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The Hidden Side of Claudia Christian, Part One
A Career Profile of the BABYLON 5 Star.
By Steve Biodrowski
November 10, 1999
Since the success of THE TERMINATOR, which featured Linda Hamilton's transformation from incompetent waitress to self-sufficient warrior, the tough-girl bad-ass chick has become as much a science fiction cliché as the cowering scream queen that she replaced. BABYLON 5's Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova could have fallen into this familiar pattern if not for the casting of Claudia Christian, whose flair for comedy helped to round out and humanize the character. This should have been no surprise to anyone familiar with her work: although Christian has played a number of serious roles (including several femmes fatale) in both straight dramas and in science fiction, fantasy and horror films, her obvious enthusiasm for more outrageous characters makes one wonder whether she prefers them.
'No, I prefer boring lawyer-types myself!' she laughs at first, then responds slightly more seriously: 'No, it's funny. I seem to get a lot of weird roles. I guess I enjoy comedy more than anything else. I enjoy the freedom of jumping into somebody who's absurd. It gives the freedom to be off-the-wall, which I am in real life, anyway. It's actually more of an effort for me to do what I call the milquetoast roles: the lawyers, young doctors, and miscarrying mothers, which I used to get because I'm a good crier. That was more boring to me and less challenging than something that's just goofybecause most people don't want to see even a semi-attractive woman screaming and sticking her tongue out. They want you to look good and keep your legs crossed. For me, jumping off buildings is more exciting. HEXED was the most fun I've ever had doing a movie, by far.'
Despite early television work that includes guest shots and recurring roles on DALLAS, THE HIGHWAYMAN, and POLICE STORY, Christian now light-heartedly calls the science fiction genre 'my forte.' Her first step in this direction was her feature-film debut, a small but memorable part in the sleeper hit THE HIDDEN (1987). In this action-packed cult classic, starring Michael Nouri and Kyle McLachlan, Christian played the striptease dancer who is possessed the malevolentand very malealien moving from body to body throughout the story. In a truly amusing moment, Christian conveys the invading entity's pleasure at finding itself in a body equipped with breasts.
In light of the impression she made, it is surprising to discover that Christian was not the first choice for the role. 'They fired somebody else and called me in,' she reveals. 'They liked my reading, but then I had to come back for a second audition in a bikini, so I stuffed it really bighuge, huge, fake breaksand I got the part. Now, everybody expects me to have them, and I don'tbut the character in THE HIDDEN does!
'It was kind of a prerequisite that you were built,' she adds, 'so I took it a little bit furtherI went over-the-top, like always. I don't know if that's why I got it; I think it was maybe because I made them laugh. It's silly being a stripper with a male alien inside your body. It was a weird kind of character, but people seem to remember that part. A lot of guys in jail write to me, a lot of people in video stores. I thought it was a good movie, and it got me a role in CLEAN AND SOBER, another one of those serious movies.'
Christian next appeared in ARENA (1991) for Empire Productions, the now-defunct company headed by producer Charles Band, a notable purveyor of low-budget science fiction films that seldom if ever reach the big screen. The plot basically takes a great-white-hope boxing storyline (about a human fighter who hopes to take the championship title from the aliens who have long dominated the sport) and sets it on an orbiting space station. Ironically, the setting prefigured Christian's later appearance in BABYLON 5; even more ironically, one of her co-stars was Armin Shimerman, who ended up on the competing space station of STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE.
Christian's recollection of the production has more to do with the filming than the film itself. 'I remember it was three months in Rome, and I had orange hair,' she says of her science fiction coif. 'I was the manager of this fighting team of alien reptiles. It was a strong woman role. It was shot at the old studio where Dino De Laurentiis used to shoot his movies. They get Eastern European extras and film crew, and it ends up costing them less money. It was a kick for me. If somebody dangles that in front of my nose, I say, 'Sure, I'll be in it! What do you want me to do?' You offer an actress three months in a beautiful city; what's she going to say? 'No, I don't want to have orange hair'? I looked like an idiot, but I don't care. I kind of enjoyed it. I like futuristic stuff; I tend to get a lot of it.
'In fact, just before BABYLON 5 came along, I did the third episode of a show called SPACE RANGER, which was also set in the future. It was from the people who did ROBIN HOODthey were doing a new series. It was a STAR TREK kind of thing, but funnier. It's funyou get to wear those padded shoulder things: Fashions o' the Future. There were a lot of people in latex makeup. I'm just glad I wasn't one of them!'
Christian played one of her less outrageous roles opposite Robert Davi (the villain in LICENSE TO KILL) in MANIAC COP II (1990). This sequel went pretty much direct-to-video, despite being considerably more entertaining than its theatrical predecessora sort of paranoid liberal response to the tough-cop genre, about an undead officer who takes all the DIRTY HARRY clichés to outrageous and horrific extremes, administering justice by execution for minor infractions.
'I had the female lead, a police psychologist,' says Christian. 'Davi was the cop, private investigator, or whateverI don't rememberI slept through that film. Just kidding! We shot it in Hoboken in 16-degree weather. I don't remember much! I do remember being handcuffed to this steering wheel and dragged down the street while thinking, 'Don't I have a union? Aren't there stunt people to do this?' It was not a pleasant experience, but the movie came out better than MANIAC COP, I have to say. Again, I played the straight woman, but I got chased by the maniac cop and survived him and his chainsaws.'
Christian next essayed a trio of deranged femme fatale rolls. She went to Canada to appear opposite Tim Matheson (ANIMAL HOUSE) in MOON INDIGO, a pilot for a proposed television series that never sold. 'I played this wealthy girl who falls in love with her psychiatrist and ends up murdering his wife. Another nice girl! This was a really sick woman: after murdering the wife in a bathtub, she puts on her nightgown and waits for the husband to come home. That's really dramatic, not comedy! People need comedy in their lives, like HEXED!'
Christian is referring to her lead role in the tongue-in-cheek thriller, HEXED (1993). In this Columbia Pictures release, she played her biggest role in a feature film to date, a psychotic supermodel named Hexenaa role created specifically for her by writer-director Alan Spenser, making his feature film debut after creating the SLEDGEHAMMER television series. 'Alan had seen THE HIDDEN and liked the fact that I played a woman taken over by an alien, so he thought it would be interesting to develop a character that I could play,' says the actress. 'We met socially at Anthony Perkins house on New Year's Eve. He was watching me play charades with Anthony's kids. I was doing lots of crazy faces and basically being my absurd self. So he thought of this idea for this crazed model.
'A couple of years later, when it was set up, he called me in to read,' she continues. 'He told me he wanted me, but of course the studio was going for a name. I said, 'I have a namethere's two words in it!' I ended up getting it, in spite of the fact that Columbia wanted a name. Now, they love me,' she laughs, referring to the studio's change of heart after seeing her performance, 'so I should say, 'Fuck 'em!''
The film pokes fun at the clichés of the FATAL ATTRACTION genre, revolving around the model's attempts to murder a blackmailer with damaging photos taken when the character was overweight in an insane asylum after setting a fire that killed thirty-two people on Super Bowl Sunday because her abusive ex-boyfriend refused to marry her.
'It's a bit of a thriller; it's not just a screwball comedy, a la AIRPLANE,' the actress explains. 'I think it's a parody of all the woman that have been portrayed in HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and BASIC INSTINCT, except this one's gone a thousand times crazier. She's also clumsy.'
Of the finished film, she adds, 'It's a black comedy, so it's not like she's just psychotic; she's a woman with a good sense of humor who kills a lot. She's very eccentric and off-the-wall, and kind of sick, actuallya helluva broad. She's very tough but also innocent and sexy on the other side. I got to employ a lot of voices. I even do Elvis, but you have to be very quick to pick it up. I say, 'You found my G-spot, thankyou-very-much,' and do this funny lip-curling thing, but most people don't get it.'
Her third fatale woman role was one-half of a mother-daughter murderess team, guest starring with Faye Dunaway in an episode of COLUMBO. 'It's kind of a red herring, because you think that we're lesbian lovers until the end, and then you find out we're mother and daughter,' she explains. 'I think it's a little more risqué than most COLUMBOs, although,' she admits with a laugh, 'I've never actually seen one.'
The transition back to television was a minor one for Christian, thanks to the perfectionism of the show's star, Peter Falk. 'Because it's a higher quality TV movie, it's not like doing an episodic show,' she says. 'It's not exactly like a feature, obviously; you don't get as many takes. But Peter Falk is a bit of a perfectionist, so it resembles feature filmmaking in that sense. When you have somebody really going for what they want, it's not typical TV.'
Next, Christian played a small role in THE CHASE, with Charlie Sheen and Kirsty Swanson (the feature film incarnation of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER). This was one of four low-budget films she made for writer-director Adam Rifkin, who has since gone on to a successful career writing scripts for big-budget DreamWorks productions like MOUSE HUNT and SMALL SOLDIERS. 'He has a very succinct style of directinglike one word: Bigger! Louder! Faster. It lends itself to being cartoonish. I'm a little leery of about my performance,' she admits, 'because I was told to go huge, so I made an ass of myself. Which is fineI'm not afraid of that. But I would have preferred to play it my own way. If you go that broad in comedy, it's got to work, or it flops completely. In the AIRPLANE movies, it worked. We tried to make it work in HEXED, but it didn't quite. It's a very fine line.'
After that, Christian returned to outer space, landing the role of Susan Ivanova on the BABYLON 5, even though she hadn't been part of the original cast. Rather like the original STAR TREK, which underwent major changes between the pilot and the actual episodes, the BABYLON 5 series introduced new characters and new actors who had not appeared in the introductory two-hour telefilm.
'I watched the pilot,' Christian recalled, 'and I thought there were a lot of problems with it, some of them casting and some of them production values, but they really changed it. The character's taken some nice turns. It was not a one-color tough girl. Before, it was lacking in focus. The girl was a good actress, but she wasn't strong. Things seemed to be too flippant. It's got to be real. It's got to be people you care about; otherwise, why watch it? A lot of space shows get too involved in showing aliens and technical stuff, which is not what people want to see.'
Christian credits the improvements to the increased involvement of producer J. Michael Straczynski. Still, her actual introduction to working on the show was less than auspicious. 'My first episode, I got the leading man's virus. I was in top form, but this guy was breathing in my face all day. Then he loses his voice, and two days later I'm gone. I had no voice, and I had to shoot three scenes. I forced it, and it was fine, because I was supposed to be upset! It sounded like I was hoarse and it was emotional, but it wasn't emotionalit was a virus. Finally, they sent me home. This was bad timing, because it was my first episode, and they were wondering, 'Is she going to make it through the season? Is she a wimp?' But it wasn't my faulthe was sick! I felt bad, but it worked out okay.'
Although she enjoyed her stint aboard BABYLON 5, Christian was absent from Season Five, when the show went from syndication to cable. Christian had always been reluctant to commit to the five-year arc planned by Straczynski, and finally moved on when the show's shooting schedule wouldn't allow her to take other work. 'They made me sign a five-year contract, which frightened the hell out of me. But I figured, 'I'm young enough so that it's not like I'm going to be old if we go that long. Besides, if it does go that long, I'll be financially stable'although what they're paying nowadays is a joke! I was making more in 1983, in my first series. Because of that, you have to explore other avenues, like convention appearances, although that is frighteningpeople dressed up like you! It's their life! It's frightening but also amusing. And they're harmless compared to my fans from THE HIDDENguys in jail! Space fans are a lot less frightening.'