She has creeped you out as Dr. Juliet Burke on Lost and enthralled you as FBI agent Erica Evans on V. And while for many she may be a newcomer to the television landscape, Elizabeth Mitchell has been making a name for herself on the small and big screens for the last sixteen years, including sharing the spotlight with Tim Allen in The Santa Clause 2 and 3. Lately she’s had her hands full juggling two major sci-fi series and raising a four year-old son. Taking a break from all of that, Mitchell spoke to A.D.D. from her home in Bainbridge Island, Washington, touching upon everything from stardom to motherhood to the future of television viewing.
You have this knack lately for picking these shows that involve multiple storylines. And Lost‘s season five finale left you with quite the cliffhanger.
Not dramatic or anything. It happens every day in my life.
Are you going to be able to handle this extra commuting between these two shows?
It hasn’t been a problem so far. I know at some point it might be, but it hasn’t so far.
You sound much sweeter than Juliet. I remember interviewing Michael Emerson a couple of years ago, and he is obviously much different than his character on Lost. I asked him about people coming up to him and if they were friendly or afraid of him.
I’ve gone through airports with him, and in some ways they’re afraid of him, but it’s more in that way of, “You’re bad.” I think they know. Some people say, “He just creeps me out.” I’m like, “Well, that’s his job.”
What about you? Juliet certainly has creepy moments.
I love that. That’s kind of what made it all so much fun in the third season, how creepy she was.
How does it affect you when you meet people on the street who don’t know you? Do they have that mixed reaction to you?
Especially with season three, definitely. A huge mixed reaction in season three. In season five she’s come into the norm and wasn’t quite as creepy, but she’ll occasionally come out with the occasional burst of “why didn’t you just tell us that before” crazy lady kind of stuff. She became a bit more acceptable and normal, and then I got a completely different reaction. I got the, “Aww, it’s Juliet” kind of thing, as opposed to, “Hi, my husband doesn’t trust you. I’m not sure I trust you.” Well, ok, I understand that.
Did you ever see the original V series?
I did, yes.
So what were you expecting from this, and what was your reaction when you first got the script?
I didn’t really think about it so much because I was actually just told that there was a sci-fi script, and they couldn’t find the female protagonist. They said it was mainly action adventure but very character-based, but they didn’t say V. I wasn’t immediately thinking that, so I did get to get the script, go through it and then go, “Oh, okay.” It was an ABC pilot that they were being fairly secretive about. After I read it, I was trying to determine who is who. But I didn’t really compare it. I was a pretty huge Battlestar Galactica fan, and I felt it was really similar [in approach]. There wasn’t a lot to compare. It was more a respectful taking off of [the original], which I like. I thought that was nice. It’s a little easier for us. They did what they did and received all of that acclaim, and that got to be theirs. We’re not trying to glom onto that, but we’re doing our own respectful taking off from that place.
You are taking the place of the Marc Singer character now.
Yeah, kind of that, but she’s also an FBI agent, which gives her some skills. And we have Scott [Wolf], who’s so delightful. I think he is probably one of my favorite characters. I love Scott because of the way he plays it. He’s very sneaky, but at the same time so incredibly charming that you find yourself drawn into him.
The original V was meant as a Holocaust parable. The new version addresses terrorism. How do you think this new incarnation is going to be different from the original, not only in terms of modernizing the approach but in dealing with the issue of fascism?
That was a really interesting approach that they took and was in some ways absolutely terrifying. You go into Middle America and put people into concentration camps, you take away their freedoms slowly but surely, and all of a sudden they find that they can’t leave their own homes and they have to think what they are supposed to think. This will have a similar feel, only instead of it being so out in the open and so clear cut, it’s more subversive than that. There are people all around us, there are people among us, which is along the feelings of how we feel now — it’s going to be very unclear who is working for the good of humanity and who is not. There are going to be a few clear ones, but not so much. There will be a lot of insurmountable obstacles, which will be nice, but I think the main difference will be that undercurrent that you don’t know who to trust. Before that happens, there has to be trust. I think there will be trust built that will then be shattered, which will be interesting and really fun to play.
You’ve been on both epic shows like Lost and procedural shows like ER. What do you see the future of television being, especially with DVRs and TiVo changing people’s viewing habits? They’re not watching television in the same way.
No, they’re really not watching things in the same way. It’s the way that it is in our house. We still get captivated by things that we really don’t want to miss – Dexter, 24, Battlestar Galactica. It is all pretty much TiVo because we have a son and/or we just get it on cable. Although we still watch a lot of network television, it’s just done in a different way, and I like that. I tend to catch up on a lot of TV on the airplane. [laughs] The way that we watch is changing, but I think the fact is there are some things that will grab you and bring you in or you’re going to love or want to know what happens next, and there are some things that won’t. It’s very hard to say which of those things any show will be. I was on a show that I thought was brilliant, and it never went. And I was on several shows where I was like “hmm,” and people loved them. You just don’t know.
Which show did you like that didn’t make it?
I’ve done about six or seven pilots.
They didn’t air?
No, they aired. The Lyons Den aired. That was Rob Lowe’s vehicle after he did The West Wing. I loved that show and thought it was really well written. I loved all the characters and thought they were so interesting, and it didn’t do anything. I did The Beast with Frank Langella. The same thing, it was awfully good. The writing was good, and the actors were intense and have gone on to have lovely careers. But it was just dead in the water. You never really know which one’s going to hit. I never expected Juliet to be a well-liked character. I just kind of liked her. I just thought she was awesome, and for some reason people seem to enjoy her. I thought that was wonderful and great, but it certainly wasn’t anything I ever expected. I just don’t think you’re ever going to know what will mark people’s fancies.
Juliet is the kind of character you love to hate then later hate to love.
Yeah, that’s always nice. Having a reaction in this day and age to anything is kind of nice. [laughs]
It’s harder to reach people and get their attention these days. We have so many clichés, and people are so overstimulated by media.
I completely agree. It is hard. So you can do a couple different things. You can hit it even harder. You can come in and do something different like Glee. You can get even more salacious and terrifying and disgusting, and sometimes that’s awesome. I’m a huge fan of Dexter, and sometimes I can’t believe I’m watching it, but it’s so good. For a while there I thought Nip/Tuck was great. You can get shocking, or you can go back and do something that has been done a million times and just do it really well. Something that makes people feel safe. I think there all kinds of different ways to grab people.
Given that V was in the public consciousness for a few years back in the early to mid-1980s, has the cast and crew been feeling a lot of pressure in terms of delivering this version?
I’m sure the producers are. Me not so much because I’m not taking over for anybody. I’m not replacing anyone beloved, so I have an easier job here. Morena has a really difficult job, but we’re very lucky that she handles it like a pro. She’s very alluring and very talented as an actress. She’s also a classically trained girl. I think she’s so much fun to watch. She has big shoes to fill, but I think she’s filling them. For me it’s not so hard. I’m definitely respectful, but I’m not freaked out about it.
Of your past television appearances, which has been your favorite and why?
My favorite? I don’t know. Like talk shows or TV shows?
Hmm… I always loved the movie Nurse Betty. I had a great time. I had such a small role, but man, I laughed so hard and got everyone else to laugh, which as an actor is truly one of the greatest gifts ever. I really enjoyed my character on Lyons Den because she was such an unholy mess and funny at the same time. She was almost a complete victim, which is really fun to play. She was at the mercy of pretty much everybody and an alcoholic. I liked her so much. Every time I would go to play her, I would think, “This is great. She’s just a mess. I can pretty much do anything.”
It’s weird to imagine you that way.
Yeah, it is, then you watch it and get it. My favorite so far has been Juliet, but that was a three-year love affair for me. I’m sure it will always feel that way.
It’ll be interesting to see if you develop into a sci-fi icon now that you’ve done both Lost and V. Many actors who become big in sci-fi never anticipate that they will.
I never anticipate that I am going to be big in anything. I really do love it. I’ve loved it since I was a little kid. I go into it and try to keep my motives as pure as possible because I feel like it’s good for the work. That’s old school. That’s how you’re trained when you start in the theater and get your rear end kicked most of the time.
So you’ve done a lot of theater in the past that?
Yeah, tons. That’s how I started, when I was about seven.
Were you a fan of Linda McCartney before playing her in The Linda McCartney Story?
I wasn’t a fan of hers before only because I didn’t know about her. I knew about the music, but I didn’t know that much about the Beatles aside from the fact that I just loved their music. I thought it was really great to find out so much information, but I thought that it did a disservice to her because she was so much more complex and fascinating and giving and truly amazing than we had time for in the two hours that we had. I do always feel like that could be done in a much better way because she was amazing. She really was.
How old is your boy now?
What’s his name?
C.J. Christopher Joseph.
Does he understand what it is that you do or is he detached from it?
No, I think he just figures that it’s something that I do. I don’t think it has any kind of mystery to him. He certainly is not remotely surprised to meet other actors or people he’s seen on TV. I think if Diego [Nick Jr. cartoon character] walked into the room, he would be like, “Oh my God!” But he is not really a star guy. He has met some of the coolest people ever, and he’s like, “Hey, what’s up.” He will definitely not be star struck, but at the same time he is cordial with people. He fell in love with Evangeline the second he met her, so you never know. You never know what’s going to happen or who he’s going to be kind or unkind to. He’s four, but I do try to make sure he’s polite even if he can’t stand someone.