Saturday, August 21, 2010

And the Sky Full of Stars II

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.

The Interstellar News Network anchor identified only as Jane is a ubiquitous presence in the Babylon 5 mythos: after first being introduced in the B5 series premiere, she not only served as the network’s face for all five of that show’s seasons, but for the duration of the spin-off, Crusade, as well – one of only a handful of characters to make the transition.

Maggie Egan is quite the accomplished artist. In addition to appearing in over 600 commercials and 50 TV shows, doing theater work – including creating her own one-woman show, Isn’t It Romantic? (an evening of comedy and romance) – and recording her own albums, she still is an active student, most recently studying improv with actor/writer Andy Goldberg.

You can follow along with all of Maggie’s adventures here .

You were in 10 out of a total of 110 Babylon 5 episodes, with a total screen time that probably amounts to little more than a half-hour, and yet your character is a distinctly memorable one. How did you manage to fashion a real character out of the snippets of scenes you were handed?

I love that you have those facts. I had no idea I was in 10 out of 110 episodes nor that I had such an insignificant amount of time on screen. It’s humbling and maybe even a little embarrassing when you put it that way, but the fact is... I am a grateful actor. I was grateful to get the first day of work and was amazed that they kept bringing me back year after year. I’ll be very honest… I played a woman like me whose job is that of news anchor who just happens to live in the future. I told the story that needed to be delivered that day on the news and just wanted to convey clearly the events of the day without trying to sound like I had a bias. Just like any good news anchor would do, or at least it’s what my sister, Tracy Egan, a news reporter in NYC and anchor in Albany, NY, would do. But when there were stunning events, like the death of a president, then I drew on my memories of watching Walter Cronkite deliver the news of President Kennedy’s death and remembered how, as professional as he was, you couldn’t help but feel the knot in his throat and the sting of his tears as he tried to control his emotions. It still gets to me, just remembering that scene on TV. It was news that rocked the world and deeply affected my family. My dad had campaigned for Congress in upstate New York the same year Robert Kennedy ran for the New York Senate. I got a taste of politics that year. I remember getting to touch Robert Kennedy’s hand over a temporary wire fence at the Albany Airport on his campaign trail. So, that scene in B5 brought back all these very real, very sacred memories to me, and I felt a sense of honor in being able to play a scene that had the same kind of impact on the ISN audience that Kennedy’s assassination had on the world and on me on that terrible November day.

In preparing for the role, you’ve mentioned that you studied the likes of Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and, of course, your sister, Tracy Egan. How much do you feel these individuals bring to the table in terms of delivery, relatability, empathy – in short, acting? Or are these positions more of an interchangeable nature?

I think a news anchor has to have a great delivery, and an audience must be able to relate to her or him and must be able to trust that person and find her accessible, too. I’ve been told that I have an accessible demeanor; in other words, I’m the kind of person a stranger would feel comfortable coming up to to ask directions, and [they] would feel safe and would feel like I’d know how to get them where they want to go. I think that’s a quality a news anchor needs to have. But are these positions interchangeable? I don’t think so. I remember one time my sister was living in NYC and was a young, beautiful news reporter at WABC. Some exec from ABC on the west coast had heard about her and heard she looked a bit like Jackie Kennedy and they were about to cast someone to play Jackie Kennedy in an ABC movie-of-the-week. I think Jacqueline Smith (from Charlie’s Angels) actually ended up getting the part. But my sister called me and asked me, “Do you have a few minutes? Can you teach me to act?” Okay, that question right there took me a few minutes to recover from, but I overcame my feelings of “Just how little do you think of my profession, anyway?” and set about to teach my sister a little bit about acting by phone, she in NY, me in Houston, TX, at the time. I said, “Okay, what is the scene about?” She said, “Well, JFK has been killed and she is having a conversation with the author T. H. White [The Once and Future King] and she starts to break down.” I said, “Okay, well, you’ve got to allow yourself to use your imagination and imagine that your husband, Neil, has just been killed and feel those emotions.” She said, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” And that pretty much ended her pursuit of an acting career. You see, not everybody wants to feel their feelings, especially the really deep, painful ones. That’s why actors are probably so revered – because the really fine actors will portray whatever feeling or look any way is required of them for the character to be believable. It’s not always flattering.

As for actors being good news anchors, well, that’s certainly not a given, either. Some have enough qualities that are suitable to play that, and some aren’t suited to play that [at all]. But the base of knowledge you have to have to be a good news anchor is astounding to me. You gotta have smarts for that job. It’s better I just played one on TV.

There is a remarkably common sentiment amidst the acting community that working in front of a green screen is a difficult, even an atrocious, process. How much of an impediment was this for you?

It didn’t even come up in conversation. They said, here is your news desk, look into the camera, in five, four, three, two… and I began to say my lines. That’s it. There was no talk of “here’s what’s showing on the TV behind you.” My job was to show up on time, know my lines, and not bump into the furniture.

After spending so many days of production on a little corner of a set by yourself and your desk, did you find yourself approaching – or even just perceiving – those rare moments when you did get to work with another actor differently? Did it bring out different subtleties for you?

You probably know better than I, but I think I only had one scene when I was with another actor, and that was when we were being attacked and the set was falling in around us and I was trying to convince my co-anchor not to say whatever it was he was trying to say on live TV. I just played the scene. I was trying to stay composed, because that’s the job of a news anchor; I was scared; I was trying to get him to not say what he was saying…and I was a little concerned for my own safety, because I believe I was a few months pregnant at the time.

I’m curious: given Joe Straczynski’s background in and extreme emotional response to journalism, did he ever approach you about the part with any kind of instruction or comment?

No. In fact, I’m not sure I ever ran into him on the set. I finally met him at the hotel across from the Burbank Airport at a fan convention years later.

I know that you, like most actors, have a penchant for crafting backstories for your characters. I’m sure ISN Anchor Jane is a wide-open book – what did you come up with for her?

Really, I can’t remember anything more specific than what I said earlier. I just played her as me but with the job of a news anchor, and the fact that it was set in the future didn’t really affect my choices, because as me in the future, I wouldn’t have thought of it as the future – it was just the world I lived in. I probably thought of her as single, and a serious, career-minded woman, and my main thoughts were on the story I needed to convey, which was important work to my character, a no-nonsense kind of gal.

I would like you to walk me through one specific scene, if you would, in as much detail as you can muster, 13 long years later. Towards the end of season four, after a year – in terms of both chronology and production – of being gone, Jane retakes her chair in an ISN special report (the episode, incidentally, is “Endgame”). After only getting one word out, she has to take a moment to recompose herself before trudging on with the news. What was your initial reaction to this on the page? Did you go through a lot of rehearsals? What role did John Copeland, the episode’s director (and B5’s producer), play in helping you arrive at what we see in the finished product?

Well, first of all, imagine my surprise when I found out my character hadn’t been killed off. So, I was thrilled to be back on the show. Again, I just put myself in the position that I had an important role as an ISN news anchor on planet Earth, I had been under attack, and I assumed many colleagues had died. I hadn’t been told much about what had happened on the show since I left, so I was just handed the script and let the script just sink in. I don’t know if I was supposed to play it any other way; it’s just the way that seemed natural to me, and, luckily, it’s the way I was allowed to play it. I honestly can’t remember any specific direction I was given. Maybe John remembers what he may have said to me, but I don’t remember anything other than, “This is the scene – play it the way it feels right to play it,” and I just remember how great it felt to allow Jane to allow herself to be vulnerable. It felt like the audience had to be able to feel how horrible it was to have gone through the ordeal of being imprisoned and the gratitude of being released and being alive and being back on the air. I guess I really did feel my character had a real sense of duty, and patriotism, but those words never came to my mind until I sat down to answer your question.

I think, after a while, actors develop their own shorthand at discovering a character. I remember how my wonderful acting coach, Chris Wilson in Houston, TX, God rest her soul, taught us how to take each line of dialogue and assign an action verb to that line. It might be “to intimidate” or “to calm” or “to cover up, to hide” or “to accuse,” etc., etc. But after a point, you find yourself just letting the script inform you and you just get what it is that the writer wants conveyed and you deliver it that way using your specific vehicle – that is, your voice, your body, your chosen accent, your chosen attitude, etc. Sometimes, you get it right and they hire you. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how right you are – you just don’t get hired. The toughest job for me as an actor is to keep remembering to nurture my spiritual life. I love to do it, but I sometimes simply forget.

Back to your question: my initial reaction was, “Yippee! I finally get to act, to feel, to convey an emotion.” And I don’t think we had a lot of rehearsals.

If the media, its construction and presentation and relation to commerce, is a reflection of the culture or society that produces it, then what would you have to say about 23rd century humanity? And what about 21st century America?

That question is way over my pay grade. I love how smart your question is, but I would simply have to BS my way through that one. I’m actually more interested in your insights and thoughts in answer to that question. I think you’ve got something to say here, and I say, please, give us your thoughts, because I bet it’s pretty insightful.

To sum things up, though, I am honored and flattered to have been asked to participate in your interview. I think your questions were wonderful, and I think you are typical of a B5 fan. From my travels around the world, from NY to Sydney, I have met a lot of B5 fans, and they all have similar qualities: they are smart, thoughtful, they care about the state of our political playing field, they care about people and our planet, and they know how to have fun. That’s why I feel so blessed to have been a part of this show – because it was a smart, savvy, thought-provoking, fun TV show. I’d love to be on another one. That is my intention. So, psssst…tell a friend or two: Maggie’s a great choice to have on your show!

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
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
January 2010

The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
February 2010

Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
May 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 2010

Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
November 2010

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010

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