Words cannot quite describe the look on forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman’s face as he follows Dr. Helen Magnus out of a dark passage and into the central hub of a place called the Sanctuary. The circular room extends hundreds of feet into the air and has multiple levels with numerous cubicles, each of which is home to a very special occupant. With a feeling of trepidation as well as curiosity, Will follows Magnus as she gives him a closer look at her guests. Could his mind be playing tricks on him? From a beautiful mermaid to a reptilian creature and even a man with two faces, Will is understandably overwhelmed by what he is seeing.
“How many…more are there?” he asks Magnus.
“Many,” she says, smiling, and leads Will away to continue his tour.
“Cut! That’s great,” enthuses director Martin Wood. “Let’s do it one more time, only from a different angle.”
Those who saw the Internet Sci-Fi series Sanctuary will remember the above exchange from the show’s two-hour web pilot. In May 2008, this sequence was among those that were re-shot for the TV version of the show, which completed airing its 13-episode first season back in January on the Sci Fi Channel. In it, actor Robin Dunne plays Dr. Will Zimmerman, who is chosen by the brilliant and beautiful Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) as her new protege. Together with Helen’s daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), they find, protect and offer refuge to the many strange, and sometimes dangerous, creatures walking this planet. As with the Internet version, the TV adaptation requires its cast to act against mostly virtual or “green screen” sets, which has taken some getting used to for Dunne.
“It’s great to work on green screen because the possibilities are endless,” says Dunne, taking a breather while the cameras are being repositioned for a new shot. “You can do anything, you can create any type of creature or setting, so it’s amazing. It’s also not difficult to act in this sort of environment because I have the privilege of working with such a talented company of actors. The thing that I did have to get the hang of was the dimensions of space. We do a lot of stuff where we’re running through the Sanctuary and turning corners, and every now and then while filming the Internet pilot, Martin [Wood] would call, ‘Cut,’ and then say, ‘Hey, Robin that was terrific, but you just ran through a wall.’ And I’d be like, ‘OK, what are the dimensions here?’ and they’d put green tape down on top of the green floor to mark off the boundaries. So there were things like that to get used to, but once I did, it was really exciting because with every new script that came out, you never knew where your character was going to end up and what we were going to do.”
A graduate of the Etibicoke School of The Arts High School in Toronto, Ontario, the Canadian-born Dunne was enamored of acting since childhood. In 1994, he made his professional debut playing Judith Light’s troubled son in the made-for-TV movie Against Their Will: Women in Prison, and since then has appeared in several other TV movies as well as guest-starred on such series as Dawson’s Creek, Dead Like Me and CSI: Miami. The actor has also worked on a number of feature films, including a very early one entitled Teenage Space Vampires. It was directed by Martin Wood, who, 10 years later, contacted Dunne about a role in a pilot for a new web-based series called Sanctuary.
“Martin sent me a copy of the script, which wasn’t really a full script but rather a few scenes,” recalls the actor. “I read it and really liked it. I had actually worked with Damian Kindler [Sanctuary creator/executive producer] a few years ago in Toronto on another TV show, so I knew him, too. He and Martin said, ‘Look, we’re putting this pilot together and we’d like you to play Will. There’s just one thing, we’re going to shoot everything using a green screen,’ And I was taken a little aback. I had worked with green screen before, but just in piecemeal. Martin told me, ‘Don’t worry. We’re onto something here and we really want you to be a part of it.”
”So I came to Vancouver to do the pilot, and it was my first time working with Amanda Tapping, which was great. The cast and crew were both wonderful and the experiences unlike anything I’d ever had before. Once we finished shooting, I went back to Los Angeles and then a couple of months later, Damian called me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come back up here and see what the [VFX] team have replaced the green [screen] with.’ So I did and I was completely floored. I couldn’t believe how amazing the graphics were. It was like watching a 3-D graphic novel. From there it was the ups and downs of these guys working for a very long time to put this whole thing together. Every now and then I have to remind myself that it’s really happening because I still can’t believe it.”
The bizarre deaths of two police officers at the hands of what appears to be a young boy is what initially draws Will Zimmerman into the world of Helen Magnus and the Sanctuary. He discovers that the creatures, otherwise known as abnormals, she and her associates are looking for are, in fact, missing links to the evolution of humankind. While some people might be afraid of crossing into such unfamiliar territory, Will has no such aversion. Of course, he has plenty of questions along the way, which is a big part of who the character is.
“It’s Will who brings us into this world, and the audience is experiencing everything as he does,” explains Dunne. “So he’s looking at the Sanctuary and all these monsters in cages and processing this information at the same time as the audience. The challenge for me is that I always try to be very honest with my acting and come across as believable as possible. I want to make sure that my character is having these truly amazing mind-boggling experiences, while at the same time never letting the viewers get too far behind and allowing them to experience the awe of it, too. So that’s the kind of thing I really try to keep in mind when doing this show.
“I also think that the character has this faulting curiosity. He’s the type of guy who goes, ‘I know this is crazy and a really radical choice I’m making.’ Basically, Will enters into a world where, once he makes the leap, he can never look back. Nothing will ever be the same, but he still does it because he has this curiosity and is searching for something. Regardless of the perils of what he’s getting into, he’s always going to make that [same] choice and err on the side of, ‘OK, let’s find out more.’ So I always want to keep that fire alight in his eyes and make sure it feels really scary, because it should be. Yes, it’s terrifying, but at the same time I want to make sure that he’s going forward into this world.
Of all the people who Helen could have chosen to help her, why does Dunne think she picked Will? “There’s a strange relationship between Magnus and Will,” he says, “While she is this worldly individual with all this experience, there is something that she saw in Will and a reason she brought him into her fold. It’s as if she needs his brain as well as insight and ability to connect with these abnormals. At the same time, Will isn’t quite sure whether or not he and Helen are equals. Are they on the same playing level or is she his superior?
“So there’s that sort of murky environment he must contend with. Then there’s Ashley, who’s like, ‘I’ve been here all along and I know what I’m doing.’ However, she’s kind of a loose cannon, and Will wants to reach out to her and say, listen, I’m here if you ever want to talk. Again, as with Helen, my character has to try to find his place with Ashley.”
Let’s look back now to last August and a second visit to the Sanctuary set. At the time, the show’s cast and crew were shooting one of the final season one episodes, Warriors, in which Will is given a very personal glimpse of what it is like to be an abnormal. “My character is injected, I guess you could say, with the abnormal ability to grow into this huge, hulking mass, and tomorrow I will literally be 200 pounds heavier thanks to prosthetics.
“Story-wise, one of Will’s friends goes missing and he tracks him down to an illegal fight ring made up of all abnormals. Of course, my character is sucked into it and forcibly turned into an abnormal in order to fight. It’s been a really interesting and cool experience for me because I usually don’t get to do a lot of the physical stuff. Will is all about shrinking the problems of the mind, so to be in an episode where I’m working quite a bit with the stunt guys to choreograph the fights and wear a muscle suit is a lot of fun. I’ve yet to combine the suit and the prosthetics with the intricate ‘dance’ that we’re going to do tomorrow. That should be interesting. The [muscle] suit itself is a full torso and looks really scary. As big as it is, though, I believe it’s quite an intricate piece of equipment with ventilation and all sorts of neat things, so I think I’ll be alright. Of course, I’m saying that sitting here right now in a nice cool set. This time tomorrow I might just have a different opinion,” jokes the actor.
Prior to Warriors, the actor worked on another physically demanding episode called Requiem in which Will and Helen answer a call for help in the Bermuda Triangle and end up trapped underwater. “That story was a great deal of fun to do,” says Dunne with a smile. “It was very much a character-driven piece and almost like doing a play. We shot it in sequence, which is really neat from an acting perspective. It was also an episode that was completely free of green screen, so it was a blast working on such a cool set. It was a challenge, too, because, first of all, it was an extremely emotional episode for Amanda and me. Again, as an actor, it’s a treat to be able to delve deep into a story and turn out some really solid work, particularly for me working opposite such an amazing actress like Amanda.
“Another challenge was the fact that we were meant to be in a sinking submarine. There were pipes bursting and everything was getting flooded. So it was days and days of being soaking wet, but, yet again, we were telling another neat story. We shot scenes where Amanda and I were underwater in a tank and had to wear breathing gear. Martin Wood [Sanctuary executive producer], who directed a number of our episodes, was down there as well. They had a speaker underwater, too, so he was giving us direction while we were submerged. Man, that was crazy,” laughs the actor. “I’d never done any type of scuba diving so I was curious about what it would be like, and I loved every minute of it.”
As mentioned earlier, the use of green screen in Sanctuary allows its characters to travel to such faraway places as a crypt in Northern Scotland to catacombs beneath the city of Rome, and even the Himalayas where, in Kush, Will Zimmerman must relive an horrific childhood memory.
“In this story my character is dealing with his past and the loss of his mother when he was a child,” says Dunne. “On top of that is the fact that he thinks he saw something that, for his entire life, he’s been attributing to hallucination. However, when Magnus brought him into the Sanctuary, she told him, ‘Oh, by the way, what you saw that night when you were a child, it was real.’ So Will has been grappling with that for this entire season. My God, it was like a can of worms that opened up for him, and in this particular episode, Kush, there was a lot of stuff going on for Will. We were trapped out in the snow, there were tricks of the mind happening, and Will was having visions of his mother. That kind of stuff is challenging because it’s emotionally draining, but very much worth it.”
Although it had generated plenty of positive Internet buzz, there was no guarantee that Sanctuary would be a hit when it moved over to the small screen. Well, it was, and before its first season finished airing, the Sci Fi Channel ordered a second, which is set to premiere later this year. That means more opportunities for Dunne to build upon his work in season one, which, for him, includes following a certain creative “regimen.”
“I’ve run a few marathons in my life and it’s not unlike making a TV show because it truly is a long race,” he muses. “You have to pace yourself in order to keep your energy level up as well as find the time to keep your character fresh and alive. I think it’s something I’ve been able to manage, but I haven’t been doing it for that long at all, especially if you look at Amanda, who worked on Stargate for 11 years. I kind of pull her aside every now and then and ask, ‘How do you do it?’ There is an art to conserving your energy while also bringing your game to the field every day and throwing strike after strike.
“We finished the submarine episode four or five days ago, and the night we wrapped filming I was almost in a little bit of a panic because I felt drained. I had nothing left, and we still had episodes left to shoot. So it’s been a challenge to really bring it to the table and make sure you’re not leaving it in your locker. My God, I’ve used every single sports metaphor I could think of. People reading this will be like, ‘Not another one,’” laughs Dunne.
“Again, as tiring and draining as if sometimes is, the truth is this is such a fun job and we have such amazing people here on Sanctuary. It’s like coming to work with dozens and dozens of your good friends every day, and that makes a huge difference. This is the greatest job I’ve ever had and I get by with a little help from my friends. OK, that’s not a sports metaphor, but I’ll let you have it anyway,” chuckles the actor.
As stated above, all photos by Jeff Weddell or Sanctuary 1 Productions/Anthem Visual Effects and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!