From X-Files child star to Firefly‘s Kaylee Frye, Jewel Staite tells her incredible story in our latest Uplifting Women in Film & TV interview.
Science fiction icon Jewel Staite talks all about her life and career, from growing up with The X-Files to learning about the awesome power of fandom on Firefly and Stargate Atlantis, in Jewel Staite: Uplifting Women in Film & TV, an in-depth interview and audience Q&A hosted by writer-and-presenter Alysia Judge.
Across this 90-minute video, available to watch below, Jewel Staite reminisces about having the stages of her youth immortalized on screen, the changing nature of strong female characters in science fiction, and how she came to the cult shows and celebrated series she’s become known for – as well as some surprise TikTok talk!
Child Stardom and The X-Files episode ‘Oubliette’
“When I was doing The X-Files, I remember I was on hiatus for Space Cases, and I was about to go in to do FlashForward. I didn’t want to work. I remember being like ‘No, I want to go home and be a kid and go to birthday parties,’ and my agent was like ‘This is The X-Files, you can’t say no to the X-Files.’ I was like ‘Urgh, okay, fine,’” she says rolling her eyes.
“I do remember the man, Michael [Chieffo], who played my kidnapper was so lovely and so concerned that I would feel scared of him, I guess, or uncomfortable around him that he made an effort to be very sweet and warm with me, which my mom appreciated. I think my mom thought it was really classy of him.
“Looking back on it now, I’m like ‘God, that stuff’s really heavy for a kid.’ And really heavy to watch back. I was watching all of this stuff too, right? I was like ‘Cool, huh?’ and my dad was like, ‘What is this? I don’t know about this…’ There’s a lot about my childhood that’s very strange – just putting it out there! It’s a very bizarre thing to do to watch yourself on TV being kidnapped, taken from your bed in the middle of the night…”
So controversial that Fox banned it, The X-Files Season 4 episode ‘Home’ serves up horror movie motifs and stomach-churning implications.
Kaylee Frye on Firefly
Whilst Nickelodeon’s Space Cases was Jewel Staite’s first lead role as the mechanic Catalina, it was Firefly and another galactic greasemonkey, the irrepressible Kaylee Frye that made her a sci-fi stalwart.
“I knew that Joss [Whedon] was a part of it, I knew how great Buffy was so I knew it was going to be good,” she recalls. “I was given two scenes to audition with – two very short scenes that told me next to nothing. The first scene was the one in the pilot where Kaylee invites Book onto the ship, the second one was after Kaylee’s been shot and I’m in the med lab, Mal comes to talk to me and I’m all kind of drugged up.”
Though there was little for Jewel to work with, she quickly made the role her own.
“I just like to make things funny and I like to make myself laugh – and Charlie, my husband’s like ‘God, nobody laughs harder at your jokes than you’ – so I did a little bit more humor in my audition for Kaylee than the other actors, so I got called back. So I had one audition and then they flew me down to LA to test for Joss and the network. And that was it – I had my test at four o’clock and I got my phone call at six o’clock.”
A month later, Jewel Staite was on set after having undergone a significant – and surprisingly – change.
“I had to gain 20lbs within a month. They asked me if I would be okay with gaining some weight because I was a waif of a thing. I was a 19 with a metabolism that I would kill to have at this moment in time. They said ‘We just want Kaylee to look like she enjoys her life, and there are a lot of tiny actresses in Hollywood and we just don’t want to go that route. We want strong beautiful women who look like they enjoy food.’ They asked if I wanted a dietician and I said no, so I ate the world and I think I gained 15lbs by the time we started shooting.
“It was glorious, to be honest with you. All the other actors were working like crazy to make themselves as fit as possible and I was eating fettuccine alfredo and donuts and cheeseburgers and whatever I pleased.”
Firefly‘s Kaylee Frye is an inspiration – and this is why.
Wraith Ellia in the Stargate Atlantis episode ‘Instinct’
Not alone in pulling a double shift on a long-running sci-fi show, Jewel Staite’s first Stargate role was that of the virtually unrecognizable Wraith Ellia in the Stargate Atlantis episode ‘Instinct’ (S2, Ep7).
“I did not do my research when I said yes to that role,” admits Jewel. “I didn’t know what a Wraith was. I didn’t know anything about it. I hadn’t seen the show. I just loved the role – I thought it was such an interesting role and so well written that I didn’t think twice. The breakdown said ‘Some prosthetics required’… that’s not some! I was misled!
“That’s an entire face, a wig, gloves, teeth… so leading up to the job, they asked me to go for a face cast and a teeth cast and then they measured my eyes for contact lenses and I went ‘Ohhhh, this is not good – this is going to suck.’ And then my first day call time was 3:45 or something atrocious when Starbucks is not open. You’re really left to fend for yourself at that hour.
“But it was interesting how constricting it felt, but you’re also more uninhibited so it’s a very good way to get into a character like that. It definitely helps you get into the mindset of a character like that. So that part was cool, part of the work was already done for me which is nice, but it was an isolating experience. You’re in a different makeup trailer from the other actors, you’re in the special effects makeup trailer, and so you don’t really get to socialize or hang out, and then when you look that way, nobody really wants to talk to you.
“The reason I didn’t come back as that character was that I couldn’t handle it and they said, ‘Okay, we’d love to have you back on the show, and luckily no one will recognize you, and maybe we can have you back as a completely different character.’”
Stargate Infinity was SG-1′s first spin-off, but the animated series was hated by fans and hobbled by the studio. The cartoon’s creators tell their story.
Dr. Jennifer Killer in Stargate Atlantis
That opportunity arrived sooner rather than later. In the Stargate Atlantis episode ‘First Strike’ (S3, Ep20), Jewel Staite is introduced as Dr. Jennifer Keller, the new acting chief medical officer for the Atlantis expedition following the death of her predecessor, Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion).
“I’ll tell you a Paul McGillion story because he is one of my best friends in the world. When I was shooting the show as the Wraith, we were in a scene together, and a little while later. we were both at DragonCon in Atlanta. So I went up and said Hi Paul, I gave him a hug, and he was looking at me kinda strange and I’m like ‘Do you remember me?’ and he’s like ‘No, no I don’t’ – ‘We did Stargate together, I played the Wraith…’
“And now that we’re such good friends he told me that he thought I was hitting on him. No, Paul, we worked together and you just don’t recognize me.”
Jewel Staite is currently starring in the Canadian drama series Family Law with Victor Garber (The Orville, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) which will soon return for its second season, and she will once again enter the world of science fiction in NBC’s upcoming Quantum Leap revival starring Raymond Lee (Kevin Can F**k Himself), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, The Crow), and Mason Alexander Park (The Sandman, Cowboy Bebop).
Quantum Leap co-creator and voice of Ziggy Deborah M. Pratt on bringing back the show for the age of Black Lives Matter.
Speaking of Quantum Leap, if you enjoyed this, you should check out our last Uplifting Women in Film & TV event featuring the co-creator, legendary trailblazer Deborah M. Pratt. She discussed her career, the surprising influence of cult classic Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone on her as a writer, and how she came across an early copy of the Star Wars script.
She also couldn’t help but talk about the revival…
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James is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.
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