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It sounds like the sci-fi equivalent of Thelma and Louise: Actresses Lisa Ryder and Lexa Doig teaming up in a futuristic action-adventure series called Rumble and Sparks. OK, so it wa really just a recurring joke between the two co-stars of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, but hearing Ryder talk about the idea was irreverently amusing.
"That’s all you do on SF shows," she explained. "You rumble. The ship rumbles [during an attack], so you have to move back and forth like the ship is shaking. Then sparks go off behind you to symbolize the ship being shot. In our next series, I’m going to be called "Rumble" and Lexa’s going to be "Sparks." It’s going to be a great TV show!"
Ryder took being one of TV's new action heroines with more than a grain of salt, but that didn’t mean she wasn't also serious about her role. As Beka Valentine, tough captain of the salvage ship Eureka Maru, she and her crew recovered the legendary Systems Commonwealth vessel Andromeda Ascendant, which has drifted on the edge of a black hole for 300 years. But they were unaware that Andromeda was still manned. The sole survivors, Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo) and Andromeda (Doig), the ship's artificial intelligence, re-emerged after 300 years of stasis into a hostile, lawless universe. After seeing what history has wrought on his future, Dylan swore to restore the former Commonwealth, and enlisted Beka and her associates to help crew the Andromeda on its new mission.
When the freshman season of the series was well into production, Ryder was still in the process of learning about Valentine. And where other actors formulate a backstory in order to help understand their characters, Ryder preferred working with externals. Ryder discussed being on Andromeda and getting to know Valentine with Starlog magazine in 2001. "Coming from dance," she explained, "I work more in the physical vein. I’ll get much more out of a character from the way she moves, what she's wearing, how she pulls out her gun or behaves when someone comes into a room than I will out of figuring out my favorite color or who my Mom or my Dad were. I can’t play backstory like I can play physicality."
"I see Beka as a strong woman, as an action hero and as a person who has led a tough life; Maybe that shows in choices she makes. Sometimes she's wary and mistrustful, but I see her deep down as a loyal and trustworthy individual. There’s plenty of crap you have to get through to get to know her, but once she’s your friend, she's there for you."
On a genre series where such elements as props, costumes, and sets must be built from scratch, Ryder found it easy to incorporate all those things into her character's physicality. "The costume really helps me," said Ryder, adding, "but it can hurt me, too. We discussed the costume early on. I would get surprise costumes week to week, and that wasn't helping me. I need to know what my character looks like. I need to know about her hair and what weapons she has on her at any given time. Over the weeks, though, we sorted that out and created a good look for her. It’s a look that says, 'Don’t mess with me. I can take care of myself.' "
"Some of the things that have helped me include wearing my holster all the time and adding weaponry to that. I now wear jewelry, these knuckle rings, which give me a sense that she’s a woman and she likes to decorate herself, but at the same time, she’s a fighter."
Another physical element in the series that speaks volumes about Valentine was her ship, the Eureka Maru. If Ryder seemed comfortable working on those sets, it’s because she spent time getting to know them. "The Maru is totally to my taste," she noted. "I really like dirty sets—not physically dirty, but textured with movable parts and depth. I felt immediately comfortable on the Maru. The cockpit's a pretty cool set; There are all kinds of things to do. There are times when it will just be me shooting for the day in the cockpit, and I’ll fidget and play around while the crew sets up."
When many of the external elements of the series were established, Ryder was able to concentrate on her character's place in the Andromeda universe. It wasn't an easy process. The actress admitted she felt adrift in the first few episodes. "I didn’t really know what they wanted, and with six different producers each wanting a different version of sexy or adventurous, it was hard to get a handle on it."
"The show's bible summarizes Beka, but it doesn’t go into much detail. Certain episodes helped—"The Pearls That Were His Eyes" features my Uncle Sid (John de Lancie) and relates to my father. And "The Ties That Blind" features my brother. Both of those scripts helped me enormously, as do the directors or producers who'll say, 'Action heroes do this,' or 'Here's an idea for you.' I’ll take direction from wherever I can get it, and I’ll use it if it sounds good and I can incorporate it."
Not that she needed too much direction, as her success in winning the role can attest. Andromeda first came up while Ryder was visiting Vancouver, the series's shooting headquarters. "I was checking it out because I wanted to move away from Toronto, and my agent set me up with that casting director. I went to the casting and ran into [director-producer] Allan Eastman, who I knew from Earth: Final Conflict. It’s always nice to meet somebody [at a casting] who knows your work and is familiar with you. It may have helped that he knew me a bit."
"We were flown to LA to test with Kevin [Sorbo] for the final auditions. There was one woman, the lead in Psi Factor, who was older than me; another woman who had dark hair and dark eyes; Lexa Doig, who's playing Andromeda; another blonde, and me. There were blondes, brunettes, redheads, big, tall, small, muscular. One of the things that worked for me is that I’m muscular. I’m not this little, petite 90210 actress, so when I’m standing next to Kevin, it doesn’t look totally incongruous. I don’t get cast on petite shows, where the guys are all 5' 6" or 5' 8", because I’m 5' 8 1/2". I only get cast on tall shows, where the guys are always 6' tall, and then it’s not a problem."
Andromeda’s first season explored the relationships of the show's various—and truly varied—characters. From the first few episodes, one might suspect that Dylan and Beka, for example, might have a relationship in the future, but it hadn't yet materialized. "As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think the writers are really exploiting that relationship. I don’t know if they want to just go slowly. They keep saying it's going to happen, but it hasn’t so far."
"We have chemistry, but it’s hit and miss. Some days we do, and some days he's dealing with other characters. Dylan’s a bit of a rogue, he seems to get girl friends all over. In terms of a relationship with integrity between the two of us, it’s not happening yet. Either they’re just being tentative, or they’re exploring other stuff."
As for Beka's relationships with the other core characters, "They seem to be exploring me and Tyr right now; There’s flirtation going on or some kind of chemistry that I think they picked up between Keith [Hamilton Cobb] and me. He and I play characters who are hard to get to know. We’re totally mistrustful of each other, and play little moments like, 'Screw you,' 'No, screw you!' The writers caught on to it, read that as sexual chemistry and now we’re playing that."
"I have many scenes with Kevin because he and I are both commanders, so they haven’t fully explored my relationship with my crew. There was an episode with Trance [Gemini, Laura Bertram] and me, and we work really well together, but I haven’t had too much to do with Rev [Bem, Brent Stait] yet."
Regarding the first season, two major Beka episodes of the series were "The Pearls That Were His Eyes" and "The Ties That Blind." This episodic wealth was something Ryder appreciated. "I find that with the ensemble, everyone’s getting their own show; So far I’ve had two. That's great, because you’re really invested, you have an arc, you have relationship stuff, which is what turns me on rather than the technobabble."
"There are ensemble episodes, and then there are the ones where one of us is getting more work. But even in those, there’s a 'B' story, so we'll always make an appearance."
In "The Pearls That Were His Eyes," guest starring de Lancie as Beka's somewhat unsavory Uncle Sid, Valentine learned a few hard lessons about her family. "He sends me a message that’s apparently three years old. It’s a beacon for help, so I go down to the planet where he is and find out that he’s actually a hugely wealthy corporate guy now, and he doesn’t need my help. Anyway, much is revealed about my father and how he was a drug runner. I have a hard time coming to grips with that, and in the course of things, Sid becomes the bad guy. He tortures me with a drug called Flash, and when I come out of it, I emerge from my denial about my father and solve the mystery of why Sid has become a bad guy."
Working with de Lancie was an enjoyable experience for Ryder, but she didn’t think she got to know her on-screen uncle very well. "He was in character all the time. I guess because John was the guest star, there was so much for him to come to grips with and create in one episode, and one of the things the producers said was, 'Make sure you create something that’s interesting enough that we can bring you back.' He was concentrating on that, I felt, and dealt with me basically in character, being kind of a nasty guy to me, so we didn’t really bond."
On the other hand, the chemistry in "The Ties That Blind" was much less conflicted for Ryder. "That’s my brother episode, guest-starring Cameron Daddo, who was the star of FX: The Series. He’s hilarious. I’m not a real method actor, but it seems that the characters that I don’t get along with, I don’t really get close to as actors on-set. With the characters I’m supposed to bond with, it's different. I had such a fun time with Cameron, and it’s because he's my brother and we had to bond in a way. He's supposed to be a bit roguish; he always has a scam—like scamming me out of hundreds of dollars and my CD collection. He comes back into my life, and he has discovered the way; He has discovered religion, and I have to come to terms with my family trust issues again."
Ryder certainly understood how to play a futuristic action-adventure heroine. A graduate of the University of Toronto's drama program, she also studied dance at the Edmonton School of Ballet and Toronto’s Metro Movement. In addition to acting in, co-writing, and choreographing many stage productions, Ryder has also put on her own one-woman show, "Put Me Away."
Her film credits include Stolen Heart, Blackheart, City of Dark, and Jason X. Ironically, Ryder shared the screen in this tenth Friday the 13th entry with Doig, both of whom secured regular work on Andromeda as they finished Jason X. "It takes place in the future, so we're in SF land again!" laughs Ryder. "These futuristic kids are on a field trip and go down to old Earth, where they find a present-day Jason cryogenically frozen. On this field trip, I’m their science android who's along for the expedition. I have superhuman strength and intelligence. Once they thaw out Jason, who wreaks havoc on their ship, they retool me and I become this killing machine. The weird thing was, I played the android, and Lexa played the action hero chick. When we got to Andromeda, she ended up as the android and I’m the action hero chick, which cracks me up. We’re not the same types; We’re as different from each other as can be."
On TV, Ryder has appeared in several genre series. "That’s my specialty," she jokes, "I do SF shows playing the normal character." Pressed for specifics, she briefly recalled her appearance in Total Recall 2070. "The lead guy’s father goes to a retirement home, and I was the hospital administrator. I had no SF things to do there." On the Psi Factor vampire-themed episode "Devolution," "I was the normal, tough chick. My mother was regressing in age, getting younger and younger until she became my daughter. Then there was this vampire subplot—I don’t know, it was all so confusing!"
For Earth: Final Conflict, Ryder was cast as Boone's wife Kate, a role that was meant to be recurring, but the proposed flashback sequences never quite materialized. "They fitted me for all these different costumes, saying, 'Oh, this is going to be your wedding scene, and this is for this scene,' but we never got to it. They just phased out that part of his character I basically had a scene with the lead guy, and then I was blown up in a car. The cast was very nice, and I met Allan Eastman. It worked out well enough, but I was just the nice wife who had to be blown up; I really don’t like being the victim anymore."
Outside of Andromeda, Ryder's probably best known to genre fans as detective Tracy Vetter in the third season of Forever Knight. "That was a cop/vampire show," she recalls, "where Geraint Wyn Davies played the vampire, and I played his cop partner. I was in every episode, but not really in the SF part. I was in the cop show, and Geraint was in the vampire show. I didn’t get to do the fun SF things, that’s for sure."
"I wasn’t supposed to be in that show; Yt was supposed to be cancelled, but the fans brought it back. The producers said, 'OK, we’ll make a few changes,' and I was one of those changes. I went to several conventions, and yep, the fans are pretty loyal. Some of them followed me here to Andromeda. I was on the Internet the other day, and many of them were saying, 'Yeah, my favorite character is going to be Beka Valentine, because Lisa was my favorite on Forever Knight.' "
Andromeda Complete Series
Own the complete Andromeda series in one set, and watch Ryder take on the sci-fi genre first hand. Set thousands of years in the future, Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda revolves around a constitutional monarchy called the Systems Commonwealth. Mankind is part of The Commonwealth, which spreads across three galaxies. Ships travel through The Commonwealth via slipstreams. One one voyage, the crew of the Eureka Maru finds the Andromeda, and its members decide to join the Andromeda on its next mission.