Michelle Forbes likes to shake things up in her career by taking on wildly different projects, but she’s gone to extremes with her latest projects.
The actress, who earned an Emmy nomination for playing a grieving mother in “The Killing,” also has portrayed an orgy-loving maenad in “True Blood,” a psycho psychologist in “Durham County,” a tough battleship admiral in “Battlestar Galactica: Razor,” a Bajoran in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and an alcoholic medical examiner in “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
The Texas native currently appears as two very different characters at the same time. In A&E’s adaptation of the French series “The Returned,” she plays Helen Goddard, a woman who is perplexed to be alive again decades after her death. In “Powers,” streaming on the Playstation Network, she stars as exhausted super hero Retro Girl.
“No Curt, no,” she said, laughing, when I asked if she thought she’s ever play a super hero. “I did not at this particular junction in my lifetime.”
But Forbes, who says she’s had a fragile relationship with celebrity, wanted to explore the idea of what celebrity has become and why celebrities wield so much power.
In the series, Retro Girl questions her own celebrity and how fervent her “fans” have become.
Forbes saw definite parallels with current times.
“Look at the bloody Kardashians. They’ve been in the forefront of pop culture for how many years now? And still nobody knows what they do for a living,” she said, laughing. “If there weren’t an unbelievably loud outcry for this strange sense of celebrity it wouldn’t exist. But obviously there’s a reason that exists. It confounds me, but it exists. So I thought I’d take a look at it—in a red onesie.”
She wears no red onesie in “The Returned,” but her character, Helen, is struggling with even more complex questions after she returns from the dead.
“It creates this rather intense psychological dilemma certainly for her that she’s back in this realm that she doesn’t understand,” Forbes said. “She doesn’t understand why she’s back. … It’s sort of this open-ended sense of purgatory for her.”
The roles, which Forbes filmed partly at the same time, show the incomparable actress’s gravitas and low-key style that grounds even the fantasy world of “Powers.”
“That didn’t work out so well, did it?” she said, laughing. “I think it might be a fool’s errand, but I don’t think there’s been a single comedy script that’s come my way. No, no, not on the radar for that, unfortunately. Or apparently I’m not funny.”
She’s quite funny, as you can see in this Q&A from our discussion in which she talks about these two shows, her appearances in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2,” “Orphan Black” and “Chicago Fire.”
I was so happy to see you in a couple of shows. But very different roles.
Very different. Yes, couldn’t have been farther apart or more antithetical actually.
You always kind of plan that out that way anyway, right? You like variety in your roles?
I do like variety. Sometimes the universe gives you a little bit of help though. These things are so polar opposite, you know, at the same time.
Were you filming at the same time?
It was probably about a two-month overlap I’d say.
Yeah, if each series was four months there was a two-month overlap.
Did you suffer a little whiplash?
A little bit, yeah. A little bit. It was more dodgey than I had figured getting between Vancouver and Atlanta. There’s no direct flight. So just in terms of getting from one show to the other was like a full day of work. So there was about two months where I barely had a day off. So is the life of a circus grinder.
I guess so. But it probably helped with the roles a little bit.
I don’t know. I think it might have helped “The Returned” more than it helped the poor old Retro Girl. Even though she was suffering a little fatigue as well.
Had you seen “The Returned” the French original?
No, I haven’t. This is my third adaption and I’ve sort of just made it a rule now that I don’t watch the originals. And I guess I have Rodrigo Garcia to thank for that because my first adaption that I did, “In Treatment,” we weren’t allowed to watch it. For me that just seems to work so that you’re protected from not coaching from another actor and you’re protected from not being intimidated by another actor’s hard work.
Would you not take a role like this if you had seen it before you even had an inkling that it was going to be a role that you might be up for?
Well, from what I understand the roles are totally different. Unlike the other adaptions where they were really quite similar. Helen is completely different from the French version, from what I understand.
What got you interested in playing Helen in “The Returned?”
The idea of it really fascinated me. It’s sort of asking all the big questions about our presence here in our lifetime and what happens after. … If we get what we want it can be quite troublesome once we’ve moved on from accepting loss. And a lot of these people—Helen especially—don’t necessarily want to be back. So it creates this rather intense psychological dilemma certainly for her that she’s back in this realm that she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand why she’s back. She doesn’t understand what’s the point of being back and it’s sort of this open-ended sense of purgatory for her.
How was the experience?
I’ve got to tell you I had such a sweet, sweet time making this with these people. It’s such a wonderful group of certainly actors, but writers and our crew was just so deliciously supportive and wonderful. And we’re shooting up in Squamish, which is right in between Vancouver and Whistler. And it is just so beautiful up there. And it was such a stress-free production. … We just had this beautiful summer together. After work we’d go horseback riding or go sit by the water somewhere. It was a really, really beautiful summer getting to tell this interesting little story.
You had plenty of time to I guess decompress from the intense scenes and emotions that were brought up?
From the intense scenes? Yeah. It was just easier to go there in that direction because it was so stress-free I guess. I worked with Raelle Tucker, who is the showrunner and the writer, on “True Blood.” I trust her so implicitly as a writer that it was easy just to fall into her words and just happily be a part of this wonderful company.
When Helen quizzes the preacher about the finality of life she sort of disagrees with what he says. Where is she at at that moment? She’s disillusioned, I take it.
There’s a very important line there. I’ll paraphrase badly but something, you know, he needs finality of death. Otherwise how are we supposed to organize what we do? The Returned lose that sense of urgency about our time being finite. What kind of a person does that make us, you know? What is our purpose? What is the meaning in our lives? These are huge questions.
And I think what’s interesting for Helen is that other than her husband she’s come back to no one. Everybody else has loved ones to come back to. She doesn’t really. So what is this open-endedness supposed to mean for her? How is she supposed to fit in?
And hopefully this is going to touch into everyone’s belief system and help us to question it. But I was raised in a very small Catholic school and we went to mass every day and I would sit there and I would look at all those really comforting Christian paintings that had to do with death and hellfire and brimstone and what have you.
Hell never scared me as a youngster. I don’t think it even scares me now. What scared me then and what still scares me is Purgatory. This open-endedness. This sense of there being no end in sight and just this low-grade sense of meaninglessness. That terrified me and I think that’s where Helen is. And she doesn’t quite know what to do with this second chance she’s been given. Is it a second chance, though? The Returned are still trying to figure it out. It’s a little weird.
She comes back to her husband who’s aged as people do. And there’s no sort of reunion at all. He just jumps off the dam.
Yes, I mean and what a shocker that is for her. And trying to make sense of all of this and not really having anyone to turn to to question it. And I think she was pretty sheltered with him before her time was ended. So it’s a curious dilemma for this odd woman.
You have scenes with the child, Victor.
They do have an interesting friendship.
Isn’t the saying something like, “Never work with animals or children?”
I’ve got to say, I have to refute that. I love working with kids. I really, really do. I love seeing their imaginations opening up. I love to see them learning technical aspects of what we do on set. And Dylan was just a gem. He’s focused. He’s like a sponge who is just so willing to learn. He’s the sweetest kid around. So I had a great time with him.
Would you ever want to come back to life when your time was up?
No. No. This is the thing. It’s what we desire, isn’t it? What we think we want is just not necessarily what should happen. There’s a cycle of life for a reason and I’ve thought about it with people that I’ve loved coming back. I used to have this recurring nightmare about somebody I loved coming back. So it’s starts as this beautiful dream and then it turns into a nightmare. So I’m pretty humble in the face of the natural cycle of life. I’m pretty humble and I’m pretty accepting of it.
Especially after this, I suppose, you’d be definitely not interested.
Yeah, it brings up a lot of interesting questions. I remember a friend of mine was losing a dog and he didn’t want to let go and he’d talk to you about pulling $30,000 to clone his dog.
And I thought, “Oh God, I can’t believe we’re about to have to sit down and have this conversation. You have to let your dog go. And if you want another dog there are millions suffering in shelters that are about to be put down. So on some level I’m begging you to accept this turn of nature and now put your love somewhere else.”
We don’t want to let go. The harshest lesson we have, I think, in our lifetime is letting go of the one’s we love.
These two characters are very different, but are they the same in that they’re both kind of outsiders or at least Retro Girl sort of made herself an outsider?
I think Retro Girl is at a defining moment in her life where yes, she is trying to make herself an outsider. She no longer is able to make the distinction between this celebrity life/branding life that seemed like a very savvy, smart business move at the time. I think she kept her priorities in check, but it’s gotten to a point where she’s questioning everything and questioning this prison that she’s made for herself in the name of commerce. You know, taking this idea of celebrity and turning it on its head for her altruistic benefits. Not necessarily for herself but being smart. She’s a smart businesswoman in that sense.
I think she’s just at a point where she’s tired and she’s questioning it and it’s just not giving her the satisfaction she needs and, you know, she’s just longing for anonymity. She’s just longing for a rest and anonymity.
I have to say that that is one of the things that made me interested in this project was this idea of looking at celebrity and what it’s turned into and what does that celebrity power mean.
I just kind of wanted to explore that a little bit. I’ve always had a very odd and fragile relationship with celebrity and never understood those who seek it out and seek that attention. She is interesting to me because she was always able to sort of navigate her way through it with this attachment of understanding the business and she was playing a role for that purpose. And she just got tired of playing the game, I think.
It’s exhausting. It’s lonely. And eventually she was getting to a point where she wants to enjoy life a little bit. And I get that. I kind of got that side of her.
She can’t really quit because she still has that drive to help people right? Is that sort of what’s keeping her there?
I think her altruism is what’s keeping her there and her concern about this younger generation not being as smart and being swallowed up by the celebrity. Watching all of these new kids with powers who are being swallowed up into that branding world. They’re coming in with sort of lesser intentions and it concerns her.
And she also doesn’t know if she’s up to the fight. She can’t perfect the world. She might be able to save a few people with her super powers but she can’t change the ideal of the world. And I think that this is where her suffering really comes into play. Because she’s smart she not going to sit there and say, “Oh, I can save the world and I’m omnipotent.”
She understands even with powers there is a boundary to what she can accomplish and it causes her great suffering.
I saw a video of you arriving at the some Raising the Bar event. And people shouting for you to pose and turn this way and turn this way, “Michelle, Michelle, Michelle!” And I wondered if you tapped into that when shooting some Retro Girl scenes, like when she pushes the fan back.
Right, yeah. It could happen. [Laughs.]
Not that you’re gonna push anybody away but it’s sort of a similar thing: Everybody reaching out at you and screaming at you.
Yeah, it’s an odd thing. I’ll never really understand it. It’s such a strange thing and you do feel like an object in the face of death sometimes. You do your best to maintain your groundedness and your integrity but it’s a very, very odd thing Curt, I have to say.
I remember there was one night after just a vulnerable day. I don’t think anything particularly special had happened and it was a particularly aggressive line of photographers and they were just very aggressive. They were really agro and they were screaming … I got really overwhelmed and I started crying.
I have it on such a tiny, tiny level compared to most. But even when we were shooting “Hunger Games,” my God there were barricades and body guards and all of that stuff that happens. Watching kids almost get knocked down in the street with oncoming traffic because they’re chasing cars and you’re just like, “My God, we’re just actors. We’re just playing pretend.”
Something I’m always curious about is how this is the sort of fever and fervor and mayhem that used to be attached to religious leaders. I can’t say that’s a good thing, either, but somewhere along the way you thought these girls start turning into these sort of moved, spiritual beasts it seemed in front of the Beatles or Michael Jackson. They’re crying and shaking and I don’t understand any of it, Curt. I really don’t.
You know what? Looking good in the red onesie. I have to say.
Well, you’re very kind. [Laughs.] By the time I got there I was too tired to do any more sit-ups. I’m like, “You guys have got to help me out.”
You’ve said that you always are learning things about acting. Are you still?
Oh sure. Sure, it’s bottomless. I mean that’s the wonderful thing about it is that you never stop. I mean we can all go in and do our dog and pony show, we’ve all got our hat tricks in our back pocket, but the minute you start relying on that you might as well hang your hat up.
There’s always something new to explore. Always another part of you that you haven’t tapped into yet or a dark place or a funny place or whatever it may be. So yeah, it’s wonderfully bottomless in that sense.
Anything special you discovered doing either one of these two roles?
Anything special? I—[laughs]—I can’t say. It always comes back to red onesie and I’m not going to say. [Laughs.] I don’t want to hurt anybody. What did I learn on these two? I think I just learned how to accumulate miles.
You play Lt. Jackson in “The Hunger Games.” Were you excited to do that?
It was awesome. It took us about six months, I guess, of shooting it. It’s the last installment and so the gang that I was with they’d sort of been together. So it was like walking into this wonderfully tight family and fun people to hang out with for sure.
I heard you got hurt.
Well that kind of got blown out of proportion. It’s a war movie. I think it’s been stated before but if it hasn’t I’ll say it. I’m the clumsiest person on the planet so I’m surprised I haven’t injured myself sitting down on this chair talking to you right now. So yeah, it’s a war movie. People are bound to get a little dinged up. It comes with the job.
Lt. Jackson can’t fly like Retro Girl does so you couldn’t get away from it.
Exactly. If she had that onesie on she wouldn’t have gotten hurt I suppose.
Are you going to be back on “Orphan Black” at all that you know of?
Gosh I don’t know. … But I love them.
So you would do it if you were asked and you were free?
Oh my God, of course. It’s just to go back and watch Tat again. She’s such an amazing actor, my goodness.
She’s great. And even though your character wasn’t nice on “Chicago Fire,” that was fun for you?
Nice people up there. Do you know who I love over there is Eamonn [Walker]. Oh my God. … Those guys are a tight, tight group over there. They were a real brotherhood. It was really beautiful to see everybody looking out for each other and being in such close company. It was really sweet.