When Dr. Gregory Magnus originally founded the Sanctuary network, he did so with the intent of surrounding himself with like-minded individuals who were just as dedicated as he was to the survival, preservation and protection of Abnormals. Magnus’ daughter and fellow scientist, Helen, did the same when she took over the reins from her father. Among her most trusted allies is Declan MacRae, who became head of the UK Sanctuary after the death of John Watson. The handsome Brit is smart, techno-savvy and knows how to handle himself in a tight spot. Sharing his character’s UK heritage was a big help to Sanctuary actor Robert Lawrenson when initially stepping into Declan’s shoes.
“I was very fortunate in some respects that Declan was a Brit,” notes Lawrenson. “I believe it was Michael Caine who said, ‘you only have to play the differences,’ and I take that to every role that I do. I start with me and compare myself to my character. I work out what the differences are in our personalities, then focus on those and think about where I need to extend my own personality in order to create the character.
“With Declan, it’s nice because there are similarities between the two of us, with him being an authority figure and me being kind of a quiet, authoritative type in my general sort of persona. So that’s an extension of myself. However, I don’t have an ex-military/SAS background, so that’s a huge difference right there, and that brings with it [acting] challenges, too, because Declan is a very tough ex-Special Forces guy. He’s totally comfortable with, for instance, handling weaponry and storming into a situation where there are enemy targets, but those types of things are totally foreign to me.
“Luckily on Sanctuary, we have some really good stunt coordinators as well as a team of guys called Def-Con-5, who basically taught me what I needed to know about Declan’s military side. I understand that these guys have an actual military/Special Forces background, so they taught us everything from handling a gun and how to hold your arms, to how to survey and secure an area. To be honest with you, I’m probably ready to go to war now because that’s how much they showed us,” jokes the actor.
“Apart from maybe a couple of times in stage productions where I’ve held a gun, I’ve never had to be that kind of tough guy in terms of a military sense. So I had to present Declan as totally switched on and clued-in about every situation and totally confident walking into enemy territory. It was interesting to learn what the professional view of that is and then try to bring that to my performance.”
It was a year-and-a-half ago that Lawrenson came to Vancouver, British Columbia from the UK and began working with an agent to pursue acting opportunities on this side of the pond. “Funnily enough, everything I’ve done over here so far as been Sci-Fi related,” he says. “I did an episode of Smallville [Abyss] as well as a Syfy Channel original movie, Beyond Sherwood Forest, which actually starred Robin Dunne [Dr. Will Zimmerman] as Robin Hood. I played his father before being stabbed to death about six minutes into the movie.
“Sanctuary then came up. I’d been looking at a few other projects when I received a call to come in and meet with Martin Wood [executive producer] and Amanda Tapping [Dr. Helen Magnus and executive producer]. At the time it was just a guest-star role to play Declan in one episode. It was literally for that week’s filming. I really hit it off straightaway with Martin and Amanda – I would challenge anyone not to because they’re fantastic individuals. It was a very relaxed casting session and they really enjoyed what I did, so they booked me for the role.
“After a couple of days of shooting, Martin came over to me and said ‘I’m really liking this Declan character,’ and then he started talking in terms of recurring the role throughout the series. Martin mentioned a couple of ideas that he had about where the Declan character might go and when it might recur, so it just went on from there and I ended up doing four episodes in season two.”
Audiences are introduced to Lawrenson’s character in the second half of Sanctuary‘s season two opener, End of Nights, Part 2. In it, Helen and her people help Declan defend the UK Sanctuary when it is attacked by a small group of super-Abnormals, including a transformed Ashley Magnus (Emilie Ullerup). Despite his military background, dealing with this type of threat is a brand new experience for Declan, and the same was true for Lawrenson when first starting out on the series.
“On my first day of work I found myself standing on this completely green-walled, green-floored set with just the lighting rig above me and my fellow actors around me,” recalls the actor. “I’ve done some presenting and hosting on a green screen, but never a drama, so this process was quite daunting to me and I wasn’t quite sure how to react to it.
“I told Amanda Tapping how I felt, and she said something to me that made it all click. Amanda explained that she looks at working on the green screen like working in the theater. Oftentimes in the theater, you’re working in an acting ensemble with no scenery or props, and it’s all about the script as well as the other actors and the communication between them and their characters.
“That was the perfect thing to say because my background from childhood is theater, which I’ve done a great deal of. When I lived in England, I spend every year performing plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so I tend to gravitate towards the stage. That’s where I found my love of acting. So what Amanda said to me made such sense and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re absolutely right. What does it matter that I don’t have an actual wall there. As an actor, it’s something that I can just visualize for a scene.’ It was incredible, and it still sticks in my mind because it totally put me at ease.”
Declan’s next appearance is in the season two episode Hero, where he, Helen and Will pursue a flying do-gooder (Chris Gauthier), who has dubbed himself “The Adjuster” and has interfered in their efforts to protect an Abnormal. “Hero was a lot of fun,” enthuses Lawrenson. “Chris Gauthier is an absolute star and it was a laugh-a-minute the whole time he was there with us on-set. This was a big episode for Declan because the London Sanctuary had been heavily damaged, so he came over to spend some time at the Old City Sanctuary. This is when we really kicked off the relationship between Will and Declan in that they became sidekicks, which was then flipped on its head in a later episode, Veritas, where they were totally opposite of each other.
“In terms of specific scenes in Hero, I remember me and Chris Heyerdahl [Bigfoot] wearing safety harnesses and standing on a warehouse railing on the show’s set. We were probably 30 or 40 feet up and pushing this old refrigerator over the railing and onto an imaginary monster that was going to be ‘painted’ in later during post-production. That was quite memorable because I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I was going to fall off with the fridge.
“There’s another little scene at the start of the episode that I particularly like and it’s just after Will and Declan have been attacked on their motorbikes. They’re back at the Sanctuary nursing their wounds and the girls are laughing at them and taking the mick out of Will. I’d love to do more scenes like that. In fact, I got to talk with some of the guys at the Syfy Channel and they told me that they really enjoyed the comedy of this episode, so hopefully we’ll have more opportunities to see the lighthearted sides of these characters as well.”
Amanda Tapping directed Lawrenson’s third Sanctuary story, Veritas, in which Helen Magnus is accused of killing Bigfoot. “I put Amanda Tapping on such a high pedestal; I don’t have enough blocks to raise her up,” says the actor. “She is an outstanding individual. To give the performance that she does week-in-and-week-out, and to give the performance she gave in Veritas whilst also directing, having only directed once before on both Stargate SG-1 and Sanctuary, was just amazing.
“As an actor, this was my first time working with an actor/director, and Amanda has a way of connecting with an actor. I mean, so do the other directors. Martin Wood is a fantastic director and I’m not in any way comparing them, but Amanda has a different understanding of the process because she sees it from an actor’s point of view as well. So being directed by her on Veritas was brilliant. Whenever we were struggling to find the right way to pitch a scene, Amanda just seemed to have the right thing to say, and that was really great.
“There’s a scene I played opposite Robin Dunne where our two characters are having a big argument in Magnus’ office. Will comes in and Declan has his feet under Helen’s desk and is sitting there tapping away on her computer looking very much at home. We had a scene prior to that, where Declan has his feet in front of the roaring fireplace in her office, and because of both these scenes, the audience is becoming suspicious of my character’s motives. Amanda just found the right away to communicate to me exactly what she wanted from my character’s point of view in this episode, so that made it a real joy for me to do.”
With Dr. Magnus temporarily relieved of her lead Sanctuary position in Veritas, it may at first seem as if Declan is trying to “move in” on her territory. On the contrary, he is doing his best to protect Helen as well as those working directly with her and the future of the Sanctuary network. Lawrenson is looking forward to not only learning more about Declan’s and Helen’s relationship, but also uncovering more about his character’s background.
“Declan massively respects Helen Magnus,” he says. “This is a very character-driven show and there has been a lot invested in the back stories of the characters. However, not much has been revealed about Declan. We had hints about him in End of Nights, Part 2, where Nikola Tesla [Jonathon Young] says to him, ‘James Watson [Peter Wingfield] must have told you about me before he died,’ So there is obviously a suggestion that Declan had been working with James Watson. There are other things as well, like the argument I spoke of earlier between Declan and Will in Veritas, where my character is suspected of trying to take over the Sanctuary network. He says to Will, ‘You have no idea of the political landscape,’ which implies that Declan is quite entwined with the politics of the network.
“So to come back to what I was saying, that there isn’t much of a back story that’s been provided yet for Declan, and that’s really exciting for me. Again, we had the hints I just spoke of and also those in the two-part second season finale Kali, where Declan is mentioned throughout. Having laid all that foundation, I’m looking forward to seeing where our excellent writers hopefully go in terms of further fleshing out my character. As far as how I position Declan in my mind, I think he’s spent many years fighting other peoples’ wars, and to now be involved in what Helen is doing with the Sanctuary network, he’s found a ‘war’ that he wants to fight and a cause he truly believes in.”
Born and raised in his native England, the actor made his stage debut at the age of 12, performing in musicals with a local youth theater group. A number of years later, he made his TV debut when he was cast in an episode of the long-running British drama series Heartbeat.
“That was a fantastic first role for me because of the people I got to work with,” says Lawrenson. “I was on-set with great British actors such as Robert Glenister, David Calder and Celia Imrie, who was my mentor that week. We all stayed at this lovely manor house hotel in Yorkshire, and the night before filming began, everyone went out together for dinner. There I was sitting with these actors whom I had watched and admired for many years on TV and they were fantastic with me. The next morning, Celia sent me a note that said, ‘Don’t worry about your first scene, you’ll be wonderful.’ I’ve kept that card for years. To work with someone like her on my first scene was just amazing.”
Holby City, Emmerdale Farm, Fat Friends, Where the Heart Is, The Royal and Doctors are among the other hit UK shows that Lawrenson has guest-starred in. Regular watchers of Coronation Street will also recognize him from his recurring role as PC Glaister. “That was another fantastic show to work on,” says the actor. “It’s very much like Sanctuary in terms of its friendly, good-natured, hard work ethic.
“At one point on that show, I ran into another of my screen idols, Sir Ian McKellen, who was in an episode that I was also in. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any scenes with him, but one day I rounded the corner from my dressing room on the way to the green room, and he was standing there in the hall talking to Johnny Briggs, who played Mike Baldwin. I thought, ‘There’s Gandalf [McKellen's Lord of the Rings role] speaking to Mike Baldwin. Wow, that’s not a sight you see every day.’ I’ve worked in this industry long enough that I don’t tend to get starstruck, but when I saw Ian McKellen, I got starstruck for a moment.”
Besides acting in front of the camera, Lawrenson also does a great deal of voiceover work for TV narration, advertising, corporate shorts and charity fundraisers, the latter of which he finds especially rewarding.
“There was a charity project I did for the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool,” he says. “Yoko Ono is the patron of their society, obviously because of [her late husband] John Lennon. The hospital is around the corner from where he grew up. I think their charity is called Imagine [the Alder Hey Imagine Appeal], and she licensed the use of the Beatles song Imagine to them. David Morrissey had done the voiceover for one of their earlier videos and I was working with the production company that made it. David wasn’t available for their next campaign, so I offered to do the voicing for it.
“I get personal reward and personal pride in the work I do. When I really nail a scene, I feel great, but I see that a selfish reward. When you’re able to contribute part of what you do for a living to a cause that’s going to make a practical difference in other peoples’ lives, that’s truly rewarding. I don’t do enough of that, and I’d like to do more. Amanda Tapping and Damian Kindler [Sanctuary creator/executive producer] have set up Sanctuary for Kids [S4K], and I’m hoping to help out with that charity in whatever capacity I can.
Currently, the actor is busy doing more voiceover work, including some animation projects, as well as continuing to audition for various Vancouver-based productions. “I’m waiting to hear, too, about my possible involvement in a feature film, which would actually be shot back in England later this year,” he says. “And I’m also looking forward to finding out about Declan’s involvement in season three of Sanctuary.”
To find out more about Robert and see clips of his work, check out his official website at www.robertlawrenson.com .
As noted above, Robert Lawrenson photo courtesy/copyright of Velocity PR, and Sanctuary photos by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!