Lyta's Wild Past in Stunts
You may have seen Patricia Tallman in Godzilla, Austin Powers, Star Trek: Generations, Speed, or Jurassic Park without even noticing that she was there. Best known as Lyta Alexander on Babylon 5, the actress is also a highly respected stuntwoman who has appeared on all three recent Star Trek series and in numerous films in addition to a memorable roles as Barbara in the remake of Night of the Living Dead. Add the third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness, appearances on Dark Skies and Knightriders, plus doubling for Nana Visitor and Terry Farrell during the first several seasons of Deep Space Nine to her resume, and it becomes evident that Tallman has been one of the most important women in genre for quite some time.
"I always wanted to be Errol Flynn," says Tallman, explaining both her affection for action-adventure and the interest in fencing which led to her stunt career. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who trained in stage combat, Tallman was certified by the British Society of Fight Directors and joined the Stuntwoman's Association of Motion Pictures. She's also an organizing member of The Writers and Actors Group, a theater company based out of Charles Nelson Reilly's acting class.
Despite an impressive list of off-Broadway theater credits, including Shakespeare, Tallman first came to Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski's attention because of her role in Night of the Living Dead. Through her manager, she had read the script for Babylon 5's pilot, "The Gathering," which Tallman - a fan of science fiction novels - thought "was just terrific."
She went to the audition assuming the producers would be looking for a bigger name actress to play Lyta. But then, "this big huge man runs into the room and says, 'Patricia Tallman? I'm Joe Straczynski. I wrote the part for you. Good luck,' and runs away!" Evidently he had seen Night of the Living Dead and patterned Lyta on what he saw in Tallman in that film. The actress recalls, "I was just standing there with my mouth open," while another actor in the room joked, "'No pressure, huh?' I was so terrified, I don't remember the rest of the audition at all!"
Tallman explains the appeal of the role as stemming from the dynamic character development. "What I liked about the role, and about Joe's writing in general, is that the charaters evolve and change. They don't stay in one place, just like real people, they don't stay the same." She was aware that the show had a five-year arc planned from the start, but wasn't privy to Straczynski's long-term plans for her character until she got the scripts, an experience she found frustrating at times: "I couldn't guess where Joe was going, and he wouldn't say anything to anybody. There's times when you had to just take it on faith."
Playing a telepath wasn't especially difficult for the actress, who enjoys science fiction about people with paranormal powers. "I believe in psychic abilities and deep mother instincts, you know?" she asks. "My mother used to call me when I was having a crisis, and I wasn't going to admit that I was having a problem, and I'd hear her voice and I'd burst into tears. She just knew. I believe that human beings are connected that way, and have that ability - some more than others." Tallman remarks wryly that it makes sense that eventually someone would come up with a way to enhance that ability, "and turn it into something marketable."
While some might find it empowering to play a telepath, Tallman found it a bit oppressive to portray a character who was "a follower and a victim" until late in the series. "I was a mid-level telepath who became something more eventually - I think the key for telepaths doesn't necessarily lie in their abilities, but in the fact that they are considered second-class citizens," she observes. "Normal people didn't want to be around them. It's not like they had a lot of friends outside their own. The Psi Corps was the only family they could have." She compares the status of telepaths on the series to African-Americans in the U.S. fifty years ago: "You're talking about people who had a society among themselves and that's OK, but do not get in the front of the bus, we don't want you in our restaurants, we don't want you where we can see you...but when we need you, we definitely want to be able to get in touch with you."
So Tallman found herself playing a character "who very much knew that people were uncomfortable around her all the time. She's kind of a dour little character. And it's going to get worse." While the actress is not at liberty to discuss Lyta's fate, she did say that she doesn't expect to be invited to appear on Crusade "because of something that happens in an episode that hasn't aired yet," which does not seem to bode well for the character. The impending telepath war is rumored to take place offscreen, which Tallman won't comment on, but adds, "I'm hoping there's going to be another TNT movie and that will explain that storyline."
Despite the difficulties of her life, however, Tallman notes that "Lyta started to get a little more empowered towards the end of the fifth season." Though her affair with Byron contained an element of hero-worship, it also energized the character. "I didn't know that Lyta was going to have a love affair, which was kind of interesting - it was the lightest moment she had. I actually had an exchange where I laughed with Byron, and I realized that was the first time in five years that I'd laughed as Lyta. I think her altruism shows in how the Vorlons affected her, and the choices she made to help Sheridan even though the command staff never treated her well - they even tried to kick her out of her quarters after she saved them. She hasn't been a happy camper."
The most difficult part for Tallman was playing the scenes leading up to and including Byron's death. "That was devastating for me, it was really hard - I didn't know that was going to happen," she said, admitting that she clashed a bit with Straczynski when she was the script. "The problem was that I didn't agree with some of the things he was writing for my character. Walking away from Byron when I knew he was about to blow himself up, standing back during the whole telepath struggle and not using my Vorlon-enhanced powers to help...I just stood back and watched him do his thing. That was the first time I stood up to Joe and said, 'You've trusted me with this character for four years; now you've got to listen to me a little bit. I'm having a real hard time with this.'"
Because of the secrecy about the arc, Tallman had to create her own backstory for Lyta during the show's early seasons. "I don't really remember anymore, but it had to do with being away from her family, being isolated at an early age, not having any lasting friendships but having a desire to help people. I'd find details in strange places, like a dictionary on Babylon 5 - they would have details on Lyta that didn't exist when I started the show." The actress created a history which she could relate to personally: "I've survived some stuff in my life that I didn't think I'd ever survive. I have that gray on. You know how we all do, and you just don't know how you go through it, and you do? I guess that Lyta's like that - she doesn't think of herself as being strong, but she is."
Tallman thinks the sense of isolation which she shares with Lyta, "never being in the inner circle, feeling sort of misunderstood and outcast," played a role in why she became an actress. "When I was a kid I was doing commercials in my backyard, pretending we were in Dark Shadows and Star Trek - the original series - taking my Barbies and making aluminum foil costumes for them. It was all women, men didn't even exist in my Star Trek," she laughs. She knew before college that she wanted to attend a conservatory, "Carnegie Mellon or Juilliard, but I decided I wasn't ready for New York." Her other major interest was music - she played viola for 11 years - but decided that "being a musician was too isolating, it would be a very lonely life."
Her training at Carnegie Mellon was rigorous, "very Method, I learned a lot of classical theater." Tallman describes acting as "telling the truth - I'm not a schizophrenic, I don't go around thinking I really am Lyta or anything like that, but I have to find keys." She took fencing in school and discovered that she loved telling stories with action. "I loved the choreography, I love that in my stunt work even now - my favorite thing to do is fights, as long as they're forwarding a storyline I think they can be really effective," she observes. While production is often described as a boy's club, Tallman notes that more than half the members of the Stuntwoman's Association of Motion Pictures are coordinators. "If you're showing ability and they like you, then they start to hire you, and you get some credits and you meet more stunt people, and so it goes."
Tallman thinks her success as a stunt double stems partly from being 5'9", "which is a good height for a lot of actresses," and partly because she has a reputation for being someone "who has a lot of heart, who will take a hard hit." While she plans to concentrate on acting now - "I've hit that place where I feel like I've done what I wanted to do in my stunt career, and your body hits a point where it says, I'm not taking this punishment anymore" - the actress has worked with many of the big names in stunt work, including Dennis Madalone, who used her repeatedly on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
"I doubled everybody on that show, any guest star that came through," she laughs. "We called ourselves the Star Trek Stunt Team, there was a core group of three or four of us, and we did everything. It was a blast." Though she hasn't appeared on Deep Space Nine for the past two years because of her schedule on Babylon 5, Tallman appeared in the Voyager episode "Native Son," in which she got to bean Harry Kim with a stick.
Scoffing at fan speculation that the crews of Trek and B5 are competitive with one another, Tallman reveals incredulously that she has been asked to be on a "Babylon 5 vs. Deep Space Nine" panel at the upcoming Voice of the Resistance convention in Pomona, California in October. "I'm going to tell them that I don't want to do it, because it's like, who cares? This is a fan thing! If they want to debate that, fine, but what am I going to say? They're my friends! Am I going to diss them? Not at all."
Tallman has remained in touch with people on the Trek crew and wouldn't rule out another appearance with the franchise, but she's also not shy about expressing her disgust with the recent potrayal of women, particularly Borg babe Seven of Nine. "It really pissed me off to see what they did to 'save' Voyager," says the tall, slender redhead. "It's horrifying, because I'm just a regular girl with a regular body. I still have a bum, and I have a tummy - I had a baby, I have a woman's body. I think Jeri Ryan's very talented and she's lovely, and she's a very good actress - I worked with her on Dark Skies - which is what's saving the character at all. But to put her in that costume and make a tits and ass statement...it's so insulting. It's just horrifying."
The actress says she would love to appear on The X-Files or Ally McBeal or Xena or Millennium or The Practice, but she's particularly eager to do comedy. "People keep saying, after this, what do you want to do now, and I say, 'Something funny! Please! Something funny!" Her favorite role was Viola in As You Like It, but Tallman isn't particularly dying to return to Shakespeare; contemporary wit would be fine.
"There's a series of books by Patricia Cornwell, the leading character is a woman in her 40s and I love the character, I would love to do that," she reveals. "Her name is Dr. Kay Scarpetta. They're bestsellers, it's hard to option those sorts of items, so I'm sure they'll get Kathleen Turner to do the part. But that would be something I would love to do - I'd like to play an average, normal person doing something extraordinary, and not believing necessarily that she could, but she does. A regular person who overcomes horrendous odds to do something good. I love that kind of thing. It's inspiring to people."
Tallman's acting mentor Charles Nelson Reilly encouraged the members of his acting class to write, and when they formed a theater company, the Writers anc Actors Group (they call it WAG), several of them began to produce their own work. Tallman's friend Rosie Taravella, the artistic director of the company, wrote a movie which will be filmed next month that Tallman hopes to play a role in. "Charles Nelson Reilly said the people who you're going to work with in the future are sitting right next to you in this class - those are the people that you want to cultivate and work with," she remembers. "Several of the actors in class who had an inclination for writing anyway started to write. Rosie and I are working together, trying to visualize what we think should happen next, and I think it would be to form a production company with a couple of people in my circle who are very talented and driven, and put together some projects we really care about." Tallman has not written anything herself yet, but she will be directing Taravella's next project, a comedy.
A popular guest at conventions, Tallman is looking forward to Voice of the Resistance because former co-star Bill Mumy is hoping to debut some songs from the recent album he recorded with Claudia Christian, Peter Jurasik, Mira Furlan, and Andreas Katsulas, known as "The BeeFive." Tallman - who has done her share of musical theater - sang on the last cut, which she describes as "campy, bluesy." At the same con, she will be attending a fundraiser for the Down's Syndrome Association of Los Angeles hosted by Robert Beltran of Voyager; several members of both the Voyager and Babylon 5 casts will be attending.
Tallman devotes most of her own fundraising activities to raising money for Penny Lane, a home for abused children in Los Angeles. After getting involved when she learned that a number of stunt performers did an annual Christmas show there, she decided to try to help the children with more than entertainment. "I became a mentor to one of the girls, and I realized these kids weren't getting any kind of computer literacy. And I thought, how are they supposed to compete in today's market? They're pretty damaged - that's why they're in Penny Lane, they can't be placed in regular foster care - but they've got to leave when they're eighteen, and where are they going to go?" From her perspective, the choices seemed to be "working for minimum wage at McDonald's or joining up with their buddies on street corners with the fancy pagers and the nice cars, selling drugs. What would you do, if you're just a down and out kid with nothing and nobody who cares about you? I thought, one way to compete is to at least give them the skills."
Tallman began to sell autographs and photos of herself at conventions, using the money she raised to help build a computer lab and hire a teacher. "They can come up with ideas, show them how to start their own little businesses - anything can be done by computer." She has been working to gather items for Penny Lane for an auction and raffle planned for the Voice of the Resistance convention.
Leaving Babylon 5 doesn't seem to have fazed Tallman, though she says she'll miss the people she worked with. "You see actors who are on hit TV shows and after five years they leave, and you go, what's wrong with them? But it's part of being an actor, I think - we can't sit still too long, it's an adrenaline thing," she laughs. "I'm proud that I've been making a living in my union without having to do anything else for 12 years now. And I've been able to cover a range of characters, and I'm very pleased that I was able to accomplish what I did in my stunt career."
"I'm proud of anybody who's doing it in this business," she adds. "It's hard, and it's hard to keep your chin up. But it's always a challenge. It's never boring!"