Sunday, October 18, 2009

In Their Own Words: Stephanie Romanov

(Stephanie Romanov, Wikipedia,
taken from RavenU page at Flickr.

If I have any questions about character motivations on Angel, when all else fails, I check out old interviews to see what the actors had to say.

My biggest (intertwined) questions about Angel: The Series have always been, did Wesley and Lilah really love each other, and did they have a real relationship? Oddly enough, I'm still obsessed with these ideas even though I've been answering with a resounding YES to both questions ever since I started watching their scenes together.

I wrote way back in April in my "What's Love Got To Do With It?" post that:
Let's say you have two people who call each other up to arrange times to meet, seem to miss each other when they're apart, can relax in each other's company, and experience a deep soulful connection while having sex. What part of this description doesn't imply a loving relationship?
Stephanie Romanov and Alexis Denisof both strike me as having put a lot of thought into their roles, so I'm happy to post some of their interview excerpts. Today I'll concentrate on Stephanie, and I'll feature Alexis in my next post. (Update: Here's the post I did featuring Alexis' thoughts about the Wesley/Lilah relationship.)

Stephanie Romanov. One source of information is a Sci-Fi Talk podcast she recorded in the form of a phone interview several years ago, around the time Season 5 production was finishing up for Angel. (2004?) Stephanie had already left the series at that point, but you could tell from her conversation with host Tony Tellado that the show was still very much a part of her.

I've blogged about this particular podcast before, and I highly recommend you listen to it if you're a Stephanie Romanov/Lilah Morgan fan. Stephanie liberally sprinkled her interview with infectious laughter, while also coming across as being warm, intelligent, and funny. I wish I could find more podcasts of her online. (Update 2/10/10: Sadly, the podcast is no longer online.)

Stephanie talked about various projects she was involved with, but at one point during the podcast she gave a wonderfully detailed description of the mental process she goes through when she prepares for a movie role. Here are the usual disclaimers: I apologize in advance for any transcription errors; I took the liberty of doing mild rewrites in order to make her answers look better in written form; any minor cuts I made are indicated with ".....", etc.

Stephanie: "When you have to step into the shoes of these dark characters, what I find is that for a few weeks beforehand you start slowly slipping into the skin of that person until....actually you're filming, and then it's always with you. It's such a weird thing to describe but it's so cool when you're able to do it because it's so ingrained in there. I'm able to step out of it even when I'm in between shots. Like I know very well where that place is in me and then who I am outside of it. But there certainly is a darkness that stays with you all times even though.......I can be filming or whatever in between doing it. And then once you've finished...it's almost like you've been fighting the flu for a while and you just have to rest. So you just kind of rest your body and let it seep back out of you. It's an interesting process, it's kind of cool."

(Tony Tellado pointed out she must learn a little bit about herself during the process. She replied:)

"You have to go ahead and ask yourself these same questions....what is it that you most want to hide. What is it that was most disturbing in your [life] and try to make the parallels so that it's as true as possible."
Stephanie might not prepare for extended TV roles quite the same way, simply because it must be difficult to stay in character during the filming of an entire series. However, presumably, she goes through a similar process. What I took out of this part of the interview is that Stephanie is quite serious about preparing for her roles and puts a lot of thought into her characters. She's not simply showing up to read a few lines and forgetting about things until she's required to show up for the next film shoot.

(After giving us some of her general thoughts about Angel, Tellado mentioned that the series took a strange turn that no one expected when she started hooking up with Wesley.)

Stephanie: "I know. Where did that come from? ....... I don't think we'd even been on-screen together. So it was an odd direction to go in for sure."

(Tellado then mentioned that Alexis took Wesley into an unusual direction in which he showed a darker side that almost seemed to relate to Lilah).

Stephanie:"It totally took his character on a 180 degree turn, as far as who he was and what his moral code was and what he believed he was fighting for.....It's like growing up. You believe everybody's good and if you work hard everything will be fine, then you have all these discoveries that you never thought of, and I think that's kind of the backdrop for Wesley. He kind of grew up."

(A little later, Tellado mentioned that he loved the "burning of the contract" scene, where Wesley tried to release her from her "in perpetuity" contract with Wolfram & Hart.)

Stephanie: It was surprising to me when they threw us together, then I thought, OK, Lilah is using him.....And then I found through our filming and going there she actually was falling for him a bit.....It happened really organically, since..... certainly hadn't scored it that way and then it just started happening as I go "Wow, she really cares about him". And it's weird when you're the she you're talking about, but it's not you, but it's this thing, but she really had such a huge presence in me that those things would just happen kind of magically. It made even that scene of burning the contract, or him trying to release her that much more kind of effective.........I think that was the first time someone put themself out for her. So I felt it was really kind of a nice dramatic moment."
Stephanie talked quite a bit more about Angel than what I'm posting here. So again, make sure you listen to her podcast.

Wesley's character may have made a 180-degree turn, but I don't think for a minute that his moral code took a 180-degree turn. He may have had to re-examine his beliefs and lifetime assumptions about what constituted right and wrong, but any "turns" he took in his beliefs were more like necessary adjustments he needed to make after he recalibrated his moral compass.

I don't believe either the interviewer or Stephanie were trying to infer that Wesley was becoming Evil, but it does bring out a point I've been thinking about for a while regarding the differences between watching an original series on a weekly basis, with long pauses in between episodes and seasons, and watching a series on a daily basis, where the suspense is relieved quite quickly. I can imagine during the original airdates, it might have been up in the air for viewers as to what direction Wesley was headed into. Wesley took a good long look at (Lilah's gift of) Dante's Inferno quite late in Season 3, which indicated that he could have possibly been thinking "I'm a worthless sinner who's been cast out by my friends. Screw them all. I'm going to Wolfram & Hart." Although Wesley insulted Lilah in the very last episode of the season, he did say those mean things to her after they had just finished having sex.

The scene gave no clear indication that Wesley was turning Evil, but I'm sure a lot of people were guessing that was the direction he was turning during the long summer break. It wasn't until the beginning of Season 4 the following October that people could breathe a sigh of relief that Wesley was still one of the Good Guys when "Deep Down" was aired.

This is a roundabout way of saying that if you had been trying to guess for several months whether Wesley was still Good or if he was turning Evil, it would be easy for many to believe that that he actually became Evil, or at least came really close. If you are watching the series on a daily basis, particularly when I was watching two episodes a day last spring, in certain ways it's a lot easier to see the overall picture much more clearly when the situations resolve themselves almost as soon as they are introduced. Although, for the sake of convenience, (or if you had to live through that period of doubt for several months), it would be easy to say that Wesley "flirted with Evil", I don't think that really happened at all.

Moving on to other things, I really liked Stephanie Romanov's description of Wesley's character development as "growing up". I kind of scoffed at the analogy at first, but it made a lot more sense to me after I let it rattle around in my brain for a little while. It was easy to see that before the Connor kidnapping, even though Wesley was hunting demons and was otherwise on the battlefield participating in the fight between Good and Evil, he still had a lot to learn. His Watcher Academy training infused him with a great deal of youthful enthusiasm, but little in the way of providing him guidance with how to operate in the real world. Wesley had a clear vision of the Mission and the Good Fight, yet even his [implied] thoughts about "shades of gray" bordered on the naive.

After Wesley "grew up", practically overnight, that appealing youthful idealism was gone forever, to be eventually replaced by a more mature pragmatic outlook on life.

Here are excerpts from another phone interview with Stephanie Romanov that was conducted in 2004 at probably roughly the same time that the Sci-Fi Talk podcast was recorded. (Original source: horror-web.com).

HW: Do you think, given more time, Wesley was close to bringing you over to the 'brighter' side?

Stephanie: No, because it wasn't really a possibility. There was no way to escape it, even when he tried to burn my contract and it comes back. I think she always knew there was no escape from it, but there was maybe a part of her heart that wished there was. And so it didn't just play on Wesley, it played on her and brought her a lot closer to her human side than she'd been to in a long time. It was surprising to me. When I read it and saw the arc with Wesley I thought she was just playing him, but when we started filming she started falling for him. It wasn't something that was planned but it was interesting, I think he touched her somewhere.

HW: One particular scene that I always loved is you dressed up as Fred...

Stephanie: [laughs] that was my favorite! [lots of laughing from both]

HW: But from the character's point of view, was it being a smart aleck or was it jealousy?

Stephanie: I think it was jealously, [sic] absolutely. Feeling threatened, so you make a joke out of that which hurts you. And if she can present it right in his face, she can get a better clue as to how much of a threat it is. It was also trying to get the inside scoop.
HW: How do you feel about the difference between acting and producing?

Stephanie: I love the creative process and I love team work, and when you're producing and developing you get to work with different people at different levels, and I enjoy that very much. Especially since the things I'm working on, a lot of them were my ideas, and then trying to [do] the research. I love that. I love human psychology, so this just brings be [sic] to all sorts of different people and the way they're wired and that's always something that I've always loved. And which also serves in the acting, that's what helped me play so many different types of characters. I've known and lived all over the world, and known all kinds of different kinds of people. Always asking them what they're about. It's very interesting to me 'what makes people tick' and what motivates them. What motivates them to good choices, bad choices, weakness, the way the mind works, a victim's mentality, a survivor's mentality, the works. So I think producing and creating ideas of things that I'm interested in, it draws me to different types of people that I get to learn about.

I love psychology, the inner workings of the human mind. It's so complex and beautiful. That's why I got into acting, because I wanted to play all these different types of people that I've met. From the time I was a little girl, my mother said I knew everyone within a mile radius of our house from the time I was five. I was just 'hi, what's your name? what do you do? Blah blah blah.' [laughs] And I'm still kind of like that. I spend most of my time alone, and I build up my own inner stuff and then go out and ask about others. You have to do a lot of introspection to understand the human psyche because you have to start with you. [laughs] If you want to know the truth - in a nutshell."
First, I loved her explanation of Lilah's reasoning for dressing like Fred. Maybe she couldn't admit to being "in love" with Wesley, but she couldn't deny her sense of entitlement of ownership rights over him.

In both of the above interviews, Stephanie emphasized that at the beginning of the story arc, she thought Lilah was simply sleeping with Wesley for information. It gradually dawned on Stephanie that her character was falling for Wesley. (Notice how she carefully avoided saying "falling in love" with Wesley.) I'm curious to find out if the writers knew all along Lilah would start "falling" for Wesley, or if it was just as much an organic process for them as well.

I've read someplace else that Stephanie doesn't consider herself to be a method actress, yet she puts in a great deal of effort to try to put herself as close as possible in the same places as her characters. She's obviously an enthusiastic student of the human condition. I can't help but compare the process she goes through to transform herself to moments within the Angelverse where bodies were being hijacked by other entities, e.g., Cordelia being taken over by Jasmine, and Angel being taken over by Angelus (and vice versa). The person being hijacked is fully aware of being taken over, and can feel every thought and emotion being experienced by the hijacker. As Illyria found out after taking over Fred's body (this is an exception since, as far as we know, Fred had no awareness of the process after the takeover), feeling another person's emotions is still a profoundly moving experience no matter how much of a feeling of self you still manage to maintain.

Interestingly enough, I have not been able to find any interviews where either Stephanie Romanov or Alexis Denisof talked directly about how they related to each other as actors during the filming (except for some delightful anecdotes involving Stephanie's breast-covering pasties that she wore while performing her semi-nude scenes.) One assumes there was a certain degree of awkwardness (tension?) between the recently-married Stephanie and the soon-to-be-married Alexis that was relieved by performing practical jokes. One also assumes they maintained a "the less we talk about it the better" attitude during the filming. Stephanie as Lilah has talked a great deal about the emotional process, although Stephanie as Stephanie hasn't been nearly as forthcoming.

Regardless of how it came about, the final product was sensational! I have never been so taken in by the smoldering sexual chemistry between two characters/actors before. I really wish I could win some sort of contest where I could talk to a director, writer, one of the actors or Joss Whedon himself to find out how they were able to pull off this feat.

I also wonder if the editing process itself, in addition to their flawless acting, was a key to their remarkable on-screen chemistry. According to an audio commentary by Jane Espenson from Season 1's "Rm w/a Vu", drama series like Angel are filmed at a very slow pace, with a lot of the action and excitement produced via the editing process. I also recently re-watched an excellent, fast-paced YouTube video that was put together by a Wesley/Lilah fan. The finished product showed a chemistry that was even more intense than what appeared in the actual series, further revealing the magic and miracles of the editing process. (Note: I could see the details of the video a lot better after I downloaded it to my MP3 player.)

It's widely reported (and Stephanie herself talks about it in the podcast) that she almost didn't return in Season 4 of Angel because of a salary dispute. Here's excerpts from an undated City of Angel post regarding a Flashback Weekend event that took place in Chicago.

In her role as Lilah Morgan, Stephanie had one of the most captivating storylines which started in the Season 3 finale Tomorrow and continued throughout Season 4 until her unfortunate and untimely death at the hands of Cordelia in the mid-season episode Calvary. The storyline referred to is of course the surprising yet fascinating 'relationship' Lilah developed with Angel Investigation's own Judas Iscariot, Wesley Wyndham-Price (Alexis Denisof). As an audience, the fans were shocked at the pairing and so it was only natural that a large proportion of the questions asked of Stephanie related to the unusual liaison but did the storyline have the same impact on Stephanie as it seemed to have on everybody else? "I was completely surprised," she admitted when asked, "I remember negotiating a contract because it was close to getting a new season. I wasn't going to come back because they weren't paying me enough, it was ridiculous and I said, 'You guys have got to up the ante,' and they kept saying this is our last offer, take it or leave it and I said, 'Ok fine.' They didn't tell me about the storyline and I had no idea about the arc and Alexis called me at home and he said, 'Do you not want to work with me?' I was like what are you talking about, nobody's called, nobody's talked to me and then he told me about the storyline. Finally one of the producers who hadn't called, called me and realized I wasn't asking for an exorbitant amount of money and they give the OK but I first heard about it through Alexis. It was very intriguing I thought."
It's always a little disheartening when the cold realities of business intrude on the creative process. I can just imagine the mindset of the executives who decided to withhold vital information from Stephanie as a negotiating tactic.

With Stephanie back on board and the storyline now in place, the most intriguing thing to watch was the chemistry between Lilah and Wesley mature from an untrusting and reluctant partnership based on sex, manipulation and exploitation to a 'relationship' where actual feelings were involved. Considering how cold and calculating Lilah could be, was it a shock that Lilah began to have feelings for Wesley? "It was because I originally scored the arc as she wanted something from him, she wanted information, she likes power. She was just trying to gain power and in the process of filming and actually doing the scenes, Lilah started to care for him which was weird, it was beyond my control, it wasn't anything I had planned and there were actually very tender moments between the characters and that was kind of a happy surprise." Yet Lilah is still evil at the core and will do anything for personal gain. If push came to shove, could Lilah have killed or hurt Wesley if the Wolfram & Hart Senior Partners had asked her to? "That's a very good question," Stephanie ponders yet the 'Lilah' look on her face gives away the answer without the need for words, it is obviously a resounding yes. Innocently she mocks how she may break the news to her lover, "Wesley, I'm sorry," she says sweetly before menacingly making the motion of death."
Again, the reference to Stephanie's surprise that her character was was actually falling for Wesley, and how the process appeared to occur outside of her control.

Despite his better judgment and momentarily casting aside his true feelings for a certain Texan scientist, Wesley too became emotionally attached to Lilah leading to one of the highlights from Season 4 in the episode Salvage where Wesley had the grisly task of dispatching Lilah's corpse. "That was a really unexpectedly moving scene," Stephanie comments, "I mean Wesley is actually talking about his feelings in a way that I don't think has been exposed before and the chemistry of the moment was very cool and also the special effects thing on the table, I have to say was pretty cool." So does she think secretly Wesley still carries the signed $1 bill as proof of their relationship in his wallet? Stephanie smiles and says, "Absolutely!" Lilah Morgan is a beautifully complex character yet at the same time a relatively straightforward one. She's evil plain and simple but if Lilah sang for Lorne, what does Stephanie think he'd see? "I don't know what he'd see," she replied honestly, "Probably I would say her childhood and what has brought her to where she is now, kind of lonely and isolated. I have a picture that she was very isolated and had to become a survivor, she had to take care of herself and maybe he would have seen the hard part of her life that made her make the choices that she made, that's my guess." If she were to allow Lorne to read her future, what song would Lilah sing? Stephanie grins, bowing her head, she looks coyly through her eyelashes and sings into the microphone, "Bad to the Bone."
This interview excerpt is much more lighthearted than the others, seeing as how Stephanie Romanov was also simultaneously putting on a performance for an audience at the same time. However, I'm reasonably certain that even though Lilah had strong feelings for Wesley, she softened up a bit, and perhaps even hoped that some day she could allow herself to daydream about a future together, at the end of the day, they would always be on opposite sides.

Oddly enough, I'm not sure that they even started out as mutual enemies. Wesley might have had strong feelings against Lilah, perhaps even hatred for her, because of all of the truly Evil deeds she performed on behalf of Wolfram & Hart. Lilah probably did not feel any personal enmity toward Wesley, and may have simply regarded him as she would any other person who sat across the table from her in tough contract negotiations. I'm still convinced that Lilah truly did fall in love with Wesley and considered what they had to be a "relationship", as evidenced by her jealousy, the anger she felt during their breakup, and the hurt she was feeling at the way Wesley was treating her after she returned from the dead, first at the Hyperion Hotel, and then at the Wolfram & Hart offices. The wonderful "burning the contract" scene must have given her character considerable closure and validation that whatever they had going on with each other (love? a relationship? a connection?), had been very real.

Closing Thoughts. Do I have a right to declare that two people love each other even when they both maintain it isn't true? Even if it's clearly obvious to everyone that the two people involved are totally denying their feelings and doing everything within their powers to keep all of their emotions in check? Are buried feelings the same as genuine feelings brought up to the surface? Think of how Angel and Cordelia totally denied they meant anything to each other even though their love was as plain as day, particularly as seen by Lorne, Fred and Groo.

2 comments:

Lauren Johnson said...

At first I thought Lilah was a plot device to show the viewer just how dark Wesley was going and then I thought she was a convenient plot device when she was using his ties with AI to further herself at WF&H.

I thought this because the only other time we actually saw something more from Lilah was in Billy, but when Wesley and her started their relationship you got to see different sides of both characters.

It was well done, I was afraid they'd ruin it because of the large potential they had to do so, but with moments like Wesley telling her to keep her glasses on and her reaction - those moments are almost priceless.

Miriam said...

Under the category of "Damn, I wish I bookmarked it", I ran across an Alexis Denisof interview about a week ago that seemed to have been conducted somewhere between the filming of Seasons 3 and 4. In it, he mentioned that the producers were originally only going to film a few Wesley/Lilah scenes, but when they saw that things were going so well they decided to film several more scenes with the two of them.

I'm guessing that it was orginally just like you said; a plot device to advance whatever they were pushing at the time. I'm also guessing that once the creators edited the footage they realized they had a much bigger story on their hands. This might have been the "organic" process Stephanie Romanov spoke about in her interviews.