It happens frequently, when an actor is part of a film or television franchise that is so beloved, they will forever be associated with it. No matter the volume of their resume, they’re now and always that person from that show. To me Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter, Hugh Jackman will always be Wolverine and Kandyse McClure will always be Battlestar’s Anastasia Dualla. And that’s a very good thing.
While some on-screen personalities may fall into the category of type-casting, the three examples here earned their associated recognition by helping to literally change the shape of a genre. While Daniel and Harry proved fantasy can be both family-friendly and profitable, Mr. Jackman transcended the comic book page and made The Wolverine a household name. As for Kandyse, she only had one of the most important roles on one of the most important shows of all time, completely reshaping expectations of science fiction fans.
The latter – and the latest guest of onFiction – has continued to raise the bar in genre-based entertainment in shows like Hemlock Grove, Sanctuary, Persons Unknown, Alphas and the upcoming Ghost Wars (Don’t worry, she’ll explain the title). She’s more than a personal favorite, she’s a headliner in the ever-growing nerd revolution. Here’s my chat with the very insightful and totally amazing Kandyse McClure.
onFiction: This October you’re making a return to SYFY on the new series Ghost Wars, what can you tell us about your character Landis Barker and her role in the story?
Kandyse McClure: What attracted me to the role initially was that her story does drive a lot of the narrative in the show. She’s a theoretical physicist who reached for a brass ring, she flew too close to the sun, she tried to solve a really difficult problem and failed miserably and that’s sort of where we find her. Even though she is the head scientist with a team of scientists underneath her doing this really kind of radical and fringe work, she personally feels like she’s on her back foot. Like she’s playing catch up. But secretly she doesn’t feel like she’s wrong about anything.
They conduct an experiment and things go sort of haywire after that and she spends much of the time trying to figure out what’s going on and create some kind of rational framework for what’s happening.
oF: It seems like there are more “reality” type supernatural shows on right now, some even seeming to take a scientific approach. Did you look at shows like that at all when prepping for Landis?
KM: I didn’t look at any of those shows at all. That’s not to say that personally in my life I don’t make room for the possibility, but I think our show is really asking a question about what that means when it comes up against your humanity. How do you actually make sense of something that seems to be this other-worldly kind of thing? And from the three orbiting characters, Vincent D’Onofrio as our father Dan, our priest, so there’s the religious side of things. Avan Jogia as this kind of mystic, physic that I would call the spiritual side of things and Landis from this really concrete scientific point of view, as they all try to figure out how to create a vocabulary and an understanding around it while all these horrible things are going on.
We’re definitely not trying to come alongside any ghost hunters, haunted mansions or anything. Maybe just trying to find a different layer and create a conversation, not yes or no but maybe, what if?
oF: From what I’ve been able to see, it has a very Stephen King feel to it-when you’re putting together a character for that atmosphere, what do you do to get into Landis’ headspace?
KM: Thankfully, I had quite a resource to get ready for Landis. I come from a very academic family, I’m the odd black sheep who went into the arts, everybody else is a pretty hardcore academic. So I called both my stepfather, who studied physics as a hobby for a lot of his life, he led me down a lot of Richard Feynman books and videos, so I went down a Richard Feynman rabbit hole, which I loved because he endeavored to make things accessible and exciting in the context of the natural world, that it’s not this far out abstract thing, that it relates to you and your life and how you move around and how things work.
Then my aunt, who has a lot of very smart friends, I remember her and her friend making quantum physics jokes, “Quarks, ha ha!” when I was a kid. I called her, “Do you have any theoretical physicists friends?” and she said, “Give me five minutes.” Then I was on the phone with an amazing gentleman at the University of Cape Town, South Africa asking him, “What do theoretical physicists find funny? What’s it like in the lab? Do you use pens or pencils?” Those kinds of questions. Because I’m not a physicist and as much as I try to memorize equations or copy them out or acquire vocabulary or even watching a lot of Neil Degrasse Tyson, there’s a level of understanding that I was always going to run up against. So it was always about finding the humanity in her, right? For whatever she knows, it’s the writer’s job to make me sound smart. For me I have to express where she is in her journey. And that is at a point of failure and trying to build herself back up.
oF: You might not be a physicist, but now you can say you play one on TV.
KM: I’m racking up quite a list: weapon specialist, communications officer, animal control. Yeah, lots of things.
oF: You mentioned Vincent D’Onofrio and one of the biggest things to stand out to me is the cast. What did you think as you were seeing who you’d get to work with?
KM: Right? Incredible cast. The first read-through everybody was there, we’re hearing the words for the first time from these people and I was kind of in awe. What a crazy match up of people, unexpected in so many ways but ultimately it’s relationships of course. Then it’s the work, the words just really speaking to people, having a curiosity around it or something about that character that really strikes them. Getting to work with Kim Coates quite a bit, Vincent as well, Avan, all of them. I learned something, there’s such different approaches from all of them, but there’s definitely a synergy on set, I know all actors say this, well, there is. There’s this need to create intimacy right away when you first come onto a job. Especially television, there’s not a lot of time, you’re not rehearing a lot things are changing on the day, you’re getting new words, there’s a lot of moving parts, there’s timelines to keep mindful of, so as an actor you have to be really self-responsible for what your work is and what you’re going to do that day. And you have to be able to trust the person opposite you, but in the event that you can’t and you don’t know that yet because it’s the first day of shooting, you find ways of creating that intimacy or ways of preserving your own process. But there is a lot of trust between us. We all respect each other a great deal. Some of us know each other from before, some of us don’t and there was immediately this coming together on set. We knew the person opposite us could be relied upon to be with us in that scene. It just makes the work so much more fun and so much easier.
Then there’s an opportunity to look for unexpected things, and for this show it was the humor. It was these unexpected moments of pressure release inside this really dark, heavy subject matter or circumstance and then there’s this pop of hilarity in places sometimes where it feels kind of wrong to laugh, but that makes it even better.
oF: I promise not to beat a dead horse, but you played a really important role in a TV series that showed you can do science fiction in a way that didn’t have to be silly or cheesy or monster of the week, how have things continued to change within “genre” storytelling from the Battlestar Galactica days until now?
KM: Working on Battlestar, there was definitely the awareness, the very key awareness that we were on the edge of something. That we were setting a precedent of something. And now – fifteen, seventeen years later, how long has it been? Longer than we care to admit – so much of what we were doing that was new and innovative and in the forefront, people weren’t sure about it, we got just lambasted in previews for BSG. Nobody liked it, they didn’t want anything to do with it. And now so much of it is par for the course. In fact, if you don’t have elements of it in your show, deep character arcs and the continuation of story and all these layers of both character and storyline and all the fantastical amazing gadgetry and cool stuff like the weight of vipers moving in space, the believability of it, then you’re not doing it right. It’s always just a personal journey, I gravitate repeatedly toward genre television because it allows for any and everything.
I find when I watch a lot of network television I find it very constrained and constraining, it has to function within societal norms or if it’s challenging them then it’s a really big deal and it becomes less about the story and less about the work and the show and more about these sociopolitical cultural things, but not in a way that’s interesting that we’re talking about them, but in this way where everybody has to debate it but not get anywhere. Everybody has an opinion but nobody’s saying anything about it, whereas genre really takes the risk to land on one side of something or the other. To make a statement about something, to allow me to play different roles or be these different people. And because it’s such a fantastical reality, it’s outside of where we are or in the future or another dimension, whatever it is, it allows for an expansiveness of thought in people. And I appreciate that.
This is another foray into the fringe of where we are. Society as a whole, we’re talking more about energy, everything’s being transferred wirelessly, people are more aware or more astute where it was more fringe or taboo before or only for wealthy people or crazy people. Now we’re all sort of crazy. It’s just gonna keep expanding, it’s just gonna keep going.
We’re also so connected to our fans in genre. There’s such a dialogue between the fanbase. All the writers and all of us, we’re on Twitter, we read the things. Yesterday on Twitter, and I haven’t been on Twitter in a long time, but yesterday I said, “Hey, Twitter, what’s going on? Let’s talk. Tell me everything.” And it was great to have people really meet you in that space. To talk to people in a real way. Vincent D’Onofrio is great about this, he spends a significant amount of time on Twitter and his voice there is exactly how he is. Compassionate, really open, very sharp sense of humor and I took a page out of his book. I think it’s great.
oF: I remember getting my first pager and now you can open your phone and interact with, or at least see what your favorite performer or artist has to say. That connection to the fans really seems to have changed the industry in several ways.
KM: Completely. Completely, because they’re present. They’re a part of the process. They’re in the writing room with us, they’re on set with us. Sometimes their response alters the course of things. Going to conventions during the shooting of Battlestar and having people ask me questions in this really detailed way where they’re telling me about my character. From this objective outside point of view, it was so valuable because I was inside it. They’re watching me woven together with everybody else and interacting but on the receiving end of it. And my internal dialogue and what I’m seeking to get across or what’s living inside me in that moment can be one thing, they could be receiving something else completely and it’s so interesting. It becomes this other element that you leave in.
Honestly you have to take a lot of things with a grain of salt. We went to San Diego Comic-Con recently, the panel was amazing, there was such energy in the room. But one of the first things that somebody said for the Q & A, “So, the trailer looks amazing. This is the kind of show that I love, I’m really looking forward to watching it. However, Ghost Wars? That is the worst f#%&ing name.” What can you do? It was pretty priceless because Meatloaf, in true Meatloaf fashion as the rock god that he is, kind of pointed a finger and was just like, “Shut the f#@k up and sit the f#@k down.” And the whole room just erupted. You don’t get better advertising than that, there is no better press than that. That moment was just all of it.
oF: You touched on a really great point. Social media has made a big impact, but the convention circuit is another aspect of genre TV and film that has exploded and become this integral part of certain series and franchises.
KM: I am actually a private person and when I should have been on Twitter during Battlestar, when everybody else was doing it, I did not. I purposely did not get a Twitter account until the executive branch was like, “You really have to do this. This is kind of a part of your job.” But there was a moment in time I was really unsure about it. How transparent is really transparent? It’s evolved now to this great opportunity to cultivate a sort of voice, a way of interacting with people that you don’t find anywhere else. The nature of the brevity of 140 characters, you really have to distill your personality in a way, your point of view. Are you earnest, are you acerbic? I love that people lob these random things out into the universe and somewhere there’s a community of people, someone on the other side of that who gets it or thinks it’s funny and responds to it or tells you you’re a terrible person. Whatever it is, it evokes this response in a person that you may never meet. But you did, you did just meet them. There’s just going to be more and more of that. Audiences are increasingly savvy, people have been watching a lot of TV for a long time and they’re gonna demand more. Most people watch TV while they’re on their phone or on their iPad. They’re tweeting or playing a game and they’re watching their favorite TV show. They’re gonna want to interact with that show in a way. They could be listening to commentary or behind the scenes tweets of what’s going on and I think it’s great. I’ve decided to just embrace the AI. It’s coming.
oF: Another big change, especially to television series, is streaming. Between projects like Hemlock Grove or Ghost Wars, is there a big difference for you as the performer when the production’s platform is a streaming service?
KM: We have the opportunity to shoot the entire body of work as like this extended movie. That kind of harkens back to Battlestar, even though we were releasing things after shooting, we thought of it as one cinematic journey. Hemlock Grove as well as with this show, I get to see it from beginning to end, play it from beginning to end before it reaches the audience. It becomes this self-contained thing. Then we get the audience’s response to it, and it is immediate and unfiltered. But then you can build on that. Not in this slow kind of dripping gradual way over time, but in this really intense and immediate response. I can then bring into my work, or what comes next, that feedback. And it kind of keeps it safe, during the shooting of it we kind of have this secret thing amongst us that we know the beginning the middle and the end of. We’re evolving through it, like I said, things change on the day, you go back and watch dailies, they move things around from one episode to the next, you shot it in episode four but it shows up in the pilot, who knows. There’s so many moving parts but to be able to know what it is by the end, not know in the beginning, kind of go through these fits and starts, ups and downs, coming together and pulling apart in the middle of it, and then landing somewhere at the end and being able to present that as a whole. I really like that. It’s very satisfying to me, that beginning, middle and end of the character and of the show.
oF: Throughout all the press work and interviews, is there anything you’ve never been asked that you’ve wanted to cover?
KM: There’s me as an actor, and it’s definitely a personal journey, it’s amazing and fantastical that I get to do this work. Growing up in South Africa it just blows my mind everyday that I get to go to set. That this is what I do. And there’s definitely a glamorous side to it that I’m still constantly surprised by when people recognize me places or ask me things from seeing me on TV, but I myself am a pretty elemental person and like things like permaculture and renewable energy conversations. There’s this hippy side to me, very kind of earthy, grounded, hippy thing that I have going on that I never get to talk about really. Or if I do there’s just no segue to it. You can’t go, “Yeah, I was in space.” to, “I built my friends garden.” There’s no segue between those things. But I love it, I love being in nature, I love the idea of growing things. I build gardens wherever I go like a little gift to wherever I’m coming to or leaving from. I move around so much so I can’t have a garden of my own. I’m never at home to take care of it so I just sort of leave them behind everywhere I go, as much as I can.
Make sure to check out Kandyse in Ghost Wars on SYFY, October 5th. Then head over to Facebook and tell us how much you loved it!