Stargate Atlantis‘ final year has proved the most challenging of its run for actress Rachel Luttrell. Having welcomed her son into the world during the last weeks of filming on season four, the start of season five found her adjusting to the rigors of motherhood – whilst also being on set full time. Then, as if that were not challenging enough, along came the writers with a rip-roaring plot for an episode called “The Queen.â€
“They mentioned it to me during a dinner out with our network executives,â€ Luttrell explains, sitting in her trailer during a break in filming later in the season. “I was sitting beside Alan [McCullough], who wrote the script. I was talking to him, and for the first time we were getting into personal stuff, life and all that – and I thought ‘Gosh, this is a lovely fellow’. And then he mentioned that he was writing a script for me. Of course, I was excited… and thenhe mentioned that I was going to be a Wraith queen,â€ she laughs, “and I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’â€
It wasn’t just the basic challenge of what that would mean as an actress that Luttrell found daunting. As a mother of a child that would still be a babe-in-arms when the episode came to camera, the actress had a whole slew of other considerations.
“My little one is with me every day, and that means for the first time in the history of mankind, a Wraith queen was breastfeeding!â€ she laughs again.
Worried about how her son would react when mommy arrived looking like something from a horror film, Luttrell and the make-up team worked together to acclimate him to her new appearance.
“I put all kinds of green masks on my face so that he wouldn’t be perplexed when he saw me in that make-up. It all paid off. I came into the trailer when I had my first little bit of make-up on – we put it on in increments to show him, and God bless him, he just laughed. He was completely unconcerned by the whole thing, thankfully. Children – they don’t know the difference, what they feel is what’s behind that. He doesn’t know anything about monsters, or anything of that nature. We’re doing an episode here at the moment that involves all kinds of new-looking Wraith, and there are very, very tall, muscular actors portraying these characters. I mean, I look at them and I’m terrified! But I was walking with my little one and he saw a couple of them, and just gave them a lovely smile and moved right along! All of that [fear] stuff is learned. And he just completely sensed mommy, there was absolutely no question in his mind. It was great.â€
Though that hurdle – the one that had most played on Luttrell’s mind – was overcome, there were others to face. Full-face prosthetics just isn’t an easy medium to work in.
“It was a very difficult episode on a myriad of levels,â€ Luttrell admits. “The hours, of course, were intense because when you’ve got that much make-up on, you’ve got to be here four hours before your actual call to set, and then it takes a two and half hours to take it off. So we had a few 19-hour days. And so many days of it – it really, really wears on you. I don’t know how those actors are able to do it day in and day out. I can’t,â€ she says, with a laugh. “I was exhausted by the end of it. It is a lot of work, and it’s not just the amount of hours, it’s what they’re actually putting on your face. You’re surrounded by all these toxic smells, and I actually felt nauseous for the first little bit because it gives you a sense of claustrophobia, which I hadn’t anticipated. Your whole face is encased in this mask, and then when they add the eyes and the teeth, you’re pretty much unrecognisable. So my hat is off to anyone who does it on a regular basis, because it’s a huge thing.â€
Despite the hardships, however, the actress reports that the script itself was intriguing. After five years of playing Teyla as a strong yet spiritual woman, “The Queenâ€ suggested the potential for something else – something darker, which had often been hinted at.
“Once I got beyond the fact that it was very difficult to be in all that make-up, and I was in the midst of the script, I saw that it afforded me a unique opportunity to play the character but in a completely different way. She was shaded by a completely different energy,â€ Luttrell explains. “Most of my conversations about character took place between me and Christopher Heyerdahl. Chris is such a wonderful actor, and he does such a tremendous job on the show – as Halling to begin with, and now as Todd. I love working with him because he’s so thoughtful and he puts a lot of effort into his roles. It was interesting, because it gave me an opportunity to explore another side of Teyla. Clearly, she has Wraith DNA. So, Chris and I talked about how much of this power that she’s gifted in being the Queen, does she actually enjoy? The easy thing to do would be to just play it one note: Teyla hates the Wraith, and I’m here to complete my mission and blah-blah-blah. But there’s this other aspect that speaks to a part of who she is – the shadow that we all have ¬– that maybe she actually likes it. At the end of the script, [for example,] when she’s leaving the Wraith ship and hundreds of them stand up and salute her as she walks out. It’s a sense of power, and it’s not a huge aspect of who she is but it’s certainly a part of her. So it was neat to play her as she is, but balanced with this darker side of herself.â€
Another significant aspect of the episode is that Teyla is alone, separated from the team that has been her support mechanism for so long. Luttrell says she actually found that a help in playing the role – because in working with different actors herself, she was more easily able to project Teyla’s own feelings.
“Christopher Heyerdahl is not new, but we haven’t had that many scenes together, and all of the other actors that were playing the Wraith were new for me,â€ she points out. “That made it easy for me to portray the situation that I was in because I was surrounded by the complete unknown. There’s a Pygmalion moment where she’s being turned into the queen. She was really fish out of water, so the fact that I didn’t have the rest of my team members around me aided in that. And then there are the moments where the team gets captured and the real Teyla steps out, for just a moment, and she has to put her guard back on again.â€
Luttrell is evidently pleased with the outcome of the episode, but it’s equally clear she has no desire to repeat the experience.
“It was great – as an actor it was actually a lot of fun. But so hard! But we got through it, and I’m proud of the episode and I’m proud of the work.â€ She laughs, “It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it!â€
News article courtesy of the Official Stargate Website