Rambler Interviews Mary McDonnell

A Conversation with Mary McDonnell
by Shannon Baldo

The Rambler arranged for me to speak with this year’s Kenan Lecturer, Mary McDonnell, an actress best known for her role as Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica. We spoke about her experiences working in television and the opportunities that have arisen from it, a discussion which became one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever experienced.

SB: You have recently participated in events for the United Nations concerning your work in Battlestar Galactica. Could you describe that experience?

MM: The United Nations has developed a kind of cultural outreach program, and they are making an effort to forge meaningful relationships with the creative community in order to help take the reality of the United Nations and the policies it struggles with and put them into creative storytelling form so that, (a) people in general – particularly people in the United States – can understand the United Nations as governing body and where it lives – truly lives, because people think it just lives in a building in New York, but it truly lives all over the world, wherever there’s a problem – and (b) to use the United Nations as a sort of learning tool to help people understand themselves as global citizens as opposed to U.S. citizens. Because therein lies our hope, I do believe. We will always be U.S. citizens, or citizens of Great Britain, or citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – whatever it is –but our connection to people globally is where the hope rests and where the potential for saving the planet and for saving ourselves probably lives.

The United Nations thought that Battlestar Galactica had a great potential for using pieces from the story to illustrate different areas of the United Nations and of the policy promoted by these areas. So they had this event at the UN, and the public was invited. There were many wonderful people who work at the UN who came and represented different departments – terrorism, children and conflict, human rights – and these people, these brilliant speakers, would speak about what they were trying to do in the world. And then we would show a clip from Battlestar that centered around some of the same issues, and then we would talk about those issues, and then we would open it up to questions from the floor. So it started this really wonderfully collective experience between these high UN officials and common people, and I don’t think that that happens too much. And I would say that the entertainment industry – in this case Battlestar Galactica – was kind of the bridge.

SB: Do you think that the illustrations of global themes in Battlestar Galactica have changed any audience perceptions?

Mary McDonnell: One would hope – I mean, that really is the goal… I think that, sometimes, television shows and movies can get the message across by pretending to be fiction. Battlestar was very good at that because we could remove ourselves a little bit from it, because it was taking place in another galaxy and at another time – and yet the issues were completely the same. So we, perhaps, as the viewers, were able to unconsciously line these issues up as our own priorities without having to recognize them the way we do on the news and get fearful and walk away from them.

I think people know what’s going on, but I don’t always think it’s conscious, and I think it’s rather hopeless. And so people kind of shut down to what they actually know. People have within them a great well of ethical thinking, but we lose it because we get frightened. And so we either use the media to keep our fear alive so we don’t have to dig deeper, or, at times, something will be shown to us that opens us back up to what we know is right and wrong and to the lion-hearted courage to walk and talk and to live what we believe. That’s the only way we’re going to change any of it.

I think the media is full of potential, and at the moment the media behaves almost like a hormonal teenager. Everything that happens is just so important! It’s quite often addressed through a kind of adrenalized, jacked up energy, and I don’t know that we’re always getting the facts through all of that.

SB: What kind of modern issues do people often see in Battlestar Galactica?

MM: At the conference, the Human Rights Representative, Craig Mokipper, was talking about human rights and what that really implies: What are human rights? What does it mean? Does anybody really have the right to take the life of another? And one of the things that he talked about was … some of Laura Roslin’s actions in relation to the Cylons. And I loved it, because it allowed me to begin to speak about the experience that I had. I see acting as a way to visit the psychological and emotional lives of other people, and so I got to visit for a short time the horrible shame and sadness of [Roslin’s] leadership. The acts that you are taking for a bigger idea that you believe in also incorporates within that an act that you know is anti-life. And you are agreeing to take that action to the grave with you; it’s on your soul… World leadership and what it means to be a leader unfortunately quite often means asking whether or not you’re willing to take a life. Because so much of what leadership is on the world stage is preserving the futures of the people you represent. So there are wars to be fought. So these people have to make decisions to take other lives in order to preserve the lives of the people they represent. And way deep down inside of that there is an individual with a moral conscience and a soul making that decision. So it gave me the opportunity to talk about the darkness and the shame that comes with even good leadership, and what an interesting karma that is for the individual, who we may all look up to because they have this incredible position of power.

I think about this a lot with President Obama these days, because he’s such an extraordinarily beautiful man, and he’s being tossed and turned by such difficult, difficult things, and I have these thoughts about the quality of his soul. How does one maintain one’s delicate, ethical soul while in a position of leadership?

And that came right out of Craig Mokipper, who is the Deputy Director for the New York Office of Human Rights for the UN. He’s a brilliant man, and a brilliant speaker. He literally turned to me on stage and said, “Shame on you, Laura Roslin,” which was a really wonderful moment. I thought, “Well I can either get really defensive here and start defending my character’s actions, or I can really talk about the truth of that.” Which was that Laura Roslin experienced shame, and I took that route, and it really was good. It’s opening. Because people were enlightened by that level of thinking about what it is. It’s not just policy decisions. It’s not just, How many troops will I send to war? It’s not just, We’re going to pull out these UN peacekeepers now to save their lives. It’s, We’re going to pull out these UN peacekeepers now to save their lives but in pulling them out of this situation we are creating the potential for massive slaughter. So leadership and the soul are very interesting ideas.
And another wonderful thing happened later. Craig Mokipper again is a great speaker, and he evoked Eddie [Edward James Olmos] to declare that there is no such thing as race. And we started having an amazing discussion in the room about the illusion of race and how the idea of different races is actually a set us to keep us from evolving rather than help us define ourselves. And the racism discussion came out of the conflict with the Cylons and how at times particularly Adama and Roslin were racist in relating to these creatures – these beings.

SB: What do you think about popular assertions that Battlestar Galactica is an allegory for the contemporary War on Terror?

MM: I think it’s a fair container through which to observe the show – or the show provides a container for us to be able to think about the issues of terror and what it does to culture. I think, more importantly, the show allows us to see ourselves as an occupied nation and allows us to confront the potential insurgents inside each and every one of us. And, to me, that is a step forward in us understanding this war on terror. It isn’t really a war on terror at all. We’re caught in many, many years of inappropriate or incorrect thinking on the “Other” in life, and as we continue to polarize the experience of the “Other” and make it wrong, and refuse to absorb the potential for that experience in ourselves, we will just keep repeating this pattern. And I think that Battlestar helps us take a peek into that, because suddenly our heroes were the insurgents. We were the suicide bombers.

Shannon Baldo: Have your own political views been challenged by your work in Battlestar?

Mary McDonnell: Absolutely. I’m basically a liberal, and here I was playing a woman who accepted a position that was asking of her some very defensive thinking. And the writers right from the very beginning thought it was a great to make her more of the hawk and the man more of the dove, as they say. So I had to open myself up to understanding really tough choices that I as a human being would only like to have to encounter theoretically. And I had to understand what really goes into those decisions.

For example, the one episode – and I was just appalled by it, I thought, “I’ll never act again, because this is just so hard for me” – where Laura Roslin had to ban abortion. That was really very intense for me, because I had grown up in the decade of “choice,” and I’d seen the women and their ability to choose and maintain their own destinies. I’ve seen how hardfought that struggle is, and I see how it’s being threatened now. So to be playing a female leader, and then to see her have to make a different choice than that which I was hoping for – I had to work very hard to really believe that there was no other choice for Laura Roslin to make but to ban abortion in order to maintain the potential for the future of this culture. And once again, I had to go back the fact that, if one makes the future of mankind one’s priority and sticks to it, the choice are going to be very difficult, and quite often, whether or not you even knew what your politics were before, these choices are going to rub up against your emotional and ethical self.

SB: How did you feel to portray such a controversial character?

MM: I didn’t see her that way. One of the things that is so delightful about acting is that, if you do it well, you don’t really perceive your character externally. If you do it well, you perceive your character in very basic terms and the actions that they feel committed to. So when Laura Roslin turned out to be that powerful that she would stimulate that much controversy, I was actually tickled by it. I didn’t study her politically; I just studied her actions.

She wasn’t a political creature. She was a woman who had been handed a mantle, and she was trying to get the job done: to keep humanity alive before she died. But then it became controversial. That was a very interesting thing to learn, and then it was very interesting to reexamine, but I always came back to what it was that caused Laura Roslin to do what she did. I just had a blast with it. And the more controversial she became the more fun it was, actually, to sort of live that. I mean, you don’t really play a character from the point of view of the outside, with the politics and controversy. You play them from the inside, which is experience. [It’s as though she thought,] I’m reading certain things, I’m seeing things, for God’s sakes. But inside of me, I think that these things, for whatever reason, are legitimate and need to be preserved, need to be dealt with, and need to be understood. And if I need to use them to stop somebody else who I believe does not have the best wishes for mankind in their hearts and minds, I will use whatever I have, and if that means the politics of religion I’ll do that.

She wasn’t really a religious person, but the politics of religion became useful to her. She wasn’t a political person in that she doesn’t aspire to be this president; it happened to her. But, once given the job, and she felt humanity would be threatened by this or that, she would use whatever tools she could find.

SB: Was it difficult to take on a role so different from your own personal experiences and political beliefs?

MM: When I took the role, I didn’t know what her politics would be. If you go back and look at the pilot, she’s a humanitarian. She’s a teacher. One of the last things she says in the pilot is, “You’d better start having babies.” Which is the exact opposite of what she becomes. I mean, that just wasn’t really there. And then, as it started to evolve, that’s when it became interesting for me. I really negotiated with the writers to allow a more illuminated experience of some of her actions to occur, and so I felt like I had a great collaboration with them. A lot of what they did – and David Eick in particular – was great, because they completely got how complex this would be to wrap your brain around. And David really understood her point of view quite well. So I was able to find really articulate places of support, and so when I played these moments for Laura I knew why she was doing it and I could believe in it. I, Mary, could believe in what Laura had to do. And so it made it not hard. But there was a process of understanding – a dawning, as they say. “Oh, the woman’s going to be the tough one! Oh, she’s going to have to make all the choices!”

And that’s interesting in itself. I mean, in the pilot, we’ve got a very bright teacher trying to help educate students. That’s all she really cares about in the world. And then we’ve got a real ball-busting, old-time military guy with some very old ideas. And suddenly these two are running the world together. But then very quickly in the story the woman starts to take on more of the traditional decision-making and becomes more of the hawk. That’s very surprising. But it’s not very surprising when you think about how women in power are perceived right now in the culture. And so basically, [the writers] gave me the opportunity to explore the pros and cons of that in the part. And I was really grateful.

SB: Laura Roslin is, essentially, a very feminist role in her assumption of power. How did you feel about playing such a role?

Mary McDonnell: What I loved most about her is that she did not understand herself as a very powerful human being. I think she thought she was a great teacher and a great educator, but my sense is that she was not empowered to her fullest. She was not, as they say, self-actualized. She had to discover latent power within under dire circumstances. And a lot of people operate really well under dire circumstances – I am one of them, personally. So I share that with Laura Roslin. I would never run for office, but if someone put me in the position and death was at our heels, I would do it well.

And I think a lot of women are that way – certainly women of my generation. We weren’t really raised that way. We were raised with the glimpse that we could do anything and be anyone and be empowered, but certainly not raised with the absolute freedom and the resources with which to develop ourselves that the current generation has been raised with. So for me to … tell the story that we’re not really sure if we’re powerful, but if you put us in a position where life is threatened, and we even are surprised at how easy it is for us to make a decision – that was my favorite part of the role.

SB: What would you consider your favorite moment in Battlestar?

MM: I can tell you one favorite moment, and it’s sort of an actor’s favorite moment. Because when you’re acting … what you’re really aiming for is when you truly separate from some idea of what you should be doing and you end up living in the moment for a brief period of time. It’s the simplest form of anything you could have thought of. And you wish for those moments.

It’s the moment in which Laura Roslin gave Adama his admiral’s wings, and they’re sitting there and she’s just looking at him, smiling. And there was just something about the way Eddie and I behaved in that scene that when we were doing it felt like we had just slipped into golden times. Nothing had to be talked about, nothing had to be acted, nothing had to be anything. But I also felt like it was the first time I really understood the depth of their love. And it all happened in one moment. So, for me, it’s still a little treasure. I don’t know what it was about that moment, but it was just a treasure. It said everything from the beginning to the end in one moment.

Shannon Baldo: What do you think is Battlestar’s biggest success?

Mary McDonnell: I think the biggest thing that we did on Battlestar was to help ourselves, as human beings. I’ve been to conventions all over the world, and I’ve had wonderful, wonderful experience listening to people talk about this show. And what I take away most often is that Battlestar gave people a safe place from which they could examine their own desire to stop thinking of the enemy of the enemy – a safe place from which they could examine the limited, polarized thinking that had allowed them to create culture that they were not part of or live in countries that promote warfare. Battlestar allowed them to bring that part of themselves to life and to start thinking that there was another way. There’s something very big here. And I don’t mean to make Battlestar that precious, but that is the feeling that I get over and over when I got to talk to people – that one of the reasons people keep wanting to talk about Battlestar is that we need so desperately to evolve right now in the way we perceive ourselves on the planet. And it was a television show that allow[ed] people to not only see the truth of where we are but to catch a glimpse of where we might be able to go.

SB: What would you like Transy’s campus to know before you arrive to speak?

MM: That I am quite delighted to be invited and to come. I’m very pleased that Kathy Simon thought of me and created this opportunity. I love going to universities and opening dialogue with students and teachers, and I do feel that there is so much to be thought about through our connections to each other. I look very, very forward to this event. These are becoming some of my favorite things to do that have grown out of my career as an actress, so I feel very fortunate to come speak.

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