For centuries, archaeologists have searched for the lost city of Atlantis. If they ever actually find it, we certainly hope it includes people like Rachel Luttrell, who plays Teyla Emmagan on Stargate Atlantis. Season four of the sci-fi hit is currently filming in Vancouver and Luttrell called us from the set to talk to about acting, growing up in Tanzania and what's in store for the new season.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
Originally, I was born in East Africa, in Tanzania. My mother is Tanzanian and all of my family on her side still lives in Tanzania. We lived there until I was almost six years old, moved to Toronto and I went to grade school and high school in Toronto and started in theatre there. Then, the whole family picked up and we moved to Los Angeles.
I guess I call home - you know, just until probably I would say last month, I was still looking longingly at Los Angeles and referring to it as home every time I hoped on a plane and left Vancouver, which is where we are shooting. But I think Vancouver is home at the moment.
Spending your first six years in Tanzania is obviously quite different from most people's experiences. How do you think that affected you?
Well, obviously it affected me. It's funny because my parents recently discovered a tape that they put together for my grandmother ages ago when my sisters and myself were quite young and we were still living in Tanzania. What was remarkable to me was I had the heaviest Tanzanian accent that you could possibly imagine and I had forgotten about that.
You know, when I moved to Toronto from Tanzania, we obviously felt a little bit different. My family is interracial, my father is Caucasian and grew up in Louisiana and my mom obviously is Tanzanian. And so, I don't know. I think it gave us a lot of pride on the one hand and a wonderful grounding because we knew that we were somehow different. Most people these days live in multicultural cities and everybody comes from somewhere, but it was to me always wonderful to be able to look back and see the roots in my family and how various they were given my father's background and my mother's background and that I am a product of that. I think it gave me a different perspective and I've definitely used it in the different characters I've portrayed and in portraying Teyla. And I think it was actually one of the things that really helped me win this particular role and also relate to her.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
My dad is a professor and my mom was a stay at home mom, pretty much, until she became a travel agent for a little bit. But the truth of the matter is, we were, all of us, artistic. My dad played the piano and also played the saxophone and my mom sings and all of my sisters and myself sing, we always played instruments. So we were kind of a performing family, even though we had the academic side and my parents are unique in the sense that they really did support all of my artistic endeavors and my sisters' artistic endeavors.
I think I got the first bug for it when I was in grade school and we were putting on this little production, which actually turned out to be a much bigger production. I don't know whether or not you are familiar with Toronto, but there is a hall in Toronto called Massey Hall - you know what, I haven't lived there for so long, I'm hoping it's still there, but it had been around for at least 100 years and was one of the main concert halls - and it was this big school production where all of the various schools in Toronto came and performed and I had a little solo where I had to step out into the middle of the stage and was absolutely petrified, my knees were buckling as I went up to the mic and, you know, once I opened my voice and looked out and saw the audience and felt the connection between what I was doing and the audience, I was very, very young but I remember feeling how magical that was. And I think that that was probably the beginning of my wanting to pursue acting, in any case, or really, seriously thinking about being a performer.
You were classically trained in ballet at The Russian Academy of Classical Ballet, you trained at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and you studied Shakespeare at Oxford. With such an impressive and well-rounded background, how did you decide which direction you wanted to take your career and how do you think those experiences influenced your career?
As I said, growing up, my family was always creative. And so, taking dance classes or music lessons was something that was encouraged and I always loved to dance, so that just kind of became a part of who I was. The piano just spun out of the fact that I enjoyed to sing, and so, might as well learn a musical instrument. How did all of that affect my choices? You mean, ultimately being where I am right now?
I don't know. I mean, I guess obviously it affects the way I approach my material, I suppose. I don't want to sound crazy humble, but it's true, I've kind of gone where the work is. As an actor, you're kind of jumping from part to part to part and you are, to a certain extent, at the whim of what is available, number one, and certainly in the environment we live in right now the studios have become sadly these kind of corporate monsters where it's like decision by masses, committee, so it's always an incredibly fortunate thing when you actually book work.
But, having said that, there certainly have been some parts that have come across my agent's desk and subsequently into my line of sight that I have said, "No, you know what, this isn't really right for me." I'm drawn to characters that have a depth, that are obviously three-dimensional and you keep digging and want to find out a little more about them. Perhaps that is an extension of that fact that I've had classical training. I don't know.
How tough was it to break into the business? How many auditions did you go to before you landed a role, and was there ever a point where you thought you may have to do something else with your life?
Oh god yeah. As I said, I started to pursue it professionally when I was quite young and I started getting roles early in high school and that kind of jazz when I was in Toronto doing little bits and pieces there. The funny thing is, several years before that, my parents enrolled us in this acting course in Toronto and my sisters got high praise and the teachers pointed to me, so my mother recalls, and says, "This one will never do anything. Get her out of the class, she's terrible." So that was like the early criticism. I guess I got a tough skin early on.
But in Toronto, I did a lot of theatre, predominantly musical theatre, and I did it with my sister, which was wonderful. When we moved to Los Angeles, everybody kind of assumed the streets were going to be lined with gold, there's going to be so many parts, it's going to be fantastic. You know, the truth is, whenever you go to a new city, it's hard to break in. It takes a while to get to know the casting agents and subsequently the directors of the shows, etc. It's not an easy business to break into and then it's not an easy business to sustain one's self in once you are in it. And I think it's those people who actually have a sense that this is something they are just going to stick their neck out and do for quite a while that actually make it. It's not an easy road for most people. There are obviously those people who just kind of luck into it and then all the sudden, everything is just rosy. But, for the most part, most actors really have to slug it out.
The truth is that yeah, there were some moments in Los Angeles in particular when I was thinking there's so many other things I might want to do, the world is so large and Los Angeles, when you step back to it, is quite small and perhaps I'm limiting myself. I had thought about going back actually and studying architecture because that was one of the things way, way back that I had contemplated doing. So I even interviewed with a couple of professors at UCLA and started thinking strongly about doing that. And that was around about the time that I auditioned to go and study Shakespeare in Oxford because I was just so - maybe annoyed is not the right word for it, but that's what I'm going to use at the moment - with the material that I was being presented with and just being bummed out about getting jobs that ultimately I wouldn't even enjoy watching, so I needed to gain some perspective. The truth is that right before I booked this particular role, I had told everybody that it was going to be my last pilot season and I was just going to travel for a while. And this was the very first audition of that pilot season and here I am, so life is colorful.
You've appeared on E.R., Charmed and Touched By An Angel. Talk about those experiences and which show you enjoyed working on the most? Who was your favorite actor or actress to work with during any of those shows?
Obviously, the characters are so varied. I enjoyed portraying each character. I remember, Touched By An Angel
is not a show that I had watched before, it was not a show that pulled me to the television, but obviously it had a huge fan base and it was shot in Utah, it was the very first time that I went to Utah, didn't know what to expect, but the truth of the matter is, aside from the character which was a dancer who ended up losing the use of one of her legs, which I could relate to the dancer part obviously and feel great sympathy for the character for losing that ability, but aside from that, the crew I remember them just being absolutely amazing. It was one of the most lovely, joyous, supportive sets that I had ever worked on.