Sixteen years after the series premiere, Marc N. Kleinhenz interviews the cast of Babylon 5, one of the landmark television shows in American history, about their characters, their emotional evolution, and their participation in television history.
Of all the cast, Patricia Tallman, portraying Babylon 5’s resident telepath, Lyta Alexander, has the most interesting and intertwined involvement with the production. Originally introduced as a series regular in the pilot telefilm – in a part written specifically for her by series creator and showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski – contract disputes prevented her from joining the season one cast. Lyta was subsequently reintroduced as a recurring character during the second and third seasons, when her replacement, Talia Winters (played by Andrea Thompson), had to be similarly written off of the show – paving the way for Pat’s return as a full cast member for the final two seasons.
Pat Tallman is active with both her official fan club, located on Facebook, and the charity organization Penny Lane, which runs a group home for children and adolescents so abused, they cannot be put in regular foster care. It is for the latter that she runs Be a Santa, a program that visits, decorates the rooms of, and gives gifts to the Penny Lane kids during the holidays. You can find out more about the annual event, including ways to assist – “I need help every year to pull it off,” Pat notes – here.
Let’s start at the end. The denouement of Lyta’s character arc is so wonderful because it’s so different from Sheridan’s or Garibaldi’s or Franklin’s – whereas they end up becoming more successful, both externally, in the outside world, and internally, within their own skins, Lyta becomes much angrier and more primal. How did you respond to that?
I don’t know how Joe does it. It’s like he’s inside my skin sometimes. Lyta comes from a very sheltered, very scheduled and controlled environment. Throughout her journey on Babylon 5, as she becomes aware of other beings and the circumstances of their existence, she awakens to the universe of possibilities in herself. To be that in touch with others and their pain, she reacts to injustice. Of course that leads to anger. I, myself, can become incandescent with rage at the injustices in the world. I am not evolved enough yet, I guess, to become all spiritual and placid and philosophical about pain and suffering. I get pretty fucking pissed off, which leads to action. Lyta becomes all about action, and, brother, if she gets as angry as I do, well… it ain’t gonna be pretty!
There is a nice parallel between Lyta’s end point and Lennier’s, where they both become regarded as something of a criminal or antagonist by the other characters. Do you think Lyta still manages to retain her integrity by series’s end, despite her rather utilitarian methodology in the last handful of episodes?
I am proud of her for being an individual and flying in the face of what’s comfy and normal. I believe that is exactly what maintains integrity. Weirdly enough, I just put this on my Facebook group page: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. […] It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~ E.E. Cummings, 1955.
I’ve always loved the character of Byron – most likely because, from an early age on, I’ve had this passion for ideologies, particularly the extreme ones (not to mention, of course, long hair). But practically everyone I’ve come across, from my wife to various online denizens, hate Byron with this unrivaled passion. Why do you think that is?
Wow. How can you hate Byron? I don’t understand this. Joe would, of course. But I admire [Byron’s] directness and clarity. I may not agree with it, but I admire passion that comes from a place of selflessness and a true desire to make things better for everyone. I also love Robin Atkin Downes like my own brother and think he’s a brilliant actor! Great hair – wish I had it!
What word or emotion would you use to sum up or embody Lyta’s evolution across the five years of the show?
How difficult was it to step into Lyta’s skin? Did portraying a walking psionic thermonuclear bomb present a number of obstacles, or was it a relatively smooth process?
It was organic. Lyta was not an easy being to incorporate, but she made sense to me. I realized in the fifth season [that] I had never smiled as Lyta. It took Byron to make her smile.
There is this nice little scene between you and Jerry Doyle (Mr. Garibaldi) towards the very beginning of season five, where you try to explain what it’s like to telepathically watch someone die while he’s attempting to pump you for (yet more) favors. Walk me through that scene, if you would. What was your initial reaction to it in the script? Was Jerry’s approach to it much different than yours? What role did Mike Vejar, the episode’s director, play in helping the two of you arrive at what we see in the finished product?
My approach to acting has always been a blend of the method tradition and a practical approach. I am very aware of the time and money it takes to produce a project. I do, however, embody my characters and need to find a way to become them. When I got a B5 script, I’d read it and then absorb it in my own way. It’s impossible to describe and sound sane.
I’d say the cast members I felt closest to, and worked best with, were Rick Biggs [Dr. Stephen Franklin] and Robin Downes. Rick and I would get together to rehearse. Laurie, his wife (then-girlfriend), would take care of my son, Julian, while Rick and I would work on the scenes. We had a blast playing “Telepath and Doctor in Space,” as it were. He was a joy. Robin and I just clicked from the beginning and were able to help each other find the best in our characters.
The directors in TV had the monumental job of conducting this huge mass of people towards a finished product called an episode. Really, they left the regulars alone, with a few comments about the focus of a scene. Mike is a very gifted director. We were always lucky to have him. The thing about Garibaldi and Lyta was they were coming from opposite directions. It was perfect for Jerry and I. We just needed a traffic pattern, and we were off to the races.
Do you have any disappointments in how either you approached a particular character beat or in how a specific scene or episode turned out?
I cannot look at anything like that. I have to believe I always did my best with what I had to work with and deal with at the time.
Despite some twists and turns and elongated absences, you’re one of only a handful of people to be with the show from its very beginning to its very end. What was that journey like? Was life on the set any different from the pilot to the series finale?
The thing that jumps out at me was how really wonderful most of the folks were on that ship. Really. I am grateful to know them, and working with them was a privilege. We were lucky when Bruce came on board. What a terrific person he is and the perfect captain on our ship. When I see his face, I always smile. And I feel that way about almost everyone.
It’s been nearly twelve years since Babylon 5 went off of the air. Looking back at where you were as an actor in 1998, what stands out the most to you?
My baby, my son, who was six-months-old when I started back on B5 in the second season, is now 15-and-a-half. I wrote about going to work and leaving him in daycare. How heartbreaking that was, because I was so happy for the work and loved the show but had to give up so much to do it.
We have all said we know how lucky we were to work with such exceptional people, and we all really enjoyed each other. I have been on other “ships” and it was never even close to B5.
What do you think Lyta’s arc, from put-upon telepath to martyred war hero (and leader), tells us about Joe Straczynski’s overriding theme or message? How is his vision of the world embodied in Lyta’s life – and how is your view of the world embodied in her?
I don’t think Lyta encompasses Joe’s message or theme. Or if there is a correlation, it’s for someone much more intelligent to write about. English prof Sharon Ney? I just hope I can live up to what Lyta accomplished for her people. I, too, have a passion for justice and social change. I have a long way to go!
I believe Joe put a piece of himself in every character he wrote, and each of them accomplished something critical for him in the story. I think the reason Joe’s work on B5 is so compelling to so many people is [because] he poured his considerable passion and intellect into the work, and we, the viewers, cannot help but viscerally experience it as we watch.
This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:
The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5