Tricia Helfer Discusses Her Latest Role in Ascension

Will lightning strike twice for Syfy as it tries to repeat the success of Battlestar Galactica by including one of its stars in Ascension?

Syfy has been teasing us with plenty of enticing behind-the-scenes looks at its new three-night event series, Ascension, but when we spoke with Battlestar Galactica star Tricia Helfer, who plays Viondra Denniger in the upcoming space drama, in Atlanta during Dragon Con, she had even more details to share about her character and the story of the show.

Helfer had just wrapped her part in the series before flying down from Montreal to participate in the convention, and she confirmed early in the press conference that Ascension would not necessarily end with the three two-hour installments airing December 15-17. “We don’t know at this point if it’ll just be a few more to fully realize the story or if it could go longer. I think that depends on how well it does,” Helfer said. “At this point we’ve just done the first six, and I would guess that we’d come back and at least do another four or six.” 

When asked about the culture that we’ll be seeing in Ascension, Helfer gave us quite a bit of detail about the retro look evident in the previews.

“It definitely has a little bit more of a sixties vibe to the clothing, to the hairstyles,” she said. “There’s more sexism, more male roles and female roles. There’s a little bit of racism although it’s not like ‘on the nose,’ but it’s sort of a little bit the norm where things are evolving and changing. But I think because you have a smaller group of people – it’s 600 people – it moves and evolves at a slower pace than it would on Earth. And on Earth in later years with technology, we communicate with people all over the world, and that’s normal now. But even ten years ago you didn’t necessarily, or 20 years ago you didn’t. So if you take a small town, they evolve slower. They hold onto things longer. I come from a farm town in Alberta, and I think people hold onto things more.”

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Things are changing on board Ascension, however, especially among its younger crew members.

“There’s something everybody goes through,” Helfer explained. “It’s called the Crisis. And it’s teenagers trying to find themselves and whatever, but it’s when they realize for the first time that they really don’t have a choice in this life. They can’t decide they want to be a mountain climber because there are no mountains to climb. And they can’t decide they want to be a marine biologist. They have to fit into this society on the ship, and it’s a big struggle for a lot of the teenagers. But I think this generation of teenagers – it’s getting worse. I think the more distance that you get from the launch, the easier it is for people to start questioning.”

Because Helfer starred in Battlestar Galactica, another six-part miniseries that explored the idea of society on a spaceship, Ascension has drawn much comparison to the earlier series and carries as much hope for success for Syfy.

“There’s definitely some parallels,” Helfer acknowledged, “and even the way it’s kind of being structured in mini-series form where the story’s wrapped up, but there’s an opening to go further. The story’s completely different, so I can’t really compare it in those terms.” She does see similarities, however, between BSG showrunner, Ronald D. Moore, and the brains behind Ascension, Philip Levens. “He has it all in his head. He’s sort of like Ron Moore in that way. But it started with Battlestar with Number 6. I didn’t know if she was a figment of his imagination, if there was a chip in his brain, if she was an angel – I didn’t know, and Ron didn’t tell me. So very quickly I had to just let it go. So I’ve had to do that a little bit with this.”

Helfer’s character in Ascension is the captain’s wife, and Viondra is every bit as sultry as Six was in her iconic red dress. “My character is extremely glamorous!” Helfer says. “She’s kind of the head hostess on the ship. She’s the one that takes care of the birth list ceremonies, the officer’s lounge. They’re kind of the king and the queen on the ship without being king and queen – it’s the captain. But she actually wishes she could get her hands dirty more. She has to play the part, but I think one of her vulnerabilities is she feels that she doesn’t really have a job that is essential.

Aa for the doctor character – there’s a lot of chaos happening on the ship – and she says, ‘It’s nice to roll up my sleeves for once instead of putting on high heels.’ And as an actor, I love doing stunts; I love running around chasing bad guys; I love doing all that kind of stuff. So it’s a struggle for me as a person, as an actor to just be in high heels and tight dresses. I start getting frustrated. I hate sitting in hair and makeup, and it takes about two hours every day to get ready. And the 60’s hair – all the other girls have long hair, so they’ve got these cool 60’s styles. And the hairstylist started making my hair like Jackie O., like this helmet that doesn’t move. Can we loosen it up?”

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Viondra has every reason to glam it up since her beginnings on the ship were rather humble. “She did grow up on the lower decks,” Helfer admits. “There’s this big class system – upper deck, lower deck kind of thing. I haven’t seen Downton Abbey, but it’s sort of that: upstairs, downstairs. She doesn’t want to go back to the lower decks, so she’s going to do her job the best that she can do it.”

Helfer says that Viondra has made some changes to her position based on what she’s learned, though. “She’s realized she can get more information and help keep her husband in power because there are some councilmen that are trying to take over the captain’s seat. So she realized that she could get more information by trading favors. So she’s turned some of her girls into – and herself if necessary – into… a way of getting favors.” I guess we can draw our own conclusions there!

Helfer was drawn to the story because of the dynamic between Viondra and her husband, Captain Denniger, and because of the possibilities for the future of her character. “There’s a little bit of House of Cards with Claire and Frank,” she says, ”They’re the power couple on the ship and their love-hate relationship. People are matched – genetic matching – so you don’t marry for love. It’s basically arranged marriages that the computer selects who needs to get married. The computer allows who can have children because you can’t just free-for-all who wants to have children because the ship can’t support that many people. So there’s a birth list, and my character gave up her right; her and the captain gave up their right to be selected for the birth list so that they could be in a position of staying in power. So there’s a lot of vulnerability – she’s a very tough character, very strong character, which I’m drawn to – but there’s also a lot of pain and vulnerability in her. And I always like those types of characters that you think one thing – you think she’s this Machiavellian-type character, and then you start to see some of the things inside of her that make her tick and makes her keep going.”

So Ascension is a little bit BSG, a smattering of House of Cards, and pinch of Downton Abbey. Is Syfy trying to appeal to non-sci-fi fans as well? “Definitely the beginning, aside from that it’s on a spaceship, you might not necessarily think it’s too far into the sci-fi genre,” Helfer admits. But there are reassurances for hardcore science fiction aficionados. “A little later in the season there are some other elements that come in that might pull a little bit more of that back in. That starts coming in along around episode four. Five, there’s something big that happens. Even the actors were sitting around the table read for episode 5, and there’s the last scene in episode 5 – we’re like, ‘What happens? We don’t have episode 6!’ And he’s like ‘You’ll find out.’ I wanted to throttle him!” Luckily for us, episodes five and six air together on the third night of the miniseries!

Not that there won’t be a little left hanging for audiences to wonder about. “You find out a lot,” says Helfer. “I won’t lie – it ends on a little bit of a cliffhanger. But you find out a lot! Episode five ends on a cliffhanger and then you find out in six. But yeah. That’s why I say it would have to come back for a little bit to finish the story because I want to know what’s happening, too.” Let’s hope she gets her wish! We’d love to see more Ascension, too.

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Syfy will air two hours of Ascension each night at 9pm EST, starting on December 15th.