Q & A: Stephanie Leonidas and Grant Bowler Talk Syfy’s ‘Defiance’
Defiance is one hugely ambitious show because for the first time ever, a TV show and video game will exist concurrently in a shared universe, influencing and impacting one anothers outcome. It all sounds pretty damn cool to me.
Defiance is set in the year 2046. It’s a new Earth and with over thirty different Alien races, it’s also a different Earth. Defiance is now what used to be St. Louis and when the mysterious Nolan (Grant Bowler) and Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) settle in, things begin to happen that threaten the peacefulness the town has enjoyed for years.
Grant Bowler and Stephanie Leonidas took some time out of their schedule for a really cool Q&A where they talked about all aspects of the show; green screen and the special effects, the extensive makeup and all of the acting challenges they faced while shooting.
Defiance airs on Mondays at 9/8c on Syfy
You’re both obviously are in the game, can you kind of talk about that whole process and how it’s obviously different from acting for television?
Stephanie Leonidas: Well I’ll say a couple of words but Grant’s so much better at talking about the game and stuff; he’s done a lot more than me.
I guess for me it was just there were some shots after a scene from the green screen where they would take body images of the character and the way I’d move and stuff to use that in the game and also some voice ADR. I mean Irisa doesn’t talk too much so it was just kind of mumbles in the game.
But Grant did a lot more so I’ll let Grant continue.
Grant Bowler: Yes sure, I did a bunch of – I did end up being recorded in terms of general moves, you know, how I pick things up, how I put things down, how I walk, how I talk, that sort of thing in the game which is completely different than acting in front of a camera in the sense that what they’re doing is they’re building a library of your physicality so that they can then go away and they do your performance. That side of it was a bit fascinating to me.
But the one that I really enjoyed was the actual motion capture sessions doing cut scene stuff for the game which I did a few of. I did a number of scenes where we actually – they hired a couple of actors and we did the scenes for the game.
And what’s different there between motion capture and filming is that they have in a motion capture studio you were the funny scuba suit with glowy balls all over it which is the world’s most unattractive wardrobe you could ever put on.
Stephanie Leonidas: I was sad I didn’t get to do that.
Grant Bowler: You will; don’t worry, I’ll take the photo. And the studio itself has something like 400, 500 cameras surrounding the space that you’re working in so when you do a scene I’d say to them what’s your frame and they’d say oh we don’t know what the frame is, you act the scene and then we’ll create frames around what you’re doing.
And that was completely new to me. The idea of being able to have a complete and utter sandbox where you just do whatever performance comes into your mind and then they’ll punch in for a close up here, they’ll cut there, they’ll go into a two shot there and they’ll decide all of that after seeing what you do, is completely counter to the filmmaking process. So it’s exactly the opposite. And again a bit nerve-wracking and new because you actually don’t know how they’re going to cut it. You have no idea as an actor how it’s going to cut which is quite intimidating at times unless you trust them of course and then it’s incredibly freeing.
At least you don’t have to do take after take if that got that many cameras, right?
Grant Bowler: That’s right, no it’s only a few takes. And when you’re happy they’re happy and they go away and they make up the scene.
I wanted to ask you about special effects and what’s it like for you both to kind of act to things that aren’t there.
Grant Bowler: Well you know sometimes you have that experience anyway with people that are there.
Stephanie Leonidas: Thanks, Grant. Am I that bad?
Grant Bowler: You know, acting’s a process of – as a professional actor you don’t say to the other actor okay now you have to create a performance that I believe so that then I can just stand there and react to you. As an actor what you do is you believe the other person no matter what they say. If Stephanie’s there with a rubber forehead and a bunch of paint and a clown wig — sorry Steph…
Stephanie Leonidas: That’s a bit harsh.
Grant Bowler: It’s a bit harsh. But hey listen it’s nothing nowhere near as ugly as what’s on the other side.
Stephanie Leonidas: Very true, very true.
Grant Bowler: It’s my job to believe it, just go okay she’s an alien and vice versa with her, you know?
So the green screen stuff which I think is what you’re getting at, the key to green screen and this is where Gary Hutzel and his team have been phenomenal, is that it’s one thing to believe what’s in front of you it’s another thing when there’s nothing there to have something to believe in.
And those guys have been great. They’re exhaustive in they provide a storyboard. They generally do rough renders of the scene for us with 3D animation so that we have some idea what these things are going to look like, what the vista is going to be.
And then it’s a process of all of us getting together and going okay well there’s a tall tower, where’s that and someone sticks a tennis ball where the tall tower is, and where’s the nuclear, I don’t know, main nuclear power plant and where’s the park and where’s the horrid alien and how tall is the horrid alien and how fast it coming towards us. And then once we map all of that out then it’s kind of like being a kid again, you’re just playing make believe.
I find it kind of gorgeous as long as we’re all looking in the same direction. When you’re not looking in the same direction it gets very awkward very fast. Steph?
Stephanie Leonidas: Yes I agree. I mean the green screen were always the longest days to shoot. They were kind of the days you had to really kind of be with it before. But like Grant said we had the storyboard were incredible so it wasn’t like we didn’t have any idea what they were going to do with it afterwards.
And I guess I was kind of lucky I’ve done some green screen before Defiance which really helped so I didn’t feel like I’d been thrown completely into the deep end with it. But yes I feel yes we’re really lucky with all the storyboards and kind of everyone around that. It’s just yes given us a great idea of what it’s all going to look like in the end. I mean I guess they could do anything. They could put the Muppets in there for all we know but yes it was – they were long days but I think they’ll be worth it in the end definitely.
What attracted each of you most to the project in the first place and did that change as production continued?
Stephanie Leonidas: I think the thing that first attracted me to the script was the fact that it wasn’t kind of just this apocalypse story with aliens kind of fighting each other. It was kind of a real human drama to the piece and it felt like there was real heart to it and the characters had stuff that people could relate to I guess even though they were these aliens with prosthetics on their head.
So I think that’s what really attracted me to it that there was real drama to it and those are always kind of my favorite scenes to play like those scenes with Grant in the car and stuff with Tommy and the other Irathients. There was some really nice stuff there so that’s what yes initially got me really into the script.
And yes so I think that’s what’s continued to kind of throughout the series maintain that and so of course Irisa loves getting her knives out and kind of – and all of that stuff but equally there’s a lot of layers to it which I love.
Grant Bowler: For me it was all the way from its inception. The first thing that attracted me was it’s funny because like I’m kind of very well known let’s just say amongst my representatives to not be terribly interested in receiving sci-fi scripts and the first time that the script went across my agent’s desk she didn’t send it to me because she thought I’d get angry at her.
But the casting agents asked me about a month later. They said why didn’t you respond to that script? We sent it to you deliberately because we thought you’d love it and I kind of double checked on it. Defiance is different than anything I’ve ever read and I guess that’s the key.
Ultimately as an actor and as a storyteller you’re looking for a story that hasn’t been told and 99 out of 100 pilots that you receive you’ve seen it before, 99 novels, 99 movies out of 100 you’re read or you’ve seen before and Defiance was a world that I hadn’t seen before. It was a genre that I hadn’t exactly seen before.
And the dynamics in terms of the characters, this kind of grizzled kind of scavenger and an alien adopted stepdaughter, all of these – the setup of the Capulets and the Montagues with the Tarrs and the McCawleys, with a Lady Macbeth-ness of Datak’s missus, you know, the Romeo and Juliet story. They’re fantastic dynamics that were set up right at the beginning and that was what kind of grabbed me was a world I hadn’t seen before, a story I hadn’t seen before and these incredibly kind of strong, epic Shakespearean dynamics.
Could you tell us a little bit about the initial acting challenges you both found stepping into your respective roles?
Stephanie Leonidas: Well, well challenges I guess I have a lot of plastic on my face. Yes I am half in prosthetics to that was kind of the first challenge for me I guess. I’ve never had a prosthetic like that at all so yes that was the first hurdle I guess.
In shooting the first episode I think it was we were thrown completely into the deep end. I mean it was the – the first scene of the day was this scene where Nolan and I are arguing and it’s quite an emotional scene and the weather was against it. It was freezing cold, it started to snow, it felt like a big mess actually. So yes it was kind of – I remember just looking at Kevin Murphy going oh my God, oh my God.
So yes it was – yes we’re really thrown into the deep end. But I’m kind of thankful of that really because yes it made everything feel a little easier as we went along. So yes we were in the middle of quarry, it was kind of out in Oxbridge in Toronto so yes it was yes quite an epic first day. But yes a good challenge.
Grant Bowler: I second that. The fact that they were so exacting on our wardrobe and the wardrobe design is just stunning on Defiance, but the results of all of these arguments and conversations in creating this wardrobe meant that our gear and my jacket and I’m certain Stephanie’s stuff were like finished being made in Toronto at about 5 o’clock a.m. the morning we were shooting. We were on a 5 a.m. call so we were through makeup, dress and rehearsing before the wardrobe arrived. And as a result of that nobody thought about the sudden shift in the weather overnight.
So there’s a whole sequence of stuff where Steph and I are meant to be cold and miserable in the Badlands, especially the stuff where we’re running from the spirit riders and have a little confrontation with the crazy alien timber wolves and there was no acting in any of those scenes. We didn’t actually – it was we were soaking wet and it was snowing so we were freezing to death.
And that was kind of good. Steph talks about the madness of it and that’s absolutely right. But it’s going to be mad. You’re jumping into a new world all of a sudden and its’ going to be nuts.
In terms of acting challenges for me it’s really – you’re playing a role that is an archetype. The antihero is an archetype now and there’s been so many great ones. So for me the whole challenge is if you look updating and rebooting an archetype and trying to figure out, A, what new can be done, how can I tell this story of this archetype in a different way that I haven’t seen before that I’d love to watch.
And also the other aspect of updating is what’s changed, you know, like you look at say an archetype of Dirty Harry. Now that character then everything Harry does is incredibly shocking and there were whole articles and theses written about Harry Callahan in psychology. But if you look at Harry Callahan today and measure him against Denzel Washington’s character in Man on Fire, Callahan’s tame because society’s changed, social mores have changed.
So every time we reinvent a story, every time we reinvent an archetype, it’s interesting to look at okay what’s different, how do I update this archetype, this character to move into 2013 and hopefully hold for as long as possible so that it stays relevant and doesn’t date. That would be mine.
Was there instant chemistry when the two of you began working together? Did you have to go take a little time to bond first?
Stephanie Leonidas: We hate each other. We’re in separate rooms right now.
Grant Bowler: Chemistry would be very awkward. Chemistry I think is illegal between us to in 49 states of the United States of America. I don’t want to mention the other two states where it’s not.
It’s funny, look I don’t know whether Steph – I’m not quite sure whether we had that dynamic when we met or it’s just come about. It’s very, very good casting. I mean I’m a dad and I’ve got a daughter and Steph for whatever reason I feel very protective about and I’m not sure whether it’s acting like her father for a long time. But when she does the relationship stuff with Dewshane I actually do want to inflict bodily harm on Dewshane. It’s not a character thing. I want to hurt him.
And it’s just been something that’s come about. And it’s lovely because like she’s rottenly hopeless, she won’t look after herself and she doesn’t take care of herself and she doesn’t eat right and she doesn’t do anything to take care of herself as well as I’d like so I’m always ragging her up and making her sit down and telling her what to do and I boss her. And she’s gorgeous, she listens to everything very, very…
Stephanie Leonidas: That’s me eating the orange crisps that I’m munching on all day.
Grant Bowler: And stop all eating all the Doritos and turn orange for real. I’ve never seen – by the way I’ve never seen an actor in my life eat as much junk from craft services and stay as skinny as whip. It’s ridiculous.
Was there anything about your characters that wasn’t originally scripted for you that each of you added to the role?
Grant Bowler: For me the only thing I brought to Nolan was my emotional immaturity which I’m determined to capitalize on as long as I can. I guess I don’t know, that’s a hard question.
I kind of came on board Defiance before Kevin had written the script so I don’t know what’s me and what’s Kevin. I don’t think either of us know what’s me and what’s Kevin writing for me or Kevin writing or what Kevin had in mind before. We kind of – it’s actually funny.
It’s the most beautiful relationship I’ve ever had with a show runner and I think it’s because we have never sat down and dissected where the creation lies and I think we’re going to get long beautifully as long as we never do.
How much of the alien languages do your characters ever have to speak and was it a challenge to do so?
Stephanie Leonidas: Yes, learning the language is incredible and I feel like it’s become my second world. It will become my second language. So yes, it’s – yes, it was pretty amazing.
You had the double challenge, you didn’t just learn alien language you had to learn it with a bad accent.
Stephanie Leonidas: Yes, exactly.
Grant Bowler: Well, post-Stephanie – Steph as you know she’s speaking of accent she’s already, you know, working in dialect when she works as American and then doing the alien on top is a double whammy.
For me I didn’t — see Stephanie has the problem of having to speak something like a natural and David’s amazing by the way. We have to give an in- a shout out to David.
You know, he had to clear the language with Game of Thrones and he did it beautifully and then we came along and said seven. We have seven and they all need to be different. And so far he’s fully created four I think and has two partial and we’re working on the last.
That’s an incredible effort for anybody especially for seven existed in the same world. Because you have to differentiate them from each other, so David is just one out of the box. We love him.
For me my character has to speak all of them which sucks, that was a surprise to me. I didn’t think about that when I took the job on. I just knew I does the prosthetics and the wigs and makeup. I thought I was really, really clever.
But Nolan and Amanda, you know, those characters seem to have a rudimentary grasp of all of them. What I did right away as soon as I got David’s first MP3 scripts was to say my character speaks them all badly.
And I kind of built it into character that like he just threw that kind of natural yes whatever I’m not going to, you know, cater to you. He doesn’t really bother getting too right like, you know, in terms of, you know, you want to speak polite French in Paris.
Did you have any special preparation before you started shooting. Because I know there’s lot of action?
Grant Bowler: Definitely did wait for a year and a half I know that. What did you do kid?
Stephanie Leonidas: Yes, with me I – yes I mean I came on board quite – quite light compared to Grant. So with me it was kind of once I found out I had the part of Irisa it was like its winter then start. So it was kind — it wasn’t a huge amount of thinking time which was probably good for me.
Grant Bowler: And I taught you how to handle guns. Remember that? We had to use that for Improv stuff.
Stephanie Leonidas: We did. We had some, yes that’s true. We had some – some great kind of rehearsal time before we – we actually started shooting which was really good because you don’t often get that. And it also gave Grant and I, you know, a chance to kind of discover who our characters and the fact that they, you know, spent pretty much – I mean Irisa spent pretty much her whole life with this guy. So it was, yes that was great.
And Scott the director of the pilot was just great at just kind of giving us that time and questioning stuff about who they were and where they’ve been up until now.
And so yes, and then there was that and then kind of the languages which was another thing that was the next kind of thing to start thinking about. The fact that Irisa spoke Irathient as well and also, you know, she was kind of good with knives and stuff. I was spending a lot of time then with the stunt team.
Grant Bowler: For me, yes there was a lot of rehearsal. Primarily, with Stephanie because there’s a lot of point doing relationship building rehearsals with people who you’re not meant to ever met before when, you know, and the whole point of the pilot is we end at this time and we don’t know them.
But we did a lot of work together and at building that relationship and just getting a good look at each other and starting to figure out some dynamics there.
And then for me, you know, it was — look, you know, the gift of Nolan is I’ve done all the gun stuff before. I think I’ve played three Special Forces soldiers and been through every time they want to train you again. So, you know, I’ve been trained up and down on weapons and all that kind of stuff.
Stephanie Leonidas: You ended up training us mostly.
Grant Bowler: And I ended up training — I taught Stephanie how to run a gun which my – my old ranger mates would be really, really happy with. And then – and then – and then, you know, a lot of the other stuff in terms of the stunts and the fights they needed to be rehearsed but I felt pretty comfy with that.
For me it was, you know, getting my head around the character which is a very, very kind of quiet individual process for me. I just run off and I start daydreaming. So I did a lot of that and – and then hit the gym as hard as I could in that two weeks where I wasn’t – when the kids weren’t around.
Because when my kids are around I can’t do a thing. And I’d tried to get as fit as I could so I’d survive the pilot. Nobody ever talks about that by the way but you do have to survive the pilot.
Stephanie, could kind of talk about the process of getting the makeup and prosthetics and everything done?
Stephanie Leonidas: Yes, I mean the very beginning it was kind of a quite a long process especially when we just kind of discovering Irisa’s look. But now we kind of — towards the end we – we were kind of slapping on and getting off, it was really kind, you know, it was an hour and 45 I think in the end in the makeup show which sounds quite a long time. But in comparison to some of the other aliens it really wasn’t.
And, yes, so it was kind of, yes the four-head piece that goes on first in the mornings which they’re amazing at kind of making it seamless around my face. So that’s the thing that takes the longest, so it completely wipes out my big old eyebrows and kind of, yes it changes my face and as soon as I look in the mirror after that’s done, that kind of is the main kind of feature of – of Irisa, you know, change is made completely.
And then – then I go into makeup and they, yes they kind of give Irisa’s eyes a kind of alien look. And her skin is kind of speckled and stuff, then she has kind of tribal features through her whole body actually, her arms, her legs and her face have these tribal markings which we have to apply.
And then the wig and stuff, so it’s – it’s kind of – it’s quite a long process and backwards and forwards through the trailers in the mornings. So I’m kind of one of the first people in and one of the last out kind of ripping – ripping off that. It has to be a new prosthetic every day so, so yes, it’s quite a big process.
It was funny actually. I went on set one day and I was watching a scene and I came on to set just as me just to – to watch things and – and I had to reintroduce myself to the entire crew and that’s not even a joke. I really did and they didn’t know it was me until I started talking. And then they were like, “Steph?” I was like, “Yes.” I mean like they’d never met me.
And they were — everyone acted really strangely around me because they didn’t know me as me and everyone was really relaxed when I was Irisa. But when I was Stephanie, me just nobody knew how to talk to me and I didn’t know how to talk to them. So it was all really uncomfortable, so I was much better off as Irisa and I kind of just, yes, I never did that again.
Does it help having such like an immersive set? Because you have that whole town there, I mean I know you have green screen but, you know, the majority of it is actually there.
Grant Bowler: Absolutely, look the back lot is another stroke of genius. We shoot pretty much — and remember we shot Defiance in a seven-day turnaround, seven main shoot days with maybe one or two second-unit days.
So as on the scale of this thing is amazing for a turnaround. We shoot about 1/3 green screen, 1/3 location and 1/3 back lot is it’s like a seesaw. The back lot completely grounds the green screen. The green screen gives us our size and our scale and our scope and we absolutely need that.
But the fact that Syfy went ahead and built the town for us what that allows us is the town’s real and it’s eminently real and we shoot, you know, our sets inside out. So you can start in the cell in the low keeper’s office in one shot.
You know, look through the low keeper’s office out into the street then across into the main ones, so we get to ground the show. Not only for us as actors but for the audience we get to ground it. It’s real, you see the people walking pass out front.
You see aliens wondering down the street while you’re in Doc Yewll’s office and that’s – that kind of is a beautiful counterpoint on a production level to what we’re trying to do with a visual effects.
As an actor yes it’s fantastic. I sit on the porch of the low keeper’s office and glare at people all day. I call it character building.
Stephanie Leonidas: And also there are market stores that they’ve set up and down to the finest details like…
Grant Bowler: I’ve had to stop Stephanie from shopping at them.
Stephanie Leonidas: I do. I think that was one of the best – that was one of the best things I said to Grant. I think I wish, you know, I’d actually buy some of this stuff, you know. It was kind of cool stuff. So yes, and very detailed.
Grant Bowler: She also said in the first week we’re in the back lot where she says, “Do you think is that a market, is any of that real? Do you think I could get some of that?” And I’m saying, “No love, it’s all fake.” “Oh, they’re fake”. And she goes, “Oh.” And then she’d look at the big scene store, you know, the giant aliens who have like moving places.
And every day without fail she’d say to me Grant he looks sad.” Why don’t you ask him if he’s all right if he has a twinkle or something. And I said, “Honey, it’s prosthetics, it’s a mask. He’s not, it’s not him.” “But he looks so depressed, I mean should I go talk to him and see if he’s all right.”
Stephanie Leonidas: It’s so true.
Grant Bowler: You did, didn’t you?
Stephanie Leonidas: I did, I did.
Grant Bowler: I’m not kidding you. I had to get Kevin who plays (Asentos) to take his mask off and show her that he was smiling so we don’t have to deal with the… So yes, our back lot has been incredibly amazing, yes and that’s great fun.