Strange Empire creator Laurie Finstad Knizhnik mentioned her doubts in finding an attractive young actor with the intelligence, gravitas and humanity to play Rebecca Blithley, and the miracle of finding Melissa Farman for the role.
Tonight’s episode reveals more about the strange doctor and allows Farman to dig even deeper into the character. I interviewed her last month inside the Blithely’s “crib” on the Aldergrove, BC set that she describes as being like ” theatre troupe in the woods.”
Tell me more about your character.
My character is a surgeon in training. She’s a prodigy. She was raised between an asylum and a laboratory as an experiment to test female scientific ability. So she’s very much an outsider in terms of Victorian society but also in terms of this new wild west where she’s going to have to discover what autonomy and freedom mean to her for the first time ever.
What was your reaction to getting this role?
I felt very very honoured and I still do. I felt very excited to be part of a show that I think is a brave step for CBC in terms of showing such strong storytelling and so much integrity in representing people whom history often forgets.
Everyone felt a great responsibility to show the realities of the hardships people had to undergo and overcome to build better lives for themselves and their families, because westerns are very much our myths of original as a nation. They take civilization as a goal but they begin in bloodshed as we develop mainstream morality. We’re looking at the origins of society in no man’s land, a land that’s going to be fought over by anyone and everyone. So there’s a great sense of excitement and responsibility to show this clash of morality as people choose to live and die as individuals but also as a society.
That’s a very long answer [laughs].
It’s a very dark show, isn’t it? How does that affect you, to immerse yourself into that dark territory?
It’s definitely dark and edgy. Were showing people in very extreme circumstances. People who are lost in the middle ground between the expectations of a paradise promised – that’s why people came to the west, people who had nothing and came looking for opportunity – and instead they’re confronted by the reality of a paradise that has not yet come, perhaps a paradise that is lost. The conditions are very adverse and they’re going to have to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
So yes it’s very dark but I think in many ways there’s some light to it because it’s about people who are very lost but have the opportunity to build bonds within themselves and with each other, to build some kind of hope of community.
Behind the scenes we’re all supportive of each other and it’s an environment of support and commitment to tell the story with integrity.
How did you get into acting?
My mother threw me on stage as a child because I was very shy and she believed in shock therapy. It was a very safe environment so she thought it would be a good sanctuary for me to become less shy with people, which it absolutely was. I gravitated to theater as a place I could discover facets of myself without ramifications.
I’d joined a troupe and loved it, and then I took a year off after high school. I was going to go to university on the east coast in Pennsylvania, but I went to LA and did this acting program. I wanted to take this year to explore that before I went to university. My current manager found me in that class and convinced me to go on some auditions, and I did and I got the jobs.
So I was very very fortunate and that made my mind up right away. I went to university in California, I went to USC, so I pursued my academics while at the same time pursuing my career.
What did you study?
I was a double major in political science and literature. I felt it was a very good balance. First of all university gave me structure which I think was very important for me, plus I was studying power dynamics and storytelling . I was inspired by what I was learning in school . I love writing, I love debates, and that fed me.
My interest in political science and literature completely fuels my work as an actor as well. I grew up in a family that loved art, I grew up in Paris (her mother is Canadian and father is French) and I’ve always gone to a lot of exhibits. My mother is in the art world. It’s always fun to look at different mediums of understanding to fuel your own craft and creativity.
There was never really a shift for me between academia and art. It was all about studying human beings. You just bring it to a visceral level when you’re acting. I did Game Change, the HBO film about the McCain-Palin ticket, and I was studying Game Change in my class.
Can you describe Rebecca’s relationship to the other characters?
In terms of the three female leads they’re all on the outskirts of society and I don’t think they’d have ever met if they weren’t on this border frontier town. We have this atypical doctor, a wounded trailblazer in Kat, and a madame in Isabelle. They never would have met and here they are.
Their dynamic is constantly changing. At times they bond and at times they antagonize based on what they need to do in order to survive.
Rebecca is always a bit of an outsider. Certain people understand her and others don’t. You kind of have to get her.
What did it take for you to get her?
What I understood from her was she’s a character that very much struggles between what she wanted and what she was. I saw her as a blank slate in terms of human interactions. Because she was raised in a laboratory and she was raised as an experiment she never got a sense of her own humanity.
She’s come out to this wild west where she’s seen types of people she’s never seen before. That’s what the wild west was, it was this concentration of diversity, of people coming from nothing with everything to win, with no laws to stop them but no laws to protect them. They’re disenfranchised. That’s what our show is about, and I think with Rebecca she suddenly realizes everything she has been brought up to be gets in the way of everything she wants, which is connection. I was very drawn to that internal struggle she has to battle.
Strange Empire airs tonight on CBC, and episodes are available online.