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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Guardian At The Gate
Kyle Counts, Starlog #245, Dec 97

Michael Shanks puts a scholarly spin on the classic action hero

It's no small irony that Michael Shanks is co-starring with Richard Dean Anderson on Showtime's action-adventure series Stargate SG-1. While enrolled at the University of British Columbia, Shanks happened upon a location shoot for MacGyver (which starred Anderson). "Being from a small town in Canada, I had never seen a TV show being filmed," the 26-year-old actor recalls. "I watched Richard work a bit, and it got me excited about the possibilities of becoming a professional actor. I didn't change majors based on that alone--it makes it sound like Richard was the wind beneath my wings!" he laughs. "After spending a year dabbling in theater part-time, I decided to switch out of my business program. I haven't looked back since."

An appearance as a reckless teen on The Commish led to a small part on Highlander (in "The Zone"), in which Shanks played "a miner's son trying to stop his corrupt father from preventing the workers from getting what they were owed. I die tragically." Fortunately for Shanks, his character was also a friend of Duncan MacLeod's, which means the fledgling actor got the opportunity to work with series headliner Adrian Paul. "He's a great guy. He's a very talented man, and I had a good experience working with him." That in turn led to Shanks' feature film debut in Call of the Wild with Rutger Hauer. "I only worked a few days on it," he says. "I played a gold miner. The best part was getting to work with Rutger, who's a really interesting guy and one of my favorite actors." Pressed to offer his less-guarded impressions of the Blade Runner star, Shanks is slightly more forthcoming. "Rutger is a bit of a perfectionist; he has his own way of working. He doesn't work to screw up other people, he works to further his process and to better the product. Personally, I was really tickled to work with him."

Landing, the role of linguist Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1 was as matter-of-fact as auditioning for the part--Shanks is almost apologetic that the story behind his hiring isn't more interesting. "I was living in Toronto and finishing my second year at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival when the opportunity to audition for Stargate SG-1 came up. I did it, and I guess they saw something on my audition tape that they liked. They flew me down to LA for a series of screen tests--I must have tested for everybody at MGM and Showtime, as well as for the producers [Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright]. It was very nerve-wracking. A few months later, I was in Vancouver shooting the series. I got on with Richard very well, so that was part of it, too."

Gate keepers

It didn't hurt that he bore a slight resemblance to James Spader's Jackson from the StarGate film, but Shanks feels that his other attributes were more helpful in snaring the part. "As an actor, I have qualities that match up well with the character, who sees life from a thoughtful, romantic, young person's point-of-view. All that came pretty close to what they were looking for."

Shanks' research for the role led him to a local natural history museum, where he boned up on Egyptology. But, as he puts it, "that and 25 cents would have gotten me a cup of coffee, for all the various cultures we explore in the series. Daniel is constantly researching various ancient histories. I couldn't possibly get into that much detail when I was studying about them, so I skipped along the surface. I'm finding that I have to do catch-up work as we go along.

"Daniel is a dreamer, an idealist," offers Shanks. "He has a boyish curiosity and a love of humanity and life. He's driven to search out the best in people, and he has a very romantic viewpoint when it comes to history, life, love and people. He's a consummate optimist. He's always looking for answers--for what made us who we are today, what we've learned, what we can learn from others around us. At the same time looking for a home he can call his own, a place where he can hang his hat."

But Jackson isn't exactly a pacifist, the actor points out. "He's surrounded by military people, so he looks like a pacifist. But I see it differently: In a given situation, he tries to understand people. Instead of just hitting them over the head with a hammer, he tries to figure out what makes them tick. He doesn't take the confrontational approach right away. He's the one who, when faced with a conflict, looks to find a mutual resolve as opposed to finding a way to simply conquer a given situation. He tries to work [cooperatively], with an eye toward mutual understanding."

When it is suggested that Jackson may signal the era of a kinder, gentler action hero, Shanks laughs appreciatively. "The best way to describe it is, while Stargate SG-1 is an action series, he is the character who you would least expect to take action. He tries to find every possible way around a violent confrontation."

That doesn't mean Jackson can't be counted on in a pinch, Shanks says. Just as Jackson found himself picking up a gun to do battle with the alien oppressors in the film, his TV counterpart is slowly getting more comfortable with the idea of carrying a firearm. "Daniel now carries a gun because it's illogical for him to be going to all these planets inhabited by potential hostiles and not be armed. But if Daniel does take an active part in the fighting, it usually only revolves around the bad guys we're fighting--the ones who have taken his wife. It's mainly due to his anger towards them, and the growing recognition that there is no other way to deal with them."

In the two-hour SG-1 pilot, "Children of the Gods," Jackson's wife, Sha're, is kidnapped by snake-helmeted aliens who turn her, against her will, into their new Queen. The script lays the groundwork for a continuing storyline by suggesting that Jackson joins the SG-1 reconnaissance team--assembled to determine potential threats to humankind and, if possible, make peaceful contact with the races they encounter--principally to find his lost love and bring her back to Earth. Explains Shanks, "It's one of Daniel's main quests: To get back Sha're. I'm hoping the stories don't go solely in that direction, but I know his passion for her rescue is a pivotal reason for my character's involvement. It's a continuing storyline, but hopefully it won't take away from the magic of what we find on all these worlds we visit."

Shanks was well aware when he stepped into Stargate SG- 1 that his Jackson would be compared to Spader's. But after filming 13 episodes, he feels his interpretation of the character can stand on its own. "No two actors are going to play a role the same way, of course. I could only come at it with what I had at my disposal: My life experience, the kind of person I am, my knowledge. James had a much more worldly perspective in his interpretation. I look at the character from a more boyish perspective. He's a bit more innocent, and less cynical. That was the direction the producers wanted to go, as opposed to my doing an imitation of Spader. I found it a bit of an obstacle to get around people's expectations of what they think the character should be. James' interpretation was so successful that it was difficult for some people to accept anything else."  

The relationship between Jack O'Neill and Jackson in the movie was strongly adversarial--in the "hawk vs. dove" mold. Shanks concurs that the war-mongering colonel (Anderson in the series) has been humanized by SG-1 writer/producers Wright and Glassner in the hopes of making him more palatable on a weekly basis. "It was just the two of them in the movie, and they were polar opposites. The film's point-of-view was equally balanced between them. The series is being told more from Jack's view. There is sometimes a little friction between the two, but there is also, growing out of that, a friendship and a mutual understanding of their common desire to get back the people they love. The way Rick is playing the character, Jack is more of a softie. He still has a cynical edge, but he's more likable."

Gate crashers

It's a logical segue to Shanks' thoughts about his stalwart co-star. "Richard's great. I'm working with a real pro who knows the medium extremely well. Oftentimes, he knows more than some of the directors. He's a great mentor to work off of, because he knows the television audience and how to play to the camera. He has a lot of pull with this show, but he's not afraid to be generous with the other actors."

What has Daniel Jackson learned as a result of his missions thus far? "Everyone on the team is learning about the amazing possibilities of the universe," Shanks replies. "Each world is a totally unique experience. Some are related to Earth, and some are different worlds completely, and teach us things about ourselves that we didn't know. As I go through the different storylines, I find that it leads one to a sort of pagan belief in the system of gods. We keep describing all of man's early belief in gods as actual alien contact. They were humanlike and chose to enslave people and be worshipped, as opposed to being actual god figures. That's a synthesized version of everything we've figured out. We're still discovering things, trying to learn about all the various aspects of life outside our own knowledge."

It's no secret that StarGate creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (who noted his feelings in issue #244) aren't thrilled with SG-1. How, then, does Shanks feel about Devlin and Emmerich's original film? "I loved the first half. In my opinion, some rather formula elements ate up a lot of screen time in the second half. It was like they were trying to turn it into Lawrence of Arabia. Those elements took away from what people came to see--the intrigue of what was on the other side of the StarGate."

On the other hand, the film's premise is what lured Shanks into a 44-episode contract with the series. "I came because of the setup," he enthuses. "I loved the concept. I thought it was an amazing idea, imaginative and very thought-provoking. The film had me for the first hour, but somewhere along the line, the worm turned."

That said, how is the series avoiding similar pitfalls? "It's a completely different stab at the concept, in a very similar way," Shanks offers with a smile. "We're unfortunately forced to move the story along and wrap everything up in 44 minutes, so we must take short cuts to get where we're going. We're focusing more on the people element. We get to evolve the characters slowly as opposed to hitting you over the head with an entire storyline all at once. Also, that discovery process happens every time we set out on a new mission: What kind of history are we going to unlock? What kind of civilization are we going to encounter? What kind of interesting situations are we going to uncover? As long as that keeps intriguing the audience, and provoking thought as well as being entertaining, we have a good shot at being successful."

Shanks is comfortable with performing his own stunts--to a point. "I don't mind the idea. I used to be into sports and consider myself to be an athletic person. They haven't asked me to do too many rigorous things so far. If anything remotely dangerous has to be done, of course, they bring in a stuntman. They don't want to risk the actors getting hurt. You could injure your leg and start limping, when later you're supposed to be running. A lot of stamina is required to do this day in and day out, so I understand the necessity to be healthy through the whole thing."

Considering that he has been in the business for less than four years and already has a co-starring role on a TV series, one could safely say that Michael Shanks' career is going well. "It's a good feeling. I've been very blessed; I've had a lot of good luck come my way." As for Stargate, he is "interested in doing it as long as the work remains compelling. It has been a wonderful learning experience, and a chance to work with great people. I will be here as long as the show is around."

1997, Starlog.  Buy Starlog online

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