If you have to go to work, it helps if you like your job, and that is definitely true of Defying Gravity‘s Paula Garces. It is only the middle of what looks to be a long day on the show’s Vancouver set, but the actess is still full of energy and eager to talk about her involvement in the series. Her character of Paula Morales is part of an international team of eight astronauts who, after five years of intense training, set off in 2052 on a six-year journey to explore our solar system onboard the spaceship Antares. Besides her duties as mission payload specialist, Paula is also transmitting daily status reports back to school classrooms on Earth. It goes without saying that she wears a lot of proverbial hats, and Morales could not wait to try on every single one of them.
“My character is obviously of Latin descent, although we haven’t specified exactly from where,” notes the actress, who is back in her trailer after a quick visit to make-up in preparation for her next scene. “Paula is also a scientist and a pilot as well as extremely religious and conservative, so she’s constantly having to deal with conflicts between her faith and science as well as religion. On top of that, Paula is experiencing the various difficulties that I think anyone in real life would be faced with if they were travelling in space and separated from their family and friends for an extended period of time. She’s in charge of a space classroom as well, and when you lump all that together, Paula can occasionally be a little bit off-putting because she’s quite misunderstood by those around her.
“So she needs to be a number of different people at the same time. Paula has to be bubbly and smart along with cute and charming so that the kids back on Earth will listen and actually learn something from her. At the same time, she has some dark issues to deal with and, again, is conflicted, which sometimes ticks off the people she works with. So it’s been really interesting to see her develop, and I’ve been very lucky as far as the writing. The show’s producers/writers have given me a great storyline that I can wrap myself around and lose myself in. It’s a lot to do, but I love it and I hope I’m doing a good job.
“This part is full of layers and, again, I’m thrilled with the fact that my character is not only a scientist and astronaut, but also someone of faith. At the beginning I was wondering how that would work, but in researching the role I discovered that several astronauts are religious, specifically Catholic, and have even taken communion up in space and things of that nature. There is so much I can play with as Paula, including the fact that she’s petite and cute and sometimes doesn’t get taken very seriously. Yes, there are still stereotypes that she has to fight against, even in the not-so-distant future. It only goes to show that everything changes, and yet some things remain the same.”
Like most acting opportunities, Garces was sent the pilot script for Defying Gravity by her manager, and as soon as she began reading it, she became enamored of the Paula Morales character. “That can sometimes be the kiss of death for an actor,” she says. “We get sent so many scripts, a lot of which aren’t very good. So when a good script does come along, you fall in love with it, but you don’t want to deal with the heartbreak in case things don’t work out.
“I actually flew to Toronto to audition for the role with Michael Edelstein [series executive producer] and David Straiton, who directed our first episode. I was very nervous, but David read with me and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re totally rocking it.’ As soon as I heard that, it kind of gave me the confidence that I think the role needed. I also feel that was something that James Parriott [series creator/executive producer] needed to subsequently see from me in-person, too, because prior to this they had just watched a tape of my work. Once that saw that confidence, though, I think that’s what made them decide, ‘OK, maybe we should give Paula Garces a shot at this role.’ So I really have to thank David for saying what he did to me during my audition, which is not typical. You usually don’t know that early on whether or not they like you. Sometimes I think I’m totally awesome during an audition, but I guess I stink because I don’t get the job,” jokes the actress. “Other times, I think I blew it and I get hired. It’s a crazy business, but in this case I’m delighted that things worked out the way they did.”
Although Garces’ audition jitters soon became a distant memory, those butterflies in her stomach returned, albeit briefly, when filming began on Defying Gravity‘s opening episode. “I think we were all terrified because it’s such a big show,” she says. “We had to establish the ship and the outer space elements as well as our characters’ training and them being astronauts and so forth. Then there were the technical elements, including getting to know the sets, dealing with green screen and the wire work, the latter of which is necessary with any scene where there is zero gravity and our characters have to ‘float.’
“So that was all pretty daunting simply because there was so much foundation for us to lay, and if you don’t do it right away and grab your audience’s attention, then they won’t give the series a chance. Having said that, I think our first episode stands on its own and hooks you into our story and all its wonder, which includes hope for the future and finding answers to the unknown.
“The thing is, I see this show as being less Science Fiction and more Science Fact. It deals with things that are happening now in the real world with regard to space travel and how it’s likely to change or improve over the next 40 or 50 years. That’s a huge undertaking because you have to keep things real. You can’t be like, ‘OK, we’re going to magically teleport ourselves to that planet.’ Everything has to be thought out and make sense. So our first story really gives you a taste of what the relationships between these people are like and what they’ll be facing in their next six years together on this extraordinary mission that I believe humankind would one day want to take.”
When it comes to relationships, perhaps the oddest one onboard the Antares is between Paula and theoretical physicist Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor). The two formed an unexpected bond during training, specifically during medical training when a man under the influence of an unusual drug died in front of them. Since leaving Earth orbit, ”Wass” has taken pot shots at Paula’s religious beliefs, and at one point even accidentally injured her, but despite this there remains a connection between them.
“Now that I’ve watched some of the footage, I find Paula and Wass to be the ‘youth vote’ on the ship if you will,” muses Garces. “As for the actual reason why she feels connected to him, I believe it’s because she finds Wass brilliant. At first he comes across as a slacker, and I think Paula sees him as a waste of talent. My character is someone who works hard and is very disciplined, so she doesn’t quite get the whole slacker mentality. However, what Paula eventually comes to realize is that this is just Wass’ way of dealing with the isolation of space and being on this mission, which is actually a pretty smart way of looking at things.
“As these two characters have their conversations and debates, because they have quite a few debates on science and religion, Paula sees that underneath all that information and ‘I don’t care’ attitude, Wass has a huge heart. And I think vice versa, he admires how disciplined she is. He begins to realize that maybe he should worry about Paula and try to give her certain [scientific] information that perhaps she’s a little too stubborn to see because of her faith.”
Coincidentally, one of Garces’ favorite Defying Gravity moments is with her and Dylan Taylor. “I love doing wire work, and there’s a scene between Paula and Wass where a section of the ship loses gravity,” says the actress. “As tricky as it was doing the wire work, there was a great deal of humor in that scene. I don’t want to spoil it for those who might not have seen the episode yet, but one of these two characters isn’t a very good astronaut when it comes to floating, but I’m not going to tell you who,” she teases.
“That scene was so funny and realistic, because if you stop and think about it, astronauts are human beings, right, and not robots. Once they finish whatever tasks they’re supposed to do in a day when they’re up there in space, they have to live their lives. So they’re working out, eating, sleeping, reading, acting silly, whatever, and I think this particular scene with Paula and Wass helped bring out the human side of what could happen to someone up in space who’s not accustomed to being in zero gravity. The special effects in the scene are incredible and how we shot it was really cool. It was done in a very different style and we used a bunch of tricks that I didn’t even know about, so it was a great learning experience as well.”
The eldest of two sisters, Garces grew up in New York’s Spanish Harlem and was raised by her mother, who encouraged her interest in the arts. “I had braces when I was 12, and by coincidence I met this agent at a dinner party that my mom gave,” recalls the actress. “She thought I was cute and said to me, ‘Come see me when you get your braces off because I think you can make some money doing TV commercials.’
“A year later that same agent came to our house again and she asked me, ‘Why didn’t you come see me?’ Later on, my mom asked me to at least make an effort to go see this woman because she was her friend, so I did and ended up getting five auditions, including one with [producer/writer/director] Martin Scorsese. Of course, I had no idea who he was, and when I got home from the audition my mom asked how it went. I told her it was OK and that I spoke with some guy whose last name sounded like Spacey. My mom called her friend to find out more, and this woman told her, ‘Well, first of all, your daughter was auditioning for Martin Scorcese, who is directing a public service announcement about drugs, alcohol, teenage sex and AIDS. It’s going to be shown in theaters nationwide and, oh, by the way, she got the job. Paula is super-funny, down-to-Earth and was the only one who was completely honest and kind of told him [Martin] off.’
“My mom was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and after hanging up the phone she immediately educated me on who Martin Scorsese was,” laughs Garces. “He’s the reason I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card, and from there I was lucky enough to get work on most of the New York-based TV series including Law and Order as well as New York Undercover with Malik Yoba [Ted Shaw on Defying Gravity], Oz and The Sopranos. I got my big break when Jerry Bruckheimer cast me in Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Following that I did a soap opera [The Guiding Light] for three years, then [the feature films] Clockstoppers and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, and I just carried on from there.”
On TV, the actress is perhaps best known for her performance as Officer Tina Hanlon on the crticially-acclaimed FX series The Shield. “Every single day on the The Shield was a wonderful challenge,” she says. “I was only supposed to do one episode. From what I remember, the producers were auditioning very muscular women for this particular role, and here I was this tiny little thing. However, I thought, ‘The easy route for a female cop would be a big, muscular, in-shape, tough looking woman. But what about the female cops out there who don’t necessarily look intimidating, but who are still street-smart, know they can kick ass, and have an intuition about them that would be an asset on the streets as far as fighting crime.’
“So that’s how I spun it, and I think they saw in my audition that I would be good next to this big guy, Michael Jace [Officer Julian Lowe], who ended up being my partner on the show, and the dynamic worked. After that first episode, they asked me if I would continue as a recurring character, and the next season they invited me to be part of the regular cast. It was a fantastic program to work on and, of course, after they established my character, they took great pleasure in having this cute little girl run through the streets, beating up bad guys with a baton, and cuffing them,” laughs Garces. “They gave me all this nasty, gritty material, and I think the show’s writers enjoyed seeing the expression on my face when I’d first read the scripts. It’s that quality and high standard of writing that keeps you on your toes and interested in your job. It’s the same on Defying Gravity.”
As the actress approaches her 20th year in the business, Garces has not become at all jaded about the work, and has no intensions of falling into that trap. “I still get a thrill out of booking a job,” she enthuses. “You study your lines, go into the audition room, bear your soul and hope that they like you. I don’t know what it is about us actors, but we’re desperate for other people to like us and reward us for just memorizing our lines. So when I get that phone call from my agent or my manager saying I got the job, it’s such a high for me. It’s the best phone call you can get as an actor.”
Defying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and OmniFilm Productions in association with the BBC, Canada’s CTV and Germany’s ProSieben. As noted above, all photos by Sergei Bachlakov or Kharen Hill and copyright of Fox Studios and ABC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!