When, in the Stargate Atlantis series premiere Rising, the Ancients city is in danger of being destroyed, our heroes use its Stargate to travel to Athos, another planet in the Pegasus Galaxy that, if necessary, they might be able to evacuate to. It is there that they meet Teyla Emmagen, the caring and spirited leader of the Athosian race. After one of her own kind betrays Teyla and the rest of the Athosians along with their human allies to the Wraith, she joins with the new residents of Atlantis to stop this parasitic alien race from once again culling the Pegasus Galaxy and, ultimately, reaching Earth.
As actress Rachel Luttrell grew more and more at ease playing Teyla over Atlantis‘ five years on the air, her character developed a close bond with her new teammates, many of whom became like family to her. How would Luttrell describe her onscreen relationships with the rest of the Atlantis crew?
“it’s funny, but as you were asking that question, and I’m not joking, literally so many faces came into my mind, and the very first one was David Hewlett’s [Dr. Rodney McKay],” says the actress. “I loved the relationship that Teyla had with MacKay. It was somewhat irreverent and yet lovable. My character would constantly roll her eyes, even if not physically but sometimes in her demeanor, at McKay, but it was always in a kind of affectionate way.
“I loved working, too, with Paul McGillion [Dr. Carson Beckett]. The relationship between his character and Teyla was also quite unique and lovely. I think from the beginning, she would go to Dr. Beckett and request help from him as well as advice when it came to her people. And then oftentimes off-screen, before we’d actually do takes, Paul and I would be in hysterics and laughing, which was always terrific.
“Colonel Sheppard [Joe Flanigan] and Teyla always had, I feel, a special and wonderful relationship that had so many dimensions to it,” she continues. “A lot of those [dimensions] were sometimes unspoken, but I truly appreciated that relationship. I mean, Teyla just had an instant affinity towards Sheppard and felt an immediate level of comfort with him that she didn’t initially get with the other team members. They had a deep friendship, understanding and respect for one another as well as a love for each other.
“With Dr. Weir, because Torri Higginson [Dr. Elizabeth Weir] and I started out as the sole female characters on the series, we had some amazing scenes together. It was always kind of great bouncing off the fact that here were these two strong female characters , both leaders in their own right, but coming from different backgrounds as well as societies, and still being able to arrive at decisions together. I always enjoyed performing with Torri and discussing our desire as characters to find an honest and deep respect for one another. I think we developed that, and I hope audiences were able to see it, too.”
In Atlantis‘ second season, Teyla found a true kindred spirit in Ronon Dex (Jason Momoa), whose planet was invaded and most of his race culled or killed by the Wraith. He initially took Teyla and Colonel Sheppard prisoner while being hunted for sport by their common enemy, but once they persuaded him that they could be trusted, Ronon decided to make Atlantis his own home.
“What an incredible relationship was formed there,” notes Luttrell. “Ronon and Teyla were the only two characters from the same galaxy and who shared a similar type of background, or at least one that was not dissimilar. They bonded on a level that the others simply could not due to their reference points, how they grew up, their understanding of the Wraith, and what it meant to them in terms of what these aliens did to their families and societies.
“I’m sort of touching on everybody, but what really stands out for me the most when I reflect upon the five seasons of the show, is that I had the opportunity to work with some really great and talented people. And the casting was such that although we were all so different, we all enjoyed each other’s company and this was, I think, reflected in the relationships that our characters had with one another. So I loved working with every single one of my fellow actors and watching how our characters’ relationships matured in their own way.”
Of all Teyla’s relationships, the one that she developed with the human/Wraith hybrid Michael (Connor Trinneer) eventually turned into an unwanted as well as dangerous one. “I don’t want to sound too gushy, but I loved performing with Connor,” says Luttrell. “The first time I met him it was great because he’s an extremely talented actor who enjoys getting into the story. There’s a certain appreciation and excitement when you’re doing a scene with a fellow actor who is really, really on top of things and interested in the various nuances of character as well as relationship. Connor is certainly one of those actors and was from the get-go with the Michael character.
“With Michael’s and Teyla’s relationship, that was such a crazy and wonderful journey. My character was, at least in the beginning, truly sympathetic to his plight, and yet here was this man, creature, or whatever who was for all intents and purposes a Wraith, and therefore an entity who decimated her people. That was quite compelling to play, and something that carried through to the end where, sadly, there was absolutely no love loss, certainly for Teyla, when it comes to Michael. However, in those last few scenes and working with Connor, it was fascinating to discuss the fact that Michael’s view of Teyla was that she could be his queen. She could be the one person who would understand him, and he really latched onto that. So for all his kind of diabolical undertones, and there were many, he honestly thought that their relationship could work.”
Although the Wraith were the primary antagonist on Atlantis, there were plenty of other adversaries that gave our heroes a proverbial run for their money. In the fourth season story Missing, Teyla and Dr. Jennifer Keller (Jewel Staite) are trapped off-world on New Athos and fighting for survival against the savage Bola Kai.
“Oh, my God, that was a wild and woolly ride, and for so many reasons,” recalls Luttrell with a chuckle. “Emotionally it was crazy because I was pregnant with my son Caden. At that point I had not told anybody, with the exception of our producers and writers, and this was the very first episode that I told James Bamford, our stunt supervisor, of my condition. So that was going on, and then Jewel Staite and I were carpooling for that entire episode. She would come very, very early in the morning over to my place and then we’d drive together because we were shooting on-location, so she was also one of the first people I told that I was pregnant.
“Missing was an equally emotional as well as physical episode, and I was dealing with my pregnancy and doing the biggest fight sequence that I had probably done to date. One of the bad guys that I took on was actually my husband [actor/stuntman Loyd Bateman], so there we were trying to pull that off, knowing what was actually transpiring for us on a personal level, which was very interesting.
“This episode was terrific insofar as where it put Teyla in terms of the fact that now her people are all missing. What an incredibly emotional place to find herself, and playing that off Jewel was just lovely. She is a wonderful actress and a riot to work with. Jewel has this wry sense of humor, and I can’t imagine going through that journey with anybody other than her because everything was an hilarious joke. It was pouring rain, freezing cold, there was mud everywhere, we were doing all sorts of strenuous stuff, and yet everything was funny with us, so thank God for that
“Also, the relationship between our two characters deepened. At the start, Teyla had absolutely no understanding at all of this woman and how inept she thought she was. Then, however, Keller totally rose to the occasion and found this inner strength. Perhaps it came though Teyla, or perhaps it was something that Keller initially had and she just needed it to be brought forth.”
In a late season one Atlantis episode The Gift, Teyla experiences some disturbing nightmares that cause her to recall a time when she and her father were captured by the Wraith and forced to undergo a series of genetic experiments. As a result, Teyla discovers that she has the ability to link telepathically with the Wraith. For a handful of scenes, Luttrell had to undergo some prosthetics work. That, however, was minor compared to her character’s transformation into a Wraith Queen in the year five story The Queen.
“I take my hat off to anybody who has to do that [wear heavy prosthetics], especially for an extended period of time because it’s incredibly grueling, and you have to be so much more animated as well as on the ball in terms of your convictions for your character and the storytelling,” explains the actress.
“To convey anything through that much make-up is a real challenge. On the other hand, though, it was deeply freeing because I had the opportunity to portray this other side of Teyla, because clearly this is Teyla, even though she has undergone this crazy transformation. Again, it was incredibly freeing to be able to perform in such a way that was dramatic, intense and full of centeredness. It’s a completely different skill set that you have to use as an actor, and I was happy to be able to explore that.
“Besides the make-up, there was the amazing wardrobe that Val Halverson [series costume designer] created for Teyla’s Queen, so when I walked onto the set I was already in-character. I wouldn’t want to do it again,” says Luttrell with a laugh, “but reflecting upon it, I do remember enjoying that aspect of it, although I would never have told anybody that while we were shooting,” she jokes.
“This entire experience was further colored for me by the fact that I was a new mom. I was recently asked by someone how Caden handled all the make-up, because he was with me every single day at work, and he was amazing. At first I was terrified. I don’t know how he would respond to me, and Joe Flanigan was [jokingly] adding fuel to the fire by telling me that I was going to have to pay for years and years of therapy for my child. However, when I walked into my trailer for the first time wearing all that horrendous make-up, Caden just giggled. He thought it was hilarious; here was Mom being crazy again.”