Exclusive: Stephanie Leonidas of "Defiance" - From Pranks to Butterflies

Exclusive Interview with Stephanie Leonidas of Defiance on May 3, 2013
Interview by Jamie Ruby
Written by Jamie Ruby

Stephanie LeonidasSyfy's new series Defiance, which airs on Mondays, takes place in the future on a terraformed Earth. After their home worlds were destroyed, seven alien races, collectively known as the Votans, came to Earth to find a new home. Now, after the Pale Wars between the humans and Votans have ended, people and aliens alike attempt to co-exist peacefully.

The story follows the human, Joshua Nolan, played by Grant Bowler, and his "adoptive daughter" Irisa, and Irathient, played by Stephanie Leonidas, as they move to Defiance and help keep peace in the town.

Leonidas recently talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about her work on the series, what fans can expect on the series moving forward, and what else she has planned for the future.

Stephanie LeonidasLeonidas won the part of Irisa by auditioning. "Basically, I just auditioned for it. I put it on tape from London and sent it to them and they liked my taping. We then Skyped each other, and Kevin [Murphy] gave me some notes and stuff, and then I reauditioned for them. And Kevin had also seen MirrorMask, which is a film I did a few years ago, and he liked some of the stuff I'd done, so he already knew of me, which I think helped. And so we went from there really, and I was over the moon when I found out that I'd gotten the part."

Working previously on MirrorMask actually helped prepare her for working on Defiance because of all of the green screen they used. "It was such great fun doing that, and actually, it really helped me with Defiance, because we obviously did a lot of green screen, and so the green screen stuff that we were doing for Defiance didn't feel so kind of absurd when we were filming on sort of a huge green screen and told to pretend that hellbugs were chasing us. So, it really helped."

It's sometimes hard not knowing what a project will look like ahead of time. "Literally you leave it in their hands and you have no idea what they are going to do with it. I guess it's a little bit similar to Defiance, in a way, because even though we do have a lot of stuff on set, they built the whole set in Toronto, but there is still a fair amount of green screen as well, so it's interesting to see what that looks like in the end."

The set of Defiance is very expansive, and Leonidas loves all the details most. "It's just the finest details I think for me that always blow my mind. Like the huge sets are incredible and mind-blowing, but it's also the kind of tiniest details that they have, like on the market stores, they found all of these kind of vintage pieces, and just things that we consider normal, but actually, they're used for different things now. There were like yo-yos and things like that that some of the alien races were using for new things now, like tying their shoelaces together or whatever, and it blew my mind that they'd thought of just small things like that. And I remember walking around the set on the first few days, just mesmerized, and kind of wanting to go shopping actually, because it all looked so cool."

Another great thing about working on the series is the unique costumes the actors get to wear. "Simonetta [Mariano], who does all the costumes, she's great. I mean, she's really incredible. She just has these great color schemes for each kind of alien race. Like everybody is so different and so kind of individual, and I love the colors of the Irathients, the kind of real earth oranges and greens.

"But Irisa though, her costume is quite basic. She's not a girl who worries too much about fashion, and that was kind of a bit of a downer. I never play the glamorous part! I mean, Irisa's costume [does change], you know, bits and pieces change as the series progresses, and she starts to buy a few more clothes, but mainly for me it was kind of very simple costumes. It's all about being practical for Irisa; it's never about anything else."

The actress does, however, appreciate that she gets to carry guns as well as knives. "I've got like my knife holster and kind of that's all that matters."

Irisa doesn't just wear her weapons, but often fights, and Leonidas had to learn. "It was all very kind of quick actually, you know, I was sort of handed a gun on set and just told to fire, and I was like, "One minute guys; I've never fired a gun before, could someone show me?"

"So Grant was great, because he's done a lot of training with guns and weapons, and we used to spend time just off set as well. I used to use him as my punching bag as well, and it was quite fun! But yeah, he was great at that stuff, and we had so many people on set that were helping us with it all, which just made it so much easier.

"And in the end it almost became kind of second nature for Irisa just to pick up a gun or especially a knife for her. And the knife training was always great with Shelley [Cook], the stunt coordinator. She would take me off, and we started off by kind of just throwing tennis balls to get how you would aim the knife and how you would throw it, and then eventually when she allowed me to put a knife in my hand we started throwing those.

"And they actually gave me this cardboard cutout of like a person to take to my hotel room in the pilot. And I don't know what the people next door thought, but all they heard were like knives being thrown at the wall, and just me practicing to throw them! And eventually it was quite exciting, because I just was like, "Wow, I can do this...Yeah this is cool; this is fun."

People might be surprised that she used real knives during training. "They gave me real ones when we were training, because the weight of them is quite good, and just also because they're sharp enough to penetrate something so that you got used to that feeling, and then obviously on set they were all kind of stunt knives. But yeah, it was great just kind of learning that and having another skill in that way I guess."

Leonidas got to take part in other stunts as well. "I think it's the second episode where I climb up to help one of the Castithans down, and it was a kind of a huge metal, really rusting kind of metal piece like frame, and I climbed that. At first they were watching me climb it and were a little worried, but I was like, "No, no, please let me climb it," and I sort of jumped on it.

"It's weird, like as soon as I get Irisa's wig on and her clothes, I really start feeling like I'm invincible, when it's quite bad really, but I start thinking that I am Superman and start wanting to do all my own stunts and stuff.

Stephanie Leonidas"So I climbed that, and towards the end of the [season] there were a lot more stunts of falling off of things, and climbing up fences, and stuff. So I did do a lot of that stuff, and I really enjoy it actually, and it's kind of because of Irisa being this kind of feral sort of creature. I think it's important that I sort of felt like that and kind of did as many of those stunts as I could. It just felt right for her."

Fans haven't seen much of the feral side of Irisa yet on Defiance, but there is more on that coming up throughout the season. "I think episode five, you see some more of that with Irisa. You start seeing some of the more dangerous sides towards Irisa, and that kind of fiery creature who goes from naught to eleven in seconds. And there are [other] different moments, especially when she's around other Irathients, I think she starts feeling like just more of the person that she is really, and she's battling with that, and obviously she's been brought up by Nolan who is a human, so she's always kind of suppressed a lot of her Irathient side, but I think there are definitely moments coming up where you see more of that animal in her."

Leonidas would love to get to see more of the backstory of Irisa and how she became who she is. "I think the most interesting thing to me would be watching Irisa grow up, and just watch her kind of deal with things differently maybe as she grows and kind of understands herself a bit more. I think at the moment Irisa is kind of really out there on her own and kind of still trying to find herself, and it would be nice to see her I guess just start to discover things, and kind of I wouldn't say mellow, I'd never like to see Irisa mellow, I think she's always going to be a feisty one, but it would be interesting to see her deal with things differently as she gets older, and just to see how her relationships develop. She's in her early 20s; she's got a lot of growing to do. I just kind of feel like almost a mother to Irisa; I want to watch her grow, but we'll see."

Regardless of if fans will see a younger version of Irisa, they will learn more as the season progresses. "There's definitely a lot more to come in this season. In fact there're still lots more to come with Irisa, and you do start discovering about why she is the way she is, and kind of how her and Nolan got together, and more about her past and her real family. So that all does become clearer as the series goes on."

Irisa and Nolan have a very strong bond on the series. "Basically they would live or die together, I mean, that's just certain for them. They can't survive without each other, but at the same time it's not an easy journey for them. They're very different in some ways, and Irisa's battling with her past and herself and who she is with being an Irathient.

"And with having these visions (in the recently aired episode), she starts to realize that there's something different about her and something that Nolan has never really kind of helped her with, or you know, he's kind of neglected her in that way. But, I mean, he loves her dearly and she loves him, but it makes it even more fiery when they argue.

[quote]...we have had such fun, and we're all kind of troublemakers at heart, I think[/quote]
"And they do fall apart quite a lot, and it sort of breaks your heart in a way, because Irisa does start finding that her and Nolan just, I guess as any father daughter relationship is as, you know, humans, you go through rocky patches, and it's always going to be hard with a father watching a daughter grow up and all the changes that happen, and I guess it's no different really with Irisa being an alien. But what makes it harder, is there's a lot he doesn't understand about her being an alien, and there's a lot he doesn't want to talk to her about, because it frightens him, and he's frightened of kind of losing her. So they have a really rocky road ahead. Deep down they really would do anything for each other, but I think it gets much harder for them both."

Fans will get to see more specifically on how she met Nolan as well. "There is a lot more to come with how Nolan and Irisa became, you know, father and daughter really, and just much much more about her past. And obviously in the last episode she started to have these visions and stuff, and we'll see more of that in the next coming episodes."

Leonidas is close with Bowler off set as well; they have a sort of father daughter relationship in real life, and jokes, "I think we have become them."

She is, however, also close with the rest of the cast as well. "We're all pretty close actually; it's quite a close cast...I mean, Julie [Benz] and Jaime [Murray] are really lovely, and we always have a laugh on set. And Tony [Curran]'s quite the joker on set, and he has such a great energy. And Mia [Kirshner] and I shared an apartment while we were out in Toronto together, so that was really nice...Dewshane [Williams] and I got on really well, and Jesse [Rath]. I mean, it's just completely a great cast all around. And so yeah I guess a lot of time I've spent around with Grant, but, I mean, we have had such fun, and we're all kind of troublemakers at heart, I think, so it made it fun."

The cast members are always playing pranks on each other, but Bowler thinks he's immune. "So many [pranks]. Oh my goodness, everyone like pranks each other. Like every single day someone was trying to prank someone, and Grant always thought that he was the one that could never be pranked.

"So Mia and I wrote this scene. We went to the writers office, and we sat down, and we wrote a scene, and got them to hand it out at the end of the day, and we completely fooled Grant that there was this new scene that had been written, and it was so ridiculous. I mean, it was it started off as this huge like love story between Irisa and Nolan, and it was really funny, and his face he just looked traumatized, and then he realized after a few seconds that we had gone to all this trouble to prank him. But there was that, and there was just continuous kind of pranks with, you know, everybody. So it was funny; we did keep ourselves amused."

Stephanie LeonidasBesides Nolan, another character that Irisa is becoming closer with on Defiance is Tommy (Williams), the deputy. However, this was not quite the case in the beginning. In one scene in the pilot, Irisa is very brash with Tommy, and on being asked why she is with Nolan, she tells him that he did what she couldn't: murdered her parents. It's been commented by fans that that is a strange word choice. "I think with Irisa, she's very dry sometimes, with even her humor; it's very kind of dry, and I don't think she realizes it a lot of the time. It's just kind of the way she is; she's very matter-of-fact. Someone said something to me a while ago about her maybe being slightly autistic, and I kind of thought about it in that way, and I guess it was kind of a good way of describing her in some ways. I mean, she's very kind of logical in her thinking, but at the same time she can be very emotional and kind of hit from zero to eleven in either anger or [being] upset. She really feels things, but I think sometimes for her it's more a case of saying things matter-of-factly; she doesn't see a problem with that.

"And I don't think she understands, especially when humans start kind of beating around the bush and talking about things; I don't think she understands that, she kind of says what she feels, says what she means, and that's it, and she doesn't understand why you would be any different, why you'd say anything any other way. So I think she does shock sometimes, and sometimes I think definitely, especially with Tommy, I think she likes to play with him, like he's a little toy sometimes to her. And you definitely see more of that, but I think at the moment she also says things without kind of realizing that it's that kind of shocking. But more and more you will kind of find Irisa toying with Tommy. She knows that he's trying to be friendly with her and she's not going to give him an easy time."

Could there be more than friendship in Irisa and Tommy's future? The actress couldn't confirm or deny, but she did talk about their interactions. "I think Tommy definitely starts seeing something in Irisa, but he kind of understands and kind of empathizes with [her]. She's kind of out there on her own, and he can see that she is very lonely, even though she's with Nolan. There's a side to her that he sympathizes with.

"I mean, he's kind of out there on his own too, and you know, now becoming like a deputy around Nolan and Irisa, and spending more time with them. Like I think he starts to befriend Irisa, and I guess in a way it's kind of that tactic of Irisa pushing him...and kind of the more she pushes him away, the more he wants to be around her and the more interested he is about who she is, and they're very similar in ages, I guess, and kind of as any humans would be there in a world where it's kind of survival of the fittest, and he sees something in her that I think he recognizes in himself, and as much, as she puts on this kind of tough exterior. He can see that inside there's more to her than that. And I think that that's what she eventually maybe sees more and more in him, but she's not going to make it easy for Tommy."

One thing that surprised Leonidas about working on Defiance is how normal it all became. "I think just for me it was kind of more and more the way I thought at first playing an alien might feel really kind of different, and odd, and I knew that this was going to be such a different experience to anything else I'd played.

"It was strange how kind of the drama between these aliens and the heart of the scripts really came. It kind of just it embedded and felt good. I mean, I think that's what really attracted me to the script in the first place as well, was just the fact that it wasn't just about these aliens fighting and stuff, but these aliens had a heart, and there was a little drama to the piece, and I think that that's what kind of really, really felt good and sort of helped with filming the whole series, as an alien.

"It's just finding those moments that people could relate to, and it just surprised me how much I kind of started to relate. Like I started to relate to Irisa and thought, you know, "I've felt like that," and just kind of how normal it became for us all to walk around in these prosthetics and kind of seeing everybody. And we'd be at set having lunch and it just felt normal. Everybody sat there in these huge weird and wonderful costumes, but it felt like we were living in a different time. It surprised me how quickly that all became very normal for us."

Playing an alien also meant that the actress had to learn and get used to the Irathient language. "When we were told we had to learn this whole language, I froze. I thought it was like being back at school being told you have to quickly learn, like you know, prepare, for your French exam or German exam, and it was just that fear of kind of going "Oh my God, like how am I going to do a whole season with not only learning lines with an accent, but also a whole new language?"

"And it was weird how quickly it kind of all felt natural and it just became kind of routine. And what was really funny, is the more Irathient that I got, and the further through the season that we got, it started to become my second language. I started to realize that apart from English it was the only other language that I knew that amount of stuff, and I think like it upset my dad in a way, because my dad's Greek. I think he expected my second language to be Greek, and it's now Irathient!

Stephanie Leonidas"So it was kind of funny really that we could also communicate, and Sukar, played by Noah [Danby], he and I used to sort of laugh, because we could form sentences, and have a joke, and kind of, you know, speak in tones that nobody else would know. And all the Irathients, and the same with the Castithans; it really became quite alien to everyone else. We had this language that nobody else really knew and it was pretty amazing."

David J. Peterson created the languages on Defiance. "He's amazing, David. I mean, I have no idea how even begins to create these languages but he they are complete languages and I think there's five on Defiance, so it's pretty intense."

In the future it's quite possible there will be fans speaking these languages at conventions, which would very much please Leonidas. "That would be amazing. That would be so funny. I mean, to have conversations with people in Irathient. And I can't wait for that; that would be great!"

Another thing that was difficult for Leonidas, surprisingly, has to do with a fear that most fans most likely don't know about. "Actually, I'm scared of butterflies; that will probably surprise a few people. I was actually fine on set when we had the snake, whenever we have like snakes and dogs and all sorts running around like as the [season] progresses. There're all sorts of animals and all sorts of kind of creatures on set. Like as the series progresses, you see a lot of kind of different things coming in and out, and I was fine with all of that stuff. And they'd throw us into dark caves and tell us to climb up walls, and I was fine.

"And then they brought the butterfly on set, and I totally freaked out. I don't like butterflies; I've never liked them. There's something really weird about them and the way they fly, and they look drunk when they're flying, because they don't fly in a straight line. And they sort of flop up and down, and I don't like how sporadic they are. Maybe this is like a metaphor for my own life somehow, but there's something totally – I can do wasps, I can do snakes, I can do rats, I can do other flying beetles, but butterflies freak me out, and the more colorful they are, the worse they are. So when they brought that butterfly on set, I think people thought I was joking at first, and then they saw that I was almost having a panic attack over having this butterfly. So I actually conquered one of my fears in a way, with letting a butterfly land on Irisa's knife, because that was all real, that wasn't CGI. So that might surprise certain people."

The series of Defiance of course also ties into the game by Trion Worlds. Both Bowler and Leonidas appear in the game. She, however, has not done much work on it yet. "After most scenes, especially towards the end, I would sort of stand in front of the screen where they would just take some of the images, basically, just stills of my body to make sure that they got all of the proportions right for the game, and just also, the way I would move.

"Grant did a lot more kind of motion stuff before that. But that was sort of the most that I've done so far for it, but I also did a lot of voice work, as well and ADR for the game, but I should imagine that there will be a lot more of that to come."

The actress hasn't started playing the game on her own yet, but she is excited to. "I've actually just set up my PC. I set it up yesterday, because I've been filming since I've been back in London, so I've been moving around and haven't actually even properly spent time at home yet, so I couldn't wait really to set up my PC and start playing. All of my friends are already on and playing, and I'm quite jealous really, because I can't wait. But no I haven't had a moment to personally get into it and kind of start, but I will in fact I probably will be on it this weekend...I really can't wait because just the idea of it all, to me, still blows my mind, it really does."

Leonidas did, however, get to see and play the game a bit at conventions and such at least. "It's kind of really strange. And I haven't managed to play a lot so it's kind of go on the journey in the game with the characters, which is what I'm really looking forward to, but yeah, especially a lot of the conventions that we did, we got to kind of see the pictures of our characters as well, and then have a go at the game. So that's where I was kind of first introduced to the game and kind of first had a go of it. It's strange kind of watching myself, and I guess because I look different as well. I just can't quite believe that it's me though. It's a really strange feeling."

Playing the game is not the only new thing for the actress. She hasn't actually seen most of the finished episodes. "I'd only really seen the pilot completely finished, so for me, watching each episode is very new as well."

Stephanie LeonidasBesides her work on Defiance, Leonidas has some other projects coming up as well. One of these is Luna. "I actually have a movie coming out with Dave McKean, who I did MirrorMask with. It should be out this year, but that was still shot a few years ago so fingers crossed it comes out...It's a bit more kind of an adult fantasy, I guess, than MirrorMask. It's based on two couples and their lives together, but it goes into kind of the fantasy world again...But it lost its budget and so we shot it a few years ago and it never got released, so they're putting it together at the moment, and I think it should be out this summer. So that would be nice, because I have no idea what that looks like...Luna is my most exciting project coming out; I really love working with David, and I really am hoping to work with him again in the future...and I love doing all that kind of fantasy stuff.

"...I also have a small part in something called uwantme2killhim?, which is another British film which should be coming out this year.

"...And I'm just filming an episode of the series over here called By Any Means, which is a kind of new police detective series. So I'm just doing a couple of episodes of that at the moment. So there're a few bits here and there, so it's quite exciting."

Until then, you can catch Stephanie Leonidas Mondays on Defiance on Syfy as Irisa, who she describes as "feral, firey...and temperamental." She adds, however, that "underneath all of that is a really big heart."

For more on Leonidas, be sure to read the previous conference call she took part in, as well as the Q&A panel she was part of during the Syfy Digital Press Tour in October. There are also exclusive photos of the Defiance set, as well as more coming soon from the Q&A in the Syfy Digital Press Tour Gallery. You can also read about my experience of visiting the set.

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