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The Hidden Side of Claudia Christian, Part Two
In the second installment of our three-part interview, the science fiction star discusses jumping ship from BABYLON 5.
By Steve Biodrowski
February 06, 2000
In Part One of our Claudia Christian career profile, we looked at the actress's early work in television and films, including her memorable appearance in THE HIDDEN, a sleeper success that in some ways set the tone for the rest of her career. For although she continued to get straight dramatic parts in such films as CLEAN AND SOBER, with Michael Keaton), she started to develop a following among science fiction fans. After appearing in subsequent, less notable genre films (including MANIAC COP 2 and ARENA), she landed her most high-profile role role in a science fiction project to date, in J. Michael Straczynski's syndicated epic BABYLON 5.
The first season got off to a slow start, and the series faced considerable competition from STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, which had a similar setting (a self-sufficient station in deep space) and, obviously, a core base of loyal fans because of the TREK title. But over the course of the subsequent three seasons, BABYLON 5 developed its own following, thanks to increasingly confident writing from Straczynski and an intricately plotted story arc that strove to achieve a WAR AND PEACE-type complexity in a weekly television format. (Unlike THE X-FILES, the story actually seemed to be making definite progress toward a conclusion, not simply clouding the issue with more and more muddled details.)
However, after four years on the air, low ratings resulted in cancelation, forcing a switch to Turner Network Television if the show was to complete its fifth and final season. Christian, whose contract (like that of the rest of the cast) was up, opted not to sign a new contract for Season Five, which would have included a cut in her residual payments because of the changeover. Perhaps equally significant to the financial aspect was the creative one: her character of Susan Ivanova, although still a welcome presence on the space station, had a tendency to be short-changed dramatically. This was perhaps most conspicuous in a fourth-season six-episode story arc dealing with the Vorlon-Shadows war, in which both Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) were missing and presumed dead. What could have been an opportunity to show Ivanova stepping into the vacuum to assume command instead mostly shuffled her off to the sidelines, while focusing the spotlight on other characters grieving and/or fretting over the missing duo.
Christian's departure generated quite a lot of activity on the Internet, with the actress and Straczynski exchanging chat board messages each giving his/her side of the story. Without going into unnecessary detail, the producer felt Christian had departed with no room for negotiation, while the actress maintained that she had left the door open for a reasonable offer.
Looking back on the situation, Christian says, 'I just feel it was rather unfortunate. I don't regret my decision to leave the show. I think the first four seasons are far superior to the fifth, even though I only saw bits and pieces. I just feel that the story was told; I thought the show told itself beautifully in four years. I'm not saying there werent wonderful moments in the fifth season; I'm sure there were--I just didn't get an opportunity to watch them. Joe's an enormously talented writer. I've always said that, and I will stand by that till the day I die. And I have no regrets being on the show. I just felt that, if I was worth anything, then they could have at least taken the consideration to open up a discussion with me, either telling me my character was going to do something in the fifth season or that they might entertain the idea of rewarding me a little bit. It was basically no raise, plus no residuals for that season, plus no storyline for Ivanova. It was interesting that, after I decided to leave, it came down to, 'Oh, you would have been with Byron, and you would have done this...' Well, that's a bunch of bullshit! Ivanova in the fourth season sat there reading cue cards, doing the Voice of the Resistance. I said, 'Is my telepathic ability going to be explored?'--and all these other unanswered things. There was nothing in the works for it.'
Although she stands by her decision, she does regret the way that decision became a public matter on the Internet. 'I just don't think it was handled well at all,' she says. 'I think airing your dirty laundry in this day and age is so dangerous because of the medium of the computer age and so forth. It suddenly became everybody's business. Joe received death threats. I received hate mail. You know, people were taking it personally, when in essence I was simply saying, 'Look, the men make more than me. I've worked eighty-eight episodes. Nobody's giving me [anything to do.] In those eighty-eight episodes, I've had basically two episodes that were basically built around me, in the second season, whereas Talia had eight episodes built around her.' So Ivanova was always there, but quite frankly I was getting bored, you know? It's very easy to sit back, collect your paycheck, and be lazy, but I wanted to be stimulated, and at least I wanted to be compensated. I mean, the aliens made more than me--everybody! Just from a financial level, it was Bruce Boxleitner getting the majority of the money, and me getting the same that I did when I was first hired. If you're working hard and doing a good job, I think you should be compensated, and I think after four years and every single episode, and breaking my foot and working through that, and throwing out my back and working everyday through that, that I deserved to be compensated. Either with something like a special episode written about my character, or financially. There was no golden carrot being waved in front of my face, and here was this movie sitting there that I would be the lead of. I was going to make a good chunk of money, and they wouldn't let me off for it in the fifth season, so I said, 'I'm going to do the movie.' So I made my decision based on that. Even though that movie wasn't a great movie for my career, I am not regretting my decision. Not only that, I made it very clear that I would be happy to come back to do eight or ten episodes. They didn't need to hire Tracey Scoggins. That was a little 'f.u.' to me from Joe Straczynski, because I had told him I just wanted four episodes off, and he said he wouldn't give it to me in writing. So, I couldn1t really do the film and do BABYLON 5, so I chose to do the film. I didn't break any contracts; I didn't break any laws. I had no contract. It was all up. I was the only one who didn't re-sign [for Season Five]. I would have been happy to do the eight episodes that Tracey did--absolutely happy. He wouldn't have gotten all these fans pissed off at him, and he wouldn't have created such a mess. He was just being an egotistical person.'
Curiously, the kind of fan reaction that resulted has actually been around at least since the days of STAR TREK. The difference of course is that it used to be restricted mostly to fanzines and letter-writing campaigns, which might reach only a few hundred people. With the Internet, on the other hand, anyone can write something that is potentially accessible to millions of people. At least, the reaction that Christian received was mostly favorable. 'It's funny, because, out of hundreds and thousands of letters and e-mails to my website, I actually received only five negative or slightly negative ones. Everyone was very supportive, and they were saying, 'What will it take to get you back?' I said, 'Well, you know, it's very easy. I said I'll come back; I said I'll do it. They just haven't called.' I put it on the Internet: 'If they want me to put the uniform on, all they have to do is pick up the phone.' The fans knew that I was more than willing to go back and play Ivanova. I just didn1t want to commit to twenty-two episodes.'
After Christian's departure, her character did reappear on BABYLON 5, in a two hour telefilm and in a final episode, both filmed before Season Five. She explains, 'We did the very last episode at the end of Season Four, which was kind of my farewell. That was episode 4:22, but they ended up showing it at the end of Season Five. That was the one set twenty years in the future. That, to me, was my goodbye to everything, because it was very emotional. The whole episode was Bruce dying and my career finally accumulating and taking over. It was very interesting, and that was, I think, the most heart-wrenching moment for me: looking at us all in the old-age makeups and going through these motions of saying goodbye. Doing the movie-of-the-week, where I had a big part and we were battling yet another enemy, with Shari Belafonte Harper--that was just like filming two episodes of the series to me. Because it was an isolated adventure, it was not a continuation of the Fourth Season; it could have taken place any time within the four years, pretty much. Come to think of it, were we back in our blue uniforms? No, so it had to take place during the third or fourth season. But it wasn't anything that was continuous with the story; it was just an isolated incident they decided to make a movie about. It would be as if you took any serial series or even a soap opera, and you took one incident you had never shown and turned it into a movie. Which is the same thing they would have done if we1d made a feature film: they probably would have made a film about the Psy-Corp War, which you never saw in BABYLON 5--there were just references to it.'
Early in her BABYLON 5 career, Christian had experimented with appearing at fan convention, and found she enjoyed the experience enough to continue, even after her departure from the show. 'I still do conventions for the fans, absolutely,' she affirms. 'It's a great opportunity for the fans to meet the actors, and they1re always polite and rather excited to see you. I've accumulated a nice little, group of people who are very loyal and enthusiastic toward me, and I go when I have time to go. It's an interesting thing. I'm such a great admirer of human behavior that it's fascinating for me to go to these conventions. I really like getting down and dirty with the fans, having a couple drinks with them, dancing with them, hanging out with them, in essence talking to them a lot and hearing people's problems. I really get involved with the fans; I like to make sure they're okay. There1s a lot of lost people everywhere in the world, and I think the science fiction genre brings together people from all walks of life, but they have a commonality, and that is...a lot of them are addicted to the computer and so forth. It's nice to extend your hand and bring them back into humanity and into more of a verbal relationship, face-to-face with human beings.'
Christian seems to be implying that fans are looking for some kind of connection in their lives that is missing. 'Yes, isn't everyone?' she says. 'I think we all are. I think sports fanatics bind because they love to watch sports together, and drinkers drink in bars together, and gamblers gamble together, and women shop together because that's their bonding. We all do that.'
The difference of course is that the bars, casinos, and stores are open everyday, whereas conventions come only at intervals. Perhaps this is what makes the experience much more intense for the participants and (seemingly) much more strange to misunderstanding observers. 'Well, it becomes special; it becomes an event,' says Christian of the fan gatherings. 'There's also a sort of party atmosphere to all of that; I almost want to say 'a sophomoric, collegiate' kind of feeling--you know, a bunch of people partying and sleeping ten to a room and staying up all night drinking strange drinks that are blue colored. And they're dressing up in crazy costumes–it1s like Halloween for the weekend. It's great!'
Those crazy costumes include many that resemble Christian's character from the show. 'Quite often I see some Ivanovas out there, yeah. It's fun,' she says. 'You know, Peter Jurasik [who played Ambassador Londo Mollari] said--God bless the man, I adore him--'Yeah, it1s a really rough job. Here we are complaining when we're working non-acting gigs, but we go to a convention where we1re worshiped; we're adored; we're paid for our photos. People come up and tell us how much we1ve changed our lives or how much they admire us. Gosh, it's really a rough job.' That kind of puts everything in perspective, I think, because we are very fortunate to have ever worked as actors, especially in a genre like science fiction that has such an intensely loyal following.'
The departure from BABYLON 5 turned out to be a fortuitous one for Christian's career, leading to several roles filmed around the world. 'The year that I left BABYLON 5, I did quite a few projects. I did THICK AND THIN with Robert Townsend that just came out on video. It's now called MERCENARY 2 or something like that,' she laughs. 'They changed the name, but that was an interesting experience. He1s a very funny nice man. Nick Turturro was in that. We shot in Mexico. And I did a film called RUNNING HOME for Allegro Pictures, which is a Montreal based company. I played the lead in that. It was a young artist who had a baby when she fifteen and gave it up for adoption. He's had a really crummy life, and he comes back to her; he finds her. He's this street kid who says 'Hey, I'm your kid' and completely disrupts her life. That was interesting.'
Having spent plenty of time in the future, Christian took a step into the past with her next film project, co-starring with Michael York (Basil Exposition in the AUSTIN POWERS films) in THE GHOSTLY RENTAL. Despite a title that might to modern ears suggest a haunted videotape, the modestly-budgeted Roger Corman production was based on a story by Henry James, set in the days before television, let alone VCRs. 'I played this very young character,' says Christian. 'I was cast as a 23 year-old sort of pained, insecure daughter in the turn of the century Boston, actually the early 1800s. That was nice. We shot on the coast of Ireland. So that was fantastic. I heard that it played in the Berlin Festival and won some sort of little award.'
Originally intended for an art house release, the film was recut, retitled (to THE HAUNTING OF HELL HOUSE) and released directly to video. 'I was cut out of a lot of the film,' says Christian. 'But the story wasn't anything to do with me. The story took a different turn. You know sometimes, in editing, the movie just changes. But that was great: I spent a few weeks in Ireland, met some great people, and I hope Michael and his wife will always be friends of mine. They're really wonderful people. His wife is a renowned photographer who shot me for the first time in my life naked actually.' Christian laughs, adding, 'She takes pictures of people nude at work. Isn't that funny? So she has pictures of plumbers and architects. She1s quite a daring photographer. She asked me to take a picture on the Irish moors, reading my script naked. That's possibly what got me over my fear, and henceforth I ended up in Playboy. See how these things happen? That was also the year that I did the [episode of] HIGHLANDER in Paris. So it was a great year for travelling and nice roles.'In Part Three of our career profile, Claudia Christian discusses life after BABYLON 5, including her appearance on HIGHLANDER.