An Interview with Stargate's Daniel Jackson, Michael Shanks

Michael Shanks "It's been an interesting journey," Michael Shanks smiles as he considers the path his character has taken over the past seven years. "And I think it's been, certainly, a dynamic journey." The Daniel Jackson who left his world behind and found a wife and a peaceful existence on a distant planet could hardly have imagined what his future would hold. He has faced the loss of his wife, and discovered inconceivable wonders, confronted evil, and saved the planet, experienced the mysteries of ascension, and returned again to human form. Michael is delighted by the direction his character has taken, and the opportunities he has had to allow Daniel Jackson to grow.

"You know there's always the trap, doing what we do, to get caught up in the same-old same-old all the time," he observes. But dealing with Daniel's ascension has opened new doors and possibilities that are still being explored. "Especially last season, too, we all weren't quite sure where the ascended thing was going. And then to come back with certain aspects that were going to help the show in the long run, and make him familiar with our ultimate goal as well, for the season finale, helps us and progresses the character to a large degree. It's also the notion of unfinished business, which is why the character was brought back in the first place, and why it seemed to make sense for his ascended journey, where he didn't want to carry on in that way because he knew that he still had things to do. So I'm very happy with the way it's gone. This year, because it's the early days yet, we're still waiting to catch an idea about where the character is going to go this year in a specific long term dynamic. But especially in season seven, I was very happy with the coming back aspect of it, still possessing some things, still missing some pieces, so we didn't have this way too knowledgeable character, as well as how that led in to Lost City and the journey to the Ancients."

Daniel's ascended journey has also left many unanswered questions. Season seven served to return the character to his team, and to restore his memories of life on Earth, but his experiences on a higher plane have yet to be fully explored, and the true reason behind his abrupt return to human form is still a mystery. "The only thing that we developed, more or less, was what happened at the very end, which all happened off camera, and the audience still doesn't know the exposition of it. Basically Daniel was told off for interfering, that he had a choice to make, whether he wanted to go back and clear up his unfinished business, or whether he wanted to carry on doing what they were doing. And I think that his idea, his notion about that unfinished business, is if it was drawing him closer to his friends, then there obviously was still something yet unresolved. And he also realized that this maybe wasn't his idea of heaven that he thought it was going to be, the end-all be-all, and that he was better off, if he was going to complete his journey, it was going to be the way it had begun. So really any notion of what happened in between is pretty convoluted, and I think it would be great to delve into a story that touches on that. But sometimes I think that the audience's imagination can be more interesting than what we can put on screen. Sometimes I've argued that they're better left unspoken and untalked about. If Rob [Cooper] wants to do it, I know I've mentioned a few things about it, but I'm not sure if they have any plans about it. As an audience member, I would be curious as to what exactly happened."

Has his curiosity motivated him to write his own story that would fill in the missing pieces? Michael smiles again. In season seven, he had the opportunity to write a Stargate script, and although he has spoken positively of the learning experience, he has hesitated to take on the task again in season eight. "They asked at the start of the year, they said do you want to write anything, and I said let me get back to you on that. I still haven't gotten back to them on that!" he laughs. "I think it's one of those things, especially with this show, that to learn the ropes and to learn how it fits into the production process is great, but if it's another story that I'm going to tell, I think it has to be one that I'm emotionally caught up in, in wanting to tell, because it's not exactly my niche, so to speak. I enjoyed the experience, I enjoyed the learning and the collaborative effort that went on upstairs, and stepping in their shoes for a while, that was very educational for me. But if I were going to write for the show, it would certainly have to be pondering an idea that I would really want to follow through on. Because when it becomes a chore, it's no fun, and I really want to enjoy it this time. I think that I waited too long last time and I wasn't necessarily emotionally attached to the story, and it kind of became one of those chores that I left too long. I definitely want to have it be a fun experience and enjoyable for me. So the answer is yes, I'd like to, whether or not it will happen, I don't know."

Michael's first experience with scriptwriting came with the seventh season episode Resurrection, an episode which he describes as having evolved considerably during the collaborative process. "I went in, and made a few pitches, and what I ended up walking out of the room with wasn't necessarily what I had started with," he recalls. "It was sort of a hybrid of an idea, if you will, that ended up getting bandied around the room, and when I left I actually remember pausing and thinking to myself, what just happened? And then the evolution process took place from there. So, some of the ideas that I had, ended up in other stories, and some ended up on the floor and whatever. But this was a seed of an idea that a lot of other people, and I was part of it too, were getting very excited about, talking about this idea, and then having come in there with very clear ideas about what I wanted to write, and then leaving with this idea that was more of a collaboration of everyone in the room. When I left I sort of stopped, after being real excited, and went, 'Oh, that was great!' and I went, 'Wait a minute, this is not what I came in here to write. Oh well.' And then I went off and did the chore. So it wasn't quite the core idea of what I wanted to do, but it was fun nonetheless."

Asked what he might have done differently, given the chance, he continues, "I think the main heart of the story was still there. I think that the relationship that I never was quite able to fully realize, that I would have liked to have gone back and revisited, was the relationship between Daniel and Anna. There needed to be more of an emotional center garnered there, but it ended up being missing. You're supposed to learn to feel for her, and that's through our different characters' eyes. And if you don't actually end up feeling for the character, then the ending is kind of hollow. I don't think that there was enough of an emotional connection made through that journey that made the ending as poignant as it could have been. So I certainly would have liked to change that, but I don't think I had fleshed it out any more than the rewrites that tend to sort of hit the nail on the head. It's always one of our difficult things in 44 minutes on the nose, when you're missing something you can't just go, oh well I'll write that extra scene in. You have structure, and oftentimes emotional arcs end up getting put by the wayside in favor of the actual story or the evolution, the climax, and the dénouement of the story, and usually emotional beats and character beats end up getting cut first. So I would have liked to revisit that, to have gone back and rewritten that."



Stargate has also given Michael the opportunity to try his hand at directing. He has spoken even more positively of his directing debut which earned him high marks for his handling of the very challenging fourth season script, Double Jeopardy. "It's something that I'm much more attuned to," he says of directing, "and my instincts seem served better there than the writing process." Can fans look forward to the return of Michael Shanks to the director's chair? He answers thoughtfully, "Especially with the way we're filming now, it becomes a very difficult task to direct and act in a show. Rick's got his own specific schedule now, and we're kind of all over the map in terms of shooting different episodes at the same time. I think I'd certainly like to. I don't know whether that would actually happen. I think it's more likely that in the future I'd do it on Atlantis than it is to do it here."

It seems that for the moment Michael is content to put writing and directing on hold for a time and focus on the acting challenges that Stargate has offered. Last season saw several Daniel-centered storylines, and one rather unique opportunity in which Daniel himself becomes lost amid a dozen distinct personalities which have taken over his body. The episode Lifeboat earned critical praise, and Michael's performance earned him a Leo Award for Best Lead Performance by a Male in a Dramatic Series. Michael carefully prepared the three most significant personalities to emerge, the loyal engineer Tryan, the arrogant sovereign Martice, and Pharrin's young son Keenin. "Everything that I took for all those distinct characters were kind of caricatures stolen from other different shows that I had watched. Structurally, they all had to be certain extremities, and so I took the seed of an idea which was a familiar character that you see on another program or read about in a book. The specifics of mine were everything from taking Tryan's character, which was essentially Jack Lemmon's character from The China Syndrome, to Martice which was actually from Schindler's List, which ended up getting evolved along the process. And the boy was actually the actor who played him because he had given such an interesting read and so much strong backstory. Those were all basically the root characterizations. That's where it started, and it sort of evolved from there. They had to be three very strong points, otherwise the story wasn't going to work. The actor who played Pharrin, I loved what his work was in the show. But I don't think that to play the madness in that particular way, where it's a bit more of a mishmash with the characters all spiking up at different points, would have served in this particular thing, because the characters find very distinct points to come out and play and then they disappear for a while. Those were the root characterizations of what I chose. And then through the rehearsal process, and through the preparatory process, they all kind of evolved into different beings from there."

The shooting schedule didn't allow for each character to be fleshed out individually before moving on to develop the next, but Michael found that continually shifting among the personalities actually helped the creative process. "We actually shot it more in a chronological order, that I was in and out of the different characters. We don't get a lot of rehearsal time around here, and through the actual shooting process, I was finding little beats in one scene and then taking it to a next level, and then going over it and over it and over again to block it. And especially working with Teryl was great. Shooting it in that kind of chronological order, at the end when they are all spiking up, they kind of needed to be fleshed out a little bit first in my mind, and I felt that that was a good part of the process, to do it that way."


Lost City

It's a tough act to follow, but with a whole new season on the horizon, what is Michael particularly looking forward to as his dynamic journey continues? "I'm still just excited every day to see the scripts," he smiles, careful not to give too much away. "We closed a lot of doors and handed over to the Atlantis people when we finished last year, this journey that we've been on for years, to find this Lost City and to journey to the Ancients. That idea got handed to a whole different group of people, which is essentially our super objective in the series. So I'm really interested to see what our new focuses are going to become this year, with O'Neill being a general, and our allies and our enemies, what's left of them at the end of last year, to find out what our true focus is going to be and our super objective for this season. I'm really curious because we're about five episodes in, and we're seeing little bits and pieces of the NID remaining, and there's an aspect of Anubis still not quite being gone yet, and aspects like that, as well as what our connection is going to be to the people in Atlantis. I'm really curious. So I don't have so much to talk about, as so much I'm looking forward to. We have a lot more to touch on, and I can't wait to see how we’re going to do it and end our run of the show."

Ritter, Kate. "A Dynamic Journey." April 29, 2004.

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