A celebration of Summer Glau

The star of Serenity, Firefly and numerous other genre films and shows, Summer Glau seldom gets the attention she deserves. Here’s Caroline’s celebration of her work...

We all know that Joss Whedon has a knack for discovering actresses with that incommunicable ability to convey great strength and resilience, from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s genre-altering Buffy Summers, to the various roles he provides for Eliza Dushku or Amy Acker.

With Summer Glau, though, he found something truly special, and that’s a sentiment shared by anyone who’s ever seen her on-screen. Making her move into internet television with The Human Preservation Project, it’s mighty revealing to look at her slow, yet meteoric in retrospect, rise to becoming the geek-favourite and enigmatic performer we know and love today.

Sure, she can act most of her co-stars off the screen when required, but she does so with a grace and understatement that’s incredibly difficult to find; you only have to watch any given female-centric network show to realise that.

It’s entirely possible that, if one could bottle the ‘Glau effect’ and sell it on, show-runners and Hollywood’s most elite would be lining up around the block. One part sex kitten, two parts lost little girl, Glau straddles the line perfectly, and has displayed a versatility that most actresses would kill for. But, if you haven’t heard of her, and there are many who haven’t, you’d be instantly forgiven.

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For, as talented an actress as she’s proven herself to be, she’s inexplicably been left in the cold light of cancellation too many times during her decade-long acting career.

Starting with a chance guest role in Angel’s game-changer, Waiting In The Wings, she demonstrated an enchanting eccentricity that would stay with viewers long after she’d long left the screen. With her role as a cursed dancer doomed to repeat the same performance again and again, not only did she cement herself in the hearts and minds of viewers, but she also developed a relationship with the writer/director who would go on to define her career.

And by watching her devour that part in Angel, during which she delivers a monologue so moving that it not only defines the episode, but the entire show in retrospect (“I don’t dance, I echo”), fans of the actress can now see the strengths that would go on to make her the geek-goddess we now know. For one, she is given the opportunity to show off her dancing ability, something she would repeat in almost every notable role from then on, and she’s required to portray a downright tragic figure, going through the motions of a life that’s been ripped from her grasp. It’s all under the surface, and she delivers a performance so assured as to never suggest her relative inexperience.

Before she turned to acting, Glau was a professional ballerina, but an unfortunate ankle injury ended her career prematurely. Even after leaving that world behind her, she has still gone on to use her considerable talent in increasingly memorable ways. As well as Waiting In The Wings, her character in Firefly and Serenity was a noted dancer, showing her strengths in a brief moment of levity during Safe. Even the wonderful The Sarah Connor Chronicles saw her try her hand at some classical ballet in the show’s seventh episode, and herself and Whedon have long planned a collaborative ballet production that has sadly never come to fruition.

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Apart from the grace and fluidity of movement that comes with her background, it’s Glau’s infectious Texan charm that may one day turn the heads of a more mainstream audience. Whedon, who would later go on to cast her in Firefly and Dollhouse, has a particular (professional) taste for the quality Summer possesses, and her birthplace just serves to draw even more comparisons to fellow Whedon-alumni, Amy Acker.

In terms of Hollywood actresses, it’s easy to compare her to the likes of Zoe Saldana or Mia Wasikowska, who too possess that indescribable charisma that comes from the slightly exotic features and slender builds with which they’ve been blessed. The truth is, there isn’t really anyone like her in mainstream cinema, and there may never be.

She’s something of a warrior woman, first fitting into Whedon’s blueprint for adolescent superwomen as River Tam on Firefly and Serenity, before playing hard-as-nails Cameron on The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Playing a character with very little dialogue, yet a pivotal part in terms of plot and thematic aspects, Firefly provided a crash-course in emotive acting for the tentative actress, and it was clear afterwards that she’d taken those lessons with her once the show was cancelled. And it was cancelled, cruelly and suddenly, but, along with co-star Nathan Fillion, Glau was the breakout star from the series, and fanboys and girls were already smitten.

Network executives weren’t so enthusiastic. Following Firefly’s cancellation, she was cast in small guest roles on Cold Case and CSI, and she disappeared from fandom almost completely until Serenity was greenlit by Universal. Glau gave a balls-to-the-wall powerhouse performance as River this time around, using her dance training to deliver 90 per cent of a stunt heavy shoot herself. Taking a more central role in the film than the series, there was a sense that Glau had well and truly arrived, and she wasn’t taking any chances this time. River Tam is now a sci-fi icon often quoted alongside Princess Leia or Whedon’s own Buffy Summers, and the actress who played her seemingly had her pick of what to do next.

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Before landing her part on Fox’s Terminator spin-off The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Glau impressed again with recurring roles on two more action-heavy shows, The Unit and The 4400. Summer’s portrayal of paranoid schizophrenic Tess Doerner was so acclaimed that her initial guest star credit was extended to a recurring role – that is, until the show got cancelled.

There’s an argument that Glau’s popularity shares characteristics with her mentor, Whedon’s. Cult followings generally gravitate towards the ignored, and cancelled shows often generate a more passionate following after their culling. With a frustrating knack for picking programs that don’t last, Glau may have taken on some of that residual fan-love, or it may just have been bad luck.

Such was the case with The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which, after a rocky start during 2009’s writer’s strike (which resulted in only nine episodes being made for its first season), was eventually cancelled after its second run of episodes.

Portraying a terminator sent back from 2027 by a future John Connor, the role gave Glau the chance to add yet another string to her bow. In Firefly, she had been required to exude emotion and tragedy to exhausting degrees, but here she had the new challenge of eradicating all human characteristics from early episode performances, and she was simply wonderful. The actress received most of the critical praise afforded the show, and her performance is one of the more memorable aspects of its short run.

Before taking the role, Summer apparently didn’t think she had the right ‘terminator look’ required to play the part, but her innocent beauty is exactly what made her perfect for Cameron. Her image was used extensively in the network’s advertising for the show, and the character has taken on a rare canonical acceptance among Terminator fans as a result. She was also honoured with various awards for her efforts on the show, receiving a Saturn award for best supporting actress and several Teen Choice awards over her time on the show. It’s telling that, when the actress appeared as herself on The Big Bang Theory, the writers chose to focus on her role as Cameron, rather than River.

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And it’s a sure-fire sign that you’ve been embraced by the fan community, those that frequent Comic-Con junkets and campaign for cancelled shows to be put back on the air, when you’re asked to guest star on not one (The Big Bang Theory), but two geek-friendly shows.

Like the former, Chuck is a kind of retirement home for genre stars to come and visit, and the anticipation for Glau’s guest appearance was palpable. Not only would she join the hall of fame alongside stars like Timothy Dalton and Mark Hamill, but she’d also be reunited with Adam Baldwin, co-star on Firefly. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up on Community someday, as we already know Abed and Troy are fans.

But hopefully, Summer Glau isn’t ready to retire just yet. That would be a crying shame as, although there are heaps of talented television actresses around right now, none have the ability to bring the special something she offers to the mix, in everything from Firefly, to TSCC, and even short-lived superhero series The Cape.

There’s an innocent charm to her that directly contrasts with her choice of roles, whether it may be a governmentally engineered killing machine, a terminator, or a detached scientist like Dollhouse’ Dr Bennett. Due to that dreaded cancellation button, her star roles have always been ill-fated, but it’s her guest appearances in everything from Alphas to Superman/Batman: Apocalypse that get her devotees excited.

Her role in Alphas could be the most revealing of the lot as, being a fairly low-profile SyFy original series, no one was expecting any big stars to start popping up during its first season. It’s a strange experience watching someone so established guest starring on something like Alphas, but it equally shows off Glau’s unwillingness to take anything for granted. In interviews, the shy actress strikes me as someone who just can’t believe her luck, an endearing characteristic for any actress to have. For the public to truly embrace a talent like hers, they too have to embrace where they came from, and Glau has never strayed far from the sci-fi trappings from which she’s grown.

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Still, achieving iconic status with two characters and generating buzz wherever she walks is nothing to scoff at. It’s no wonder she’s most recently moved onto The Human Preservation Project, an online, interactive show that also boasts Lost’s Terry O’Quinn; she’s never been one to shy away from the underdog. But, for now, as she takes a break from traditional television, taking stock of her career is an edifying experience.

Hollywood may never come knocking, but, for those fans with a tendency to fall in love with the culture they absorb, Summer Glau is one of them: a girl who embraces genre entertainment with arms wide open, and a stunning addition in whatever she takes part.

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