Emilie Ullerup as Ashley Magnus in Sanctuary. Photo by Jeff Weddell and courtesy of the Sci Fi Channel
When we were children, most of us probably spent at least one night looking for monsters under our bed or in the closet. Fortunately, they always turned out to be imaginary. As an adult, Sanctuary‘s Ashley Magnus risks her life searching for very real monsters. An expert in advanced weapons and technology as well as hand-to-hand combat, she is the daughter of Dr. Helen Magnus, head of the Sanctuary, a global network of facilities dedicated to studying and, if necessary, capturing and detaining creatures called abnormals. As if Ashley does not have enough on her plate, she takes on even more when her father, John Druitt, comes back into her life. It has been quite a head trip for our leather-clad heroine, as Emilie Ullerup, who plays Ashley, explains.
“Ashley already had a huge journey in the two-hour [Internet] pilot,” says the actress, taking time out for a chat while shooting the first season Sanctuary episode Warriors. “My character went from living her life as she had through her twentysomething years to being hit in the face with the fact that she has a dad and he is, or was, a monster.
“So overnight her whole world changes and becomes a scary place for a young woman who has never had to deal with anything, really. Emotionally, she’s cut off and focused on her lot in life, which is every day she gets up and might die because she’s going to go fight monsters. Then, all of a sudden, her dad shows up and forces her to think about what she’s doing. I think that’s what took up a lot of her time in the web pilot, but her journey has since changed with these 13 [first season] episodes that we’re doing.”
Ashley and her estranged father John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl) have a somewhat unconventional reunion. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel
The two-hour Internet pilot for Sanctuary was filmed in early 2007, but its creator Damian Kindler along with his fellow executive producers, Martin Wood and Amanda Tapping (Helen Magnus), began prep months before, and that included, among other things, Ullerup’s audition for the role of Ashley. “When I originally went in to read I knew nothing about the project other than the three scenes that I’d been sent,” she recalls. “I had that first audition and received a callback relatively soon afterwards. The second time around was pretty much like the first, except after I did the scenes, I think it was Martin Wood who said to me, ‘The show’s stunt coordinator Bam Bam [James Bamford] is here. We’re going to put together a little something for you and we just want to see how you do.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’
“James came in and he and I did a very simple hand offensive [move] and I walked out of there feeling good. A couple of hours later I got a phone call telling me, ‘You’re good to go,’ and I was super excited. We shot the trailer that summer [of 2006] and then seven months later we began filming the web pilot. For me, that meant a whirlwind of learning the fight sequences and putting it all together. I had never had any fight training before in my life, so it was a matter of rehearsing a scene and then walking on-set dressed in leather and high-heels and trying to pull it off. I actually did everything myself, but we had a [stunt] double on-set who would also do the fights in case there was something that I couldn’t sell properly. Bam Bam brought in great stunt performers who I was able to practice with and get a feel for having five people around me that my character would have to take down. So I had all these things working in my favor.”
Along with the onscreen fights, another of the more memorable moments for Ullerup when filming the Sanctuary pilot is where Ashley learns that John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl) is her father. He and Helen were born in Victorian England and were part of a group of scientists called The Five. Back then, Helen discovered that an injection of a serum derived from vampire blood would give all five of them extraordinary powers. Druitt gained the ability to teleport, but the drug’s side-effects turned him into a homicidal killer. This drove him and Helen apart, but not before they had conceived a child. When Helen and Ashley next saw John it was in the present day, much to their surprise.
Ashley and John Druitt "enjoy" some father-daughter time together. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel
“I went into that scene where Ashley finds out the truth about her father having made up my mind that it wasn’t going to be something that we glossed over easily,” says Ullerup. “Once we started filming that day, the cast and crew didn’t know what to expect with that scene and we took it in a direction that was a little deeper and darker than perhaps anyone had anticipated. It made it so much better for all of us, though, because our characters really connected, and in the process it got frightening, too.
“I remember doing a scene with Chris and I was actually terrified of him that day, which worked great. The scene was quite magical and Martin Wood – I don’t know if he would want me to say this – but he had tears in his eyes. He and the other guys sat behind the cameras and they all started crying with us. We were exhausted beyond belief after 12 hours of doing all that emotional stuff, but it was just a really super day. That’s why we’re all so pleased to be back here. We knew we already had something special, and now we get to play with it more.”
The Sanctuary pilot received such a positive response from viewers that the Sci Fi Channel decided to bring it to TV. Its 13-episode first season was shot during the spring and summer of 2008 and debuted last October. The program’s new venue necessitated changes to the pilot, which was re-shot, and as the story unfolded, the characters’ lives once again experienced upheaval.
Mom and daughter team in action - Ashley and Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping). Photo by Jeff Weddell and courtesy of the Sci Fi Channel
“Ashley’s world has been turned upside down this season, mostly just in terms of she’s been introduced to the idea of free choice and free thought,” notes Ullerup. “Yes, she’s had that in the Sanctuary, but she’s always been told what to do by her mom and never questioned it. However, with the introduction of her father, he tells Ashley that there is such a thing as choice and that she should think for herself and not simply aim, shoot and kill. So there’s a lot going on with her. I’m not sure where it’s all headed because there are so many different ways it could go, but there’s definitely a great deal of darkness in my character’s life.
“At the core of everything, Ashley loves her mom; she’s the only one who my character could trust up to now. This has provided me with plenty of [acting] challenges because I, personally, come from a very stable family, so trying to draw on not trusting your parents and not knowing who they really are is very strange to me. So I’ve had some big days with both Christopher and Amanda, lots of emotional pulls and tugs as well as a lot of anger and resistance, more than, I think, in the Internet pilot, which is really a thrill for me.”
Like the web pilot, the TV incarnation of Sanctuary uses a tremendous amount of green screen in its production, which allows its writers to set stories around the world. Also, Martin Wood, who directed the web pilot, has directed several of the TV episodes, and his presence behind the camera is much appreciated by Ullerup.
Ashley and Sanctuary's resident techno-whiz Henry (Ryan Robbins) infiltrate a facility run by a shadowy organization known as The Cabal. Photo by Jeff Weddell and courtesy of the Sci Fi Channel
“Martin knows exactly what he wants all the time,” says the actress, “and that’s huge help, especially when you’re working with green screen, where we enter a world of not knowing. Even on the day of filming, we don’t know exactly what’s happening around us, but Martin is great at making sure that we at least know the broad strokes of where everything is. He’s great about taking us aside and informing us of our environment, and that helps us figure out what’s going on inside ourselves. There are days when I’ll be on-set and do something that I think works. Again, though, Martin knows what he wants and he’ll come up to you and say, ‘Listen, that was very good, but can you try it this way.’ As a result, the entire scene is transformed. Martin knows how to speak to actors, and that’s not always the case with a director.”
In the aforementioned Warriors, Helen and Ashley along with Helen’s protege, forensic psychologist Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) cross paths with The Cabal, a powerful shadowy organization that views abnormals to be a serious threat to the future of humankind. This episode also reunites Helen and Ashley with another family member.
“This story is basically about a fight club for abnormals, but it’s definitely not a voluntary one,” explains Ullerup. “It’s being run by The Cabal, who are looking to create the strongest, fiercest, scariest abnormal ever and are testing their candidates in the fight ring. We become involved when one of Will’s friends is kidnapped, so we go looking for him and stumble upon this club. At the same time, we find Ashley’s grandfather [Gregory Magnus, played by Jim Byrnes]. My character thought he’d been dead for many years, so now grandpa gets tossed into the mix, too. This is a big episode insofar as family ties and raises the question of can Ashley trust mom? It turns out, though, that Helen had no idea that her dad was still alive either, but it’s still more confusion for her and Ashley and their relationship becomes a bit more tarnished.
Ashley and Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) on the hunt for an abnormal in the season one Sanctuary episode "Nubbins." Photo by Jeff Weddell and courtesy of the Sci Fi Channel
“For me, the thing that’s been big this season is character development, which includes Ashley dealing with her own issues as well as other characters,” continues the actress. “Because she’s sort of the go-to gal who knows the town and all the contacts, I’ve been able to play opposite some really cool abnormals. I mean, I’ve had scenes with an abnormal we call ‘Squid Man,’ who’s this crazy looking guy with prosthetic tentacles hanging all over his face. So that’s been an odd sort of challenge.
“What also stands out for me acting-wise on Sanctuary is getting to do so much of the physical stuff. There are some episodes where it’s needed and others where not so much. Sometimes I wish there were more stunts and fights, but I understand there has to be a balance. It’s not a fight show and we need the story to drive the fights. So overall for me as an actor, I’ve been able to do the emotional scenes as well as physical ones. I’ve also had the chance to be in the background and watch other people play and see their characters develop. I just think it’s a very well-rounded way of telling a story.”
Ashley and Henry are caught in yet another tight spot. Photo by Jeff Weddell and courtesy of the Sci Fi Channel
Prior to being cast on Sanctuary, Ullerup got plenty of Sci-Fi and Fantasy experience working on such shows as Battlestar Galactica, Blood Ties and the Canadian made jPod. “I was so green when I did Battlestar,” says the actress. “It was my very first audition and I was lucky enough to book it. I had never been on a [film] set before, so I had no clue where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to do, other than I knew my lines and I was in my costume. Most of my scenes were with Katee Sackhoff [Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace], which was really exciting. She and I gelled very well and it was an amazing first experience. Everyone on Battlestar was terrific and it was a fantastic way for me to see how a well-oiled machine works.
“Then I went on Blood Ties. I did their pilot episode and it was a whole different type of set because it was smaller and new and you just got that sense of energetic first-time jitters. I worked with Kyle Schmid [Henry Fitzroy], who’s a fantastic actor and all-around nice guy. Our scenes together were relatively intimate and before we began shooting, Kyle said to me, ‘This could be awkward, but I don’t want it to be, so let’s just have a laugh and have fun,’ which we did.
“And just before Sanctuary I did jPod, which was originally a book written by Canadian author Douglas Coupland [executive producer] and then turned into a TV series. Unfortunately, it only lasted one season, which was a terrible shame because we went out with 15 Leo Award nominations and the series was also nominated at the Monte Carlo International Film Festival. I played a computer animator [Kaitlin Joyce] who was striving to climb the ranks, tended to ignore people and was sometimes a bit not-so-nice. It was a great show to do over the summer, and to then come to Sanctuary and be cast as yet another very different type of character is a real treat.”
Our heroine Ashley enjoys a rare moment of down-time. Photo by and courtesy of Sanctuary 1 Productions/Anthem Visual Effects
In Sanctuary‘s first season two-part finale Revelations, Ashley is taken prisoner by The Cabal and undergoes a treatment that turns her against Helen and the others. Discovering that she has inherited her father’s teleportation power, Ashely steals a vial of vampire blood that her mother needs to cure a virus that The Cabal has unleashed on the abnormals. In the final moments of Revelations, Part 2 it looks as if she has gone over to the dark side. Like the show’s fans, Ullerup is curious to see what is next for Ashley when season two of Sanctuary premieres this fall.
“We were shocked to see where we thought our characters were going and where they ended up,” she says. “In the world of Sci-Fi anything is possible, and in the world of green screen even more is possible. We’ve gone to so many places and seen so many new things, and that makes it easier to stick with your character because nothing is ever the same. It doesn’t become routine when as an actor you’re challenged to explore new places with your character. It keeps it fresh, and I’m looking forward to more of that next season.”
As stated above, all photos copyright of Jeff Weddell or Sanctuary 1 Productions/Anthem Visual Effects and courtesy of Sanctuary 1 Productions/Anthem Visual Effects or the Sci Fi Channel, so please no copying or unauthorized duplicating of any form. Thanks!