Sanctuary’s Ryan Robbins – Wolf In The Fold

Ryan Robbins as Henry Foss in Sanctuary. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

When it comes to tackling problems of a technical nature, Henry Foss is your man. Whether it’s cracking a multi-digit encrypted code or breaking down a seemingly impenetrable firewall, there is no one better qualified or more likely to get results. However, as a member of Dr. Helen Magnus’ Sanctuary team, Henry is more than just a gifted cyber-hacker. A descendant of her father Gregory’s first weaponsmith, he has designed many of Sanctuary’s weapons and is in charge of its defenses. Our beloved techie also has some hidden “talents” that he calls upon only in the more extreme of situations.

Introduced in the Sanctuary webisodes, Henry made the leap last fall to the Syfy Channel’s TV incarnation of the show as a recurring character, and this (second) season is now a regular on the series. On this particular Monday afternoon in June, actor Ryan Robbins, who plays Henry, has been tapping into his character’s techie side while filming the season two episode Veritas. Although the dialogue seems to roll effortlessly off his tongue, it took a bit of practice for him to get to this point.

“To be honest, it was a little nerve-wracking at first because of the nature of Henry,” says Robbins. “As the tech and weapons guy, my character has a lot of tech-talk and scientific babble, which was initially intimidating for me. Also, he was supposed to be the comic relief, and while I’d done comedy before, having to get a handle on being the funny guy in an otherwise dramatic series was, for some reason, difficult and I put some pressure on myself.

On the job with Henry. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“Prior to this I’d been playing a lot of bad guys and killers, so this was a wonderful opportunity and a terrific acting challenge for me. So I just went with it and committed to the material and let myself have a good time, and so far things seem to have worked out.

“Henry changed quite a bit from the webisodes to the first season of the TV show. In season one of Sanctuary there was definitely more depth to my character as well as an air of mystery. Then later on, there was also a darker side to Henry that was revealed, with him being an Abnormal and having the werewolf beast inside him. That was a part of him that he couldn’t control and it gave me even more levels to play in terms of relationships with the other characters.

“So there were a lot of different directions to go in any given scene, which is a gift as an actor. Henry is such a neat character because he’s so complex and his humor comes out of , not necessarily positive things, but rather from his efforts to overcome certain obstacles. What’s the saying, ‘Tragedy plus time equals comedy,’ and I think Henry is the epitome of that in a lot of ways. It’s almost like this running joke that he always has to be overcoming something, otherwise he’s not Henry. Things can’t always go right for him, you know? So many things just go wrong, but he’s constantly trying, and that’s what you’ve got to love about the guy – he just won’t quit. At the end of the day, he’s going to take care of business, but it can’t be easy for Henry.”

There is more than the eye can see with Henry Foss. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

Having first directed Robbins in the two-part Stargate Atlantis episode The Storm and The Eye, Sanctuary executive producer Martin Wood later called the actor about playing Henry in Sanctuary‘s two-hour Internet pilot. “My Atlantis character [Ladon Radim] was only supposed to have a two-story arc and then get killed off,” recalls Robbins. “However, Martin told me, ‘I like you, and I don’t want them to kill your character off.’ So instead they killed a background character, and I stayed on. Ladon ended up becoming the leader of the Genii people, which was great and a lot of fun for me.

“Martin directed most of my Atlantis episodes, and when Sanctuary came up, the story is that he told [series creator/executive producer] Damian Kindler about this guy named Ryan Robbins who he should cast as Henry. And Damian was like, ‘Ladon from Atlantis? But he’s not funny,’ but Martin said something along the lines of, ‘But the guy who played him, Ryan Robbins, is kind of an oddball. He would be perfect for the role.’ So they phoned me and I thought it sounded really cool, and being part of a show that was groundbreaking seems like a good idea, too. Then, of course, we wound up getting a first season on Syfy and now we’re doing season two, so hopefully we’ll be around for a while,” says the actor with a smile.

During season one of Sanctuary, Henry worked with Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping), her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), Magnus’ former patient and longtime friend/confidant, Bigfoot (Christopher Heyerdahl), and her new protegé, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), in the preservation and protection of centuries-old creatures called Abnormals. In the episode The Five, the Sanctuary itself falls victim to a series of mysterious attacks. The culprit turns out to be a snake-like creature, and in order to stop it, Henry reveals that he, too, is an Abnormal, more specifically, a werewolf. Before shooting this episode, did Robbins have any idea that his character harbored a hirsute alter ego?

Henry and Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) try to work through yet another crisis facing the Sanctuary. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“We talked at the end of the webisodes and leading up to season one about this being a potential storyline for Henry in the future,” says the actor. “Although it remained kind of vague for a time, I started off in season one playing Henry as having some sort of mystery, because I think characters with secrets are always more interesting to watch. So when it eventually came out that he’s a werewolf, it seemed very natural and not entirely surprising.

“If you go back and watch previous episodes, you can see that Henry is maybe hiding something about himself, and I love it. I think it works really well and creates lots of dynamics. For example, people living with an illness or other difficulty might go for days and days laughing an enjoying themselves just like everyone else around them. However, when they are reminded of that illness or situation they’re in, they will fall into a funk and realize, oh, yeah, I’ve got to deal with this. For the most part, though, you try your best to get on with life. Originally, I feel Henry looked at his condition as being some sort of disease, but he’s since been able to embrace it. I still don’t believe he’s entirely comfortable with it because he’s still learning how to control it.”

The following episode, Edward, – for which Robbins won a Canadian Leo Award for Best Guest Performance by a Male in a Dramatic Series – finds Henry contemplating surgery as a way of exorcising his werewolf persona. He changes his mind, though, when his abilities help him and his colleagues save the life of a fellow Abnormal. “I really enjoyed Five and Edward because they were quite dramatic and, again, interesting background stuff. I’m a comic book fan and I love origin stories, and it was cool to see a hint of an origin story for my character,” he says.

Henry at work on yet another invention. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“I also had a lot of fun shooting Nubbins, which was directed by Peter DeLuise. I just felt like was taken to comedy school in all the best ways, and gratefully and happily so. Peter knows comedy so well when it comes to timing and rhythm and sticking to it. I can’t begin to explain how much I learned from him about hitting comedic beats, including stuff that you never even saw on the screen.”

In Sanctuary‘s two-part season one finale, Revelations, Helen Magnus’ archenemy, the Cabal, unleash a biological weapon designed to turn Abnormals against humans. Ashley and Henry are captured when infiltrating a Cabal weapons facility to try to stop the development of the bio weapon, and the Cabal attempts to permanently turn Henry into a werewolf.

“Man, were those ever intense episodes, especially the torture scenes with my character,” notes Robbins. “It was weird because although I don’t have a fear of needles, I don’t especially like them. There’s this scene where over and over again this woman had to inject a needle into Henry’s arm, and I just kept thinking, ‘Jeez, I know they’re prop needles, but if that thing seizes up even a little bit, then it’s going into my arm.’ So it wasn’t hard to play the fear of the needle,” chuckles the actor. “On top of that, I’m strapped into this chair and here’s Alex Diakun, who is a sweetheart of a guy, doing such an incredible and convincing job of playing the creepy and menacing doctor.”

Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) and Henry are cornered by the Cabal in "Revelations." Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

Thanks to Henry’s Abnormal abilities, he and Ashley are able to escape from the Cabal, but not before the organization turns Ashley against her teammates. At the start of  Sanctuary‘s second season, she and five others are transformed into super-Abnormals whose sole purpose is to bring down the entire Sanctuary network. Despite the dire circumstances facing their characters, Robbins and the rest of the show’s cast as well as crew could not wait to return to work.

“When we came back for the second season, it felt like coming home,” enthuses the actor. “There was this level of confidence and one of, ‘OK, people dug what we did last year, so let’s keep going.’ So I think we all felt like we were maybe able to take a few more risks. Last year was one of discovery for all of us, and the episodes were written that way. In season one, Will Zimmerman was not only the new guy, but also the viewers’ reference. He was seeing everyone and everything for the first time, and in doing so, we were introduced to other characters and discovered things about them for the first time through Will’s eyes.

“Well, this year, we hit the ground running. I mean, Will is here and he’s one of us. Now we’re a real team and we’re moving forward with a fury and on-fire. In the season opener [End of Nights], the action, the tension, the storytelling, everything was ramped up. Season one was cool, but season two is exceptionally cool.

Henry and Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) working side-by-side. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“As for Henry, I feel like I have an even better understanding of him this year,” continues Robbins. “I love playing this character and I feel now like I can trust in my acting as well as my instincts and not have to worry about whether or not this or that comes across or if my subtext shows. I actually like watching Henry on the screen, and that’s a big deal for me because I don’t like watching myself all that much.

“We just finished shooting a wonderful Henry episode called Fragments, which was directed by Steve Adelson and guest-starring Anne Marie DeLuise. To tell you the truth, all the episodes have been really good so far. There have been some nice Henry/Bigfoot and Henry/Magnus moments this year. We’ve played it that Bigfoot has always known Henry’s secret, so they’ve had a very close connection. And now that my character has embraced his Abnormal side and is trying to deal with it, there’s this amazing bond that has developed between them. Henry has an amazing bond with Magnus as well, and now he and Will get to be buddies, too.”

In the aforementioned season two story Veritas, Henry helps Will and new team member Kate Freelander (Agam Darshi) find evidence that will prove Helen Magnus is innocent of murdering Bigfoot. The episode is Robbins’ first time being directed by Sanctuary‘s leading lady, Amanda Tapping.

Ryan Robbins and Anne Marie DeLuise in "Fragments." Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“She’s a tyrant. There’s the cracking of the whip and all the screaming and yelling, not to mention the potty mouth. Other than that, it’s been fun,” jokes the actor. “Seriously, Amanda is awesome. I’d work with her again as a director in a heartbeat and without question. Amanda is an exceptional and wonderful individual in everything she does, acting, producing, directing, it doesn’t matter. She’s one of a kind, and it’s completely inspiring to be around her. And the crew really loves Amanda, too, especially today. It was only a 10-hour workday instead of a 12-hour one. Look how happy these guys are to be getting out of work now in this fantastic weather.”

Robbins was 12 years old when his desire to become an actor surfaced, but like most people that age, he did not know how to go about it. “I went to a very progressive arts-oriented high school with an intense theater program, and there was a teacher there named Drew Kemp who was sort of the catalyst that inspired me to pursue acting,” he says.

“My first big job was as a circus performer, and following that I moved back to Vancouver where a friend of mine who was a stuntman, suggested I try that as a way to break into acting, especially given my circus experience. I had a martial arts background as well, so I gave it a shot. Unfortunately, it’s not a good way to break into acting, at least it wasn’t for me. I had an accident and ended up compressing my spine. From there, I helped form an experimental band called Hellenkeller, which took off. We had a good run for about six years, and during that time there was a filmmaker who was also a fan of the band and she put me in one of her movies.

Bigfoot (Christopher Heyerdahl) and Henry. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“I guess I did OK in the film because from there I got an agent and began getting acting jobs. When the band eventually broke up, I was working as an actor, so I feel that perhaps it was meant to be. I just kept following my gut. I don’t like to say no to any opportunity, so I had a series of opportunities that presented themselves and I just wanted to seize them. Fortunately, they led me to where I wanted to be, so here I am making a go of things.”

Walking Tall, Catwoman and Passengers are among the actors’ feature film credits, while on TV he has appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as guest-starred on such series as Dark Angel, The Outer Limits, Smallville, Supernatural, The Guard and Battlestar Galactica.

“I actually worked as an audition reader for the Galactica miniseries,” says Robbins. “That’s where I got to know [producer/director] Michael Rymer, and he offered me a role, which turned out to be at the very beginning of the miniseries. I’m the old man at the armistice station, and Number Six [Tricia Helfer] comes in and asks, ‘Are you alive?’ My character tells her, ‘Yes,’ and she says, ‘Prove it.’ So they kiss and then the place blows up and it starts a whole new war. Forty years of peace ruined by blowing me up.

A contemplative moment for Henry Foss. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

“I kept in touch with Michael, and in the show’s third season he brought me in to play a bartender called Charlie Connor, which I did on-and-off for two years. It was a blast and that show is one of the best experiences of my career. That cast was amazing and the crew was phenomenal. Mary McDonnell [President Laura Roslin] and Edward James Olmos [Admiral William Adama] are incredible forces. They love this craft along with the environment of being on a set, and I learned a ton from my time on that show. In years to come, I think people will look back and realize what a relevant piece of history that program was, even though it was set in the future.”

Besides Sanctuary, Robbins can also be seen in the web-based Sci-Fi/Fantasy series Riese and in episodes of the upcoming Syfy Channel series Caprica. He recently completed two films, Smile of April and The Masculine Mystique, and will soon start work on Wrecked. It has been a busy year for the actor, and that is music to his ears.

“I never had a back-up plan and I don’t have a retirement plan either,” says the actor with a smile. “I don’t want to retire. I want to drop dead on a film set when I’m 100 years old. I believe in my heart and soul that I’m supposed to be doing this and I don’t ever want to stop.”

Steve Eramo

As noted above, all photos by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions, so no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

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