Sci-Fi Blast From The Past – Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica)
February 5, 2012
Article taken from SciFiAndTvTalk
In today’s Sci-Fi Blast From The Past, the always lovely and incredibly talented Mary McDonnell talks about Laura Roslin’s involvement in Seasons One and Two of Battlestar Galactica.
Not long ago, Laura Roslin was Secretary of Education for the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. That was before the Cylons launched a devastating surprise attack on the colonies, killing millions of people, including the president and most of his advisors. As next in line to succeed him, Laura suddenly found herself sworn into office and handed the responsibility of protecting her fellow survivors from further Cylon attacks while trying to get them to Earth where they can start to rebuild their lives. This was on top of her settling into her new leadership role and at the same time secretly battling breast cancer.
“It’s not easy being Laura,” smiles Mary McDonnell, who plays President Roslin onBattlestar Galactica. Taking a break while filming the second season episode The Farm, the actress looks back at the show’s first year and is pleased with how her character carried herself in the face of such adversity.
“Even though there were these huge dramatic incidents that sort of piled up, I felt the writers did an excellent job of disciplining themselves with Laura,” notes McDonnell. “They didn’t write the character ahead of where they, and I, felt she could realistically be. It wasn’t like, ‘OK, now I’m president,’ but rather, ‘I’m the woman who ended up as president and who’s now growing in her ability to cope with the role.’ Do you know what I mean? There was a nice subtle progression, I thought, last season with my character, and the writers seemed to have a real handle on her, both emotionally and verbally, and I loved that.
“Admittedly it did get a little difficult trying to modulate the cancer. On the one hand you want to show the effects of the disease. It wouldn’t really be fair to the millions of people in real life who suffer from cancer not to reveal its pain through Laura. Conversely, you have to have a president who can function and who you can trust, otherwise it’s hard to back her on some of the tougher issues. That was a tricky balance to achieve and continues to be. As far as how we’re proceeding with her cancer, I’ve no idea what the producers have in mind. For the moment, Laura is happily taking her medication and is in a functioning place. So far this year we haven’t had a big interruption due to her illness, but that will come, I’m sure of it.”
Having been away from the Battlestar set for a few months, it took the show’s cast as well as crew a little while to get back into the swing of things their first day of work on season two back in March. “I’d say the first two-thirds of that day it felt like you were walking in molasses,” recalls McDonnell. “Everything was slightly off. We were given some rewrites the night before which we’re used to. We’ll usually memorize the new lines at some point the next morning and then go from there. This time around, though, we needed a bit more time.
“We felt like the little engine that could, and by that afternoon we suddenly made it up the hill and had arrived if you will. At the end of the day the entire cast and crew were saying, ‘It feels like we never left. Did we even have a hiatus?’ It’s as if vacation time had disappeared and we were knocked back into reality. I’ve never been on a TV show long enough to return for a second season, so it was a very unusual and interesting feeling.”
In Battlestar’s first season finale Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Parts 1 and 2President Roslin goes behind Command Adama’s (Edward James Olmos) back and asks Lt. Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) to go to the Cylon-occupied planet Caprica. Her mission is to retrieve the Arrow of Apollo, which the president believes will help them find Earth. When Adama learns of Roslin’s deceit, he requests she step down from office, but she refuses, so the commander orders a military coup. To avoid bloodshed on both sides, Roslin complies with Adama’s wishes and ends up in the Galactica’s brig.
“Before we began work on season two, I went back and re-watched the Battlestar miniseries and all 13 episodes from last year,” says McDonnell. “In the miniseries, Laura’s strongest qualities were compassion and the ability to accept her destiny. Those were two things my character really had going for her, along with being very bright. By episodes 12 and 13 [Kobol’s Last Gleaming], Laura was the same person. She hadn’t become an uber-boss. Her basic personality was still intact, and yet she took a major risk standing up to the commander and everyone else in order to do something she believed in. She did it with a tremendous amount of calm as well. What’s most interesting is that as she gets deeper into the role of president, instead of becoming pushier, she becomes more confident. I really like that about her progression; the fact that her confidence doesn’t come from ego. It comes from an acceptance of her role and the ability to make choices and not be afraid of the consequences.
“I think there’s something about Laura having a terminal illness that is allowing her to be, perhaps, a little braver and to act with less hesitation than she normally might,” continues the actress. “At the start of the first season there was some talk as to whether or not this disease would take my character down all kinds of bad choice roads. In fact, it seems it’s what’s liberating her courage, and as a result she’s begun to trust her destiny. Laura had this power thrust upon her as opposed to trying to achieve it, and I feel it’s brought her to life in a fascinating way. She’s more alive now than ever.”
Laura Roslin is still in the brig at the start of Battlestar’s second season. She’s made good use of her time behind bars, however, and considers her exile from office to be a temporary one. “Being in prison has given my character an opportunity to reassess what needs to be done,” explains McDonnell. ”It’s in her decision-making process to find a way to get out of jail that viewers will begin to notice Laura is becoming very practical. Decisions will be made and she’ll be free to make them on the spot and with even far less hesitation.
“As with any growing leader or politician, there will be no apologies on Laura’s behalf unless she feels she’s done something to truly hurt her people. I think she’s going to become a better leader out of necessity. If not, she will lose the battle to stay alive long enough to help find Earth, which is her home world. So why does this woman become political I keep asking myself? She’s not that sort of creature. It’s not politics as usual with Laura, though. Her commitment to getting these people to Earth is what’s really at stake, and if she has to become somewhat political to ensure she stays in office or is at least able to achieve that goal, then so be it.”
Despite being locked up by the commander, President Roslin remains genuinely concerned about Adama’s welfare after he was shot at the end of last season by a Cylon agent. “The weird thing is, the relationship between the two characters continues to develop even though he’s in a coma and she’s behind bars,” says McDonnell. “That’s the mark of good writing. Control over their lives is taken away from both Laura and Adama, and yet they come out of it having grown closer even while they’ve been apart. The process is completely organic, too, which is just so neat. You can almost feel it in the script.
“I don’t know if this will end up in the final edit, but one thing I tried to do the entire time my character was in jail was every once in a while check in with someone about the commander’s condition. Laura wants Adama back in power, even if he keeps her in jail. His being in charge of the Galactica as opposed to Colonel Tigh [Michael Hogan] is better for the fleet. We can’t do this without him. Adama is Laura’s rock; he just happens to be really angry at her right now.”
Earlier on this particular day, McDonnell shot three of her scenes for the aforementioned episode The Farm. In one scene, Apollo (Jamie Bamber), Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch) and Priest Elosha (Lorena Gale) look on as President Roslin “blesses” a group of prisoners aboard the Astral Queen spaceship. “Since getting out of jail, this is Laura’s first time in a different environment, other than last season when she went to the Cloud Nine luxury liner in Colonial Day,” notes McDonnell. “That’s when we had the political caucus and, yes, elected Baltar [James Callis] as my character’s vice president. To this day I still don’t quite understand that,” she laughs.
“By the time we get to The Farm, Laura is a bit of a renegade and there’s a situation she’s had to create in order to facilitate her commitment to save the human race. This subsequently causes a reverberation that she’s not prepared for and isn’t comfortable with. Sometimes in life we’re forced to take actions we can’t back away from, and accompanying those actions is a whole new level of difficulty. That’s what my character is faced with in this episode.”
While President Roslin fights to regain her political seat, the Cylon threat against her and the rest of humanity further intensifies this season on Battlestar. “Eddie Olmos and I were having lunch recently and talking about the Cylons,” recalls McDonnell. “At one point we actually looked at each other and said, ‘We’re in deep crap. How are we going to get out of this?’ Eddie said, ‘Well don’t look at me, you’re the president.’ It was quite amusing,” chuckles the actress.
“This is a type of scene that I think Adama and Laura will need to have somewhere down the line if he can just get over being mad at her, because they truly don’t know what they’re going to do. The Cylons are so sophisticated and ahead of humans, and yet they’re reflective of us, which is why they’re so advanced. They have human properties along with advanced consciousnesses as well as machinery-like possibilities all in one, and we’re still only just human beings. As such we’re really going to have to work our tails off to stay one step ahead of the Cylons.
“Things are becoming more complicated, and that has me more excited,” enthuses the actress. “I’ve never experienced anything quite like Battlestar and it’s a privilege to play a part in telling such a story.”