress has already starred in Total Recall 2070, Psi Factor, and upcoming Friday the 13th sequel Jason X, plus Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict. Her new job puts her in command of the salvage freighter Eureka Maru, currently docked in the hold of the Andromeda Ascendant, of which she is acting first officer. In practical terms, this means Valentine often takes Captain Dylan Hunt up on his offer to give him a good kick when he needs one.
"It's a great role for a woman," says Ryder during a rare afternoon off from shooting the highly-rated syndicated series. "I'm enjoying it. I've heard a lot of people ask, 'Why are you taking orders from this Hunt dude?' But I'm not a regular first officer!"
Ryder relates to tough, independent Beka Valentine. "There is a bit of an edge to me, and a hard past that I come from. There's a sense of strength that is me, that is her. But I think I have more of a sense of humor than Beka does, or I'll put it this way: she's more biting, more sarcastic, and I'm a bit more of a goof." Ryder laughs maniacally. "I'm the one singing show tunes on the set. She wouldn't!"
A Valentine For the Commonwealth
Beka first encountered Dylan -- she won't call him Captain -- when she towed the Andromeda Ascendant out of a singularity where it was frozen in time for 300 years. Her goal was to sell his ship. Hunt, however, had other plans. His first words to Valentine were a warning to duck while he blew up a weapons locker. Then he set out to retake his ship, insisting that the values of the defunct Systems Commonwealth were worth salvaging more than his ship.
As Ryder sees it, Beka and her crew agreed to stay on the Andromeda Ascendant mostly because his bigger, stronger ship represented a better life to them. They had some qualms -- for one thing, the presence of Nietzschean Tyr Anasazi, whose survivalist mentality makes him a bad team player. Anasazi got fed up quickly with Hunt's idealism and suggested mutiny to Valentine, but she stuck with her committment to Hunt once she realized he could be trusted with the lives of her crew.
"It's an amazing ship," notes Ryder. "When Tyr said he'd prefer to serve under me as captain, I think I was pretty tempted. But Beka's not stupid -- she's not going to drop her own ship, her home, based on greed. She needs to know more about this new ship and this quest. Taking that ship on meant a lot than Tyr knew."
Valentine and Hunt are still hashing out their command relationship. In the fourth episode, "D Minus Zero," he informed her that if she ever tried to countermand his orders during a battle, he'd throw her in the brig. She retorted that he needed to stop acting like the High Guard still existed to back him up, and bristled when Hunt said her work as a freighter captain did not make Valentine his equal. "That's a recurring thing," claims Ryder. "I think she has some male authority issues, and they keep coming up. There's a lot of friction. I settle into being the first officer rather quickly, but I keep him a bit on his toes."
In future episodes, we will meet Valentine's brother and learn that her father "was not a real good guy." Ryder says the character has been abandoned by the men in her own family, and meets guys who shaft her all the time. "She can't count on them. She's had to make it on her own. I think sex always comes into it -- a woman on her own, a woman in authority, doing things her way. In a savage, survivalist universe, I think women physically have challenges to face that men take for granted."
The Crew of Eureka Maru
What sorts of women serve as models for a character like Valentine? "Trinity in The Matrix," says Ryder promptly. "All the producers want a Carrie Anne Moss right now. She is an awfully cool character. I don't know how much I drew on her, but it's nice to see all these action heroines."
At the height of the Commonwealth, when hundreds of races lived together in peace and prosperity, gender prejudice didn't exist. But the Commonwealth was shattered when the Nietzscheans rebelled, spurred on by an attack from the Magog who raped and slaughtered an entire colony. Valentine has a Magog crewmember on her ship, an introspective character named Rev Bem who resists his culture's savage traditions. Hunt and Anasazi aren't very comfortable with him around.
"The Commonwealth has fallen to crap," summarizes Ryder. "Really, Dylan is all that is left. The Nietzscheans will do whatever is necessary for them to survive. The Magog will rape guys, girls, anything that moves. I think Beka is comfortable with Rev because they have a long history -- he's been part of my crew for a long time, I know how deep his beliefs run, and I've trusted him in survival situations before. But Dylan has to get used to him, and Tyr has to get used to him. I can trust Rev, but I can't trust Tyr."
Still, Beka has lively chemistry with the brooding Nietzschean, as well as the idealistic captain. So, which guy would she prefer -- hunky hero Hunt or bad boy Anasazi? "Beka seems to be a bit of a free spirit that way," confesses Ryder. "If she falls in love, it's going to have to be something she deals with like a trucker on the road -- I think maybe she has a lover in every port. She has a good time, but she's not the settling-down type of girl. There is tension between her and Dylan, but it's not romantic right now; I think they have mutual respect for each other. There's some strangeness between Tyr and Beka. We have very interesting moments together. Stuff is implied, but has not been explored as of yet."
Trance Gemini -- the mysterious, kittenish crewmember who came back from the dead in the pilot episode -- has already chosen to side with Hunt twice in survival situations where Valentine disagreed with her decision. Yet Ryder says, "My character thinks of Trance as my lucky charm. I can trust on her judgement even though it's not really based on logic. I think she has a deep intuitive sense, and we all know there's something up with her -- there's a beautiful naivete about her, we don't know what race she's from, we don't know what power she has. Laura Bertram is a hell of an actor too; she's bringing a lot to the role."
Just before she was cast on this series, Ryder worked on Jason X with Lexa Doig, who plays Andromeda -- the ship's holographic interface with the crew, who takes physical form as the android Rommie. "We both went to L.A. on the same flight to audition," Ryder recalls. "I think the point of that trip was for us to meet Kevin Sorbo. He had approval on all the characters except Tyr, so he wanted to meet everybody and see if we got along, if we matched physically and acting-wise. Tyr was created for Keith Hamilton Cobb, and he came with the package."
Doig actually read for the part of Valentine, although she says she knew from the description that she wasn't right for the role -- "They needed someone like Lisa Ryder." The exotic-looking, more petite Doig was cast as the starship's artificial intelligence, while athletic blonde Ryder was chosen to play the first officer.
"So many different women were up for the role of Beka, I didn't know if they knew what they wanted," Ryder reflects. "They had me read with Kevin, and I guess they liked our chemistry." The actress had never before met the Hercules star, though she was familiar with his work and his fan following. "There's some crossover between the Goth vampire fans and the fantasy and sci-fi fans. I'm not completely clued in to the whole thing, but I did a couple of Forever Knight conventions, so I had some idea. Those were pretty overwhelming. Pretty wild!"
Cult of Roddenberry
Ryder watched the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, so she was familiar with Gene Roddenberry's ethos. "I'm not a huge TV watcher, and I'm more your West Wing-Sex and the City-Friends kind of chick," she admits. But she now gets a kick out of watching old Trek episodes as a point of comparison. "I feel like our show has really grown since the first couple of episodes, where there are some really cheesy aliens and stuff. But the other day I was watching a Next Generation first season episode, and I said, 'Oh my god! This is just as cheesy as our show!' That show really grew into itself, and I think our show is growing into itself as well. Now that I know what a sci-fi show goes through, I can watch Star Trek with new appreciation."
What does she think Andromeda needs to improve? "At first, there's a whole ensemble, we really don't know each other, but we have to behave like a crew," she says. "That takes time. And the look of the show takes some tweaking. We're still going through tweaking, it never stops. But there's that point where you feel the actors starting to connect, the aliens get better, the makeup gets better, the budgets get bigger. I think we're getting it."
Ryder's character has a couple of big stories coming up -- one with her brother, one with a friend of her father's played by John De Lancie. Yet the actress has no idea what might be in store for Valentine in the long run, which is fine with her. "I've been told some backstory, but that's about it. As an actor, I see my job as to get a script and try to make that work. Within that, I do what I can to develop my character, but I don't think I can say 'My character wouldn't do that' because my character really is only what's on the page. This is a collaborative art form. It's not an actor's medium, for the most part."
Head writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe visits the set often, "and when he's not, he's just a phone call away. Whenever we have questions about our character or the writing, we can talk about it. He's pretty open-minded, but he certainly has a view of what he wants to do with the characters. I think Robert is open to ideas, but we haven't had a formal meeting to say, 'This is where I want to go with Beka.' I need to get my feet under me first and figure out what this world is about."
The show is already contracted for two years, and if it ends up running seven like the recent Trek series, that's fine with Ryder. "I don't know what the plan is, I've heard rumors about five years, but it's such a weird business. As soon as I got cast, I looked up the Andromeda web site and was amazed that they had such a well-organized site. I thought maybe that was standard for a Roddenberry show because he's got such a huge following."
Was it intimidating? "You really can't weigh yourself down with all of that, because you'd bury yourself," Ryder reflects. "I've noticed on the internet that people certainly have their favorite Roddenberry shows and their favorite characters, and opinions about the way they think we should all behave and speak and dress! You've just got to do your best with the resources that you're given."
The comfort level on the set contributed to Ryder's sense of ease on the job, for which she credits Kevin Sorbo. "There's a lot of laughs every day, and I think that's important. Kevin is quite in charge of setting the tone. It always comes from the star -- if you have a jerk, you have a sad set, if you have a cool guy, you have a fun set. Kevin really sets the tone in a good way. It's a very cool crew, and a very nice cast."
The green screen work and effects on Andromeda aren't a problem because Ryder has done quite a bit in her career, particularly in the upcoming Friday the 13th spinoff. "My part in Jason X was really fun," she says. "Jason has been cryogenically frozen in the present day. We go 300 years in the future -- or actually I just assume it's 300 years, because Dylan's been frozen for 300 years on Andromeda. I'm the teacher, kind of like a science droid. We go on a class trip down to Old Earth where they're doing an archaeological dig, and they uncover him an un-freeze him. And they alter me into this killing machine to combat him. It was awfully fun to be an android!"
Ryder's Jason X character was modeled on Pris, the android Daryl Hannah played in Blade Runner. She did a lot of acrobatics, rather like the cyborg who did a gratuitous walkover in the Andromeda pilot. "I was all about that," laughs Ryder. "Jason just stands there and takes it." Though she has played several action heroines and has studied yoga and dance, Ryder does not have formal martial arts training. On Andromeda, she is required to have a stunt double if there's a chance of her getting hurt.
"We do our own fight work, mostly," she says. "If I'm going to be falling off of a ledge or hitting the ground, usually I get a stunt double. The production goes so fast that sometimes you're on to the next episode when second unit will have to get a close-up of your fist hitting somebody, so they'll use a stunt double. But generally we fight, and of course Kevin and Keith have a lot of experience with that. There's a guy on set here who trains us when we need to do a fight scene with the staffs. We don't have phasers, but we have a force lance that has smart bullets. It looks like a dildo; then you can extend it to be like a staff."
After studying dance in her native Toronto, Ryder studied drama in college and "got in with a bunch of people who formed a theater company called Bald Ego. We just started writing and producing and performing. The theater work I've done has been my favorite work. I was educated in drama school by East German directors, and it's sort of outside-in work. Physicality gives you your character, rather than being in an emotional space."
She is puzzled by actors who apply Method training to television roles. "I've never been given the opportunity to live the role; I've never been manipulated by a director into thinking something was happening when it actually wasn't. With TV, you have to be able to turn it on and turn if off. If you're going to live the character, you're going to burn yourself out. I think you have to have techniques for keeping yourself separate, keeping yourself emotionally sane. I couldn't be Beka all day -- I've got to laugh, I've got to be a goof!"
Ryder has written a short film that she is planning to produce over hiatus with her boyfriend, David Chapman, who will direct. She has written for the stage and collaborated on ensemble pieces. "Collaborating with people who are cool and have a cool vision, that's where it's exciting for me. Right now it's my boyfriend. The writing is a creative process for me, it's not a moneymaking venture. I don't know if I'd want to do it for the show. Of course I want to continue to do theater when I can, and I like the digital video medium, it has this documentary feel to it."
Whose career does Ryder admire? "John Cusack," she says promptly. "I really admire him in that he works with his friends; he writes and is capable of directing; and he produces projects that are interesting and that challenge him as an actor, that he can be more involved with than just being an actor. I've heard Owen Wilson is also like that -- he does a lot of writing, and he works with people, you keep seeing the same names together. They have their favorites, and that's for a reason. I like the idea of having an ensemble of people you feel comfortable with, and who are collaborative."
Ryder thinks this is a good time to be a woman in entertainment. "When I was in my twenties, I was consistently cast as somebody's girlfriend or wife, and a victim -- somebody who died on TV shows," she recalls. "Recently, I've been getting kick-ass roles where I'm an action girl, a strong woman, and I have an opinion. I don't know if that's the industry changing or my look changing; maybe the fact that I started to work out more changes that. Certainly women will always be objectified in the media. But the fact that I see more and more action heroes that are women is a good sign."
"TV is getting better as movies get shittier -- they're all for the 16-to-18-year-old crowd," the actress continues. "There's a lot of crap, but some of the best writing is on TV these days." She's talking about The West Wing, but that applies to science fiction as well. "X-Files sure had its moment, and it was an amazing show. Clever writing, and there's a female character that kicks, Scully's every bit as strong as Mulder."
Ryder would be delighted if Hunt and Valentine turn out like Mulder and Scully -- as would Andromeda's backers. "Our producers are quite thrilled with the ratings," she smiles. "I just want to have opportunities to play. I want to develop the relationships on board and off. I want to be a cool character."