No matter what the job, it is never easy on someone when he or she comes in to fill the void left by a departed colleague. That was certainly true for Dr. Jennifer Keller when she, much to her surprise, was promoted to Atlantis’ chief medical officer after Dr. Carson Beckett unexpectedly died while saving a patient’s life. It was a position that she neither wanted nor felt especially qualified for, but Dr. Elizabeth Weir saw potential in Keller, and she was not mistaken. The physician has since proven to herself and her colleagues that she is more than up to the task at hand. Naturally, it took time for Keller to settle into her new role in the Pegasus Galaxy, and the same is true for the actress who plays her, Stargate Atlantis‘ Jewel Staite.
“When I first started on the show [in season three’s First Strike], I didn’t have a clear understanding of who Keller was; I don’t think anyone did,” recalls Staite. “It was more or less a case of, ‘OK, here’s the part, we begin shooting tomorrow.’ So I just started from the ground up insofar as building a character. A lot of it was about taking the material for what it was and going with that, but it was always important for me to play Keller as real as possible. She’s a city girl in this bizarre world, and she had to get used to it in a hurry. My character also felt that she had to prove herself because she knew she was replacing someone who had the whole thing under his belt. She doesn’t quite have that yet. Keller is still a little insecure, and what I liked is that they [the show’s producers] weren’t afraid to play that with her. Not everybody has to be a hero, and I liked that Keller wasn’t. She was a normal girl stuck in a place she didn’t understand.
“As the seasons passed and time went on, Keller definitely became more confident and more capable of dealing with these crazy, dire and dear situations. She gained some new skills in season five and became more aware of as well as felt more comfortable in her surroundings. At the same time, she’s still vulnerable and isn’t a heroic type of girl. When necessary, Keller steps up to the plate, but that’s not her first choice. She would much rather have someone there to protect her, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think Keller is still a strong female, but she’s not going to be the person who fights the Wraith if she doesnt absolutely have to, and that’s OK.”
Jennifer Keller had no choice but to put on a brave face early on at the start of Atlantis‘ fifth season when, in The Seed, an alien pathogen is found in her blood and Wraith tendrils begin growing out of her torso. “My initial reaction to that script was, ‘What did I do? Why are they [the producers] so angry with me?'” jokes Staite. “I was nervous, I won’t lie. It’s generally a thing here on-set about being in prosthetics – no one really likes it. It’s usually pretty uncomfortable and requires lots of early calls and long days, but they assured me that they were going to do it in such a way that it would be comfortable for me.
“Basically, it was me lying in bed and underneath a cage-like contraption,” continues the actress. “They would open the cage, I’d slip inside, they would then close the cage and put a Wraith tentacle ‘blanket’ over the top. So it wasn’t too bad to get into and out of, but then I had these face pieces that were actually part of the blanket that they would pull up and glue to my neck. Once those were on, I was there for the day, and my hands were underneath the cage, so it was this weird way of working because there was nowhere I could go. I would watch the crew running around setting up the cameras, lighting, etc., and then we could shoot a scene. As soon as we cut, they’d be busy setting up the next shot, and I just laid there watching them go off in a flurry. It was a way of observing the [filming] process that I’d never really experienced before on this show.
“Needles to say I didn’t drink a lot of fluids on the job that week because going to the bathroom was a challenge. I mean, I could do it, but it took about 15 minutes to get out of the cage, so I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just going to lay off the water and hope for the best,’ and it became very Zen-like. Of course, poor Dr. Keller was completely powerless, alone and frightened, you know? As for me, I was just so relaxed that I would doze off and catch myself starting to fall asleep in-between takes,” she chuckles. “So it was an interesting week for sure.”
Among the more challenging season five Atlantis episodes for Staite to have worked on is Tracker, in which Dr. Keller is kidnapped by a Runner named Kiryk (Mike Dopud) while off-world on an errand of mercy with Dr. McKay (David Hewlett) and Ronon (Jason Momoa). “This was another of those episodes written by [executive producer] Carl Binder, and I don’t know what the deal is, but he enjoys having Keller tied up and dragged through the woods,” jokes the actress. “No, seriously, I worked with an excellent guest-star, Mike Dopud. He’s a stuntman, but he’s an amazing actor as well and a terrific person to be around. It was just me and Mike in the woods for two weeks. Keller does a major switch in this episode and she does something that surprises the viewer.
“One of the most memorable season five episodes for me is The Shrine. It’s beautifully written, very touching and definitely different from the other stories I’ve done. It’s a team episode that shows the humanity in all the characters as opposed to giant space battles and that kind of stuff. The story focuses on who these people are and is a huge tear-jerker. When I read the script, I cried. It was great for all of us and allowed us to really stretch ourselves that little bit more as actors.”
In year four’s Quarantine, Atlantis goes into lockdown as a result of a computer glitch and traps our heroes in various parts of the city. Ronon and Dr. Keller end up in the infirmary and, for a moment, it looks as if there might be a bit of romance in the air. However, it is the geeky and egotistical Rodney McKay that ultimately gets the girl, which, in Staite’s eyes, makes sense.
“I think it was the most logical outcome,” she notes. “McKay and Keller started out as friends and she seems to mellow him out a lot and tolerates him much better than the other characters. I think, too, that my character finds his whining, crankiness and all that stuff funny, and Jennifer is charmed by Rodney and vice versa. They’re both scaredy cats and want more than anything to be in a safe spot. The two of them are also slightly dorky, but incredibly smart as well and, again, feel like they constantly have to prove themselves.
“So they have a number of things in common, and in season five their relationship developed into something stronger. David and I have the same sense of humor and way of working. So it’s easy to be around him and I think the show’s writers saw that and thought, ‘OK,’ and decided to go that [romantic] route with the two of them, which I was super happy about.”
Long before joining the Atlantis cast, Staite had acquired plenty of Sci-Fi/Fantasy experience playing such TV roles as Catalina in Space Cases and Kaylee Frye in Firefly. The actress’ fans will also know that prior to being cast as Dr. Keller, she booked the part of a young female Wraith named Ellia in the second season Atlantis episode Instinct. She had no idea that this job would lead to a regular spot on the series.
“I thought the [Instinct] character was so special and really wanted to do it,” says Staite. “[Director/producer] Andy Mikita and the guys tell me that when I walked into the audition room they were like, ‘That’s Kaylee from Firefly. What’s she doing here?’ It wasn’t anything unusual for me, though. I’m more than willing to audition to prove what I can, hopefully, do in a role.
“Luckily they gave me the job and I loved working on the series. I told them that I’d be happy to come back and they said, ‘We won’t forget you. One day we’ll write something new for you.’ Lo and behold, a year later they offered me a fulltime role on the show, no prosthetics required – at least for the first episode. I was like, ‘That sounds great.’ So it just kind of fell into my lap and I couldn’t have been happier,” smiles the actress.
Last fall, the Atlantis cast and crew wrapped production on what became the show’s fifth and final season. The script for a made-for-DVD movie has been written, but filming dates are still pending. In the meantime, Staite can be seen in the upcoming Syfy Channel movie Mothman, and is also slated to begin work on a horror film, P5ych. From out-of-this-world roles to more down-to-Earth ones, the actress enjoys nothing more than creating gaps between each character that she plays.
“For me, it’s really important to do projects that are as different as can be from the last one I did,” she says. “And while sometimes they may be in the same genre, it’s still important to have the character challenge me and to show other aspects of what I can do as an actress. When I succeed in doing that, that’s what makes this job especially rewarding.
“It’s nice to have viewers watch me in a show and say, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ It was hard for me when I first started Atlantis; I knew what was going to happen, and it did. So whenever I hear people say positive things about Keller it makes me feel good because she’s a part of me and I love her a great deal and protect her very much.”
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Tags: Andy Mikita, Carl Binder, David Hewlett, Dr. Carson Beckett, Dr. Jennifer Keller, Dr. Rodney McKay, Enterainment, Firefly, Jason Momoa, Jewel Staite, Kaylee Frye, Mike Dopud, Ronon Dex, Science Fiction, Space Cases, Stargate Atlantis, The Syfy Channel, TV, Wraith