INTERVIEW: Michelle Ryan And David Eick Of NBC's Bionic Woman
Bionic Woman is one of the most anticipated new series set to debut this fall. The re-imagined version of the old late-70’s classic will premiere on NBC on Wednesday, September 26th. Michelle Ryan, who will be playing Jamie Sommers, and the show’s creator, David Eick were gracious enough to talk to the press about the upcoming series.
It should be said that Ms. Ryan is British though she does a very convincing American accent for Bionic Woman, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell from the promos. As a teenager, she starred in the popular British soap opera, EastEnders. She’s done some other TV work for British television and while you might be able to catch Jeckyll on BBC America, Bionic Woman will be her first official US television debut.
The series creator, David Eick, on the other hand, is most widely known for being a producer on the hit SciFi Channel series, Battlestar Galactica. What stood out most with this interview is both Eick and Ryan’s enthusiasm towards the project. By the way Eick talks about the story, he seems intent on bringing the same level of entertainment, quality and complexity to the story as he did with Moore when they recreated Battlestar Galactica. And Ryan really seems to believe in the character she’s playing which could serve to add a new level of depth to Jaime Sommers in the series.
Spoiler Warning: The interview below contains information about the pilot episode and future episodes in the first season of Bionic Woman. If you don’t want to know anything about this new series, read no further!
For more general information on Bionic Woman, check out our Fall TV Preview.
I was wondering, since you’re a few episodes in now, if you tell us about some of the crazy actions scenes you’ve had to do so far?
Michelle: Wow, I’ve had so many incredible action sequences now. We’re using a Krav-Maga style of fighting and the stunt coordinator and Will have been coming up with some really dynamic moves for Jaime. It’s lots of flying and spinning kicks. They had me up on a harness yesterday and I’m on another harness today doing these crazy stunts. I’m a real adrenaline junkie so I absolutely love doing it and as much as possible, I’ll do my own stunts. There’s lots of punches and a whole big sequence with Antonio Pope (Isaiah Washington) and Jaime, where he tries to bring out the animal instincts in Jaime and that’s a really dynamic, hardcore fight. (laughs).
Super running and super jumping – are you doing any of that?
Michelle: Yes, there’s lots of high speed running and lots of jumping. I think my dance training comes in very handy because I have good flexibility and we’re doing these sort of flying, spinning kicks. I think they’re looking really dynamic and sharp on screen. I’m learning the fight before I go and I’m quickly preparing and then we’re shooting it. It’s moving very fast.
I’m looking at this great picture of you taking a swing at Isaiah Washington’s character. Can you preview what the dynamic is between the two characters when they first meet and where it goes from there?
Michelle: Initially, Antonio Pope comes in and is quite threatening towards Jaime and quite abrupt. There’s a triangle between Jay, Jaime and Antonio. Jay is trying to keep Jaime in touch with her human side and the spiritual side of herself so she doesn’t lose her identity as a human being. Where as, Antonio Pope is saying, “You need to give into the machine and give in to the animal instinct. Your human side is your weak side.”
That’s sort of where the fight comes in. Where him and Jay are trying to train Jaime and they have very different styles of training her. Antonio Pope crosses as line and does something that really offends Jaime and she completely flips out. That’s where this really intense fight comes out and he does bring out the animal instinct in Jaime.
Since you are such an adrenaline junkie – is that what attracted you to this role and what would you like to do in the future, that you haven’t done as far as the stunts?
Michelle: When I read the script, I connected with Jaime on every level. The fact that she has this strength and feistiness and she’s smart but she also has this vulnerable side and I feel like with the script, there’s this ebb and flow of Jaime taking ten steps forward and then two steps back. I love the fact that I get to do all of these stunts. It sort of gives you a real buzz as you go through the week. What I haven’t done, which is what I think is coming up, is the water sequences. I had a chat with the writers and I said “Wouldn’t it be great if we had Jamie fall into the water…” and I think that’s coming up so I should be careful what I wish for, really (laughs)
In terms of acquiring Isaiah Washington for the cast, if its true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, this has to be quite a coup for the show
David: Sure. I didn’t realize it was bad publicity but it’s certainly good for the show. He’s a tremendous actor. I’ve just been watching the dailies from some of his early cuts. He’s really sensational. He just kind of elevates everything around him. I couldn’t be happier.
What was the decision process behind the effects? Was there ever any process incorporating that slow motion look or the sound?
David: Sure we talk a lot about the slow motion thing in terms of what we really didn’t want to do. I think the goal was, in terms of a remake, you try to look for the details to reinvent. Oftentimes, the larger purpose and larger themes aren’t that different. In our case, they’ve kind of evolved past the late 70’s but by and large, its still about a female perspective into an action-adventure drama. So, that aspect remains but I think you’re always looking for details to spin it different ways.
On Battlestar Galactica, we got a kick out of the fact that we were keeping the fighter-pilot ships almost identical to what they were in the 70’s show but making the Battlestar Galactica itself a complete departure. So that kind of thing was fun to do. You pick places where you want to pay homage and where you want to really reinvent.
What do you make of the fact that since the first Bionic Woman show was on TV decades ago, a lot of the science fiction in this premise has become simply “science” - that there’s not science fiction anymore?
David: There’s actually a line in the script about that - about how science fiction isn’t fiction anymore. You know we struggle in the writers’ room to stay current. It seems that more and more when you come up with a crazy idea, that the reality is even crazier and that you were actually being too tame. The risk you run of course is that some things that are so hard to believe, even if they’re true – they don’t play as true. So, striking a balance between not just what is scientifically possible but what feels scientifically believable is part of the challenge. We continue to try to walk that line. I think it’s a really interesting problem to try to tackle in the genre.
Have you guys ever took a look at medical technology headlines and if anything stuck out and sparked some story ideas in the writers room?
David: Yes, I have a small group of guys on the staff that do that although by the time it gets to the writers room its just an idea. I don’t know the specifics of where it came from. So I couldn’t give you chapter and verse but what we’ve been inspired by – there’s a book all about groundbreaking technology. One of the examples is that some group figured out how to inject a nano computer chip into the larvae of a moth so that when the moth became a moth you could use a little joystick and control where it went. There’s a great number of stories like that that kind of give you inspiration in one way or another.
They just showed Jeckyll in August on BBC America, they’re going to show Mansfield Park in January on PBS and now Bionic Woman. So for us, you’re just this newcomer who does everything. How weird was it to go back and forth between three such different projects? Did Jeckyll give you an audience with sci-fi people back in England or are you already a star with them?
Michelle: I seek out lots of different characters because I like to keep the variety and have a challenge. Jeckyll was my first showing for the sci-fi fans and then it just happened that BionicWoman just sort of came up, which has such a huge sci-fi element. So, I think Jeckyll was my introduction to the sci-fi fans, really.
Bionic Woman is an action-adventure [story] but was it the heart of Jaime that made you want to play her? Do you want her to be all science or is there more a human being there that attracted you?
Michelle: I think it’s absolutely the human side. After I left the soap I said I was never going to sign up for anything with huge options and then I read the script for Bionic and I said “Ok, I take it back, I’m going to!” Yes, she has these super abilities but at the core of it, its this young woman’s journey of self discovery and her rise to empowerment. I feel like I’m on that journey and I felt an instant connection. There’s this young character, Vivian who also has certain abilities and Jaime takes her under her wing immediately.
She’s very compassionate and she questions every step of the way when Jonas and Antonio Pope are saying “This is what we should be doing, we’re the good guys.” She questions everything. I love that. She’s just this very grounded and multilayered character and person. There’s so much to play with her, aside from the action sequences and the sci-fi element. At the core, there’s a human being. She’s got so much depth, really and that’s the young woman I wanted to be like. I want to find my voice and be strong and confident and I feel like playing Jaime is helping me get there.
David, there’s a ton of sci-fi and fantasy shows coming out on TV this fall. I was wondering what your thoughts are on that and what might be behind that. Is it because Heroes was such a success and folks were tuning in to Lost or is it kind of a backlash against reality shows, in general?
David: Well, certainly in the case of Bionic Woman, its in its own category because we’re talking about a remake. So in addition to whatever the sci-fi or fantasy elements are to it, you’re remaking a title and that’s kind of going to put it into its own category and get its own kind of attention for that reason.
I’ve only worked in the last five years in what they call genre programming. It’s not the limit of my experience but it’s where I’ve been for a while and so you get a little myopic being in that world. So its hard for me to say what might motivate other creators or writers or programmers who also move in that direction. It does seem that during troubled times, our storytelling turns to the allegorical. I would characterize these times as troubling, to put it mildly and I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that you’re seeing a lot more escapist fantasy in storytelling.
Talk about the importance of the relationship between Jaime and her sister. Do you think its really important to have that human element to contrast those sci-fi elements?
David: Yeah, I think for sure the tone of the show and the goal of the show is a very grounded, humanistic story. It’s about people and you should feel like you can look out your own window and see these events taking place. So the Bionic escapist quality becomes a unique thing as opposed to embedded in the aesthetic of the world that you’re in. Sort of the antithesis of something like Buffy or Dark Angel or a show where you’re dealing with a universe that’s altogether unique or different, this is our universe which this unusual character has suddenly emerged.
In looking at Bionic Woman from the late 1970’s to this one, my sense is from the pilot that this is a more complicated, conflicted, interesting hero. Do the times require a different kind of hero? Could you take the hero from the late 70’s and just put it down today and have it work?
David: No of course not. I think the angle that that show was taking had a lot to do with the different social movements in the culture. Whether it was Women’s Lib or the ERA - there was a great deal of talk about “Can a woman do what a man can do? Can she be valued to the same extent that a man can?” I think that while that debate or discussion is hardly over but it’s less as a question in the minds of most people than perhaps the question, “Once a woman can do what a man can do, can we judge her differently? What does that make us think of her?” And that was part of the motivation for this character.
In addition, I think I was really curious about rather than kind of relying of that tried and true formula of “When you have an action girl, she’s gotta be a real ass-kicker and real intimidating and in your face and proving to you that she’s not gonna be underestimated!” Then, what if you didn’t do that? What if you took the Peter Parker approach, which was: She’s a girl for whom these abilities are as shocking and unusual and difficult to juggle, as they would be to you and me and is out of sorts with these powers and didn’t know how to use them and doesn’t know whether to choose to be home at dinner with her sister or to go on some crazy mission for this organization. So that became a very unique approach to it as opposed to the black and white approach.
What were the challenges of fighting Katee Sackhoff on that rooftop in the rain?
Michelle: I think it was that the rain was freezing cold. I love working with Katee. I think she is absolutely brilliant. Se has so much energy and we just get on so well. I think the biggest challenge was just purely the rain. Katee’s a very good fighter and I pick up routines very quickly. I think the biggest challenge was just the fact that it was freezing cold. In a way, you just kind of use all of that and block it out. We have some amazing fight sequences coming up in David Eick’s new script. We just had such a good time working together, and such a good dynamic and energy and chemistry. I think David Eick’s script is really exciting.
Anytime you redo a television show or a character, you always have to win over the fans who are comfortable with the original cast and the original show. Talk about the challenge of making this character your own.
Michelle: I know Lindsay Wagner became an icon doing it and she was incredible and I’m not trying to be her. I’m just sort of doing my own interpretation. I love the fact that we’re bringing back this strong, young female character. I think it gives a great message. You’ve got Jaime making scrambled eggs for her sister and she’s breaking the eggs and then you’ve got her on these missions and really scared before she has to use her bionic abilities. I feel like I just connected with the character when I first read the script so I’m just doing it from the heart and I hope that people identify with Jaime as much as I do, really.
The show has been through some revisions and retoolings. Can you talk about the process to getting it to where it is now and where you see it going through the rest of the season?
David: One of the things I learned very early in my career when I was running a television company for Sam Raimi was that in the genre (horror, science fiction, fantasy), there are so many permutations of what you’re doing and moreover what you’re not doing and people will bring their own perspective to that. Some people will come in thinking; we’ve got someone with super strength. That must mean it has to be really funny and kooky. Other people will come in and say, we’ve got someone with a tortured soul, whose has this thing perpetrated on her so it’s got to be very dark and twisted. Other people might say it’s got to be very female and soft.
It applies to all genre material – finding the show is a very, very tricky thing. Having done non-genre shows (cop shows or detective shows), I just think it’s a very different exercise. Finding the people – not just people who get it, but finding what the it is that you want people to get becomes sort of an endurance test. I think that this is no different from frankly, most of the genre shows I’ve done and there’s just a lot of turnover in the process.
Can you comment on Glenn Morgan leaving and how that will change things for you day to day? Variety also said you guys might take a short break and figure things out.
David: We don’t have a short break planned yet, although you always look for opportunities to give yourself time to catch up on the scripts even if there are surprises. On just about every show I’ve done, we’ve taken a week that was unplanned just to catch up or get your navigation a bit. So I’m just saying if we did, it would hardly be unusual. As for Glenn, things will change because he has a very specific personality with great leadership skills and a real clear vision of the show. He’s going to be missed. The template he was helping to build for what the show was going to become was quite good and valuable and we’ll be using a great deal of it.
Having been part of such an iconic show back home in Britain, do you feel like you’re relaunching yourself now with an American audience? Also, which was harder to learn, the cockney accent or the American accent?
Michelle: I think accent-wise, the American accent is something I definitely have to work on. The cockney accent, having been in and around of London, was something I did very easily. And now I feel like the further we’ve gotten in the series, the easier and easier it becomes. It does feel like a fresh start over here. I’m so well known in England for playing Zoe, who was actually quite a soft, even weak character. So I love the fact that if the show works, I’ll be known as this very strong, character. I think it’s a nice progression for me. It’s exciting; I mean what better way to be launched to an American audience than by playing the Bionic Woman? I do feel so lucky to have gotten this job.
Will there be a bad guy per episode or will there be stories that run the entire season?
David: It’s a hybrid in its form, which is to say that every episode will have its beginning and we’ll add certain elements to it so that you can ideally pop into the series midway through and get a sense of a clear story that’s enjoyable and a narrative. But also, for the fans following the show week to week, there’s a longer story arc being unraveled as the episodes continue. The bad guys are of a variety that include what we call “black science” people in the classic science fiction context, looking to take advantage of advanced technology for ill will. This organization has been created to try to thwart that specifically.
As often as not, Jaime will go on a mission that’s altogether her own where she’s perhaps trying to investigate something that will reveal her new way of being, her bionics, her life expectancy, whether or not she’s going to be able to live a normal life and to what extent. Also, even in the mission story, sometimes the organization will tell Jaime, here’s your mission and she’ll say no. Or she’ll say ok, I’ll take it but I’m going to do it my way. Its unorthodox in the sort of Mission: Impossible construct in that, she’s going to be receiving missions and going on them but not necessarily in a straight forward way.
So often the women in pop culture are so usually overtly sexualized or they’re murder victims on dramas. Can you talk a little bit about the responsibility or pride you get from playing a character that’s so different from what we’re seeing?
Michelle: I just love the character. I feel like of all the parts I’ve ever played, this is a favorite. I love the fact that Jaime’s a tomboy, the way she is in her trousers and jackets and yet she’s sexy. She’s smart but she’s very much a modern woman in that she doesn’t need to flaunt that. She doesn’t flirt to get what she wants. She’s direct. I feel it’s just great. I’m always drawn to strong characters. When I watch Angelina Jolie on Tomb Raider, I feel good about myself. I feel like I want to be like that. I want to be strong and I hope that’s what young girls feel when they watch Jaime.
I love that she can’t cook and has man troubles like everybody else. She has body image issues like most women do. She has all these bionic abilities but she is very real. She’s trying her best, like when she goes in and arguing with Jonas, she puts on this bravado but underneath, she’s scared. When she goes on this mission with Antonio Pope, he’s pushing her all the time. There are certain moments when she’s really scared and then she has to dig deep and find herself and find the inner strength. I feel like that’s what I’m doing as well. It’s a really great responsibility and I think it’s very much in the writing.
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