Rachel Luttrell has played Athanosian warrior-leader Teyla Emmagan for the last five years on the hit show Stargate Atlantis, which concluded its saga at the end of season five in January.
The Tanzanian-born actress, who emigrated to Canada with her family at the age of five, was a soprano member of the prestigious Mendelssohn Choir, as well as studying ballet at the Russian Academy of Classical Balletand piano at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. And like that wasn’t enough, she can act too…
Why do you think Stargate Atlantis has such a particularly strong fan-base in Europe and Australia?
I’m not really sure why Europe and Australia in particular, but I can certainly answer, at least from my standpoint, why it has such a vast fan-base from around the world. I think it’s partly because SG1 and Atlantis didn’t take themselves very seriously, on the one hand. There’s a lot of levity to the characters and to the storylines, which I think is unique in sci-fi.
And I think that science-fiction is something that grabs the viewers, because the sky’s the limit in terms of storylines and where they can go. It’s essentially as far as your imagination can take you. It’s the great unknown, and like ‘What else is out there?’.
It’s also the fact that Stargate is in the now, it’s not some crazy point in the future; it’s actually happening right now, which is kind of cool, because…you know, conspiracy theories [laughs], all that kind of stuff, right?
Have you become a huge science-fiction fan through your involvement in Atlantis? Perhaps you were already…?
I am a science fiction fan. My dad was – and actually still is – a huge science-fiction fan, and devours sci-fi books like popcorn, and he introduced us to sci-fi and fantasy when we were quite little. He started reading The Hobbit to us, and all of those books, and he introduced us to Star Wars – he planted the seed very early on. Everybody in my family, my sisters and I, whenever we had the chance to go out and see a big blockbuster science-fiction movie, we were first in line!
I love it. And I love that aspect of the unknown and I could talk for hours about what the galaxy’s about and what it entails, and science and quantum physics and various different ideas as to what could be out there. And here, too. I love that. I think it’s amazing.
So what’s your favourite sci-fi beyond the Stargate universe?
I guess I would have to say Star Wars, because that was my very first introduction, at least in film and television, so it’s near and dear to my heart [laughs].
You were at Collectormania during this trip…
Yes, I’ve been doing Collectormania and I’m here with my little one – he’s still on Vancouver time, which means I’ve not slept [laughs]. Actually this is a good time to ask me questions – my guard is completely down!
What do you most commonly get asked at events like Collectormania?
Well, this time what they most often asked was ‘Will there be a movie?’, ‘Will there be a movie?, will there be a movie…? pretty much every second question was about whether we’ll get to see more of the characters.
What are your hopes for the character of Teyla in the movie if it really takes off?
For me, there was always such a fabulous opportunity to paint a great mythology for Teyla’s character, given the fact that she is from this Pegasus galaxy, and she and Ronon are really the only two team members that are from there. Really kind of diving into that would be fantastic.
Did you have a lot of input into the character over the years of the series?
Well, they were all into us coming up to them and talking to them about paths that we would like to go down, and if there was something in the script that didn’t quite gel with us, they were open to it. But they had it in mind where they wanted to take the series each season, so there was a little wiggle-room in there, but not a lot.
Your son Caden was on TV before he was born…
Yes, he was!
Do you think he’ll be a showbiz natural?
Well, I don’t know – he probably will. He’ll have every opportunity to do so if he’d like to. My husband is a stuntman and he’s starting to direct, so Cayden will grow up around that and depending on how we paint it [laughs] he’ll either be drawn to it or he’ll say ‘Mum and dad were in this crazy field and I couldn’t want to be further away from it’. But it’ll occur to him to do whatever he wants, and we won’t try and steer him away from it, even though it’s a very difficult industry to be involved in. I would imagine though that pretty much any job has its pitfalls, though. He definitely has a flair for the dramatic already – he’s a very good little storyteller and he knows how to push all the buttons.
I was having a look at your website, and you seem incredibly responsive to your fan-mail. Do you think you’ll be able to keep that up?
Thank you for saying that because I used to be even more responsive, but…I love to read what they have to say and I love to post as often as possible, and I hope to put up another posting relevant to the fabulous people I’ve been with this past weekend. There’s some tremendous stories, and people coming up to me and telling me how I’ve changed their lives.
Can you give us an example?
A lot of them were young, but there was one in particular; I wish I could remember her name, but she gave me this card very timidly and walked away before I could read it and I wish I could have thanked her for it. She actually said that watching Teyla inspired her to learn martial arts, which gave her a lot of confidence, and now she has a black belt, and she attributes that to the fact that she fell in love with this character.
[She said] it showed her that you can be strong as a woman and not lose any kind of femininity and grace…it’s wonderful to get that kind of feedback. We do our work in closed, dark studios and we see the same people every day; happily for us we really liked the people that we worked with, but nonetheless you forget that it’s reaching this really wide audience. You really do forget that! I certainly did, so it’s cool when you get a chance to meet the fans.
You started out learning a martial art called Kali…?
Yes, it’s Phillipino, and actually kind of a brutal martial art. It involves not just hand to hand but sticks and knives. I think when the stunt co-ordinator James Bamford was initially trying to come up with a fighting style for Teyla that was going to be very unique for what’s currently out there, he wanted to come up with something that was going to be very ‘in your face’. So he took this stuff from Kali, but then he added different elements to it so that it wasn’t immediately pinpointable as one particular martial art.
Do you still maintain that regimen that was required for the show?
No [laughs], I’m sad to say I don’t. I’m too tired right now! My regimen is bouncing my little one and that’s how I’m staying in shape. But I do plan on continuing to do it, I certainly love it. My husband is a stunt-performer so he comes from a martial arts background as well.
Coming from a character as strong as Teyla, would it be hard to adjust to more passive roles?
I was saying to somebody else recently that as an actor you try and draw on different aspects of who you are. One of the reasons that I enjoy performing so much is that it avails you of being able to explore different parts of your persona that you don’t get a chance to portray in everyday life; things that you kind of push to the side as inappropriate. But it’s great to be able to really bite into a character where you do get a chance to push a different aspect of yourself into the foreground.
When I grew up I was quite shy, very [hushed voice] ‘Don’t talk about me’, and staying very much in the background, so it would be easy…not easy, but certainly it would be a part of me to be able to portray a character who was much more soft-spoken [laughs].
Were you well-cast in the sense that the character was pretty much you, even from the start?
Well I don’t know that I actually had the thought that this is me, but when I read a role, it either organically speaks to me on a certain level or it doesn’t. And Tela did. I didn’t have a thought like ‘Oh well, this is really me, this will really work’ – it was just that I understood her on a level, and I just kind of ran with that.
The schedule sounds like it was quite hard. Would you like to do something in TV a little less punishing?
[laughs] Yeah it was. Well, actually, it was fairly gentle in terms of what I’ve heard about other productions out there. It was fairly family-oriented in that most of the producers and writers had families, so everybody pretty much wanted to be wrapped by about eight, eight-thirty. It was rare that we went longer than that; occasionally we had episodes where we’d be shooting for twenty hours. But they were very rare.
Usually you’d have to get up early and you’d get there about six-thirty in the morning, roughly…but usually we were wrapped by about eight pm, which is quite civil, actually. And they made sure we had all of our holidays.
It was tricky on the one hand, but I’ve heard about different television series that friends of mine have been on where they’re working into the wee hours of the morning on a Friday night taking them into eight am in the morning of the Saturday, so they don’t have any weekend whatsoever , and then starting on a Monday at a crushing hour. So it’s all good [laughs]!
I’m the sort of person that might skip ever watching a program and then buy the DVD box-set when it’s all done…
Yes – I understand!
Do you think someone could do that with Stargate Atlantis, relatively oblivious to what preceded it in terms of the Stargate movie and TV shows?
Ooh yes, absolutely. I’m like you, I like to do that as well, to bite into a show because then you don’t have to wait a week to see it and sit and listen to all the advertising [laughs].
So – and I’m speaking as a Stargate ignoramus – one wouldn’t have to get into SG1 to get into Atlantis?
No, absolutely not. Atlantis pretty much stands on its own, it really does. There are certain aspects that tie in, like the gate itself, obviously, and the background about the gate…but no, if you just came to Atlantis without SG1, you’d be absolutely fine.
How will you feel if sci-fi subjects like Atlantis begin to turn up with frequency in your career? Is typecasting an issue?
I would say that being typecast, given the nature of what I did for the past few years, portraying Teyla wouldn’t be a bad thing, because she was a very well-rounded, very strong female character. And so if the rest of my career [laughs] lended itself to bringing to life incredibly strong female characters, I’d be very happy about that.
Do you think your career path might have been a bit simpler without the ballet and singing? You seem to have been torn a few ways…
Well, I don’t know about ‘simple’…I very much enjoy having those aspects to me – being able to say that I’m a triple-threat! [laughs] I think it’s a good thing, and I wouldn’t give that up at all. Yes, I’m torn, but it’s great. It’s great to be able to say that I’d love to do a musical right now, and to be able to do it with confidence and to really enjoy it. It’s fabulous. It’s actually opened the industry up to me instead of…whatever, narrowing down my field of vision.
What’s coming up for you by way of new projects?