Why did Jessica Steen not play Dr. Weir on Stargate Atlantis?
Stargate fans finally have an answer to this question, 18 years after the actress portrayed Dr. Elizabeth Weir in the seventh-season finale of Stargate SG-1, “Lost City.” Steen talked about her history with Stargate, and why she believes she was not asked to return, in a brand new conversation with “Dial the Gate.”
Read on for the full story of what happened back in the summer of 2003, including two video clips from the livestream interview show with Jessica’s account of events.
WEIR: MARK I
One of the bigger unanswered questions from the long history of the Stargate film and television franchise has to do with the recasting of a major character. In 2003 Stargate SG-1 was getting ready to launch its first spin-off series, featuring a new team and a new galaxy of adventures. Actress Jessica Steen was cast to portray Dr. Elizabeth Weir, a linguist and a civilian diplomat put in charge of Stargate Command by the newly inaugurated President Henry Hayes (William Devane).
Steen’s was a pivotal role, as General Hammond was reassigned and the Goa’uld Anubis invaded Earth. The SG-1 team, meanwhile, was flying off to try and find the lost city of the Ancients. Weir was a linguist and a civilian diplomat, and something of a fish out of water at the S.G.C. But the writers had long-term plans for the new character: Weir would join the spin-off series the next year, leading an expedition to the lost city of Atlantis in the Pegasus Galaxy.
This plan was in place when the casting call for “Dr. Theresa Weir” went out in the summer of 2003. (The character’s name would be changed during production.) The actress signed on not just for SG-1‘s season finale, but with an additional piece in her contract that paid her not to take other jobs while the new series entered pre-production. Dr. Weir was to be the crossover character bridging Stargate SG-1 into Stargate Atlantis.
But when SG-1 returned in 2004 to kick off Season Eight with “New Order,” followed by the series premiere of Atlantis, Steen was gone — replaced by actress Torri Higginson. Viewers, however, had loved Steen’s on-screen performance. So what happened?
Jessica Steen attributes her character’s recasting not to the performance, nor to personality conflicts on set (where she got along swimmingly with everyone). Instead, it came down to two things: frustrating the producers with excessive questions, and giving them the impression that her commitments were elsewhere.
“I think I actually drove the writers/producers bananas — to a not good degree,” Steen told “Dial the Gate” host David Read. “Because I would come in with all these questions that I would think she would have. I’m a stickler for detail. And maybe I should have done a bunch more homework, or they didn’t have the answers to certain things because they didn’t exactly … I don’t know. I know I drove them crazy.”
It made sense to Steen that she went into filming with a lot to learn about the Stargate program, because her character was also written to be a fish out of water when she was appointed by the President.
“Dr. Weir was green also,” she said. “So I went in there thinking, ‘I don’t need to know anything. I’m going to learn everything with the fans on the show. As the audience learns, I learn.’ And [Weir is] reading those boxes full of files.”
As a result the actress chose to avoid watching much of the show’s previous episodes, so that Weir would not come into this fantastical situation with a confidence and recognition that was not earned. (This was also at a time when the Internet was young, and Steen herself didn’t own a computer to quickly do research about the show online.)
She added that part of her questioning to producers was motivated by the possibility of playing the character for many years, and looking for a sense of where Elizabeth might be going in the future.
“I don’t know if they should have turned to me and said, ‘Would you go watch the show and get off our backs?’ Or whether my questions were dumb, or whether they didn’t have the answers so they didn’t want to be pushed on them. I was thinking [things like], ‘Is this an inconsistency?’ I drove them crazy. I know it.”
Since 1998 Steen had been personally and professionally committed to Burning Man, a massive event where she helped to organize and host an interactive acting community. Burning Man focuses on community, creative arts, and self-expression, today drawing nearly 80,000 people to the Nevada desert each year.
In 2003, however, many perceived the event as little more than a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs in the desert.
Steen was actively involved in planning and packing for Burning Man during the production of “Lost City,” even flying home to Los Angeles during an off day to help load a truck. She spoke with Stargate’s cast and crew about her enthusiasm for this work … but passed it off to the executive producers as a “family reunion.”
“For twenty years straight I went to Burning Man,” she said, “and it changed my life. … It was so gratifying. It was like producing a play — an amusement park kind of engaging [production]. We had everything. It was set dec’ing, it was music, we were painting and building and coordinating. It was so much. And we all had characters we were playing. And producing! And you have to bring everything, from water to food to fuel to generators … You’re bringing out huge structures, like huge scaffolding and stages and lighting and music. I loved it.”
“And so for me, it was my family. I missed weddings, showers, bar mitzvahs, everything. My family knows how important it is to me. It is my family. It’s ‘Mecca.’ It was going back every year.”
Steen’s year-long commitment to coordinating the production overlapped with filming on “Lost City.” Because of the stigma around Burning Man at the time, her agent advised her to tell Stargate’s producers that she had to be wrapped and out in time for a family reunion that she could not miss — which was all entirely true, as far as the actress was concerned.
After learning months later that she had been released from her contract Steen paid a visit to long-time Stargate producer N. John Smith, who confirmed that word of her “family reunion” activities had reached the top. “He said, ‘They felt [that] you were more committed to naked drugging in the desert than you would be committed to doing the show the way they needed you to.”
She told Smith at the time that the irony of the decision was that, had she been hired for Stargate Atlantis, she would have given that job her same level of commitment.
In the end, Steen said that she was hurt not so much by being recast but by the way that it happened – by the fact that her commitment appeared to be misunderstood. She said that she regrets that she did not have a chance to explain herself.
“No one ever had the conversation with me,” she said. “I was unceremoniously let go. And [John Smith] said, ‘I think there are regrets about that — the way that went down.'”
Over the years Stargate fans have wondered why Steen was replaced, after such a manifestly strong performance on the series. While viewers are not privy to the myriad of issues in casting, contract negotiations, filming, and production, that didn’t stop them from theorizing about why the show might have needed to recast Dr. Weir.
Did the Los Angeles-based actress not want to move to Vancouver? Or perhaps she signed on for “Lost City,” but later decided she didn’t want to make a long-term commitment to a television series that could run as long as SG-1?
Steen appeared to be well aware of these theories, and addressed them head-on in her “Dial the Gate” interview.
“I’ve heard, ‘Oh, she didn’t want to live in Vancouver.’ And that’s so not true. I have family in Vancouver — no, I’m Canadian. ‘Do you want to live in Vancouver?’ ‘Sure, absolutely!'”
So too did Steen say she was fully prepared to commit herself, 100 percent, to a long-term role like this.
She said that she asked herself questions like “Do I want to work on this show? … Could I do that for an extended period, or not? I would not have auditioned for it, or done it, if I had not been prepared to do it. And if I was going to do it I was going to do it … in a committed way.”
“Lost City” remains one of the finest stories in all of Stargate’s history – and that includes Jessica Steen’s performance. While fans will no doubt continue to speculate on what Atlantis might have been like with her in the role, this two-part season finale endures as a pillar of Stargate’s story.
In addition the clips above you can watch the full, 70-minute interview with Jessica Steen on “Dial the Gate.” Don’t miss the interview show’s first season finale and 100th episode in July, as “Dial the Gate” hosts an exclusive Stargate Atlantis cast reunion panel for San Diego Comic-Con!