The Power of Persuasion: Interview with Alphas' Laura Mennell

By , Contributor

Justin Stephens/Syfy

Laura Mennell as Nina Theroux in Alphas

What if you could get pretty much anything you wanted just by asking for it? For most people that is simply a dream, but for Alphas' Nina Theroux that has been the story of her life. An Influencer, she is able to “push” people into doing whatever she wants. Over the years Nina has used her gift to secure everything from a comfortable place to live to expensive cars that she talks their owners into letting her “borrow.”

All that began to change, though, when she met Dr. Lee Rosen, a preeminent neurologist and psychiatrist as well as expert in people such as Nina, or Alphas, who posses greatly enhanced mental or physical skills compared to those of the average man or woman on the street. He convinces Nina that her skills can be put to better use helping the rest of humanity, including fellow Alphas.

“Nina’s relationship with Dr. Rosen is interesting because he’s a fascinating individual to her,” explains the lovely and talented Laura Mennell, who plays Nina on Alphas. “She probably joined his team when her life was somewhat out of control. My character has a bit of a dark past, which she doesn’t like getting into very much, and I think Dr. Rosen means a great deal to her because he sort of helped her regain control of her life and showed her how to use her powers in a more beneficial manner. He has also helped her get through relationship issues, and that’s something Nina has been working on and is getting better at.

“So Dr. Rosen is a number of things to her, including a therapist as well as father figure, and he means a lot to Nina, for sure.”

Along with Nina, Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) has assembled a select group of Alphas for his team including Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), a Hyperadrenal whose body can produce massive amounts of adrenaline, giving him super-strength and a high tolerance to pain; Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), a Synesthete who can hyper-intensify each of her senses one at a time; and Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), a Transducer with the ability to read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies.

In the Alphas pilot, the U.S. Department of Defense recruits Rosen and his team to find the murderer of a federal witness. They discover that the guilty party is, in fact, an Alpha (and future team member), Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie). He was subconsciously manipulated by a member of Red Flag, a rogue group of Alphas, into using his flawless aim and enhanced dexterity to carry out the assassination. For Mennell, it was a long and slightly bumpy road from her first audition to ultimately booking the role of Nina.

“It was basically a series of lots and lots of taped auditions and sending them down from Vancouver, British Columbia, which is my hometown, to Los Angeles,” recalls the actress. “They [the show’s producers] really liked me but they kept giving me more and more notes about the character and my auditions. At one point I think they even talked with Jeanie Bacharach, the casting director for Alphas during the pilot, and she was very sweet. She gave me a series of notes and then it was just a question of waiting for that [final] screen test. If I remember correctly, I think at one point they even passed on me and said, ‘We love you, but we’re going another way.’ Then, however, they changed their minds and said, ‘Okay, we’re actually going to screen test you now.’ So it was a crazy rigmarole of lots of auditions, but it all turned out good.

“Shooting the pilot episode was terrific,” continues Mennell. “I was probably a little nervous, especially on my first day, seeing that I was working with such amazing actors including people like David Strathairn and Malik Yoba. It was a busy time for me, too, because I was also committed to another project in Vancouver, which was a hybrid of film and theater together. I’d shot the film portion and then had to keep flying back to Vancouver for [theater] rehearsals because I was going to do the play after we finished the Alphas pilot. Sometimes I felt like I was half-asleep on certain days, but it was truly a dream come true for me to be working on a show like this and with such a wonderful group of people.”

There was one specific challenge that Mennell faced when first stepping into her character’s shoes. “It was, in fact, trying to run in Nina’s shoes,” she jokes. “I think during one of my first days I had to run in stiletto platforms, and the thing is I’m not quite like Nina in many realms, one being her wardrobe. I’m a bit more of a comfort gal. I like my flats, but Nina always seems to be wearing those crazy shoes of hers. So it was a matter of getting that balance and being able to keep from falling down in the middle of the streets of Toronto. Now, however, I’m an expert on high-heel running, which is great.”

Along with verbal commands, Nina must also be looking at the person in order to exert her influence over them. However, because her abilities work like hypnosis, there are those who are able to resist this type of mind control. Nina’s teammate Gary is one such person. What does Mennell think of her character’s power?

“One of the neatest things about Nina is her Alpha ability,” says the actress. “Obviously on a basic level it’s extremely helpful in her job. I mean, Nina is this very strong woman who can use her power almost like a weapon, right? She’s able to sometimes save the day with her ability as well as cut through red tape and get important information out of people who may be unwilling to cooperate.

“However, what’s the coolest thing about Nina’s power is that she gets to do things that you and I can only imagine doing. In the pilot there is the scene where a policeman stops Nina for speeding and you see how she gets out of the ticket. I’ve gotten an occasional parking ticket in Toronto and I would love to get out of it like Nina did. Too bad life doesn’t work that way. So I get to live vicariously through Nina and do things you couldn’t get away with in the real world.”

In the first season Alphas episode “Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure,” Bill’s and Gary’s teammates help them on an outside case involving a kidnapped woman. This story also reveals a bit of Nina’s past to viewers when a detective tracks her down and starts asking questions about a former lover. Cameron helps Nina face up to her fears about this prior relationship and, much to their surprise, the two Alphas end up getting a little up-close and personal with one another.

“Nina’s and Cameron’s relationship is really interesting, but we’re just starting to delve into it, so I don’t know how much I can talk about it,” says Mennell. “They obviously have a connection with each other and I think she understands some of Cameron’s fears and reluctance about joining a team. I can’t reveal much more than that. Let’s just say that you’ll have to watch the next few episodes and see what happens. More will come, but what I don’t know. Well, I do, but I can't tell you,” teases the actress.

“The Cameron/Nina storyline is something that fans have maybe been waiting for and anticipating a little bit. Although my character still has those [emotional] walls up, it was nice for her to bring them down, and I think it says a lot that she chose to do that with Cameron. This episode was an interesting one to shoot and I’ve enjoyed working on this storyline with Warren Christie.”

Enamored of visual arts in general and acting in particular since childhood, Mennell was almost out of high school when she decided to seriously pursue an acting career. “I was in Grade 11 when I got my first agent,” she says. “I did the whole theater school training thing as well as took several acting classes. I lived in Vancouver, so there were all sorts of mentor acting teaches for film and stage.

“I’ve always loved acting and it’s the type of work where things are always changing, which I think is good. Sometimes acting can be like one big dare, so you almost have to think, ‘Okay, I’ll just take the plunge and see where it goes and hope it works.’ Some things work, some don’t, but the challenge of it is fun.”

In addition to a number of made-for-TV movies, the actress has guest starred on several TV series including Cold Squad, Stargate SG-1, Eureka, Fringe, Supernatural, and Smallville. As for her feature film credits, they include Trick’r Treat, Thir13en Ghosts, and Watchmen, in which she played Janey Slater.

Watchmen is one of my favorite projects that I’ve done,” enthuses Mennell. “I loved working with [director] Zack Snyder and playing Janey. I sort of fell in love with that whole little doomed storyline that she has in the film. I also had a blast shooting my scenes with Billy Crudup [Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman], He’s such a nice guy and, of course, a wonderful actor.

“Visually, I think the film is extraordinary; what Zack and Larry Fong, the cinematographer, came together and did was pretty amazing. It was almost as if they ripped segments out of the graphic novel and put them right into the movie. I thought it was a beautiful transition between the two.

“I also really enjoyed being a part of [the TV movie] Flight 93, which was nominated for a few Emmys. That was rewarding to be a part of, as is Alphas. I’m so lucky to have been in some terrific shows and films and it’s been fun to see where they’ve taken me. We’ll see what’s next after this, but hopefully that will be a season two of Alphas. I like where our writers are taking the show and I have a tremendous amount of faith in them that things are going in the right direction.”

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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