ByFred Topel, writer at
Fred Topel

How’s this for an early interview? Tricia Helfer has not even begun filming the pilot for her new show, but I landed an interview with her. The schedule just worked out that way, because the Television Critics Association is meeting this week to interview the casts of upcoming fall shows. Since Ascension is gearing up to air in November, Syfy Channel brought its cast to the NBC-Universal party for the TCA.

Helfer of course got her start on Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot as Number Six and her various copies. Ascension is another spaceship show, but I’ll let her explain it.

Battlestar Galactica was so pivotal in your career. Was it an easy decision to go back to Syfy Channel?

Oh, yes. I did Battlestar in the beginning of my acting career and it helped launch to having a career. It was such a wonderful experience. I got to work with amazing people and I was lucky to get on a show that was so smartly written and so socially relevant. That’s what drew me back to this particular script. I love sci-fi but I also love playing a bunch of other roles. That’s what’s fun about acting is you get to play a bunch of different roles. So to go back to sci-fi, not Syfy Channel necessarily, but the genre, I wanted something that I was really drawn to and the script hooked me from the beginning. A large ensemble cast, it’s really a character drama. I wanted to know more about the characters. I wanted to know what happened to them. I’m hoping it’ll draw the audience in with getting into the story and getting into the character as opposed to those cool funny headed creatures and things like that, not that there isn’t a time and place for that, mind you, but there really is an intricate story there.

Is Ascension something they offered you when Battlestar was one you auditioned for?

Yes, I was in the lovely position to be offered this role.

What did they tell you about the character?

Well, with any series, the character always evolves. Especially in the beginning, you also have to set up the entire world. There’s a really large cast. I’m going to be discovering Viondra as we go along, but I know she’s a very strong character, very political character. She’s the wife of the captain on the ship and she will do anything in her power to stay in power.

So it is another spaceship show?

Yes, we actually just started filming. I haven’t actually shot anything yet. I start shooting this week. It is another spaceship show.

But how different an environment is it?

Oh, it’s a completely different story. Battlestar obviously was humans running from robots, essentially two different races. This show, the ship was launched in a covert mission in ’63 by President Kennedy and is actually loosely based off of a real project, Project Orion. During that time period, NASA was working on a space program and the military was working on a space program. It didn’t end up going, but that was classified. Philip Levens, the creator, he’s the one to actually speak to about the real project because he’s spoken to a bunch of people. For a little while there, there was some information that became unclassified and it’s now since been classified again. There was a real project, didn’t get off the ground but what I find really interesting about the show is that glimpse of what possibly could have happened. It’s an alternate history basically.
Tricia Helfer with Bonnie Hammer, NBCUni Cable Prez
Tricia Helfer with Bonnie Hammer, NBCUni Cable Prez

When does the show take place?

It takes place current day. The ship was launched in ’63. They sent 600 souls on a journey to inhabit a new planet, Proxima. It’s a 100 year journey so we pick up about halfway through the journey, basically the midway point where they either have to turn around or they can’t turn around, they have to continue on. The A storyline obviously is the ship heading to Proxima. There’s also all these substories just dealing with human character, the upper deck/lower deck situation, dealing with love triangles, dealing with a society, basically a small town that has been removed from [history]. They don’t know about the cultural revolution. They don’t know about the sexual revolution. They don’t know about the Vietnam War. They don’t know the Cold War is over. There’s a whole faction that want to basically turn around and head back to Earth, but they don’t even know if there’s an Earth to come back to.

If it’s 1963 society, is it racially segregated too?

There is definitely some racial overtones in it.

Would they have even allowed any African-American people on the ship?

Yes, the ship was brought on with all different cultures and races to mirror the human population, so that when they get to Proxima, they can inhabit the new planet. I wouldn’t say there’s really strong [racism]. There’s subtleties. The captain’s XO is African-American. He says something to the effect of, “You’re a credit to your race.” He doesn’t know that that’s wrong to say, and the XO doesn’t take that in a bad way. He notes it but he doesn’t take it and he doesn’t respond to it. Also the sexual revolution hasn’t happened so it’s fine for an officer to just walk by and smack a girl on the ass.

Does that happen?

It does happen, yes. So you’re basically taking a society that’s still stuck in the ‘60s but all the adults on the ship that chose to be on the ship would’ve been adults, so if it launched in ’63, their value system is more from the ‘50s and the ‘40s. Brian and my character were both born on the ship, so you also have this middle group that will never know anything else. They were born on the ship, born into it, they never had any choice but they also probably won’t be alive by the time they get to Proxima.

I was going to ask, you must be second generation Ascension.

I am, yes, and likely I’ll either be very old or I wont get to Proxima. So your entire existence is on this ship and not having a choice.

And you didn’t ask for this.

I didn’t ask for it, exactly. They talk about it, a lot of the teenagers go through a time when they get really frustrated because they don’t have the opportunity to become a rock climber or a basketball player or marine biologist. They don’t have that opportunity.

Do they still wear groovy ‘60s spacesuits like Austin Powers?

I haven’t seen the spacesuits yet so I don’t know. I’ve only seen my costumes. There’s definitely a ‘60s vibe to the style of the ship and the clothing, but it’s also morphed in its own way because they have to make do with what they have there and they haven’t had influence from earth. So it’s definitely tinged with a little Mad Men feel, but it has developed in its way. The art directors have a very creative job on this show.
W/Syfy president Dave Howe(L) & Brian Van Holt (R)
W/Syfy president Dave Howe(L) & Brian Van Holt (R)

So they haven’t had any communication with Earth since ’63?

I know there’s been some communication but I think most of it, Earth has gotten from them. They don’t know what’s going on on Earth but Earth has gotten some communications back from them.

So they haven’t gotten our movies. They don’t know about Pong yet let alone video games.

Everything that they have was what was brought on the ship, yes. So the movies they watch are like Gidget and Gilligan’s Island and things like that.

They must have seen them 50 times by now.

Yes, yes, they do. And also, how does art develop on the ship? Do they do their own plays? There’s a whole artistic side. There’s all the scientists and the physicists and everything like that on the ship that were brought on initially, but what about all the artistic endeavors? Have the people on the ship developed in that way? So there are a lot of developments to explore.

Is there a currency on Ascension?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’ve only read the first three episodes so I don’t know past that. I have not had to pay for anything yet but my character, for instance, is basically a stewardess/hostess type person on the ship. She learns how to get some favors and some information, put it that way. She trades something for information.

Do you get to use your own hair?

[Laughs] I do, yes. Yes, my hair is going to be very similar to how it is tonight.

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