EXCLUSIVE: Tricia Helfer on boarding Ascension, Battlestar Galactica's legacy

In the 11 years since audiences were first introduced to her as Number Six in the Battlestar Galactica miniseries on Syfy, Tricia Helfer has done a lot of work that did not involve a form-fitting red dress. She has lent her voice to multiple videogames, appeared in a handful of TV movies and had recurring roles on at least five television series (including the underrated animated series Tron: Uprising).

But it all comes back to Number Six. Battlestar Galactica often appears on “Best Of” television lists, be it for dramas, cult shows or sci-fi offerings. The series is considered a high-water mark for Syfy and exemplifies a level of quality and cultural importance the network is striving to recapture. In particular, Helfer’s portrayal of the mystical Cylon(s) is typically ranked right up there as a great character on TV, and she earns notice as a feminist icon of the genre. 

As such, it is hard not to notice the significance of Helfer’s role on Syfy’s Ascension

Beginning Monday, Dec. 15, at 9 p.m., Ascension is a three-night miniseries (and backdoor pilot) that’s something of a retro-sci-fi/parallel-universe show -- except not really. The story revolves around Project Orion, an actual proposal from the late 1950s that suggested that interplanetary travel could be achieved through nuclear propulsion.

Within the series, this project was launched in 1963 with the U.S.S. Ascension, a life-sustaining craft carrying the smartest men, women and children to populate a new world. Fifty years into the journey, the ship is still set in a quasi-'60s world where they’re uninformed about civil rights, women’s lib or the radical changes taking place on Earth. And reaching the point of no return, a mysterious murder -- the first on board -- takes place. So far the best elevator pitch for the high-concept (and high-production-value) miniseries full of social commentary comes from co-star Al Sapienza, who described it as Mad Men meets Star Trek meets Lost.”

On the show, Helfer plays Viondra Denniger, a woman who rose through the ranks of the ship’s caste system to become a high-profile hostess and wife of the captain. While she publicly appears to be a supportive first lady on board, her character is actually the one in charge. She is the politician to her husband the statesman, and she rules over a group of “stewardesses” who use their sexuality and cunning to achieve their goals. 

Though not a return to sci-fi, Viondra marks Helfer’s return to Syfy, and she’s doing it with another character who appears fleshed out with her own set of motivations. This is not Battlestar Galactica, but there is enough of a spiritual connection with Ascension to make this exciting.

Tricia Helfer sat down with me for a lengthy conversation about Ascension. Below, we discuss her thoughts on the impact of BSG, as well as how the series might thrive in a television landscape influenced by Twitter. We also explore the impact of social media on her work as an actor, and how the 1960s-era attitudes on board Ascension impact emotional evolution and her own character’s power. 

Why were you interested in returning to science fiction?

To me, it is not returning to the genre, it’s that I was attracted to the project. It was sitting down with [co-creator and showrunner Philip Levens] and hearing his ideas, it’s his brainchild. It reminded me a lot of talking to Ron Moore. He has got everything pieced out in his mind. But I’m not comparing it to Battlestar; it’s a completely different story. I am not trying to re-create that by coming back into this. It was just a concept that intrigued me. 

As significant as BSG is considered within TV, do you get annoyed when journalists ask you questions tying you to the sci-fi genre?

I think it is a normal question. I guess I just don’t know how to answer it. For me, it is about the role, the project, not the genre. I get more annoyed when people think I haven’t done anything outside Battlestar. To me, it’s acting; it’s getting into a character and project you enjoy doing, not just a genre.

Yet BSG's traditional Nielsen ratings were low. This was also before Twitter had really become this influential water-cooler space for television. If it were airing today, would things be different? 

Yes. Battlestar was just before that. We didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, all that, when it came out. Even when it finished, I don’t think. I joined Twitter in 2010, and we finished in 2008. [And the BSG finale aired in March 2009 – Ed.] I think it would be different. Battlestar is such a show people wanted to discuss with each other. People are still asking me what the show was about, not what was it like to wear that red dress. It is a show that is still finding an audience. It doesn’t have such a timestamp; people are enjoying it now for the first time on Netflix or BBC America. If the show had aired now, it maybe would have had more punch, ratings-wise, because of the water-cooler talk of social media, the live-tweeting. It is a show people would have live-tweeted about.

Is social media part of the job now as an actor? Is it a conversation you have when you get a role? “Welcome to Ascension, not only do you have to perform well, you have to tweet and be an ambassador for the show beyond just a press junket?”

It is definitely becoming a conversation. There is a benefit to it, but it can be hard. It is every show now. It is not just science fiction. It is helping elevate shows. When I did Killer Women, which you wouldn’t think of as a Twitter-type show, ABC sent out a social media person to set. They were trying to get one of the cast members who wasn’t on Twitter to join. Everyone has to live-tweet, and not just the Eastern time zone, Mountain Time, etc. It aired on Tuesday nights, so your Tuesday nights were spent working from 7-11 p.m. If the show is on the bubble, do you do it more or less? Do you give up on it? For me, that show had problems, but was so proud of the character and the people on it, so I continued to tweet as it aired, even though I knew the show wasn’t going anywhere. Then the fans who tuned in for the live tweeting really enjoyed that you did it. And you can’t say you’re going to do it, then back away. It is hard for an actor; we’re in that sussing-out period of “How much do you do?” It is very time-consuming.

Not everyone has a voice for it, but I think you get it, and I’m assuming you’ll continue?

We will be doing it for Ascension. I like engaging, but then I don’t want to have my phone glued to my face all the time. I have to decompress and go spend time with my animals, go out on my motorbike. 

Unlike the smartphone-free world of Ascension, it seems like we are taking photos and posting not always out of a desire to share, but because of a sense of obligation or job requirement.

It gets to the point where you’re out with your friends, and if your friends are actors, you go, “Well, we’ve got to do a selfie and post it.” It has become the norm; you have to do it because you’re expected to do it! Not just from the networks, but that’s what’s becoming the norm. Everyone is doing it, too. It’s what we do now. Even hair and makeup artists, once you’re done and touched up. A friend of mine is a hairstylist, and he just lost a spokesperson job because he didn’t have enough Twitter followers. So much of that is being looked at now. Also, independent films: I did an MOW [movie of the week], and the producer was very forthright about how many Twitter followers you have, and how it can get you a job or not. I don’t know if it is proven if it gets eyeballs in the rooms. I think I’ve heard some studies say it helps with television more than film, but I don’t know.

We’re more emotionally public now than in the early 1960s. Is the world of Ascension repressed, or has it evolved? 

I think it definitely is a society that still is a little more reserved. It is evolving in its own way, but I liken it to a small town, a very rural area. I grew up outside a very small town, and you go back there now, and it is not like you’re in New York City. Not to say New York is only where it’s at, but it feels different. On Ascension, they are evolving and the younger generation is starting to push back more. But it is still more reserved than what we have now.

There are some (but not a lot) of women and minorities in key positions on board. Even within a cultural vaccuum, are we destined to push back? Is it human nature to want to evolve and pursue equality with other genders, races, orientations? 

It appears to be, and I think the more you get people confined together, the more difference you’ll have within that group. The more accepting everyone has to become in order for things to work properly. Looking back at history, society always evolves, is evolving, it’s an ever-changing thing. Are we headed in a good direction? In some ways, yes. But who knows if, 30 years from now, the way we’re evolving is going to be good? The smartphones, for instance. Are we going to become a society that can’t look each other in the eye and have a conversation? Are we distancing ourselves? Our society is definitely becoming more open, more accepting than it was in the 1960s -- with women’s lib, civil rights, gay rights. It is becoming more acceptable, but will we start reverting back?

We might hit a peak then actually slide back or de-evolve …

Right. It is a lot easier to write something than to speak to someone. If I have a problem or have to speak to an agent or something, I find it much easier to do it on email than look the person in the eye or have a phone conversation. I start getting flustered, but on email I can think about it and write. If we’re all evolving to this, are we going to start separating ourselves?

It appears there is no getting off the ship. You can move out of your small town, I can move to New York City. I can take on a job or career outside of what my family has always done. But these characters can’t go anywhere.

If the small-town life didn’t suit you, you can move out. You can’t on Ascension, so that may be keeping them from evolving as fast. On the ship we call it “The Crisis” with young kids. Pretty much every teen goes through a point where they realize -- as they have to apprentice or are pushed into what their parents have done, follow in those footsteps -- that they may want to branch out. Then they realize they can’t be a mountain climber because there are no mountains. They start having “The Crisis” because they can’t leave. They ultimately have to accept it to have any peace because they can’t fight it.

Your character is married to the captain, but is operating behind the scenes as a powerful influencer. How does she gain power in a powerless situation?

We don’t delve into it in the series, but it’s in the backstory. My character had a mother who was just miserable. She never accepted that she couldn’t have anything different, and went a little crazy. I wanted out of the lower deck so bad I got paired with the captain (Brian Van Holt, above with Helfer) who wasn’t the captain at the time. The easiest way out for me was to become one of the stewardesses. You had to sort of be a model; if you fit the look, you could do it. She got out of the lower decks doing this, then rose up by being smart. She rose up to head stewardess, but turned the job into being more than a hostess at the parties. She uses sexuality to gain power. She is having an affair, but not because she wants to do it, but she is getting information about the council and who wants to unseat her husband. She has utilized what she can within the confines of her job. At one point I say to the captain, I took my joke of a job and turned it into something that helps us both. So she used what she had physically to get out of the lower decks, then turned it into something that helps her gain power. And if her husband is to be unseated as captain, they would have a much harder time in her world.

Since you’re back on a spaceship full time, how does the U.S.S. Ascension differ from Battlestar Galactica?

Phillip said one of the reasons Project Orion ended up being canned -- that we know of! [laughs] -- is that it looked like a warship. We had just made a little peace with Russia and didn’t want the project come out looking like the Death Star. So that’s one thing with Ascension; it is not a military ship at all. This is a life-sustaining, traveling ship. Battlestar was a battle-star, a warship. And the show starts out much slower than Battlestar that starts out with the Cylon/human war. The first episode past the miniseries was every 33 minutes they had to jump or the Cylons jump in; it was that type of thing, very fast-paced and panicked. This starts out setting up the world we’re in. Then stuff starts to happen midway through the miniseries. 

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