Enmeshed in VR.5 & Deep Space Nine, Louise Fletcher considers realities past, present and future.

Louise Fletcher is virtually a virtual reality veteran. The Oscar-winning actress died a virtual death in Brainstorm, leads a virtual life in the sleek FOX TV series VR.5 and co-stars with Denzel Washington in the upcoming big-screen thriller Virtuosity, directed by Brett Leonard, the man who made The Lawnmower Man. "Am I hi-tech? Sort of," admits the actress. "I have a computer and I actually use it. Even though I did Brainstorm, which was about VR, but came out before VR was even called 'VR,' it took me awhile to understand what the concept of virtual reality was all about.

"You know, it's not much of a surprise to me that the VR we showed in Brainstorm is almost a reality today. [Director and FX pro] Doug Trumbull and I talked a great deal about the technology for virtual reality while we were making Brainstorm, and I remember him telling me it had been around for a long time. It was much like closed-captioning. By the time the hearing-impaired public actually got access to closed-captioning and the telephone devices, the technology for these things had been around for years. It just had not filtered down to the people who needed it. So, the virtual reality technology was available a few years ago, too, but it was expensive and not widely available. Now, of course, it's getting less expensive and becoming more widely available to people."

Truth be told, VR.5 expands on the potential of existing technology in order to create its colorful, fast-paced blend of science fiction, science fact and drama. VR.5 focuses on Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer), the socially awkward daughter of the late Dr. Joseph Bloom (David McCallum), a neurobiologist who knew virtually everything about virtual reality, and Dr. Nora Bloom (Fletcher), a psychologist. Sydney's father had gotten as far as VR.8 before his death in a car crash, an incident that also left Sydney's twin sister dead. Ultimately, the tragedy also had a profound effect on Nora, who overdosed on prescribed medication, and remains in a catatonic state.

Sydney has the perfect job for a would-be hermit. She works as a lineswoman for TelCal and, in the evening, hacks away on her computer, which is tapped into the world of VR.5. At this level of VR, Sydney can pull the people she chooses to encounter into her world without them even knowing it. She can tinker with their subconscious -- thereby impacting upon their reality once they awaken -- without them realizing anything out of the ordinary has happened. Sydney can be someone other than her normal self. Just as importantly, Sydney can manipulate the wonders of VR to learn more about her father and to delve into her mother's mind.

"I don't worry too much about all of the technology. I'm only trying to relate to the human side of it all. I just try to play Nora and have her somehow relate to Sydney and try to forget about the background things," reveals Fletcher, who won her Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fletcher (profiled in STARLOG #106) is a genre veteran with such credits as Exorcist II: The Heretic, Strange Invaders, Firestarter, Invaders from Mars, Flowers in the Attic, Shadowzone, and of course, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on which she has a recurring role as the power-hungry Bajoran Kai Winn.

"I've really been enjoying doing VR.5. Everyone around me is young and creative. The show isn't exactly done on a shoestring, but it's very much more of a shoestring than Deep Space Nine. That has a budget of more than a million dollars a show, which is bigger than the budget of some films I've done. VR.5 doesn't have anything near that kind of budget, but they do a great job with what they've got. It looks and feels so different from most TV shows."

Virtual Interiors

Interestingly, Fletcher reports that the most intriguing part of playing Nora is performing the scenes that require her to be in a catatonic state. Not only does she find filming those sequences quite restful, but they enable her to delve into her own recent past. "The last few years of my parents' lives I went to visit them at the retirement community where they lived. There was a floor where they kept and cared for the elderly people who were in trouble. From time to time," she remembers, "either one or both of my parents were on that floor with broken bones. I was able to observe many of these people who were supposed to be out of it. My father had a roommate at one point who was very much like what I'm doing as a catatonic Nora."

"It's almost like a living picture. In one shot, the viewer has to get an idea of what's going on when Nora is just sitting there. It looks like nothing is going on and you would assume, maybe, that nothing is going on inside, either, but I'd bet there's almost too much going on inside. Painting that picture -- from the head to the feet to the hands -- is an interesting exercise for me. Later on, we found out that even though she looked like she couldn't do anything, she could actually be led around and she walked, which does happen in real life."

There are other elements of VR.5 that Fletcher enjoys as well. For example, there's the sense of surprise that comes with sitting before the tv set and viewing each episode, as the show shot on stage generally looks nothing like the finished product. That's because the show's makers employ a variety of lighting, camera and sound tricks, as well as state-of-the-art FX and computer graphics to give the program, particularly its VR sequences, a unique appearance. "It's a show you have to watch if you're an actor and you want to know what's happening. The lighting is very interesting and the camera is always placed at very odd angles. The crew gets physically excited, because they get to do so many things they don't normally get to do on a regular show," she says. "The more weird the script says a scene has to look, the better the crew likes it. It's fun for the actors, too, because it's so visually stimulating and it keeps you on your toes."

Also helping to keep Fletcher on her toes is her co-star, Singer. "She's a darling, she really is. She's very conscientious and she works like a dog, which makes us all work harder. She's in every scene," notes Fletcher, "almost every shot. She has tremendous stamina. She's very committed to the show and I think she's enjoying it. She's also trying to play the human story, which I think means a lot to her. It must be interesting to play the duality of her character, just as it is for me. She's both the misfit and the hero. I like our scenes together. There's a certain spark to them, and we work well together."

Fletcher recently filmed the season finale of VR.5. Looking back on the show's 13 episode run, the actress, not surprisingly, most enjoyed the first and last outings as her recurring character. "I love the pilot. It was exciting and different and it looked great. I was just starting to get a grasp on VR, on Nora. After I saw it, I could hardly imagine that was what we had shot," she enthuses. "The very last show was like 'Twin Peaks' in a way, in that it keeps the audience in a maze until the very end, then you get to figure it out. But even after you think you've figured it out, you realize you haven't figured all of it out. People really seem to like VR.5. Everyone who has called me or stopped me in the supermarket tells me that they love it. It's the kind of show people want to see next week. They want to try to figure out what's happening."

Space Exteriors

Moving onto other projects, there's Fletcher's other recurring role, as Kai Winn on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Since guest-starring in the first season finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets" as Vedek Winn, a havoc-wreaking contender for the title of Bajor's spiritual leader, Fletcher has returned several times, in "The Circle" and "The Siege," both with an unbilled Frank Langella as Minister Jaro, Winn's partner in political power-brokering; "The Collaborator," in which Vedek Winn becomes Kai Winn; "Life Support," in which Vekek Bareil (Philip Anglim), Winn's one-time political opponent and currently her chief negotiator in the Bajoran-Cardassian peace effort, dies before the eyes of his lover, Major Kira (Nana Visitor); and, most recently, "Shakaar," in which Kai Winn drinks too hastily from the cup of power after also assuming the First Minister's duties.

"I feel doing Deep Space Nine is really like doing an opera. The reason I love opera is that there's all this permissible passion that goes on on a grand scale," she states. "It sounds so great and it looks so wonderful. When I did my first Deep Space Nine, I had no idea Winn would be as much of a recurring character as she has become. I knew she would be back for at least one show, but I had no idea we would see so much of her. I think of Winn as being a very ambitious character who's looking for a lot of upward mobility. If I'm available, I go in and do it. I enjoy it very, very much. I like the people and I just love my costumes."

At the moment, Fletcher is busy filming her role as crime czar Elizabeth Deane in Virtuosity, which is set in the near future and due for a late summer release. Fletcher remembers asking Brett Leonard exactly when in the future the film's action is supposed to be taking place. "I remember this distinctly. He said, 'The future is now, really.' Essentially," she reveals, "crime is so bad they must have a crime czar. The way I interpret the crime czar or drug czar is she's just another cushion between the President and the issue. It's just somebody else to take the blame or to fire when things start to go wrong. Obviously, things are so bad that they had to spend a great deal more money on stopping crime, and they're investing truly enormous amounts in it. One of the things they use is virtual reality to train their law enforcement officers to deal with the crime. And things go wrong.

"It's an action movie with lots of special FX. It has been a very long shoot. Brett had pneumonia, and they had to shut down the film for a few days last week. Denzel Washington, Kelly Lynch and a slew of great actors are in it with me. Most of my scenes are with Denzel. It has been a very interesting experience."

Prior to Virtuosity, Fletcher also managed to find time for four other films, among them Georgino, a World War II drama; the straight-to-video production of the sexy Return to Moon Junction; Tryst, a Gothic romance in which she co-stars with Trek veteran David Warner; and the rite-of-passage movie Tollbooth. The actress is particularly excited by Tryst and Tollbooth. "In Tryst, I play a rather unstable woman, a housekeeper. She turns out to have been more involved with the family she worked for than you would like to think," she explains. "Her long-lost son shows up. We learn that she was raped by the man of the house when she was young and had a son. It gets very complicated from there. Tollbooth is a lovely, quirky movie written and directed by a young woman named Salome Breziner. It's about a young girl, played by Fairuza (Return to Oz) Balk, who's searching for her father. I play her clinically depressed mother. I guess you could say I've been keeping busy."

Fletcher expects to remain busy and is hopeful that she'll soon be returning to the fantastic worlds of both Deep Space Nine and VR.5. The producers of DS9 have told Fletcher that there's no reason why Kai Winn won't be back, while a return to the set of VR.5 depends on whether or not the series earns a renewal. "Oh, I hope they do renew it. There's much more of Nora to explore. I only see her getting better, as I only see Sydney getting better. I couldn't see Nora getting any worse. Actually she could die, I guess. I could ask for too much money, they could kill me off," jokes Louise Fletcher. "To tell you the truth, the family situation is interesting to play because Nora and Sydney are separated by miles of technical snafus and obstacles. I think of that, of the whole show, actually, as a metaphor for the way we are separated or that we can be separated in our own families, and how we try to somehow reach each other."

"I really don't want to see VR.5 end. I have a feel for it, for the VR, even though I haven't gone as far out there in VR as I might like to. I could have or should have gone a little more out there. Hopefully I'll get another opportunity to do that, because I think almost anything goes in virtual reality, and I would like to try it."

Copyright August 1995 Starlog.