Gene Roddenberry certainly had a gift for creating alien characters who captured the imagination of television audiences around the world. First there was Spock, the stoic Vulcan in Star Trek. Then there was the loveable android Data and the proud Klingon warrior Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, in the hot new SF drama series Earth: Final Conflict, viewers just can't keep there eyes off Da'an, the mysterious Taelon who takes residence in Washington as his people's 'Companion' (or Ambassador) to North America.
To play Da'an as an androgynous character, Canadian actress Leni Parker has to undergo extensive three-hour make-up process, while her dialogue is electronically altered. The effect is so impressive that most viewers assume that Da'an is played by a man, and refuse to believe that Parker is the Taelon's real life alter ego!
"I was at a dinner party the other day," the actress tells Cult Times, "and a friend of mine turned to her brother and said 'This is Leni. She's doing Earth: Final Conflict'. He went, 'Oh, you mean that show with the big bald guy!', and my friend replied, 'Leni is the big bald guy.' He just fell off his chair!
I went into the store a couple of months ago and bought five copies of a magazine because Da'an was on the cover. I slapped them down on the counter and the woman asked me why I wanted five copies, and I said, 'Because that's me!' She looked at Da'an and said, 'No, that's not you. C'mon!' And I couldn't convince her! She couldn't see it. So in the end, I just said, 'Well just give me the magazines, for God's sake!'
"Looking at Da'an, I would think that my hands and lips say woman, and the rest of me says man," Parker notes. "But most people don't really know, and just assume that I am a deep-voiced male!"
Out of Taelon make-up, Parker really does bear little resemblance to Da'an. So little, in fact, that even her cast and crewmates on Earth: Final Conflict have occasionally been known not to recognise her on the show's set!
"For the first couple of months, nobody saw me out of make-up at all," she recalls. "I'd even go out to lunch with Da'an's headpiece on. But then I realized that people only ever saw me like that! So when I was out of make-up a few people -- I won't name names -- didn't recognise me and just walked by me on set. They must have thought I was the new girl or something!"
Although many actresses would feel upset at not being recognised for their work -- especially work that has been as well-received as Parker's portrayal of Da'an -- Leni feels that anonymity is the price of playing a Taelon in Earth: Final Conflict.
"It's kind of fun because I guess we've achieved what we set out to do," she muses. "We wanted this character to be androgynous: we really wanted people to look at Da'an and think, 'What is that?' and not know if it's a man or a woman.' It is so ambiguous. I think the make-up crew have done a phenominal job with the character.
"So I'm fairly anonymous in that way. Sometimes, it can be hard. But nobody recognises me on the street at all, which could be a good thing. And I really don't have to worry about being typecast at all!"
A native of New Brunswick, Canada, Leni Parker began her career on the stage before appearing in such film and TV productions as Million Dollar Babies, Lassie, The Sleep Room, Emily of New Moon and Screamers. Parker was the producers' first choice to play Da'an, and won the role after a series of auditions and screen tests.
"For me, the audition alone was a big thing," she recalls. "I'll never forget that day. In a way, it represented the pinnacle of my career because I felt that I'd finally made it -- I'd finally gotten into that room where the executives were sitting and I'd worked so hard to get there. Afterwards, I walked out onto the street and just started crying -- I looked up and thought, 'Oh, a Gene Roddenberry show: I'm the luckiest girl in the world.' I felt that even if I didn't get the role, I had achieved something just by getting that audition."
Besides the appeal of working on a show devised by Star Trek's late creator, Gene Roddenberry, Parker also liked the fact that Earth: Final Conflict was an Earthbound SF drama which, first and foremost, strives to paint a realistic picture of humanity's first contact with alien life.
"I think the big selling point for me was that the series wasn't a Sci-Fi show per se," she explains. "The show isn't too far into the future, and it is believeable -- the technology isn't too far-fetched. And the fact that there are so many humans involved in the series gives it an extremely human element.
"For me, it's not an action show at all -- it's quite philosophical and poses questions that force you to think about things. It's intriguing. It's got the mystery and the spiritual aspects of the X-Files, and that kind of creepy otherworldly feeling. Sure, it's got it's share of action as well. But, in my mind, it is really about people; it's a human story. And it takes place in our backyard almost; it's easy to see that we could get to the point the show is at.
"As for aliens landing, I think I'm prepared for it now," Parker grins. "They're probably up there right now, laughing at me!"
As a Taelon, Da'an's actions and motives are shrouded in mystery, leaving viewers uncertain whether 'he' (used in the show for ease of reference) is supposed to be a good guy or a villain.
"Da'an is definately enigmatic," Parker concurs. "It's funny because when I watch the episodes, I think to myself, 'You don't really know if I'm nice or not.' But when you read the scripts you think, 'Yeah, I'm definately nice.' I'm the Taelon who always says, 'Let's not make a decision just yet. Let's weigh up both sides and let's see the outcome -- let's work through it together.'
"I guess most people are wondering what I'm up to. But I'm compassionate, I'm kind, I'm understanding -- more so than any other Taelon, probably."
One subject Parker is rather reluctant to discuss, however, is the Taelons' secret agenda. Prior to the start of shooting, the actress was told certain details of the show's five-year story arc -- including the purpose behind the Taelon's visit to Earth -- and was then sworn to secrecy.
"I've been told the big one -- the big secret," the actress confirms. "I'm wondering when we're going to get there, and what's going to happen when the truth comes out. With my character, there are a couple of ways I could go. They still haven't decided that. But I'm aware of the secret; it helps me play the scenes.
"The story arc isn't cast in stone, though; there are new developments. We are incorporating a few more aliens as the season goes along, and that's something I didn't know about. It was kinda funny because at the beginning, I was thinking, 'Where are the aliens?' The title sequence says, "Three years ago, they came', and I was thinking, 'Where are they? Is it just Da'an in Washington?' But we've got a few more Taelons coming in towards the end of the season. So it's fun to watch these bald heads talk to each other!
"But I know the big secret. It's really, really exciting and phenomenal. And it will blow everybody away. I'm very anxious to see how it will be revealed. I don't know how long I can wait."
Isn't Parker worried that she might let the secret slip before it is supposed to be revealed on-screen?
"No, I've had one of those Cyber-Viral Implants put in actually," she laughs. "I won't spill the beans!"
Assuming that Parker's 'CVI' continues to function normally, viewers can only hope to learn the truth behind the Taelons' agenda during Earth: Final Conflict's second season. Parker is looking forward to returning to the show's soundstages to begin work on the new season.
"I want this show to go for a very long time," she says. "For me, four years would be good. But then, when I think about the make-up and having the bald cap glued to my head, and the funny blisters that causes, I start thinking to myself, 'I don't know if I want this for four years!"
Although the make-up process continues to be something of an endurance test, Parker feels that the quality of the show and the sense of comraderie on set more than compensate.
"It's just a joy, as an actor, to be working on a show like this," she explains. "I've done a lot of scenes with Kevin [Kilner, Boone] that have really touched me. I've gone home afterwards and thought, 'Oh my God, does it get any better than this?' It doesn't. I'm working on a TV show and the quality of it is just mind-blowing. The writing is so fabulous.
"And it's fun coming into work every day. Most of my scenes are with Kevin, Lisa [Howard, Lili] and Von [Flores, Sandoval], and we have such a great time together. And we get to change directors all the time, too. Sometimes the director really likes shooting the aliens, and others don't really understand the aliens -- it kinda gives them the creeps. I had one director say to me, 'I love this alien shit!', and I thought, 'Okay, he's into it'!
"But yeah, I just love working on the show. I get a new script and I read it page by page and it's always fabulous. It's always an exciting show to work on.
"I bet your readers are thinking, 'C'mon give us the dirt.'" Parker laughs. "But there is no dirt! Except that Von Flores plays way to much golf."
As part of her committment to Earth: Final Conflict, Parker recently represented the show at her first SF convention. "The convention was unbelieveable!" She beams. "People know everything about the show! We're on the 'Net and people take time to discover [our site] and explore it and research it. It's unbelievable!
"Somebody made a little Da'an doll for me and it's just beautiful! It's a little cloth doll, it's about a foot high, and it blew me away. . .It was very touching; it's really lovely that people are seeing the things we do and enjoying them. It's quite a trip."
With the second season of Earth: Final Conflict due to start shooting within a few weeks, Parker's main ambition is to appear in the show sans Taelon make-up, as a human character. "I remember Kevin was saying to me a while ago, 'We've got to get you playing a human!' And I'm thinking, 'Yes, we do!'
"Maybe Da'an can decide to become human for at least five or six episodes. I could say to the Taelon Synod, 'Can I please go to Earth and become a human and walk amongst the humans as Dana or Dan', and transform myself. Kevin's all for it, and I'd like to see it as well. It would be interesting if Da'an became human.
"Alternatively, I know Kevin has suggested that I should play Boone's therapist," Parker laughs. "He would look at me as a human and think to himself, 'I know you', but not realise where he knows me from. That would be fabulous! But I wonder if anybody in the audience would recognise me as the actress who plays Da'an."
One way or another, Da'an will no doubt continue to captivate viewers during Earth: Final Conflict's second season. That's definately something Leni Parker can live with -- even though she's at a loss to explain exactly why the character has proven so popular.
"I really don't know what it's sparking in people," she admits. "I think that people definately identify with Da'an -- I sense that from people's reaction on set. They're are not only curious, but they also want to come up and touch Da'an, or they'd like to sit and talk to him. So there's something they're identifying with, although I don't really know what it is.
"What's funny is that people love the character on the show, but when they see me in person, they tend to shy away," she laughs. "I know little children are afraid of me -- they've come onto the set and they either run away or they clutch their parents' hands tightly. And I'm thinking, 'Oh God, I just want little children to love me.'That's kind of disheartening to me, because I thought kids would have seen the show and realised I was benevolent -- although in actual fact, they don't know what benevolent means! To them, I guess I'm just this scary tall bald guy!
"So I'd like to do an episode with Da'an involving children and animals. That would be just lovely."Courtesy: © David Bassom 1998. All rights reserved