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‘I was never the picket fence girl’: Claudia Black on her sci-fi career & 'Stargate SG-1'
The Farscape & SG-1 veteran reflects on playing Vala Mal Doran… and the female screen heroes who inspired her.
When SYFY WIRE spoke with Claudia Black recently about her new sci-fi suspense movie DEUS: The Dark Sphere, the Farscape and Stargate SG-1 star was so generous with amazing insights into her extended sci-fi career that we simply couldn’t leave all the ground she covered forsaken like some space vessel set adrift.
Besides teasing her “more mature” lead role as a traumatized space interloper in DEUS, the Australian actor also served up a thoughtful look back at how her time as Aeryn Sun on Farscape tapped a rare, ideal mix of killer casting, top-shelf creative talent (via show creator Rockne S. O'Bannon and The Jim Henson Company), and a studio leash long enough to let the story play out through four seasons and one final, series-capping film. You can check out Black’s DEUS interview here, plus her thoughts on playing Aeryn in Farscape here.
But, there’s more! To round out the rest of our chat with Black, we’re shifting the focus to her time aboard the Stargate SG-1 cast as Vala Mal Doran (which came near the end of the series’ 10-season run, plus a pair of 2008 movie sequels — Stargate: The Ark of Truth and Stargate: Continuum). Better still, Black even offered a crash course on how her love of science fiction first took root and flourished — beginning with her early fascination with female sci-fi screen icons like Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver.
What is it about the sci-fi genre that has kept you coming back?
From a very young age, the defining moment for me as a theater kid — I guess you would refer to it in America — I was heavily immersed in all extracurricular things involving performance, and music, and orchestra, and singing, and theater, and what have you. I went to an excellent school that provided an incredible container for me to explore all of that… And I remember defining moments where I saw Linda Hamilton in T2 [Terminator 2: Judgment Day] and Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Aliens, in particular, and the way James Cameron had specifically designed this story around females.
Watching Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, and having a sense of understanding inside myself that I could do what they did, in my own way, [but] never, ever wanting to replicate, or repeat, or mimic — they made sense to me. The roles that they were playing made sense to me.
These were women, in their wholeness, who were allowed to have anger; who were allowed to have complexity; who could stand and lead in uncommon circumstances. And there was something that resonated so deeply inside me from a deep place of knowing and understanding that, what little I knew of myself, I could see big parts of myself in what they were portraying. And I sort of pointed up to the screen and said "I can sort of do that. I can do that."
And so suddenly, I was in this space where there weren’t a lot of women, as I was told by managers in Hollywood… they were saying, "There’s a very small population of women who do what you do, Claudia." And I said, "I’ve kind of known that since my teen years — I don’t know why or how." And I’ve later since joked that I kind of got paid for my anger for 20 years. I felt I was sort of carrying a lot of women with me with that. With these roles that I was portraying, there needed to be space for us to not be likable. And I would lose jobs because of it sometimes; [people] would say "You're just not likable onscreen, Claudia," and I’d say, "That’s okay to me — because whatever I’m carrying is an important piece of expressing what it is to be a woman in this world."
And it’s tough. I’ve had a tough ride — and it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier. So being able to portray that complexity has been really important. And then on the practical end of it, in an industry that likes to pigeonhole, people stop seeing you as being able to do other things — ironically, playing complex women! They may not think of you as capable of complexity, creatively. There’s also a big "aging out" …and science fiction actually continues to be ahead of the curve in allowing women to age on different terms.
And they’re complex and interesting characters! I was never the "picket fence girl." That was never my own personal aspiration. So I see more of myself, of what women can be, in the future in space, than I can here on the ground in a procedural drama.
After Farscape ended, you shifted over to Stargate SG-1 for the end of its run. Can you talk about what it was like entering a franchise that was already well established, compared to your early casting on Farscape?
Unexpectedly, I ended up with a ton of creative freedom! Farscape was teething — I mean, it wasn’t even teething — it was in its absolute infancy. There had been a lot of love and care and attention put into it by Rockne and Brian [Henson] before I showed up on the scene, but it was still in its infancy in figuring itself out, and that was really evident in the early episodes in Season 1.
To me, that is like — if someone said "Watch those episodes," I’d say, kicking and screaming, "I’d rather not!" — because it’s like showing my date old baby photos; ugly baby photos. It’s just awkward for me to watch it. And you know, fans talk about it, too. It’s a slow burn. It takes a while to world-build, in a way. I mean, there are some aspects of world-building that are fantastic, to begin with, that I think are enthralling because of the Henson input and what [Creature Shop supervisor on Farscape] Dave Elsey brought. There were very strong creative, artistic, and aesthetic voices from the get-go, so there was enough world-building in that respect to be good nourishment for fans coming on board.
Then as we came out of infancy and the characters were allowed to sort of find a darker tone — and Sci-Fi Channel was really important in that space of encouraging it to be darker and edgier — we got to sort of…our range grew and deepened as actors, because we were no longer on a puppet show or a Muppet show. We were on something much edgier and darker. So [Farscape] got to be "adult" TV, which is what Brian had always wanted.
And so going on to SG-1, I hadn’t planned to do any more sci-fi for a while. I wanted to sort of go to the States and go to London, and find my feet again and figure out what I wanted to do. And when things are offered, it’s harder to turn them down, because you haven’t had to hustle for them. It’s like, "Oh! It’s like a gift!" — and it’s hard to turn down gifts.
I thought, "Well, what would be the point of me doing this?" And when I looked at it, I thought, "Well, I’d get to work with Michael Shanks [who plays Dr. Daniel Jackson], and he seems like a really good actor — and maybe it’s an opportunity for him to step forward and do something he hasn’t been able to do before."
That seemed fun to me, to get to play with him and do something different for him. Because when something’s so established, where’s the space for them to mix it up? And so I was kind of like the shaking of the snow globe — that was super fun for me. It was fun for the directors. They were so planned and so scheduled, and they knew how to run this [show] — it was such a well-oiled machine in comparison.
And so they would say, "Okay, so in this scene, Vala’s going to sit there on that chair," and I’d go, "Ooh [wincing] — Why? I don’t mean to be a d***head, but — why? Is it okay if I actually sit on the table instead of the chair?" And I remember [SG-1 producer/director] Andy Mikita looking at me and going — "Oof." I said, "Well, she’s not military! So I’m just asking! — Honestly, I’m not wanting to be an a**hole. She doesn’t have to conform to the protocols."
And so suddenly, everyone realized, "Oh my God — she’s a wild card." And she [Vala Mal Doran] was written so beautifully. She continued to be this gift for me. And having been the straight man to all of [John] Crichton’s jokes for five years [on Farscape]…and yet behind the scenes, feeding all of this comedy into the writing for other characters. Or, for the scenes that we were doing; and lines that Aeryn could never say and things Aeryn could never do — but things that would come to me that were funny that Ben [Browder] and I would collaborate on, or that we would collaborate on with the directors.
On Stargate, Vala was so beautifully written [that] I just got to show off. Everyone had fun with her, from costume to makeup, because she was a breath of fresh air. Aeryn was the tragedy, and carried the weight and the drama and the heartbreak — and Vala was the antidote and the antithesis. So it was a really good sort of swinging of the pendulum or the fulcrum to sort of be a corrective experience in that regard.
Directed by Steve Stone (In Extremis, Schism), DEUS: The Dark Sphere stars Black alongside Richard Blackwood, Phil Davis, Lisa Eichhorn, Charlie MacGechan, David O’Hara, Sophia Pettit, Branko Tomovic, and Crystal Yu. Catch Black in the provocative space drama now on DVD, or on demand at Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+.
You can stream tons of sci-fi titles on Peacock.