With a new season of Stargate Atlantis about to get under way, GateWorld sent our own newcomer, Chad Colvin, to sit down with the show’s newest recurring cast member, Jewel Staite. A veteran of the science fiction genre thanks to her year as Firefly‘s darling engineer Kaylee Frye, Jewel joins the Atlantis expedition as Dr. Jennifer Keller.
It’s actually not her first time in the Stargate universe: Back in Atlantis‘s second season, Jewel played the Wraith girl Ellia (“Instinct”). The producers were hesitant to waste such a great actress on a one-off, but quickly realized they could bring her back without the heavy prosthetics.
In the interview Jewel discusses her sci-fi roots, filling the place of a beloved character (Dr. Carson Beckett), and her favorite episodes from the upcoming season. She also talks about working with her new cast mates, notably Amanda Tapping and Rachel Luttrell.
Beware of minor spoilers for Season Four of Atlantis in this interview, as well as a big one for Season Three’s “Sunday” (and, while we’re at it, for last May’s third season finale of LOST). The fourth season of Stargate Atlantis premieres Friday, September 28 at 10 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) on SCI FI Channel!
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net, I’m Chad Colvin. Today, I have the unique and distinct pleasure to chat up Ms. Jewel Staite. Jewel, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.
Jewel Staite: No problem! Thanks for having me.
GW: The series Firefly was a major coup for you, and definitely raised your visibility in the public eye as an actress. How was that experience?
JS: Seriously, Firefly was one of the very best experiences of my life, both personally and professionally. The cast just clicked right from the very beginning. We became an instant family, complete with game night and Sunday dinners. And I’m not just saying that — these people were a part of my wedding party!
And Joss Whedon is just brilliant. He’s one of those writers that can make me laugh and make me cry in the very same sentence. Honestly, once a year I sit down and watch the whole series and reminisce about that time of my life. But don’t tell the Stargate Atlantis cast that. They already ask me who’s the better-looking cast enough as it is.
GW: Has the Firefly and Serenity experience given you anything you can take with you? Be it something like confidence in different roles as an actress — or in terms of things like interaction with fans?
JS: It’s definitely given me some practice with the sci-fi fans! It introduced me to the world of sci-fi conventions, which are an absolute trip and totally worth going to. Especially if you have a thing for Wookies, which I do. Sci-fi fans are scary, because they are incredibly smart. Much smarter than me. And it can be a bit intimidating answering those lengthy, in-depth questions!
When Firefly was cancelled, it broke my heart a bit. And when I did my first convention I was so absolutely shocked and surprised that there were people out there who loved it, supported it, and understood it, and that made me feel so much better. Nothing makes an out of work actor feel better than being at a sci-fi convention!
But honestly, the biggest lesson I learned from Firefly and Serenity was to remember to stop and take a moment to enjoy the wonderful thing you’re working on. Because it can be taken away from you as fast as you got it. When I’m working on a great set now and loving the particular project, I really take the time to soak it up, so to speak.
GW: Do you plan on attending any Stargate conventions in the near future?
JS: If I’m invited and I’m available, I would love to. Especially if people actually like my character.
GW: Are you a fan of sci-fi?
JS: I’m a fan of good projects, whether they’re sci-fi based or not. I usually watch things for the performances, but I don’t eliminate anything from my TV and movie diet based on its genre.
JS: I had never seen an episode of Stargate Atlantis when I got the script for “Instinct.” So I wasn’t sure what a Wraith was. All I knew was that I loved the character and her personal struggles, how badly she wanted to be accepted, and the range of emotions she seemed to go through. I wasn’t aware of any heavy-duty prosthetics — it actually just said “some prosthetics required,” which I thought meant something fun like a little forehead doo-dad or whatever.
And then they informed me that I would have to get my entire head, arms, and hands cast. That’s when I started to clue in, and I went on the Internet and Googled “Wraiths” — and kind of went, “Uh, whoa!”
But it seemed like a fun challenge and I was up for it. Silly girl.
GW: Was that your first time wearing prosthetic make-up? Do you feel it affected your performance?
JS: It was my first time wearing that many prosthetic pieces on my face. As well as having to deal with very large contact lenses and talk with fake pointy teeth. I was really worried that my performance would be affected, and I was definitely distracted during the whole thing.
But in a way, putting on that much of a disguise really helps you get into character sometimes. It was interesting to be completely unrecognizable. My mom came by the set to visit me and actually gave me a dirty look and avoided me! I guess when you’re an ugly looking alien, you don’t have many friends. But in a way, I thought she was sort of beautiful. Maybe it was her personality that made her that way. Maybe not beautiful, but endearing. Cute, even.
GW: Was it nice to come back as a permanent character, and moreover, a human one, in “First Strike?”
JS: Dr. Keller is a pretty cool girl so far. She has a lot of sides to her personality, all depending on what the situation is. She has this apprehensive side to her where she has a tendency to doubt herself — which is kind of ridiculous because she’s so capable and really intelligent. She feels she has to prove herself a little bit. Maybe because she’s new, and maybe because she’s young and has always had to prove herself around people that doubt her abilities.
She’s not a very violent person; she scares easily. But she’s also courageous when she really needs to be. She’s also a bit of a romantic, and has a funny, quirky side to her as well.
She’s the type of person you would feel very safe with in a medical situation, but she’d also be fun to have a beer with. I like that she seems like a good friend.
GW: Were you aware at all going into the role that it was as a replacement for the character of Dr. Beckett — and that some fans were vocal about the fact that his character’s death was an unpopular choice?
JS: I was aware that Dr. Beckett was departing, because Paul McGillion and I are very good friends. But when I was asked to come back, it was as a recurring character, not “The New Doctor on Atlantis.” It never occurred to me that I would be replacing Beckett, as stupid as that may sound.
I looked at it as a new career opportunity on a show that I very much enjoyed working on that happened to shoot in my home town, which was a job opportunity that I was actively looking for. I didn’t know how long it would last or how it would pan out. So the idea that I was completely replacing another character seemed a bit presumptuous to me. Especially since this show takes place in the world of sci-fi, and nobody’s dead forever!
I knew Paul had a lot of fans. But I knew being sci-fi fans, they were probably intelligent enough to not completely write me off just because I was new and I wasn’t Paul. I’ve been a fan of shows in the past where they happen to kill off my favorite character, and I’ve had a cry and absolutely hated the decision. If Charlie on Lost really drowned, I’m going to fly off the handle! So I can identify with them.
Beckett is a great character. But I didn’t have anything to do with his departure, so I’m not going to take any flack from the fans personally.
GW: Did it affect in any way how you’ve approached building the character of Keller?
JS: Absolutely not. The best part of beginning to play Keller was that there was little information about her. It was up to me, for the most part, and I had a lot of fun figuring out her quirks and personality traits. I would never let my apprehension about being liked as the new kid on the show affect my performance or the way I chose to build or approach a character. I can only hope that people will give her a bit of a chance.
Not everybody is going to like her, because everyone has different tastes. But I’m really happy about the way things have turned out so far, and I’m learning more and more about her with each episode we film.
There’s a lot of people out there who don’t like change, which is unfortunate, but I can understand. I’m one of those people, too. I do change my socks, though. Occasionally.
GW: How would you contrast the writing and production values of both Firefly and Atlantis?
JS: They’re incredibly different from each other, that’s for sure. Firefly was about a very poor crew of renegades who seemed to have no one in the world to depend on but each other. They were stuck in a messed-up universe full of violence, crime and a corrupt government that had spiraled out of control 600 years into the future. There were no aliens, just the struggle of human existence.
But the world of Atlantis seems to be more privileged, cleaner, safer and lighter. Even the sets are better lit! The people on Atlantis face fear and threats every day, but they are so much better equipped to deal with those threats!
I think on the whole both Firefly and Atlantis have a certain fantastical aspect to them, but it’s just different kinds of fantasies.
GW: Was it easy to go back to the set in this recurring basis? Has the cast treated you like one of the family already?
JS: I’m not going to say it was easy at first, just because I was still finding my footing and feeling things out, both with the character and the atmosphere. It’s a bit strange being the newbie in a family that’s been at it so long, especially with some of the crew who came over from SG-1. But the whole thing is such a well-oiled machine. I keep using that phrase, but it’s so true.
For my first few weeks, I just looked around in wonderment at this impressive little machine ticking along every day. They shoot an amazing amount of pages every day with little or no effort. Everyone has a lovely attitude and seems to actually want to be there. A lot of people could learn from the professionalism displayed on this set.
And as for treating me like one of the family? If you’re talking about teasing me incessantly — thanks, David — then, yes.
GW: We saw briefly in “First Strike” some interaction between Keller and Dr. Weir. Can you give us any insight into her working relationships with any of the other crew members? Colonel Carter? McKay? Ronon and Teyla?
JS: Carter and Keller have a connection because they’re both new and proving themselves a little bit. In the episode we’re filming now, “Trio,” they actually become friends. They’re each out of their comfort zones and they start to open up about their personal lives, which is a lot of fun.
Amanda Tapping is hilarious, and I have a very tough time looking her in the eye during a scene without laughing. McKay and Keller have a good-natured argument every once in a while, but they have a mutual respect for each other, too. There’s definitely a friendship developing there.
Teyla and Keller’s relationship has a chance to develop a lot in the episode “Missing.” They find themselves in some dire situations there and have no choice but to bond. And Rachel Luttrell and I get along ridiculously well.
As far as Ronon goes, I think it’s safe to say Keller has a wee bit of a crush on him. Because she has, you know … eyes.
GW: We know in “Missing” that Keller and Teyla are on the run from a group of primitives on New Athos. Can you share any details about the episode itself or its production? It seems to be a more action-based episode than what the character of Keller will be used to.
JS: It was a pretty difficult episode to shoot, mainly because we were outside for the entirety of it, and battling the elements along with performing stunts and being terrified for our lives. But I was excited about it, too. Because this is the first episode that found Keller way out of her comfort zone. And it’s where she really starts to show her true colors!
We did some pretty intense stuff involving a rope bridge in the first week where I became intimately acquainted with a harness — which, if you’ve never worn one, is kind of like having a wedgie in about six different places.
It was cold, the days were long, and we never seemed to stop moving. Rachel and I carpooled to work together every day, and then worked side-by-side for 12 hours, and then drove home together again. So it’s safe to say we bonded in a major way. She’s great! She has a wicked sense of humor and is the only girl I know who is still smiling after the fifth hour of doing roundhouse kicks while in a tight leather jacket and a corset. She’s a bad-ass!
GW: Well, with two huge sci-fi hits in your curriculum vitae, do you ever fear being typecast?
JS: Not really. I’m very conscious of the parts I choose and I select everything I do very carefully. I’ve done a lot of other things in my career besides sci-fi, but I’m drawn to interesting characters, first and foremost. Granted, Firefly and Atlantis both fall into the sci-fi category, but they couldn’t be more different from each other.
GW: Are there any other projects on the horizon for you personally after Season Four wraps up shooting in October?
JS: I have a movie called “The Tribe” due to be theatrically released sometime next year, so I’ll be wrapping that up this fall.
GW: Network willing, the series will have a long and fruitful life ahead of it. Any message you’d care to give its fans?
JS: I guess I’m just hoping everybody enjoys Season Four. I think the show has reached new heights and I’m thrilled with what I’ve seen so far.
GW: Thank you again so much for your time, Jewel! We look forward to seeing a lot of you in Season Four!
JS: My pleasure! Thank you!