Since making her riveting entrance as the Number Six Cylon on Ronald D. Moor’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica series in 2003, Tricia Helfer has made portraying powerful, complex, and capable women her trademark.
Whether as a high-powered lawyer (Alex Clark, The Firm), or a Texas Ranger (Molly Parker, Killer Women), or a once-super-powered special agent (Angela Lange, Powers), Helfer never fails to create characters with depth and nuance.
What is even more impressive is her ability to portray multiple versions of a character. For example, as Number Six on BSG, she played no fewer than five notable variants to her central “Caprica-Six” persona.
More recently, she has once again demonstrated her versatility by first playing Mom/Goddess and then the very mortal Charlotte on Lucifer and both Dracula and the pre-Dracula Olivia on Syfy’s Van Helsing.
Speaking with TV Fanatic by phone from her home in Los Angeles, Helfer is circumspect about this pattern of multiple characters she has been called upon to create and how she approaches the challenge.
“I keep finding myself in these situations. With all three of [these roles], I actually didn’t know, signing on, that I was going to be playing multiple characters.
“With Lucifer, I was just signed on to play Mom, the Goddess, in the second season. And then they extended and did the Charlotte storyline the next year. But originally, I was only booked for one season, so I had no idea.
“And it was the same with Van Helsing. I was on to play Dracula, and then I was psyched to hear that we were going to do the Slovakia episode and do Olivia and Dracula’s backstory and everything.
“Even with Battlestar, I mean I had an inkling, but I didn’t really know to the extent that it was going to be.
“I think in terms of strategies, I just take each situation and treat it individually.
“With the Sixes, to me, I likened it to the idea of identical twins that were raised separately or who have a lot of similarities but have their own soul and ideas on things and what their mission is.
“What their job was and how much interaction they had with humans affected their outlook and what was happening. So each situation is different.
“With The Goddess and Charlotte, Charlotte was coming out of a four-month blackout, basically. Not knowing what had happened to her.
“We joked it was like a four-month vodka blackout. [She had] absolutely no clue what happened, and she just kind of wakes up, is having these horrendous nightmares, and her life has fallen apart.
“For a very strong-minded woman, the fact that she may be having a mental breakdown or something — which is all she can attribute it to at that point before she knows the truth — is one of the worst things that can happen to her, so she’s trying to hide the fact and keep going.”
How does Helfer go about creating distinct and individualized characters when playing these roles?
“I certainly try to find the differences of how they would physically be. With Olivia and Dracula, Dracula was very shoulders back, powerful moves with purpose.
“And while Olivia was still a countess — she was still a very powerful woman in her time — she was the embodiment of good and kind and love. And so, I purposefully wanted to make her softer.
“I think I always try to find a little bit of vulnerability even in the omnipotent or powerful roles as well because I find it more interesting. And certainly, if playing a human, I try and find the different facets of what makes that person who they are.
“You say everything through your eyes. And the eyes are the windows to the soul. You’re not just trying to say your lines; you’re trying to embody who that person is.
“It actually works against me in real life, in auditions and things. If I’m having a bad day, I have a hard time leaving it in the room. I come into the room; people can see there’s stuff going on behind my eyes. Maybe my eyes betray me sometimes too much.
“It can be a benefit in acting, sometimes, when you can portray a lot with your eyes of what the character’s thinking. And with film and television, the camera gets right in there.
“So a lot of times, the less you do is more powerful because it comes through your eyes, what you’re thinking, what a character’s thinking. Not what Tricia’s thinking, what the character’s thinking.”
Recognizing that film and television requires different skills from live theatre performance, has Helfer ever had the chance to “tread the boards,” as they say?
“I actually have not. That’s something I’ve not done. I would love to try it sometime. I can’t say if I’d be good at it or not.
“My only experience has been in acting class back in 2000, 2001, before I started acting. That wasn’t actually on a stage; it was just in the acting class, scene study.
“The closest thing I would have to it is multi-cam. When I’ve done some multi-cam work, you’re in front of a live audience, so it has that audience feel at least. It’s just not, obviously, a Broadway show.
“I definitely need to have that experience and try it. Certainly, this last year and a half have not been good for a newbie in that department trying to start out. Hopefully, I will get there one day.”
Helfer’s next television appearance will be on the dance-centered drama, Step Up: High Water as Fulton County’s District Attorney, Erin Howard.
The series is based on the Step Up film series and began as a YouTube Red original, airing on the streaming platform for two seasons before being canceled.
Starz has since picked up the series for a third season and is currently airing the first two in anticipation of the as-yet-unknown third season premiere.
While her filming in Atlanta has wrapped, Helfer was still doing some ADR for the show when we spoke.
“I’m in the majority of the third season. I’m introduced in the first couple [episodes]. Enrique Murciano comes in as the defense attorney to my District Attorney, so we play off each other a lot.”
And while we won’t get the chance to see Helfer herself execute any dance numbers for the show, she can assure audience members that the change of network has not changed the focus of the series.
“There is a lot of dancing. They somehow managed during all the COVID protocols and everything to stay true to the show. A lot of dancing. A lot of performances. Returning fans will be very happy to know that that is still the main element of the show.
“But there is also an added storyline element of Sage’s prosecution/murder trial. It’s really a stage for Sage learning a lot about himself, what he’s contributing, how he’s growing in his life.”
Helfer has long been a strong advocate for animal rights and supports many rescue organizations and anti-cruelty initiatives.
Since she grew up on a farm in Alberta, Canada, was her love of animals instilled by her upbringing?
“Yes and no. I can’t really say yes because it was a grain farm. We had chickens, but they were for consumption. It wasn’t a chicken farm, but my parents raised enough chickens to have eggs, and then they would slaughter the chickens and cut them up and eat them over the winter.
“So I wouldn’t say my love of animals came from there. The love of the land and the love of nature certainly came from there.
“I have always loved animals. We had farm cats who I always felt a massive affinity to. It’s just something that’s grown over the years. I feel a real connection to animals, their innocence, and their love. Personally, I just don’t think they should be eaten.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that it stemmed from the farm, per se. We didn’t have horses. I grew up driving tractors and fixing farm machinery and things. And I had to partake in the slaughtering of the chickens, unfortunately.
“I perfected the scalding method. I couldn’t be around when they were killed, and I couldn’t cut them up. I perfected something where I could wear gloves and be on the periphery of it.
“Even back then, it bothered me. Even though I didn’t know anything else at that point in my life.”
Helfer’s love of animals extends beyond monetary support and endorsements. Well beyond.
“I currently have seven cats. I have had many rescues, and I have had up to thirteen for many years.
“I’ve taken on some old cases, and I’ve lost to old age about five in the last couple years. I currently have seven. One old guy, I don’t know how much longer I’ll have with him.”
Her commitment to caring for animals doesn’t end with opening her home and heart to them. She has very recently taken steps to realizing a dream she’s held close for many years.
“I haven’t told anyone this yet, but I have already bought [a property], and I’m moving to the country. My goal is to rescue a few more animals. Maybe some goats and some cows and some pigs and things.
“That is my future over the next couple years. I’m going to be building my little, small farm sanctuary.
“I just closed on it last week while I was in Italy, filming. I’m still going to be traveling a lot for work, so it’s going to take some time to put in some goat pens and things. I’m obviously not just going to be like, “Oh, bring me a bunch of animals!”
“I need to set up the infrastructure, find people who can help when I’m away.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a sanctuary. I’m not a big people person. I would rather contribute to other, bigger sanctuaries and just have a small one myself, one that I can handle myself with one farm manager that I need.
“I’m not looking to have a big, massive thing but just a small, kind of little family one for me. That’s my focus. It’s always been my back-of-my-mind dream.”
Helfer credits the time she had on her hands because of the COVID crisis with spurring her to take steps to make her dream a reality.
“Even though I was fortunate enough to do the fifth season of Van Helsing and do the third season of Step Up, I had a lot of time, and I just kind of went, ‘Why am I waiting? I keep saying, In the future, in the future, in the future. Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. So, why am I waiting?’
“And that’s sort of what prompted me. This place found me. I would never have guessed I would buy where I’ve bought, but I kind of feel like the goal was there, and then the right place found me.”
When she and her fellow Van Helsing star, Aleks Paunovic, found themselves filming separate projects in Atlanta at the same time, they had the opportunity (while watching Van Helsing Season 5, of course) to discuss their respective passion projects.
In Paunovic’s case, he is working towards establishing a film production studio in his hometown of Winnipeg, something he spoke about with great warmth when he chatted with TV Fanatic in March. Helfer has that same fervent enthusiasm about her sanctuary.
“Aleks and I are getting to the age where we’re all starting to kind of go, ‘Now’s the time to do all those things we said we were gonna do!’ “
So what was Helfer up to in Italy when she closed on her dream property? Hmm?
“I was in Italy, playing a very small, kind of cameo role in an independent film. Jeff Baena and Alison Brie wrote this comedy script, Spin Me Round.
“I’m playing such a silly, silly role. I will NOT tell you what I do in it because it will ruin the culmination of the movie.
“I get to play Fred Armisen’s wife. I’ve always just loved him. I just had the best time. He’s one of the sweetest, nicest, funniest people. I adore him, so I had a really nice time.”
(Spin Me Round is still listed as in production and stars — in addition to Brie and Armisen — the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Zach Woods, Molly Shannon, and Tim Heidecker.)
It’s not Helfer’s first foray into comedy. She had a recurring role on Two and a Half Men; has voiced characters for animated comedies like Rick & Morty and Robot Chicken; and has appeared on Key & Peele, Community, and Franklin & Bash.
Through it all, she is grateful for her supportive fans, many who first knew her as Number Six but who have cheered whenever they’ve caught her in her many and varied roles since. In these difficult times, she shares some simple truths.
“First off, thank you, if you’re fans of mine, for being loyal and following and checking out the things I’ve done.
“[With] COVID and the harsh reality we all and the world has faced and is continuing to, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet and in the future. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.
“I think we just need to be kind. Everybody, even if it doesn’t look like they’ve gone through hardship, has gone through some form of change and hardship.
“Myself, I can let my temper flare right now because we’re all on edge, and we’re all beaten up and tired and scared. Sometimes, I just need to take a step back and think about it before I say something and [ask myself], ‘Would it make it better if I said that?’
“I think it’s important that we be kind to each other right now.”
Don’t miss Helfer in her role as D.A. Erin Howard on Step Up: High Water Season 3, premiering later this year on Starz.
Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.