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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Passion Player
Rhonda Krafchin, Sci Fi TV Magazine #9, Feb 00

Michael Shanks is zealous about acting. And while the man who essays Dr. Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1 admits that a career in politics or law would be rewarding, and effuses greatly on a range of subjects from the ordinary (family & hockey) to the unusual (ancient civilizations), acting is surely his topmost pursuit.

"I'm very passionate about this craft," he says from his Vancouver home. "I don't just mean the acting part of it, but the public storytelling aspects, the power. I'm exploring all elements of it."

One of the key acting joys for Shanks is playing a diversity of roles.

"You get to delve inside the psychology and the internal processes of so many different kinds of people, from many different backgrounds. It's a wonderful study of mankind and people, emotion and relationship."

While most of the actor's professional experience lies in theater, it is the international hit Stargate SG-1, just finishing its third season (airing on Showtime and later in syndication), that has given him widespread exposure, and some margin of creative flexibility.

"I have aspirations next season to direct an episode," he admits. "That may come to fruition, in the season's second half. I've been practicing at that this year and will again devote myself to that in the off season and when I come back next season."

Shanks has already succeeded in transforming archaeologist Jackson into a complex, evolving character. Though the legacy of the archaeologist as adventurer and tough-guy hero is a revered entertainment staple, Jackson remains a uniquely realistic version of the archetype.

"I don't think he falls into the typical vein," Shanks agrees. "He's not the classic, all in one type guy. Jackson possesses the knowledge, the interest and the curiosity. He doesn't quite have the go-to-it-ness, but the entire military installation fills that gap for him."

In fact, the effective, cohesive SG1 team has mastered that art of adjusting the shortcomings of one member with the skill of another. On a broad scale, Colonel Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) represents strength, physical and military, Major Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) the intellect and Daniel Jackson, human emotion. While Teal'c (Christopher Judge) remains the outsider, the almost prerequisite alien in science fiction who offers sage commentary on humanity, its strengths and quirks.

Despite the characters' more overt roles, the writers and actors have been careful to build well-rounded individuals who complement each other--on personal as well as professional levels.

"Probably the most successful element of our show," Shanks agrees, "has been the inter-relationship of characters."

Another successful series element is that the SG-1 leads are not superhuman beings, but people, experts in their fields who rely on each other to get things done in the extraordinary Stargate Universe. With the leads as well-defined as they are, Shanks doesn't often get to play the classic hero, but he has been showcased in some compelling stories. In the episode Holiday, Jackson's soul is transposed with that of a dying man whose own soul takes over his healthy body. Shanks plays both roles.

"The creation of the whole new character," he says, "is something that takes me a long to do because I try and pay a lot of close attention to detail. I had about four or five days' notice about this old man character, and I went, 'Oh, my God.' Then I remembered my theatre school background, trying to create an entirely different character and a voice that wouldn't be distinguishable beneath all the makeup. It was challenging, and (unfortunately), it didn't turn out quite as well as I would have liked. I wasn't very pleased with the finished edit, either. I thought it was a bit convoluted. But for me it was by far the most challenging experience I've ever gone through as an actor."

Though Holiday didn't fulfil Shanks' hopes, the third season episodes, "Legacy" and "Forever In A Day" were gratifying acting experiences. In "Legacy", Jackson is faced with the possibility of going insane.

"There are a couple of scenes in there," he notes, "that really got me to delve a little bit deeper, and I was very happy with the result."

In "Forever In A Day" Jackson's on-screen wife, Sha're played by his real life girlfriend, Vaitiare Bandera, dies.

"It was very difficult, personally and professionally, to go through in terms of establishing the stakes for both the character and the actor. It's funny because many fans reacted to it in a negative way. Not because it wasn't our typical fare. It doesn't have a happy ending. It was very sad, very dark. It's very lonely. It was a risk on the writer's (Jonathan Glassner) part and it was done in a way that's not completely cut and dry. You have to pay attention to almost every frame of that episode to really understand what's going on. I really like the fact that they didn't dumb it down for audiences. It bothered people for seemingly the right reasons. They weren't even evaluating it (in terms) of television production, but more from a story point of view, and that to me is very gratifying."

In the three seasons, Shanks has tried to add some dimension to Jackson.

"There has been a maturing process going on," he notes.

Naturally, it's difficult for Shanks to continue playing Jackson as the wide-eyed idealist, considering all that has happened to the character.

"He has certainly been put through the absolute wringer - with his parents dying and his foster parents being a mystery. Then there's a storyline at the season's end about his grandfather not really wanting him and his wife dying in season three. Well, it is difficult for me, given all that, as well as all the pure experience he has accumulated, to continue to play him with rosy colored eyes. There had to be a bit of an edge developing."

Jackson has certainly come a long way from the original incarnation in the Stargate movie.

"These choices that were made (for the film where James Spader played the role)," says Shanks, "seemed to me very two-dimensional, very stereotypical, the sneezing, the glasses, the tripping and falling - things like that were just a little over the how unimportant they were. Slowly. Not to offend the people who were fans of (the original) character, but to gradually part ways with them without offending anybody with a slash-hack approach."

By season three, Jackson has made some serious personal changes.

"He's a bit more humorously sarcastic," Shanks adds. "Whether that can be attributing to my working with Richard Dean Anderson or Daniel working with Jack O'Neill, who knows? There's also more realism and the understanding that not everything is going to work out the way it might."

Shanks also experimented with his character's appearance. In "Secrets", which features the character in the uncommon role of romantic hero, Jackson rarely wears his glasses in the episode. It's an emotional and dramatic story that Shanks again shares with Bandera as Sha're. Removing the glasses, he explains,

"was a connection I wanted in that particular storyline. I know that some people have found in the second season the glasses seem to appear and disappear at leisure. It was a choice that I was trying to make for variety's sake, to see where it fit and where it didn't."

Not all the changes were subtle.

"Many people were complaining because in the third season I cut my hair. I was doing Hamlet, so I told the writers I was going to cut it. They didn't incorporate it into the writing, and it left people asking questions, 'Is that the same actor?'"

Whether his critics were trying to hold onto the pre-established character, or simply preferred Jackson with long hair, Shanks can only speculate.

Despite the many changes, Shanks has been careful to retain the one thing he believes is Jackson's most important quality, a childlike innocence. The co-operative working environment on Stargate SG-1 between writers and cast helps Shanks develop Jackson.

"The bottom line," the actor explains, "is the character is you on that screen, so the (writers) want you to be able to 'yea' or 'nay' certain things. It'll make the end product look far worse if they say, 'You have to do that,' and an actor doesn't commit to it. If they give you the benefit of the decision-making and you commit to that, it comes out looking stronger. (The writers) also want to follow your lead and see where you take this character and how they can find your voice in the writing. I find it makes life much simpler to be able to have that input."

Working with veteran TV actor Anderson has also been a bonus.

"Richard and I have, on camera and off, a really strong, respectful relationship which is part of the dignity and respect that the characters give each other on screen. Rick has always been very supportive of what I do in terms of acting; he's very open to my input in scenes that involve us."

But good intentions aside, TV is a business where time and money are usually in short supply, and compromise is a way of life.

"It becomes a bit sticky sometimes. You have to build up a bit of a thick skin in that regard, because you realize you're working as a team and part of a cog in a machine that needs to go round and round for everybody to make a living. But because you're one of the members in front of the camera, you also have to be very careful about protecting what you've already established. So it's a balancing act."

Hailing from a small town in British Columbia, Kamloops, it seems almost ironic that Shanks would be playing a character whose journeys take him so far beyond our solar system. But like Jackson, Shanks is fascinated by the possibilities that Stargate holds.

"Ever since the end of the Cold War, there has been a shift of focus from looking inside of our world to a global community looking out. That's why The X-Files was so timely. People are no longer turning their attention to the world we have here. They're bored with it. What's out there?" he asks excitedly. "There's the mystery. That's the big question mark, and in a sense, that's the wonder of Stargate. It looks at mysteries of our past and equates them with the question mark of what's out there, and says, 'What if the two were associated? If these Great Pyramids took so long to build," he goes on, "(and were) built by so many perfect craftsmen who didn't really have the tools of the day, why couldn't they be associated with aliens somehow? Or the Mayan pyramids or all of these strange relics that have never been explained, just sort of shrugged off by historians. There are so many mysteries, and so many things in mythology that are unexplainable. Isn't it wonderful to be able to think, 'What if they've been here before?' How can we associate out mysteries with the mysteries that exist out in the universe? That's my biggest stepping-stone into the whole Stargate concept. I think anyone would step through the Stargate given the chance, because we all wonder about what lies in the Great Beyond."

So where, if given the chance, would Shanks go in time or space? He is momentarily lost for words.

"I have so much travelling that I have to do, and I haven't even begun yet," he avers. "I've just been going to school and working, ever since I finished school 10, 11 years ago. I'm waiting for the opportunity, but every actor knows when the work is there, you have to take advantage."

That couldn't be truer for Shanks. Even during a well-deserved hiatus from the series, the actor is busy exploring new dramatic opportunities. And though the chance to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire may have fallen through, last year another dream role did land in his lap: the lead in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

As a graduate of University of British Columbia's theatre program and a veteran of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, North America's largest Shakespeare Festival - Shanks is familiar with these classics, and Hamlet turned out to be one very positive experience.

"When Shakespeare's done well," he says earnestly, "it's the most beautiful thing in the whole world, and people that do it well are not just doing it, it's the years of preparation required to learn the rules. It's like speaking another language. It's a wonderful craft and I knew, after doing television for two years straight, it was something I never wanted to get rusty inside of me. I always want to go back to it."

For an actor like Shanks, the emotions come out of the writing, and that's impossible to ignore. For example, he explains,

"You just do the speech and you pay attention. You're reverent to every line and the way it should be done and suddenly you're just weeping without having to work at it. It's the most gratifying release process. Writing that is that good is something that demands to be respected and demands to be practiced. It covers so many different aspects of human emotion and everything regarding their craft that I'm passionate about."

Passionate enough to stay right on Earth, and explore other worlds on the small screen. But perhaps, if the adventure of acting were not there, maybe the thoughtful Canadian would embark on some modern day pilgrimage, seeking knowledge and experiencing firsthand, the multitude of our own Earth's cultures and exotic lands. How different then is Shanks' reverence for storytelling from his fascination with worlds beyond? Both encompass the search and discovery of new characters and their lives. Perhaps Michael Shanks is more like Daniel Jackson then he realizes. He certainly shares the good Doctor's passion for charting the unknown.

2000, Sci Fi TV Magazine

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