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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Through The Looking Glass
Steven Eramo, TV Zone #109, Dec 98

The 1994 feature film Stargate established the existence of a gateway to another planet, where legends of ancient Earth gods were given a factual basis.  The film ended with the battle won, but not the war...

THE TELEVISION SERIES, which recently wrapped filming its second season in Vancouver, picks up where the Stargate film ends.

In the two-hour pilot episode Children of the Gods, retired Air Force Colonel Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) is called back into active  service and ordered to take a team back to Goa'uld-ruled Abydos and destroy its Stargate the Colonel must also return with Daniel Jackson, who remained on Abydos in the movie.

Canadian Michael Shanks was delighted to take on the role of Jackson, which was played in the film by James Spader.

"I've always been a big fan of James' work so it was fairly easy to like the character of Daniel right off the top," says Shanks "There's a certain ingenuous quality to the character and a sincerity that I admire. He also has this feeling of being out of place that I can identify with based on my own life experiences. I also find his mixture of intelligence and shyness endearing."

"In tile movie Jackson is a bit of a loner and he establishes this dichotomy from the whole military way of doing things," notes the actor.

"In the show I think he's become more of a team player. He picks and choose his battles now and is learning to work with a group of individuals that sometimes do things the way he does and sometimes don't. So he's become less of a loner and Part of a group."

Prior to being cast on Stargate SG-1 Shanks spent two seasons working with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. He was in the process of moving to Toronto when his agent got him an audition for the series. The producers liked his work, but it was another two months before the actor was called down to Los Angeles to meet with the MGM executives.

"There were two other people, I think, that were reading for the part and that got whittled down to myself and another actor after three or four hours of auditions. I went in and read again and I just figured that after that they would either tell me 'yes' or 'no.' However, they [the casting directors] asked me if I could stay in town for a couple of more days because they wanted me to read again. This was on a Wednesday; so I stayed. It's really a nerve-racking process when there's a lot at stake, but the best Part about it was that they were giving us time to really read the lines. It wasn't one of these, 'OK, let's see what he looks like,' and then move on kind of things."

"I came in on Friday and found that they had brought another actor in, so there were three of us again going for the part. This time, though, the president of MGM was there because for some reason they couldn't decide who to choose. Richard Dean Anderson was there as well and we read the scene twice with him. After that they checked our height and eventually sent us home. The following Monday my agent got a call offering me the part. It was a fairly long process, but considering my alternative was to go back to Toronto, get a job and find an apartment I was pretty happy with the outcome," says the actor.

In Children of the Gods Jackson's wife Share, and Skaara, a young boy from Abydos are taken captive by Apophis, the leader of the Goa'ulds. The doctor reluctantly accompanies O'Neill and his team back through the Stargate in the hope of using it to find Apophis's world. The new overseer of the Stargate project General Hammond (Don S Davis) is surprised when Jackson tells him that there are Stargates all over the universe. The general orders the creation of nine teams, SG-1 to SG-9, to carry out reconnaissance missions. He is reluctant, however, to let Jackson join O'Neill's group because the doctor is not a member of the military. It takes some persuading by O'Neill to change Hammond's mind.

"General Hammond represents the hardcore old school military. I'd say that he and Daniel are probably the two characters that are the most opposite in their interpretations of how they see the world," explains Shanks, "but Hammond as played by Don is a very caring and humane individual. As the show has continued I think there's a little more of a father/son mentality developing between them, but they still see things from very different perspectives."

Although Colonel O'Neill defends Jackson in front of the general, the two are hardly bosom buddies. The colonel is no great lover of superfluous details, so Jackson's occasional scientific ramblings tend to get on his nerves. He does, though, acknowledge the debt of gratitude he owes the doctor for having saved his life and the lives of his fellow team members during their first vi sit to Abydos.

"The relationship between O'Neill and Jackson was pretty much outlined in the movie," he says. "There still is and always will be, I think, that strong polar opposite relationship that existed from the beginning. They're just two very different people, but because of these differences and their dependence on each other for things the other is incapable of doing there's also a trust and a respect as well as friendship that's developing."

One member of the team Jackson immediately identifies with is Captain Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping). She is an expert on the Stargate, having studied its technology for two years before O'Neill and Jackson first used it, so she is comfortable speaking the doctor's language.

"From an intellectual point of view she and Daniel see eye-to-eye," notes the actor. "In terms of enthusiasm of scientific study I think Daniel is much more emotionally attached to the discoveries they make than Carter. She approaches things from a scientist's point of view where Daniel sees it through the eyes of a child with that type of wonder, so they differ in that respect."

Surprisingly, Jackson also has much in common with the fourth member of the team, the ex-Jaafa guard Teal'c (Christopher Judge), who helps O'Neill's people escape from Apophis and travels back with them through the Stargate to Earth. "I'm looking forward to this relationship being explored more in upcoming seasons. I think of Daniel and Teal'c as being children of an unfolding universe. They both see things from a similar point of view, although coming from different backgrounds and having contrasting physicalities and make-ups, and they relish new discoveries in much the same way."

"There's an episode called Needs that we did at the start of this season which I really enjoyed because it allowed me to take an emotional journey when Daniel is faced with an addiction. It was something totally opposite to what I'm usually asked to do so I appreciate that story for the stretch and the push it gave me as an actor," he says. "In another episode we did fairly recently I spent over six hours being transformed by all this prosthetic makeup into a completely new character, so I like that for the acting challenge as well."

"My favourite story as it stands so far is The Torment of Tantalus. It is one of the first episodes that really allows my character to carry the ball, but beyond that I think everything that's good about this series is represented in that episode. All the elements fit perfectly into place in terms of problem solving, ensemble work and a great story [by Robert C Cooper] that keeps you hooked right up to the end."

Some of the biggest surprises often take place when the cameras are not rolling. "Christopher Judge has this fear of bears," explains Shanks. "He's from Los Angeles and we're up here in the wilds of British Columbia where I'm from and where bears live. He's a big guy and the old adage, 'Bears are more afraid of you than you are of them,' is very true, so he really doesn't have anything to be afraid of."

"On one episode there was a grip working in the forest. He was dressed completely in black and throughout the day I kept saying to Christopher, 'Did you hear something? Did you see that?' He'd give me a punch or whatever and say, 'Quit messing with me.' Finally there was a point where this grip was bent down in a ditch and I said to Christopher, 'Did you see that?' Of course, I had him looking in the right direction so when this grip in his black outfit stood up Christopher jumped probably three feet in the air. He was ready to run for his trailer until he figured out at the last second it was just a grip," laughs Shanks.

Besides his role on Stargate SG-1 Shanks has guest-starred on a number of television series, including The Outer Limits and Highlander. Shanks is also an accomplished theatre actor and this January he will tackle the role of Hamlet in Vancouver before starting on Stargate SG-1's third season in February. Like his character of Daniel, the actor expresses a childlike anticipation for what next awaits SG- 1.

"Because it's Science Fiction and because anything is possible opening a script is still like Unwrapping a Christmas present because you really don't have any idea what's going to happen. There's nothing that can possibly limit us other than our budget," laughs Shanks, "and our own imaginations."

1998, TV Zone.  TV Zone #109 is sold out.

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