The Dabo Girl Gets Serious About SF
by Michelle Erica Green
At first, Chase Masterson comes across a lot like Leeta, the character she plays on Deep Space Nine: sweet, generous, and a lot of fun. But get her talking about her work, and all traces of good-time Dabo Girl vanish.
Masterson has so many projects in the works that one expects her to list juggling among her talents: in addition to her recurring Trek role, she hosts the new show Sci-Fi Entertainment on the Sci-Fi Channel, plus she's producing a children's show and a documentary on filmmaking. She also attends dozens of conventions every year, even though she's a single mother raising an eleven-year-old son.
The actress is on hiatus at the moment from DS9, as she and the writers prepare for some big changes. Terry Farrell, who plays Dax, will not be returning in the fall; moreover, because this is the final season for the series, many plot threads need to be resolved. Though Leeta has played an increasingly important role since she married Rom late last season, Masterson isn't sure where her character will be when the series winds down.
"It's so sad, it really is, but I guess it's time," she says of the impending end of Deep Space Nine. "The saddest part about it is that I'll really miss Rom!" Though kissing an actor wearing those sharp Ferengi teeth has not been a pleasant experience for Masterson, she hopes there will be time to explore the future of their marriage: "People are asking if we're going to have a child, and what would it be like - cleavage with ears?" She counts many of the performers among her friends, particularly "the Ferengi crowd," and says she's looking forward to what's in store for them even in episodes she may not appear in.
"I enjoy watching them as much as I enjoy watching myself really," the actress notes, recalling her recent appearance on the episode "Profit and Lace" as representative of "what a blast" the work is. "It was an all-Ferengi channel episode, with Cecily Adams who is just wonderful as Moogie, and Wally Shawn is back [as Grand Nagus Zek]. We couldn't keep a straight face while shooting, we had so much fun - I helped teach Quark how to be a woman. I think I have the best seat in the house when it comes to watching their work, because Wally and Cecily and Jeffrey [Coombs, who plays Inspector Brunt] and of course Armin [Shimerman, who plays Quark] and Max [Grodenchik, who plays Rom] are just brilliant actors. They're different in every single take. So even when I've worked eleven hours and I'm burned out, I stay just to watch because it's such a hoot."
Masterson credits the producers with putting this team together: "They not only cast incredibly talented people, but ones with really great energy, and the crew also," many of whom have worked together since Star Trek: The Next Generation. "It's really like a family, more so than any other set I've been on."
Several of her friends from Star Trek will be appearing on Sci-Fi Entertainment, which Masterson describes as "like Entertainment Tonight, but for genre," adding that the boundaries of "sci-fi" seem to be expanding and the term is perhaps too limited to characterize the show's scope. "We've got a group of fans that we're referring to as 'sci-fi susceptibles' - people who don't admit that they dig science fiction, but when you ask, 'Well, do you watch X-Files and Millennium and did you like Star Wars and Independence Day,' the answers are yes...there are a lot of closet cases out there," she laughs, explaining that the show aims to target both hardcore fans and casual viewers.
"There's a lot of movies that are coming out this summer, Armageddon and Deep Impact and all that, which are not just targeting [the genre] audience," Masterson explains, suddenly sounding less like Leeta and more like the host of an entertainment magazine. "I think that because genre is a medium where even the sky is not the limit, we're able to attract a lot of different kinds of people - with the new millennium coming up, we've become a more globally-minded people, and we're becoming a more universally-minded people along with that."
The actress had no previous background in anchoring or in television news, but an executive at USA Network had seen her on a talk show called Sci-Fi Vortex, also a news magazine show, and thought she would make an ideal host for the new series. "I hear it came about with me in mind to begin with, which is nice, but I did have to audition for the show, so in the final analysis I did have to earn my place there," Masterson notes, pointing out that Sci-Fi Vortex specialized in debates about genre issues - what makes a good captain, women's place in science fiction - about which she had strong, vocal opinions.
The early guest list features names familiar to genre audiences - Star Trek's Jeri Ryan, Babylon 5's Walter Koenig, Xena's Lucy Lawless and Ted Raimi - but the series will also feature actors not primarily associated with science fiction, like Gary Oldman and Matt Leblanc (most recently of Lost in Space) and Morgan Freeman (onscreen now in Deep Impact). The series also features segments on current technology which would have been considered science fiction ten years ago, like a scientist who designs robots.
"I'm learning every step of the way and loving that, because it's really about relating to people - it's more relaxed than acting, because I kind of get to be myself," Masterson observes. "Since it is a news magazine show, we want to be able to reach the masses, but we don't want to get too hair-and-teethy about it either - it's a fun show and it's certainly a clean show, but we're working to make it not a slick show."
Though she didn't attend conventions, Masterson describes herself as a lifeling science fiction fan who knows firsthand of the loyalty and devotion of genre audiences. The daughter of a theater director, she did her first play at age five, eventually earning a B.F.A. from the University of Texas. "I wasn't a cheerleader," she notes. "I was totally the ugly duckling, long straight hair, thick glasses, people called me painfully shy. I was one who only bloomed onstage." A fan of Deep Space Nine well before she made her first appearance in the episode "Explorers," she was ecstatic to be called back and eventually to become a series regular.
"Leeta was brought in for four lines, I coughed to Dr. Bashir, and I never thought there would be any more - I left work that day thinking that was it for me," the actress recalls. She came back in "Facets" as a past-life host of Dax's, and was called back again first as a potential romantic interest for Bashir and then for Rom. Though the character was initially written as a stereotypical "Dabo Girl" - one of the women who serve drinks and please the male patrons of Quark's Bar - Masterson was impressed with the rapid development of the character into someone with depth and insight.
"I love that Leeta started out as a primarily sensual being, and has evolved into someone with a lot going on on the inside - look who I married! I'm no bimbo!" she exclaims. "I broke up with the cute doctor with the English accent to marry the scary guy. I think that demonstrates that sexy is as sexy does, and if he's got it together on the inside, that translates on the out. And in turn, Rom has become such a capable, confident being, because that's what love does to people. We've got it going in all the important ways; Quark can say what he wants."
So being the object of male leering doesn't bother her? "For me, I guess, maybe because I was a really late bloomer, I think it's fun getting to be smart and sexy and capable and sensual, you know? I think those are great qualities to have combined," she muses, observing that Xena is pulling no punches even though she is also, by network standards, "a babe."
Masterson adds that she loves idea of a Bajoran Dabo girl because the Bajorans have been characterized as a centered, spiritual group of people, "and Leeta by virtue of who she is breaks all the rules, wearing the clothes and the makeup." As to the imlpications that these girls don't just play Dabo for a living, she insists, "Leeta does; Leeta doesn't get into the rest of it. I figure honestly because there's no reference to my past and my family that I am really an orphaned Bajoran child working her way through medical school. I don't think I intend to be a Dabo girl for the rest of my life, but it pays the bills."
Next season, the Federation will still be at war with the Dominion, "and Leeta doesn't tend to get to man the warships," the actress laughs. "But the writers are so cool about not stereotyping characters, I wouldn't be surprised if Leeta ends up with a phaser in her hand. I strongly believe that we in the entertainment industry have a real social and maybe even moral responsibility to look beyond bodies and be into seeing people for who they are, and not have our priorities all out of whack."
At the same time, she observes, "sex does sell. With regards to sexuality, I don't think we need to deny it - it's wonderful to be open and real and healthy. But on European television you'll find moms looking like moms, and finding the sexiness in that, rather than just being Barbie sexy. There's nothing wrong with being a mom and looking like it - I think European film and television has that under its belt. It doesn't have to be Baywatch, especially on Star Trek where we've supposedly graduated to higher capabilities and ideals.
Masterson had initially auditioned for the part of Marta, Jake Sisko's onetime girlfriend, but feels she's better suited to play Leeta, who is several years older than the teenager who changed Benjamin Sisko's attitude about Dabo Girls. "I've got a keen sense of adventure that I draw on to create Leeta, but the thing about Leeta that I love, which is a two-edged sword, is her purity, which is different from the Bajoran spiritualism because Leeta's not really tied up in rules. We've never really had a chance to see how the war scarred her. I see Leeta as an innocent snake, quick and able but really truly pure, without being naive."
That characterization could almost describe Masterson herself, though she comes across considerably less obtuse than Leeta, particularly during her convention appearances where she has raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity this year alone. "I really do enjoy conventions, for a lot of different reasons," she notes. "I figured, let's get out there and meet the people - I know fan support is one reason I'm still on the show, but deeper than that now, because things are pretty secure and I've got Sci-Fi Entertainment, there are some really sweet, wonderful people all over the world whom I know now, and fundraising is the greatest part of all of this - getting to be in a public position to help the littlest victims, and to encourage other people to."
Caring For Babies With AIDS is Masterson's principal charity. Her fan club raised over $7000 for them recently through a club auction, but fan club president Michele Hemming (KaiMichele@aol.com) notes that Chase herself raised over $10,000 personally and donated more of her own money to the group. Masterson insists that this is the most important aspect of her public life.
"Seven years ago, when I was new in town, I went to work for a photographer on a book to benefit children with AIDS. I would have to leave my car running because that was the only way I could use it - I couldn't get it to start again if I turned it off - I was really a starving actress, I ended up having to quit. How great is it that I can come back to Caring For Babies With AIDS and bring all these people who want to make donations!" she exclaims.
In addition, Masterson feels strongly that she owes something to her fans. "When somebody drives ten and a half hours on a regular basis to see you at a convention, that's not fandom, that's friend-dom," she notes, adding that she has never felt encroached-upon and shaking her head that her fans still call her "Ms. Masterson" even after they sit at tables volunteering all day to help with the fundraising. "I'm well aware that this is just a job I do; we all have our places and we all need each other equally, they just don't sign autographs. I love the connection with the audience - you can transport people from a crappy day at work to where they can get back to themselves, get them inspired to hug their kids or just be a little more patient with work the next day. I'm one of the people who gets to bring that to the world, it's like a ministry. It's nice to be able to say 'It's so nice to meet you' and give people back that validation."
Finally, conventions have given Masterson valuable career opportunities. As a result of a convention which she did for free just for the exposure, she met the editor of Sci Fi Universe, and through that meeting landed on the cover of the magazine. At another charity convention for which she did not get paid, Masterson came into contact with a friend of Majel Barrett Roddenberry's who was interested in adopting a child with AIDS. As a result of her work on the friend's behalf, Roddenberry's assistant thought to ask Masterson whether she would be interested in appearing on Roddenberry's talk show...which was Sci-Fi Vortex, the show which brought Masterson to the attention of the Sci-Fi Universe producers.
"My work ethic has been that I'll do pretty much whatever I need to do - I'm not afraid of hard work, and if I hadn't gone to these two conventions for nothing, I wouldn't have met these people. It's good for everyone to keep in mind that hard work pays off." So long as she can take her son with her, Masterson is willing to travel a great deal, though she laughs that her son has taken to trading autographed photos of her for Spawn action figures. "They're making a dressable and undressable nine-inch Leeta, and my son will be in seventh grade next year," she laughs nervously. "Already with the little five-inch action figure, it's like, 'Is this your mom? Cool! Is she coming to pick you up?'"
The hours can be exhausting, however. The weekend of the DS9 wrap party, Masterson worked all day Thursday from seven o'clock in the morning until a little after midnight, then went to the party which ended after midnight. She worked all day Friday on a project she's producing, took the redeye to Pittsburgh, did a convention there all day Saturday and Sunday, only to get home and discover that her son had a sleepover guest and they wanted pancakes for breakfast. "All I wanted to do was cry and sleep, not necessarily in that order, but there we were washing the car, all the car washes were closed so I went to this self-car wash, and I had to buy a pan because I didn't have a pan to make pancakes," she sighs.
The actress is working on several "passion projects" which she is producing and has no expectations of performing in, one of which is a documentary on the art and business of filmmaking. "We have a two-time Academy Award-winner directing, Barbara Koppel. I think women directing and producing is a great thing, I think the face of entertainment is changing now that that is happening more." Masterson has also optioned a couple of movies of the week, and her most recent pet project is an animated children's series called Manboy, "about a fourteen-year-old kid, tall and gangly with red hair, who is in the throes of adolescence and just doesn't know what to do with himself. It's irreverent and really fun and sensitive at the same time. There's no sex, not in reference, not on camera - these kids are role models."
And so is Chase Masterson, whose projects are detailed on her web site, http://www.chasemasterson.com. There's a lot more to this Dabo Girl than meets the eye.