The Den of Geek interview: Erin Gray

Erin Gray, the legendarily Spandex-clad sci-fi icon behind Buck Rogers' Wilma Deering meets DoG in London for a quick chat. Bidi bidi bidi!

Erin Gray as Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers In The 25th Century

Erin Gray rocked many a young – and not so young – boy’s world in the 70s and 80s as the authoritative but sexy Wilma Deering in Glen A. Larson’s reboot of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, since starring in a string of TV series, films and situation comedies.

Active in TV and films, Erin is a favourite at conventions, and also runs Heroes For Hire, a company that arranges convention meets for actors. The germ of the company took hold when fellow Buck Rogers star Gil Gerard insisted that she take 10% for booking him into his first convention, and the company now has hundreds of clients.

We met up with Erin and her charming daughter in London to chat about…well, Spandex, amongst many other things…

Thistle Hotel, London, January 2008

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Have you had to go back and study Buck Rogers in order to answer fans’ questions at conventions?

No I haven’t. Actually my daughter hasn’t seen them either, which has been kind of amusing to me. I feel like…there are times when I’ll say to her ‘You really don’t know your mother at all!’. [laughs] First of all, I was raised in the sixties so believe me, ‘You don’t know your mother at all!’. She’s never really seen most of my work. My son, who’s 30, he grew up while I was starring in various series, so he was always on set that way, but my daughter just knows that her mom occasionally goes out and does a movie; but she’s not really aware of it.

Are your male fans very shy when they come up to you at conventions?

It’s interesting; I’ve learned to recognise that there’s a certain age group of gentlemen between about 36 and 43 – we’re walking down the street and all of a sudden you see the lights go on behind the eyes. What I’ve found from going to the events is that obviously I helped a lot of young teenage boys go through puberty! But I also had a very strong effect on young girls, so it was a nice balance. So I kind of had my wish that if I was a spirit coming into this world thinking ‘what kind of a job would I like to have?’, I think that affecting young men and young women on an equal basis would be pretty incredible.

A lot of women will come up and say to me that I’m their first strong female role-model, and I didn’t realise at the time that that’s what I was doing. The character of the Colonel was the first strong woman in a strong position…the young women would come up and say ‘You’re the reason I joined the air-force, because I wanted to fly fighter jets’. I’ve had a woman tell me that, and I was dumbfounded, I got chills! Policewomen too…how nice. How cool, and what an effortless way to influence a whole generation.

What do you think of the new generation of strong women in sci-fi TV, like The Bionic Woman, and Katee Sackhoff in Galactica?

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Goodness, it’s about time. It’s interesting when I watch them and their interpretation and performances of women in power compared to mine…mine was a blend, in many ways. I look at my character, and the ‘bible’ that I had, Wilma’s back-story, was that she was trained by computers. So you’re dealing with a holocaust situation where you have a certain number of surviving people on the planet, so it’s about survival and who is the best person for the job, and it just so happens that in this case it was a woman. At the same time, I wasn’t allowed to grow up emotionally in that setting, and there wasn’t time for relationships and boyfriends – it was about getting the job done, because the planet had to survive.

That was my back story. So I was this strong woman, but the first time I meet Buck, it’s the first time I’m allowed to have these female feelings, so there was this interesting blend of vulnerability in a young girl who was also very strong. It was a very interesting and unique combination – you don’t usually have characters who have that dichotomy: on the one hand very female and very soft and not understanding what makes her knees go weak with all these funny feelings that are going through her, and at the same time very commanding and ‘You will do what I tell you to do!’ [laughs].

Was the chemistry between you and Gil a deal-breaker? Who was actually onboard first?

Oh Gil was definitely onboard first! I had just finished doing a four-hour mini-series called Evening In Byzantium, which was actually quite a prediction of 9/11. It was about terrorists attacking the United States with planes carrying bombs – the only difference was that in the movie they were carrying nuclear bombs in brief-cases. The story was about a Hollywood producer writing a script that becomes a map, a model for the attack. So when 9/11 happened I was in my kitchen with a cup of coffee going ‘Oh my God, did these terrorists watch Evening In Byzantium as young boys?’. With the influence of film on people, you never know how it’s going to affect someone. So it was a chilling moment.

Anyway the last day I finished shooting on Evening In Byzantium, I got a call from the studio saying did I want to come in and test for Buck Rogers? I was so tired! I just wanted to go home, I’d been working all night, and it was six o’clock in the morning, and they wanted me to come in in a couple of hours. And I think it was a happy accident. You never know what circumstances are right leading up to a fortuitous event. I was so tired and I couldn’t care less about this screen test. I had no anxiety. I’d been working six-weeks non-stop and I just walked in there and just played off of Gil, who was quite the charmer…but the fact that all I wanted to do was go home and go to bed, that was probably the right attitude. All the other young girls were practising their lines and wanting the part. So I think that’s what got me the job – I was so calm and assured.Did you see the costume at that time?

No I didn’t. when I did the screen test they asked me to wear white Levis and a white top.The flight-costume.

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Yeah. They wanted it very form-fitting and tight. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know…it’s interesting, because I came from the world of modelling and fashion, so I wasn’t really shocked or uncomfortable about wearing the costume. I’d been one of the original Sports Illustrated models, so my sexuality, showing my body, I was comfortable with that. The thing was, I didn’t mind being on-camera that way, but I couldn’t walk around the studio with my spandex – I always had to wear a bathrobe over it [laughs]!

I’ll never forget, one time I was at home and looking at an episode of Buck Rogers, and there was a moment when I walked away from the camera, so I’m seeing myself from behind – and I blushed. I was thinking that was quite – ahem! [laughs]

Olivia Newton-John had to be sewn into her spandex for Grease. Was it that bad for you?

Mine was like wearing a girdle from head to toe. It was very uncomfortable. After two years of wearing them, I remember at the end of the series, the costumer said ‘Would you like to keep these costumes?’ and I went ‘God, no! Burn them!’ Please, get rid of them. Of course I found out that later on they brought in a lot of money at an auction. I could have paid for my daughter’s college education with what they sold for!There was a lovely story at the beginning of the book you co-wrote on acting, about how your mum helped set you on the path to an acting career…?

Oh yes, and the moment I knew I would be an actress. I was five years old and I was in a school play and I remember my mother was a working mom and I was a latch-key kid, so my mother very rarely could come to school events. And it was very important to me that she show up, so I kept looking from behind the curtains, ‘Where is she?’. Suddenly it was my cue and I had to go on stage. In the play I pick up the phone, and I remember that the moment I picked up the phone I saw my mother, and in that moment tears just came up into my eyes.

My line in the play was ‘Doctor, come quick quick quick, my baby is sick sick sick!’. And I remember at that point tears just pouring down my face, and I remember the audience going [gasping sound], and I went ‘Wow! I got their attention!’. They were enrapt, and I thought This is powerful, I like this! I don’t remember actually thinking that I was going to be an actress after that, but that was an incredibly powerful and life-changing moment. There are times in your life where you remember everything about that day – the colour of the room, the smell of the fields, whatever. And I’ll always remember those lines – I’ve done a lot of movies where I don’t remember the lines like that!

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Did your success as a model make it easier or harder to be taken seriously when you moved into acting?

A combination: being a model opens the door easier but then you really have to prove yourself a lot. All the executives want to meet the girl from the Virginia Slims ad, or the Bloomingdales girl, or the Sports Illustrated model…they’re willing to take the meeting, but once you’re in the door, it’s harder to prove yourself because you have no credits or legitimate scenes behind you. I wasn’t trained at the Royal Academy and I didn’t go to Julliard and I didn’t get a degree from Yale in drama and I don’t have five years of Summer Stock experience, something like that…I’d spent the last ten years of my life travelling around as ‘a model’, so that part was a challenge. But it was easier in other ways, because a) I know my lighting [laughs] and b) I’m very aware of the camera. But that can be good and bad – there are some models that I’ve seen have trouble disconnecting from that awareness. It’s a very intimate relationship with the camera, and wherever it is I know from the point-of-view of the camera exactly how I look.

If I’m conscious of the camera, then the audience is conscious of me being conscious of it, and you have to be able to create that fourth wall and completely disconnect from that and be in your own world. So it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I know what I look like, but I have to be able to completely let that go and lose myself and enter that moment.

Interestingly, I had a situation recently where I went back to doing a modelling interview for a commercial, and I found it difficult to go back into that. I didn’t want to be a model. I found it difficult to strut and turn like a model, although I can…but in the inner view, I found myself wanting to be a real person, and not do the model thing . I didn’t get the job, because the wanted an older-woman model kind of thing. I find it interesting that I’m now so removed from it that I really have to think about how I’m approaching that moment. It’s been a long time!

Going back to your other 80s sci-fi work, there seems to be a tremendous fan-base for the Starman TV series, which I’m not sure was ever shown here…?

Oh, a huge and very loyal fan base. I still go to their fan club meetings once a year.I read that there’s a movement to get it remade or otherwise continued.

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Oh God, they’ve been trying for so long. Such a pity [laughs]! I don’t think it’s going to happen – we’ve all gone on. They are just die hard fans though, and lovely people. That was actually one of my favourite characters. I remember I worked with a director called Claudio Guzmán, who’d been the art director for Orson Welles, and if you see Starman, the episode I’m in with all the oil paintings, where I play an artist, those are al the director. He did them in an afternoon, just whipped them up and threw them out in the background.

How I got the job was interesting. I was a contract player at Universal, so you don’t really have a lot of power when you’re a contract player, but after Buck Rogers I had a little more say about what I did. So the studio called me up wanting me to do this double two-parter episode, but I said that before I do it I want to make sure that the director and I are on the same page. So I asked for a phone call and they kept putting me off, and I couldn’t figure out why. Eventually I found out when the director called me on the phone to say that he’d had encephalitis, and it was like a palsy and he had no use of his vocal abilities!

I wanted to focus the character based on a vision of a very famous artist called Georgia O’Keefe. I’d just finished reading her biography and she was an artist who’d lived in the South, and I wanted to bring the essence of her into the character. So I’m on the phone to this director and not making any sense, and finally he just says ‘Georgia!’. I said ‘O’Keefe?’. ‘Yes!’. That’s it! Sign me up! One word and we knew we were on the same page.

I’ve read about your practice of Tai Chi and Qui Gung. You look absolutely wonderful –

Thank you!

— is it down to your practice of these martial arts?

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I hope so – that was sort of the intent! I was looking for the fountain of youth and a way to stay healthy, and stay strong as I got older. Although I appreciate Western medicine and I know that there are times one needs antibiotics or surgery or something, but I prefer to stay away from hospitals and pills and any kind of medication. A lot of people rely on pills to solve their problems and I’m not that kind of person. I’m very much a naturalist; don’t like any chemicals in my body at all.

I became fascinated with oriental medicine in the early 70s, shortly after Nixon returned from China. There was an article about a journalist who travelled to China with Nixon, who had an appendicitis attack and had surgery using acupuncture as anaesthetic. He was just amazed that after this anaesthesia he could be cut open painlessly and how quickly he healed after the surgery because he had no drugs in his system whatsoever.

Later on when I was working with James Garner in The Rockford Files, he kept disappearing every day and I kept thinking ‘I want to have lunch with my leading man – how often am I going to get to work with the James Garner’. So I just cornered him and asked him if wouldn’t mind telling me where he goes everyday, and couldn’t we at least have one lunch at the commissary?

He said ‘I’m terribly sorry, I have to go for my acupuncture, I have a bum knee that I hurt during stunts, and as an action figure the role in The Rockford Files requires leaping on cars and running and chasing the bad guy’, and he said that he really had a horrible limp and was in a lot of pain, but couldn’t take pain medication because then he’d be hooked on pain drugs. He said that the only way he could survive was to go his acupuncturist and get rid of the pain. I thought ‘Wow, that’s quite a testimony’. So I went to his acupuncturist for years and the acupuncturist said to me ‘You know, acting is very injurious to your health’.

You can read John Moore’s love letter to Erin Gray here

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