Gordon Michael Woolvett:
Andromeda's Resident Trekkie
Gordon Michael Woolvett has no trouble relating to Seamus Harper, his techno-geek character on Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. The Canadian actor brags about being a geek himself. The first time he met executive producer Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Woolvett gushed about how much he loved her as Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. When John De Lancie made a guest appearance on Andromeda, Woolvett confessed that he thought De Lancie's Trek audiobooks were "awesome."
Harper's reaction upon meeting Andromeda's captain, Dylan Hunt, was to call the man "some kind of Greek god." Woolvett's reaction to Kevin Sorbo, who plays Hunt? "I thought, this is going to be huge. Fans are going to tune in to see Hercules -- oh my god, I just called him Hercules. Well, Kevin Sorbo is huge. He's a hero. And it's a fun show."
In short, Woolvett loves his job, which he likens to participating in a role-playing game. "A television series is one of those blessings, because you have a character that you're going to keep with you. I don't know if you've ever played Dungeons and Dragons, but I used to when I was a kid...and a teenager, and a young adult. You have a character that you develop up all these levels of experience. That's the same thing that happens to you in a television series."
Thus far, Harper has been the king of the wisecracks. Even when faced with death or being in the doghouse with the captain, he keeps his sense of humor. But in upcoming episodes, "you start to see this potential for danger in the character, which is neat. His sarcasm is just a way of protecting what's inside, which would make him very vulnerable if he tried to deal with it directly."
Harper grew up in a refugee camp on an Earth laid waste by genetically enhanced Nietzscheans and rape-crazed Magog. "Earth is pretty scary," explains Woolvett. "I don't think we'll see it first season, but it's a battle-ravaged place. So Harper's got a real dark side to him. In 'Fear and Loathing,' you'll see that when he can't joke his way out of a situation, he can be dangerous." Stricken in the pilot episode with a potentially deadly neck rash, the engineer has suffered from radiation poisoning, depression, and unrequited lust for Rommie -- the android form of Andromeda, the artificial intelligence of the spaceship. "I'm starting to feel like Les Nessman from WKRP -- every week he has a new Band-Aid," jokes Woolvett.
Of the episodes aired so far, the actor's favorite is "Angel Dark, Demon Bright." The crew discovers that their actions during a time-travel incident will help save Earth, but kill thousands of Nietzscheans. Woovett says, "I like it when the stakes are high. Your protagonist has to choose between two options, and both choices suck, but they have to choose, because only by making choices is character defined." In the end, he approved of Harper's complicity in the deaths, "Absolutely. It had to be done, right? It was something we'd already done anyway."
In the upcoming "Harper 2.0," the engineer receives a significant intellectual boost from a fugitive Perseid, but that comes with a price as well when Harper and the ship are pursued by a bounty hunter. This episode features guest star Ralph Moeller from Gladiator. "I really think it's going to be fun. Harper gets upgraded -- he gets the knowledge of the universe downloaded into his brain. But then he has to try to deal with it. You'll see Harper trying to face the horrors of his past."
Woolvett thinks part of the show's appeal is that none of the characters constitute typical science fiction staples. "Harper doesn't fall into any regular category, except maybe a Tales of the Golden Monkey-type adventurer who's a smart-ass." With his neck rash and inferiority complex, he's probably the character pimply teens relate to, which may explain why some reviewers despise Harper. "'That guy's annoying!'" quotes Woolvett with a laugh. "Some reviewers who are finding the show hard to settle into like Harper, and then people who love the sci-fi hate Harper. I'm hoping they'll come to a balance."
Last Man Aboard
Ontario-born Woolvett has a distinguished career in Canadian film and television; he was nominated for a Gemini Award, the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy. Invited to audition for Andromeda shortly after moving to Los Angeles, he resisted because he didn't want to move back to Canada so soon. "Thank god it came around again!" he laughs. Eight months later, Woolvett received another call. "They were coming right down to the wire with casting Harper. I said sure, I'll come in, because I love sci-fi. The producer who was there was very similar to me. I knew we'd hit it off really well."
Seth Howard, a director of programming at Tribune Entertainment, "basically is Harper," Woolvett laughs. "If I ever get hit by a car or something, god forbid, he could step in and play Harper." Woolvett believes ad-libs helped him during the audition. "This character happens to be a kind of character that I've developed from other projects, and it fit into the role they were writing. I was trying to find something that I could wear comfortably. I find it's more important to be as natural and real as possible, as opposed to if I were really reaching to be something I'm not."
Woolvett continues to ad-lib, creating Harper in his own image, "but I make sure that I always keep all of the initial text, so they can cut what I said if they want. The editors make me sound funnier than I am." Fix-it man Harper creates transporters and builds female androids in his spare time; Woolvett spends a lot of free time on his computer, reading fan reviews and writing spec scripts, plus designing web sites. He revealed to Space.com that before he was cast on Andromeda, he was building a hovercraft based on schematics he downloaded off the Internet. However, he has no designs on creating an artificial woman like Rommie.
"Harper was stupid enough to create Rommie and hope that she would want him. That's why he's cursed," Woolvett snorts. "As low-down as Harper is, I think he has some moral fiber. I think he would rather have Rommie engaged in recreational activity with him willingly, because his ego couldn't take it otherwise. Unfortunately, a sad little human with a poor immune system never gets a woman. We can hope and we can wait, but I highly doubt it will happen soon."
Harper does have a curious friendship developing with Trance Gemini, who's ostensibly an innocent spacefarer, yet has powers no one understands. At the start of the season, she came back from the dead, and has since piloted them into a historical battle and "guessed" which planet out of hundreds had imprisoned her crewmates. "You don't want to go overkill with that stuff, but at the same time you don't want people to miss it," notes Woolvett. "There are actually times throughout the season where I start cornering Trance, trying to find out more about her, but she evades me. She's got a real hard job, to try and walk that line -- there is more to her, definitely, but it can't be shown in such a way that it's obvious for the rest of us on the crew, or we'll all corner her."
Does he know Trance's secret? Woolvett hums noncommittally. "I'll get in trouble." What about his own character's background? "They gave us a production bible with some backstory, but now they've begun to change it." The actor is pleased that the characters are growing based on how the relationships among the performers are developing. "There's stuff coming up that we didn't know about, because I don't think they had committed to certain directions until they saw our performances. It's surprising for all of us. We know the long-term goals, but we get surprises along the way, and we go, 'Oh, cool, I get to play that!'"
"I am a science fiction fan," Woolvett announces. "I grew up watching Star Trek on Sunday afternoons -- the originals. I hate to pick sides, but I was an even bigger fan of TNG, though my wife is a bigger fan of the original. I was a huge fan of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner and John De Lancie -- they're all fantastic actors. And one of my favorite characters was Lwaxana Troi." When De Lancie arrived to film the Andromeda episode "The Pearls That Were His Eyes," playing the potentially unscrupulous business partner of Beka Valentine's father, Woolvett thanked him for his Spock vs. Q audiobooks, to which he listened with his wife when they drove out to Los Angeles "in order not to kill each other in the car."
Yet Woolvett can be critical of the earliest episodes TNG, particularly the makeup, an area in which he thinks Andromeda has improved immensely too. "Rev Bem in particular -- his makeup has come a long way. It's funny to look back. The first season of anything, you've got to work out the bugs. Everything has its clunkers, but you can't go, 'Well, it's only our first season, please give us time.' We were lucky only because there's an audience already there, a really faithful, forgiving audience that wants to see Roddenberry's themes, his legacy carried on."
An eight-year theater school veteran, Woolvett maintains that acting on a genre series is no less difficult than playing a classical role onstage. "Sci fi doesn't always get heralded as great drama because it's genre, but it really requires a lot of committment and strong acting, because you're dealing with things that aren't real and aren't true," he observes. "It takes that much more effort to make it believable. To make it seem real. To be upset over something that doesn't exist."
And there are special effects to contend with. In an early scene when Harper entered a holographic representation of Andromeda's brain, "I felt like Jessica Lange in King Kong, without the white bikini. They hung me in front of a green screen. They had me on a crane so they could move the camera down as I'm being craned upward, strapped on by my feet. That can be tough. You find yourself acting to a piece of tape glued to the side of the camera so you know where to look. Because so much of acting is reacting, it can be difficult to execute when you can't react to one of your fellow regulars."
For Woolvett's best-known film, Bride of Chucky, more than a dozen puppeteers made make-believe Chucky seem real even between takes: "He would lean over and pinch people." That experience gave Woolvett some preparation for acting to absent voices on Andromeda, as well as for the franchise fan following. "I'll get recognition from Chucky, being in the horror genre." Woolvett's episodes of Mission Genesis and Sliders have also made him recognizable to science fiction fans.
A writer as well as an actor, Woolvett told the producers during contract negotiations that he wanted to pitch scripts for Andromeda. "They said sure, but now, I really like to distance myself when I go home. So while I'm meeting great people like Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Allan Eastman, as much as I'd like to take advantage of that opportunity, when I get home I just want to rent movies."
Interestingly, Woolvett says his ultimate goals focus on writing. "I look at acting as a way to really enjoy myself and bring money into the home, but at the same time, if I could get into writing, that would be ideal. My wife Michelle is a big reader, so she really helps me -- I wrote a script that she helped me with a lot." Michelle also handles Woolvett's charity appearances. "She says I'm the world's best musician," he laughs. "At one time I was going to be a rock star. I toured in a band around Florida, a really cheesy rock cover band. I think that was back in 1984 when they started the recount."
One other sordid detail emerges from his past: "I was in a film called Rude, where I have a naked shower scene." Interestingly, it's not on his official Andromeda resume. "I was proud of that! But maybe they don't want people to see that." Hey, we saw Dylan Hunt emerge naked from the shower! "Yes, but Dylan naked in the shower is very different from Harper naked in the shower!"
Woolvett has quite a range on his resume. What does he look for in roles? "An opportunity to do something different and to make choices that are different and unique," he replies. "I don't want to be the main character -- I don't want to fall into a mold. I like to be the character on the side who doesn't have to carry the weight of the plot, but gets to have fun. Not the hero, but that guy you want to smack. That's who I like to be."