(I interviewed Katee Sackoff by phone just prior to the premiere of the original mini-series pilot for 'Battlestar Galactica.' Syfy was still 'Sci-Fi Channel' back then. Here's the story that ran in The Entertainer on Friday, November 28, 2003:)
Strong females dominate new 'Galactica'
Sackhoff, 23, gives life to a new take on the legendary space pilot and scoundrel, Starbuck - portrayed in the original 1978 Galactica TV series by actor Dirk Benedict. Starbuck's still something of a maverick and a hot head, even though he's no longer a he, she said.
"From the beginning, I loved the character," Sackhoff said in a telephone interview from her home in California. "I thought, for a young woman, she was written so well - a strong, independent woman. She's also very much a loose cannon. You never really know what Starbuck's gonna do. I think that comes across on screen."
Battlestar Galactica, a four-hour miniseries, premieres on The Sci-Fi Channel Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. It's a new take on the original concept, which told the story of human refugees fleeing their robot enemies across the depths of space, seeking sanctuary on a mythical planet called "Earth."
This time around, the robots are beautiful people, there's no barking "daggit" or annoying tykes, and the battles owe more to Blackhawk Down than Star Wars. The changes - Sackhoff's female Starbuck, in particular - sent fans of the original into hysterics and set Internet bulletin boards aflame.
"At first it upset me because I took it personally," she said. "You just can't read it and can't take it personally. I would like them to give it a chance. I think it's a great mini-series."
Many of the major roles are about female empowerment, including the new Colonial President (Mary McDonnell) and a devious and sexy Cylon humanoid (Tricia Helfer). Sackhoff said Sci-Fi Channel is after a different audience than the old-school Galactica fans - one of whom is Sackhoff's father.
"I was raised on Star Trek, and my father is a huge sci-fi fan," she said. "He remembers loving (Galactica) as a young man."
However, Sackhoff took the role without having seen the old series. To prepare, she watched as many episodes as she could find and was surprised by what she saw.
"I watched it with a friend, and they kept talking about Starbuck, but I'm like, 'She's not in the room,' and my friend said, 'Dude, I think he's that guy,'" she said. "We were like, 'Oh ****.'"
Beyond some physical training, there wasn't much more she could do to prepare for the part. She wasn't about to try hitching a ride in a jet fighter, for instance.
"I'm terrified of heights," she said. "Me flying a plane would be the funniest thing ever. I hate flying."
She did work out - which paid off. An opening sequence in Galactica is a single, uncut tracking shot that follows various characters through the corridors of the ship - often crossing paths with Starbuck, who is jogging in the hallways.
"I was really disappointed that it doesn't show the heartache, sweat and tears on my part," she said. "It took about three-fourths of a day to shoot that scene, and I was constantly running. The tunnels open and close (to allow cameras access to a variety of angles), and they would have to close off sections, so I would have to sprint outside all around to get back in the shot.
"I was so exhausted, I slept like a baby that night and my ass hurt all the next day. This was the hardest thing ever. I'm very proud of it."
Sackhoff grew up in Portland, Ore., and moved to Los Angeles after high school. She had a lead role in the MTV pilot Locust Valley, costarred in the Fox Family Channel series The Fearing Mind, had a recurring role on MTV's Undressed and guest spots on ER and other shows.
Later, she co-starred with Richard Dreyfuss in the CBS series, The Education of Max Bickford, and appeared in the movies My First Mister, The Glass House and Halloween: Resurrection.
"Halloween was a crazy movie to shoot," she said. "It was a case of the campier you can be, the better. You know you're not going to win an Oscar for this, so I was out of control that whole movie. I was the character people wanted to see die."
With all that behind her, Sackhoff approached Galactica as "just another job."
"I was really excited about it, but I had no idea what I was I was getting myself into," she said. "That was kind of the general consensus on the set."
She described the script as "character driven," with sci-fi trappings as "frosting on the cake." She said the director took an "almost documentary" approach to shooting, using steady-cams and other low-tech techniques.
If ratings are good, the miniseries could turn into an ongoing job. Sackhoff's already signed on for an extended tour of duty.
"I would love to do a series," she said. "There are so many different places to go with it. And it's science fiction: Anything is possible, which is really fun."
(NOTE: I followed this up with a review of the mini-series pilot that was published Friday, December 5, 2003:)
A modern spin on classic camp
This updated Galactica is a socalled "re-imagining" of the 1978-79 ABC TV series. The original told of desperate space voyage of a group of humans who had survived a genocidal sneak attack by a relentless robot army, the Cylons. It was referred to at the time as a "Pearl Harbor in space." The story takes on new meaning in a post 9/11 world.
The original series starred Lorne Greene as Cmdr. Adama, Richard Hatch as Capt. Apollo, and Dirk Benedict as Lt. Starbuck. It won an Emmy for its costumes and broke records for viewership and production costs in its early episodes. Ratings were still good when ABC cancelled the show, citing its cost.
A kiddy sequel, Galactica 1980, died after a handful of episodes. The storyline resurfaced in recent years as a comic book series and in novels co-written by Hatch. When XMen director Brian Singer bowed out of a proposed sequel movie a few years ago, Sci-Fi Channel tapped ex-Star Trek writer Ronald Moore to pen an all-new take on the concept.
Old-school fans were incensed by his version (leaked to the Internet), which recast "Starbuck" as a woman, made the Cylons into God-obsessed and sex-starved humanoids, and jettisoned much of the original mythology.
They howled too soon.
Disclaimer I: The preview copy of the new mini-series, provided by Universal Studios, was far from TV-ready: special effects were incomplete, the video was murky, music and sound effects were place-holders rather than actual broadcast sounds, and the edit was subject to change.
That having been said, Moore's tale leans heavily on human relationships rather than sci-fi; exchanges between characters are low-key rather than melodramatic; the director takes a cinema verite approach that makes events seem to happen in real time - complete with uncomfortable quiet moments and sudden violence - often captured by hand-held cameras that intensify the immediacy and lend a documentary edge to some scenes.
This new Galactica isn't for all ages, and parents should be advised. The language is raw, sometimes crude - which might be the way sailors talk, but is not usually heard on prime time TV.
The characters also are over-sexed: Cylon No. Six (former Victoria's Secret model Tricia Helfer) can't keep her hands off of men's private parts, and there's more kissing going on in the Galactica's corridors than would seem prudent on a ship of war.
However, Edward James Olmos brings a quiet strength and dignity to the role of Adama, a man who thought his time was past, who has lost his family to a career that is ending, and who has resigned himself to obsolescence - only to find that his people need him. He's a tough leader, he makes hard decisions, and he's not afraid to be brutal, as seen in a hand-to-hand scrap on the second night. He knows how to get the most out of his crew and when to back off from a fight. He knows he will be called to answer for the consequences of his actions.
The standout role, as in the original, belongs to "Starbuck," which is now the call-sign of Katee Sackhoff's character, Lt. Kara Thrace. Sackhoff (see her exclusive interview in last Friday's Out & About section) channels Benedict's spirit in a climactic space dogfight, but otherwise, she plays Starbuck as a hotheaded rogue who picks fights because she harbors a terrible secret. There's that theme again.
Old-school fans universally reviled Sackhoff before the first preview copies of the show were distributed, both personally and for the part she plays. But reading their remarks online, I imagined the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would have resulted in the mid-1980s if the Internet had existed as a major media outlet and Trekkies had heard about a proposed "next generation" Trek with a bald, French captain.
Star Trek: The Next Generation had some rough spots at its launch as well, but it went on to universal acclaim in its seven seasons. Perhaps the Galactica crew will have a similar opportunity. They deserve it.
Disclaimer II: I came to the new Galactica having interviewed Sackhoff by telephone and having been (at age 14) a fan of the original. Some of my enjoyment was thus influenced by trivia: Listen for the original show's theme played as the national anthem of the new 12 Colonies; look for glimpses of 1978-version Cylon ships and robots in a museum sequence.
(NOTE: Finally, as Galactica returned to the airwaves as a full-fledged series, I had another chance to talk with Sackhoff. The following saw print on Friday, January 14, 2005:)
A new face for Starbuck
Just the kind of person heroes are made of.
Sackhoff spoke to The News Herald before the 2003 miniseries aired and described her role at that time as both physically demanding and well developed.
"From the beginning, I loved the character," she said back then. "I thought, for a young woman, she was written so well - a strong, independent woman. She's also very much a loose cannon. You never really know what Starbuck's gonna do."
More than a year later - having completed another 13 hours of episodes and countless days of rehearsals and physical training - her enthusiasm for the role has only grown. She spoke with the paper again by telephone from her California home just before Christmas, as she and her mother prepared for a family trip to Australia.
"There are a lot of things as an actor that have been hard for me in this series," Sackhoff said. "Always before, the roles I've done have kind of been extensions of who I am. Starbuck, she's kind of everything. She gets to do everything - sharpshooter, pilot, teacher, lover."
The series premieres tonight with two back-to-back episodes that pick up only days after the humanoid-robot Cylons have wiped out most of the human race. About 50,000 survivors have fled in a fleet of spaceships led by an aging battleship, the Galactica, and its dwindling warriors and supplies.
The emotional side of Starbuck has surprised Sackhoff, as she has had to suppress the character's natural physicality because of her story line. A few episodes into the season, Starbuck is injured in a fiery crash; her recovery carries over throughout the remainder of the season.
"That's hard as an actor because I couldn't do anything," she said. "I had scenes I had to maneuver around with this huge brace on, and couldn't get around - so it's very hard on Starbuck too, as a character, emotionally, and it has to do with her injury."
This leads the pilot to sparring in other arenas. In one intense episode, still leaning on a cane, she interrogates a Cylon prisoner.
"That's just me and another actor - talking. Very interesting," Sackhoff said. "Again, it's tough for Starbuck because she has to bring other people in to do her dirty work because she can't do it herself."
Sackhoff said Starbuck's emotional strength is tested more than her physical strength - and that's harder to play. She points to an episode in which she confesses to Commander Adama (the formidable Edward James Olmos) that her bad decisions contributed to the death of his son - her lover - Zach.
"Even in the moments when she's telling him she believes she's responsible for Zach, there's a lot of emotion there, and I'm trying so hard as a person not to cry," she said. "As actors, we embellish that. We think tears are what the audience wants to see. And then, Eddie's got this amazing presence - he's terrifying, and I'm convinced he was going to hit me. It's emotional stuff. It drains you, and you feel it for days after."
As the season progresses, a relationship of sorts develops between Starbuck and Baltar, the mentally unstable genius whose sexual indiscretions with a Cylon femme fatale led to the downfall of the human race. They first become poker opponents, then dance partners.
"I think what happens is that Baltar and Starbuck seem to be outcasts in a sense - not understood by people, and they find that comfortable and kind of nice together," Sackhoff said. "As an actor, when I'm in a scene with James, I know that the scene's gonna be fun 'cause we're both crazy and the sky's the limit and that's kind of why (the writers have) put them together. They're kind of lost souls."
(NOTE: The following was a separate story that ran on the Out & About page as a "What We're Watching" entry. I believe it ran a few days before the interview above, but I don't have the date handy. Or the headline.)
This is Battlestar Galactica, the disco-era sci-fi franchise, reincarnated as a modern military adventure with sociopolitical commentary for a post-9/11 world.
A new TV series premieres Jan. 14 on the Sci-Fi Channel, after NBC broadcasts a trimmed-down version of the 2003 miniseries Saturday that "re-imagined" the Galactica concept for a new millennium. Sci-Fi and NBC are part of the NBC-Universal media group, which is producing the new series.
"It will bring a whole different range of viewers to the show," said Katee Sackhoff, the actress who plays hotshot star pilot Lt. Kara Thrace (call sign "Starbuck") in a recent interview. "There are people who never go past those first three or four channels on the TV, who don't even know there is a Sci-Fi Channel, and this is really great for us, and really smart for NBC-Universal."
Sci-Fi Channel also plans to rebroadcast the entire miniseries, as well as appease fans of the original source material by showing the 1978 Battlestar Galactica and its far inferior spin-off, Galactica 1980, in the week leading up to the series premiere.
The early episodes pick up only days after the Cylons attacked the 12 colonies and killed every human being they could find. None of the survivors is sleeping. A ragtag fleet of human ships is on the run, jumping to random coordinates in deep space, and somehow the enemy is finding them every 33 minutes. People suspect there's a traitor among them.
Then Capt. Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber) has center stage in a claustrophobic episode aboard a ship of convicts who take hostages. He's pitted against a man who calls himself a political prisoner -- others call him a terrorist -- portrayed by none other than Richard Hatch, who originated the role of Apollo in the 1978 Galactica.
Throughout are standout performances by high-caliber actors including Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama, Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin and James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar.
The new series premiered several weeks ago in Great Britain, where it has received rave reviews.
"It makes the release date here easier," Sackhoff said of the good buzz overseas. "It's nice to be able to say that people like it. Trust me, it's good."