From Stargates to Sanctuaries: Sci-Fi Queen Amanda Tapping

Flashlights in hand, Dr. Helen Magnus, her associate Dr. Will Zimmerman and daughter Ashley search the darkened interior of a warehouse, whose floor is spotted with blood. An object on the ground catches Will’s eye and his picks it up to examine it. Suddenly, the three hear something moving behind a nearby shelving unit. Pulling out her gun, Magnus cautiously moves forward as a figure stumbles out of the shadows and knocks over various items on a metal trolley in front of him. Using a hand to shield his eyes from the probing beams of three flashlights, the man looks up at Helen. Although he denies knowing her, she clearly recognizes him.

“Cut! That was great!” says director Brenton Spencer.

The above is a scene from a first season Sanctuary episode entitled "The Warriors", in which Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) is forced to literally fight for his life, while Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) has an unexpected reunion. “This story brings back someone from my character’s past,” reveals Tapping, sitting down in a corner of Helen’s Victorian-inspired library for a chat. “It’s a weird kind of mind warp for her because nobody believes who she says this person is, and even he doesn’t believe who she says he is. So Helen must try to convince those around her of his true identity.

“At the same time she, Will and Ashley [Emilie Ullerup] are dealing with a big threat to everything they do in the form of this not-so-secret society called The Cabal, who we’ve touched upon in previous episodes. This particular story starts out with a search for a friend of Will’s who has gone missing. In the process, Will is kidnapped and has some horrific things happen to him. It’s quite an emotional journey for him and Helen. It’s that slow burn where something is happening, no one is buying it and nobody believes us. It’s a very cool episode,” she enthuses.

Tapping first brought Helen Magnus to life in the two-hour Sanctuary Internet pilot, "Sanctuary for All", most of which was re-shot for TV and will kick off the show’s 13-part first season on the Sci Fi Channel. Looking at her, it is difficult to believe that Helen is 157 years old. A brilliant scientist, she has followed in her father’s footsteps and dedicated her immortal life to the protection of strange and sometimes dangerous creatures (or abnormals) who are living among the human population. Assisted by her daughter Ashley and resident tech-whiz Henry (Ryan Robbins), Helen also takes forensic psychiatrist Will Zimmerman under her wing. She will introduce him and the show’s audience to a world that neither ever knew existed.

“This [first] season of Sanctuary will be all about truth,” explains Tapping. “Magnus has been the master of hiding or protecting people from the truth, but in the pilot we see her actually embark on the journey of revealing secrets. This is a woman with a lot of secrets, 157 years of them. So a great deal of her story arc this year will be about the secrets that Helen chooses to keep and what that does to her, as well as the revelation of other secrets and the implications of that.

“A big part of my character’s arc, too, is her relationship with John Druitt [Christopher Heyerdahl],” continues the actress. “This is a man who Helen thinks she’s gotten rid of, but who then comes back into her life. It’s her absolute worst nightmare and the scariest thing ever for her. What I love about her relationship with Druitt, which we’ll explore later on in the season, is why she would be with a man like him, and we see the reason for that in an upcoming episode. Something really heavy is revealed in the pilot about why Druitt is the way he is, and Magnus carries that secret. There’s a huge amount of passion and chemistry between them, and it’s such a love/hate relationship. I don’t think you could hate anyone as much as Helen hates Druitt without loving them as strongly as she loves him, do you know what I mean?

“We’ll also explore some of the history of her father’s decision to hand the Sanctuary over to her and what that ultimately did to him. So Helen has a lot of back-story, and what’s key to that story is her relationship with her daughter Ashley, which is held together by massive secrets. I think what we missed in the Internet episodes, simply by virtue of the fact that we only had a certain amount of time to tell our story, was how special their relationship is. Helen and Ashley share an incredibly close bond, and there is much more joy and comfort in their relationship than you saw in the webisodes. The maternal instinct is alive and well, and we’ll see a bit more of that. Again, though, there’s a huge secret that Helen has kept from Ashley about who her father is, and with that comes a massive amount of guilt. She’s an intense individual and a lot different than any other character I’ve ever portrayed in terms of her singular intensity.”

Prior to Sanctuary, Tapping spent 11 years playing Colonel Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1, followed by Stargate Atlantis and (so far) two made-for-DVD SG-1 feature films. Even with all that experience behind her, stepping into the role of Magnus was initially daunting for the actress. “It was very scary,” she recalls. “I was so nervous my first day on the Sanctuary set. I thought I had [found] my character’s voice and then began to question that along with other things. As one of the show’s executive producers I can make autonomous decisions about, for example, the wardrobe without having to check with a whole bunch of people in order to get approval. So [costume designer] Christina McQuarrie might ask me, ‘How do you feel about this?’ and at the beginning it was like, Oh, my God, I’m making these decisions. What if they’re wrong?’ You question everything.

“With Sam Carter it was just very comfortable, and after a while so easy. Not to say she wasn’t at times a complicated character, but I understood her so well. There’s still so much more for me to discover with Helen, which I love, but I feel much more comfortable in her skin having so far shot 10 out of 13 episodes. With the pilot, we were getting notes from the network about changing certain aspects of the show, so I was experimenting with all sorts of things when it came to playing Helen. Nowadays, however, I’m much more at ease with speaking as I normally do, and then slipping into Helen’s British accent and walking in stilettos.

“It was probably the same when I started on Stargate, although it was so long ago and I’m so old now and have therefore lost some of my memory,” jokes Tapping. “I remember, though, the slow reveal with Sam Carter insofar as who she was in relation to what the show’s writers were giving me to play. However, you don’t know what truly informs your character until he or she is put in a situation where it’s a test of their mettle, and that’s basically what we’ve all been discovering throughout the course of this first season. I really like Helen, though, and playing someone so completely different. I love the fact that I don’t look or sound like Sam Carter. I’ve reinvented myself, and that’s so invigorating.”

Tracking down abnormals is no easy task, and like Sam Carter, playing Helen Magnus means getting into and out of some tight spots for Tapping. “We recently shot an episode called "Requiem" where it was just me and Robin stuck in a submarine,” notes the actress. “It might sound like "Grace Under Pressure" from [season two] of Stargate Atlantis, but it’s so not that. If you watch the opening teaser you’re not sure who’s gone crazy, Helen or Will. For me, and I think I can speak for Robin, too, it was the bravest, scariest work I’ve ever done as an actor, and I did a lot of great stuff on Stargate. This was a very physical and emotional story. Consequently, I’m totally exhausted right now, we were wet for a good part of the episode; I spent from eight in the morning until 10:30 at night soaked to the skin, which after a while starts to get uncomfortable. At the end of the day, though, it was like, ‘Wow, we just pulled off something pretty neat…we hope,” says Tapping with a smile.

“We did a beautiful episode called "Edward", which is kind of a standalone story. We shot it graphic novel-style, and the young actor we had as a guest-star was just phenomenal. It’s about this boy who’s a living camera if you will and can pixelate things differently than the human eye does. One of the neat things about this program is that it’s not just about monsters and the typical mythology we’ve grown up with. It’s also about things that you think are normal. For instance, what if someone was an autistic savant; what does that mean in terms of the evolution of the human species? So we’re taking modern day things, shining the proverbial bright light on them, and asking the question, ‘Does this really make someone an abnormal or is just part of our evolution?’ At the same time, we’re having fun with these great characters and exploring what they’re all about.”

While their regular involvement with Stargate may have come to an end, Tapping, along with Sanctuary creator/executive producer Damian Kindler and resident director/executive producer Martin Wood, are pleased to have a brand new outlet for their respective creative energies.

“What’s been so great for me, Damian and Martin is that we’re continuing to grow,” muses Tapping. “How wonderful is it to be at this point in our lives and still be growing. We didn’t hit a rut. We bounced out of one really cool adventure into another that’s changed us. It’s not only changed the way we do business, but also the way in which we learn things about ourselves and one another. It’s been a crazy bumpy ride for the three of us getting this show up and running, and then bringing [executive producer] Sam Egan onboard, who is truly one of the classiest men I’ve ever worked with. I think the four of us make a terrific team. It’s been an amazing ride and I don’t want it to end yet. I hope people enjoy Sanctuary and that, fingers crossed, we get an early call for a second season pickup."

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