JEWEL STAITE Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
September 15, 2005
In this exclusive interview, actress Jewel Staite talks about her roles on Firefly (and its subsequent theatrical spinoff Serenity), Wonderfalls, and Da Vinci's Inquest.
RadioFree.com: How are you doing today?
JEWEL: I'm good!
This should probably be an obvious answer, but I'm easily confused--what's the correct pronunciation of your last name?
"State." Like the United States.
I'm reluctant to ask this, but this question has been occasionally posed on message boards: What's your ethnic background?
Well, I'm quite...
I hate asking!
No, no, no, that's okay! That's totally fine. I'm quite a mix of things. [laughs] I'm British, I'm Irish, I'm French Canadian, and I have a little bit of Native Indian in me. Iroquois Indian.
You had a recurring guest role on the acclaimed Canadian crime drama Da Vinci's Inquest, which is just now making its way to the US. Were you only on the first two seasons?
I think I was on the first three or four. I mean, they would bring me back for an episode here and there when I was in town, when I wasn't working on something else. But they wouldn't give me very much notice, so sometimes I had to say no, I couldn't do it.
Is it possible that your Firefly character Kaylee is the absolutely sweetest character ever written in the history of television? [Gee, that's not hyperbole, is it?]
[coyly] She's pretty sweet! And it's very genuine. That's what I love the most about her, is that she's completely genuine in that sweetness, and that sort of wholesome vibe that she gives off. She has no secret agenda. It's all right out on the table. She wears her heart on her sleeve. I love that about her.
At the Serenity screening I attended, your name and Adam Baldwin's name got the biggest applause during the opening credits.
Really? Oh, cool! That's awesome!
Now, we all know why people like Adam's character, Jayne. He's hilariously uncouth and selfish...
You love to hate him!
But what do you think it is about Kaylee that fans love so much?
I think it's that genuine quality in her. I think it's the fact that everyone trusts Kaylee, and she's easy to identify with. People find her warm. I've heard her described as the heart of the ship. She loves that life. She loves being on that ship. She loves all of those people. And she's the only one who loves all of them incredibly genuinely.
One of your scenes also got one of the biggest laughs of the entire film...
You know the line I'm talking about. The "twixt my nethers" rant...
Yeah! That was a fun line!
What was your impression of that speech when you first read it?
Oh, I died laughing! I love when Joss writes Kaylee to be surprising, and graphic, and just too honest. I love that about her. I love that she's a little crass. I love that she's not the classiest girl in the world. I love that she loves sex even though she's this doe-eyed, innocent sweetie. She knows a lot more than she lets on, I think.
Is it true that you intentionally gained weight for your Firefly role?
I did. I was asked to put on weight. [Firefly creator Joss Whedon] felt that Kaylee would be a more voluptuous type of girl. He wanted her to look like she really enjoyed life. She really indulged in all that life had to offer, which I appreciated. I'm naturally thin. I'm 23. My metabolism is incredibly fast right now. I'm sure things will change. And so he asked me to put on 15 to 20 pounds. So I did. I put on about 15 pounds. And I ate and I ate and I ate and I ate for about three weeks. They only gave me three weeks, and then I was on set. And I struggled to keep it on for the whole duration of the series. And then I lost the weight naturally after we were canceled. And when we got greenlit to do Serenity, Joss said, "By the way, don't worry about it, I'm not going to ask you to do it again." Because it was tough for me! It was hard. It made me feel sluggish. It just wasn't natural for my body type. And you know, when you're doing something like that, when you're force feeding yourself, when you're eating when you're full, you're eating before you go to sleep, it's not entirely healthy. And I can't imagine what my cholesterol level was like, because all I was eating was cake and ice cream and bacon and burgers and fries dipped in mayonnaise. I'm telling you, I was gorging myself!
When was this element of the character presented to you?
Well, basically, when I read the breakdown of the characters before I auditioned, and I read Kaylee's synopsis, she was described as chubby. And I thought, "Well, I'm not chubby. I wonder if I'm going to get this?" And when I did get the role, immediately they said, "Listen, before we move forward, this is something that Joss requires. This is something that he wants to see in the role. Would you be willing to gain a few pounds?"
Did you audition only for Kaylee? With ensemble shows, you sometimes hear about actors trying out for roles other than the one they ultimate get.
Yeah! Sometimes that happens. No, I only auditioned for Kaylee. And when I read that breakdown and I saw the chubby comment and a couple of other comments, and then I read the River synopsis, I thought, "Wow, that's a very cool character. I would love to audition for that." And I ran it by my agent, who I think--I think--in turn, ran it by Joss' people. And they said, "No, no, no...She's a Kaylee! She's a Kaylee!" I thought, "Okay, fine," put it on tape, and lo and behold, little did I know that I was in fact his vision of the character.
Firefly dialogue is noted for being an eclectic mix of archaic language and Chinese phrases. Does all of that flow off your tongue pretty well, or is it cumbersome?
Hmmm...it's a little tough. It's not the easiest type of dialogue to master in the world. But I think the most difficult part for me was the technobabble. The engine-speak. Because that is all made up! I have no idea what I'm saying. I don't think Joss knows what I'm saying. I think they throw in some words in there that sound really great, and I do my absolute best to make them as believable as possible. But when it comes right down to it, I'm lost. [laughs] I really don't know what I'm saying.
In addition to Firefly, you've also appeared in another awesome television series: Wonderfalls.
That's a great show.
I love that show.
Let's take a look at your Wonderfalls character...
Heidi! "Heidi Ho"! [laughs]
Do you think she is evil, or misunderstood? Or is she just a habitual liar?
No, I think Heidi is misunderstood. I think she's incredibly selfish. I think she's used to getting her way, and because of that, she expects it. And when she's not getting her way and she's not happy, she blames everyone around her. In her mind, she's not a villain. And you know, I heard Adam Baldwin say this once--as an actor, when you're playing a villain, it's very important to think of yourself as the hero. Because villains don't think of themselves as scary villains.
They're more intimidating...
...when they think they're right! When they think that their actions are justified. So that's what made Heidi so disgusting, is that she thought that this was the way to behave. And if she wanted to behave that way, that was just fine and dandy, and people should accept it.
So where do you fall on the personality spectrum, with the extremes of Heidi and Kaylee on each end?
Oh, I think I lean more towards Kaylee. I'm genuine like Kaylee, and I'm very honest like Kaylee is. And I wear my heart on my sleeve. And I'm very emotional like she is, and I get attached to things very easily. I'm practical like Heidi is. I love fashion like Heidi does. [grins] I'm a little bit materialistic like Heidi is. But I hope that's where the similarities end with me and that character. [laughs]
Do you still live in Vancouver?
Are you doing a lot of traveling to sci-fi conventions in support of Serenity?
Yeah, there's been a lot of that. I mean, we've been doing a lot of that to promote the movie, of course, and get the word out as much as possible, and keep that buzz going with the fans that we already have.
And these conventions have largely been positive experiences?
Very. If they weren't, I wouldn't go back. The response that we get is so gratifying and so amazing. You know, actors have incredibly fragile egos, and when your show is canceled and you've fallen madly in love with that show, it's really, really hard to take. And seeing that these people love it as much as I do and appreciate it as much as I do is heartwarming. It's nice.
Do you prefer doing television or film?
They both have their pros and cons. With a movie, you have a lot of time to do what you want to do. You have a lot of rehearsal time. You sort of bond with the cast, but you know when the end is going to come. So you don't necessarily get your heart broken. It's a project. You finish it and you move on. With a series, you bond with that cast. You bond with the crew. But you always have that fear that you could possibly get canceled and the plug could be pulled and that could be the end of it. [laughs] I don't know. I've always loved doing TV. I mean, there's something to be said about having a regular job. But I'm not sure. I think it all depends on the script at this point. I'm being really picky. And I think I have to be at this point.
It's nice to have that luxury.
Well, at the moment I do. [laughs] That could change, but...well, hopefully it won't!
What's your connection with the Hawaiian island of Maui?
When I was a baby, we moved there. My grandparents managed a hotel, and we were there for four and a half years. And then we moved back to Canada when it came time for me to start school. I love that place! I go back at least once a year. I was married there. That's where I plan to buy my next house. It's just an incredible, enchanting place. I can't stay away from it. [laughs]