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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Sci-fi's savior

On 'Galactica,' Mary McDonnell is CEO if survival.

January 01, 2006|Susan King

AFTER gracing the stage for several decades and receiving Oscar nominations for supporting actress for 1990's "Dances With Wolves" and best actress for 1992's "Passion Fish," Mary McDonnell has found success on the small screen.

The actress stars with Edward James Olmos in the Sci Fi Channel series "Battlestar Galactica," which returns to the cable channel Friday with 20 new episodes.

McDonnell, 53, plays the intelligent, quietly forceful President Laura Roslin. Initially the education secretary, Roslin was 43rd in line to become president of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. But after she boarded a routine spaceflight, the Cylons -- robots created by humans -- attacked and destroyed her home planet.

Roslin, who also has terminal breast cancer, is intent on preserving the lives of the survivors as they try to avoid Cylon attacks on their way to a new home on Earth. Olmos plays Adama, commander of the Galactica.

The series, which is based on the 1978-79 ABC show, was recently selected for an AFI Award.

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With its expansive themes and complex characters, "Battlestar Galactica" often seems more akin to a Shakespearean drama than a sci-fi thriller.

It's very human. That is, in a sense you might refer to it as Shakespearean. The human dilemma psychologically and emotionally is very acutely explored, and the space drama is a situation. It takes place in space, but it's a human drama. [Creator-producer] Ron Moore is wonderful at writing the interior ideas at the hearts and minds of human beings, which is also, of course, what we know Shakespeare was extraordinary at. I think that the size of decisions and the allegiances and the betrayals and the fears of the human beings in the world of Galactica is as large as the situations that often the Shakespeare drama centered on. It is always on the edge of life and death.

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It's the death of the first 42 people in line for the presidency that makes you leader of the survivors.

It was a very interesting thing because as a middle-aged woman, I think there is this situation in my generation where we come into power because the culture has created the opportunities for that now, and we have had, perhaps, the education. But as little girls, not all of us were raised from birth knowing that we would step into those positions. So there is an untapped ability to assume power, and when you are thrown into that position, you have to discover it.

That is what I found fascinating about her -- the discovery of the ability to step into place when it was time to make a decision, because the commitment is always to a bigger ideal -- which is the survival of the entire unit.

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Laura also has only two weeks to live because of her breast cancer.

She is dealing with an amazing amount. The key to her, I think, eventually was to realize that because she is at the end of her life -- or perhaps at the end of life -- there is an economy in her willingness to experience any given thing for very long because there is a short amount of time. She has to move quickly from one thing to the next, and in an odd sense it is her survival as she's dying. It's an interesting circle.

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Have you gotten response from women with breast cancer?

Absolutely. I think there is a great compliment paid to the show vis-a-vis my character and a compliment paid to Ron as well. There is an honesty and a dignity to the struggle, even though the show hasn't paid that much time explaining what that really means or the disease itself. The fact that she continues to live a life while struggling with this.... I never wanted there to be an easy fix, nor did I want to go into melodrama with someone week after week after week who isn't feeling well. And it was just a remarkable challenge for all of us to find a way to allow her to be truthfully sick when necessary and continue to do her job. I think that people have been very responsive to that.

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Though the Cylons are the enemy in the series, they look just like humans.

In this situation it's brilliant to look at the other and not know who they are. They look like us, which is very reflective of what we are dealing with in our lives. Human beings fight each other as "the other," but we are all the same.

What happens in this show, which is really quite beautiful, is suddenly as a viewer you are struck with the relatability of it, how relevant it is. The pilot set us on a voyage -- we were 55,000 people experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome, if you really think about it. There is a certain amount of fear in the world today, given everything we are dealing with. We are struggling not to be fearful, and I think that is reflected in "Battlestar Galactica."

-- Susan King

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