Michele Scarabelli:
Don't Call Me Melon-Head!

Michele Scarabelli seems to be remembered best as an alien. Sci-Fi Universe recently named her one of the 25 most intriguing women in science fiction, and she's readily recognizable to people as Jenna D'Sora, Data's one-time girlfriend on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But she fears being remembered primarily for the oversized head she sported as Susan Francisco on Alien Nation.

"I just had this article written in the papers across Canada, and it started off, 'Melon-headed Scarabelli...' How rude!" the actress exclaims. "The thing is, a lot of people don't recognize me without my head. And those who do are watching waaaay to much television."

Scarabelli may be somewhat more recognizable to Canadian audiences: born and educated in Montreal, she worked at Second City in Toronto and various regional theaters before coming to Los Angeles. "I'm a card-carrying alien - registered alien," she reports cheerfully. "Now, I blend in a lot more than Susan does." Still, Scarabelli says, when she got the part of a woman from another planet, it helped that she had experiences of alienation in her own life to draw upon.

"Coming from Montreal and not really feeling like I belonged, because I wasn't French Canadian and I wasn't English Canadian - I have a multi-cultural background: part Italian, part French, part Irish-Scottish - I'm not Catholic, I went to a school that was all Catholic, we were different, we had to get up and leave the class when the priest showed up to give catechism," she explains. All these factors made her feel "different" as a child, circumstances which served her well on the series.

The pilot episode of Alien Nation, which was Scarabelli's first exposure to the show, was about Susan Francisco's Tenctonese daughter trying to integrate into a human school. "I really identified with that," says Scarabelli. "What I played was kind of what I hoped my mother would have done to protect me, though she didn't have a clue - she didn't know how hard it was for us to integrate." Sent to a French school before she could speak the language, Scarabelli identified with the child and brought those feelings to the role of the mother.

Getting inside the head of an alien sounds like quite a challenge. As an actor, one generally lacks personal experience of extraterrestrials to draw on - "I've never been to another planet, I have no experience with spaceships," Scarabelli says with humor. Then she adds, more seriously, "I have no experience with being a slave, either, which I don't think anybody now does. You can draw emotionally from something, feeling humiliated - how would I behave in this situation? But you're really on your own."

Alien Nation is a metaphor for being different - an allegory of the human psyche - so it makes sense that the show would appeal to Scarabelli, whose undergraduate degree from Canada's McGill University was in psychology. Though she had no real designs on getting into acting, she loved to perform as a child. "It was a safe place to go, to make people laugh."

Scarabelli took an acting workshop only after modeling and working in commercials, then got a lead in a small movie in Montreal. "It's kind of the creative implementation of my psychology background," she says of acting. Though she learned improv technique at Second City, she notes that Method doesn't really work for her.

"I'm not keen on a lot of talk about acting. The kind of classes where you intellectualize. I do it from an internal process coming out, things like sense memory, where you're trying recall a situation that was similar to what you're about to do."

Did she have to believe that she was an alien to play one? "It's something that happened anyway," she admits. "I think what you do is, you believe who you are and that you're different, here. Obviously the make up helped tremendously. But I never looked in the mirror and went, 'Oh my god! You look strange...you look like an alien!' I went, 'Hmmm -- I am Susan.'"

Scarabelli has played a number of nurturing women, and many young mothers. She is amused that she gets fan mail saying, "Oh, you must be a wonderful mother, you're so understanding," since she doesn't have children. "I'm faking it, because it's not reality," she laughs. "I usually get cast as women who have a lot of vulnerability, and they wear it on their sleeve."

One part which fits that category is that of Lt. D'Sora in the Star Trek episode "In Theory," notable for being Patrick Stewart's series directing debut as well as a rare episode about the android Data falling in love. The actress is still very popular among Trekkers for that single guest appearance, though she laughs that fans always ask her whether Data was "fully functional."

"I liked the show, but I never watched it really, so I had no idea what the deal was with Data. I guess everybody had been hoping he'd finally, you know, settle down." Scarabelli shrieks when told that, in the early episode "The Naked Now," Data claimed to be programmed in several thousand techniques - while she found actor Brent Spiner great fun to work with, she had no idea...!

Spiner, like Scarabelli, is likely to be remembered among genre fans for the face of an alien rather than for the human characters on his resume. "What's funny, I saw him in two films back to back where he was playing himself," recalls the actress. "I'm going, 'I know this person. Have I seen him in...no, I know him personally, I've worked with him...' When I suddenly I realized, it was, kind of, 'Oh my God!' Because, I guess it's like when people see me when I've been playing an alien. They recognize the voice."

The makeup for Alien Nation not only hid Scarabelli's best features, it also required a lot of hours on the set - two and a half hours just to get the prosthetics on and covered up, before costuming. On days when the call time on the set was 7 a.m., Scarabelli arrived at four in the morning, occasionally working 15-hour days.

"Every once in awhile I sit back and think, 'Gee this wasn't the kind of career that I would have picked,'" she admits, but quickly adds, "Well, why not? When you're starting off, you don't have a choice. As an actor, you choose it because it's there, it's being offered to you.

Ironically, since she's virtually unrecognizable as herself while playing Susan Francisco, Scarabelli got the role partially because of her looks. Director Ken Johnson's wife, on whom the character is loosely based - "She's named after Kenny's wife, but Kenny's Susan did not come from another planet!" - picked her photo out of a number of head shots and thought Scarabelli had interesting eyes. Her interaction with Johnson helped, too. Johnson interacted directly with the actors during the audition process, rather than sitting behind a desk while the casting director read with them. She was lucky that the part she read was one of the scenes where Susan fights for her daughter, a moment she readily identified with.

As if playing an alien weren't complicated enough, Scarabelli had to learn to speak Tenctonese. Though there is now a fan-written dictionary of the language, the actors made it up as they went along in the early shows. Scarabelli reveals, "You know, for the word "share" - "We share two hearts" - they came up with "sonnyand," as in Sonny and Cher. It's the hardest stuff to remember." After a few years, the writers discovered that they needed continuity, because there were fans who knew the language well enough to notice if a word was changed.

"'Sorry, that's not the word for ?kleesansung[click],'" mimics the actress, adding that she would like to strangle the actress who was first to say the word with the click. The producers liked that sound as an alien gimmick, and encouraged the actors to throw in clicks whenever they felt like it - "even though it doesn't make sense, sometimes, because your tongue wants to say other things!" the actress laments.

She has met speakers of Tenctonese at science fiction conventions, which delight and amuse her. "I have cards from card-carrying Klingons," she announces. "There are some people who really take it very seriously, there was this guy there who gave me his business card, and it read like Polish. He said, 'It means I'm a high commander, it shows other Klingons they have to show me respect.' I thought, 'Oh, and these other Klingons would pick lowly positions?'" Learning of the complex Klingon culture and its parallels in fandom, however, she grows interested in the social structure.

Audiences learned a great deal about Susan Francisco and the alien social structure in The Udara Legacy, the last Alien Nation movie. She revealed that she was a former terrorist. "It was like, oh my God, 'Mom?!' - that was interesting, to show why she is who she is," says the actress of the role. Up until then, Susan was more of a nurturing figure behind George, though since her culture was matriarchal, "she wasn't a complete pushover."

"I joke that she was the June Cleaver of sci-fi," Scarabelli adds. "She had a lot of strength and a lot of opinions, and it was fun playing the flip side of human life, when George is pregnant and I'm rather condescending. Still, she was almost too good to be true." Is there another movie in the works? "No, and I don't really think there will be - Fox never really was behind the show, they feel like there's no place to go with it. Or they've moved on to other types of science fiction."

Because of Alien Nation's erratic schedule - it was a series for a year in 1990, was cancelled, and then brought back in movies of the week between 1993 and 1995 - Scarabelli had time to work on other projects. She did a series in Africa over a two-year period, as well as other television guest appearances and some films. Still, she gets recognized more for her role as an alien than she does as herself.

"I just came back from Canada, I went through customs and immigration, and the girl stopped me and said, 'I know you from somewhere.' Finally she realized which show I was on, and the uniform people went, 'Oh! Hey! I love that! Are there going to be more?' I don't know how much recognition I'd get if I'd been playing a human, because sci-fi fans really are wonderful fans, and they know their characters."

Scarabelli just completed a movie in Montreal opposite John Ritter in which she played a "kind of manipulative kidnapping psychotic." It will likely air on television next year under the title The Truth About Lying.

Does she like to play mean people? "Yeah!" Scarabelli exclaims enthusiastically. "I could be nasty, I could tease. Playing this character was great. I'd been lying and cheating and manipulating and seducing John Ritter. Initially you think that she's this wonderful woman, and it's great to show that..." The actress begins to cackle. "I'm not!"

Nonetheless, Scarabelli is very committed to environmental causes, though she hesitates to call herself an activist - she wants to make it clear that her work comes from the heart, not as the sort of photo opportunities which some celebrities use charity events for. "I was working on a show in Africa, I was with animals all the time, and a lot of what we did was about animal rights and what's going on in Africa - the poaching of the elephants and the rhino tusks," she cites as the source of her interest. More recently, she went to Alaska and washed sea otters after the Exxon Valdez spill.

"I like sea otters, and I wanted to do something - I needed a vacation and I'm not great at lying on a beach - so I decided, this is something worthwhile," Scarabelli says offhandedly. She's bothered by celebrities who attach themselves to causes without doing any research - "they talk a lot, but there's not that much awareness. The death last week of Princess Diana served as a reminder to the actress of the importance of the press. "I think the world was impressed with this young girl, there was a lot she did, and she used the media. She knew, if they're going to be in my life, in my face, I'm going to do something with it."

One of Scarabelli's upcoming film projects, a show for children about the environment underwater, ties in with these interests. The actress is involved with ECO, the Earth Communications Office, which produces public service announcements. "I'm looking into going into producing more, because, as I get older as a woman in this business, the amount of work shrinks," she observes. "Thank God for television, because there isn't a lot going on for women on the big screen unless you're a major star. I think it's a scramble to find decent scripts. I've been lucky because I've kept my toe in the Canadian film industry, and there's more opportunity up there."

The actress also plans to return to Canada for the Toronto Film Festival and the Genie Awards, Canada's equivalent of the Oscars, "if there can be such a thing!" First, though, she wants to settle back into her home in L.A. after being gone to film The Truth About Lying.

"It's funny that I come back to L.A. to relax!" says this resident alien with a laugh. One gets the feeling that, after feeling like an alien for so many years, Scarabelli finally feels comfortable with the role.

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