It’s such a sought after dream by so many – a fact that will keep TV executives well in pocket for a long time yet – that it’s become naturally associated with wealth and positivity and ultimate achievement. There are massive benefits, of course; simple things like a big(ger) changing room, first dibs at the craft services table, and the opportunity to do good work with good people. But it can, must, bring a wealth of undesirable side-effects. Fame is the very opposite of privacy, for a start, so the fragile introverts that often find solace in performance suddenly find strange eyes all around. More pressing, however, is what happens when your work creates a personal connection with the viewer. This is the desired effect, yes, but then you’ve created a link that could be carried off the screen and into the real world in minds that maybe cannot separate the two.
The majority of us know the difference, of course. The screen allows emotional linking but acts as a big flat barrier, leaving our connections behind us as we emerge, blinking, back into the boring light of reality. But what happens when the screen drops? Comi-Cons, Fan Expos, Meet-And-Greets hold a special place in the calenders of anyone who’s ever been obsessed (there’s never just vague interest here) in a show or film whose stars might appear, as there is suddenly the same light and air between our eyes and theirs. Random encounters are one thing, providing fuel for Facebook Likes before the next update, but knowing when and where a specific person will be in real life is enough to bring even the newest of fans flocking. And the result? Staring. Lots, and lots, and lots, of staring. It’s a weekend of dry eyes and snatched moments, of breathy stories and attempts to compress how their character made you feel into your allotted forty-eight seconds. No wonder that the sci-fi geek stereotype is so strong – how else do you act? What can one possibly even do but stare?
Fan Expo Vancouver is happening at the end of April, and has been drip-feeding guest appearances over the last few months. Bruce Campbell! Karl Urban! Tron! Very cool. All future notches in the “I saw…” bedpost. Even Elizu Dushku’s addition – enough to raise heartbeats, for sure – ensures that I’ll finally be getting my signed copy of Bring It On. However, the most recent mail revealed the most recent guest as Morena Baccarin, and I could instantly see the future; crowds of thirty-something men, standing around, some in Browncoats, others in tees, biting back nerves and disbelieving eyes to just take in the fact that Morena Baccarin is RIGHT THERE. It can’t be a comfortable experience, but I just have to say that I’m sorry, Morena Baccarin. I’m so sorry, but I’ll be one of them.
I first met her four years ago, on the set of the V reboot, coincidentally about a month before I decided to finally watch Firefly. In typical background fashion, I was dressed to the nines as some kind of Earth border control agent checking the documents given by her and the actress who’d just featured as Supergirl on Smallville. Her face rang a bell, definitely (I think I’d seen an episode of Firefly during its disastrous run on FOX, so my memory was firing off the most vague of messages), but it was her face that caught my eye. Playing the chief representative of an alien race wanting to educate the human race (educate/destroy), her hair was clipped tight to her head and facial features highlighted to create a ballet-straight, intriguingly intense look that was perfect for the character, with the final punctuation of huge, brown, endless eyes. Casting expertise in full effect, really. Her job was to make the character seem approachable yet mysterious, a trait to be highlighted later when her turn against mankind is revealed. This meant that, at the start of each take, she’d stand a little to my left then move past my station, eyes locked on mine to convince that she wasn’t about to kill us all (LIES). If you watch that episode, you’ll only see my hand as it expertly stamps something onto her document before a cutaway, but that’s a good thing. My eyes would not have been convincing at that point.
On top of her striking looks, she was professional, focused and friendly between takes (a fact that is true about most famous people, I’m always surprised to learn). This would have been enough for me, for anyone really, to continue following her career and inform anyone who’d listen about those eyes. After the job finished, before the next started, I watched the first episode of Firefly to see what all the fuss was about. A space opera written and directed by Joss Whedon, it took his ensemble spark from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (and, later, Avengers) and traced it over a group of space pirates in the years following them being on the losing side of a bitter civil war. Two days later, I finished the final episode and discovered that the only people who had ever reacted badly to Firefly were the original broadcasters, FOX. A constantly changing schedule and incorrect episode order helped them peg it as a failure, even though it still stands out as one of the best series ever made. The cast was perfect – Nathan Fillion showing honour and darkness as Captain Reynolds, Jewel Staite’s fragile yet tough mechanic Kaylee – I could go on – and, finally, I realized what my memory had been trying to tell me. There, as companion (yes, in that sense of the word) Inara Serra, acting as graceful foil against Fillion’s straight-up snark, was a young Morena Baccarin. The eyes had it.
It was a delicate character to pull off. The idea of prostitute as intelligent companion instead of just sex-for-hire is a concept that stretches back to the era of Japanese geisha. Honored for their intelligence and wit as well as obvious beauty, it’s a far cry from the more modern street-corner image that the job now conjures up, and it’s this clash of old vs new – class vs scrub – that ignites the interplay between Serra and Fillion’s roguish Reynolds. Much of the tension, beyond their growingly obvious emerging romance, comes from his reference to her job as “whoring” in a society that actually holds her in high esteem. Baccarin formed a Serra that was poise and grace, lust and fire, restraint and intelligence; a strong character held in a beautiful frame whose job was to be, among other things, a sexual encyclopedia. How could any viewer with eyes, brain and a heartbeat not fall in love with that cocktail? Inara Serra, in typical Whedon fashion, was a character that struck a chord in a very deep way, becoming a template held by thousands of young men in their following years of romantic entanglements. It’s one hell of a high standard to attain.
It’s connections like this that has ensured Firefly still remains red-hot popular with fans of science fiction, with the undeserved early cancellation only adding fuel to their ire. Many fell for Baccarin’s Inara, both in looks and character, and this kind of intense feeling is no less persistent – or valid – than that of our first girl/boy/whatever-friends. This means, though, poor Miss Baccarin will forever see that face caught in the throes of a paradox – brain calmly announcing that this is real life and Firefly is not, of course, part of reality; heart screaming in impassioned chorus that here, right there, is her. The face, of course, can’t do much more in the resulting melee, leaving eyes and mouths left to gawp in unison, a decidedly unattractive and vaguely embarrassing prospect for all involved. I’m sure she’s had time to perfect her reaction, but uninformed onlookers (girl/boy/whatever-friends, organisers, bored Playboy models) are just given countless reasons to reconfirm the hapless geek stereotype.
But maybe it’s time to change this common perception. The staring (and stammering/squealing/jumping) is a seemingly awful part of being a fan, but it’s actually a sign of a special kind of adoration. It may look creepy and unsettling but it’s borne from the other end of the spectrum; for many starers, it’s not just a sign of obvious sexual attraction but also of respect and appreciation of what the actor has given them. In many ways, it’s a sign of success. The actor sets out to create a character that is multilayered, authentic, and relateable. Genre fans are notoriously picky, so the most intense of connections are a result of the best of performances. The staring is as close to a standing ovation as the actor could get outside of the theatre, just with applause replaced by silent reverie.
Which would be all well and good if we, if I, could hold it together long enough to explain. If we could just say how we felt as we watched their performance, moved and exhilarated by the actor’s flowing stack of subtle choices as they folded outwards in between the lines in their script. Unfortunately, the staring also brings complete and absolute numbing of cognitive function for all but the deepest of breathers, meaning that the look is all that’s left. But, that’s OK. Let’s embrace it. It’s never other fans that laugh at the stares; there’s a commonality of understanding that means we all just know. And maybe the actors do, too; by definition, they’re the biggest fans after all.
So, I’m sorry, Morena Baccarin. When you emerge in Fan expo Vancouver and are met with crowds of gazing, glimpsing onlookers, you’ll need to call on everything you know about genre fans to realise that it’s nowhere near as creepy as it must look. And, as we shuffle forward with our merchandise outstretched, I wish I could have the wherewithal to succinctly compose exactly why I’m such a fan. However, it won’t happen. You’ll get a smile, you’ll get thanks, you’ll get the look, and I’ll say all that could possibly sneak out of my mouth at that moment:
“Hi. I loved you in Firefly.”
Fan Expo Vancouver runs from April 18th-20th and we’ll be covering it extensively with updates, photos and videos from on site. Grab your tickets and give us a shout if you find us!