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Interview: Tricia Helfer from Burn Notice

Interview: Tricia Helfer from Burn Notice


We had the honor of sitting down with Tricia Helfer to chat about her role on Burn Notice as well as her other past and present projects. Here’s what she had to say:

I have to tell you that I watched the first two episodes last night and I love Carla, even though I’m not supposed to. I think she’s a great foil for Michael, and I think you’re doing a great job with her.

T. Helfer: Thank you. I haven’t even seen the episodes yet. You have one up on me.

Can you start off telling us what is Carla’s back story and how many of the episodes are you going to be in in season two?

T. Helfer: I’m going to be in, I think, seven episodes of the 16 being done. I’m in the first two, and I think the season finale, and then will be in 2009’s episodes as well.

To be completely honest, I really don’t know much of Carla’s back story. Just as she’s mysterious to Michael, she’s also mysterious to the audience, and I think we’ll learn more about her as Michael does and the audience does. At this point, I’ve only filmed the first two episodes, so I have yet to discover a lot about Carla myself. I do know that she was a spy, and that she is now the public face of the organization that burns Michael. So she is definitely in a leadership position, and, at this point, pretty much ordering Michael around.

Carla is described as evil and sexy, or, as Bruce Campbell likes to call you, “evexy.”

T. Helfer: Yes, I read that [laughs].

How would you describe her to somebody that doesn’t know?

T. Helfer: Well, I don’t necessarily see her as evil, but then you can’t really see the character you’re playing as evil, or you fall into the I’m playing an evil character kind of cliché. Carla thinks what she’s doing is right, so I don’t see her as evil. I see her as just incredibly powerful and focused. So I think that’s what I would want to try to get across is that she’s somebody that you have to take very seriously, and you wouldn’t sleep too well if you’re on her bad side.

What the difference is between playing Carla and playing Number Six is for you?

T. Helfer: Actually, they’re more similar than you would imagine with one of the characters being a robot. I hadn’t actually thought about it, but somebody pointed it out to me that both characters, I’m kind of going in with blinders on, so to speak, sort of touching on the first question as well about Carla’s back story. I don’t really know much about her at all really, and that was sort of the same with my Number Six character. When we started Battlestar, she was kind of a known Cylon, but when we picked up the first season, Ron Moore had written a series Bible of back stories for all the lead characters and the style of shooting and everything, just the style of the show that he wanted, and all the lead characters had two or three page back stories, really in-depth and something that any actor just wants to gobble up and go oh, my God, yes, thank you.

My character said the machine as woman, and that was it. I asked Ron about it and he said I haven’t decided everything about the Cylons yet, so, because you are the known Cylon at this point, I can’t give you a back story. So I had to go into it just really obviously putting my own two cents in and putting things in my own mind about the character, but also, just really going in, trusting the writers and their vision of the character, and then obviously me bringing it to life.

What is similar with Carla is I’m going in not knowing much about her. She’s mysterious and illusive and I just have to think of her as she’s just as equipped as Michael is. She’s incredibly intelligent, incredibly strong, but I think, in one way, the fixed characters are a little bit more vulnerable at this point. I see Carla at the top of her game and she’s also one of the higher-ups in the organization, so a lot of people to get through to get to her. So I feel she probably feels she’s pretty invincible at this point. I don’t know, but possibly part of her storyline is some of that maybe shaking up.

The character of Carla is a bit of a balancing act. She, externally at least, seems very charming and friendly, and yet, there’s definitely a sense of menace from her. As an actress, how fun is it to play a duplicitous character like that?

T. Helfer: It’s a lot of fun. It’s also challenging, because you want to make sure you find the right tone and that was definitely one thing that I was concerned about going down, and that’s one place that Jeffrey really was great, because after our first take in the first scene, he’s like you have the tone. You nailed the tone. That’s exactly our show, now let’s play.

I keep thinking of what Matt said is she’s serious, threatening, but with a smile, and I just try to keep thinking in that. Again, that sort of comes back to where I feel like she feels she’s sort of invincible at this point. She’s so sure of herself that she can be relaxed and a little playful, because she’s just so sure of herself. If you’re not as confident, that’s when you’re a little more wary, and if you’re super-confident about what you’re doing, or your mission, or whatever it is, you can allow yourself to relax a little bit.

You’ve said that you haven’t seen some of the things that you’re going to be doing later on in the season, but just as an actress, what are some things that you would like to do with the character?

T. Helfer: I would definitely like to get into showing some of her skills. So far, it’s basically been the public face and the connection of the organization to Michael, but I would certainly enjoy getting into a little bit of showing her skills and showing that she’s on par with Michael and just as experienced, or just as dangerous as he is. That would be a lot of fun. I’m a bit of a tomboy, so I like the stunts idea, although I know Jeffrey now says that he’s not allowed to do his own stunts, so I doubt they’d probably let me do mine, but I do all my own stunts on Battlestar and I get a kick out of it. So hopefully, I get to do a few.

How are you and Fiona’s character are going to handle one another. Are we going to get see any other action with that?

T. Helfer: At this point, I don’t know. I hope so. I hope to work with Gabrielle. I’ve met her briefly on set. She popped by my trailer and said hello, but I would love to work with her, and I would imagine it would definitely be some good interaction. I can’t imagine Fiona taking too kindly to Carla, even though Michael’s not really a fan of Carla at this point either, I’m sure Fiona doesn’t really want another woman coming into Michael’s life, however it may be. But I haven’t read the future episodes. I’m expecting actually to get my next episode any day, and then I’m definitely looking forward to reading it.

In your first few episodes are you only working with Michael then?

T. Helfer: Pretty much. I have one scene with Michael and with Sam.

I don’t know if you necessarily know the answer to this, but at the end of that second episode, Carla kind of slips and reveals a foreign accent of hers.

T. Helfer: Yes.

I’m just wondering is that something that comes back to haunt her? Does she realize her mistake quickly?

T. Helfer: I don’t know yet, because that literally is the last thing I’ve seen, episode wise. I haven’t even seen what they have shot since, although I did voice a couple of phone calls. My opinion is she probably doesn’t kind of realize maybe that she messed up. He certainly does use that to his advantage, and I think Sam manages to dig up a little bit of information on me, not near what they need to actually find out who I am at this point, but its baby steps.

How many total episodes do we have you for?

T. Helfer: Seven or eight, but I think seven.

Does Carla go out of the picture for a while, or is she just there, an omniscient presence in the background, giving him orders via the phone? Do you know, in those episodes that you’re not in, obviously?

T. Helfer: Yes, I think the episodes that I’m not in, there are a couple of phone calls in there, and I think the idea to get across is that Carla is always watching. They’ll be talking about her even if she’s not actually even a voice on the phone, because they’re trying to find out who she is in order to find out why they burned him, so it may be that they’re trying to find out more information, or maybe they’ll find a picture, or whatever it may be. They’re trying to find that information, so she will have a presence throughout, even if she’s not physically on-screen.

You don’t think they’re ever going to steer this towards any kind of sexual tension sparks thing between Carla and Michael, do you?

T. Helfer: You know, I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, but I don’t think Carla is really on Michael’s wish list or action list at this point, although we know with Fiona, he’s definitely attracted to a challenge and somebody that challenges him, so that could be down the road, but I would imagine it would be quite far down the road, because, at this point, she annoys him pretty much.

In the first couple of scenes where we see Carla interacting with Michael, the tasks they’re giving Michael don’t seem like that difficult, and I guess I’m just asking your take on this, whether you think that they’re just testing him right now, or just getting his feet wet, or if it’s just because they don’t want to get their hands dirty so they’re making Michael do the hard work.

T. Helfer: I think it might be a mixture of both. I think they’re certainly testing him and I think maybe if they give him too big of a task, or too important of a task right in the beginning, it may open them up to be found out easier, because there may have to be more interaction, or more fingers may point in their direction. So I think it is a bit of a sousing out period, so to speak.

If there was any aspect of your character thus far that you identify with, or that you particularly like or dislike.

T. Helfer: I like her sense of mischievousness and fun and the fact that she’s so together and so experienced that she can have that fun, and I like that she, in one way, doesn’t take herself too seriously, even though she’s taken herself extremely seriously. Without really knowing too much about her yet, it’s kind of hard to go more in-depth with her, but I’m attracted to her intensity and her smarts to be honest.

What’s been your favorite thing so far during the filming of these two episodes?

T. Helfer: I think just really enjoying the tone of the show and coming off of a show that is very serious all the time. Not that there isn’t some jokes and laughter on the Battlestar episodes. It’s really heavy subject matter and you’re talking about world subject matter and humanity subject matter, not just the subject matter of individual characters. When you’re talking about the annihilation of the human race, or suicide bombings, or that kind of thing, it can be really heavy on set. So I’m enjoying the lightness and the levity of Burn Notice and just having a lot of fun with that.

How do you go about preparing for a role like this?

T. Helfer: My first two episodes were really quite straightforward in terms of there wasn’t a lot of preparation in terms of physicality or anything like that. I’m hoping to really dig my heels in a little bit more coming up, but the first two episodes were really just I was much more focused on finding the tone of the show and really not knowing much about the characters. It’s just really sitting in and revealing that she’s somebody Michael has to take very seriously and she’s not going to be an easy one for him to deal with, and that to make sure that she had the upper hand over Michael. That was really where my focus was in the first two episodes, more so than preparing in a physical way with stunts or things like that, but really trying to make sure that the audience understood that she had the upper hand and was somebody to be reckoned with.

Is it difficult coming into a show that’s already become an established hit? I know with Battlestar, I think you were the face of Battlestar Galactica for several months before the series, but here with Burn Notice it’s already had a season and is very well known.

T. Helfer: It’s always daunting going into a show as a guest in a guest role, but with Burn Notice, I honestly can’t say how wonderful they were and how welcoming they were to me. When I first signed on, Jeffrey e-mailed me and welcomed me on, and it’s just nice knowing you’re going down to an open, warm environment, and that people are looking forward to working with you and that type of thing. I sat down with Matt Nix before I went down, and we had a good chat. He gave me a bit of a story arc at that point before they had started filming. Things are still being written, so I could get a broad overview, but no specifics really.

It’s definitely easier starting in the beginning with the whole cast and crew, but stepping into a show that you can see and you can see the tone of the show, it’s easier to try and fit in, knowing how they’re going and what they’re looking for. There are pros and cons to both, but they were absolutely welcoming to me.

What is it vibe like on the set of Burn Notice versus Battlestar Galactica?

T. Helfer: The biggest thing I actually noticed was the pace. Things move a lot quicker on Burn Notice. At first, I was trying to put my finger on it. I’m like wow, one or two takes and we’re moving on, or the amount of stuff you get done in a day, but then I figured it out that there’s a lot less cast, just in the size of cast and set, it’s a lot smaller. On Battlestar there’s about ten lead casts compared to four on Burn Notice, and just the amount of cast you have and the amount of extras and the size of the set. Our stages on Battlestar are huge and when you’re in the CIC, or you’re in the hangar deck, or things like that, it’s just the scope is so big that things move a little slower.

Tone-wise, I’ve been incredibly lucky. Both shows are just really fun shows to be on and the crew gets along great and the cast gets along great, and there’s a mutual respect. Everybody has respect for one another, so it’s not a bickering show. I’ve heard some horror stories of some sets where it’s just not very fun to go to work, and that hasn’t been the case with either Burn Notice or Battlestar. They’ve been really fun sets to go to.

How different is it working in Miami compared to Vancouver? It’s quite a difference with the weather.

T. Helfer: Yes, there’s a huge difference with the weather. Vancouver has been incredibly rainy this spring, so I think we had our first nice hot day on Friday when I was on set, but the umbrella takes on a whole different meaning. In Vancouver, you’re being shielded from the rain, and in Miami, you’re being shielded from the sun, so it’s definitely your body takes a little bit of getting used to going back and forth and adjusting and the humidity really gets to you in Miami. They’re both ocean-side towns, and they both have this vibe of fun and outdoorsy. In that respect, they’re similar, but obviously, drastically different temperatures and climates.

Have you seen season one of Burn Notice yet, and, if so, did you watch it before you got the part or after?

T. Helfer: I have seen the whole episode, yes, or all the episodes, the whole season. I hadn’t seen it prior. It was one of those that was on my list of DVD box sets to buy. I had been definitely intrigued by commercials I had seen, but I’m definitely a DVD box set kind of watcher, because of so much of the traveling that I do, it’s hard to commit to a show when it airs. When I was offered the part, they sent me the DVDs and I was immediately hooked from the first episode.

There was one scene in the episode, I think it was the first episode, where Michael is playing an art dealer. You can go in and find this information, and he sits down in the chair and his arm slides off, and it’s just something that’s so subtle and simple, but I laughed so hard. I was watching it with my sister up in Vancouver, and we had to rewind it five times, because we kept laughing. We were trying to debate if he had done that on purpose, or if it was a mistake that they kept in. So I told Jeffrey when I got down there, as odd as it sounds, that was one of the things that really hooked me, because it was in the first episode and you’re expecting this spy show to be very serious and very whatever, and the humor that came out, or just the tone that shows that Michael’s a normal person, even though he’s this incredibly experienced spy, I just found it really fun to watch. I was hooked from then on, and I watched all the episodes and just immediately called my manager and said I want to be part of this show.

How you became involved in the project. Did they have you in mind with this role, or did you have to audition, or how did that work?

T. Helfer: It was one of the very rare circumstances where I actually got offered the part and I didn’t have to audition. Yes, that’s definitely a wonderful thing when you’re an actor. I’m not quite sure exactly how it came about, but someone in the writing room, when they were discussing. I think that Matt said that one of his writers came in and they had seen a press release in Hollywood Reporter that I had just signed a holding deal with FOX Network, and they said this is who we should get. They approached me and it was a little bit of working on everybody’s part, because I had a holding deal at FOX and I was currently shooting Battlestar Galactica, so there was a lot of roadblocks to get over, but it was one of those circumstances that everything seemed to work out.

I had just finished a really heavy episode for my character on Battlestar where I was in every single day, and then the next episode, I was quite light in. I only had one scene, so they shot me out in the beginning and FOX let me out to do Burn Notice and Burn Notice was great by consolidating all of the stuff from my first episodes into two days and I literally flew down, shot out two episodes, and then flew back up to Battlestar, so it was conveniently worked out and I picked back up on Burn Notice mid-July, a few days after we wrap on Battlestar.

Then it turns out the FOX show that I had signed onto called Inseparable is going to shoot right in the two week period I’m off between Burn Notice episodes, so I couldn’t have asked for a more convenient and lucky situation.

Time for Battlestar questions. Has frack become a common term that you use in your daily life now?

T. Helfer: To be completely honest, I tend to use the real counterpart bit too much, and have used it all my life, unfortunately, so it’s kind of a hard habit to break. I should start using it more instead of the other, but not as much. I think the people that actually say it on set more, because Number Six has never really said it that much. I tried to get it in there once and they didn’t use it. I think the characters that say it more, it’s become more part of their vocabulary and certainly the crew uses it quite a bit, but I don’t really use it that often, no.

Is there hope at all for the humans and the Cylons moving forward now that they’ve made it to a devastated earth?

T. Helfer: There’s certainly, I think, so me hope. It’s certainly the idea of the show is that you have to keep pushing forward and you can’t let things, even though that massive, knock you down for too long. So they’re going to keep pushing and keep trying. I can’t tell you if they make it or they don’t, but I think the humans and Cylons are going to try, at least the one faction of the Cylons are going to try and work together, but it hasn’t really worked very well in the past. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait until 2009 to find out. Even though we’re on the last episode, I could be fired if I give any more information out.

When you’re coming off a hit show like Battlestar Galactica, which is so tied into, how difficult is it to find new projects and what do you look for?

T. Helfer: I think one of the biggest things for me was coming off of a show that is a very specific genre show that tends to be more what you get offered and the direction people think of you. So, for me, it was really important to try and go against that and broaden my range, or people’s perception of what I can do, so Burn Notice was perfect for that, because it has nothing to do with outer space, but I find it on par with the level of writing and the level of acting that’s involved. Battlestar, I’ve been very lucky, it’s an exceptionally well written show, as well as Burn Notice.

That’s one of the first things I noticed about it. I really liked the script and then sitting down and watching the episodes, I thought it was a really well done show. Like Battlestar, how I feel it has kind of a unique take on the sci-fi genre, much more of a drama and grittier, getting away from the soap opera kind of norm for science fiction. I feel Burn Notice has that with the spy espionage genre. It has a different elite take and I find it fresh, fun, and exciting and you have absolutely no qualms that Michael can do what he does and you would completely trust yourself in Michael’s hands, but, at the same time, there’s a humor and a tone to the show that is just really fun and fresh. You’ll see this spy tripping going up the stairs. That kind of thing I think is just really fun, so for me it was important to try and find a project that broadens my range and people’s perception of me.

How busy are you going to be at COMIC CON in a couple of weeks?

T. Helfer: I’m sure I’m going to be pretty busy. I think Battlestar is sending down some Cylon human couples, so I know I’ll be there with Baltar and Starbuck will be there with Anders, so it should be a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to it.

Are you going to do anything with Burn Notice at COMIC CON?

T. Helfer: I don’t know yet actually. I will certainly be willing. I just haven’t heard yet.

I was wondering, what’s it going to feel like when you guys finally wrap up Battlestar and you just leave?

T. Helfer: It’s going to feel odd. It’s funny, because this was my first series, so I haven’t ever had a series ending before, so it’s all new for me compared to some of the cast members who have been on other series before. I was talking to Mary McDonald about it the other day. She says the last episodes are always, because we’re incredibly busy right now, and the days are incredibly long and the crew’s exhausted. It’s funny because I’m like wow, I thought the last episode everybody would be laughing and chilling out. Instead, everybody was walking zombies, because we’re so tired, and she says yes, it’s always that way with series endings, because the last script, you try to fit so much in there that there’s so much to do, but yet, you’re really still trying to fit it into a normal script schedule shooting time.

So while we’re in it, we’re just so encapsulated with it that I think it will be really walking off the lot the last time.

Then it’ll sink in.

T. Helfer: Then it will really sink in, or flying home to L.A. after the wrap. It’s like oh, okay, I’m really done, and that, I think, will hit me more, but right now, we’re so in the throes of it that it’s like okay, I need some sleep.

Speaking of more to do, let’s just say that you had mentioned that you were going to be on Burn Notice this season and next. If Inseparable takes off and the Galactica movie come to be, are you going to have any time to sleep at all?

T. Helfer: I’m going to be a very busy camper, yes. There are so many times in this kind of career that you go through that you’ll have slow periods that when you do have a really busy period, you have to try to stay focused on staying healthy. But I just feel so lucky to have the opportunity to have the opportunities that I have right now. Granted, I could use a little bit more sleep, but I certainly wouldn’t want to give up one to do it. Like I said earlier, I’ve been pretty lucky so far with the scheduling. Things seem to have just slotted in perfectly, and I kind of expect that to continue with the three shows. Hopefully, Inseparable ends up getting picked up. I would enjoy being on three shows at the same time, let me tell you.

Television actors basically had three networks to get a job with. Your two shows that you’ve done so far have been cable shows. How do you think that cable television series have opened up the opportunities for actors?

T. Helfer: There’s a lot of opportunity there and I certainly don’t know as much. There’s a lot more opportunity, and again, I’ve only been in the business for six years, so I don’t really have a lot to compare it to, because my first show was a cable show. I haven’t been in the business for a long time and have seen the changes in it, but cable has been able to go to places where network hasn’t, and it’s been able to be a little bit more cutting edge. So certainly, for actors, it’s been fun and an opportunity, and I think you see a lot more actors today in television and on shows that would never touch television before, movie actors. I think it’s becoming a lot more attractive to actors across the board.

I was wondering with everything that you have going on with Burn Notice and Inseparable, we’ve heard the announcement that there’s going to be three movies featuring Battlestar after the series ends. Are you retained to be a part of those yet?

T. Helfer: None of the actors really know yet. We obviously know about them, but we haven’t been in discussions or anything yet. I think they’re waiting for them to be written and what the story lines are going to be. We’ve heard rumblings around set and so forth, and I imagine most of us can be part of it, or at least one of them, or something. But, at this point, I’m not signed on to anything, no.

With Inseparable, is that going to be a pilot for mid-season, or are we talking about 15 months from now in the next TV season?

T. Helfer: I think it’s geared towards mid-season. You never really know until you’ve shot it and things are signed and slotted in, but, at this point, the pilot would probably be considered for mid-season.

Could just clear up something about Inseparable? The main character, the forensic pathologist who has the dual identity type of thing, he’s partially paralyzed in his main persona, but then what? In his alter ego, he’s not paralyzed anymore?

T. Helfer: Right. Yes, he’s a cop and my character is the cop psychologist that evaluates him and has evaluated him prior to his injury. He was shot and it is definitely he’s injured. He’s in a wheelchair. One side of his body he doesn’t really have control over. He can walk on crutches, but barely, and his alter ego is completely healed. What’s exciting about that is it’s a psychological injury.

Yes, so all the while she’s working with him and studying him and I would imagine that, sooner or later, she’ll start raising an eyebrow.

T. Helfer: Yes. My character, Mason, is quite light in the pilot episode because there’s a lot to set up with Lambro, with the cop and his alter ego, Clyde. So there’s definitely a huge discovery in that and everything, but Mason will be the closest thing to him and she’ll know immediately pretty much.

How do you think the modeling world has changed? I know you’re still involved, or were involved with Canada’s Next Top Model since you started?

T. Helfer: I haven’t really been involved at all for six years. I quit modeling in 2002 when I started acting, but I did foray into it with Canada’s Next Top Model, but, to be completely honest, model reality shows are not like modeling in real. They’re certainly not like the modeling business. It’s about making a good TV show. To be honest, that’s why I’m not doing further seasons of it is because I’m not a fan of reality shows. I’m glad I did the first season and experienced it and was in the producing end of it, but it wasn’t where I wanted to put my focus and my time. It was taking pretty much my whole hiatus between the Battlestar seasons. I couldn’t do film or whatever. Instead, the next hiatus I did the film Walk All Over Me that went to Toronto Film Festival and the Weinstein Company bought. So that’s where my focus was, and I realized it while I was filming it too. This isn’t where my focus is and I’m not really enjoying it, so I shouldn’t be doing it.

I think the modeling business, when I was in it, it’s cyclical, just like anything, and it goes through cycles. When I started modeling it was the big super model era of Naomi and Christie and Cindy and Linda and all that. Then they went to this period where it was all nameless, faceless models walking the runway, and then it got back to the super models where you knew them by their first names, Giselles and everything. I think now its back in a nameless, faceless, multiple girls, but again, I could be wrong, because I haven’t picked up a fashion magazine for about six years, so I could be completely wrong. I had a great time doing it and I traveled the world and I met a lot of really wonderful people, so I certainly don’t degrade modeling.

Do you miss it?

T. Helfer: No, I don’t. Ten years was enough. I traveled the world and had some great experiences, but I needed more of a challenge and I needed more to do with my mind.

You wanted to talk.

T. Helfer: I wanted to talk, exactly.

You mentioned earlier that you watch a lot of shows on DVD box sets. What kind of shows do you sit down and actually watch and love?

T. Helfer: I actually am one of those that don’t watch much, but I was a huge Arrested Development fan, a South Park fan. I have some 24. I got into some 24, although I have not seen all the seasons. I have Dexter, although I haven’t watched all of it yet. I got into Six Feet Under when it was on, definitely Burn Notice, now that’s on my shelf as well, although now I’m a little biased. I like shows that are a little quirky, a little off. I would like to get into Madmen and Weeds. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but that’s the kind of show I go for.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

Burn Notice Official Site

Emma Loggins Emma Loggins is the Editor in Chief of FanBolt. She updates daily on the latest entertainment news, her opinions on current happenings in the media, screening/filming opportunities, inside scoops and more.  She’s been writing on the world of geekdom and pop culture since 2002!


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