By Larry Closs
As the mysterious Dr. Helen Magnus in the hit Syfy series “Sanctuary,” Amanda Tapping portrays a 158-year-old scientist who tracks Abnormals—humans and creatures with special powers—and offers safe haven in exchange for permission to study them. Immediately following up on her 12-year turn as the brilliant Air Force Colonel Samantha Carter in “Stargate SG-1” and various spinoffs, Tapping has achieved an unlikely double-play—creating two back-to-back iconic sci-fi characters. Add in memorable spots on “The X-Files,” “Millennium” and “The Outer Limits,” as well as producer and director credits, and it’s easy to see why Tapping is renowned as both the Queen of Sci-Fi and the Hardest Working Woman in Sci-Fi.
But Tapping works just as hard off the set as on, leveraging her fame to extend the compassion of Dr. Magnus to those in need in real-life. In 2009, she founded Sanctuary for Kids with “Sanctuary” creator and co-executive producer Damien Kindler and teacher and social worker Jill Bodie. Sanctuary for Kids, or S4K, is dedicated to helping children in crisis around the world, raising money through online auctions of “Sanctuary” props and set tours as well as personal appearances. S4K distributes funds to small nonprofits and charities, including Next Generation Nepal, in amounts that will have a significant impact.
In conversation, Tapping is thoughtful, gracious and very funny, best summed up in her own Twitter bio: “Mama, wife, actress, director, producer, activist and general goofball” who lives in “Vangroovy, B.C.” NGN caught up with her to discuss the inspiration for S4K, what sci-fi fans and humanitarians have in common, secrets of new "Sanctuary" episodes, the future of Magnus’s love life and the very special sci-fi guest star she’s hoping to land. New episodes of “Sanctuary” premiere April 15 at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy.
How did the idea for Sanctuary for Kids originate?
The financial crisis precipitated it. We read so many articles about small charities that were being completely obliterated and larger charities having to fight for donations because people just weren’t donating as much. So we decided to form an organization that spoke to the need of really small charities with low operating costs—where a small amount of money makes a huge amount of difference. We made that our mandate, and we focused on organizations that assist children because Jill and I are both moms and realize the importance of protecting this generation.
It took us about a year to set it up because we did a ton of research on how nonprofits set their goals and intentions. When we launched we had no idea how well it would work out for us. We hoped to raise $100,000 in donations the first year and we raised $170,000, thanks, in large part, to the generosity and social awareness of sci-fi fans. Our first donation went to Watari, a local Vancouver organization that helps homeless teens transition to independence by providing support, education and vocational training. And a hundred percent of our donation went exactly where it needed to go—on the ground—which, we discovered, rarely happens with donations to nonprofits due to the costs of running the organization.
You were able to do that because you and your colleagues cover the administrative costs of S4K.
Yes. We cover all the administrative costs, legal fees and banking fees. So, if we raise a dollar, we’re able to give a dollar.
In addition to Next Generation Nepal, S4K supports two other nonprofits devoted to providing housing, healthcare and education to disadvantaged children in Nepal—the Nepal Orphans Home (NOH) and Asha Nepal. How did Nepal come to be a focus of your work?
A young man, a fan, who started my website, AmandaTapping.com, went to Nepal to volunteer at the Nepal Orphans Home and came back with the most phenomenal stories and pictures and they just spoke to me. When we started Sanctuary for Kids, I said I wanted NOH to be one of our key recipients. And then when we started doing more research on Nepal, we found out about Next Generation Nepal and Asha Nepal. We also liked the fact that a lot of organizations working in Nepal are connected. When we spoke with DB Lama at Next Generation Nepal’s local partner, The Himalayan Innovative Society (THIS), he said, “We all cross-reference each other. Many NGOs in Nepal are small and we couldn’t survive without working with each other.” We loved that. We loved the idea that when we give $5,000 to NGN or $5,000 to NOH, there’s a sort of trickle effect.
You and Jill visited Nepal in fall 2010. What were your first impressions?
I landed in Kathmandu at midnight and I just saw chaos! But what astounded me was that even in the midst of abject poverty the people had this sort of internal joy. You could tell people were poor, you could tell people were struggling, but there was something about everyone I met—pretty much without exception—that spoke to this belief in hope. There’s a center of spirituality in Nepal that I think we’ve sort of lost sight of in the Western world.
What surprised you most about the children you met?
How open-hearted they were. I didn’t know what to expect because some of the stories we’d heard were pretty horrific, especially through NGN and Conor Grennan’s book, “Little Princes.” These are children who have gone through things that nobody in their life should have to go through, and to find the emotional vernacular to deal with such circumstances as a child is really difficult. These kids seemed—not unfazed by it—but still open and not closed off, still open to the experience of love and friendship. Every child we met greeted us with hugs and, “Hello, sister! Hello, sister!” It was beautiful.
These were children who probably had no idea of your professional life as an actress. How did that affect your interactions with them?
It was actually really liberating!
Did you eat any dal bhat?
Yes! I loved it! I went there with the attitude that I would be a big sponge: “I will try anything once. I will embrace it.” I don’t think there was anything I didn’t like. Except the last day when I brushed my teeth with unfiltered water. Except for that experience, which made the flight home really uncomfortable, I loved everything.
Do you think sci-fi fans and humanitarians have anything in common?
They absolutely have something in common and it’s passion. Sci-fi fans are passionate not only for the sci-fi genre and the shows and the actors they love but also for the causes and interests of the actors. My fans have always supported me. Present them with a really good argument and they just pick it up and run with it. The same is true of humanitarians. They look at this world and say there has got to be something we can do to make it better from our little corner of the globe. When Jill and I were in Nepal, we kept saying that the problems were so insurmountable and we felt like little drops in a bucket, but our belief is, “From little drops big ripples emanate.” And I think that’s what all humanitarians have to believe—that even helping one child is moving things forward.
Again, I think it comes down to that word, passion. If you’re passionate about something, you pursue it, and that’s what sci-fi fans do. They spend a lot of time on the Internet and they stay connected. All you need is one person in a forum to say, “Hey, check out Sanctuary for Kids,” and before you know it 100,000 people have checked out your website. That’s social networking at its finest.
What is it about Next Generation Nepal’s work that inspired Sanctuary for Kids to contribute?
We did a lot of research on different groups in Nepal and we decided to contribute to Next Generation Nepal not only because NGN’s people try to rescue trafficked children and reconnect and them with their families but because they do this so selflessly, putting themselves in danger, even risking their lives, for the greater good. It’s probably one of the most beautiful things that anyone can do. We saw it time and again with stories that came out of NGN and we said, “This is an organization that has its heart in exactly the right place.”
And then we went to NGN’s Karnali house and we met some of the first boys who had been rescued. And the house mother, and DB Lama. He took us to the office and showed us the binders on each of the boys. He said, “These are their school records, all their grades, all their accomplishments. Look at what they’ve done!” He was so proud. He had tears in his eyes. Jill and I left and literally burst into tears ourselves when we got back to our car. We were like, “Oh my God! We have to work with these people. They’re fantastic.”
You’re very active in social networking. Your official website launched in 1998, an eternity ago in Internet time. You participate in your Facebook page. You ask fans to submit questions on Twitter and you answer them every two weeks. Would you call yourself an early adopter?
I have to be honest with you about the website. That was a fan—the gentleman I mentioned earlier. He sent me a letter, saying, “I have bought your domain name and I want to run your official website.” And I was like, “You bought my what?” I didn’t even know what a domain name was. Since then, I have tried to stay abreast, but I would consider myself more of a luddite than an early adopter. I’m lucky to be encouraged and supported by people who understand technology and social networking better than I do. I actually think it’s a great tool. I wasn’t on Twitter and our publicist said, “Why aren’t you?” She was the one who suggested Tapping Tuesdays, where I answer questions submitted by fans, and I said, “Yeah!” I think it’s very important that you reach out to the people who have supported you for so long, to take an interest in them just like they’ve taken an interest in you. It’s only fair. You pay it forward and pay it back.
You’ve been called the Queen of Sci-Fi and the Hardest Working Woman in Sci-Fi. Are women in sci-fi still a minority?
Yes, although I think that’s changing. “Fringe” has a great female lead, for example, and I think lots more women are coming to sci-fi because there are a lot more female fans watching sci-fi. It’s not your grandmother’s sci-fi anymore. It’s not spaceships and aliens—it’s whatever defies imagination and whatever breaks outside of the box. Sci-fi still has the geek stigma, which is a shame, because, ultimately, it’s just another way of telling stories.
Do you ever feel a little like an Abnormal yourself?
Yes! Except when I go to things like Comic-Con. Then I’m with my peeps and I feel pretty good. With mainstream media, it’s like, “So, you do a sci-fi show.” And it’s almost like they expect you to apologize for it. It’s not real TV—it’s just sci-fi.
Are there any women in sci-fi that you admire?
Definitely. Nichelle Nichols, for starters. Even though she still had to wear the short skirts as Uhura on the original "Star Trek," she broke ground, not only as an African-American woman on sci-fi but a woman on a spaceship with a bunch of dorky men. She was a huge inspiration when I was a kid. And then Kate Mulgrew, and definitely Gillian Anderson, because I think she broke ground in that she wasn’t what people typically expected a female lead of a show to be. She completely broke the mold. A short little redhead with a fiery attitude and super smart as opposed to a buxomy blond sidekick who couldn’t handle a gun. She was completely different and I think I remember reading an article at the time where network execs had said she wasn’t their first choice but series creator Chris Carter really pushed for her what a brilliant choice that was. I wasn’t the first choice when I got “Stargate.” It was my understanding that although I was the producer’s first choice, one person at the network said, “Nah, we need someone sexier.” But I fought and fought and fought, and people fought the good fight for me, and I ended up getting the part. Then I had to fight again. I said, “No, I don’t need a push-up bra and a tank top. I need a proper Army T-shirt. My character is smart, not sexy.” It was still quite the battle.
Do you think that’s a consequence of sci-fi being dominated by men?
Yes. And the belief that the demographic was different, even when I started “Stargate” in 1997. Producers felt there weren’t as many women sci-fi fans, or they didn’t see as many women sci-fi fans. And now they do. Now when I go to sci-fi conventions there’s anything from little kids to 83-year-old women and everything in between. It’s really blown wide open. But I think at the time, it was like, “This is a boy’s show and we’re hanging around with guns and aliens so you better show off her boobs.” It didn’t work, because I fought it. But I think the show was okay without it.
“Sanctuary” is in many ways about the very complicated and shifting relationships between a large group of people, a little bit like “Lost.” Will Magnus ever have a love life?
It’s so funny you should ask that because we’re just breaking stories for our fourth season and I was on a conference call with all the writers and everyone was wrapping up and I said, “Hey, wait a second. Can we please give Helen a lover this season? I don’t care whether it’s a male or a female. Just something. We need to show that she actually is a sexy, vivacious woman and not just this rigid-pole-up-her-bum running the Sanctuary with an iron fist—a huge heart but an iron fist. Can we show the feminine side of her character? Let her kiss someone!” And they all went, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea.”
So, it’s a possibility?
It’s a possibility. I asked for it. I said, “Seriously, all’s she had are relationships with terribly deranged men.”
In several episodes the characters have traveled to the Himalaya. What did it feel like to be in the real Himalaya as opposed to the green-screen version?
The entire time I was in Nepal all I kept thinking was, “I wish I had a film crew here.” There are so many beautiful ways to film it. We came back and asked, “Can we do an episode that takes place in Kathmandu?”
And maybe you have a ready-made plot: On “Sanctuary,” Bigfoot works as the caretaker and custodian of the Sanctuary itself. Was there ever any thought given to finding Bigfoot’s long lost yeti relatives in the Himalaya or making that connection in any way?
Absolutely. It’s very funny, because we sort of talked about it and we made some sort of really quirky passing reference to fact that he only has sex every five years and one of the other characters on the show said, “With whom?” And then it’s sort of left alone. So we have to send him off every few years.
He’s kind of like Spock.
At the end of the “Sanctuary” mid-season cliffhanger, Helen, Will, Henry and Kate were about to be executed for trespassing in the Hollow Earth city of Praxis. Can you give any hints about what’s ahead in the next 10 episodes of Season 3?
Well, we live. That’s a big spoiler! Basically, we come back up to the surface and try to maintain communication and at the end of the season things go terribly wrong. Adam, Ian Tracey’s character, goes completely off his nut. There’s a stand-alone episode that I directed titled “One Night,” about a date night gone horribly wrong. We go back in time a little bit more. We also have an episode coming up we’re all very proud of called “Normandy” that takes place during the famous battle of World War II. But it’s all interwoven with Nazis and Abnormals and this massive creature that could spoil the Allied Invasion. It’s revisionist history, which is my favorite part of the show. The monsters are cool but I love it when we take major historical events and turn them on their ear. We have fun playing with that.
You’ve signed on with William Shatner to voice a character for an animated sci-fi series called "The Zenoids" that will live on Shatner's social networking site MyOuterspace.com. Have you started working on that yet?
No. Bill is probably the busiest man in showbiz. I was supposed to go down to LA last month to do the voiceovers and then something came up for him. I was scheduled to go down again but then he had to go to Ottawa to host our Genie Awards for Canadian cinema. So, we’re scrambling to figure out when the two of us can be in the same place at the same time. He may have to come up to Vancouver if I start shooting. But I’ve gotten the script, so, all we need to do is lay the tracks down.
In an online video interview with Shatner, you asked, not once, but twice, “Would you be on my show?” His cryptic response was, “I cannot see how I cannot do that. That’s a double negative!” To which you responded, “No, that’s a double positive!” Any chance he might actually appear on “Sanctuary”?
Once Bill and I get into the sound stage together and I have a bit more of a relationship with him, I will definitely bug him. We already have the character we want him to play. We were talking about the possibility and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we open the door and there he is?” So, really, it’s just a matter of the two of us being in the same room together and me buying him a few drinks and getting him to sign something that says he’ll do the show.
A couple of random questions: Are you a Mac or a PC?
iPhone, Android or Blackberry?
Do you have an iPod?
What would people be most surprised to hear you listen to?
I’ve been doing a lot of running lately so I have this crazy workout mix that has everything from Journey to Lady Gaga and a ton of stuff in between. “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” is how it starts. My husband is like, “What is on this?” It’s very funny. It keeps me going.
Larry Closs is Next Generation Nepal’s Director of Communications.
Support the nonprofit that Amanda supports: Donate to Next Generation Nepal.