Sanctuary's Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping)
When you are Dr. Helen Magnus and head of a global network of facilities dedicated to the protection and preservation of a rare group of extraordinarily powerful beings called Abnormals, you never know where your work will take you.
In season three of the hit Syfy TV series Sanctuary, the 160-year-old Victorian-era England medical and scientific researcher along with Dr. Will Zimmerman and the rest of her team of experts traveled the world, from the English countryside to the Colombian highlands and even Hollow Earth, or Praxis to be precise, an advanced underground civilization of humans and Abnormals.
The show’s third season finale “Into the Black,” finds Helen and John Druitt returning to Praxis, only to find it destroyed, the end result of a plan being executed by Adam Worth, a fellow Victorian-era scientist and perpetual thorn in Helen’s side. Much to the fear of the world’s governments, the refugees from Praxis come to the surface and seek to establish a new home.
As tempers flare between the authorities and the Praxiians, Helen continues her pursuit of Adam. It was the culmination of a year-long series of events, as Sanctuary’s leading lady, Amanda Tapping, who plays Helen Magnus, explains.
“Season three was phenomenal to get to do, and having 20 episodes we wanted to create a huge story arc, especially with the Hollow Earth Abnormals and what was happening with the government intervention as well as how we were going to deal with Praxis,” she says. “At the same time we also felt last year like we needed to service smaller story arcs.
For Helen, in some ways last year was an opening up of the character in that she began to trust people more and delegate more, which was not easy for a control freak like her,” jokes the actress.
“It was really interesting because there were so many twists and turns. For example, we returned to Normandy, we were introduced to an older version of Helen, we dealt with The Five and what happened on that fateful day - I found moments like that so beautiful creatively as far as getting to further explore my character’s history.
"Then there was the relationship between Helen and Will [Robin Dunne]. You saw it solidify and the playing field level out a bit more. Will is no longer so much a protégé. He’s now her partner, so Will challenges Helen a lot more and I don’t think she’s ever experienced someone questioning what she’s doing as much as Will does. That was a blast for both Robin and I to play, and it really comes to a head this [fourth] season.
“So looking now at the end of last year, you had the Hollow Earth Abnormals coming to the surface, so Helen’s raison d’etre is raised even more and the stakes are even higher because she realizes that she has to protect these people. She also realizes that the outside world is eventually going to find out about them; it’s hard not to notice hundreds of thousands of people coming up from the ground.
"At the same time Helen is also battling Adam Worth [Ian Tracey] and his plan to go back in time to alter the timeline, not to just save his daughter Imogene but to essentially take over the world as well. I thought it was cool the way we ended last year with what was happening on Earth, and then on top of that you saw Helen follow Adam back through time and land on the cobblestones of Victorian-era England.”
Sanctuary’s season four opener “Tempus” picks up exactly where “Into the Black” left off, with Helen trapped back in the past. By the end of the episode, our heroine is forced to take drastic measures in order to deal with Adam Worth once and for all.
“Instead of doing an episode with the past and present storylines running concurrently and flipping audiences back and forth, we decided to do two separate episodes to start this season,” says Tapping. “In the first one, ‘Tempus,’ which is set entirely in the Victorian era, Helen is trying to stop Adam from altering the timeline. So there are past and present versions of both characters in Victorian England.
"The future Helen runs into, of course, James Watson [Peter Wingfield] and he quickly figures out that she’s not his Helen. She also runs into Jack the Ripper, and there are a whole bunch of other different elements at play where my character is trying to stop Adam.
“Visually, this is such a rich story, from the costumes to the sets. We built this beautiful Victorian set and made it rain inside the studio. For me, it was kind of magical to play a character that is as old as Helen Magnus and to throw her back into a time where women didn’t have the same rights or freedoms as men and where people were treated differently. There’s a wonderful scene where Helen goes into this gentlemen’s club to try to confront Adam and she runs up against the type of [male-dominated] hierarchy of that era.
“I loved that aspect of playing this very modern character in such a suppressed time, and then playing the very young, more idealistic version of Helen. You also get a real glimpse into the somewhat tragic relationship between John Druitt [Christopher Heyerdahl] and Helen as well as the burgeoning relationship between Watson and the Magnus of that time, all through the eyes of modern day Helen.
“I had the opportunity to film scenes where I play both versions of my character, and we did some neat stop-motion stuff with the cameras. It was the same with Ian Tracey’s character of Adam; we got to see the younger version of him as well as the current more maniacal version, and Ian just blew me away. He’s such an amazing actor and there are moments in this story where it was just heartbreaking to watch him. I relish the episodes where we can go back in time and play the different eras. I only wish we could do more of them.”
Although it airs after “Tempus,” the second episode of season four, “Uprising,” was, in fact, filmed first, allowing Tapping, who also directed it, time to prep. This was her fourth time in the director’s chair, having previously directed the Stargate SG-1 episode “Resurrection” along with the Sanctuary’s “Veritas” and “One Night.”
“In ‘Uprising’ we take you back to present day Earth where Will, Henry [Ryan Robbins], Bigfoot [Christopher Heyerdahl] and Kate [Agam Darshi] are trying to save the insurgents from Hollow Earth and stop the world’s governments from taking over,” notes the actress.
“This episode is much different from the Stargate episode I directed or the more intimate, story-driven episodes I’ve directed on Sanctuary. There were, among other things, explosions, massive stunt fights with 20 stunt performers, and an on-location night shoot. There were challenges that I had never had to deal with before as a director, and I was quite intimidated when I first read the script. There are also a lot of talking heads in this story and people interacting with each other on monitors. I wanted to make those scenes a real conversation as opposed to people barking at one another across computer screens. So technically it was very challenging, which was great for me.
“So it’s a pretty ambitious start to the season,” continues Tapping, “and I don’t think it’s any secret that Helen ends up going rogue with the Sanctuary. She pulls away from all government support, hides and pockets her money in different places, and has a master plan for taking the Sanctuary out of the control of the world’s governments. That’s one of the major throughlines for my character this season. Helen makes all these really bizarre decisions and no one quite understands what she’s doing until you get to the very end of the season. It’s literally almost the very last frame of the last episode of season four where you think, ‘Oh, wow! That’s what she’s been up to. It all makes sense now.’
“There’s a whole trigger effect of what Helen has been doing, and, again, I think this season is highly ambitious and it sort of blows the lid off anything we’ve done before. It’s a beautifully shot and written season, and I actually don’t mind that we were taken back down to 13 episodes this year. I know that that’s kind of Syfy’s mandate right now- they’re not commissioning 20-episode series. They’re commissioning 13 and sometimes less, so when we found out that we got a 13-episode pick-up, some people said, ‘Oh, man, you guys got ripped off,’ and we were like, ‘No, it’s all good, because now we can make 13 really kick-ass episodes of television.’ We’re not spread too thin and we knew we could do that. Twenty episodes was a big order and we were thrilled to have it, but we have a really good solid season with these 13. Believe me when I tell you that there are no duds episode-wise.”
Following in Tapping’s footsteps, her costar Robin Dunne made his directorial debut this year on Sanctuary with the episode “Homecoming.” The actress has nothing but praise for his first time working behind the camera. “For all the joking around and sort of goofy camaraderie that we have on the Sanctuary set - and Robin is the biggest jokester of all - he came into that episode totally prepared,” she says. “Robin came up with a great shot list, he knew how he wanted to shoot the episode, and technically he’d been paying close attention to how we do things on the show.
“So he was awesome, and he asked really good questions, too. Robin would refer to Martin Wood [executive producer/director], Damian Kindler [series creator/executive producer/head writer] and me in terms of some of the directing questions that he had, but, again, he was so well-prepared. I mean, I adore Robin as a human being and I adore working with him as an actor. I feel really safe with him, and as a director it was just an extension of that. The crew loves Robin, too, so it was a positive experience for everyone.”
In addition to those she has already spoken about, what other season four Sanctuary episodes are especially memorable for Tapping? “There’s one called ‘Fugue,’ which is our musical episode. I have to say it was really outside the box for us and it took everyone outside of their comfort zone, but it still remains very true to a Sanctuary story,” assures the actress.
“It’s not like you’re going to see the Sanctuary cast doing an episode of Glee. This was a truly organic way of making music and song part of the show. It works under the premise that there are some people who because of some kind of brain injury or other challenges respond very differently to music than they do to speech. Certain tonal frequencies will speak to individuals in a different way, and we know that in present day. That’s why musical scores in films are so important because they inform the emotional content of the show.
“We kind of took that a step further and put our Sanctuary twist on it. It was a challenge in that we had to learn the songs that Damian Kindler and [composer] Andrew Lockington wrote. We recorded them a couple of weeks before we shot the episode so that we’d have a guide track. We rehearsed onstage and spent a couple of weekends working on the actual performance of the songs, and then we got onto the set and did it. There are only seven songs in the whole episode - it’s not like the entire episode is sung - but it was so much fun to watch the crew and how they responded to having music all the time on the set.
“I’m super proud of the episode and I’m really proud of Damian. This was very much a passion project for him and I think he knocked it out of the ballpark. It’s so well done but, again, different. Sanctuary has never shied away from a challenge. We’ve always tried to think outside the box and a little bit outside the norm, and that’s what this is.
“Martin Wood took himself outside of his comfort zone this year as well and wrote an episode called ‘Icebreaker,’ which he also directed. Our mandate on this show has always been to foster new talent and to give people opportunities that they might not otherwise have, hence me getting to direct as much as I have, and Robin as well as Damian directing, and now Martin writing. The collaborative relationships and collaborative feel of Sanctuary are very important to us and something we are determined to keep alive.”
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