April 14, 2015

Means To An End: Interview with Olympus’ Sonita Henry

Steve Eramo / Sci Fi and TV Talk

Throughout time, there have been plenty of kings, dictators, presidents and other men in positions of authority who have had an equally strong-willed – or in some cases, even stronger-willed – female by their side. In the new fantasy TV series Olympus, Medea is such a woman. The greatest sorceress in history, she is beautiful, resourceful, cunning and someone with whom not to be trifled. As the Queen of Athens, Medea is carefully guiding, manipulating as well as protecting her husband Aegeus, who relies on his false bravado to mask the fact that he is ill-equipped to lead his people.  As clever as she is, Medea has placed herself in a dangerous and challenging position, one that British-born actress Sonita Henry, who plays the sorceress, was eager to share.

“I was living in Los Angeles and had moved back to England for a short period of time, during which I met with casting director Amy Hubbard,” recalls Henry. “She’s a very well-known casting director here in the UK and has worked on a number of projects includingThe Hobbit feature films. I kept auditioning for Amy, but for one reason or another, wasn’t quite right for the various parts.

“Last January [2014] I moved back to Los Angeles, and then, I think, in March,, I received an e-mail from my London agent telling me that Amy wanted me to read for a part in this new TV show called Olympus. The character was a little bit older than me, but they felt I could still pull it off. It wasn’t, though, until I read the character breakdown that I realized it was Medea. I’m a huge fan of Greek myth, and growing up in England, you’re taught a great deal about that subject in school. Medea is basically the archetype of every villainous female as well as a great character, and I immediately thought, ‘I have to get this role.’

“So I put together an audition tape and sent it off to Amy. A couple of days later, I was told that the director, Nick Willing [also Olympus creator/executive producer/writer], liked my performance, and, in fact, was flying to Los Angeles on business the following week. Amy set up a meeting for me with Nick, and the two of us spent almost two hours chatting about the project and the role. From there, it was up to Nick and the other Olympus executive producers to decide if I was right for the part. There was much toing and froing amongst everyone, and pretty much a rollercoaster ride of emotions for me. Finally, my agent called from London to tell me I’d booked Medea. All in all, the [casting] process took almost two months, but it ended up working in my favor, so I was thrilled.”

In the Olympus series opener, The Temple of Gaia, the show’s lead protagonist, Hero (Tom York), risks his life to rescue The Oracle of Gaia (Sonia Cassidy) from Cyclops (John De Santis), Hero is to return her to the priests of the sacred temple, but their journey is fraught with danger, and upon arriving, Hero finds all is not as he was led to believe. Elsewhere, the great city of Athens is under siege, not only from King Minos’ (Alan C. Peterson) army, but also from within. A plot to assassinate King Aegeus (Graham Shiels) is thwarted by Medea (Sonita Henry), and the sorceress makes a show of strength in order to discourage any further betrayal by those around her. Stepping into Medea’s shoes and filming her first episode was an excited as well as daunting prospect for Henry.

“I think what sticks out the most in my mind is fear,” she says, “and I know every other actor can agree with this. You’re given the part, and suddenly you start to think, ‘OK, now I have to bring this character to life, and I don’t want to screw it up.’ Medea is a very famous character and I wanted to do her justice. This is my Medea, too, not another actress’, so she’s going to be different.

“I was lucky in that the first few episodes we had an actual set to shoot on, which gave us a world to work in. The rest of the episodes were filmed using a green screen set, and that takes a bit of getting used to. Fortunately I’d worked on video games, and you have no set for that, either. So you really have to use your most basic acting toolbox, which is to play. As kids we play and don’t even think about it, but when you grow up, you stop playing and don’t use your imagination as much. As an actor you can’t do that. You have to use your imagination, so this was quite challenging.  Also, the green screen and the color green itself is extremely draining. After being on-set for a couple of hours – and this is something that the crew realized as well – you start forgetting words, you can’t hold a conversation, and your energy just suddenly goes. It’s the weirdest thing, and overcoming that was difficult.

“When it comes to my character, Medea is extremely complicated,” continues the actress. “She was totally in love with and married to Jason of the Argonauts, and they had two beautiful children. He then, however, decided he wanted to marry someone else, but still keep Medea on the side. She wasn’t too happy about that, so she killed his new wife and sliced her children’s throats. I’m not a mother, so it was tough trying to get into the mindset of a woman who could have possibly done something like that.

“Medea is also a woman in very much a man’s world, and the way she talks is very masculine. Nick Willing wrote her that way, but if I had played her masculine, no one would have cared about her. A lot of men, in particular, switch off when a woman is quite masculine in their speech. They just don’t want to listen to her, so I realized very early on that even though what I’m saying as Medea is masculine, I had to bring out her feminine side. She’s almost like a cat, you know? Cats are kind of wily as well as very manipulative and feminine. So I had to make Medea soft, while still keeping that edge to her.  She’s really vulnerable, and that’s why she’s built up these ‘walls’ around her, so whatever Medea is saying is not how she feels. Playing those two sides – what she’s saying and what she’s actually saying – was very interesting.”

In the aforementioned The Temple of Gaia, Medea is seen bleeding her son Prince Lykos (Wayne Burns), as part of a spell to unlock the magical Lexicon, which she believes he carries inside him. It holds incredible power, which Medea plans to use for her own purposes. As her and Aegeus’ firstborn son, the Lexicon should have been passed down from father to son. Unbeknownst to Medea, the Lexicon is locked within the dreams of Hero, who is, secretly, Aegeus’ son. Not surprisingly, the family dynamic amongst Aegeus, Medea and Lykos is far from a healthy one.

“Medea married Aegeus for a reason, which was that she believed he carried the Lexicon inside him,” notes Henry. “She knew that if she had a child with him, that the child would inherit the Lexicon. Medea would then be able to manipulate the Lexicon for the reasons that she wants, which become apparent as the story goes on. I think she has feelings for Aegeus, but I wouldn’t call it love. It’s a means to an end. In the first episode, Aegeus is wounded, and if his men think he’s weak, they will get rid of him, and if they get rid of him, they will kill her. There’s no love for Medea in the court, and she’s very aware of that. So she needs to keep Aegeus safe and alive to keep herself alive, and also their son Lykos, who, again, she believes carries the Lexicon.

“As for Lykos, my character doesn’t like him. Let’s just say that Medea is not the mother of the year. He’s 16 years old, and she’s worked all that time to try to pull the Lexicon out of him. Then she discovers that Lykos doesn’t carry the Lexicon, so she really, really dislikes him at that point because she has wasted all those years of her life. Lykos is another means to an end with Medea, and as the show goes on you become very aware that there’s no love for him, which is quite sad and I feel so bad for Lykos.”

Another family member that plays an important role in Medea’s fight to hang on to the throne of Athens is her brother-in-law, Lord Pallas. “That, to me, is one of the most fascinating and delicious of Medea’s relationships in the show,” says Henry. “It’s very apparent in the first episode, and there’s more of that as the show goes on. John Emmet Tracy, who plays Pallas, is not only a wonderful actor, but also just the nicest man on the planet. I mean, it’s ridiculous how nice he is, so in-between takes we got along really well and were very sweet to each other. Then, however, when the director called, ‘Action,’ suddenly I had to hate him and he had to hate me,” jokes the actress.

“Pallas and Medea truly dislike one another, because he just wants the throne. As Aegeus’ brother, Pallas believes he should have had the throne and feels that he would have made a much better king of Athens. Truth be told, he’s right. Aegeus is a terrible king; he’s weak and a coward, but because he carried the Lexicon inside him, he was put on the throne, and poor Pallas was relegated to the sidelines with his mullet and beard. So Medea basically does not trust Pallas. That’s the best way to describe that relationship. She knows what he’s trying to do, which isn’t necessarily to kill Aegeus, but get him off the throne. He knows that she knows as well, and that’s where the interesting dynamic with Pallas and Medea comes in.”

As Olympus’ 13-episode first season unfolds, Hero, accompanied by The Orcale and the greatest inventor of all time, Daedalus (Matt Frewer), continues his quest through the lands of Ancient Greece, facing all manner of perils as he attempts to find the secret to unlocking the doors to Olympus in order to fulfill his destiny to become immortal and a god. It is not long before Medea learns of Hero’s connection to Aegeus and that the young man inherited the Lexicon from his biological father. As she tries to win Hero over to her side, Medea must also deal with other threats, all of which presented Henry with some difficult but welcome acting challenges.

“We shot two episodes at the same time, but they were out of sequence,” she explains. “Because she changes so much in the story, I was always thinking, ‘OK, where is Medea in her emotional life? Is she mean, is she manipulative, or is she smoothing out a little?’ So I was constantly trying to juggle that and making notes in my script like, ‘Don’t play this too mean. She’s softening up a bit.’ She’s not necessarily a villain, but Medea goes from what many people would call a villain, to being a hero over the course of season one, in the sense of what she sacrifices and how she helps people.

“Again, she changes so much, and I’m really looking forward to viewers seeing that change and, hopefully, I’ve done a good enough job that they will see it. There are a couple of very emotional scenes that I got to do, which I had never done before. When I read the script and saw those scenes I thought, ‘I’m not sure if I can do this,’ but the fact that I did it and everyone was saying, ‘That was really good and exactly what we needed,’ made me think, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ I know it sounds silly, but as an actor you’re always questioning if you have the ability to do something, and it’s not until you’re put into a circumstance where you have to use certain skills, do you know whether or not you can pull it off. So Nick Willing pretty much put me through the paces or a form of ‘drama school’ for four months. I’ve taken acting classes for a long time, but I’ve never had to use those [acting] tools. It wasn’t until I did Olympus that I used them and realized that I could use them, which was absolutely wonderful.”

Unlike some actors, Henry did not grow up wanting to one day work in the industry. She wanted to pursue a career in journalism and her studies at university reflected this. While at school, she was offered a part in writer/director Luc Besson’s 1997 Sci-Fi feature film The Fifth Element, but even that did not sway the actress from her journalistic goals, at least not right away.

“After graduating university, I moved to New York, and one day while walking down Broadway, I thought, ‘I actually don’t want to be a journalist; I want to be an actor.’ I had so much fun doing The Fifth Element, and I thought they just give you parts in movies.’ I learned very quickly that’s not true,” recalls the actress with a laugh. “That’s when I decided that if I wanted to be an actor, I’d better learn how to act, or at least see if I had any acting skills. I don’t think you can be taught how to act. I think you have to have the ability in you, and an acting school helps you bring that out. So I went to HB Studios in New York, studied Uta Hagen technique as well as Stanislavski, and then I moved to Los Angeles and studied the Miesner technique.”

Without a TraceCold Case and NCIS are among the actress’ other TV credits, and she has also done voice work on a variety of video games such as Dead Space 2Dead Space 3 and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Her other genre work includes the roles of Colonel Meme in the Doctor Who episode The Time of the Doctor, and the Kelvin Doctor in producer/director J.J. Abrams first Star Trek big screen adventure.

“My agent called me one day and said, ‘You have an audition for Doctor Who, but it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny, part, literally a nothing role. I’ll turn it down for you.’ Then he told me about the part and I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. First of all, it’s Doctor Who, second, it’s a Christmas special, and thirdly, my character turns into a Dalek. I will be doing it, and I’ll be happy to do it,’” says the actress.

“I know the series is popular in America, but growing up as a British child, Doctor Who is almost part of your DNA. So I got to go to the Doctor Who set, see Daleks, Weeping Angels and meet Matt Smith [the 11th Doctor]. Even though it was a tiny part, the wonderful thing to come out of this is that I get to attend Doctor Who conventions where I get to meet the most amazing fans. So I feel very lucky about that.

“As far as Star Trek goes, it was my American agent who phoned to tell me I had an audition for the movie. So I met with casting director, April Webster, who I knew, and after the audition I was offered the part. Once again, it was a tiny role and my American agent didn’t think I should do it, but my character is the doctor who gets to deliver the baby who one day grows up to be Captain James T. Kirk [Chris Pine]. I had such fun, and like Doctor Who, I get to go to these really cool Star Trek conventions where I get to meet all the Trekkers and Trekkies.

“I adore Sci-Fi, comic book, and gaming fans. They’re my favorite people on the planet, and I get to hang out with them, do Q&A panels with them, and have my picture taken with them. They are just the warmest, friendliest, most inviting, inclusive people you could meet, and I think that that’s pretty much one of the most rewarding aspects of my [acting] career,” enthuses Henry.

Steve Eramo

Olympus airs Thursdays @ 10:00 p.m. EST on Syfy (US) and Canada’s Super Channel. As noted above, photo copyright of Olympus Productions, Inc., so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!