Battlestar Galactica, Sci Fi Channel's gritty reimagining of the 1970s classic, is known for sinking its teeth into big, soul-altering issues -- life, death, religion, war -- and exploring the darkest corners of the human heart. The show somehow manages to rip our guts out each and every week, and yet none of it would work if it weren't anchored by two of the most deliciously complex performances currently gracing the small screen.
As Admiral William Adama and President Laura Roslin, Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are the series' tent-poles, leading humanity's dwindling band of survivors in the quest for Earth.
Both actors were, of course, well-known before their turns on Galactica, which is currently in its third season. Olmos' credits range from his scene-stealing, Emmy-winning role on Miami Vice to films such as Blade Runner and Stand and Deliver, for which he received an Oscar nomination. As a director, he recently helmed the critically acclaimed HBO movie Walkout. McDonnell, meanwhile, has been nominated for two Academy Awards: for her breakout role in 1990's Dances With Wolves and for her searing, prickly performance as a wheelchair-bound soap star in John Sayles' Passion Fish. Her wide array of credits ranges from Independence Day and Donnie Darko to an Emmy-nominated recurring turn on ER.
Recently the duo chatted with Back Stage about chemistry, close-ups, and leaving the intense world of Galactica behind at the end of the day.
Back Stage: Were either of you familiar with the original Battlestar Galactica when you heard about the new series?
Mary McDonnell: I was not familiar with it; I was only familiar by name, because it was airing during a time when I lived in New York without a television. I was doing plays at night, and I never saw it. Certainly I was familiar with the cult of it. Edward James Olmos: I was in the same [boat]. I was doing theatre. I was doing Zoot Suit, and I did it for three straight years. We were onstage six nights a week, only off on Mondays, and I don't think it was on on Mondays. [Laughs]
McDonnell: I've still never seen an episode. I've decided not to look, because my character didn't exist in the last one. I felt it would really be more beneficial to my character and her perception to have every single one of these ideas new to her. I didn't want to have any ideas of Adama and Starbuck [characters featured in both series], because [Roslin] didn't have any connection to them at all. They sent [the first script] to me, and they told me that Eddie was reading it. I heard about it at Sardi's at lunch, that they had sent me it, and it just made me giggle. I didn't put myself together with it at all.
Olmos: I didn't either.
McDonnell: But I always read an offer. And I read it that night, and I went, "Oh, dear. I have to do this." I found it so compelling. And I eventually found out Ed was agreeing to do it, so that made a huge difference to me.
Olmos: I was the same, basically. There was a story that drew me in, especially with the mindset that one has after 9/11. You had a whole different perspective on the end of the world, that whole philosophy. What [Galactica executive producer Ronald D. Moore] did before you read the piece, he put three pages at the beginning. It was like a mission statement, kind of. It told you a little bit about how it was going to be shot. The script was very powerful. It was completely different. It was very much in the realm of Blade Runner, rather than in the realm of the kind of Star Wars, Star Trek opera that I was used to seeing in the genre, that had really permeated the genre since the early '70s. So when I talked to Ron and [executive producer David Eick], we talked about Blade Runner, and I said, "There was a door that was opened there that nobody ever walked in. Everybody walked through the door of Star Wars, but nobody walked through the door of Blade Runner." I said, "If you really want to do that, then I'm game to join up, but I'm going to be very honest: The first four-eyed creature I see, I'll faint. I will faint on camera, and I will be off the show." I just didn't want to go that route. I didn't want to act against those kind of situations; I didn't have the time to do that. So we went into this with a 9/11 perspective and mindset with a very strong understanding of Blade Runner.
This third season has been truly the best television I've ever been involved with in my life, to date. I can't even compare it to anything I've ever done. The closest thing is American Family, actually. Miami Vice doesn't even compare. It's a whole different intent; there's no way of comparing the drama of Miami Vice and the drama that we're trying here. This is closer to, say, West Wing or ER or NYPD Blue, where the human drama is so intense that you're just sucked into the story. This one, it's even more poignant than that because the stakes are so much higher. I've never seen a show like this in my life, ever.
Back Stage: I love the chemistry between your characters, not just romantically but as colleagues and friends. Is that something that happened naturally between the two of you?
Olmos: I think that the chemistry is natural, of course. You're supposed to be professional enough and have the technique to induce any kind of feeling that needs to be worked on. But you better have some kind of a feeling for the person you're working with because inevitably it's going to come out in your performance.
McDonnell: Good or bad.
Olmos: Good or bad, it comes out, and you can feel it. In this case, I was very, very grateful that they got Mary and that Mary allowed herself to do this kind of program. We both went outside of ourselves to do it. I mean, her [and I coming] together under the banner of Battlestar Galactica makes no sense at all. You don't associate Mary McDonnell or Edward James Olmos with Battlestar Galactica. The chemistry that I felt being involved with Mary and then watching her work, it was beautiful. It was so easy to get real with this whole scene and just lock into what I do, the kind of work that I like to do and I find myself most effective in, and that's a real strong sincerity and a commitment that's 100 percent. It happened in Miami Vice; that was a crazy cop show, and they allowed me to create this character. And here they did the same thing, they gave me artistic control of the character, so that's been pretty nice. And Mary has total control of her [character], too.
McDonnell: Well, I take control. [Laughs] I think one of the things I enjoy about this chemistry is that Ed is powerful enough for me. But given the character I had to play, there had to be somebody opposite me who allowed me to be interested in them on every level in order to have this relationship and these power plays that go on. So I'm really deeply grateful that it's Ed, because he's a powerhouse. I would not be able to maximize this situation if I wasn't playing opposite someone that powerful. For me, it's been a real gift.
Back Stage: Do either of you have a favorite scene from the series so far?
McDonnell: I have arcs that are favorites. I don't really have favorite scenes. Except, in terms of scenes with Ed, I do have a favorite scene, and that was the last scene we had together at the end of last season [in which Roslin confesses to rigging the presidential election]. We sat there, the two of us, with everything that had happened up until that point, in the room. I could feel the whole two years leading to that moment, sitting there in the room. I just felt the reality of the series in that scene. So I'm particularly tickled by that. To me, they're all so interesting a lot of the time, but when the story, the big story, somehow plunks itself into the chemistry of the scene and this whole thing starts to vibe, that's when I get very excited.
Olmos: I would agree. I've had some extraordinary scenes, real human, dramatic scenes that I've never experienced before in any show. Scenes with Mary have always been very rewarding, very fulfilling in all respects. I don't care if it's just me coming in and asking her for something; it's always very interesting, what happens. Because we bring along everything. As seasoned artists, you bring in all that you've learned and everything you're experiencing right at the moment. The [scenes] that I think have been most difficult for me have been a couple of major deaths that have happened. There's some very tragic, tragic things happening [on the show], you just can't get around it. I think one of the strongest emotional experiences I've had has been with Katee [Sackhoff, who plays Starbuck], when she decided to tell me that she had actually put my son Zak into the pilot's seat without him being really ready for that, that she's responsible for his death, and I just couldn't take it. I lost it. I came within inches of literally tearing her apart myself from anger. And you see it. She didn't expect that. She expected something more fatherly than that kind of a knee-jerk reaction. It was very difficult to do.
Back Stage: Who didn't expect it -- Katee or Starbuck?
Olmos: Starbuck. Well, Katee didn't either, because we only did it once. In scenes like that, we shoot all of our close-ups first, and that's sometimes opposite of how most people like to work, but I don't see us being able to do this for 10 takes or 20 takes. I just don't know anybody that wants to go there that many times.
McDonnell: You know who does that? John Sayles shoots his close-ups first. It's a great way to work, but you have to be a director who knows what you're doing because you've got to know what your final shot is.
Olmos: It becomes difficult, but emotionally it's very rewarding. I've gotta tell ya, this is like nothing I've ever experienced before. You're not ready for what's happening on this show. You're on [Episode] 7, so we're just finishing 19. You're not ready for where you're going to go. I hated this year. It was so good, butâ€Ś
McDonnell: [The cast] all had a hard time this year, because as opposed to the two previous years, we were isolated from each other a great deal and we were in positions we didn't want to be in. We weren't seeing each other; the cast wasn't hanging out together, the ensemble was a bit estranged this year, and it was very hard on everyone emotionally [to be separated] in order to do the storytelling that was being asked of us. Someone would come in for two days, they'd be gone. Someone would have to come in for a day, they'd be gone. That feeling that we had the first two years that gave us security was kind of taken away. We all griped quite a bit about it, but then we started seeing the dailies, and we said, "Oh, well. Too bad. It works; we'll do it." [Laughs]
Back Stage: This show explores such dark territory. How do you leave that behind at the end of the day -- or do you?
McDonnell: Well, sometimes these people are easy to leave behind because they are so intense and the situation is so awful. So by the time you jump in the car, you're so happy to be free. And quite often, he and I are dashing to the airport, so within an hour, we're on a plane on phones, doing our home lives, being back as parents. Fortunately we're both parents, and we're lucky that we are. We both have beautiful, beautiful families that are very much alive and well in Los Angeles [the show shoots in Vancouver] and very much need us. It would be awful to be playing these people without that. I get back into my family life so fast, and I don't think about [Roslin] again unless I have to read a script while I'm at home. The first year, though, I have to say, she permeated my dreams. The apocalyptic nature of the situation got into my dreams. I had a very hard time. I went to therapy a little bit and just did a little bit of work on it to figure out how to let her get stronger while I got further away from her. It's easier now, for me.
Olmos: It's never easy [for me], because once you've opened that emotion, you've opened up a can of worms. You went there. It's in the now; you've done it. As much as you want to say, "It's an act," really, the whole reason for doing this is to be in the now. Moment to moment, it's all there and you're really there. I've found this year extremely hard to leave behind. I'm on the verge of emotional breakdown. I'll be watching my daughter or I'll be watching my sons or whatever, I'll be talking to somebody, I'll be watching a film, [and] boom, my emotions just come pouring; I just can't keep them down. Because I'm so in need of that to do the work that we're doing that I can't just turn it off and then walk away from it and then have to regroup to have to get back into that feeling. So I stay there. Not that I stay thinking about it, but emotionally I'm as vulnerable right now as I am when I'm working. It's not easy, because you're constantly emotionally taken aback by these feelings. I can't walk away from it anymore, so I don't try.
McDonnell: You know, I think it's very interesting to listen to you. Because your emotional reality is so appropriate to your character and mine to mine. It's so wonderful to watch actors do their things.