Confessions of a Scream Queen
by Jay S. Jacobs
The last time we spoke with Tricia Helfer, about a decade ago, she was working on Burn Notice, Inseparable and in the early phases of Battlestar: Galactica – The Plan. At the time I wondered when she had time for sleep.
That kind of a workload is not all that surprising for Helfer, the former fashion model who has become a go-to actress for sci-fi and horror since she broke out into stardom as Cylon Number Six on the popular new millennial reboot of Battlestar Galactica.
Helfer currently has two big roles coming up on series based on iconic horror franchises. She is the lead in an episode of Shudder’s new update series of Stephen King’s classic Creepshow anthology films. On the new series King, his son Joe Hill, and other horror veterans celebrate the pulp comic of the 1950s with a series of spooky short films.
Helfer also returns to her Battlestar Galactica network, The SyFy Channel, to have a recurring role in their horror/action series Van Helsing. In the series, Helfer is perhaps the first woman ever to play Dracula, the most famous vampire of all.
Yet, despite the fact that Helfer is best known for her ability to scare and amaze us, she let us in on a surprising secret.
“I’m a wimp when it comes to [horror],” Helfer admits. “I went to Universal Horror Nights the other day with friends and I’m the stupid one that will fall over backwards screaming from something that jumps out at me.”
Of course, that is looking at horror from the other side.
“I tend to not watch scary things, but I don’t mind playing in them,” Helfer continues. “It’s different when you’re filming them, because you’re immersed in them. Obviously, you know it’s fake, but you’re immersed in it. And quite often I’m the bad guy myself.”
She laughs, “I’m the one doing the horrific things.”
It’s hard to get more horrific than Dracula, the creature of the night who essentially inspired the entire vampire mythology from Bram Stoker’s novel.
“It would be paralyzing if I thought too much about the iconicness – if that’s a word – of the character,” Helfer says. “I’m a little tickled that I think I’m the first female Dracula.”
It certainly is a different take on the story.
“Van Helsing is a total reimagination of the timeless brand,” Helfer continues, “with Vanessa Van Helsing at the core of it. It is already a very female-centric show. So, having a female Dracula in many ways made complete sense.”
So, how does Helfer pull off playing a character that has been played by so many great actors and who brings up such concrete images in people’s minds?
“For me it was more trying to find the right tone within their version of the show and the brand,” Helfer says. “Just going in and being able to play with them. I wanted to make her more androgynous. I didn’t want to make her vampy and femme fatale. That’s what we went for in terms of look. In terms of my performance it’s a little bit more creature[-like], a little bit odder. Powerful, a little creepy, a little odd. [That’s what] I was at least thinking of for the character.”
Van Helsing had been going for three seasons before Helfer got there. However, she was happy with how quickly she fit in with the show.
“My first episode was directed by Jonathan Scarfe, who plays Axel [on the show]. Jonathan and I had worked together before on a MOW [movie of the week]. We played lovers in a drama for Lifetime [called Hidden Crimes]. We got along really great. It can be hard to come into a show that is established, because you are walking in as an outsider to a family. But everybody was extremely welcoming and friendly.”
Not only was a friendly face on the set a help for Helfer as a person, it also helped her as an actress.
“Having shorthand with Jonathan already was great, because you can just cut to the chase,” Helfer continues. “You’re like, okay, so this is what we’re thinking here. I’m thinking this. Did that work? You just really feel comfortable, which is great, because that allows you to play and experiment and try things. When you’re not worried about [it], you can just cut to the chase. That was nice for me, for my first episode to have Jonathan directing.”
Making it even better was the fact that Scarfe was not the only familiar face on the Van Helsing set.
“I also know Michael Eklund,” she says. “I know Aleks Paunovic. I know some other people in the cast. I talked to Michael Eklund about it and he’s like, ‘Okay, you can’t necessarily get through all three seasons before you start filming.’ TV works very fast. I was watching as many [episodes] as I could from the beginning. Michael was like, ‘You’ve got to get them to send this episode of season three, because your character is discussed and that’s where Abraham is introduced.’ Then I went to the producers and had them send that particular episode. It was certainly nice to see friendlies as you start a show.”
Her experience on Creepshow was just as much fun, although it was a more isolated situation because Creepshow does not have a regular cast or any narrative through lines. Like the classic Stephen King/George Romero films of the 1980s, the new series is a group of Twilight Zone-like short stories, all of which have different casts and most of which have different filmmakers. Even though the series is based on two cult-favorite films, Helfer came into the process a bit blind.
“I wasn’t familiar with [the movies],” Helfer admits. “I had heard of them, obviously, but I’m a huge wimp when it comes to things scaring me and jumping out. I grew up without a television on a farm. We really didn’t go to movies. I only saw very few movies growing up.”
Still, she was on board from the very start.
“When I got the show, when it was offered to me, I immediately said yes, because I loved the script,” Helfer says. “And the chance to work with [showrunner] Greg [Nicotero]. That was a no-brainer.”
It only helps that since she has grown a fondness for the source material.
“I actually didn’t watch the movies before I taped, before we filmed,” she says. “Since then I’ve gone back and watched the two movies and loved them, actually. I wish I’d seen them before – not necessarily before filming, I don’t think it would have changed anything in terms of my performance – but they were just so much fun. I knew they were based on the 1950s comics, but I didn’t know the whole fun aspect to the show. They are scary, but they are funny. There is the comeuppance at the end. They’re really good. I found myself very pleasantly surprised when I watched them. I’m really psyched to have been able to be part of it.”
Her part is quite fun and quite funny, just like in the classic films. She had great fun making her episode.
‘Lydia Lane’s Better Half’ is fairly straightforward in a way. It’s about this powerful woman that is getting a job promotion,” Helfer says. “She passes over her protégée and lover – a young woman in the company – for someone else. It just spirals downhill from there. There’s a series of bad decisions that are made. The original decision wasn’t necessarily a bad one, but the follow ups to it [are]. [You see [how quickly things can spiral out of control when decisions are made poorly.”
Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
“She’s then left to struggle with the decisions and what has happened,” Helfer continues. “She’s stuck in an elevator after an earthquake. Her mind starts playing tricks on her. Is it in her mind? Is she losing her senses? Is she dehydrated? Or is she really in a supernatural type of experience?”
Helfer laughs. “It doesn’t work out so well for her in the end.”
Helfer loved being a part of the Creepshow family and was happy when she was invited to join some of the other cast and crew for a panel at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego. Helfer has experienced the Comic-Con phenomenon before, but this year was particularly enjoyable for her.
“Each story was a smaller group, so I had actually never met DJ [Qualls], or Giancarlo [Esposito], or Adrienne [Barbeau],” Helfer says. “Obviously, I’d worked with Greg, who was on the panel with us. But getting to meet and hang out a couple of the other actors that you didn’t even know before was fun. I was glad to be there and [am] just excited to see all the episodes.”
Of course, if Helfer tries to watch every episode of every show she has been on, again, she may not have time for sleep. She has done starring, recurring and guest starring roles on multiple series. She’s done TV movies and films, video games and animated series. Sometimes it seems like she must always be on a set somewhere.
“I feel very fortunate. The truth is I don’t work near as much as I’d like to,” Helfer laughs. “I definitely feel extremely fortunate that I continue to be able to do my job and work with wonderful people. I hope it keeps going.”
As mentioned above, lately she has been doing a lot of voiceover work as well, in things like cartoons and video games. It’s a different process, but it has its perks.
“I love doing voiceover work,” Helfer says. “It’s easier because you don’t have to do hair, makeup, or whatever. It’s less time consuming, for sure. But, 99.9% of the time you’re working solo. You’re not working off other actors. They either haven’t recorded their stuff yet, or they have but they’re not in the room with you. So, there is an element – the playing element or bouncing off somebody else – that you don’t have when you’re doing voiceover. It’s a much more solo experience. I love it, because it’s a lot of fun, and quite often you’re playing characters that would be very difficult to play in reality. It’s total imagination and extremes and fun. [But] you lose some in terms of not working off other actors.”
Also, Helfer is not just about the acting. She has also been a very vocal advocate for animals.
“As we’re talking, I have one cat on my lap, and one is right on my desk staring at me. And one cat in the doorway,” Helfer laughs. “I’ve just always loved animals. I’ve loved their innocence and their love. I’ve always felt a connection. It’s part of my job and my duty to speak up for them and help raise awareness. They’ve got feelings and emotions and we can do what we can to help them. Take care of them and stop animal cruelty. Stop violence towards animals. It’s something that if there is any way that I can help by getting some information out there, by using a platform that maybe some people are watching, then I feel that’s my duty.”
And as a self-proclaimed “horror wimp,” what kind of shows does Helfer watch during her downtime?
“Lately I’ve been stuck on MSNBC,” Helfer admits. “I don’t watch a lot, and then when I do, I’ll binge something. I just binged Fleabag. Before that it was The Bodyguard. My first binging I think was Breaking Bad. I got into Peaky Blinders a little bit, but then haven’t seen the subsequent seasons. I’ve watched Stranger Things. I tend to watch more drama, maybe a little bit quirky. I’ve seen Afterlife. I like some comedies. I guess that’s what I go for.”
Of course, Helfer became famous as one of the leads of one of the most binge-worthy series ever. Fifteen years on from Battlestar Galactica, just a couple of weeks before our interview, it was announced that there would be yet another reboot of Galactica, which itself was a re-do of a 1970s TV series by Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot.
“It’s a funny feeling, right?” Helfer says. “Our version was a reimagining. I can’t say that it’s a bad idea, but having been involved in it, it feels funny. I won’t lie. It does feel funny. But he’s a great creator and showrunner and I’m sure he’ll bring a good take to it. It does give you a little queasy feeling in the stomach. It’s been 15 years, but it feels like it hasn’t been that long. So, it feels like it’s too close. We reimagined the show from the 70s.”
Helfer laughs. “But it is 15 years ago. It’s not yesterday. I’m sure it will be fantastic. I know [creator of her version] Ron Moore and Sam have discussed [it], and from what I’ve heard, it’s a story within the same type of world, but a different perspective, or something. I don’t really know. I’ll be curious to see how it is and I wish them luck with it. From what I know, nobody [from the old series] is involved with it, but I could be wrong. I’m not involved with it.” She laughs again.
That’s okay, though, like one of the cats that Helfer loves so much, she always seems to land on her feet. She has a long, impressive filmography, which is pretty surprising for a woman who grew up without a television and never even considered acting as a potential career. She has come a long, long way since she was approached as a teenager by an agent while she was waiting in a movie line in her native Canada.
“It was a modeling agent,” Helfer explains. “I would have never really gotten into modeling on my own. That probably would have never led to acting. It definitely sent my life in a different way than I was planning it.”
She laughs, “I guess that’s what chance meetings are, right? They can either work out or they can’t. They can take you in a certain direction. You just never know. I’m certainly glad. I enjoy myself and I enjoy my work. I’m happy it turned out the way it did.”
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 26, 2019.
Photos 1 & 3 by Ashley Foster © 2019.
Photos 2 & 4 by Manfred Baumann © 2019. Courtesy of Status LA.