If you know sci-fi, you should know Laura Mennell. The Canadian actress has appeared in many projects that should be familiar to genre fans, from Zack Snyder's Watchmen to series including The 4400, Fringe and Supernatural. Currently she stars in the SyFy original series Alphas (10 PM ET/PT) as Nina Theroux. Before the show's premiere tonight, Laura sat down with me for a chat about the series and her varied career to date.
Before we get into the specifics of your role in Alphas, let’s talk about you. Tell us a little about your acting history – what got you to where you are right now?
I was always interested in the arts as a child—drawing, painting, and piano—but acting became a favourite. I was a major theatre geek in high school— if I wasn't in the drama room at lunch rehearsing, I'd be in the art room finishing up some type of project. The acting bug just seemed to stick with me. I loved going to theatre school in college, and continued to train in film classes and had been auditioning for tv and movie roles since I was in my late teens. My career has been slow and steady, and I kind of like it that way.
What interested you in the character of Nina? How did you come into the part?
During last year's pilot season I was reading for multiple shows every day. Sometimes you go through so many scripts its hard to remember what's what—but when I read Alphas, I really loved it. The part of Nina is pretty amazing and I couldn't pass up auditioning for her role. Her character has such a great role: she's this strong, intelligent and extremely capable woman. She also has a bit of a dark past she doesn't like to delve into—which viewers will learn a little more about as the season progresses.
Playing with Nina's special ability is great too. Her ability is called "influencing" and she's able to bend people's will into doing whatever she wants it to do. So her power's useful on the job as she gets the team through sticky situations and easily manipulates people into giving her important information. Nina also has a lot of fun with her gift. I think most people have seen the trailer—there's this scene where I convince a traffic cop to eat my speeding ticket and he does! Everyone wishes they could get out of things like that; I get to live vicariously through her a bit.
Knowing that you’re starting off a role that you might be playing for hopefully years in the future, how do you approach developing her character?
At first I watched more sci-fi genres and investigatory–type shows for a little inspiration, and enjoyed doing odd things like watching clips of people being hypnotized on Youtube! But I think it's been more important for me to simply daydream a little about her [as well as] just allowing myself to intuitively feel her out. It's been an interesting and wonderful experience doing this series week after week.
Without spoiling, what can you say about where Nina is headed thus far this first season? What’s her journey?
Nina has a few walls up that might gradually come down as the show progresses. She has difficulty allowing herself to be truly vulnerable and allowing others to get too close. Perhaps that may start to change a bit… watch and find out!
What’s been your favorite part and conversely, your biggest challenge about playing this character?
I think my favourite part has simply been working with my amazing cast, such talented and wonderful people - David Strathairn, Malik Yoba, Azita Ghanizada, Warren Cristie, and Ryan Cartwright. I love them all! My biggest challenge? All the running around in high heels I've been doing!
You’ve done a lot of previous science-fiction projects (Fringe, Supernatural, Smallville, Watchmen, The 4400, and now Alphas). Do you have a particular interest in the genre? If so, what attracts you to it?
I love the science-fiction genre because there's always so many endless possibilities! It's a limitless genre and can be fun playing around with otherworldly ideas. Sometimes I get to do crazy things like fly (Sanctuary), or be an astral-projection from the fifties (like in The 4400). The genre gives you a lot of creative license to use your imagination and to play!
The cool thing about working on Alphas is it differs from traditional science fiction shows. Our characters all have these extraordinary abilities, but it's in a real-world setting. We have superhuman abilities, but we're far from your traditional "heroic" superheroes. We all have flaws, our abilities all come with their downsides, and our quirky personalities clash at times while solving these cases.
Particularly in the science-fiction genre, the word “typecast” gets thrown around. Are you concerned about that at all with so many of your projects falling into that genre?
No, not really. Although I've done a bunch of sci-fi projects, there's a lot to do within that realm. There are so many different types of characters, I've played villains, victims, otherworldly beings... it's fun.
Plus, I don't just do sci-fi, I tend to do a lot of dramas, like Flight 93. And horror films also get thrown into the mix a bit. It's nice to switch it up. That's the fun thing about my job, it's constantly changing.
Do you have a dream role or project you’d like to attempt someday?
I love going to theatres and seeing honest little indie films I know nothing about... being surprised by a beautiful film I had no expectations about but just got lost in. I'd like to do more well written indies. I don't know exactly what my dream role will be yet, but it's somewhere within that realm. That said, being in Alphas is a dream role in itself—it's been such a great break to get. I'm so happy playing Nina.
Other than this series, if someone wanted to see more of your work, what one project would you suggest they watch and why?
If you want to watch more of my work, I'd suggest two of my favorite projects: Zack Snyder's Watchmen and Peter Markle's Flight 93. Watchmen was such an incredible show to be part of, and I loved playing Janey Slater. Shooting it felt like being placed in a new and exciting world. The sets and wardrobe were absolutely incredible, and made me feel like I was in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 80s...whatever decade we were shooting that day! And Zack and Larry Fong (the cinematographer) made such a seamless transition bringing the comic to life on screen. It literally looks like certain panels of the graphic novel where ripped out and placed into the film. I think visually it's pretty brilliant and Zack captured the tone of the comic so well.
And of course I loved being part of Flight 93, although it was a little scary playing Elizabeth Wainio. Not only was she this wonderful, real life person, but just knowing her family members would most likely watch the film at some point heightened its importance for me. I thought it was a lovely tribute to those on that flight and an important film to be part of.
If you could have any superpower yourself, what would it be and why?
If I could choose any superpower, it would be flying. I've always loved flying in planes and viewing the world from a different perspective. There'd be so much freedom in flight—in gliding high above the hustle and bustle of the world. Simply having your body propelled in flight, having nothing surrounding you but air, would be pretty fascinating.
What TV shows or movies would you recommend to our readers?
Right now I'm loving Damages, it’s one of those shows I could watch all day. I tell myself I'm only going to watch one episode, and before I know it I've seen ten in a row. And Glenn Close is so fantastic.
My favourite movie of all time is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, with Audrey Tautou. It's such a beautiful film and Tautou's sweet quirkiness in it kills me. I really love that film so much. It makes me laugh and cry. It’s kind of ridiculous how good it is.
My thanks to Laura Mennell for this interview! Alphas premieres tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on SyFy.