The talented and versatile Gina Torres has featured prominently in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and, most recently, as one of the leads in Cleopatra 2525.
"It's not just a job or a career," says Torres of acting, "it's a life choice." It certainly is as far as the actress is concerned. From attending New York's High School of Music and Art, she moved into theatre for several successful years before making her screen debut in the US soap One Life to Live.
After playing several different guest roles on One Life, the actress went on to appear in such varied series as police dramas Law and Order and NYPD Blue, action-drama La Femme Nikita, and even the popular children's educational series Sesame Street!
Then came the TV movies Dark Angel and M.A.N.T.LS., and it may well have been this last role in a superhero/science fiction movie that was a precursor to Torres' journey with Pacific Renaissance, since M.A.N.TLS. was produced by two familiar names: Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert.
"We certainly became aware of each other doing the M.A.N.T1.S. shoot," remembers Tomes, who is married to accomplished actor Laurence Fishburne (Apocalypse Now, Event Horizon, Othello). "We established the kind of working relationship that you do on these things. I think that when my name came up for Hercules, they probably just remembered me as someone who was easy to work with and would get the job done!
"It was just a regular audition that came through to my agents," she says of the opportunity. "They said, 'Is playing a pirate queen something that interests you?', and I said, 'Yeah!' Then I became aware that they shot in New Zealand and I'd never been there before, so that just sweetened the part."
The character of Nebula was originally written into Hercules for just three episodes, in a story arc involving a plot to kill Iolaus. Luckily for Torres but unfortunately for Kevin Sorbo, the actor became temporarily ill, so the Iolaus plotline had to be postponed. This meant a reshuffling of plot ideas and characters, and Nebula was given an extended stay.
Tomes describes her time on Hercules as "wonderful!" and counts nine episodes in which Nebula appeared. "I got to fall in love with Iolaus, possessed by demons; lose my mind and find it again.. The writers created a number of new challenges for Nebula, and managed to to keep me busy. It was certainly never boring!" she adds.
To the actress' amazement, Renaissance were to make full use of her skills while she was in New Zealand. Torres hadn't even left the US when she received the call to audition for another character. This time it was for Xena - the two shows were going to be shooting almost simultaneously - but the characters were very different. "I ended up doing both the series at more or less the same time," she recalls. "At the same time that they were looking at Nebula as a recurring character in Hercules, they were looking for a Cleopatra for Xena. Apparently, [Executive Producer] Rob Tapert said, 'Well, Gina's coming down, isn't she? She can do that.' So a week after I knew I'd got Nebula, they called and said, 'Do you mind doing Cleopatra?' So it worked out really well."
Playing these two roles so close together initially put Torres in "a bit of a quandary" concerning the physical attributes of each character. "I knew that Nebula was quite the warrior," she says, "so I'd started to pump and prepare myself to physically look the part - you know, look lethal! But my idea of Cleopatra was physically very different. The way I saw her as a queen was much softer and rounder and pampered than Nebula.
"I remember Ngila Dickson, who was designing the costumes at the time, asking me, 'Is there any part of your body that you're not comfortable with revealing?' I knew the costumes would be revealing through having watched the shows, so when Ngila asked me about how comfortable I'd be, I knew I was in for something... and not much of it! Aside from that, I just had to find a compromise to embody these two different women as best I could."
Despite being hired to work on Hercules first, King of Assassins, the Xena episode in which Torres guest-starred as Queen Cleopatra, was shot before her first Hercules episode as Nebula. Torres had had a little training in stunt work from her days in theatre, but not quite enough for what her roles with Pacific Renaissance required. In between receiving the news that she'd won the part of Nebula and actually arriving on the Xena set in New Zealand to play Cleopatra, Torres was instructed in basic martial art and stunt fighting moves. And this certainly worked in her favour when the producers came to cast for Hel, one of the futuristic freedom fighters in Cleopatra 2525.
"Sometime in early 1998, I got a call from Rob Tapert," Torres remembers. "He said he had this idea for a new show and that it was all coming together, and did I want to be a part of it?" After hearing Tapert's description of the show - three women battling it out with machines on a postapocalyptic earth Torres was immediately hooked. "The concept was this mix of Charlie's Angels meets The Matrix meets Terminator II, and I thought, this sounds great!"
"It's not easy to just move over to the other side of the world and change your life. But the opportunity was grand enough, and the role so beautifully written that I felt I couldn't turn it down. So I signed on as Hel."
So, how would Torres describe her alter-ego? For starters, as a warrior and a fighter not that far removed from Nebula the pirate queen. As regards Hel's relationship with comrades Cleopatra (Jennifer Sky) and Sarge (Victoria Pratt), Torres describes her as a combination of "leader, best friend and den mother She's always had a level head, although that has started to change, as things do!"
Fans of Cleopatra 2525 will be aware of a little of Hel's history. Her family was killed by the machine-like Baileys. Up until the beginning of the series, she had spent all of her life in the underground shantytowns that provided shelter for the pockets of surviving humans. In fact, one of Hel's first lines in Quest For Firepower, the debut episode of Cleopatra 2525, comes when she follows Sarge up to the surface for the first time. "Wow," says Hel, "it's really ugly!"
It's precisely because Hel is an emotional, strong willed human that the character's survival traits are so powerful. Initially, there was so much involved in getting acquainted with the character that Torres didn't have a lot of time to input many complex ideas of her own into playing Hel. lately, however, its been a different story. "You can't expect audiences to stay interested if you don't present the character as truly human and fleshed out. Hel seems to be the conscience of the team, and she's very human. She's developed, and we get to see more and more of her humanity through the course of the show."
It's not just Torres adding to Hel, either. "This has been a great opportunity for me to grow," she says. "Gina brings a lot to Hel, but I think there's a lot that Hel can teach Gina, in terms of patience and diligence and courage. We all need that in life."
Versatility can also be added to that list, in terms of Tomes' performing experience. For instance, it can be quite a jump from the mind-set of being on stage to being in front of a camera. Tomes has a clear-cut view of the differences and similarities between the two mediums. "I think the sense of community is very different in theatre than it is in film. When you're on stage, you and the other actors up there are sharing this journey that has a definite beginning, middle and end. You're bringing the audience in with you so that they're right there, being entertained. It's this sort of big, wonderful, sensual, creative orgy!
"In television and film, you don't have that) ongoing smooth flow of energy," Torres continues. "There are a lot more people in there with you, I watching the lighting, making sure you're in focus, things like that. it's a much bigger effort, delegated to many more people. You don't have that immediate response and instant gratification that theatre audiences give you, so there isn't the intimacy that you would get in theatre. Yet at the same time, film is the most intimate form of media, because at the end of the day, it's you who's in it, with whoever's watching you all the time.
"Somebody wise and very close to me said that the way theatre and film are similar to each other is that you're always moving energy; it's just how you do it that's different."
As far as her most recent roles are concerned, Hercules, Xena and Cleopatra 2525 are all set in the realms of fantasy, whether ancient or futuristic. Yet there are still many differences between them, as Torres has found out. "Being one of the leads in a show is very different to being somebody who just comes in as a guest for a week or two and goes home when they're finished," she says. "Compared with being on Hercules or Xena, in Cleo I don't get to lean on Kevin or Lucy [Lawless] and let them carry the show!"
Torres clearly feels that working on Cleopatra 2525 is much tougher, although it's obvious from the way she talks that it's very enjoyable too. "I have to say that the biggest difference is that Cleo is far more physically challenging. There's visually more of me, so there are longer hours. The fight sequences are more involved. And you're just far more physically and emotionally committed. But it's great!"
What's also great is that Cleopatra 2525 has joined the ranks of Xena and the like in portraying women - both in lead and supporting roles - as a strong and powerful sex who can do anything. "There's a degree of responsibility to it, of course," Torres admits. "I think that these characters can't help but be empowering to women because of their strengths and convictions. In Cleo, for instance, it's a community supporting each other, watching each other's backs and pulling each other up when the time is right. It's making sure that we're all on track, and also making way and embracing the developments that happen because of it."
Torres can sum up all her experiences with Pacific Renaissance easily. "With all these shows, the most fun thing is seeing it when it's all done and put together. More often than not, it's bloody hard work! But it's also fun, because we all get on and we love to laugh. You have to try and wrap your brain around it all and bring as much reality and genuine feeling to it as you can, and most of the time the situations are utterly absurd! It's hard work, but there's a joy in that - in l knowing how much you've put into it and what it ends up being as a result."
Torres' general acting philosophy seems to fit in nicely with where it has brought her to now. "When you start out, you put so much out there every day,"
She says. "At the risk of sounding melodramatic, you give it your heart and soul. Auditions can be quite dysfunctional, for instance, because in a way you set yourself up for rejection time and time again. There are all the 'old-timers' who've been in it longer than you have, who say, 'Well, it's an up and down profession; its hills and valleys. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn't. It's not just one job, it's all of the jobs. It's a journey and it's your life's work... and it does pay off.'
"Having all this work on Hercules and Xena and Cleo has been such an example of that, because it came from not just all the work I had done before meeting Rob and Sam, but also all the work I did with them, leading up to Cleo. They said, 'Yeah, we can take a chance on her. Absolutely.' The job on Cleo is like being in such a special place because it's a coming together of all the years that have led to it."
Torres pauses, then adds, "It's also going from the dramatic with my other work to taking on roles with epic proportions playing superheroes with great figures!"
Near the end of Cleo's pilot episode, Quest for Firepower, Hel explains the series' premise to a recently-defrosted Cleopatra: "We're fighting a war to regain the surface of the Earth. Things aren't going to get better until we win."
But things are getting better all the time for Gina Torres, and with Hel and Cleopatra 2525 to add to her achievements, it looks like she has already won.
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