The Cold War may be history for us, but 200 years from now in The Expanse, it's heating up between fading Earth and her scrappy, wealthy former colony Mars. Forces on both sides are struggling for domination. They despise each another, but both sides also have a common focus of prejudice: the inhabitants of the resource-rich Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter
"Belters" form a maligned and oppressed underclass. They're miners and laborers who've developed a unique dialect derived from many languages, as well as hand gestures that replace words for when they're working in space suits. Low gravity on their space stations has made them physically different as well, and their lives are precarious because anyone at any time can cut their supplies of air and water. They know it, they resent it, and the intend to fight it.
Belter engineer Naomi Nagata is powerfully played by Dominique Tipper. She's lithe, commanding, magnetic, and utterly believable aboard the ship captained by James Holden, the Rocinante. And even though that's the name of Don Quixote's nag, her team does a lot more than tilt at windmills. She may not be the ship's captain, but she's not remotely a futuristic Sancho Panza.
Here's Tipper talking about what she brings to her role and what it's given her.
LR: You have a beautiful speaking voice and you're a singer. Has voice training affected your acting in any way?
DT: Thank you. To be completely honest I very much separate the two things, so I've never connected what I've done with my voice when I was a singer with acting, but I probably use it sub-consciously. Terry McDonough, who directed the first and last block of the first season of The Expanse, was paramount in helping us build these characters and so he was very adamant I drop into the lower part of my speaking voice when being Naomi and so that has always stuck with me.
LR: When you're shooting scenes for The Expanse, are you aware of other cast members' voices in any way, at any level? Do you notice things you think other people might not notice?
DT: I can't say I've ever really thought about their voices in that way. I'm more focused on responding to their behavior than their voice. But I do sometimes think about how all our accents are very distinct from each other's in a really great way. Yet again it's a testament to the commitment of the show to ensure we portray a diverse and normal future.
LR: That diversity is a beautiful thing to see, something Star Trek helped pave the way for. Something else related to another aspect of your career: does being a dancer change how you interact with the cast or relate to them physically?
DT: I don't think my dance background changes my sense of self in relation to the other cast members, but it definitely helps with being aware of my body, what I'm doing and what I choose to do to represent how I think Naomi would carry herself. But the two disciplines are so different. Sometimes having dance experience doesn't help at all in that respect. Sometimes I feel like it hinders my ability to make, for instance, a less flattering but more pedestrian choice in terms of what my body is doing, so I have to be careful sometimes.
LR: Whatever choices you're making, Naomi carries herself with great presence in the show. Now, Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies and Linda Hamilton in the Terminator movies broadened the whole image of science fiction heroes on screen. Are they role models for you? Is anyone?
DT: They're role models in the sense that I'm not sure Naomi would exist without them, but to be honest my role models are so diverse across many forms of art, because I never wanted to be an actress until about six or seven years ago. As a kid I watched mostly musicals (West Side Story is my favourite) and Michael Jackson videos because all I wanted was to be a pop star. What I watched as a teenager was MTV Base, every music award show, and all the other music channels I could flick between. Throughout my life, I have always been a fan of film, I just didn't see the actress part coming.
LR: What sort of films do you enjoy?
DT: My personal taste in films over the years has varied between indie films, period costume dramas, French cinema and martial arts movies. I think it changes when you become an actress, you end up watching films for many other reasons than it just being a film you like. Sci-fi wasn't really on my radar. It's actually been a genre that I've learned so much more about from being predominately cast in sci-fi films and TV shows and now I'm much more into it. I always thought I'd be doing obscure indie films as an actress, because that's what I love to watch. I can't wait to do a film where I get to wear a corset or put on a sparkly dress and dance and sing!
LR: Maybe you'll be in the sequel to La la Land. Given the major change of genres for you, how did you prepare for The Expanse?
DT: I didn't, I freaked out mostly. I was overwhelmed. I couldn't believe I was about to embark on such a journey after not being an actress for that long. It was everything I worked towards and dreamed of doing but it was still a shock for me. When I stopped freaking out, I went and bought all the books and read Leviathan Wakes. Then I researched what it would mean to be a self-taught engineer on a spaceship and then I started creating Naomi.
LR: So what's surprised you about yourself as you got deeper into the part over the course of Season One?
DT: I think what surprised me on a personal level was just how rewarding the experience was for me to get to play such a brilliantly flawed woman. She never fails to surprise me. Even over the course of Season Two when I felt like I knew her, there were some corners we turned that I wasn't ready for.
LR: The plot and character twists in the books and the show are terrific. But do you ever get to change dialogue in rehearsal?
DT: Thankfully, we have an extremely collaborative atmosphere on our set and the writers are very open to changing things if it serves the story better. When we started with the Expanse, Terry McDonough, our first director, used to have weekly read-throughs for the Rocinante crew where we would sit and flesh out scenes and character arcs and make sure we were all on the same page before we walked onto the set. We have kept that going every Sunday ever since and sometimes whoever wrote the episode will sit in with us so they can adjust things that maybe aren't working, or add things they feel are missing on the spot. Everyone wants this show to be the best it can be and so we all constantly work with each other to try our best to make that happen.
LR: That attention to detail comes through because the show feels like a labor of love.
Season Two of The Expanse airs February 1 on the Syfy Channel
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir and is a regular blogger at The Huffington Post. A former public radio interviewer and reviewer, he's also reviewed for the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press where he had a crime fiction column. He currently teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.