"It's my first gig! It's my very first gig," Maria Sten says with a laugh. Sten, who was speaking to SYFY WIRE from Denmark while visiting her family, is the lead actor in the fourth season of SYFY's horror series Channel Zero. Sten was Miss Denmark Universe in 2008, then moved to the United States 11 years ago to work in filmmaking. This is her first major role in television or film.
It's a great role to start with. Channel Zero tells a different six-episode horror story each season. This season, subtitled The Dream Door, is about a newly married couple, Tom (Brandon Scott) and Jillian Hodgson (Sten), who discovers an odd door in the basement of their new home. On the other side of the door is a flexible clown named Pretzel Jack, who Jillian made up when she was a child. Pretzel Jack still loves Jillian and wants to protect her — which means he grabs a knife and stabs to death anyone who makes her angry or upset.
Roles for black women on television are improving, but still, not every actor gets to play a suburban housewife whose alter ego is a killer contortionist clown. SYFY WIRE spoke with Sten about Jillian, empowerment, and where she goes next.
What appealed to you about the character of Jillian?
Maria Sten: When I read the script, I thought immediately: I know this person, I know this human being. And she's so complex and she's so layered. Throughout the script she's so conflicted. For me, this role is pretty much an actor's dream. I get to do so many different things and go through the whole spectrum of emotions. It's been such an incredible journey to portray Jillian.
One of the themes of the show is about men around Jillian not believing her. Did that seem like a timely issue, to you?
The show is about people gaslighting Jillian. Jillian's frustration is that nobody believes her. She has a very pronounced gut feeling, "I know what's going on, I'm not crazy, why is everyone trying to make me think I'm crazy?"
And I think in that sense it's timely. All the people around her are mansplaining at her. She has to learn to stand on her own feet and she has to learn to trust in herself that she is right, that she believes in herself. I think that makes it exciting, it's about this woman learning about or claiming her worth.
And I think that is a parallel to what's been going on—particularly in the last couple weeks [around the time of the Justice Kavanaugh hearings]. Maybe it's good to take a step back and listen to what these women have to say.
Is it hard to find roles like Jillian?
I mean, any time you have a female character this layered and complex, it's a win in itself.
It's getting better now, but it's still sparse in terms of these really complicated human female characters, that are layered the way that Jillian is. She's a full person on the page, which is such a joy.
And Brandon Scott who plays Tom and that really feels like a win. Because we don't see that a lot. We don't see an African-American affluent couple who owns their own business in television, in horror.
Is the idea of having a Pretzel Jack on call appealing? If someone gives you too much grief, the contortionist clown will come and do away with them for you.
Maybe I'm biased, but I love Pretzel Jack. Jillian loves PJ. He's her guy.
It's a metaphor. We all have baggage. And this baggage just happens to become real.
Pretzel Jack is a protector. And Jillian doesn't want to hurt anyone. But as human beings, we can't decide what we feel about something. We can only try to navigate the emotions.
We have all these issues that we need to deal with as human beings or as a society, and if we don't face them and learn to navigate through them, they will come out and do awful things. I think that's a great analogy for any relationship. But also on a societal scale, we have things in our closets that we should probably address before they get out and wreak havoc on the world.
What was the set of Channel Zero like? Watching the show, it has some of the intimacy of an indie film, almost.
Channel Zero is the best thing. It's a very tight-knit group. There are very long hours and a very hectic schedule. And we still have the best time of our lives. It's like a family.
Nick Antosca, the showrunner, is really good at hiring good people, good humans. I've had this conversation often with friends of mine in the industry about the "brilliant jerk". And the time of the brilliant jerk is coming to an end. I feel like you can find people in the world who are incredibly talented but also good people.
What are you working on next? You're going to be in the Swamp Thing television adaptation, where you play Liz Tremayne, right?
Yeah, I'm basically prepping for Swamp Thing. I'm leaving next month to go shoot in North Carolina, which is going to be great. It's going to be super exciting. I think it'll be exciting to dive into a different kind of horror world with Swamp Thing.
I'm reading the comics right now. It's just about doing all the homework and getting into who Liz Tremayne is. She's very different from Jillian so I get to do something different and live in a different world with another person.
I know you're a filmmaker; are you working on something of your own?
Right now I'm working on a feature script. When I have any time off I work on my own projects to see who can get it on its feet. That's still — it takes time with features. But that's my passion project that I'm working on.