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That Ol' Black Magic

Farscape star Claudia Black charts the rise of Aeryn Sun...

by David Bassom
July 2000
Copyright 2000 TV Zone (Visual Imagination Ltd.); reproduced without permission<
p> Claudia Black is rapidly inspiring a whole new generation of Sun worshippers. From the moment she first appeared on the Jim Henson Company's red-hot sci-fi adventure series Farscape, Black has been capturing the imagination of viewers around the galaxy with her electrifying portrayal of renegade Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun.

"I always knew a good template was there for Aeryn," Black tells TV Zone. "I knew she would be a wonderful challenge and that her potential was just dependent on where writers would take the stories episodically and per season.

"I've been very pleased with the great opportunities that the writing department has afforded me, especially in Season Two. They've been far greater than Season One, because you have to be introduced to the entire ensemble before you can start extending each character out. This season has allowed me to show a lot of new aspects to Aeryn's character and personality, and I've just been having an absolute blast!"

Sun's dazzling voyage of self-discovery is undoubtedly one of Farscape's most compelling elements. Originally introduced as an obediant front-line soldier in the tyrannical Peacekeeper corps, the no-nonsense Sebacean is betrayed by her former masters during the series' pilot and is subsequently forced to begin a new life as a fugitive aboard the living space craft, Moya. Once there, she slowly develops a sense of autonomy, trust and compassion her former Peacekeeper colleagues could only dream of.

Sun Seeker
"Aeryn's definitely growing," notes Black with understandable pride. "I think she's got the most interesting arc because when we first see her, she's almost like a cardboard cut-out. She's a girl who uses her rifle to negotiate -- never her brain or her heart. She's expanded so much since then. I've been allowed to express extreme vulnerability and absolute strength, which is a golden opportunity for a female actor.

"Towards the end of the second season, it's amazing looking back to see how much she's changed. She's expanded and blossomed into what we would actually call a human being."

Considering the glorious heights to which Claudia Black has taken Aeryn Sun, it seems incredible to think that the throughtful and engaging Australian actress was initially refused a shot at the role. Yet during Farscape's original casting sessions, Aeryn was supposed to be played by a British actress, and only Britons were allowed to read for the part. Black, meanwhile, actually began her association with the Sydney-based production by helping with the show's auditions.

"When I first arrived, Aeryn was originally being cast from abroad," she recalls. "The casting agents in Australia has asked me to help read opposite actors who were screen-testing for the other characters, like Krais [sic], D'Argo and Zhaan.

"While I was there, one of the casting directors said to me, 'You'd be so perfect for Aeryn, it's such a shame they're not casting her'. There's actually only one other role that particular casting director said I would be perfect for, and that project hasn't happened yet. So it's interesting that she believed in me so strongly for Aeryn."

Toward the end of the casting process, fate intervened on Black's behalf. Realizing that it would not be possible to find a British Aeryn, Farscape's producers decided to consider Australian actresses for the role. Black was immediately invited to audition, and promptly found herself recording a screen test opposite the show's leading man, Ben Browder (alias John Crichton).

"Before I did my screen test, my greatest concern was whether I could work with Ben," she admits with a grin. "When I walked into the room where they had to do my make-up for the screen test, I said to Ben, 'Shall we run the lines?' And he said, 'Sure, let's go down the corridor, get some fresh air'. As we started to walk down the corridor, he started with the first line of the scene. I fell in with him, we performed the scene and it hasn't changed since then. We walk on the set now, we run the lines, there's a shape and form to the scene and a sense of understanding between us.

"Call it kismet, call it what you will, but there is a definite working chemistry between us which is vital. We both really appreciate the presence of it."

Love in the Aer'
Black's screen chemistry with Browder has definitely been put to good use by the makers of Farscape. In the show's early episodes, viewers see Aeryn and Crichton gradually form a strong bond, as the human astronaut helps Aeryn adjust to her new life and the error of Peacekeeper ways. With the passage of time, the pair also develop a strong romantic attraction. "We have quite obviously asked the audience to invest in a Crichton-Aeryn arc. Whatever the ending may be, I think we have quite consciously asked them to invest in the potential of them together.

"I think everyone knows in television land that in order for the show to have any sense of longevity, we can't just put Crichton and Aeryn together. We need the drama and conflict and adversities to be constantly thrown our way, so there's still something to hope for. I think hope is drastically romantic."

Far and Away
Drastically romantic or not, Black herself certainly had high hopes for Farscape when she joined the series. From the offset, she not only loved the character of Aeryn Sun, but also respectd the work of the various people and companies involved with its conception. Some two years later, Black is delighted to report that she hasn't been disappointed by the resulting production.

"This has probably surpassed my expectations," she reveals. "The premise of the show is not that original, but we've put a new spin on it and flavoured it with an Australian sense of irony and taken poor Ben Browder, who's a fish out of water, to the opposite side of the world to be our leading man. And I think that melange is enormously successful.

"It's very diffcult at times," she continues. "The more money and the more countries that involved in a co-production, the more difficult politically the project becomes. But with that, the potential reach of the show also becomes broader, and the greater the scale of the project and the production values. In that sense, it's been extraordinary to work on.

"I just couldn't believe when I first saw the first images of the computer-generated imagery; I was amazed by how beautiful the texturing was. the work was outstanding and we were all incredibly excited. For television, I think we deliver a very high standard of production values, and that's probably been one of the most exciting aspects of working on the show."

Black has been equally impressed by the work of Jim Henson Company's Muppet maestros in creating the alien inhabitants of the Farscape universe. "I do actually consider Rygel a co-star," she admits with a chuckle. "The puppeteers really do a terrific job in bringing the creatures to life."

Sun Shine
Reviewing her two-year stint aboard Moya, Black points to season one's PK Tech Girl and season two's The Way We Weren't as Aeryn's most satisfying outings to date. The former features Aeryn at her ass-kicking best, while The Way We Weren't sheds some light on her dark Peacekeper past.The Way We Weren't," she says. "Tony Tilse, our director, did an outstanding job. The episode shows a new side of Aeryn; we see that she did have emotions before and we understand why she's been burned, and why she's been so difficult with Crichton. It's enormously important the way the past ties into the present, and I just grabbed hold of that opportunity with both hands and almost died when I came home every night from work because I poured myself into every ounce of that script.

"I also loved PK Tech Girl, which was also directed by Tony Tilse. Tony Tilse is my good luck charm. It was the first time we'd expanded the scope of Farscape to beyond the studio and said, 'Let's make it filmic'... It was also an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style episode with my lines and dead-pan delivery!"

Episodes like PK Tech Girl and The Way We Weren't have helped Farscape become one of the most enjoyable and consistently surprising Sci-Fi shows currently on the air. the series has already been a big hit on the US Sci-Fi Channel, the UK's BBC2 and on home video. It is set to enjoy further success from November, when it begins an uncut and uninterrupted weekly transmission on the UK Sci-Fi Channel. "It's been terrific to hear that the show's successful in places like Britain. It's been a real boost to us all here, because Farscape has only just started to air [on Australia's Channel Nine network] and it's encouraged us to keep going because everyone seems to be enjoying it."

Pitch Black
Farscape represents both a big break and a major departure for Claudia Black. Prior to boarding Moya, her screen credits largely consisted of relatively conventional Australian dramas like A Country Practice, Good Guys Bad Guys and City Life. Black's only brushes with the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre had come with the smash hit movie, Pitch Black, and her guest role as Cassandra in the Hercules episodes Atlantis and Hercules on Trial.

"When I first read the scripts for Farscape, I thought the show would probably look like Xena and Hercules," she recalls. "I remember thinking, 'If only Aeryn could be as cool as Xena,' because I think Lucy Lawless does an outstanding job. I think as a satellite show that was inspired by Hercules, I think it was a stroke of brilliance to bring another female heroine to the fore.

"I was inspired by Lucy Lawless and the role of Xena. Although Farscape isn't the adventures of Aeryn in space, she does have a very commanding presence on the show. I'm also delighted that Farscape has two other very strong female characters, Chiana and Zhaan. It's rare, especially on American television, to have three female leads and two male human rols, and then obviously the creatures of Pilot and Rygel.

"It's proven in our demographics that one of our greatest audiences is women aged between 25 and 39. And as much as I'm sure they love Ben Browder playing John Crichton, I think they're also very interested in seeing strong women playing strong characters."

Out of the Sun
With Farscape's sensational second season now in the can, Black is enjoying some time out of the Sun. Nevertheless, she still cherishes her involvement with both her character and the show, and hopes that they will continue to capture the hearts and minds of the viewers across the globe.

"I listened to a speech by the Minister of Trade from Canada the other day," she reveals, "and he was talking about the importance of an artist. I wouldn't refer to myself as an artist, but he was basically saying that an artist gives shape to certain emotions that a whole generation of people might be feeling.

"I think Farscape does that, and in the future I would like to do films and perhaps plays that capture the zeitgeist of a generation and bring shape to emotions that are important to us. I want to be able to look back and say, 'Wow, Farscape was part of the energy of our time. It reflected something about us'. I think that's important."