by David Richardson
This has been an incredible year for actress Kari Wuhrer. Not only has she starred in a hit movie, the killer snake-on-the-loose thriller Anaconda, but she’s also won a principal role in the hugely popular Fantasy series Sliders. And just when it seemed that Wuhrer’s luck was running out, as the Fox Network canceled the show, it was picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel, who have made a commitment for a full season to begin transmission in (June) 1998.
The story of four travelers who move between parallel universes via a wormhole, Sliders has lived on the edge of cancellation ever since its first season, which lasted just 10 episodes. While the scope of the show is breathtaking — any kind of world can lie beyond the wormhole, the quality of scriptwriting has often failed to live up to this promise, For some time, John Rhys Davies, who plays Professor Maximillian Arturo, has been highly critical of the poor scripts, and this year the actor chose to leave the series. He was given a spectacular exit — killed by Colonel Angus Rickman (Roger Daltrey) in the two-parter The Exodus, the same story that introduces Wuhrer as the tough soldier Maggie Beckett.
“They hired me as a guest star with the intention of expanding the character as a regular, but they wanted to see how it worked out,” Wuhrer reveals. “They already had John Rhys Davies’s character being killed off, so they needed someone to take over that position and take the show in a different direction. They called me up and asked me to do it, and I wasn’t sure I was going to stick to a series. The first couple of episodes I ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ about it, and thought, ‘This is a lot of work, man”.
“Then I got really addicted to the crew and the cast and the whole spirit of the project. When you’re working on Sliders as an actor you have the opportunity to stretch your imagination so much further than anybody on Chicago Hope or ER or any of those shows, On this I can one minute be this tough military fighter pilot and in the next show I’m a femme fatale, and the next show I’m an emotional child, and the next show I’m tough again. I have this whole range that I get to explore, which is really fun because it’s fantasy. As an actor, that’s really challenging and exciting. When they asked me to sign on to the long haul I was already hooked. I’m really grateful to Universal and Fox for giving me that opportunity, because it’s really been an experience like no other.”
After her own version of Earth is destroyed in a planetary disaster, Maggie Beckett joins Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell), Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd) and Rembrandt Brown (Cleavant Derricks) on their journey through the wormhole. Her intention is to track down the evil Colonel Rickman, the cold-blooded murderer who is responsible for the death of her husband. Initially depicted as a hardened soldier, Maggie’s cool exterior soon softens as the series progresses.
“Maggie Beckett has been raised in the military all her life, and she has been trained to have a very tough exterior,” Wuhrer surmises. “She’s very callous, she doesn’t give a lot away. However, meeting up with the Sliders and going to all these different universes that gets broken down little by little, it gets tested, it gets questioned, so she becomes a deeper character every episode. Rembrandt says, ‘Hey you don’t know anything about Sliding until you do it’ and she’s like ‘Oh, you’re just soft’. Then as the season progresses she starts to go, “Oh I see what you mean’. It’s really been a fun process — I’ve really got to give her this arc. That’s why next season is going to be such a challenge.
“Maggie is sliding to avenge the death of her husband, just as the Sliders have freshly lost the Professor. So we’re both in the same emotional place. Maggie deals with it by being very tough, Wade deals with it by being emotionally open, Rembrandt tries to be the dad, and Quinn has to retain a tough exterior to some extent because he’s the leader of this group. So they have a little bit in common — while she teaches him to be
tough, he teaches her to he a little more sensitive. It’s like a polar attraction, and it remains an attraction for a very long time. It’s interesting the way they buffer one another. Conflict is the way to make any television or film exciting, and I think Sliders with Maggie Beckett now has a little more conflict within the group.”
One very important aspect in a series as eclectic as Sliders is the production design. This department certainly provided some of its best work for The Exodus, which was filmed in a beautiful period building that served as the base for Colonel Rickman and his soldiers.
“It was a place in the armpit of California called the Mission Inn,” Wuhrer reveals. “I’m telling you, the only good thing about this place was this Mission Inn. In California during the gold rush and the early part of the century these little inns were set up all over the place to house people that were passing through the southwest. This guy had a two-room inn and then he built on it and it became a four-room inn, and he kept building. It was so eclectic because he’d travel and he’d see Japanese art, and he’d come back and build a Japanese wing. A lot of it would be Mediterranean, a lot of it would be Mexican, Spanish… a lot of it would have religious influences and it would be this mish-mash thing all together. It’s really historical, and it was beautiful and we all stayed there while we were shooting.”
While staying in the hotel during filming allowed the actress to become close to her new co-stars, it also provided the enviable opportunity for her to get to know one of her heroes. Wuhrer had admired Roger Daltrey from his days with The Who, and appearing alongside him in The Exodus was, she says, an incredible experience.
“When I was five years old my mom took me to see Tommy and I was scared to death,” Wuhrer offers. “The whole thing with the beans coming out of the TV and the rock and roll music and the deaf, dumb and blind guy freaked me out. I hated rock and roll music, I was so afraid of the Who for years that I couldn’t listen to them.
“When I was 11, I started listening to the early Who and saw Quadrophenia and started getting into their music. I had this impression that Roger Daltrey was this drug addict womanizer. Then I came on to the set and there is this little elfin man, with the sweetest disposition, so family oriented, so intensely artistic and passionate, so in love with life… Clean as a whistle, doesn’t eat meat, is scolding anybody who does, doesn’t believe in drinking cold liquids [in order to preserve his voice]… Then we saw him play — he did this jam for us — and his voice was as pure and sensual as the early Who albums. I was blown away by him — I couldn’t believe it. I actually got the chance to sing with him, and it was amazing! I was upon stage going, ‘I’m on stage with Roger Daltrey!’ We became such good friends. He gave me his phone number and address in Sussex, and said, ‘Come on out and stay with the family.’ I loved him so much — an incredible human being.”
While Rickman continued as a recurring villain for several episodes, Daltrey did not continue in the role.
“We had to replace him with a really wonderful actor named Neil Dickson, who is a fabulous British guy, who has really brought the character to life and has more of a hold on acting than Daltrey does at this point. We all talk about Roger every single day. He’s always with us — we have the Polaroids in our trailers!”
With the departure of John Rhys Davies from the show, and the addition of Wuhrer, the basic dynamic of Sliders has changed. Previously the principal cast was predominantly male, now it comprises two men and two women. How have fans reacted to this change in the line-up?
“What’s interesting is that a lot of women think that my character is really wooden,” admits Wuhrer candidly. “I’ve gotten some criticism over the Internet for having this wooden acting style. The thing is, as a woman, most of us tend to have a little bit more of a handle on their emotional side. Men can’t in this society, and therefore don’t. So Maggie being really tough in that area puts women off a little bit and it’s interesting to see how the female audience reacts to her. They think she’s a bitch, they think she’s arrogant, so it’s going to be in interesting to see the audience broken in a little bit to a female character who can be tough, yet sexy and focused, That’s the balance I’m trying to create?’
Talk to any fan of Sliders and they will almost certainly have their own ideas for a for number of alternative Earths that could be used in the series. Likewise, the cast and crew of the show are brimming with their own proposals and Wuhrer hopes that, at some stage, she will be able to bring her own stories to the screen.
“I’ve got two scripts in mind that I’ve started writing, but I’m way too scared to show anybody or tell anybody about them yet,” she divulges. “It’s not my place right now. I’ve got to be more in with the group before I do anything tike that, The concept of the show is infinite in its possibilities… I can be sitting in a restaurant and have ideas. These shows can be anything — you can go anywhere, it’s infinite. It pisses me off sometimes, because you have these dreams about the show. Because you’re working 16 hours a day, you go home and you dream about the show and you getup in the morning and you’re writing things down!”
A native of Connecticut, Wuhrer began her acting career at the age of 18 appearing in theater and commercials in New York. In 1989 she successfully auditioned for the MTV game show Remote Control and after two years with the station moved to Los Angeles to pursue work as a singer. Although Wuhrer was signed up by a record producer, the music business was moving too slowly for her. Instead, she focused on acting, and won roles in a number of films, including The Crossing Guard, Thinner and Higher Learning.
Her life has been so rich and varied, so full of different possibilities, that one wonders if there’s a parallel universe where Kari Wuhrer is a star on Broadway, or perhaps another where she made it as a singer. When asked if she believes in fate, the actress shrugs.
“I don’t know what the word fate means, necessarily. I think of it more as this plan that God has for me, and that every step I take is hopefully in line with the will of God for my life and I just trust in him. Say I have a couple of choices to make, I never really worry too much about it because I know whatever choice I make is going to lead me down the path that God has in mind for me, so that’s what I call fate. It’s not so much a
mystical thing as it is a simple Christian thing.”
Wuhrer is set to begin shooting the fourth season of Sliders later in the summer, after Jerry O’Connell has completed his commitment to Scream 2. Sabrina Lloyd will be absent from the new season, and it has yet to be confirmed whether Cleavant Derricks will return. Yet Sliders‘ reprieve from cancellation has delighted the actress, who admits that, in the past, she has been cursed with bad luck.
Sliders means so much to me now — it’s got to keep going,” says Wuhrer. “I can’t be the one that wrecks the show. You get really emotionally attached to projects, especially when you have to throw yourself into these characters and all of a sudden some guy in the ivory tower goes, ‘OK the carpet’s coming out from beneath you guys. Sorry, it’s over.’ I hate that so much.”
When asked to define her hopes for the forthcoming season, Wuhrer claims that she intends to make Maggie Beckett a role model that viewers, especially younger children, can identify with.
‘When we were at the premiere for Anaconda, after the movie this little girl walked up to me. She had these crooked pony tails and these big thick glasses and she was about 10 or 11 and she was the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen. She said, ‘Hi, I just wanted to say… you did a really good act’. If I can have an influence on somebody that precious and that impressionable, it sort of makes me go ‘Wow!’ I have an opportunity for these young women to see something in me they can admire or focus on, and that’s really the first time I thought about that. When Sliders comes back next season, Maggie will definitely have more attention put onto her as a role model for young women.”
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