The second season of "Defiance" ended as it began: entertaining, energetic and admirably focused. Here's a show that is bursting with memorable characters and committed to its mission of displaying the complicated costs and benefits of connection and community. I honestly can't wait to see what the next season brings -- if there is a next season (now there's a sentence I really hated writing).
In the last year or so, Syfy has reoriented itself toward shows with actual science fiction in them. It's heartening to see just how many thematically and visually ambitious shows Syfy is developing or has commissioned, it truly is. But "Defiance" is the show that kicked off this positive trend, and in some ways, it feels as though the frontier drama is just getting started. Let's hope the network continues to firm up its commitment to quality endeavors in the genre by renewing "Defiance" as soon as humanly (or alien-ly) possible.
From the start, one of the many reasons to tune into "Defiance" has been to watch the twisted progress of the marriage between Datak and Stahma Tarr, a power couple in the rough-and-tumble town of Defiance. For any number of reasons, Datak and Stahma thrive on a believably weird stew of dysfunction and affection, and actors Tony Curran and Jaime Murray make the couple's addiction to each other fascinating, complex and entertaining as hell.
Stahma's liberation from the strictures of her repressive culture culminated in the beatdown of Datak that she arranged early in Season 2. She clearly enjoyed that moment. In the culture of the Castithans -- one of several alien races living alongside humans in Defiance -- women are supposed to be subservient to men, and Stahma was supposed to supply a gloss of class to the crime empire built by the brawling Datak. Out in the streets, in the home or in the family's ritual bath, Stahma was supposed to cater to Datak's needs and suppress her own.
In part influenced by her multi-cultural environment, Stahma started to get other ideas. By mid-season, she had exiled Datak and taken control of his business interests, which had thrived under her leadership. Yet this couple couldn't quit each other; sexually and emotionally, their bond is just too tightly woven to be severed so cleanly. The end of the season saw them united in a family crisis, which was entirely believable. Datak and Stahma are often at odds with each other -- witness the harrowing Season 2 scene set in the family's ritual bath -- but woe to anyone who poses a threat to their family unit.
In July, I sat down with Murray to talk about how she built the role of Stahma over the past two seasons, and we discussed how one of the most repressed female characters on TV evolved into the one of the most unpredictable and fascinating.
What were the building blocks of the character for you? A while back when we briefly discussed this, you talked about geishas and cats as part of what you thought about when you took on the role.
Well, it's mind-blowing to play another species. You want make her different enough to be conceivably an alien, but you also want to to be able to relate to her. You don't want to be weirding out the audience, or confusing them. You also want to tell a linear story. So I really had to make some economical choices, and I also had to ask myself, "Why would she react the same way as a human woman?" Sometimes as an actor, when impulses come up, that can be a great thing and you'll use them, because it's organic and natural. But sometimes [with Stahma] when my impulses come up, I have to put them to one side.
The bath stuff was quite interesting for me. It's funny how difficult those scenes are to shoot -- usually when I'm in that kind of scenario, I'm able to use my own human modesty and my own human, female vulnerabilities and insecurities to kind of protect myself. I might use my hands or hunch my back in a certain way, or hold myself so that I'm protected. Then I thought, "Well, why would this alien protect herself in that way? Why would she not be like a gazelle in Africa?" You don't see panthers walking along with false modesty. So I had to find ways of making her different and alien, and using animals was a part of that. Cats, big cats, snakes, reptiles and things like that.
The other thing about the character is, although she is alien, there's a very familiar similarity echoing through women's history. Throughout the ages, historically, women have been repressed within a patriarchal society. In fact, it's actually quite a small part of the world [where that is no longer the case]. In a way, I felt like I was in a historical piece. The first season, it was interesting to play a submissive alien. But it's quite nice to shed that and stand up for myself now.
Were you excited to learn about the direction that Stahma would be going in this season?
I was pretty happy with that turn of events. It wasn't hard in Season 1 for me to feel quite frustrated and kind of resentful. It kind of pulled on my own feelings. I don't like injustice in any form, when I see it happening to other people, and even when I'm acting, I'm pulling on real feelings. So Datak being high-handed with Stahma -- sometimes at the end of the day, I'd feel quite agitated and irritated. And I knew that it was job well done, because I was being really affected by the injustice of their situation. But I'd have to shake it off at the end of the day.
This season, we saw a lot of her pent-up emotions and anger coming out.
Agitation with her father, and agitation for not being able to do anything for other women in her society, for her mother and her sister. [She had] pent-up frustration that she was probably smarter than her brother but her brother was treated completely differently. A lot of rage. One of the things I like about "Defiance" is that there are no black-and-white heroes. If you did have to make that broad characterization, Nolan and Amanda are the heroes, but they're really flawed heroes. I love that. Datak -- maybe he's the out-and-out villain, but there are moments where you feel for him, or he's very charming, or he makes you laugh. However rotten he is, you want it to work out for him.
With Stahma, maybe I'm too close to it and maybe other people think she's awful and evil, but I couldn't play someone I didn't feel for. She comes from a very harsh, repressive world and now she's living with seven alien species, and we're going to see her learning new things. Some of it she's going to resist, some of it is going to blow her mind, some of it she's not going to get until it's too late. That's the tragedy of life, isn't it?
In Defiance, she can't avoid learning about different ways of life, and it seems like getting to know Kenya was a big part of making her question her choices.
In the first season, you started to see Stahma start to integrate [into the mix of culture in Defiance], but she might never have done that. She could have stayed in her cosseted world with her handmaidens and that little community. She was completely isolated. Kenya really was an [influence on Stahma's worldview].
The whole Kenya thing -- I made that joke [in 2013] at Comic-Con, "Just because you kill someone doesn't mean you didn't love them." The thing I like about Stahma is that she's often telling the truth even when she's lying -- that's what makes her such a brilliant liar. When Kenya was holding the flask and holding the gun on Stahma's head, Stahma was waiting for the poison to kick in. But what Stahma says to stall for time is true -- she says it was a new experience for her and it was life-changing, and I think that was true. She does feel deep regret about [that relationship], and that's piled in to the fury that she feels toward Datak. She wasn't far enough evolved to question the decision to dispose of the Kenya problem.
Do you think she loved Kenya?
Yeah. I think it's more interesting if she did. I don't necessarily know that she knew what that feeling was until after the fact. The sorrow of the loss and missing her has made her realize -- that's what that feeling was. There was intimacy there, and she was falling for her, but she was also playing her the whole time.
I get the impression that even Datak and Stahma can't figure out their feelings toward each other. And yet they're never really done with each other.
People only know what they know, don't they? They've come to this planet together. They've been through so much together. I can't imagine them without each other, really. I also think that you pick people in life, and hopefully you pick people who are good for you, but sometimes you pick people who bring up uncomfortable feelings or conflicts. There's a school of thought that says that you pick them because they're touching you in a tender spot that still needs to heal. They might be the source of your growth.
I think there's always going to be friction there, and it's always going to be delightful to watch them. and they're always going to be competing. Conflict is change trying to happen. Either you flex and bend and stretch and grow, or you find someone new, and then two years later you find out you married the same person again.
I think one thing that you and Tony share is this ability to go big and do those huge, sort of operatic scenes, and then go small and intimate as well. There just seems to be a real rapport between you, based on watching how you play the nuances together. For you as an actor, is there something different about that working relationship?
I'd known him for five minutes and I felt like I'd known him forever. It's that kind of cliche. There are certain people that you click with. There's a playfulness in our downtime, between scenes, that allows us to really go there when we are shooting. He's just a very generous, emotionally available, funny person. He's a jokester and he's funny and he's loud and gregarious, and I can be like that too, and it's funny that we both play these severe and serious and wicked people.
I think having a sense of humor is a great basis for playing a darker character. You have to not care how bad you look. When you have a good sense of humor or don't mind [mocking] yourself, that lends itself to going to some quite dark places.
Where do you see them going?
Datak and Stahma are definitely in their power-struggle phase. That's really fun to watch and it's new territory for both of them. You see both of them trying to assert themselves but you also see their vulnerability and how much they need each other. They haven't really got much, and they really don't have anyone else they can trust when shit hits the fan. But they're also incredibly hurt by each other and suspicious of each other. I'm sure Datak would love it to go back to the way it was before, but Stahma could not allow that to happen. So they've got to find a new way and that's going to be a long time coming.
Maybe you'll see them grow, but they're not heroic. They're self-serving. They're birds of a feather and they're both programmed to be ambitious. They're both smart. How much of that is Datak and Stahma, and how much is their Castithan background? That could be their behavior as a species.
Just touching on a different topic -- is the makeup that you wear as Stahma different this season? It looks really good.
"Defiance" is such an ambitious project, and we were learning as we were going. We got there two weeks ahead of time and did more makeup tests than I'd ever done before in my life. My face was so sore at the end of that two weeks. It was just on and off, on and off, camera test, camera test.
Colin Penman [head of the makeup department] is a real artist and he's perfecting it all the time. The Castithan makeup -- it doesn't wear very well, so they've got to touch it up all the time. [Directors] have to be really careful how they shoot it because it is so white and it's kind of reflective. If you shoot a Castithan in a green room, they're going to look green. So they've got to use bright lights and think about where they position them.
Does all that complicate your process as an actor?
Oh yeah. I love the show and it's such high drama. But next time I play a human, it's going to be so easy. [Laughs] I'm lucky that my method is that I prep quite a lot ahead of time, because sometimes I get on set and I'm just trying to not move and act natural and think about my eye lines -- there are all kinds of crazy conditions. There are very unnatural things that you're trying to make look natural. And it takes two hours to do the makeup. If it's a bath scene, it's about three and a half hours. You don't want to be ready too early because you can't sit down.
You've had such a varied career, what is it about Stahma that is new for you as an actor? What's she got that none of your other characters have had?
I've never really played someone so repressed and still and reserved. It's such an odd combination. She is quite repressed and reserved, but there's all that bath stuff. Also, the Castithans are quite sexual. And she can be quite comedic -- there's that comedic bath scene with Rafe [McCawley]. It was just incredibly socially awkward and just so funny. And Stahma knows that -- she knows what she's doing.
She is very smart, obviously. And this season she managed to turn her relationship with Datak on its head.
What's interesting about this season is that you got to know Stahma and who she is at the same time that she did. She didn't know who the hell she was. She was playing a role, she was surviving within the constraints of her world, and now she's evolving in real time before your very eyes. She's surprising herself.
One thing's for sure, and I'll be up front with [executive producer] Kevin [Murphy] about this -- I don't want next season to go back to where Stahma's massaging Datak's ego and baking buns. No, no, no. No more weaving in the corner. [Laughs] No more Casti weaving!
This interview has been edited and condensed.