The Toughest Woman on Television
"It's so odd when I hear people say, 'You're evil! You're so evil!'" laughs Alberta Watson, who plays cold-hearted operative Madeline on La Femme Nikita. The sultry-voiced Canadian actress is at work on the third season of the series, where "Maddie" - as she is called by fans, but NEVER by her peers - is undoubtedly busy torturing and killing terrorists, ordering the execution of children who know too much, and deep-sixing her ex-lovers, both literally and figuratively. Despite the carnage in her wake, Watson sees Madeline as perhaps the most effective member of Section One, the covert anti-terrorist group for which she and Nikita both work.
"I like Maddie - I always feel that Maddie's doing her job well," insists the actress. "She lets you know up front where she stands, and you have to be prepared for the consequences if you want to try to change the rules or step out of the boundaries. I don't think Maddie enjoys doing what she has to do when it comes to the torture and the killing and all that, but that's part of her job." A fan of the French film La Femme Nikita on which the series was based, Watson said she did little homework for the character and didn't try to emulate any particular type of operative or female executive, though she greatly admired Anne Bancroft's performance in the "poor" American remake of the film.
As executive strategist, it's Madeline's job to choose priorities for many of Section's missions - including which operatives should be sacrificed, and how many innocent people should be allowed to die for the greater good. She also reports to Operations - the boss of Section One - on the effectiveness of their people, making suggestions for which agents should be teamed and which should be "cancelled" (the polite Section term for "executed"). She is also the dominatrix of the white room where criminals are taken to be interrogated - sometimes with drugs, sometimes with weapons, sometimes merely with threats so horrible that the rest isn't necessary.
"I think Maddie also just can allow herself to shut off when she has to," reports Watson, who admits that the real question is whether Madeline can turn on when she wants to. "I think that's an area that she very rarely goes to - that's a very gray area." The show has served up tantalizing suggestions about Madeline's sexuality: in one episode, she shot her former husband because Operations had kept him out of Section for so long that he'd become a liability. In another episode, she agreed that her current lover was an ideal choice for a suicide mission, then apparently went home with him anyway when Operations sent someone else.
Does Madeline go after all the young studs in Section? "Of course she does!" exclaims Watson gleefully, adding, "There's not too many boundaries with Maddie, I don't think. She's very much in control." The relationship of most interest to viewers, however, is that of Madeline and Operations, who were lovers some years ago - a situation which he has been trying to revive. Considering that ruthless Operations comes across as a controlling, paranoid megalomaniac much of the time, his love for Madeline is touchingly powerful: in one episode last season, he risked his life and the safety of Section during a virulent epidemic just so he could be with her when he thought she was dying.
For Madeline, however, such a display of sentimentality constitutes a grievous failing; she is after all the woman who breaks prisoners by finding out what they desire and exploiting that. After much courtship on his part, Maddie did agree to join Ops for a romantic evening in "the tower" last spring, but when the two were incommunicado during a crisis in Section, she later regretted that decision and shunned subsequent advances by her lover. When he asked why she agreed to open things up again, Madeline replied, "I didn't. I slept with you. There's a difference," prompting Operations to comment that it was unusually cold even from her.
It's difficult to tell whether Madeline means it when she tells Operations that any feelings she had for him are now in the past: it's doubtful that she'd admit it if she cared for him. Watson claims not to know where the relationship is going, but thinks her character's genuinely not interested in reopening that issue. "Remember there was one episode where she said, we had our thing and it's over? I think she means what she says." This will probably displease the "Twisted Romantics," as fans of the Ops/Maddie relationship call themselves, but as Watson points out, "If Maddie lost control of herself, she'd fall apart - she'd be mad!"
Watson notes that she herself is very unlike Madeline in that regard, and feels rather sorry for the character. "To be honest with you, I get further and further away from trying to be in control. I also try and be very much in the present, which Maddie isn't - Maddie couldn't be. The mechanism's always going, she's always having to come up with ideas...work around things, manipulate things. It becomes second nature in terms of what the bigger picture is. I figured out in the first season what it was she had to do, and that was to do her job well."
The actress had a harrowing experience earlier this year when she was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy. The producers worked around her treatments, limiting her appearances and experimenting with different wigs when her hair fell out. "Going through cancer, I got very frightened - I was extremely frightened," Watson recalls. "You wait for this switch to go on like you're supposed to get something out of this. I was waiting - what am I supposed to get out of this? And then things started to open, and I started to understand more and more about myself that I never would have discovered otherwise. One of them is control - I used to be much more in control, or I thought I was, and discovered that I don't have to be. You have so many life lessons, and hopefully you look at them as if they are opportunities, or else you're in trouble."
Though she is now healthy again, Watson notes that "it was a pretty rough spring and summer." She thanks her co-workers "exceptional" understanding, and particularly her fans, whom her boyfriend discovered on the Internet. "My unofficial fan club! I couldn't believe it. I don't own a computer, I'm so antiquated. The thing that was really remarkable was that it got out that I had been sick, and there were all these prayers and good thoughts and good wishes, I was floored. It made me feel so good. I thought, the least I can do is get online and say thank you very much."
Watson has since left several posts and even a .wav file with a message for her fans at her official page, http://www.albertawatson.com. She thanks fans for their gifts and interests and warns them away from some of her old movies: "They're awful!" She also laughs that she wanted feedback on the new haircut, though several other castmembers have new hairdos for the season as well - notably Roy Dupuis, who has shorn off Michael's celebrated long locks. "Roy looks fabulous, he looks dynamite. But you look at the face, how could he not?" Watson demands. "He's gorgeous! Him and Peta together onscreen, it's like, wow."
Noting that "we have a ball," the actress calls her co-stars "a great group," and has nothing but praise for the crew and production staff. "There's very little levity on the show, but I just did a scene in the white room with wonderful actor who brought such levity to it, it was great - I kept saying, god, we need to have more of that on the show, or at least one scene where there's fun. Especially with Maddie!" When asked whether it's difficult playing such a dark character every week, however, she demurs, "No, because this is like a comic strip for me. I don't mean to minimalize the characters on the show, but this is not written for three-dimensional people. I think we just get glimpses at pieces of the puzzle rather than the entire picture, which is why everybody tunes in - because they really would like to know the whole picture. That's kind of intriguing." Watson has no more idea what will be happening to Madeline this season than her fans, since she only sees a couple of scripts in advance and the producers have not told her if they have an arc planned.
In the meantime, she just spent a week filming a role in the movie The Life Before This. "The script follows different stories about different people, friends and couples, and the story that I was involved in was with Catherine O'Hara," she explains. "I just laughed for days and had a great time. This character was so completely opposite to Maddie, it was a joy."
Watson has a pretty even balance of feature film and television roles on her resume, and notes that she finds TV to be an complex acting challenge. "The thing that can be fun and frustrating at the same time with television is, you're very limited, so the challenge is to try and be as spontaneous as you can. Not that you don't try to have that spontaneity when you do any type of acting. But for me that's the challenge of television, because it's not wholly three-dimensional. The thing about film that's interesting: usually you like to go with what really feels best for you, but I've been surprised where I'll have done something and it won't feel really good, but there will be a reason why the director has chosen that particular take. Then I've seen the scene and have gone, 'Oh, OK, that does work.' So once in awhile it's the old 'feels bad but looks good.' And I think that could be the nature of film."
Asked about her famous performance in Spanking the Monkey - a highly-regarded but controversial film in which she plays an alcoholic invalid who has sex with her horny teenage son - Watson notes, "That's my favorite. What a frustrated woman she was, my god! I certainly didn't have any parallels to draw on in terms of being a mother because I'm not, or having incest with my son, because I haven't, and I'm not an alcoholic, but what I did use again was the issue of control, having to always be the person who was right. And alcohol...when we were shooting, I would say to David Russell, our director, 'We always have to make sure there's alcohol and pills involved, because that will make you do things that you normally would probably stop yourself from doing.' That was a hard movie, but I loved all of it and I really had a good sense of the outcome of it."
A formerly "quiet kid" who says she got into acting to learn how to express herself and overcome insecurities, Watson added that she "used to live to work, it was a way of finding myself and expressing myself. Now I work to live." The actress believes that opportunities in the industry for women are slowly changing: "I think I'm proof in the pudding of that, I'm 43, and the roles that have come to me in the last four years are better than they ever were, more interesting than they've ever been. And also I'd like to think that I've gotten better at what I do." In terms of what she wants to do in the future, "I have no idea - I think maybe at some point I wouldn't mind producing, or I might want to go off to the province of Alberta and do an archaeological dig. That's what I learned over the summer! Leave the doors open."
In the meantime, she says, "I'm feeling very lucky. I like very much what I do, but I'm also discovering my life is pretty damn good. And how could I not like this gig? I'm back in my home town of Toronto which I love very much, they're paying me to have a good time. What a great job!"