While fantasy and fiction allow the freedom to create whatever the mind can conceive, science fiction needs believability and accuracy. Perhaps that is why science fiction has had a love-hate relationship with various groups of color for their historic lack of presence in it.
As times have changed, the future depicted on our TV looks more and more like the diverse world we recognize. Hollywood has even taken notice of the draw women of color are in the marketplace. Our screens are peppered with characters that look more like the little girls who are watching them — from Zoe Saldana in Star Trek, Halle Berry in Extant, Sanaa Lathan in Alien vs. Predator, and Jada Pinkett Smith in The Matrix Trilogy.
But while we applaud these opportunities, the fact remains that while there have been attempts to put more women of color on screen and in more substantial roles in science fiction and fantasy, all too often they have been falling into the same chauvinistic and racially insensitive stereotypes and story lines.
So maybe it is irony that Syfy, a network devoted to science fiction, led the way in giving us a glimpse of futures that are rich in diversity by green-lighting four shows in their prime-time line up that star women of color and put them in leadership roles.
Dark Matter, starring Melissa O’Neil and Melanie Liburd, Hunters, starring Britne Oldford, Killjoys, starring Hannah John-Kamen, and Z Nation, starring Kellita Smith, give us a glimpse of various futures with women who are not diminished under the weight of historical perceptions, cultural assumptions, or sexual expectations. They are diverse, strong, powerful, or as O’Neil put it, “Just real women.” This is what makes the Syfy characters so important to the progression of the genre, as the characters are as complex and dynamic as the actresses who portray them.
Melissa O’Neil Talks Dark Matter
Syfy’s space drama Dark Matter starts with six people waking up on a ship not knowing their identities or past. The search for their identities lead them to discover shocking things about their pasts, and why their teaming up is as much for profit as it is for survival. Canadian/Chinese actress Melissa O’Neil plays Two, a name denoting she was the second one who woke up with amnesia on the ship. The subject of a bio-engineering experiment that has nannites enhancing her mental and physical abilities, Two is the leader of the ship, the Raza, and the mercenary team who calls it home.
And while a bio-engineered Asian character might send out warning signals for those infamous Asian media character archetypes of the super nerd or the Kung-Fu fighting dragon lady, Two doesn’t fall into them. She is a leader; she is intelligent and she can hand out a healthy dose of kick ass, but she isn’t a super computer or even the smartest in the group. She isn’t a dragon lady who silences everyone with a glance like S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Melinda May. She is a complex character.
TUD: How are you enjoying your first foray into sci-fi?
Melissa O’Neil: Phenomenally so. It’s an incredible scene to be working with, and I love that our cast is very diverse. We all gel. Joe is very mindful of not only just picking the right actor for the part and colorblind casting, but it’s by chance and a little bit by design that it resembles the world of tomorrow/the world that is today. I feel that on television, it’s like pulling tooth and nail trying to get the population we live in today, especially in North America, to be accurately represented on TV in America. I’m proud to be a part of a show and the network that does that.
TUD: Do you think your character can expand the view of Asian characters in sci-fi?
O’Neil: I hope so. I think there has been a very tangible shift in the tide that’s happening with female characters in power and the freedom to express their sexuality without it becoming a commodity. It’s more about discovering and I certainly hope that Two is looped into that kind of character that people, especially young girls, can look up to.
Anytime you are in the spotlight, it doesn’t matter whether or not you chose to be a role model, you are one once you put yourself onto a public platform. You are opening yourself to the possibility that a young person will be looking at your actions and I think there is a responsibility that goes along with that. I personally am very happy that I get to embody someone like Two. I am proud to be the likeness to this woman who is very strong and intelligent, and knows how to delegate and be a leader without stepping on people. And she is able to collaborate with other women as well. So often on TV you see examples of women in power, but they are alone up there, and they are either surrounded by men or they had to cut down other women to get there and that’s simply not the case (with Two). Luckily for me on this show, on camera as well, women (are) working together (and) constantly lifting each other up to accomplish mutual goals. And that happens in life everyday and it’s great to see that happen on television, especially in a cool, futuristic, sci-fi-kinda way.
TUD: It seems you are very self-aware in the role and are mindful of playing it without the woman in power. Stereotypes.
O’Neil: I come from a place where I see the women around me. I see the queens and the divas who are crushing their jobs and their careers and leadership, and let me tell you, they are not bitches because you cannot thrive like that. That only gets you so far, and after that you are alone. Leadership only happens when you have people to lead, and I think it’s hard to get people to follow if you are continually unkind and you only hear your vision all the time.
As time goes on we have more and more females writing females (and) directing (females), and that is going to change the landscape of the content that we get to see on television. And that’s the only way it’s going to change — diversified voices creating content because then it’s all the same. Not to hate on the White guy that’s writing in a room; they create incredible stuff and they also create diversified content. Look at our writers. But not all of them are as inclusive and think in that type of global sense. So it’s important to get different people in the writers room.
TUD: Traditionally, Asian characters have been regulated to support roles in sci-fi or portrayed very stereotypically. Your character fights a lot of those. Is that your portrayal or the writing?
O’Neil: I would say that there are a lot of things that go into who Two is. She is definitely written a certain way and (Joseph Mallozzi, creator and executive producer) really fleshes out his characters. He knows who they are like the back of his hand, and I definitely bring my own flavor to who she is, and I think that is a part of what the casting process is. And I think there have definitely been times I come to the table with my own ideas of what a true leader would be and usually those points of contention are where she would have drama in that situation — where a true leader would listen and delegate and take in certain people’s points of view and then make a decision. I think true leaders collaborate but they know who to collaborate with and when to make the hard decisions and when to hear people out and when to let people help.
Another part of who Two is on camera is editing and what ends up happening in the cutting room, and how it all pieces together and also how she is treated by the cast. Everybody is who they are because of what everyone says they are. It’s kinda like a king can’t be a king unless people treat him that way and people respect that power. It’s wonderful to be a part of a show that allows a woman to be in charge in a complex way. She’s not infallible. She makes mistakes and she is learning all the time. When she found out she was part human, that was a huge learning process; that moment when she was regarding herself in the mirror and questioning her humanity. I think a lot of women can identify with that. Maybe not if I am human, but that moment when you’re looking in the mirror and trying to figure out, who am I? What am I doing and what is this flesh bag I am in?
Melanie Liburd On The Strength And Vulnerability Of Dark Matter‘s Nyx
This season, a newcomer to the crew of the Raza is Nyx, played by Melanie Liburd. Liburd has a background in sci-fi and fantasy, having had roles in Dracula as well as Game of Thrones, but Nyx has given her a chance to flex her sci-fi muscles. Nyx meets the crew while in prison, and after assisting them to escape, she joins the crew. They find out she and her brother were part of a collective of individuals with heightened senses and abilities, and while she escaped she is still searching for her brother. She is on a search to save her brother and will do anything to get him back, and while she is looking for a place to belong, she is also aware she is still an outsider. We spoke to Melanie Liburd about her role.
TUD: What intrigued you about the role of Nyx?
Melanie Liburd: I loved the script and I loved that there are so many strong characters no matter if they’re male or female, and I loved that mix. She’s a very strong woman but she carries a lot of pain, too, and I think it reflects real life in a way. We are constantly trying to be strong. To show our vulnerabilities doesn’t necessarily make us weak and we see that with Nyx and the arc of her character, and that’s what fascinated me; that she has all this bravado in the jail but she really is looking to belong and she’s looking for a family and a place to feel secure like we all are. But I love that she’s a kick-ass character as well.
TUD: Everyone has their own take on Nyx; who do you see her as?
Liburd: Someone that loves her family, who would do anything for her family. She’s so desperate to get her brother back and she carries all this guilt. I have brothers so I can definitely sympathize with her in that way. I would have done anything for my family. If it meant sometimes going against what the crew wants or tricking the crew or putting myself in danger — she just wants to save her family ultimately.
TUD: You have played a wide spectrum of roles: Dracula, Game of Thrones; how does all of those roles compare to playing Nyx?
Liburd: I’m so happy that I got to play so many diverse roles from Dracula to Strike Back. I’ve also done some comedy in between, but as an actress you want that. It’s lovely to be able to step into someone else’s shoes. It’s such a challenge; the amount of times I get roles and I’m really excited then I’m like, “Oh, my goodness, I have to do this.” It’s challenging and daunting and learning new languages and made up languages. But how they compare to Nyx? I try to approach each one differently. I try to learn where their pain is and what’s driving them.
TUD: Traditionally, characters portrayed by women of color have been regulated to support roles in sci-fi or portrayed very stereotypically. Your character fights a lot of those. Is that your portrayal or the writing?
Liburd: I would say it’s both. I do it because I love it and I will always keep my integrity, and if I am uncomfortable in any situation I just won’t do it. That’s what’s wonderful about working with our team and our show runner, he’s very open. If there is something we need to discuss, it’s very comfortable. What I try to do with Nyx is he gives me a script and I try to bring her to life as a real human being with feelings and struggles, you know, what life throws at you. It might be in space, but it’s true in any world. You do what you can when you are up against the world. I think I tried to make her as real as possible. To play a character two dimensional wouldn’t be a real person.
Z-Nation’s Kelitta Smith Talks Roberta Warren & Her Place In Zombie-Lore
Back on Earth in a possible near future, zombies are roaming the world and humans are trying to survive. Roberta Warren, played by Kellita Smith, is a former member of the National Guard who leads a group of survivors on a mission that might save the world. With Roberta, again the formula is there for the stereotypical sassy, neck-rolling sista, or when her relationship starts to build with one of the Caucasian characters who is above her rank in the military, we expect to see her risking her life for her new beau, a’la the Walking Dead’s Michonne or Abbie Mills, who gave her life for Ichabod Crane in Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. Instead, the love interest sacrificed himself for the group, and it was Roberta who ended up shooting him when he turned. Smith gave us some insight on her character.
TUD: How did you go from such different roles?
Kellita Smith: The opportunity has to be there. And what Karl Schaefer and Syfy did was they allowed for a character to emerge, and I just had the opportunity to go in and say, “Guess what I have been doing on my down time.” Martial arts, fencing, doing a little stage combat. And you know comedy was just so budding in the 1900s (laughs), and it was just an awesome time because comedy was just sprouting everywhere so it was easier to get, but I have always been in theater doing drama. But if you’re an actor, you have to satisfy your artistic soul by doing theater and I always do a piece once a year. And I fell in love with acting as soon as I did it.
TUD: So tell me about Roberta Warren.
Smith: Well, first off, she’s an amazing character who I am learning from. Because if the apocalypse ever happened, I’m not doing it. I cannot live like that day-to-day. But Karl Schaefer says it best, he doesn’t write this character gender specific. He writes Roberta Warren as if it was an individual who would absolutely make it through this apocalypse. Now that is a lot being said there. Because you never know what’s going to happen but the tools they have given this character; she’s a thinker, she’s a survivor, and she’s absolutely a humanitarian. With just those three ingredients, that is the truth and the power of characters of this nature, which makes it so fun to play. I am playing courage. Written courage; whether I do it in my own life or not. I get to play courage.
TUD: What drew you to the role?
Smith: The words, the quiet hurt. The necessity to keep moving forward, and that’s probably familiar in my own life. It’s always breath-taking to see someone who is hurting but still moves. Like a Harriet Tubman. She had one pair of shoes and walked from the south to Canada multiple times. But she kept moving because she had a purpose. What drew me is that kind of power and it’s a way for me to practice that in my own life. Practicing moving forward in spite of what’s hurting you.
TUD: How has the response been to your portrayal of Roberta?
Smith: It has been interesting. I think what it is for this character to be African-American and the leader and to be in such a strong position, I think some people have to get comfortable with it and I attribute that to mean that I am obviously convincing, and so it puts people in the mind frame where people have to make a choice, when I’m pretending. And if it’s valued as a character who’s choosing to survive in a detrimental situation, everyone wants a hero. Most people see this character as someone who’s a hero. That is a survivor. With the majority, it is a favorable reception. I am embraced. But I can tell those people who are taking it out of pretend and it’s so real for them, that they have to get comfortable with what Roberta looks like. I get girls that are just like … they get overwhelmed and I feel like, why are you shaking? Why are you crying? But I get what they are responding to and what I tell them often before they walk away is you could not see me or understand any of this character if you did not possess it. So know that I am only reflecting back to you, you.
TUD: Traditionally, characters portrayed by women of color have been regulated to support roles in sci-fi or portrayed very stereotypically. Your character fights a lot of those. Is that your portrayal or the writing?
Smith: I think it’s a bit of both. Karl Schaefer said he doesn’t write Roberta gender specific and I think, as an actor, part of what you want to do is when you’re getting writing that is kind of pigeonholed, the key thing is to bring about a vulnerability through the feeling but still pushing through. Finding your courage is a more interesting journey than already having the damn answer. Again, it’s entertainment. I think what is being perceived, the infusion of what it feels to be in a certain moment. So I believe what we’re doing. I believe the situation. Those things are relatable to us as human beings. And part of that is the written material, but part of that is I trust the true feeling of what comes across in the moment. I think that’s what getting photographed.
TUD: And while there are more roles being developed, Zoe Saldana in Star Trek, Sanaa Lathan Alien vs. Predator, Michonne in Walking Dead, many still fall into the same old containers. Do you think your portrayal can be an opportunity to further expand the view of women of color in the genres?
Smith: I hope so. How satisfying would that be in making a simple choice, in showing up for an audition that it would breed doors opening in that way or scopes being more acute in that there’s a being inside the human being that happens to look like an African-American woman. And wanting to know what that looks like, what that feels like, how that moves, how courageous that is or is not. And I have to say it has to be written. It has to start there first. Those opportunities have to be written. I got lucky. I got one.
Syfy Not Keeping Shows Just For The Sake Of Diversity
Killjoys, starring Hannah John-Kamen, leads a trio of intergalactic bounty hunters. And while she is attractive, they don’t use her sexuality for sexuality’s sake. And while she is in charge, she doesn’t fall into the mothering role. She walks the line of a real women who is supportive when necessary but also kicks ass.
Britne Oldford’s role in the show Hunters, where she played an alien sleeper agent who was hunting other aliens, was a refreshing twist. She wasn’t smart-talking or looking for an easy way out. She was serious about her work. She had a mission. Unfortunately, Hunters wasn’t renewed, but in the grand scheme that is OK as well.
For years, the Syfy network has been putting together shows that more closely resemble the world around them. Be it the formula they saw from some of the shows the adapted from BBC, like Being Human, which starred Meaghan Rath, whose father is Indian, or their own interest in putting new spins on things like the recasting and regendering of a number of characters from the original Battlestar Galactica series. But they have had their bumps along the way. Battlestar, while award-winning and touted for it’s diversity that reassigned gender and race to many characters, also had scenes that many felt fell into some of those old tropes. So we asked how does it feel to be a part of Syfy’s new initiative.
O’Neil: I am incredibly proud to represent a part of how this tide is really shifting, and massive kudos to Syfy for believing in this content. I believe they are really at the forefront of what people obviously want to see and I hope it continues to happen that way. I remember when it first came up that all of these shows were coming out and there were all these women of color in leading roles. I could feel how they were pitting these shows against each other and these characters. And it’s like, should she be this or that? And this goes right back to what I was talking about with female leaders. It’s not about that. I find it just fantastic that on one network they’re really catering to this obvious hunger to see these characters and these changes in the archetype. I don’t think I really understand the importance of it until we go to cons and we see all of these people coming to us and telling us how important it is for them to see someone who looks like them doing something like that.
Growing up mixed — I’m half Chinese and half Irish — and growing up watching television, watching music videos, there was no one that really looked like me doing those things and you never really think you can do that. I’m very proud to be a part of a show that shows women in power crushing it and usually the ones saving the day. I sometimes wish we could just all fist-bump and high-five each other but that’s obviously not enough. And hopefully it continues because it’s hard to keep this stuff going on. You test the waters and you hope people want to watch it. Because the only way this stuff keeps happening is people say they want it and tune in and watch it and write about it and they make noise and they show up in numbers, otherwise this type of content drifts away and the same stuff will keep coming out until they figure this is what they want to see.
Liburd: It feels amazing. And interesting. When my manager was like, “Do you want to do this interview, I was like YES!” We have to, it’s so important going forward for people that I used to see in drama school coming up and generations after. For me, it’s incredible to be a part of this. It’s very important. It’s the truth. There are people like us everywhere so it should be a reflection of life and society, and it can only get better.
Smith: It solidifies that I made the right choice to be an actor. I wish that I could say I thought of acting in that way. It’s awesome to know that the choice I made and the choice has a domino effect. It moves, shifts, changes, pushes things forward, allows people to take in what an individual that happens to look this way can bring to the table. Not only bring to the table but move your network forward. Give your network an opportunity to stand apart and make a stance. And for viewers to say, no, I really like this character, I’m not looking at her as what she looks like but I like how she is being portrayed. I like the creative writing. The day is going to be awesome when it’s just about that.
PHOTO CREDIT: Syfy Press
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