Home TVInterviews Interview: Batwoman’s Rachel Skarsten

Interview: Batwoman’s Rachel Skarsten

by Charles Trapunski

Unbelievably, we had sat down with Meagan Tandy, Dougray Scott, Sam Littlefield, and with almost all of her Acquainted co-stars, but not previously with Rachel Skarsten, or, more unbelievably, any of the Batwoman cast for Batwoman. Clearly we were in need of some Rachel Skarsten, and on a recent Tuesday afternoon, from her quarantine home in Toronto, boy, did we make up for this and then some. If you haven’t been watching Batwoman on The CW and Showcase, you’re missing a transformative performance by Skarsten as Alice, perhaps the antagonist, but so much more than that.

She previewed the season finale episode to us in great detail, and the following is a condensed and edited version of our chat with Batwoman‘s hilarious and heartfelt Rachel Skarsten.

Brief Take: Hi Rachel! How are you? Guess who I interviewed the other day, for another project? Your frequent scene partner Sam Littlefield.

Rachel Skarsten: Awww! Sam is one of those people I feel like I will take with me from this show. You become close to people and you film and then life goes on, and it’s nothing bad but you just stop talking, and Sam is…he’s a special one. I really love him.

BT: Batwoman has been amazing since the beginning, but the Arkham scenes have been especially fun to watch. Did you know that it was going to end up here?

RS: Well Sam and Gabriel Mann are incredibly talented and it felt like I was a ninth grader playing with twelfth graders or something, like it was an education for me every time I worked with them and they made me step up what I was doing. There’s that one scene in which Tommy Elliot (Mann) comes into the group therapy session and he’s obsessed with Bruce Wayne and he’s talking and having a spaz, really and truly Sam and I sat there watching him do it, because we’re sitting in the circle and the cameras are not on us, they’re on him, and then [chuckles] they yelled: “Cut!” and Sam and I both looked at each other, and you could tell that both of us were like: “We gotta bring our A games right now!”, [laughs] he was so good. But we just have an instant chemistry the three of us, like we really got on and we’d hang out outside of set together. I loved going to work with the two of them every day, both creatively but also for who they were as people, and I feel like that really translates on screen.

BT: What about your on and off screen dynamic with Camrus Johnson, as it’s great to see Luke and Alice interact more often?

RS: Yeah, so Cam was the first…I’d met Ruby in my test, but Cam was the first person that I’d met once I’d gotten the part and with whom I spent any sort of significant time. We were brought up to Vancouver early and we sort of just started hanging out, and right away I knew that Cam was going to be like a brother to me. He just got it and I appreciated him in so many different situations. He also is so talented and I have a real respect for him in that sense as well, but yeah [chuckles] we’ve become super tight, but I would say that’s from the beginning, like even predating the pilot for commencement and we haven’t really looked back. We actually did a panel together recently and they were like: “You have to cut it off!”. Like: [chuckling] “Stop it’, the panel’s over time, stop talking!”, and we’re just riffing off each other [laughs], we could do it for days. [laughs] So with him, I never got a chance really as Alice to work with him and it was such a treat to get to do work with him at that. However, I will say that both of us were so nervous the first scene that we did together because we’d been friends for months at this point and both respected what the other had done and it was funny, because at one point, Cam was like: “I just don’t want to mess up in front of you”, and I was like: “No, me neither! I just want you to be proud of me!”, and he was like: “Me too!”. [laughs] So the first scene was a bit nerve-racking, but it was good. [laughs]

BT: You seem to get along with many people with whom you work. I’m thinking of Adelaide Kane in particular, how does building friendships off screen reflect on your work on screen?

RS: Well with Adelaide, I felt very lucky to be on a show led by her because I really believe that the lead of the show sets the tone of how it’s going to be, and she did that with such an effortless grace and was instantly…I mean I was the new kid on the block when I came into Reign, they’d been doing it for two seasons and she was instantly welcoming of me, and we just hit it off right away. That’s as much a credit to her as it is to me, and yeah, she’s one of my best friends, my close Addy. [chuckles] But I think that it’s really important, especially on a show like Batwoman, in which none of us are from Vancouver and we’re all plopped down there for 10 and a half months of the year, and speaking of isolating, it can be very isolating and lonely, and so I think that it’s really lovely to cultivate this feeling of family within a cast. That is definitely always my goal – to build community within a cast and a bond and a friendship, because, also, over the course of a show, no one understands your experience really like your cast mates- your partner doesn’t, your friends back at home don’t, it’s that cast that understands that snapshot of time in your life. So yeah, it’s definitely on purpose that I want to build those friendships, for sure.

BT: Speaking of family, your brother said that you’re perfect for this role, and you seem to capture both sides of this character so well. 

RS: [laughs] Well, my Mom says that I always play the redeemable bitch very well. I think that’s true. I love playing the bad guys, I prefer playing the bad guys or characters with an element of bad to them because it’s just more fun. But I always want them to be redeemable and be grounded. Yeah, I think that she’s very accurate when she says that, and I think that my brother said it probably because he grew up with me and he thinks I’m crazy, and also [chuckles] I think that I have a tendency to just sort of not control what my face is doing and that lends itself very nicely to the character. [laughs]

BT: We ended this past episode on a cliffhanger in which you introduced Kryponite as a weapon, which was a great callback to the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Could you preview the season finale episode in terms of what is coming up?

RS: Yeah, you know, we got really fortunate in a way because this was not intended to be our finale, we had two more episodes. However, this episode has an amazing cliffhanger to it and that’s a credit to (showrunner) Caroline (Dries), she doesn’t hold back every episode, she drops just the most incredible [laughs] bomb on everyone. But this is a really pivotal episode for Alice because she says a really definitive goodbye, she really closes the door on one thing and then opens a door on another and unleashes what I think will change a lot of things for a lot of other characters. So…yeah! [laughs] She’s up to a lot in this episode, [laughs] that’s for sure!

BT: When you essentially got your start as Black Canary on Birds of Prey, has this moment felt like a homecoming of sorts?

RS: Well, truthfully, it’s been a very surreal homecoming because I’m coming back to Warner Brothers, I’m coming back to DC Comics. It’s a very different character so the comparison sort of ends there, because [chuckles] honestly, they could not be further on either side of the spectrum. It was also to be very real, after Birds of Prey I left acting, it was really important to me to go to university and have the experiences of 18-year-olds. When an 18-year-old is supposed to have those experiences, I think that our business, more often than not, robs children of those experiences. And I was told in no uncertain terms when I left by a majority of people in the business that I would never again reclaim that level of success or that kind of role, and for me it was this kind of victory in coming back and getting the opportunity to do this. And actually Peter Roth, who is the head of Warner Brothers, he cast me in Birds of Prey, and when I went in for my test, he was the most lovely man when I worked on Birds of Prey, I just adored Peter. And when I came back, all these years later and I came home for my test for Batwoman and Peter Roth was sitting there and they would sort of chat with you a little bit before you  start, and he was sort of looking at me and he says: “I know you”. And I [chuckles] said: “Yeah, you do! I was here [laughs] 18 years ago or whatever for Birds of Prey“. And his eyes went wide and he said: “RACHEL?”. It was so lovely. So I can’t even tell you as of layers of homecoming this was for me and how deeply satisfying it was not only creatively, but just personally.

BT: Do you feel a sense of control in the character that you’re playing, in how you choose to approach Alice?

RS: I like to think that while Alice, you know, I use the word ‘crazy’, but to me, Alice is not so much crazy, she is just coming from a place of brokenness. I like to play Alice as though she is fully aware and in control of the dial of crazy that she turns up and down to manipulate those people around her. Now that doesn’t mean that this trauma isn’t there and those feelings aren’t real, but I think Alice is very crafty and very smart and always three steps ahead of anyone with whom she’s in a room, and I do think that 95 per cent of the time, what Alice does is completely by way of the control of Alice. There are a few times in which I’ve really tried to make it so that there are entirely vulnerable moments for Alice and she’s not in control, but that’s an uncomfortable position for her and I don’t think that she likes to be in that, so, yeah, I think that she’s very, very self-aware.

BT: There is something relatable in Alice, that despite her vulnerability, she’s not completely defeated.

RS: Yeah, because I mean I think there’s a difference between being a victim and playing someone who’s vulnerable. I don’t think that vulnerability is a weakness or something that should be looked down upon. I don’t think that it makes you a victim or all these sorts of negative things. You can be very powerful in your vulnerability, and I like to play characters and women not as victims of their circumstance, I mean they can be sad, they can be vulnerable, they can have all of these feelings and be imperfect, but they’re all powerful women within their own right. So they are, in that essence, never really a victim.

BT: You have many former co-stars and colleagues in HomeCon. Who have you yet to work with at HomeCon that is someone you’d like to in the future?

RS: Well one of them would be Michael Rooker. I’m obsessed with The Walking Dead, I love that show, I’ve loved him in Guardians of the Galaxy, I met him a few times prior to this, he’s just the most down-to-earth lovely man. And we just announced today, I’d been dying to say this, but Nathan Fillion is going to do HomeCon. He’s a great Canadian boy. I think he’s so funny and I loved him on Castle. He would also be a dream to work with.

BT: What have you enjoyed about the positive feedback to this series?

RS: This show, overall, I think that I really love being part of shows that empower people to embrace who they are. Obviously this is a very LGBTQ positive show and I don’t play an LGBTQ character, but seeing people who are empowered to come out to their parents or be more authentic to who they are, that’s a gift beyond words. I was lucky enough to have that on Lost Girl as well. In terms of Alice, I love that people enjoy her so much, that’s what we want, that’s why we’re actors, because we want people to be transported into another world. For whatever amount of time they spend with you on screen, they laugh with you, they cry with you, they are completely and wholly entertained. I have been tickled with how people have loved Alice. I guess that’s the most beautiful, and really and truly without being trite, [laughs] the most beautiful thing you can ask for as an artist.

The season finale of Batwoman airs Sunday, May 17 at 8 p.m. ET on Showcase, and viewers can stream the full season from the beginning on STACKTV and the Global TV app.

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Brief Take