Chiana exploded onto our screens as a hyperkinetic ball of smoke and shadow in the Farscape episode ‘Durka Returns’ (S1, Ep15). Initially intended as a guest character, the positive reaction by fans to this fae-like alien transformed Chiana into a key cast member.
One of the core elements is the exotic beauty of Chiana, yet there is far more to her than just a manic pixie dream girl or a stereotypical green-skinned space-babe. For one, Chiana is grey.
There is also a justification for her wildness. Chiana had fled her homeworld of Nebari Prime – where all forms of dissent are prevented through a mental cleansing procedure that erases all thoughts of discontent – in fear of her identity being obliterated.
But who could play such a capricious and flighty character?
Gigi Edgley had grown up with the circus in her blood. Her father was a famous circus promoter with Edgley International, who had introduced Australia to the likes of Cirque du Soleil. Edgley was also a massive fan of Jim Henson’s work, so the chance to work on a Henson production was too good an opportunity to miss.
“I’d never seen Farscape because they hadn’t shown it yet on Australian TV, but I knew it was a Henson show,” says Gigi Edgley to The Companion.
“Growing up as a kid obsessed with The Dark Crystal – my all-time favorite film – and Labyrinth – those creatures were completely unbelievably believable.”
Farscape’s “strange alien lifeforms” (to quote the show’s opening monologue from displaced astronaut John Chricton) already included the diminutive Rygel puppet, the insectoid animatronics of Pilot, an alien plant in the form of Zhaan (Virginia Hey with a shaved head, blue body-paint, and prosthetics) and the towering Luxan warrior D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe under heavy prosthetics). In order to create an entirely different look for the character, the creature effects workshop could not rely on prosthetics or palettes that had already been used.
“Chiana was an interesting process because everything was coming together when we arrived. They had only just cast the actors and were trying out the makeups,” recalls Dave Elsey, the creature designer and creative consultant on Farscape.
“The Henson organization had done these great illustrations, and they looked really beautiful, but when those illustrations were translated onto the characters, especially the straight-makeup characters, it wasn’t as successful. It looked unbelievable and a bit more graphic than you would want.”
The initial design for Chiana was akin to the later character of Sikozu, with a hint of orange in the center of the face. This design soon changed when Edgley was seen by Farscape’s makeup and hair supervisor Lesley Vanderwalt, who won an Oscar in 2016 for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Vanderwalt realized that the proposed design would not suit Edgley. Instead, using Edgley’s audition tape, Vanderwalt redesigned Chiana’s look to match Edgley’s facial structure.
“With Gigi, we wanted Chiana to have some variation in her skin tone; to be broken up more than you would normally do,” says Elsey. “We didn’t her want to look like she’s wearing clown makeup. We were responsible for going in and working with the makeup department to finish that and work out how they do that and achieve that on a daily basis.”
Another aspect of Chiana’s initial design that never made it to the screen was that she was intended to have rodent-like qualities, with sharp rat-like teeth. However, when fitted to Edgley, the prosthetic teeth became impractical, as they caused her to speak with a lisp and dribble.
Accompanying Chiana’s silver hair and grey complexion are the oversized black irises of her eyes. This required Edgley to wear special contact lenses that limited her peripheral vision. Their restrictive nature partly led to Chiana’s exaggerated head movements, as Edgley needed to turn her head more to look at people. “She was so beautiful and mesmerizing,” recalls Edgley. “I love those big black eyes.”
The entire makeup process for Edgley to become Chiana took approximately three and a half hours. This meant that Edgley needed to be awake at four in the morning in order to be driven to the studio to begin the process of becoming Chiana.
Clothes complete the person, and in Chiana’s case, they had to reinforce her mystique. Chiana’s introduction, as the mysterious but dangerous prisoner in the Farscape episode ‘Durka Returns’, meant that her initial costume needed to be equally enigmatic. “That first costume had cute little fluffy shoulders. It was good too because I could move in that costume,” recalls Edgley. “The costume after that; we had to do a few different versions of it because when I went into the ‘Chiana position’, half my backside would be hanging out.”
One of the key elements of Chiana is the physicality and movements that Edgley developed for the character. The animalistic cocking of her head and crouched movements reinforced the notion that Chiana was not human. “The very first time I walked in, I asked the director how they wanted me to show that she’s alien and he goes ‘I just want to see if you can act!’” laughs Edgley.
“I wanted her to be an alien. I didn’t want to be a human in alien makeup. I’d seen sci-fi before, where people have prosthetics or makeup, but they still act human and I decided that she can’t be that. She’s got to be from the Uncharted Territories and wild.”
The voice that Edgley brought to the character went through a lot of changes during Chiana’s development for ‘Durka Returns’, which continued for much of the first season. Initially, Chiana was envisioned as having an American accent, but Edgley was later asked to give the character an Australian accent. The collaborative nature of television means that actors will often have multiple sources of guidance regarding the portrayal of their characters and sometimes that guidance can be contradictory.
For much of Farscape’s first season, Chiana alternates between an Australian and an American accent. “At the end of Season 1, we end up doing an Australian voice, but then the Australian producer left and other producers came in, and they wanted to dub over as much as they could with my American Chiana,” explains Edgley. “From Season 2 onwards, I started to get back into the flow of the voice that I’d originally found for her.”
From Alien of the Week to Series Regular
Chiana was originally scripted to die from Durka’s pulse weapon in ‘Durka Returns’. However, the positive reaction to the character meant that the script was revised so that the shot would only graze Chiana. Additional scenes were later filmed to incorporate these changes, such as where Zhaan patches Chiana’s wound.
The final scene of ‘Durka Returns’ delivered an iconic moment for the character of Chiana. In it, Crichton questions Chiana about who killed Salis (played by Tiriel Mora). The mocking smile that Chiana offers in return deliberately left the question unanswered.
“Whether she did it or not was irrelevant, it was merely the ambiguity that was the point in terms of her character, to make her potentially dangerous and someone we weren’t sure of,” says co-creator Rockne S. O’Bannon on the Farscape Chronicles – Starburst Edition DVD v1.3. “It was something we were doing with all the characters, including Zhaan, who seemed the most benign of all.”
Edgley’s first indication that Chiana had become a recurring character on Farscape was when she was delivered a script for the next episode with her name on it. “I got delivered a script in a dressing room that I was sharing with Lani Tupu [Crais and the voice of Pilot]. I didn’t believe it, as I was not in the next episode,” recalls Edgley. “We sat down on the couch and opened it up together, and sure enough I had a couple of lines in the episode.”