Stephanie Leonidas as Irisa and Grant Bowler as Joshua Nolan on DEFIANCE | © 2014 Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

Stephanie Leonidas as Irisa and Grant Bowler as Joshua Nolan on DEFIANCE | © 2014 Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

In DEFIANCE, now in its second season on Syfy, Thursdays at 8 PM, it’s thirty-five years after seven alien races have crash-landed on Earth and are now sharing the planet, some more amicably than others, with humans. One of these races is the Irathients.

English actress Stephanie Leonidas (BBC’s DRACULA, THE BIBLE) plays Irisa, a young Irathient woman who was adopted as a child by human nomad-turned-Defiance town sheriff Jeb Nolan, played by Grant Bowler. Irisa, who is tough and rebellious but also yearning for connection with fellow Irathients, underwent a transformation both literal and spiritual at the end of Season 1. Its effects are still being felt by the character and those around her.

At a press event held by NBC and its associated networks, including Syfy, Leonidas sits down to talk about her unconventional heroine.

AX: Is DEFIANCE your first North American show?

STEPHANIE LEONIDAS: It is, yes. I’m really excited. I think it’s always nerve-wracking at first, going into a show so big and playing an alien, but reading the script, it was amazing. And what I loved most was that it was really character-based, not just about aliens shooting each other, and that really appealed to me.

AX: At what point in the making of this did you know what the end of Season 1 was going to be for Irisa and do you know what’s going on with her in Season 2?

LEONIDAS: At the end of Season 1, I had no idea. I was like, “Am I dead?” I remember watching it, then looking, thinking, “She’s dead. She’s got to be dead.” [laughs] So I had no idea how Season 2 would begin.

AX: And did you know that you were coming back as Irisa at the same time DEFIANCE was picked up for a second season, or did one of those come before the other?

LEONIDAS: No, they both came at the same time. It was an amazing feeling, because we really were all desperate to get our teeth into these characters and take them on a journey, and to do that was amazing. And Season 2 really takes it on a different journey to what people would expect.

AX: Is Irisa now the personification of something larger than a normal person?

LEONIDAS: Yes. There’s a kind of godling creature about her. She’s dealing with quite a lot and she’s holding a really dark secret. When her and Nolan meet again, you realize that their relationship isn’t quite going to go in the way that it was in Season 1. She’s holding a lot in and without saying too much, she’s not quite the girl she was in Season 1. You see a very different Irisa this season.

AX: Did you and Grant Bowler take any time separate from the rest of the cast to just bond with each other?

LEONIDAS: We did at the beginning especially, when we first got to know each other. They actually scheduled some time for the [actors] to get to know each other, which was really nice. And then just being on set together every day for five months was the biggest bonding time ever, really. So we got a lot of time to mess around and joke, as well as learning our lines.

AX: Irisa has a very character-specific slouch when she’s seated. Is that a normal physical position for you?

LEONIDAS: No. And I got told off quite a lot for sitting like Stephanie and not Irisa, so it took a little work, and suddenly, when all the prosthetics and everything went on, everyone used to laugh, because I would become Irisa. I’d be very quiet and I’d become this different person and I felt it. Irisa has a very different way of sitting and talking and being.

AX: How long does it take to get the makeup on?

LEONIDAS: Too long [laughs]. No, they’ve got it down to about an hour and a half. It’s not too bad at all. Once the prosthetic goes on, it’s just Irisa’s markings and coloring and then the contact lenses go in.

AX: Were you prepared for having to wear the makeup for that long each day?

LEONIDAS: I had no idea really what to expect with having the prosthetic – I’d never really done anything like that before. So it’s one of those things that you get used to. It’s like, that’s Irisa, so I would never feel like Irisa until all those bits were in place. But yeah, it’s quite an ordeal every morning to have that slapped on your face at four AM and ripping the glue off in the evenings. It’s not the most attractive look, I have to say [laughs]. You can’t go out for dinner afterwards. You look pretty blotchy. It’s one of those things, though – how can you create the Irathients without it?

AX: Where do the prosthetics end and the conventional makeup begin?

LEONIDAS: [The prosthetics] come just above the eye. The eyebrows are blocked out and the forehead piece sits quite firmly on my head. Then the wig goes over it and covers it quite seamlessly, so the prosthetic guys have been great at really covering up their tracks and making it look as seamless as possible.

AX: How do you work within the eye lenses?

LEONIDAS: It was difficult at first, because I have no peripheral vision in them at all, so I have real pinpoint vision. It also helped with Irisa’s movements, because I actually can’t glance to the side – I have to turn my whole head and it became quite an animal thing. Irisa is very animal-like, so it really helped.

AX: Did you study any particular types of animals for Irisa’s physicality?

LEONIDAS: Yeah. I went to the zoo in Toronto before we actually even shot the pilot. I went and sat looking at wolves. They’re very catlike, the Irathients, but there’s also a wolf thing, just the way that they’re pack animals as well, the way that they move together. We were just experimenting with the kind of animal nature that the Irathients have.

AX: Did you look at wolves because Irisa’s Irathient nickname is Little Wolf, or did that come in later?

LEONIDAS: It’s funny. I think it kind of grew at the same time, really. I think everybody decided a wolf is definitely something Irisa would be leaning towards, and it became more and more apparent, people calling her Little Wolf, and I think nothing could sum her up any better. “Tyshinka” [the Irathient word for “Little Wolf”] is such a beautiful word as well, I almost feel like I need to get it tattooed onto me now [laughs]. It’s a really endearing phrase for Irisa, but in reality, as endearing as it is, she is a wolf. She’s a little fiery wolf.

AX: When you see yourself onscreen in the makeup, do you relate to yourself in the performance, or does that seem like somebody else to you?

LEONIDAS: It’s funny. It does feel like somebody else in a very odd way. When I watch it, it’s with different eyes to how I normally watch myself in performances, because I look so physically different. And she’s very different to myself. So yeah, she’s a great character to play and it’s nice to play something so different and yeah, she’s a feisty little thing and I love that about her, but yeah, it doesn’t quite feel like me.

AX: Are the alien languages hard or easy to master?

LEONIDAS: Hard at first, but surprisingly, we started picking up the language so quickly that we could almost hold small conversations with each other, which is quite fascinating. Apart from English, it feels like my second language now.

AX: Do you speak anything besides English and …?

LEONIDAS: And Irathient, no [laughs]. So my dad’s disappointed, because I think he thought Greek might come in there, but no, Irathient comes before.

AX: Did you have to learn how to do anything for the role, like shoot a gun?

LEONIDAS: Yeah. Actually, just on set one day I was handed a gun and told to fire it, and I’d never fired a gun before, so I was taken to the side, fired it a few times and then got into the scene. So there was a lot to learn, with martial arts as well and a lot of stunts, but [coordinator] Shelley [Cook] on the stunt crew is amazing.

AX: Do you have a favorite scene where you got to be an ass-kicker?

LEONIDAS: I actually kicked down a door with Grant. We weren’t meant to kick down the door, but the door flew off, and Grant looked at me like, “Whoa, you did that?” And then we run into the scene. He still looked gobsmacked that I’d actually kicked down this door. I felt like, “Yeah, obviously, you’ve got to use that take, guys.” And then I had to throw a knife, and the knife actually hit the actor in the face. It was a stunt knife and he was fine, but I immediately had then to stop and go, “Okay, I’m actually taking Irisa too far.” [laughs] But yeah, there have been lots of moments. She’s become a real kickass, and I enjoy that stuff. The stunt team are brilliant and always come up with new stuff. And so we get to do a lot of that, even though you see a lot of green screen – even in front of the green screen, we’re still performing our own stunts and we’ve got a great team behind us.

AX: Do you have group workouts, or do you have something you do before going on set for action scenes?

LEONIDAS: Yeah. The stunt coordinator Shelley is very good at getting us ready. We prep at least a couple of days before for a scene. Especially for some of the bigger stunts, she makes sure everybody knows what’s going on, so when we actually come to shoot the scene, we know what we’re doing. And there are some great stunts this time. And yeah, it’s just about trying to keep physically fit to be able to do all that stuff, which is very good fun.

AX: When the beams of light come out of Irisa’s back, is that …

LEONIDAS: All CGI, yeah. We’ve got a great storyboard that they have up in the office that’s constantly updated with images of what all that stuff will look like, because there’s so much CGI, we need to know exactly what we’re working with. So we have all these images of where [the beams of light] will come out of me and I stand there with stickers all over me, round dots, so I know exactly what parts to move. So it’s strange at first, but I feel like I’ve got used to doing that now, it’s become one of those things that it feels more natural.

AX: Did you have to look at different research materials for Season 2 because of the changes in Irisa?

LEONIDAS: A little. There’s a lot I want to say and I wish I could, but with some of the paths she takes, there’s almost a religious theme that runs through it, and so I think it sways in that direction a little with Irisa.

AX: Did you know going in that Irisa was going to have the romance with Tommy, played by Dewshane Williams?

LEONIDAS: No. That was all kind of episodic, really. You’ve seen from the start that Irisa and Tommy have got this bond that they can’t deny. They’d love to walk away from it, but they are both lonely creatures, really. They’re both on a planet that neither of them feel very comfortable about being on at the moment, and they’re both at the same age, they’re both going through very similar things. I think it was kind of inevitable that they would get it together at some point. And they have quite a special relationship. I think through Season 1 that we really saw it grow.

AX: There’s a lot of green screen in DEFIANCE, but do you have sets and backgrounds that are physically there as well?

LEONIDAS: Yeah. It’s amazing. Our set designer [Steve Geaghan]  is incredible. They’ve got an incredible team. They’ll take an empty space and fill it with the most incredible things. Some days, you’ll be out in the badlands, and there will be a boat and some huge pieces of scenery, and the next day they’ll take it all down and put something else there. So yeah, it’s constantly shifting things and making new things. The back lot this year looks very different; The E-REP [Earth Republic] is in town and Defiance is a new place.

AX: Were you a big sci-fi fan before becoming involved with DEFIANCE?

LEONIDAS: I’ve always been quite a fan. I think what appealed to me about this was that the characters were really real. I feel like you can really relate to them and you almost forget sometimes that they’re aliens. I sometimes almost forget that I’m playing an alien. It just felt very real playing Irisa.

AX: Have you played the DEFIANCE video game yet?

LEONIDAS: I had a little go at the game and I wasn’t very good. I crashed into a wall and then I can reverse, so it didn’t go very well for me [laughs].

AX: Do you have any other projects that we should know about?

LEONIDAS: I have a film called LUNA, which is about to come out this year, with Dave McKean. I worked with Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman on MIRRORMASK, and it’s another fantasy film. I also have a small part in a film called U WANT ME 2 KILL HIM. So there are a few things.

AX: Anything else you’d like to say about DEFIANCE right now?

LEONIDAS: Just expect the unexpected and enjoy Season 2.

Related: DEFIANCE show runner Kevin Murphy chats about Season 2 – Exclusive – Part 2

RelatedExclusive Interview: DEFIANCE director Michael Namkin on Season 2

RelatedExclusive Interview: Jaime Murray on DEFIANCE – Season 2

RelatedExclusive Interview: Jaime Murray sinks her teeth into FRIGHT NIGHT 2

Related:Exclusive interview with DEFIANCE star Mia Kirshner


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