Sanctuary’s Robin Dunne – A Will Of His Own

Robin Dunne as Sanctuary's Dr. Will Zimmerman. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

It was not that long ago that forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman crossed paths with Dr. Helen Magnus, but was it fate or happenstance that brought them together? It was, in fact, no accident that the scientist sought out Will and offered him the opportunity to become her protegé and part of the Sanctuary team. His curiosity got the better of him and he accepted. Since then, Will has been helping Magnus protect one of Earth’s oldest and sometimes most dangerous inhabitants, creatures called Abnormals. In Sanctuary‘s first season finale, Revelations, a mysterious group known as the Cabal set a plan in motion to turn Abnormals against humankind. Unknown to our heroes, this was the prelude to something far bigger, and for the actor who plays Will, Robin Dunne, it marked the end of what had been a challenging first year on the job. 

“I had never done a full season of a TV show before, and certainly not one like this,” says Dunne during a break in filming on Sanctuary‘s Vancouver set. “I loved it and it was so much fun doing the things that we did, but it was tough, too. There were some very demanding episodes, so by the end of last season I felt like I’d just crossed the finish line of a marathon. It was great to get to the finale, where we were wrapping stuff up and bringing in other characters. Not only did I get to work with our core cast – Amanda Tapping [Magnus], Ryan Robbins [Henry Foss], Emilie Ullerup [Ashley Magnus] and Chris Heyerdahl [John Druitt/Bigfoot] – but also Jonathon Young [Nikola Tesla], who came back for a visit, and Peter Wingfield [John Watson]. It was such an amazing story and brought together a number of loose ends.  

“Things felt like they were going so fast last season, and then we kind of hit a wall and stopped. It was strange for me because this show was, and still is, a huge part of my life. I was here every day and we were so immersed in the series and believed in it so much that, after we wrapped, I’d initially wake up every morning and think, ‘What am I going to do now?’ or, ‘How come I’m not in the Sanctuary?’ On top of that, I was on pins and needles wondering if that [first season] was going to be it. That’s another strange thing about doing a TV show and bringing its characters through all types of cliffhanger situations where certain things are left unresolved with them. We didn’t know for sure if we’d be able to resolve any of these situations. So it was amazing and weird all at the same time.  

Will and his new "boss," Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping). Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

“I remember on the final day of filming, I saw Martin Wood [executive producer/director], Amanda Tapping [executive producer] and Damian Kindler [series creator/executive producer], or the Holy Trinity as I call them, together in one of the offices. I thought it would be a good time for me to go up to them and thank them for the amazing thing they’d done for me as far as giving me a part on the show and having the faith in me that I’d be able to do the job. Within 10 seconds of me going into my, ‘Hey, thanks guys…’ speech, I was bawling. And suddenly I looked around at Damian, Martin and Amanda, and all four of us were standing around that office in tears. So it was a swirl of emotions and, thankfully, we’re back here and getting to do it all over again. And as you watch season two, you see that there are some big changes. There are ripples that began at the end of last year that have turned into huge tidal waves for us here in the Sanctuary.”  

In the aforementioned Revelations, Ashley is captured by the Cabal, who uses her to steal a vial of pure vampire blood that Magnus, Will and others risk their lives to obtain. With that blood, they are able to manipulate Ashley’s DNA and that of five others, changing them into super Abnormals. In Sanctuary‘s season two opener End of Nights, these Abnormals almost bring down the entire Sanctuary network. Magnus and her people manage to stop them, but not without great personal sacrifice. As they struggle to deal with their losses, they must also repair the damage done to Sanctuaries around the world as well as continue with their ongoing mission. No longer a newcomer, Will must step up to the plate even more as Magnus’ second in command.  

“The responsibilities that my character has are far greater this year because of what Magnus is going through and the things that are pulling her in all different directions, which is especially true in the first three episodes,” notes Dunne. “My approach to Will and the way he was written last season was sort of tentative. He was between two worlds and wasn’t sure if he really belonged here. The Sanctuary was intriguing to him, but at the same time there was the pull of his old life. So there was just a little bit of uncertainty with him, but that’s gone this year, and I think there’s more of a dive-in approach and aggressiveness to Will. He has a greater confidence in himself and feels without a doubt like he belongs here.  

Out in the field. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

“What’s gone as well are any of the situations you saw last year with Will being out in the field and going, ‘But I don’t want to use a weapon.’ He’s now resigned himself to the fact that, yes, he’s got to go out on missions, and, yes he’s got to be armed when doing so, and he’s just going to have to deal with it. There’s a ‘hardness’ with Will, and that’s because it’s crisis time. There’s no place for any of this, ‘Oh, God, what am I doing here?’ He and his teammates are dealing with some major Armageddon issues and it’s all business.  

“Also in season two, when Will has something to say to Magnus, he says it,” continues the actor. “There are times this year where there has been a slight butting of heads between the two, but not in an unfriendly way or one which suggests that they’re not getting along. My character is definitely the vice president if you will, and he’s not afraid to step into the president’s office and say, ‘Look, Madam President, you need to do this; you need to do that.’ He has some very strong opinions and there’s no longer any of that social etiquette or politeness between Will and Magnus. These are just two people who are pretty much in-sync most of the time and really speaking to each other and telling one another what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.  

“It’s funny how sometimes things are parallel in the fictional and real worlds. In the real world and with the making of this show, I feel like, OK, this is season two. We’ve cleared the hurdle of being a new show and now we’ve arrived. And I would guess that Damian, Amanda and Martin feel the same way, too. It’s like we belong a little more, and stylistically you’re going to know that you’re watching Sanctuary this season. There is some visual stuff that really pops out at you. So the overall feeling was one of, ‘Hey, let’s just go in there and blow the lid off this thing,’ and it’s exciting. Look, I hate to be one of these bumbling, overly positive Ed Flanders-type of guys, but you know what, we loved this program so much last season, but this year it’s gone to a whole new level. We’re like, ‘Wow, there’s Kismet in the air,’ and I think we’re doing something pretty cool.”  

Will Zimmerman, Sanctuary's "vice president." Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

Among the lives lost in the effort to save the Sanctuary from falling was Ashley, who sacrificed her own life to save that of her mother’s. Will also lost Clara Griffin (Christine Chatelain), the granddaughter of Nigel Griffin, who, together with Helen Magnus, was a member of The Five. Clara inherited her grandfather’s power of invisibility and died helping defend the Sanctuary in End of Nights.  

“There was definitely a little bit of a spark and an attraction between my character and Clara,” says Dunne. “Unfortunately, poor Will doesn’t have much luck as far as women go. When the world constantly seems to be falling down around you and you’re trying to hold it together with some glue and dental floss, your love life tends to suffer. Sadly, this is one chapter in my character’s life that has come to an end.”  

While no one could ever replace Ashley, Will and Helen have added a new member to their team this season, former con artist Kate Freelander (Agam Darshi). Having been involved with the Cabal in a scheme to double cross Dr. Magnus, Kate ends up joining the good guys when things backfire on her. Because of her past dealings, though, it takes a little time for Will and the others to completely welcome Kate into the fold.  

Will and his new co-worker, Kate Freelander (Agam Darshi). Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

“It’s an odd relationship that Will and Kate have,” explains Dunne. “It’s a slow build. At the beginning, there’s no real trust between either of them at all. They’re two very different people. Will is not someone who reacts to things without thinking them through first. He will analyze all the options and then try to make the wisest choice. Kate, however, has more of a knee-jerk reaction to things. She does what she thinks is right on the spur of the moment. So Kate and Will clash, and at first he’s not even sure whether or not she’s going to be around for long, or if she really belongs in the Sanctuary. But over time, there’s kind of a mutual, if not maybe a little distant, respect that develops between the two. Agam has brought a wonderful new energy to the show, while her character of Kate has really shaken up the team dynamic.”  

When it comes to the writing for season two of Sanctuary, Dunne does not hesitate to give it high marks. “One of the many great things about this show is the fearlessness and courage that Damian, Martin and Amanda as well as the writing staff have. Then there’s the Syfy Channel, who are right there supporting these ideas,” says the actor. “There is never a time where it’s like, well, let’s not push the envelope. Whenever you pick up a new script and start reading it, you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re doing this.’  

“Last year, Amanda and I did a couple of two-handers and it was a really terrific experience. It’s like doing a play in that we shoot them in sequence, which is fantastic. So in keeping with that theme, we have a couple of two-handers this season as well, one of which is set in the future and is called Pavor Nocturnus. In it, Magnus is basically ‘infected’ by this Abnormal that gives her a glimpse into the future. Needless to say, the future hasn’t gone particularly well, and when we meet Will in this episode he’s changed. He looks nothing like the way we know him to look, nor acts anything like the way we know Will to act.

“It was a terrific thing for me to be able to do, and at the same time a pretty tricky acting challenge because it was almost like playing a new character. A great deal had happened to Will; he’d seen so much tragedy and had to deal with a number of things. It was really quite daunting for me to do these scenes, and when they’d say, ‘Cut,’ I’d say to Marty, Damian or Amanda, ‘I don’t know what this is going to look like. It’s possibly going to come out looking terrible.’ As always, they were extremely supportive and said to me, ‘It’s great. Just don’t think about it. Just get out there and do it,’ which I did, and I think it turned out pretty well. It was just weird to take a character that you know and know how to play and try to approach it in a way that you’ve never played him before.” 

Will is not quite himself in "Pavor Nocturnus." Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

At the time of this interview (June 2009), the Sanctuary cast and crew were shooting the season two story Veritas, in which Dr. Magnus is accused of murdering Bigfoot in cold blood. Besides playing scenes in front of the camera with Amanda Tapping, Dunne joined his fellow castmates in being directed by her as well.  

Executive producer/director Martin Wood and executive producer/Sanctuary leading lady Amanda Tapping during a read-through for "Veritas." Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

“We’ve been having a good time on this one,” enthuses the actor. “Amanda is amazing to work with as an actor as well as a director, and it seems like our team here is getting to the point where it’s almost non-verbal communication. By that I mean everyone is so in-sync that not a lot needs to be explained. If, for instance, Amanda calls, ‘Cut,’ and starts walking over to me, before she even says anything, I’ll be like, ‘I know, less of this and more of that.’ She’ll say, ‘Yep,’ and then boom, boom, boom, we’re back to it. I think that’s the cool thing about working with such a tight-knit group of people. We’re all on the same page and believe in what we’re doing and know the show so well.  

“Again, this is season two, right? So not only do we know the program that much better, but the relationships between everyone are that much stronger, too, and that goes for us as people as well as our characters. Last year was smooth, but this season is that much tighter and more solid.”  

While working on Veritas, the actor was also busy prepping to shoot episode eight, Next Tuesday. “The next story is another two-hander where Will and Magnus are trapped in a helicopter that crashes into the ocean and they’re dealing with giant squids and all kinds of stuff,” he says. “The two characters are also having a difference of opinion on certain matters.  

There's water, water everywhere for poor Will in "Next Tuesday." Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel

“The fact that this episode takes place in water is a little intimidating, but at the same time totally exciting. I spent all day yesterday at the bottom of a pool learning how to scuba dive. It’s going to be five days of wetsuits and us floating in a water tank. Again, we’re just constantly pushing the envelope and crossing boundaries insofar as telling these stories.”  

Although Sanctuary still had a couple of months to go before wrapping for its second year, Dunne was thinking about one or two projects he was looking forward to during the hiatus between seasons two and three, including one of his own creation which is slated to start shooting in Spring 2010. “I wrote a feature film script last year that I sold to a company in Los Angeles,” says the actor. “It’s called B.F.F. and basically it’s a comedy about two girls who are best friends in high school. Then, however, one goes to New York and becomes a hotshot lawyer, while the other one stays behind in this small town. Ten years later she decided to go to New York to find her best friend, but their lives have taken different paths and they’re not the same people they once were. It was neat to write a sort of girl buddy comedy because you don’t see many of those. I think the script turned out pretty good and I’m really interested to see who they cast.”  

Steve Eramo

As noted above, all photos by Jeff Weddell and copyright of The Syfy Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

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