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'Battlestar Galactica': Kate Vernon reveals a Cylonic secret

Back from the dead for Season 4, Vernon's Ellen Tigh is indeed among the warring dirty dozen.

January 17, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Like a veteran of the witness protection program, actress Kate Vernon picked a secluded corner table of a very public restaurant for the meeting. She studied the tape recorder sitting next to her teacup on the table and then glanced around the Studio City bistro to see if anyone was eavesdropping. "Forgive me if I'm a little awkward talking about it," Vernon said during an interview earlier this week. "It's been two years that I've been sitting on this secret, and after that long it's kind of hard to just start talking . . . "

Vernon, you see, is the final Cylon, a fact revealed Friday night on the acclaimed Sci Fi television series "Battlestar Galactica." That makes her the solution to a mystery that has played out like some latter-day science fiction version of the "Who shot J.R.?" saga, but, unlike that old "Dallas" plotline, this one unfolded in an Internet Age and with a rabid-fan audience clawing for clues.

"People have been asking me and accusing me for months and months, but I played it off pretty good," said Vernon, who portrays the shrewish Ellen Tigh, a sort of Lady Macbeth in space whom some fans have dubbed a "cosmic cougar." Now her character has abruptly gained new dimensions as a riddle redefined, not unlike Keyser Soze in the final jolting moments of "The Usual Suspects."

For the uninitiated, despite its clunky name, "Galactica" is revered by its loyal viewers as a television landmark in sophisticated sci-fi storytelling and is now in its fourth and final season. This is no Buck Rogers serial -- nuanced and wrenching, it's a bleak opera about politics, religion and war in what may be the final days of the human race, which is being exterminated by sentient machines called Cylons. The show's themes of identity, faith, duty and betrayal are all made slippery by the fact that the humans have been living with 12 secret Cylons among them who all look, act and think like humans, a dozen synthetic "Manchurian Candidates" waiting for activation. Their identities have been slowly revealed, and, on Friday night, to the shock of viewers, the last sleeper turned out to be Vernon's Ellen, the wife of Col. Saul Tigh, the raging, one-eyed career soldier who is still coming to grips with the fact that he is a Cylon. It's a complicated universe.

All of this was a tremendous surprise considering Ellen was poisoned to death in Season 3, but with the Cylons, the usual rules of mortality don't apply. Vernon is thrilled to be back. Her character was originally written for a four-episode arc, but she endured and became a key character -- until she was murdered by her on-screen husband.

"I wasn't done with the character," Vernon moaned. "They killed me off. I was devastated. Why me? What did I do wrong?"

A small reprieve came when executive producer Ron Moore told her she would return as a dark vision of her husband's tortured mind, but Vernon resigned herself to the fact that her role in "one of the greatest shows ever made" was over. Then, on an especially wrenching afternoon many months ago, she got a phone call.

"I was crawling down Sepulveda and I had just come from a therapy session and I was crying, my eyes were swollen like clam eyes, and I was hanging on my steering wheel wondering what was going on in my life and my career. The phone rang. It was Ron's assistant."

For the next 45 minutes (traffic was bad) Moore explained that Ellen would return as a centerpiece presence. "Now I'm in seven of the last nine, and they are just absolutely brilliant. I can't tell you how good they are," she said.

In person, Vernon is sunnier and more soulful than her character ("Mercury," she pointed out during the interview, "is in retrograde right now, so machines won't work right and you'll be late for things . . . "), but she has a great deal of empathy for Ellen Tigh. "She is so misunderstood. People told me they loved hating her, but when she was murdered they suddenly hated loving her."

Vernon grew up on the periphery of the showbiz spotlight. Her father was the late John Vernon, a career actor with a long list of credits who may be best remembered as Dean Wormer in "Animal House." He was less than thrilled by his daughter's career choice, but she persevered and as a young actress put together a resume that reads like a time capsule of 1980s guilty pleasures. She was one of the inmates in "Chained Heat," the so-bad-it's-good-but-not-really 1983 classic about women in prison (and featuring her dad) and then landed a "Falcon Crest" role as Lorraine Prescott, a love interest of the caddish playboy played by Lorenzo Lamas. She also played Benny, the haughty rich girl in 1986's high school classic "Pretty in Pink" and got a recurring role on "Who's the Boss."

In the 1990s, she worked on "L.A. Law" and had a career surge with a memorable role in "Malcolm X," but by the start of this decade she was weary of Hollywood. She was mulling over a career in real estate in 2004 when she got the call about the "Battlestar" role.

The actress arrived on the set and (only then) discovered that Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos were the stars of the show and that Olmos was directing the episode that brought Ellen in. Her first scene on the set was a lusty, boozy reunion between Ellen and husband Saul (Michael Hogan), and after that acting challenge, she realized she was onto something special.

"This is one for the ages, the best experience of my life," Vernon said. "The writers fell in love with Ellen. The bad girls are the best. Wait until you see what Ellen gets into next. I just have to be sure I don't say the wrong thing about the nine episodes that are left. But I'm pretty good at keeping secrets."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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