Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Resident Alien: One on One with Defiance’s Trenna Keating

Trenna Keating as Doc Yewll on Defiance, now airing on SyFy and Showcase

Already, 2013 has been a bit of a banner year for science fiction television. Since Fringe aired its final episodes in January, television viewers have been given a number of new and very promising series. Showcase’s time travel drama Continuum began its second season a few weeks ago here in Canada, and BBC America and Space launched its clone thriller Orphan Black at the end of April. (All this, and Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special in November!) And three weeks ago, Defiance premiered on the SyFy network, in the U.S., and on Showcase, in Canada.

Defiance is an ambitious ensemble drama; part space Western, part post-Apocalyptic intrigue, the series is set on Earth, some years after the arrival of several colony ships,bearing seven different alien races from a nearby Votan star system. Earth has survived a traumatic ‘terraforming’ event and a disastrous inter-species conflict (called the Pale Wars), and now humanity struggles to get back on its feet in partnership (and often conflict) with its new, and suddenly diverse, populations. Our story takes place in the outpost town of Defiance, a makeshift city built on the ruins of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s been a little over three decades since the aliens’ arrival, and Defiance is one of the few places where the human and alien races have voluntarily come together in their struggle to survive.

Trenna Keating plays Doc Yewll on Defiance. Keating is a Canadian actress who has appeared on ABC/Global’s Combat Hospital (as Sgt. Hannah Corday), CTV’s Corner Gas, and CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie. Doc Yewll is a resident of Defiance and an Indogene, a member of one of the seven alien Votan races. Keating describes the character “as a bit of a misfit, scientific and mathematical in her way of thinking, who doesn’t really get humans necessarily.”

Mark Clamen sat down with Trenna Keating for an exclusive interview for Critics at Large.  

(Note: this interview was conducted on May 9th. On May 10th, SyFy announced that Defiance would be returning for a second season.) 

Trenna Keating (Photo: Tim Leyes)
mc: Trenna, what draws you to Doc Yewll as a character?

tk: When I first auditioned for the role, I was so in love with the writing. She is really sarcastic, and snarky. She gets to say all those fantastic lines we, as humans, often think about and wish we could say but are too polite to say. So, I was drawn to how she was written, and really she’s a lot of fun. And also just the fact that she’s an alien. That’s something I had never done before – so that also excited me.

mc: The crotchety frontier doc, with a dry sarcastic wit and few, if any, bedside manners, comes from a long tradition – especially in Westerns and science fiction. Are there any classic or current doctor characters in particular you are drawing on for Doc Yewll?

tk: It’s funny. Everyone always talks about the classic doctor characters from science fiction, but I was actually drawn to shows that aren’t necessarily sci-fi when I was researching and working on this role. I was really drawn to the character of Temperance “Bones” Brennan, [portrayed by Emily Deschanel] on Bones, because she’s also sort of odd and doesn’t really blend well in social situations. Though, also, I watch Fringe all the time, and Doctor Bishop on Fringe, the mad scientist guy – I love him! I think there’s a little bit of that too in Yewll, these people who don’t really give a shit about what others think of them. They are in love with their work, and they are dedicated to their job, and they know they do it well – so they don’t have to apologize to anyone.

mc: The doctor, who sees the human body as a scientific phenomenon, is just amazed that other people don’t see it that way, and doesn’t understand what people are doing to themselves, or how they’re treating their bodies: this seems to a classical kind of figure. The doctor who tells people the truth, basically…

tk: Yes, exactly.  It’s quite cut and dried: it’s the way things are – and I [my character] don’t understand why you all don’t see it that way. [laughs]

mc: How do you think she fits it into the rest of the cast of characters in the town, or the show’s themes as you see them?

tk: It’s an interesting cast, and an interesting storyline that they’ve got going on here. I think that it’s one of those worlds that is so enormous – and especially because of there is also the videogame – that we are really just beginning to scratch the surface on who these characters all are… But I think that it is clear that all of us in the show – each of our characters – has a secret, and that we all, in our own way, hold our cards very close. Nobody in the show really let’s anyone else know who they truly are. So I think that makes for a really interesting group, and for a lot of possibilities. And I think that my character is respected in the town, to some degree. “Maybe we don’t understand how you work, and maybe we don’t like you so much, but we know you are good at your job…” And the same really goes for how Yewll relates to the rest of the town. I don’t really know if I really like the mayor [played by Julie Benz] or Nolan, the lawkeeper [played by Grant Bowler] ….

mc: I’m not sure the audience knows yet either – it’s only been four episodes for us.

tk: Exactly, but I think that there’s a respect for what we do, and for the community that we are all trying to build in Defiance. Because it is sort of this melting pot – where aliens and humans have chosen to live together.

mc: The slow telling of the story has been fascinating. It is a big universe – now I’ve only seen the first four episodes and maybe I imagine you have a better sense of where it’s going! – and so far the back story has really yet to reveal itself broadly…. And with every secret that the characters reveal about themselves, we get another glimpse in this recent history that they are really familiar with, and we really aren’t.

tk: Right.

mc: Have you had a favourite scene or moment, for your character, either one that has aired, or hasn’t yet?

Fionnula Flanagan and Julie Benz
tk: I’ve had several good moments, but I don’t want to give too much away… There are some good scenes with Nolan and [Amanda] the mayor… But some of the most fun scenes for me are these little, tiny scenes that you often see Doc doing, where she’s working on an experiment, and she’s alone in her office. It’s funny, because someone else asked me this question, and I thought that in a way those are kind of my favourite scenes because they show Doc in the way that I think of her, in that she is most comfortable being alone. And so to see what I was able to do with those little scenes, where you just see her experimenting and doing her thing behind closed doors… So those are some of my favourites. I also really adore Fionnula Flanagan [who plays Nicky, the recently ex-mayor of Defiance] – I think she is just phenomenal. So any time I got to do a scene with her was just an absolute joy. I think she’s just a gem.

mc: This is your first foray as a regular character on a US network – even if a modest one like SyFy. Is working for Showcase and SyFy different from an all-Canadian production like Combat Hospital, or your spots on Corner Gas or Little Mosque [on the Prairie]?

tk: It is definitely on a grander scale than I’ve ever been a part of before, so that’s very exciting for me. I feel really fortunate – we have an incredible cast, and an incredible crew. And everyone I felt welcomed me with open arms, which was such a nice feeling. I’m working with these actors that I’ve been watching on television for years, admiring their work and respecting them for a long time, so it was a big deal to be getting to work with them. And I just feel so grateful that they were even nicer than I could have ever imagined, and a really laid back group of people. We have a lot of fun, both cast and crew. So it was a bit daunting when I got cast. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about it, because I thought that this was definitely bigger than anything I had done before, so I was really really pleasantly surprised to just be so welcomed, and just have so much fun.

mc:  On that same note, Defiance also has a lot of Canadian talent – not just yourself, but obviously Graham Greene and Mia Kirshner, and probably some behind the scenes as well on the production side. Do you think this Canadianness is showing up in any particular way in the product we are seeing on the screen?

tk: It’s funny because I do feel that we have this very vast array of people, because there’s this Aussie in the lead, and we’ve got several from the UK, and there are these different accents right out there. Everyone has got a different accent [laughs].

mc: There are actually very few Americans in the cast. Except for Julie Benz, I can’t think of any in the main cast…

tk: That’s right! I feel like we’ve got a lot of different parts of the world represented in the show, which is really great. And Canada is definitely a part of that. And then all of us are doing an American accent, which is also different for Canadians. And then also speaking alien languages, on top of that. But it’s interesting because never did people’s accents come into it, like never did they say to me “You sound too Canadian.” Because in Defiance, I don’t necessarily know that it matters how people sound, I guess we could all sound different: we’re aliens. Who knows what aliens sound like, you know? [laughs]

Keating as Doc Yewll (Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg)
mc: Have you had the chance to do a scene in Indogene. I don’t think I’ve yet speak Yewll speak it…

tk: The Indogene language, not so much. I sort of swear in the Indogene language, once in a while. And I’ve had to do the Irathient language a little bit. They’ve got to get more Indogenes in Defiance before I’m going to be speaking a lot of that language I think. But the Irathient language I’ve had to speak, and it’s really fun to do that. It is definitely a challenge learning those languages! You’ve seen some of the episodes. Tony Curran [who plays Datak Tarr] and some of the actors have to do whole scenes in it. It is very impressive. I always said I wanted to learn a second language, but I didn’t think it was going to be Irathient, or Indogene, or Castithan. [laughs]

mc; So you grew up outside Regina?

tk: I did. Yes, I grew up in a small town called Weyburn. And I did my degree at the University of Regina, and then when I finished university, I moved to Toronto and studied clown for a while. So that was my first introduction into ‘mask work’. Never in a million years did I think I would end up getting a job where I would end up working in mask all the time, but I have to say that I think it definitely helped with doing a job like this.

mc: So what is the make-up regimen like? Are you finding it an asset or a deficit in finding your voice as the doctor?

tk: Well, I was unsure when I got cast how it was going to change things because I thought at that point that it probably would change things, and  of course in my audition I just did it myself. It does affect the way I speak because I can’t move my mouth as much in the mask, so it sort of makes everything tight. It’s lightweight, but there is a little bit of added weight to it that makes my head sort of push forward. The mask also influences the way I move, and the way I carry myself. But I think it actually is a benefit. My voice sounds different when I’m in the mask. I don’t know why, I don’t know if it’s just that there’s this weight, so there’s a groundedness to my voice. But when you put the mask on and you get into make-up, there’s this three-hour process of putting Doc on, and getting into character. You really do feel fully immersed by the time you’re done. I think Stephanie [Leonidas] has said similar things about Irisa. It’s kind of a wild experience – and yes, it takes two to three hours, but you get used to it.

Trenna Keating as Doc Yewll and Stephanie Leonidas as Irisa

mc: The clowning training, do you think that has contributed anything specific to how you are working with the make-up?

tk: Absolutely. I started out doing neutral mask work, so I think that really helps, because Doc Yewll is essentially, almost is, a neutral mask.

mc: To clarify: a neutral mask would be a hard mask?

tk: Yes, a hard mask and a white mask. So it’s very similar in that your intentions as an actor have to be every bit as strong as there are if you aren’t in mask, but you also have to have a very strong physicality – because just tilting your head a slight bit can read something different, than if for example you lift your head up. Learning how to work it, learning different physical movements, and what that reads as. So I definitely think it was very very influential. I loved when I did clown. I always said that I thought clowning was the best acting training I ever did, so I couldn’t be happier to be doing a job where I feel that I get to use that background all the time.

mc: To return to the question of Regina, do you think growing in the Prairies contributes to how you approach a character in an outpost, frontier town like Defiance?

tk: Well, for sure. It doesn’t feel that odd to me to be in a small community, because that is the kind of town that I grew up in. And I think, with Doc Yewll, there is a lot of similarity to the Prairie attitude that a lot of people have. It’s quite funny, because I grew up around farmers, and a lot of them are very to the point, and a little rough around the edges – and I love ‘em for it. [laughs] So, yes, I do think that influences the way I am…

mc: I’m a science fiction fan, and I’m not sure you are, but it’s exciting right now to see a lot of new projects – like Defiance – on the air with a hard science fiction edge… Also Showcase’s Continuum and Space’s Orphan Black, which are both entirely Canadian productions. It seems a bit like science fiction is having a bit of a televisual comeback… Are you a fan of science fiction?

tk: You know, I was just talking about this earlier today. I was a huge Firefly fan, but that was sort of my first sci-fi, science fiction, show that I really got into. So I wasn’t a huge sci-fi fan until I got into this show, and I feel like a whole new world has opened up to me. And I have a new appreciation and I feel like I’ve been missing out all these years. So, yeah, yeah, great shows on the air right now! Orphan Black is doing well, and Continuum… And Orphan Black is a Saskatchewan girl as well!

mc: Defiance itself has a great science fiction television pedigree, with Rochne O’Bannon [Farscape], Michael Taylor [Star Trek: Voyager, Battlestar Galactica] and Kevin Murphy with Caprica? Did you ever watch [O’Bannon’s] Farscape? I was particularly excited when I heard that O’Bannon was involved, since Farscape is one of my favourite shows…

Graham Greene and Grant Bowler (Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg)
TK: Is it? I watched some Farscape after I got cast, because everyone kept saying to me “Oh, you’ve got to watch Farscape, because there are some similarities” and of course there’s Rockne O’Bannon is part of this one as well…. So yes I watched it after I got cast, and yes, it’s fun. [laughs]

mc: If you were just going from the press photos, you would think that your character would have a lot in common with Zhaan, Virginia Hey’s character [on Farscape]. But [laughing] physically maybe, but obviously there’s that overt sexuality to Virginia Hey’s character that has yet to manifest (at least as far I can tell) in Doc Yewll…

tk: [laughing] That’s right. Doc Yewll has a bit of a non-sexual feel to her – which is hilarious because every director which came on to the show would always question me about that. “So, do you think Doc has a boyfriend, or…” And I would have to say, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t write the show so [laughing] you guys tell me… but I as a character don’t feel like she would. I don’t feel like she’d be interested. But, again, I don’t write the show – so you tell me!”

mc: Four episodes in, we’re only met a couple of Indogene – your character of course and Ben Darris [played by Douglas Nyback] – and both have been to some degree characterized in isolation. Though the implication is that Darris does have a family – or did have a family – and the other Votan races seems to have a bit more screen time as cultures, as communities?

tk: Right.

mc: Can you give us some clue about what you know about the Indogene background and culture, and how it may compare to the other communities? Or is this isolation an indication of…?

tk: I think it is. You’re right – it hasn’t come into it a lot, and our Indogene make-up can be quite costly, so that might be one reason why there are so few of us around… [laughs] I mean, I have my own ideas about my back story, but that really does remain to be seen. But I tend to think that, yes, we are sort of very individual, and I don’t think we are family-oriented kind of people. But, that could change… But those are my thoughts right now.

mc: Multi-alien shows – like Star Trek, for example – sometimes had a tendency to just give one attribute to a culture: they’re scientific, they’re logical, they’re warriors, they’re greedy… So far it seems that on Defiance, there’s a lot of nuance here – probably due to the make up of the town. We’re seeing children, we’re seeing assimilated, second-generation members, so it’s open that way…. So I guess my question is there an indication that the scientific bent of your character is a reflection of her species, as opposed to just her own character.  

tk: I think a little bit of both. I think that the Indogene are very intelligent, and that they don’t really deal with emotions or feelings. But that isn’t to say that they couldn’t. I do think the fact that Doc has remained in Defiance speaks to what her journey could be. And that yes, they are this certain way, but what does being in Defiance, and a part of this community…  how does that change them? And I suspect that we will see that it does in fact change them, and that there are more levels to them than initially meets the eye.

mc: So, we’ve only seen four episodes, and you obviously are aware of what the full 12-episode first season holds, can you give us a clue about what’s to come for the character… without being too spoilery, of course.

tk; There is lots of Doc to come. And what I love about sci-fi is that when I was reading the scripts from each episode to each episode, I thought: “Am I a good guy? Am I a bad guy? [laughing] Am I a good guy? Am I a bad guy?” So the thing is that that can change, from one episode to the next. We do find out a little bit more about who Doc is, and where she’s coming from – so I don’t want to say too much more than that… But, yes, she’s got some interesting things coming up.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Very good interview. . . with interesting questions and amusing answers which leave us still wondering what's coming. We have to watch to see! Thanks to both Mark and Trenna.