Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"The Heart of the Female Warrior" - A Sitrep Interview with Mary McDonnell

For the third in the Sitrep's exclusive series of interviews with the participants in this Friday's panel Battlestar Galactica: Cyborgs on the Horizon, I had the opportunity to speak with the brilliant Mary McDonnell. By way of introduction, all I'll say is this: Mary McDonnell is President Roslin. She really is that wise and wonderful and thoughtful. At the end of Season 3's episode "Dirty Hands," the Chief sits down with Roslin in her office on Colonial One and basks in her warmth and brilliance. In an interview, Aaron Douglas talked about what a marvelous and moving experience it was to sit down and shoot that scene with Mary McDonnell. That's how I felt.

Can you give us a sneak peek at what you'll be talking about this Friday, at the panel Battlestar Galactica: Cyborgs on the Horizon?

The event at the 92nd Street Y is going to be attended by some really remarkable scientists and thinkers – there's a man named Nick Bostrom, and he's co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association at Oxford; there's a man named Hod Lipson, who works in evolutionary robotics, and his research is focused primarily on biologically-inspired approaches to engineering, machine self-replication—my point is that Michael Hogan and I have been invited to sit on a panel of people who are on the cutting edge of science and physics and futuristic ideas and some of the themes that Battlestar Galactica touched on with cylon technology and its evolution – I believe are the reasons we are asked to sit on this panel. What we will end up speaking about, what our contribution will be, is yet unknown, because what we're there for, I believe, is to provide a bridge between the common man and the scientists who are speaking on such a level that sometimes people shy away from it—discussion of metaphysics or whatever. When you put some actors in the mix, sometimes it helps bridge the gap. And I feel honored, actually, and I'm sure Michael Hogan does too, if you haven't talked to him already – that we get to be that bridge. Battlestar Galactica has opened many interesting doors for us to participate in, help support, help bring audience to—everything from human rights to cybernetics.

Are you up on the current state of robotics?

No, but I'm going to be reading a lot about it this week, and I'm going to be learning about it while I'm there - are you?

I'm not, but I just interviewed Professor Warwick and Professor Lipson, and it's totally astonishing work they're doing. Amazing amazing stuff.

Oh, I'd love to read your interviews.

Well, they're up on the Sitrep.

I'll read them.

Do you have a favorite episode of Battlestar Galactica?

Someone asked me that at the UN event too, and I really don't. I do have favorite moments where we were all on the set, where the entire ensemble was collected, for example, when we landed on the first Earth... (laughs)... the disastrous Earth...we were all there that day, we were all working together, so this sort of collective consciousness of Battlestar Galactica was assembled on a beach on a cloudy day in Canada. There was something so remarkable about actually being in the presence of everyone who had worked on the show – even a lot of people from LA had come up for that particular event. I remember those moments more vividly than some of the others because I was always so respectfully in awe of the ensemble, and quite often didn't get to work with a lot of the people who were on the show. As an actress you kind of relish those moments where everyone's in the same place and you get to observe the ensemble at work. It was really quite exciting. I have many moments like that – I can't really name one episode.

The finale of Battlestar Galactica was very polarizing. Lots of fans loved it; lots of fans hated it. Were you satisfied with the finale?

I loved it. I was very satisfied with it. I loved the sort of simplicity of the ending, to be honest with you, it seemed very simple to me, it seemed very right, that ultimately the simplicity of existence comes from a deep respect for the land and the projection of a peaceful future... and that seems to be what was on their minds, as they finally completed their journey. It seemed to me that each character had acquired that aspiration towards simplicity and peace, and I feel that that was a huge statement to make, after four years of pretty sophisticated battles. And also I was pretty pleased that my character was able to die peacefully, and quite happy, oddly enough – she was happier in the last few episodes on some very deep level than she was at the beginning. What did you think, Sam? Where do you fall?

When I saw it, I was actually really unhappy. For me, the moment of finding the first, devastated Earth was so powerful and so amazing, and so speaks to what I love about the show - and that scene on the beach that you were just describing is my favorite moment in the series - so it felt like a betrayal to find this second earth that's a beautiful paradise. The show had been so gutsy in going after these dark dark things. I guess after going through all that stuff y'all did deserve a happy ending, but it wasn't what I was prepared for.

You were prepared for a more apocalyptic ending.


I understand that.

But the more distance I get from the episode, the more right it feels. I think what I am feeling is mostly just grief at the end of the series.

Also, I think that what you're saying is mostly right on target, because I do think that to a certain extent it's more uncomfortable for us to have happy endings. When you're trying to look at life on this planet honestly, and you're trying to not shy away from the darkness, which Battlestar did not shy away from, to suddenly be led into some kind of very simple light – it is a bit threatening, I think. You do have to get used to it. And because we played it, we were prepared. I do understand how it would make one... initially a bit circumspect.

In popular culture, we always imagine that the robots will want to exterminate us. There’s a real fear that as soon as machines become intelligent, they become a threat to us. Why do you think people have that knee-jerk reaction?

Because I think that we're still trying to struggle beyond fear-based culture. I don't think we're quite there yet, but I do think we're on the brink of it. A lot of what I learned on Battlestar, both through playing Laura Roslin and through being brought out into the culture a bit, through conventions and things like the World Science Festival, is that people are on the brink of giving up their fear. And if we can give up our fear, then the whole concept of the Other as alien starts to dissipate a bit. And if we're willing to risk perhaps giving up our fear of death at the core of all of this, and we start to see life as an ongoing process, that our nominal death is just a little part of the ongoing process, then we won't perhaps continue to project, culturally, artificial intelligence as coming to kill us, or something we have to eliminate at our first glance. I think that's part of where we grew a little bit in Battlestar – the absorption of the alien as the self, rather than the Other or the enemy.

That's a very optimistic and exciting way to look at it!

But don't you think that that is it, though?

I do. I think it's about fear - and guilt, almost, that our own history of oppression is what we see coming back to us.

Yes! That's exactly – I absolutely agree with you, Sam. And I don't think about guilt a lot in relation to this but you're absolutely right, we begin to feel guilty, it's sort of like moving away from tribal thought or clan mentality.. and starting to individuate. Even in my own ethnic background, this sort of very clannish emotional attachment in being Irish, which brings such absolutely beautiful things into my DNA, but there's also things that in order to evolve as a human being I have to almost separate a little bit from - whatever clan impulses are still in my DNA. Which is a long-winded way of saying that you said something I related to.

One thing that I loved throughout the show, from the miniseries to the moment of Laura Roslin's death, is the use of her eyeglasses... I even wrote an article about it. Did that mean anything to you - were you developing the use of the character's glasses to have a specific meaning?

Immediately, Ron Moore recognized them in a certain way, and he pointed out to me that he saw something in the way I used my glasses. And we didn't get too deeply into what he saw, because I didn't want to get self-conscious about it, but they became inseparable from what Laura Roslin needed to get done. I read once in a Buddhist text, and it's something I really responded to, that there's a defensive way and an open way of perceiving life, or meeting life. In an open way, the image is straight back, open front – open heart. In a defensive way, the back is bent and the front is closed. I think the glasses were Laura Roslin's attempt to keep the front open but protect it. It's hard for me now because I'm currently playing a character on The Closer, and I have a new pair of glasses (laughs).

Does it change everything?

As a woman being asked to push the envelope a little bit, in positions of power, I am finding that they've become kind of an important part of my process. There's something so naked about a middle-aged woman's face РI really believe this, and take pride in it, that women communicate the life that they've lived on their countenance. Men absorb the life that they've lived in a different way, it matures on them in a different way. Women's history is more visible on their countenance, so stepping into playing roles that are more traditionally in the male power structure, I find that a pair of glasses, as clich̩ as it sounds, helps me and the character mask the more feminine response to life, which may or may not be useful in that situation. I've been noticing it Рyou see more and more female characters in the movies and on television who are in positions of power wearing glasses. And of course we had Sarah Palin. I think it's sort of a collective response, and I think women are feeling it together. I think it's fascinating.

Maybe that's your cultural influence -

Oh, I dont know if it's my influence. I would love to believe that we had that much power, and sometimes I think that we do. I'll tell you I have been to certain conventions with a lot of really beautiful young women showing up in their horn-rim glasses. I always get so tickled by it. So there is something going on.

BSG has this important theme of looking at our history of oppression, owning up to what we have done – as Adama says, “We can't wash our hands of the things that we've done.” I see a similar theme in Dances With Wolves, and this idea of looking at our history in its less flattering light... is that something that's important to you as an artist?

It actually is. And it's become more clear to me through Battlestar that it's been a kind of driving influence. I think as artists we carry different elements inside our talent that are spiritual elements, that we feel consciously or unconsciously as a form of duty. I've met very few true artists in my life who are blithely enjoying the fact that they're artists. Artists really grapple, in general, with a sense of purpose and a sense of responsibility. So what I've noticed over the years in my career now that I've had this very long one (laughs), I've noticed that there is a sort of a pattern, and that my talent seems to spring to life more readily when it's being asked to serve a story that tries to honestly reflect what we really are as humankind, and what we might be, and tries to take responsibility for some of the past, and stand squarely in it. Somehow, whatever talent I have seems to come to life inside of that. And I've had many experiences where I've been asked to play something in other territories that was a bit more entertaining and perhaps a bit more frivolous, and unless it's a flat-out comedy I often don't know how to place myself. So, somehow yes, I think that is important to me.

Are there other lessons from Battlestar Galactica, that the show has to offer us or that it offered to you?

Quite often the viewers of Battlestar, and people such as yourself, would teach us more about the implications of the show than we understood when we were making it. I think that what I have learned as a recipient of all of this discussion and real debate and praise – all kinds of things have come back at us in relation to show, and what it's really put at the center of my being at this point is that if one commits to an artistic endeavor that truly does want to ask the difficult questions, one can become directly connected to the culture in a way that perhaps increases the collective way of thinking that could be very positive. That's what I learned from Battlestar – it kind of strengthened a belief in me that people are really very very excited and willing to change. There's something about pop culture, if used correctly, that can gather all those forces out there, and then bring them to the same place, and the change can maybe be made together. And I've always suspected that that is why we do it, but Battlestar taught me that it truly is an important part and is going to continue to be an important part of the process. I think that starting with cable television and moving into new media, we're entering a whole new age of possibilities. Communications technology is changing what all artists are going to be capable of doing, and the instantaneous access to the audience is becoming very exciting. I also learned that we're entering an age where things are going to move very quickly, so it's really important to get the most correct idea with the most integrity, out there as quickly as possible.

In the episode "Blood on the Scales," in Season 4.5, you deliver this astonishing speech - the one that climaxes with “I'm coming for all of you.” Pulses skyrocketed all across Galactica fandom - it's just the most amazing and effective moment. What was your motivation in delivering and acting that scene?

When I read it, I was so astonished by the bravery of Michael [Angeli] to write that. And I was so astonished that the show and the minds of the show decided to allow Laura Roslin a moment where all her other considerations - the survival of the human race, which was always her driving force, whatever layers that might have grown up underneath that, that might have been political - everything else disappeared for one moment. And the emotional and passionate warrior, the woman who was falling in love, was able to come to the forefront. And threaten to take action that she wouldn't hesitate to do, and she wouldn't look back. And there was nothing intellectual about it and there was absolutely no negotiating. It was like the heart of the female warrior was able to come to the forefront, and all the other layers of Laura Roslin were able to go away. And the thing that motivated me was simply the thought that someone had killed Adama! It was pretty simple. This woman had been fighting a war since the miniseries. So the female warrior had been growing in her. But she was in a political position and she had to – to the best of her ability – be very level. I think the only other time she really lost her temper was with Baltar (laughs), but it wasn't on that level. So I guess, once again, if I can give a simple answer – her motivation was love. The female maternal side, when one of your loved ones is threatened, and in this case it was stated that his life had been taken, the maternal loving aspect of the feminine comes out full force. In this instance it was allowed to. I thought it was written perfectly. That was Michael Angeli – I remember hugging him.

Are you a sci-fi fan in general?

Sci fi the form, or SciFi the channel?

The form. Good qualifier.

When you're living in the channel's world for years and someone says “Sci fi” you think of these wonderful executives (laughs). Am I fan of the form – I am, to a certain extent. I was not a fan of the form, but I wasn't particularly educated in the form. I am beginning to understand life more specifically through the lens of science fiction the more I am exposed to it. And I have to say in all honesty that the people I've met through this experience, who are devoted to the perspective or the lens of science fiction have been some of the most profoundly bright and moving and dedicated that I've met through my life, and I've had a pretty amazing life through my work, I've had the opportunity to meet many creative and really smart thinkers... there's something about the sci fi devotee that is so interested and interesting and willing to grapple and keep the mind sharp. It's not your normal fare. To me it's been really lovely to be brought into connection with people who are thinking about life on that level, and I'm finding myself more and more comfortable with it, and drawn to it, and stimulated by that perspective.

- Sam J. Miller


crone51 said...

Wonderful. Thanks so much! She is just astonishing and your questions were great.

Amanda said...

Beautiful interview. It was lovely to read Mary's views on the elements and dangers of fear in our progression toward the recognition of the Other (or even the Face, since Mary seems to be versed in Levinas... or I'm just misreading and/or dreaming *giggles*). Very eloquent and well thought out interview.

Greg Cotten said...

Excellent interview. Thank you for this!

Justin said...

I agree - great questions on your part and some pretty introspective answers on her part. What an interview should be! Thank you for posting this!

MokeleMbembe said...

I want to print this out and laminate it and stick it to my wall. She is so smart and thoughtful and...frak it...I just love her. LOVE HER!

And love you for such an epic interview.

Rock on, SAM!


oliverandom said...

Mary McDonnell blows me away everytime. Thanks to Sam for conducting this excellent interview.

Craig Ranapia said...

Good work -- thanks to both you and Mary. I've got a slightly different take on that speech: While Laura Roslin never wanted to be a political leader, she becomes one -- for better and for worse: Always playing the angles, reading the room, always conscious of how she's coming across, trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Because, if she doesn't keep her shit in check people are going to die. That simple.

But this is the one moment her emotions are raw and on the surface. She's absa-fraking-loutely crazy, and I loved it because that's never really been a note appropriate for the character until now. And Mary sells it like her life depended on it.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview, Sam!

I especially loved her response about the "I'm coming for all of you!" speech. She is such a rock star.

She seemed very engaged in your interview!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview, and WHAT A WOMAN! If at all possible, I adore her even more now.
And I know what you mean Sam; I've met in person three times now, and it really is an amazing experience.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interview, it has been very smart and interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Sam, for the interview. It was a really interesting read. I especially loved the parts when Mary was talking about the portrayal of middle aged women.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, what a fantastic interview! Well done on both ends.

Grant Gould said...

Great interview! :)
I'll post a link to this over at Battlestar-Blog.com

Kaitlinb said...

This was a very interesting interview; however, I'm not sure if Levinas was quite where Mary was going, but I totally agree that she got him without knowing it! (I love Levinas). I would guess perhaps that her sense of identity comes from a conflation of insight about her own sense of self and its individuation and as she mentioned spiritual texts. I met her yesterday and was rendered rather speechless. There is just something about her presence; she is so wise. Her comment about countenance is particularly apt, but I don't know so much that women's history is more visible, but perhaps that we pay it too much attention in a way requires that we have some sort of mediation between our bodies and our audiences. Evidence toward a continuing bias in examining women in politics? Funny though, in 18th English literature there is great emphasis placed on the valence of countenance as being somehow more authentic than words...Anyway, reading this has just made me more sad that I won't be able to engage with her in a Q&A session. My condolences to the BSG community...