If blondes have more fun, then brunettes live longer — or at least that’s what sci fi veteran Amanda Tapping discovered on her latest show Sanctuary.
On the Sci Fi Channel drama, premiering Friday, Oct. 3, Tapping plays Dr. Helen Magnus, the dark-haired, brilliant scientist who just happens to be 157-years-old. For Tapping, who played blonde Col. Samantha Carter for 11 years on Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, deciding to play Magnus required a big change, beginning with her hair color.
"When I first decided to do Helen Magnus it was a real conscious choice to have absolutely no vestige of Sam Carter, from her appearance to her voice, to her walk, to her wardrobe, everything," explains Tapping. "People that I’ve worked with for ten years don’t recognize me. I just shot the final episode of Atlantis last week and I walked onto the set and half the crew didn’t know who I was. And I was like, ‘Sweet, I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish.’"
Although Tapping changed from light to dark and from combat boots into stilettos, the physical changes are only clues to what’s going on with the complex character.
"It’s centered around my character, Helen Magnus, who is a 157-year old doctor from Victorian England who runs a sanctuary for all manner of abnormal creatures," says Tapping. "She pulls into the fray a young forensic psychiatrist named Will Zimmerman who has always sort of thought outside of the box and has therefore been shunned by regular law enforcement agencies but in fact now realizes that the things that he’s sort of tried to investigate are now real."
In the premiere, Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) is a mild-mannered intellectual whose life is thrown for a loop when he encounters a very unusual — and dangerous — boy, whom Magnus is interested in saving for the Sanctuary. When Zimmerman crosses paths with Magnus, he’s reluctant to join her team even though her cause sounds noble because he finds her inscrutable.
"Helen is this very sexual, mysterious being," says Tapping. "It was sort of trying to create this completely legitimate, dark, intense woman after playing somebody like Carter for so long. It was a huge challenge to find her and literally also just to find her voice. I wanted to make sure that because she’s from Victorian-era England, it informs so much of who this woman is and how she thinks."
The actress used a purely aristocratic accent as a jumping off point, but since Magnus had to evolve over 157 years, her speech had to lose a bit of the stilted propriety to make way for modern vernacular. Tapping found herself trying out different accents in her everyday life in order to hit upon the perfect "voice" for her character, which won’t be the only historical element on the sci fi show.
Tapping explains, "The episode of ‘The Five’ deals with these five characters from history who have come together, these forward-thinking scientists and how they’ve come to be who they are; Jack the Ripper being one of them, Helen being another one and a few other very cool characters from history. Also, Nikola Tesla is one of the characters that comes to light in the Sanctuary."
Beyond this historical stunt casting, however, the show will focus mainly on the creatures brought to the Sanctuary. Since the show is shot in the manner of 300 or Sin City, that means most of the sets and fantastical creatures will be purely computer-generated. Coming from a theater background, Tapping was comfortable in the minimalist sets, even if she was talking to "tennis balls on little grip stands" that would stand in for creatures to be filled in later.
Some of the creatures include mermaids, fire-breathers, winged humanoids and other beings inspired by mythology. Others though, appeared to be perfectly normal humans, except for some special quirk.
Tapping reveals, "We have a beautiful episode called ‘Edward’ where it’s a young boy who is an autistic savant, and he’s like a human camera. There’s actually a person like this in the world, so it’s based on sort of pseudo fact.
"So we’re pulling from sort of the ‘things that go bump in the night’ mythologies that we’ve all grown up with," she continues. "We pull from history and then we’re also just taking really remarkable human beings and shedding a light on that idea."
Tapping, who is intrigued by vampire lore, also reveals that the bloodsuckers will be addressed somewhere along the 13 episodes of the first season. She does not, however, say if they have anything to do with the secret of her character’s longevity, which will be revealed in "The Five." Although Magnus still appears youthful, she has mixed feelings about her long life.
"Ultimately she still sees that there’s work to be done and that her quest is worthy, so she needs to be around for it," says Tapping. "But when you watch everyone you’ve ever known grow old and die — all your lovers and your friends — I think that her heart is very well protected now because if it wasn’t, she would be heartbroken all the time."
One of Magnus’ most personal dilemmas is her grown daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), a weapons expert and martial artist who acts as the muscle for Sanctuary.
"Helen made a choice to bring this child into the world knowing that she could quite possibly watch her grow old and die, not knowing if Ashley has the longevity," says Tapping. "She’ll fight to the ends of the earth to protect her daughter, but in the end of the day, it’s often her daughter protecting her, which again turns the whole mother/daughter dynamic on its head."
Despite playing such a conflicted character and being a real-life mother to her 3-year-old daughter Olivia, Tapping finds those tasks relatively easy now that she’s donned a new hat: executive producer. Taking a role behind the Sanctuary cameras involved casting approval, financial talks, editing, sound mixing, color correcting, endless meetings and conference calls. The increased workload has made Tapping a trifle nostalgic for her Stargate days.
"I used to think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got ten pages of techno-babble today. I’m working so hard,’" Tapping muses. "And now I just laugh at that and go, ‘Oh my God, there are days where I just want to be an actor again.’"