La Femme Nikita on Strength, Survival and Being a Role Model
Peta Wilson's about to get a break from La Femme Nikita, but she's hardly getting a vacation. "My hiatus comes in June, and I will probably go home," she says of her native Australia, where she owns property and has a large, close family. "But I might do a movie. There's a few options and I haven't committed to anything yet, it'll be one of those last-minute things."
On the phone from the set in Toronto, where the series films, Wilson does interviews while her makeup is being touched up and she hunts for fresh coffee. "This is early," she laughs of a ten-hour work day. In addition to playing Nikita, Wilson has had a stellar year in the media, on the cover of TV Guide, in People and Details, on The Tonight Show and The Rosie O'Donnell Show. "You know what I want to say to everybody? I want to say thanks so bloody much for such encouragement and support for such an unknown actress who's not American," she exclaims.
Wilson was en route to New York to study theater when she stopped in Los Angeles and fell in love, with the city and with a man she met there. So she stayed to take classes and won the part of Nikita although it was her first television audition. "I'd just come out of drama school, I'd done like three jobs before, plus six and a half years in a theater company. This was the first thing I went in on, on TV." Wilson was intimidated at the idea of playing Nikita because Anne Parillaud had been so impressive in the original French feature, but she went in and got the job.
The film and the American remake, Point of No Return, focused on a convicted murderer recruited by a clandestine anti-terrorist organization to be trained as a skilled assassin. "I wanted to know if there was a way to do the part where it was different," Wilson explains of her hesitation to accept the role, which she put off for nearly six weeks. Working with executive consultant Joel Surnow, she came up with the notion that Nikita really wasn't a killer - that her criminal record was mistaken. "I came up with the thing that she's a street kid and a victim of circumstance, and then it was all about, how do you make a hero out of this girl?"
The 5'10", athletic actress plays a Nikita who has beauty and training in common with her predecessors, but she's not as ruthless, and her outrage with the Section's methods gives her dimension. Wilson believes her own inexperience was an asset as well. "I didn't know anything about continuity, shooting out of sequence and stuff - I had had limited film and television experience. You've got to learn that, it's an art in itself. As I was adjusting to the medium, so was the character adjusting to her environment." Wilson has considerably more character input than many performers, working closely with Surnow, though she says the writers develop the stories and she likes to be challenged even if she disagrees with some of their decisions. "Next year I'll pitch some, I have a couple of ideas. But I look at whatever they give me as a challenge."
Comparing Nikita to Virginia Woolf or Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire, "one of the all-time great female roles," Wilson says she had a hard time finding a role model for her. "I'd say the role model was a panther," she laughs. "Cats generally are nice animals, but if you hurt them or you threaten them, they become deadly. So I just watch the Discovery Channel every week, I watch animals, and then the bad guys and good guys in Nikita remind me of certain animals." An animal-lover herself, Wilson grew up with a pet kangaroo, a Great Dane, a goat, two cats, and two wild boars, so she's entirely comfortable with seeing the show in terms of such creatures. "Nikita is kind of primal anyway, because the dialogue is so unreal," she notes. "That's interesting for an actor - the most interesting things we do as human beings [are] not what we say, but what we don't say."
Wilson says she draws on her instincts and her senses, and uses her own "masculinity" in creating Nikita's physical prowess. "I move more like a boy-girl than like a girl-girl, and that's what the character is, she's very agile and very fearless." The actress tries to do all the fight scenes herself. "When you do theater, you really get into the part and know exactly what you're doing, so I worked with an airborne ranger and got completely trained for the part...then I got up here and realized that wasn't necessary, but I'm glad I did it, because it's giving more to the character's integrity. She also worked with a stunt man, Tireon Mortell, to learn guns and tae kwon do.
"I got in touch with my strengths and weaknesses, it was really interesting," she says of all the training, adding that she continues to learn new things about herself through the character's development. Though she shares Nikita's matter-of-fact speech and doesn't mince words, Wilson has a hard time sometimes with Nikita's seriousness. "I'm a chatterbox, love to laugh, love to giggle, love to carry on, I'm a real flibbertigibbit. And Nikita is really different. The show's been great, actually, because the age I'm at, I'm really kind of coming into my own as a person, and I'm learning a lot about myself, having to work this hard and be constantly responsible, constantly in the moment. You can't help but learn a lot about yourself."
She cites two of her toughest episodes as her favorites: "Open Heart," in which Nikita has to discover the identity of a terrorist "human time bomb," with whom she bonds and shares some intense intimate moments; and "Brainwash," in which Nikita tests a device used to alter memories, but becomes addicted to its empowering effects as it rewrites her horrific childhood recollections. "I always find something interesting in every episode, otherwise I wouldn't be able to do it - you have to want the journey in order for it to be real," she notes, then sighs, "This is acting jargon, so I should just shut up." But in terms of the real-life parallels, "I think every journey is interesting because she doesn't really want to be there. So sometimes it seeps into my own life, and I say, 'Oh god, I've got to go hurt someone again?' Sometimes I get sick or really tired or beat up or I cry a lot because the character's been going through stuff, and your body doesn't know 'We're acting now,' you know? You might be acting, but your body can really tell no difference."
The operative has a complex relationship with her mentor Michael, played by Roy Dupuis: there's clearly an attraction between the two, but Michael's dark past and Nikita's distrust have kept them circling around developing a real friendship. "Roy and I were discussing that, we don't know where it's going, but we have some ideas," Wilson explains. "I believe there's going to be a real shift next season, a really interesting relationship between Michael and Nikita - I've heard it's going to go backwards but really forwards, you're going to find things out about his character that you didn't know before, then Nikita's going to find things out about his character which will really change things. We need more, we need to go deeper, and so do the writers, third season is going to be tight and sharp and push the envelope."
But Wilson is adamant that the Section's mission will never become Nikita's. "That would make her like Michael, and that's just not who she is. You can't take away her soul. If you did that, there would be no show, there would be no conflict - some women will squash themselves in order to live in the world and with their reality, but that's just never going to happen with Nikita. That's very empowering, to be able to be honest about the way you feel - Nikita is more honest about the way she felt than I am, but just by playing her so much I start to be more honest about the way I feel about things. Nikita is growing and growing and changing and evolving just like everybody, just like I am."
Wilson cringes a bit at the idea of herself as a role model for women - "I'm not a bloody role model, I'm just an army brat from Australia who had a dream and worked really hard and achieved it" - but notes that Nikita's strength and honesty have helped her with her own insecurities, and she hopes they will inspire other women to break out of their limitations. "I plan on creating my own vehicles, for not just myself but for other actresses," she reveals. "I've just set up my own production company, called Sweet Lick Productions, I really want to be a producer. I like movies that make us think for a second about someone else's reality, and I think it's a very powerful medium. So I don't think, 'Isn't it terrible there's no roles for women,' I think, 'What can I do to fix that for myself?' I always believe work begets work." The company's first property is a documentary on playwright Tennessee Williams, and Wilson hopes to work with the deaf and the blind in future projects.
"I'd direct one movie one day, just once, and I wouldn't do that till much later in life - I like being on my side of the camera at the moment," Wilson says. "I'd suggest to anyone who's ever had the desire to act that you should go to a couple of classes, because it's fun and you learn a lot about yourself. It helps open up walls in you."
A kid who performed with her brother to fill the time in television-deprived New Zealand, Wilson adds that she never really thought about making a living at it. A known model in Australia for everything from Levi's to maternity clothes (wearing a false stomach), she decided it would be easier to get training abroad, and studied at the Actors Circle Theater with Arthur Mendoza.
"He was so hard on me, it was a joke," she laughs. "He believed that I could have a career anyway, because if you're a pretty girl in L.A., you sort of can, but I said no, I want to be an actress! So he was harder on me than he was on any of the other students, and I'm so happy he was because I feel like I can really create characters now, and I'm not frightened of anything. I've got a lot of energy, and it's a wonderful place for me to put it, performing. I always was a bit of a clown - we moved around a little as an army brat, and it was a way to fit in, to be funny. It's a really great way to get it all out."
Wilson has a movie coming out later this year, One of Our Own, but laughs because the much-delayed film was actually the first film work she ever did. "I play a marine, an MP - I wanted to do it for the experience, to work away from home. It was very interesting working with Michael Ironside, and I really loved working with Marshall Bell and Frederick Forrest. When you're starting out, you take what you can get. The pot of gold is not at the end of the rainbow, it's the rainbow itself, in these kind of careers - it's the journey before you get there."
In terms of whom she'd really like to perform with, "Anyone who's willing to play ball, throw it hard and catch if fast. I'd like to work with Dennis Franz. I'd like to work with Benicio Del Toro, I'd like to work with Leonardo Di Caprio. I would love to have worked with River Phoenix. I love Gena Rowlands, she's my all-time favorite. John Malkovitch, Tim Roth, Anjelica Huston, Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie. Director-wise, I really love Damian Harris, Roman Polanski, David Lean if he was alive, Merchant Ivory. I'll work with anyone who is passionately into what they're doing."
A collector of photojournalism, Wilson notes that old photos are an invaluable resource for an actress, "They give you a lot when you're looking for character, it teaches me a thousand stories." But her real passion is old cars: she owns a 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible, a '57 T-Bird and '38 Dodge. "I really like to play with cars. My father used to race cars, I've just always been around mechanical things. One of the reasons I became an actress is because I saw Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and I said, I want to be Jeff Bridges and I want to have that car!" She laments that Thelma and Louise got made without her.
Wilson is a bit surprised that people are so interested in her hobbies and her life, though she's "really, really flattered" by the 70 or so web sites devoted to her. "I just thought I was going to do a TV series, I never even thought about people watching it until the reviews came out, and then I went, 'We're being reviewed by the New York Times! And they like us!'" She laughs that she was "really green" when she started, but adds, "I hope I'm green for the rest of my life, so there's always a surprise, you're always learning. When I'm not green, I won't be doing this anymore - I'll be farming peanuts on a peanut farm or something."
She reads her own fan mail and is happy to sign autographs, but seems a little uncomfortable with the adulation. "People might be inspired by you, but that must inspire them to find what makes them special. I'm not even there yet - my dream is to be happy for the rest of my life. I don't sit there and go, 'I'm a role model,' I think everyone in life should be some kind of role model, they should be good people. I don't need to be La Femme Nikita to understand that to younger people you should be a role model. It's a big responsibility. I'm not bloody Princess Diana, I'm not Mother Teresa, I'm not the president, I'm an actress for God's sakes."
The blonde stunner is unconcerned with the fickle nature of the business and the hazards of aging for actresses. "I was sitting there today thinking, I wonder if I'll ever have a life beyond Nikita, because this takes so much out of you - I wonder if everyone will say, 'She isn't as beautiful as what she was on Nikita.' And I thought, who cares what people think? I'm going to get old one day, everyone does. Women like Gena Rowlands and Anjelica Huston, they've always kept their integrity and this sense of identity to their entire careers. As we get older, women, we're like great bottles of wine, we get tastier. With a proper diet of happiness and yoga, maybe one can sort of hold on to what's young inside them. If you can find some way to keep yourself young inside, that will always sort of sparkle through the eyes, you know?"
She laughs that she looks at her face now and finds lines that developed in the past year, "and I say oh well, that's evolution. They look like sort of happy lines. We're at the end of the season, so I'm tired. It's a lot - the interviews and there's a lot of other stuff going on - but I'm lucky to be working, so many actresses and actors would do anything to swap with me, and it's all part of the job, right? Maybe this will be the biggest I ever get, La Femme Nikita, and if it's not then that's great too, but I just sort of need to enjoy it while it's here and build a nice little house and try and set up little businesses so I have some kind of income when the face doesn't quite sell. That's basically it."
Wilson tries to spend her time not working in Australia "hanging with the family," and would like very much to have children. "I'd like to be a good mother, I'd like to be a good person," she concludes. "A lot of actors think they're more interesting than what they're playing, you know? I think a lot of this business is narcissistic, and people bring the narcissism upon themselves maybe. I'm just learning, I'm not an authority. Maybe I'll say something that one person will read and go, mmm, I hadn't thought of that. I want to work on projects that do that, which make people think a little outside themselves. People write that I'm their role model, that's great: now why don't you listen to that and go after your own dream? And find that in yourself, so you can be a role model to your kids."