It’s 4pm in Vancouver and Sanctuary star Amanda Tapping has already put in a full day on the set. After our interview, she’ll be heading back to work for a few more hours. This type of schedule has been par for the course for Tapping since she began working as both producer and star of Sanctuary, which premieres Oct. 3 on SCI FI Channel. Still, she gave me plenty of time as we talked about the genre she loves, the fans she adores and the fun of filming in Canada, the country the British-born actress now calls home.
The cast of “Sanctuary” reads like a who’s who of the sci-fi community. Does the genre get into people’s blood or is it just that you are so used to working together?
It’s both. There is a great sense of community in sci fi and you know all the actors and a lot of the crew. There’s also a certain stylized element in sci fi, especially with green screen when you want to be sure people know what they are doing. And there is a sense of community. But I think the other thing that’s really interesting is that, as a genre, sci fi is so much broader than it used to be. You aren’t just telling these linear stories about ships and space. Now it’s far more all-encompassing. Today’s demographic has changed as well and there’s a larger audience than there used to be. There are a lot more women watching sci fi and the age demographic is much broader than what was traditionally thought of as a sci-fi audience. So we are using a who’s who of the sci-fi community because we have worked with these people before in the genre, and because the community itself is much bigger and we have a broader group from which to draw.
The webisodes for “Sanctuary” were interesting in that a lot was intimated rather than shown, although you could show just about anything given how you were doing it. It feels like a classic old film. Will that remain in the series?
We have to bring up the power a little bit, but we are trying to stay true to what we envisioned for the show. We wanted to make it intelligent. Sci-fi audiences are a lot more intelligent than some networks will give them credit for. Sometimes a lot of things are watered down, or dumbed down for the audience. We don’t want to do that. We also like intimating something in Episode 1 and not explaining it until Episode 7 and having people stew about it. I think that’s a far more interesting way to watch television.
Were you originally intending that “Sanctuary” was going to stay on the web or was that a sort of trial run?
It was our intention to stay on the web. The sci-fi audience spends a lot of time on their computers and the social network is strong. People will be watching a sci-fi show and writing about it in the forums as they are watching it. So this is where our audience lives and breathes and spends a lot of time, so why not make a show for them and make it an interactive kind of experience? Incorporate energies and make it a social networking site and make it the Sanctuary community. Great in theory and concept, but in terms of trying to monetize that, it was near impossible because it’s an expensive show to make. Our webisodes cost close to $4 million, and we could have spent a lot more if we had the money. So we were creating a really cool product, and we got a lot of great buzz internationally about it, but we couldn’t keep that machine rolling. So moving to television was partly survival and partly because people were coming to us and saying [we should]. We were running out of money and there were sites all over the world that were showing it for free. The concepts and the characters were too rich to let it go, so when television came a’knocking, we went, “This is exactly where we should be right now.”
We decided that [television] is our comfort zone. Let’s go back to television and eventually go back to the web, not with a new series but with all the social networking we had originally envisioned, hopefully getting the best of both worlds out of it.
What will you do on the web?
At this stage, we would start the social networking aspect of it — get the fans involved with games. And then, if the show is a success, we can carry it forward and make the web a separate entity. I would love to see Magnus walking down a corridor in Sanctuary and sort of look toward a door but not open it, and then on the web have the fans able to open that door and see things they won’t see on television. We’d make it an interactive experience.
Is working with a green screen very difficult for an actor or is it rather like a stage play?
Exactly like doing a stage play once you wrap your head around the fact that this is what you are supposed to be looking at and this is what is surrounding you. Then it is up to the actor to put texture where you are. I think the hardest part, especially with our show and the green screen, is the scope of it. Sanctuary, the actual lab, is five stories high. You want to create an intimacy between the characters while they are doing the scene, while also giving the sense that they are in a huge space. We do get images we can look at, so visual effects and the art department work together very well.
We also have an incredible director of photography. David Geddes is an artist. He will paint with light. He will create a paned window with the light streaming through. He has led us to believe that we are in the catacombs under Rome or in the Bermuda Triangle or on an island in Scotland. It’s amazing what he’s been able to do with light, and that makes a huge difference when you are working with green screen. Initially, yes, it is very difficult, but once you get used to it, it is like stage.
I love your website and your interaction with fans. There seems to be a much closer relationship between sci-fi fans and their stars than there is with mainstream series.
I cannot say enough about sci-fi fans. I have never met a more stalwart, focused, supportive group of fans in any genre. Part of it is the social networking. They’re really an active group. Stargate lasted 10 years and I attribute it to the fans and to the fact that they stuck by us. I don’t do a lot of conventions, but I do smaller ones, and it’s a great way to say thank you to them. They really are an incredible group. It makes taking a big leap of faith — like leaving the Stargate franchise to jump on to Sanctuary — easier by knowing there is this groundswell of fans to support it.
So “Stargate” isn’t going away?
No, it’s a show that will never die. It’s a fantastic thing.
Can you tell me your most interesting fan encounter?
I’m a big supporter of the sisterhood. I talk a lot about women supporting each other. And I speak about the fact that I have had a number of miscarriages because I don’t think people talk about it enough. They treat it as this big shameful taboo, and it happens all the time to women. So in talking about that, I’ve had so many letters and fans coming up and telling me, “Wow, you’ve helped me through this time. I thought I was alone in this.”
Also, there’s the family aspect of conventions. Entire families come to them. I do this small convention in England where we raise money for charities, and I had this father and daughter come up. He was not a fan but he spent the weekend just hanging out and meeting the fans. By the end, he’d had a great time and got to know his daughter better. They walked out arm in arm.
Parents and kids walk away from these weekends totally bonded. You can’t buy that kind of experience.
You shot an episode of “Stargate” in the Arctic. You didn’t just green screen the Arctic?
No, we had this incredible opportunity. Barry Campbell, this gentleman who works for the [Royal] Navy, came up to our producers at a convention a number of years ago and said, “We do this applied physics lab up in the Arctic and we’d love to get your guys up.” So Continuum, the second Stargate movie, was written with that in mind. And Ben Browder and myself went up, and Richard Dean Anderson came up for the end of it. We took a skeleton crew — I think there were 10 of us — and we lived on a moving ice floe in these little boxes — I think they’re called hooches. It was phenomenal. We flew to Prudhoe Bay and lived in the most unbelievable environment. It was rugged, but comfortable. It was freezing cold, minus 58 degrees, but beautiful and life-altering. I’ve never thought more clearly. I’ve never had such a sense of the importance of what we are doing on this earth and what we are not doing and how badly we are f#%@-ing it up. And you talk to the people in the coastal cities and how it is changing the ice and how it is affecting the polar bears and this and this and this. It was an amazing experience, and beautiful.
I recall that critics used to say that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the most underrated show on television. That seems true about any number of sci-fi shows. Why is it that sci fi gets so little respect from critics?
I think there is still this very outdated perception of what sci fi is. The genre is much broader and much more far-reaching than it used to be. People still think it is pasty-faced boys living in their parents’ basements working at their computers. [But] Stargate got some pretty big names. Isaac Hayes came on and Wayne Brady … Battlestar was the first show to get more mainstream critical acclaim, so hopefully [perception is] changing. Maybe Sanctuary will be the one that blows it out of the park. Hopefully, it will change, because we’re telling the same stories others are telling in medical dramas and police dramas. There’s universality to it.
Can you talk about the vibrant television and film community in Canada?
It’s amazing up here. I’ve shot Stargate up here for 11 years and have watched the film community grow. Canada built [its] international film reputation on the fact that the dollar up here was much weaker and there were great tax incentives, so it made a lot of sense monetarily for productions to come here. Then you had a lot of great shows like The X-Files up here shooting, and it put a lot of cities on the map.
Canada also has its own great indigenous film community but it’s not as huge as the international one that comes up. Now that the dollar is sort of at par and the tax incentives are being matched in the States, Canada has to find a way to become competitive. But for us on Sanctuary, we’re all Canadians and we’re all working with Canadian companies with this sort of “little engine that could” show. It’s been a great boon for us that there is such a great wealth of talent in terms of the crew and cast that you can get up here. So Canada has been good. Very good.
This is your first experience being both star and producer. What’s that been like?
I love it. I love the challenge of it. The thing that I am finding is the hardest is the lack of time. You used to think that, as an actor, coming in with 10 pages of delicious techno-babble dialogue was a tough day. Now that makes me laugh because I don’t have a spare second available in my day. There is no downtime just sitting in my trailer learning lines. It’s up in the office on a conference call with the financial guys. It’s post-production issues. It’s nonstop. What I love about it is I have a really great team. [We] work together really well. It’s nice to be in an environment where you are validated and respected and you have a voice. It is a huge amount of work for all of us, but the reward is that it’s rewarding.