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ANDROMEDA: From Greek God to Starship CaptainKevin Sorbo Speaks
The action actor on inheriting Gene Roddenberry's legacy.
By Frank Garcia
November 06, 2000
The bronze-colored starship bridge set is in pitch black. Jagged beams of yellow light from outside sources, piercing from ceiling corners and wall slits help illuminate numerous consoles and the 'Slipstream chair' sitting in the center of the room. The soft glow of the lighted touches panel computer consoles across the Command center, adding to the surreal ambiance. Walking through the most important soundstage of Gene Roddenberry's ANDROMEDA in Vancouver, Canada, is an eerily quiet experience. To find the filming activity elsewhere in the complex, it is necessary to walk through the doorway of the bridge's rear exit, take a left turn and go up the ramp. At an adjacent corridor, standing before the camera in a futuristic jet black suit and surrounded by a observing production crew, is a tall brown-haired man whom millions of television fans in over 115 countries have come to know as the mythological Hercules.
Actor Kevin Sorbo, no longer a 'Greek god' is now officially Captain Dylan Hunt aboard the starship Andromeda Ascendant, a gigantically powerful vessel rescued from a frozen existence after 300 years on the event horizon of a black hole. Hunt and his vessel were recovered by the Eureka Maru, a salvage vessel commanded by Beka Valentine and her mercenary crew of humans and aliens. The precious universe that he has known, the Systems Commonwealth that lasted for 10,000 years, has crumbled as a result of war with enemies. Reawakened as a stranger in a strange and decadent universe, in possession of one of the most advanced and powerful vessels ever known, and aided by small crew of six disparate humans and aliens, Hunt is determined to single-handedly restore the Commonwealth to its former glory.
Veteran TV director David Warry-Smith is directing Sorbo today in a dramatic confrontation. In a scene for the series' seventeenth episode, titled 'Starcrossed,' Hunt jumps down from a ladder, paces forward and, whipping out his weapon, points it straight at the camera. The scene requires Hunt to be fiercely serious and determined, but in the rehearsals, Sorbo and colleagues are in a light mood. They're trying to get the details just right. Facing Sorbo just behind the cameras, and participating in the scene, are actors Lexa Doig, who plays Andromeda, the ship's artificial intelligence construct, and surprise a guest star from STARGATE SG-1, Michael Shanks. Shanks stands up and confronts Dylan Hunt. The climax of the scene has Sorbo body slamming Shanks off camera and onto a wall. Rehearsals are playful, but yet concentrated, as all parties observing watch carefully as the director communicates how he wants this scene to be choreographed.
When it's time for a break and a chat, Sorbo cheerfully strides down the ship's corridor and back into the hallowed darkness of the Command center. Sitting down in a corner, a bright Sorbo explains that it was Majel Barrett Roddenberry, series executive producer and wife of the late Gene Roddenberry, who anointed him as the lead actor of the second SF-TV series to bear Gene's name in the titles. 'Majel's a funny character. She's a very interesting woman. She's very outspoken. She's not afraid to say what's on her mind. At a sales meeting after I'd signed on, she said in front of about 250 people, 'I wanted to get the show done, and I wanted a stud to play the part so I went out and bought myself one.'' laughs Kevin Sorbo. 'It was pretty funny how she worded it. She said that she watched HERCULES. Loved the show--what it was doing and saw how big it became--and was very complimentary towards me for the show's success. I appreciate her saying that, but it was a team effort. She just said 'I envision you as the Capt. Hunt that I want for this television series...' Gene also wanted to make it a television series. After he passed away, she kept a lot of his archives. And she went through them over the years and said, 'This is the one show I want to do...' When I became available, there was a lot of interest in tapping into how my name could mix with Gene Roddenberry's name, which is huge around the world.'
Working from story material left behind by Gene, an ambitious new science fiction universe was developed by executive producer and writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The potentials for another successful TV series franchise was born. ANDROMEDA's contracts are for 44 episodes, giving audiences two seasons to get acclimated to the built-from-scratch universe of the future. The series is distributed via syndication, and since today's television landscape has been a fertile ground for science fiction shows, the odds are good for a bright future. Plus, Roddenberry's sister show, EARTH FINAL CONFLICT is currently in its fourth season.
In the week of Oct. 9, 2000 the ratings for ANDROMEDA's debut episode, 'Under the Night,' garnered a 4.3 rating (about four and a half million viewers), landing at the number nine ranking in the overall list. It was the number one genre show ahead of XENA, X-FILES and STARGATE SG-1. Months of pre-publicity and word of mouth about the series on the Internet, generating a built-in audience anxious to see the series, has paid off. 'We're all pretty happy with that,' says Sorbo. 'It's weird. In syndication you get a more specialized audience, but still, 50 percent of network shows don't get ratings as high as this show.'
When Wolfe's series bible was presented to him, Sorbo was immediately interested. After spending nine months resting from a grueling six and a half seasons on HERCULES, he was anxious to find another property that could propel him to even more success. 'I'm not listed as one of the producers, but I will be in second season,' says Sorbo. 'I had hands-on with Robert from the very beginning. A major reason I'm working on this project is that it gives me a better working environment in terms of hours. I wasn't going to be working 100 hour weeks as I did in HERCULES. I talk to the writers on a daily basis. Every script I read, I put in my two cents. I write extensive notes on what I believe doesn't work. I told Robert, 'When I send you the notes, I only say what I think doesn't work.' I love the scripts, but when things aren't working, I have to understand why they don't work.'
As part of his creative contributions to the series, Sorbo played an instrumental role in casting six fellow actors to appear with him as regulars on the show. Almost all of them have strong stage or Shakespearean backgrounds. To cast Tyr Anasazi, the tall, brawny and genetically engineered Nietzschean warrior, Keith Hamilton Cobb, best known for a role in ALL MY CHILDREN, and a recipient of a Soap Opera Digest award as Best Newcomer, was chosen. Sorbo notes that Cobb is the only actor he did not personally choose. 'It was a choice by Tribune who had worked with him before. All they had to do was show me a photo of him and some of his work on guest spots he's done. Physically, of course, he's the guy! He was Tyr. Keith is very much a thinker. He keeps to himself quite a bit. I don't know where Keith comes from. He's got his own style of working. He gets into his character and plays with it off-camera a little bit while we're on the set. He's very focused on his character.'
The characters of Beka Valentine, captain of the Eureka Maru, and Andromeda, the A.I. construct that personifies the ship's computers, were cast together, says Sorbo. 'Lisa Ryder, who plays Beka, and Lexa Doig, who plays Andromeda--I met with them and five other actresses in Los Angeles. Beka was the hardest person to cast in the show. It's the one character that everyone had a different idea of what the character should look like or who she should be. There were a lot of fights in that one. She took forever to cast. At the screen-tests, where I do the scenes with the actresses to see if there's any chemistry and what our working relationships might be like, I felt she was number one. They still wanted to look for others, as they weren't convinced. I told Lisa, 'I've been there. They called me seven times for HERCULES over a three month period!'
Ultimately, Lisa Ryder (most familiar to genre fans for the lead role in the FOREVER KNIGHT vampire series) captured the Valentine role, leaving the role of Andromeda to Lexa Doiga. 'We all liked Lexa a lot, but she wasn't right for Beka,' Sorbo explains. 'She wasn't physically or old enough for the part. They were looking at other people that none of us were really crazy about. After talking to the studio people I think Lexa began looking at the Andromeda character in a completely different way,' chuckles Sorbo. Coincidentally, Lexa Doig co-stars with Ryder in the upcoming New Line Cinema horror feature, JASON X; also, she's had appearances in EARTH: FINAL CONFLICT and FX: THE SERIES.
For the alien role of Rev Bem, a Magog scientist and philosopher, only one man had the part. 'Brent Stait's reading was so far superior to everyone else!' says Sorbo. 'It was like 'This guy's the guy!' Like Trance, he's going to become one of those really favorite characters that audiences are going to love. There are going to be Rev Bem dolls. He's such a good actor. When I see Brent in person, I keep forgetting that this is Rev Bem, the Magog!' Stait is the one who has the most genre credits, having been seen in episodes of OUTER LIMITS, FIRST WAVE, STARGATE SG-1, POLTERGEIST and X-FILES.
As the ship's engineer, Seamus Harper, another Canadian actor, the blond-haired Gordon Michael Woolvett, fit the mold. 'We had our eyes set on someone else, but we hadn't met Gordon Woolvett yet,' says Sorbo. 'We saw one Canadian guy about eight months ago, who was doing a show in Toronto. I actually called him and asked him, 'Do you want to do the series? It will give you a movie career.' He wasn't interested. Then they found Gordon. I saw his tape about two weeks before I moved up here. I said, 'This guy's a freaking phenomenon! He's great!' Gordon has a very strong personality, and he works hard. We had to believe that he was a genius, yet he was in a surfer dude's body! He was a Malibu California guy. [Harper] can turn a toaster into a Jaguar. He can make anything happen for you.' Woolvett is best remembered as one of the survivors aboard another starshipDEEPWATER BLACK (a.k.a. MISSION GENESIS).
The final cast member of the series was for the mysterious role of Trance Gemini, a 'lavender skinned' young pixie of a girl with a pointed tail. Sorbo recalls that Laura Bertram was the first actress that he met upon arriving in Vancouver to begin the series. 'By consensus, everyone loved her right off the bat when we looked at the [audition] tapes. She was great. She was just like how she is on the show. She came in and said, 'Oh, I'm so excited to work with you!' She's like a little kid on the set. She's only 22 years old. She's wonderful.' Winner of two Gemini awards (the Canadian Emmys), Bertram brings a versatility to the cast from appearances in ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK on Nickelodeon, NIGHT OF THE TWISTERS, a MOW, and the lead role in 'Cinderella' on stage.
After spending years on a fantasy TV series that primarily focused on him, Sorbo was anxious to assemble an ensemble cast. 'My mantra to Robert, as the show was being put together, was 'Share the wealth!' I want everyone to be important in their own way,' says Sorbo. 'Make it interesting to watch each characters for different reasons. I want a viewer that tunes in--if they're not turned on by me, maybe they're turned on by Tyr. That's what we watch TV for. We watch for characters. 'I like him or her. There's something that attracts me to this person.' And here, we have seven times the opportunity which I think will be good for the show.' But Sorbo laughs and cringes recalling that when it came time to put this into practice. It wasn't quite what he had expected. 'You've got seven egos and seven insecurities! You've got seven people wanting the camera. It's weird to share the spotlight at all.'
Although only a handful of episodes have aired at press time, ANDROMEDA's final episodes will be shot by December. Sorbo is very candid in assessing the series' progress. 'I still think we're going through teething pains,' he admits. 'Season two will be great. I think all of us actors on the show are still trying to find our feet. We've come a long way. I think shows have gotten better. I think there's a couple here that didn't turn out as expected. It's interesting when you're reading scripts and you say, 'This is going to be awesome!' but when you shoot it and look at it, you go, 'Oh my god!' Of the 17 [filmed] we have three right now that I'm not crazy about. I think we can save one of them. All the shows coming up for the November sweeps are going to be unbelievable. I'm happy with about 70 percent. That's pretty good odds. On HERCULES I'd be happy with about 50 percent or 40 percent.
'Right now we're still trying to figure out where the characters are going,' Sorbo continues. 'The writing is excellent. I think we need to get back to some of the basics of what Capt. Hunt is trying to do. What he's trying to reestablish with the Commonwealth. I think we need to go out there and explore strange new worlds and not stay on the ship so much. The writers are trying to lighten the view on who's Capt. Hunt. Who's Trance? Who's Harper? Give them back stories. That will come in time. I really believe this series will go five or seven years. We've created a very interesting, logical SF series that not only the STAR TREK people will like but those who have never seen [TREK] before. You've got seven very interesting characters who all bring something different to the table. If someone doesn't like Capt. Hunt maybe they'll like Beka. Or Tyr. There's something for everyone.'
When the assistant director steps up for Kevin, there's time for one final question: Wasn't Sorbo the runner-up for LOIS AND CLARK? The actor kicks his head back in laughter. 'Dean Cain and I were the last two guys for that part! I would have made a great Superman. I was a pretty good Clark Kent. With the suit on and the glasses, I looked pretty damn good! In the suit and with the hair, he made a better Superman so they made the right choice. It's funny how the business is. It ended up being better for me because six months later I got HERCULES. And it runs for six and a half seasons. And it could have gone on for another three. I decided to walk away from it. Universal wanted a few more years, but I didn't want to.'
With that, actor Kevin Sorbo leaves. Offstage sounds and lights leak into the Command center; that surreal ambiance returns. It's time for the Captain to go back and save the galaxy.