INSURRECTION'S DONNA MURPHY:
Broadway Star Joins the Galaxy's Finest
by Michelle Erica Green
Two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy may not have been widely known to Trekkers prior to Star Trek: Insurrection, but she's had her own experience with cult following as the star of the Broadway musical Passion...an emotion very familiar to fans. "I really was very naive about Star Trek - still am, I think," the bi-coastal actress laughed this fall from her New York apartment. "The cast said, 'Oh, Donna Murphy, you don't know what you got into!' And because I just came home, without the film having been released yet, I don't really know. I know that it means a lot to a lot of people, this work, so I just try to do my best to deal with it very respectfully."
In the ninth Trek feature film, Murphy plays Anij...a woman who is not only several hundred years old and in a highly spiritual state of serenity, but who gets to romance Picard. Her planet is being threatened, however, because its regenerative qualities have made it coveted by other races; when Starfleet washes its hands of the situation, Picard and his crew risk their lives and careers to protect her people.
Though she had seen only bits and pieces of the original series and none of the films, Murphy was excited when her agent sent over the audition material. "They would not give us a complete script, but they sent over a good portion - all the material which dealt with this character, just so I could get a sense of who she was. I thought, ooh, this is a very interesting woman," she reported. "I rented First Contact and Generations, I wanted to see what that world was, and I found myself very engaged. It is really very well-done and there are some wonderful actors in it. And the themes that drive the storylines are very admirable. I connected to it."
Murphy also connected to Anij, whom she described as "a complicated, very strong, sensual, interesting woman." Since she was identified as an alien, the actress did wonder whether she would be getting herself into hours of prosthetic makeup, "but when they described her in the script she just sounded like a very earthy-looking natural woman of human appearance, a member of an alien race with some distinguishing skin pattern." The producers did not decide until two days before Murphy started shooting just what the distinctive alien marks would look like, and the makeup artists tested several prototypes on the actress, but she never did wear prosthetics.
"It was actually very pretty," she recalled. "From looking at some photos of different characters from the different shows, it looked a little bit like...what's that character who just left one of the shows?" Terry Farrell's Jadzia Dax? "The Trill, that's right. Those kind of spots," agreed Murphy. "They had just this little skin pattern on my temples that was airbrushed on, just coming off the temple, and the coloring was different."
The producers wanted a simple, subtle alien marking, in part because of the hundreds of extras who had to be made up as aliens to represent Anij's community. "I think also they said that unless you're in close-up it looks like you're dirty - somebody wipe that girl's face!" added the actress with a laugh. "So there may have been a very practical consideration with the extras, balanced by the fact that - I don't know, they didn't want it to stand out in close-up when I was making out with Patrick!" Murphy admitted to "a couple of kisses" and said the script left room for Anij and Picard to meet again.
While she found the experience of working with the cast to be highly enjoyable and particularly liked Stewart and director Jonathan Frakes, Murphy noted that she was worried at first about coming into a cast which has been together for more than ten years. "For them it was very much like a reunion - these films have turned out to be that, the last two of them, since they left doing the show. So I was concerned. But then I said, I kind of can't lose here, because this woman's an outsider in this situation. If I had to come in and play their long-lost pal, or replace somebody that needed to be represented in a way that suggested them having a long history, that would have been harder. I was lucky in that this woman and her people were very much outsiders - they had by choice gone to this world - so you use it."
Murphy described the cast as "welcoming," especially Frakes: "Jonathan was in my corner from my first audition. I remember Rick Berman saying to me, 'We knew five minutes into your reading that you were it, so we started doing rewrites with you in mind.' It doesn't get any better than that, with people saying, we really want you to be here. From the beginning made me feel like they were lucky to have me."
"And they're fun - they really know how to have a good time together," she added gleefully. "Sometimes they'd be cracking me up so much that it would be hard to get the next take going; they're much better at switching gears, they're a little more immune to each other's tricks! But it was all very good-natured and respectful. That was great."
The Stella Adler Conservatory and NYU-trained actress said she prepared to play Anij by focusing on her heightened awareness and the philosophy of her people. "What's wonderful about this character is, she is a very highly evolved, almost Zen-like woman," she described. "I started studying meditation and yoga with a teacher, doing a lot of reading about Eastern religions, listening to meditation tapes. It was so much about practicing awareness of the moment and living totally in communion with life - they're very accepting, forgiving people."
Murphy noted that the part gave her opportunities to practice yoga more regularly, and that "this is the kind of reading and self-exploration that I try to do on my own but I put aside for this script or that script or this research project. An opportunity to do this kind of work and explore these kinds of philosophies was wonderful." The challenge of playing Anij was figuring out how to portray her distress at the film's crises without sacrificing her focus and calm: "How does the most centered woman in the universe deal with adversity?"
"I think, in my little backstory in my head, I think that in the life that she led before she came to this planet, she lived a very fast-paced, competitive society - they talk in the film about how her people left the planet that they lived on, which was on the verge of technological destruction," Murphy explained. "She evolved and arrived at the person we meet in the film, but I think that when she sees Picard, she knows exactly how his mind works. She knows because she's been there - not in a judgemental way, though she also is not initially trusting of what his intentions are. They've worked very hard to create this sanctuary, so she's very protective of it."
Still, the actress keeps a sense of humor about the work. "At one point, Anij is in trouble because she doesn't know how to swim - she's like 350 years old, but she doesn't know how to swim, so that Picard can save her of course! I'm thinking, how do I flail from a Zen-like place? Fortunately, they're smart enough to allow there to be some comment on the absurdity of it. I think that's part of what is attractive about her to him, because she does teach him kind of an approach to truly stepping inside of a moment, which he later utilizes in a particular way related to her."
The Trek newbie gained some appreciation for the phenomenon of the franchise when she returned to New York on business in the midst of shooting and caught First Contact on television. "Watching it while I was shooting [Insurrection], I got all excited about being a part of this, in a very sweet way that I didn't anticipate." The actress doesn't believe she will become a regular on the con circuit, even if invited - her schedule is too full - "But I would like to go to some, again, out of respect for the whole Star Trek world. I will try to do that."
Murphy, whose stellar theatrical career has thus far eclipsed her exposure to film audiences, said that Fosca in Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion was her favorite role. The story of a ailing, unattractive woman who falls deeply in love with a handsome young soldier, Passion resembles a parable of fan adoration in which the object of the crush eventually comes to value and reciprocate the love offered by the admirer. "I would get letters from people, or just meet people outside the stage door, and it was clearly having such a large impact on their lives," Murphy recalled. "I'd rather be a part of something that people have a big response to than just walk away and say, that was pleasant. The big feelings that Passion both delivered and provoked were for me fabulous to be connected to."
The actress called Fosca one of her most difficult parts, but added that "it was one of those moments when a role and the things I had experienced in my life were a great marriage. I felt so purposeful in what I had to give to it. I don't think I'm alone in that, in this society, it's easy to get down on yourself physically - parts of yourself that you feel are not attractive, that people respond to in a way that lead you to believe that they don't appreciate you. So dealing with the parts of yourself that you know people find unattractive, and what we do to protect ourselves, I connected with that immediately. And getting to work with Stephen was just a huge, huge gift. I learned so much, being with people who really care deeply about what they do. That's inspiring, and it brings out the best in you."
Though she has done several films and prominent television series of late, Murphy said she cannot imagine not doing live theater. "There's an amount of control that you maintain over the performance that an audience gets to see that you pretty much in most circumstances give up in film and television. They shoot what they shoot, and then in terms of how it's shaped, how it's cut, how it's used, it really can change the essence of what you crafted. In the theater that's not the case, and there's more time to develop things and shape things. In film you're making choices sometimes so quickly that are immortalized! They may have felt so arbitrary in the moment that you chose them. There are things I'm really loving about doing film work but I don't think I would ever just want to do that. For me, right now, I have the ideal, in being able to go back and forth. And it stretches me in unexpected ways on both ends of it."
Murphy was offered the role in Insurrection right after wrapping another science fiction film, The Astronaut's Wife, which will debut in February of next year. She plays the best friend of Charlize Theron, the astronaut's wife of the title, who discovers that her husband (Johnny Depp) has returned from a space mission greatly changed. "Johnny and my character's husband, played by Nick Cassavetes, are two astronauts who go up on this mission, and while they're repairing a satellite dish or something outside of the ship, mission control loses contact with them, just for two minutes, and they both come back each somehow changed. My character is the first person to be suspicious about what's gone on. And that's all I can tell you! This is definitely my 'space cadet' time."
In between filming the two space movies and commuting back to New York, where she lives with her husband, Murphy appeared on the Ally McBeal/The Practice crossover episodes - both shows produced by David E. Kelley, though their air on different networks. "It was crazy because we shot both shows over the same eight days - fortunately they're on the same lot! But I would just be running from one side to the other, 'Which courtroom am I weeping in today?' It's two groups of people, equal in terms of the kinds of integrity and great actors and writers, but the two sets are so completely different in tone, as the shows are."
Though she said she's "never been one of those actors with kind of an agenda, a list of roles," Murphy added, "I like reinventing myself as an actor. I'm really a character actress, that's what I get off on, so I don't have stock preconceived quirky characters up my sleeve, which would make things kind of easier. For me it's reading a script, having the seeds of something get stimulated, starting to take that little piece of myself that connects, and then building from imagination from the text somebody new, somebody I have not preconceived or been dying to play. There's Hedda Gabler and there are classical roles that I would love to play, but I haven't really put the time into making that a very pure agenda. My focus tends to be on the job I'm doing now or the next script I'm reading. I tend to bring a lot to the table and I tend to have a lot of ideas, but those ideas...I'm somebody who, the more limitations you give me about a character, where they live, what they come from, what their history is, even what they sound like, that liberates me. My imagination starts to go."
Hence becoming Anij, a centuries-old woman from another planet, was a joy rather than a struggle for Murphy. Insurrection screenwriter Michael Piller, who "thought she brought real chemistry to her scenes with Patrick [Stewart]," told Another Universe that he had known Murphy's work as a long-time fan of her Broadway career. "She took the role of Anij and truly defined it as her own," he said. Now Murphy is part of Star Trek lore...an immortality not unlike the Fountain of Youth for which some of Insurrection's characters come seeking.
"This is definitely my 'space cadet' time," jokes actress Donna Murphy of her back-to-back roles in science fiction epics Star Trek: Insurrection and The Astronaut's Wife. Fans who remember Murphy as Anij - the supportive, tranquil woman who inspired Captain Picard to strive for inner peace - may be surprised to see her as skeptical Natalie Streck, who believes that her husband has been compromised during a space walk.
A two-time Tony Award-winner for her starring roles in the Broadway musicals Passion and The King and I, Murphy plays one of two astronaut's wives in Rand Ravich's film, which opens this week. Charlize Theron stars as Jillian Armacost, the title character; Jillian's husband, Spencer Armacost, is played by Johnny Depp, while Natalie's husband, Alex Streck, is played by Nick Cassavetes.
"Johnny and Nick go up on this mission, and while they're repairing a satellite dish or something outside of the ship, Mission Control loses contact with them, just for two minutes, but they both almost die," Murphy summarizes. "They both come back somehow changed. My character is the first person to become very suspicious about what's gone on, and questioning about what is going on. Charlize and I play best friends, confiding in one another as we're both trying to process what's happening."
So, what, exactly, happens to the men on this fateful space walk? "That's all I can tell you!" Murphy laughs of the new movie, which also stars Blair Brown, Joe Morton, and Tom Noonan.
The Astronaut's Wife's ads ominously intone, "Imagine the face of terror is the one you love." So whatever happens to the guys out there, it doesn't sound good.
Could it be worse than facing genocide in Insurrection? Perhaps not for a character like Anij - a role which interested Murphy because the enlightened alien remains so calm in the face of crisis.
"Anij is a very highly evolved, almost Zen-like woman. The philosophy of the people she lives with is about living in communion with life. The challenge of playing the most centered woman in the universe is, how do you deal with adversity?" reflects the actress.
Natalie, however, is only human...no matter what her husband may have become. She must deal with her wariness and suspicion, then the fear of discovery that the answers to her questions could be more terrifying than the questions themselves.
The Stella Adler Conservatory and NYU-educated Murphy reads science fiction novels, but says she isn't particularly a fan of the movies. She "was very naive about Star Trek" when she was cast in Insurrection. Though most recent Trek film is considered a commercial disappointment, Murphy received very positive reviews for her work in it.
The New York-based actress speaks highly of Star Trek fans, saying she would like to do a convention just to see what they're like. She also names fellow genre favorite The X-Files among shows upon which she would most like to appear.
"I had been asked to do an X-Files, but I couldn't work it out schedule-wise," she reveals. "And if I were going to do it, I wanted to do a really cool part. I wanted to save that opportunity for something that I would get really juiced up about."
If her "space cadet" period continues, Donna Murphy just may get her chance.