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April 14, 2015

The Mary Sue Interview: Sonita Henry and Nick Willing On Olympus And Strong Women In Sci-Fi


Sam Maggs / The Mary Sue

Syfy’s newest offering Olympus premieres tonight, bringing us a fresh look at the classical Greek world of humans and the gods through Hero, played by newcomer Tom York. We had the opportunity to speak with creator Nick Willing (who you might know from Syfy miniseries like Tin Man and Neverland) and star Sonita Henry about what this new take on old tales has to offer.

“As a 13-part series, Olympus had to build a bigger, more epic and more sophisticated story than my shorter mini series,” said Willing. “Ancient Greek drama is unique because it touches on the things that make us tick, universal dreams and fears which drive us as much today as they did 2,500 years ago.”

And much of this drama is brought to the screen by Sonita Henry, whose character Medea has had a not-so-great history (we find her sixteen years after she’s killed her two children in a fit of jealous rage). “She’s just very misunderstood,” joked Henry. “She’s an interesting character because, in some instances you can say she’s the villain of the show, but she’s a really powerful woman whose taking charge whichever way she can.”

“Especially in Ancient Greece,” continued Henry, “women, they had no power, they were basically treated as slaves with which to reproduce. That was it. Not that we’ve traveled that far,” she added with grim humor, “Now at least we can work. We don’t get paid as much, but now we can work.”

But Medea isn’t one to be pushed around by the men in her life, despite her circumstances. “She has all the power,” said Henry. “She allows the men to think that they know what they’re doing, that they’re the most important, but she is manipulating everyone there and playing everyone off everyone else.”

“Medea is the villain we love to hate,” elaborated Willing. “She has an ugly past and is haunted by fearful ghosts, often reacting violently, but we may – eventually – find ourselves rooting for her, no matter how evil she becomes.” Olympus, he added, also features two other major lady characters: Oracle, “a sort of chaste wife to Hero,” and Ariadne, “the sexiest woman in Hero’s life.” But despite their character descriptions, Willing reassured me that “they’re not there for [Hero], they each passionately pursue their own defining agendas.”

Traditionally, genre television has provided women with pioneering and fiercely strong roles, and Henry has found that to be true over the course of her career. “The roles that are written for women in sci-fi are so much stronger, I personally feel,” said Henry. “They’re usually the ones that hold the power, the key, carrying the biggest guns. The woman is usually the smartest in the show. I’m very happy that that’s the genre that I’ve entered into. And also being mixed race, I think also lends itself to a futuristic take.”

Several episodes of Olympus were directed by the (jokingly) self-styled Grand Empress of Sci-Fi, Amanda Tapping, and she and Henry bonded over what it’s like being a woman with a career in Hollywood. “It’s difficult,” shared Henry,

“When you’re a woman in this industry, and you’ve been in this industry for a while, you can either get very, very jaded; or you can become a bitch, because you had to, sadly, just to deal with the crap that’s thrown at you. And [Tapping] hasn’t. She has the most amazing work ethic and and is one of the nicest people to work with. And we discussed a lot on set in between takes about women in the industry and how she is very happy she fell into sci-fi, and and the roles that are available to us in that genre. It’s fantastic.”

We heart you, Amanda.

Finally, I asked Willing and Henry how they’d fare in the Ancient Greek world of Olympus. “Oh, I think I’d do pretty well,” Henry laughed. “There was definitely stuff I brought to Medea that I’ve had to live though that I think helped with that character. I wouldn’t do so well in the corsets, though – I’m definitely more of a jeans and Doc Martin’s kind of girl.”

Willing, too, think’s he’d be alright, saying he would be a storyteller, same then as now: “Not with cameras and visual effects computers, but around a camp fire or in an amphitheater. Storytelling is not a job for me, but an obsession. I will always find a way of feeding that obsession wherever I am.”

Olympus premieres tonight on Syfy and on Super Channel 2 in Canada.