Interview: Katee Sackhoff on Her Career, Auditions and the New Film, ‘2036 Origin Unknown’

“I don’t think that you can really know the trajectory of your career until it decides for you, and then you know your place.” – Katee Sackhoff

Katee Sackhoff is known for playing strong women, from Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica to Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti in Longmire. But in the new film, 2036 Origin Unknown, she changes it up, playing the vulnerable Mack, a mission controller who is working with A.R.T.I, an artificial intelligence system, after a manned mission to Mars ends in a deadly crash. The film gives Sackhoff a chance to show audiences a different side to her work and she is definitely impressive.

Here she chats about the film and her role, a huge 26-page scene they shot in one take, her long career and the luxury of saying “no” to roles.

Except for a couple scenes, this movie is just you acting opposite a computer.

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah, pretty much. It was me sort of staring at fake things on walls, pretending there were people there. Very interesting.

Yeah, you’re acting opposite this emotionless voice. If I had a chance to do this role, I’d be terrified.

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah, no, I was. And I think that’s the reason why I did it, you know? I’m a big believer in doing things that scare you, and the idea of carrying basically a one-act play by yourself, in one location with really no scene breaks for an hour and a half, was something to me that seemed incredibly challenging and something I hadn’t done before. So, yeah, I sort of jumped at it, after I understood it. It’s a project that sort of, like The Fountain, in a sense, where what you think the movie is, it’s something completely different. And I liked that as well.

When you took on this role, were you like, “How the hell am I going to do this?”

Katee Sackhoff: Pretty much. I mean, yeah, I was, and then when I found out we were shooting it in 11 days, that made it even more daunting.

Are you kidding me? That’s crazy.

Katee Sackhoff: No, not only did we shoot it in 11 days, but there was an issue with my work visa in the UK and we actually only ended up with seven days.

I did the longest take I’ve ever done, my first take was 26 pages. Because basically, the way we shot it, was as far as I could go and as long as the camera man could hold the cameras, that would be a take. And then we’d reload the camera and do it again. So, I memorized it like a play and sort of attacked it like a play. I worked on it for a month and a half before, and I worked on it for three hours a day, every single day with another person that I hired literally just to come and read with me every day. And then, yeah, I was prepared to go from front to back if I needed to.

Yeah, it was a lot, I’m not going to lie. When I got through that first take of 26 pages, I got to a point where I was like, that was it and the director called cut and my hands were just shaking. The amount of adrenaline that I had going through my system. Not the shock, because I knew that I was capable of getting this far into it, but just the … I was impressed. I was impressed.

Did you know beforehand that you were about to do a 26 minute scene? Or did he just not say cut and see how far you could go?

Katee Sackhoff: We had talked while I was sitting in Dublin, waiting for my work visa, we sort of talked every day for like an hour. And he was like, “How far do you think you can go each day?” And I was like, “I can get at least 15-20 pages without needing to look down.” And he was like, “Okay, we’ll just go as far as we can every day and we’ll try to find natural scene breaks.” And some days they were 12 pages and some days they were 15 and the first day, 26.

And you said you were kind of impressed with yourself. It’s got to work muscles you haven’t even worked on before. You know what I mean?

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, people are always impressed when I tell them that on Longmire we did 11 pages a day. I think that when I tell people we did a 26 page take, they sort of crawl out of their chairs. You just don’t do it, because there’s no reason to. Nobody writes a 26 page scene. But in this situation, when the entire script is a scene, there were no scene breaks. It was just go until you can’t.

How do you prepare for something like this? Because, again, you’re acting opposite an emotionless voice. Was it just like any normal script, you broke everything down? 

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah, no, I did. I broke everything down and I, you know, I think that had this come across my desk, so to speak, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, I don’t think I could have done it. But because of the acting I have done with robots and tennis balls and children and dogs, all the different things I’ve done to prepare me to act with nothing, you just sort of … I don’t think it changes, it’s just forcing you to use your imagination to go a little bit more. It was having to picture some invisible AI on the ceiling. There was no tennis ball, there was no … The one thing we did have was the track, so I knew for the most part the lines he could move on, and that he would be 1 to 2 feet down from the ceiling.

Other than that, it was just imagining where he would go and trying to use his emotion, like what he would do in those situations where, you know, the character sort of jumps back or moves back, and that was me just sort going, “I think that he’ll come into me at that moment.” If I’m thinking of Artie as an actor, what would he do to convey a sense of, like an inquisition if you will. Would he punch into you? If his only ability to move is that arm, he would use it the way that we use our faces, I think.

Were you completely exhausted after the shoot?

Katee Sackhoff: A little bit. I was a little bit, and then I went straight back to Longmire, so I was a little like, “Aah!”

A little loopy.

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah. Only a little bit.

You usually play these strong, powerful women. Here, she’s a lot more vulnerable than some of the characters you usually play.

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah, Mack is a lot more emotionally conflicted and in denial than a lot of the women that I play. Most of the women that I play are very, very strong and independent, but they’re also, they know who they are and they know what their strengths and weaknesses are, but Mackenzie’s in denial and that is sort of something that I’ve never really played with before. Denial inside her own consciousness. She’s lying to herself.

Was that another big selling point to take the role?

Katee Sackhoff: It was. She’s one of those women that probably gave advice really, really well to everyone around her and never stopped long enough to realize that she’s probably the most screwed up out of everybody. I found that to be interesting. I found that to be, it’s sort of like social media. It’s sort of like, you know, the people that seem to dispense the most advice are the ones that are most fucked up, and that’s sort of what I liked about her.

You’ve worked a ton, and I’m sure by now you’ve turned down a ton of roles. Someone in my position, I’ll do most anything, I don’t care. But when you reached a certain level and you first started turning things down, was that kind of liberating? Like, “Hey, I don’t have to do this now.”

Katee Sackhoff: Yeah, yes and no. I mean, you know, with fame comes a lot of responsibility and a lot of introspection to make sure what it is you’re trying to accomplish, what you want to do. And then at the end of the day, you have nobody to blame but yourself if you chose wrong. In the beginning of my career, I was a firm believer in that every single job begets another job. I never turned anything down, ever. I took jobs that girlfriends around me were turning down because I was like, “What, are you stupid? I’ll take it.”

And I did that, and I truly believe that there are a lot them that are no longer working because they were too specific too early. I don’t think that you can really know the trajectory of your career until it decides for you, and then you know your place. And I didn’t know where I was going to go in the beginning of my career. I didn’t know that it was going to be sci-fi, I didn’t know that people were going to appreciate me in sort of an area where I play strong, vulnerable women. I never would have imagined that that’s what I was going to make a career at.

And so I think the first time I started turning stuff down, you sort of go, “Really?” Because it’s usually someone else that tells you to turn it down, and you’re like, “No, guys. I want to work.” And they’re like, “No, not this one.” And there’s a part of you that goes, “But what if nothing else ever comes?” And that is the fear and that is the responsibility that comes from it, because there may not.

And you’re only as good as your last project, so if my last project is this and is Another Life and Longmire, I’ll hang my hat on that.

What has been your worst audition?

Katee Sackhoff: Oh fuck, my worst audition was for Nathan Fillion, to play Stana Katic’s role in Castle.

I love how you didn’t even have to think about it. You’re like, “Oh, this.”

Katee Sackhoff: No, I didn’t. Nathan is a really close friend of mine. I gave the worst audition of my life right after Battlestar, and it was a producer session, the deck was stacked. This was like, “You’ve got this in the bag. You’re fine Sackhoff.” And I went in, I sat down, and the worst audition of my life. And as I walked out, Nathan looked at me and was like, “I’m so sorry.” I was like, “Yeah, me too. Yep, yep, it just wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be.” Listen, everyone has an off day, you just hope it’s not the day you’re at the Olympics.

So, it’s okay. I think I did 24 right after that and then Longmire came within a year. And Stana was great in that role, so it just wasn’t my part. It just wasn’t my part, but at the time I was like, “God, Sackhoff, you’re better than that.” It’s hard sometimes when you’re reputation could beat you to it, because sometimes it can be a disservice because they think you can only do one thing and they think you’re going to be one thing, and then a lot of times, just be

2036 Origin Unknown will be in select theaters and VOD on June 8, 2018