Walk Like An Egyptian
Karen Miller, Frontier, 99
No one could describe it as an easy task...stepping into the shoes of a character someone else has already created, and making it your own while still remaining faithful to the original portrayal. That's the job Canadian actor Michael Shanks found himself undertaking when he signed on to play archeologist Daniel Jackson in the TV series Stargate SG-1. In the movie that inspired the series, Jackson was ably portrayed by James Spader. Luckily for the SG-1 producers, in Michael Shanks they found someone who not only bears a passing resemblance to Spader, but is a talented actor to boot. Production of Stargate SG-1 Season 3 is currently underway in Vancouver.
Originally approved for two seasons, then expanded to four, word has it that a longer production commitment for the show is soon to be announced. Stargate has established an enthusiastic fan base world-wide, with solid ratings performances in the USA, Australia and the UK and a phenomenally active Internet presence.
According to Shanks: "I think the stand-out element is the characters. The chemistry between Daniel, Jack O'Neill, Sam Carter and Teal'c. There is an interesting dichotomy between them, an interesting balance. Each character is different, unique. It's a case of opposites attracting." Daniel Jackson is very much the outsider in the militaristic world of SG-1. A civilian, he often finds himself at odds with the more pragmatic views of his colleagues. "Daniel's an innocent, naive optimist whose curiosity often kills the cat and whose energy and excitement are contagious. He's a little boy who's opened the biggest Christmas present you could imagine, constantly excited and enthused."
"At the moment, I don't know where they're going to take him. I'm curious about what direction the character and the show are going to go in. I have no idea what the writers have in mind. We're so busy here, working on the show we've just filmed, on the one we're filming now, on the next one, there's no time to think about it. It's completely out of our control. I have a much larger dark side than Daniel. It would be fun to explore that in him a little, but not too much. And not regularly. Just a little. What I really like is Daniel's genuine quality, his caring for people. His honesty and compassion. If they changed that about him then I wouldn't want to play him any more."
Perhaps because he's civilian, not military, Daniel is the most overtly emotional character in the SG1 team. Episodes like Need and Legacy have provided Shanks with some highly charged acting scenes. "You have to be prepared to expose yourself," says the actor. "That's basically the job description. The willingness to go to those places always has to be there. The ability varies, depending on how tired your are, who you're working with. There are levels of comfort, and the family of people you're working with. You have to be able to make the scene work, no matter what. But I don't have that problem here." To date, Shanks considers his best episodes to have been Need and Holiday. The hardest, not surprisingly, is Holiday, "because of the aspect of working with yourself. And the six hours of prosthetic makeup. And the fact that I was playing a character inside a character. Daniel isn't a lot like me, so I'm playing someone different, and then having to play that person inside another person's body, that was a challenge. They gave me actors to work with in those scenes, not just stand-ins, but sometimes I just acted with the bed."
Preparing for the role of Daniel is a lot of hard work. "In the beginning, for the audition, I re-watched the movie because I hadn't seen it since its cinema release. Found the parts of the character that are also in me, aspects that I liked, and those I didn't. For me, the Daniel in the movie was a little hard, a little jaded maybe. I wanted to focus more on the subtextual elements of family, displacement, being a loner. I wanted to make Daniel a little more naive, not quite so together as he was in the film. And I worked on it from there. On a week to week basis, filming the series, first of all I do a cold read of the new script, just to see what happens, where my character fits into the action. Then I read paying attention to Daniel's scenes, his arc, his journey. This is an ensemble cast, he's not always the focus of attention every time, but he's there, and there's always something to work with, something to add to the scene. Then I use my theatre training and processes. I break down every scene into beats.
On dialogue, seeing what works for me, what doesn't. Think if there's any way I can improve that. I break down words, the evolution of the words. Clever scriptwriters can use words with lots of meanings, and find subtext in the lines. I'm a character actor, so I'm always asking myself what did the writer have in mind. I guess that's part of having a theatre background too. I'm always looking for the details, the subtexts. But then of course you do all this homework and then you get to the rehearsal process and throw it all out the window. Because there's no point if you're not working off what the other actors give you." Believe it or not, Shanks was studying economics at university when a chance encounter with the on location cast and crew of MacGyver spun his career path in a radically new direction. He counts himself fortunate to have had the support he needed to do it, especially from his father. "It's rare to get family encouragement in this business, and it's easy to get discouraged. My father has always been supportive and there for me when things weren't going well, helping me stay involved and motivated."
Even with the tough times, though, he couldn't be happier. "From acting I get a sense of satisfaction, of doing something well. Of doing a scene and feeling satisfied that I achieved something with it. I am a perfectionist. But perfection is unachievable, so I know there's always something more to strive for, a better performance. It's a balancing act, though, knowing when to accept what you've done and move on, not getting caught up in things you can't change. In acting there's always a chance to learn, to grow, to reach for bigger things. It keeps me moving forward. It's not therapy, but it allows you to exercise certain psychological demons. It's creatively fulfilling and exciting, and it's always different." But every job, no matter how fulfilling, has its drawbacks, and acting is no exception. "I'm actually pretty shy and reclusive," Shanks says. "I don't like public attention, being the focus of interest. I don't like to be recognized in public. I like my privacy. To be an actor you have to be able to study people, and if you lose your anonymity you can't do that. Not that it's really a problem for me at the moment, but I don't want it to be in the future."
And speaking of the future, what does he hope that life after Stargate will hold for him? "I'd love to work with Anthony Hopkins. I know he's supposed to have retired, but I don't think he'll stay away for long. I think he'll want to get back into it. Ralph Fiennes. Ed Harris. Ewan McGregor. I would have like to have worked with Stanley Kubrick. Steven Spielberg, of course. Everyone wants to work with him. James Cameron. I'd love to work on one of the new Star Wars films. Spielberg and Cameron are innovators. They have extraordinary vision and ability and they have carte blanche to do what they want to do. So often in this business what you want is controlled by the money. They have built up the trust so they can do what they need and want to do, to tell really wonderful stories. They have the sfx/vfx teams to make it happen. As an actor, they can take you in totally new directions." At least one ambition, however has already been fulfilled.
"I always wanted to play Hamlet, and I've just done that," he says. An enormous, daunting task, surely? "It wasn't that frightening. It was an intimidating work load. And it was an emotional and physical challenge. I'd spent two years out of theatre, and the longer I stayed away the more scary that idea became, of going back, which is why I did it. I'm always looking for challenges. I never want to get complacent. I want to stay open-eyed and excited about the work." Clearly, the experience is a career highlight. "It was great to work with new people. There was a great energy in the air. Initially the rest of the cast was a bit standoffish, thinking 'what's this TV guy going to do?', but once they realized I was prepared, I'd done my homework, and I was there to work, it went really well. I would have been exactly the same if the positions were reversed. I was challenged to the utmost."
© 1999, Frontier.
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