After appearing in everything from The Matrix series to Suits, veteran actress Gina Torres is finally headlining her own series.
And she’s still answering questions about Firefly.
Torres appeared at Ottawa ComicCon on Saturday to promote her new series Pearson, a Suits spinoff that will see her character Jessica Pearson running for office. “I was haunted by Jessica,” she explained, adding that the 2016 presidential election prompted her to wonder what would happen if the character ended up on the ballot.
There were certainly a lot of Suits fans in the crowd, but the majority of attendees clearly knew Torres for her geekier fare – particularly her role as Zoe Washburne in Joss Whedon’s shortest-lived but best-loved sci-fi series.
Calling Firefly “a show ahead of its time,” Torres speculated that the quickly-cancelled space western would have found its audience sooner had it premiered in today’s market. Seventeen years later, the show’s cult following is still going strong, a longevity which Torres attributes to the “kinship” fans feel with “this ragtag group of space cowboys who are just doing what they can, finding family where they can.”
Her Firefly castmates became somewhat of a second family for Torres, as well. She’s still close with her former onscreen husband Alan Tudyk. “We’re texting lovers,” she laughed, adding, “His wife’s okay with that. Let’s not start rumours – I love her too.”
Tudyk didn’t have to lobby too hard for her to guest-star in an episode of his web-series Con Man. “Alan can ask me to do anything and before he can even finish asking, I just say yes.”
She was also very fond of co-star Ron Glass, who passed away in 2016. Torres grew up watching Glass in shows like Barney Miller, and had always admired his “impeccably-dressed, well-spoken, irreverent” characters. “He kind of reminded me of my dad, because my dad was like that.” she recalls. As a result, she was thrilled when he was cast alongside her in Firefly.
“He was everything you’d expect,” she reminisced. “A gentleman, and funny, and naughty – the things that came out of his mouth! I miss him very much and always will.”
Firefly’s strong ensemble made the series a perfect fit for Torres, who told the Ottawa crowd that she relishes character arcs where “you see someone change and you see why” as well as scenes that give characters the chance to be “just unapologetically themselves.”
Torres shines playing nuanced female characters who are decisive and tough, without sacrificing warmth or kindness – characteristics visible in both stoic space rebel Zoe Washburn and steely lawyer Jessica Pearson. (“I have no range,” she joked.)
She railed against one dimensional “strong female characters” whose perceived strength comes from downplaying their femininity. “Nothing, as a fan, irritates me more than watching a woman in a role being a hard-ass and feeling that she has to muster up her male energy,” she said. “Women can be just as fierce, just as lethal, just as scary.”
She cited the original Charlie’s Angels series, as well as Old Hollywood films starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, as templates for empowered and complex female characters. “That was the age when women really did rule the box office, and the writing was clever, and they did so by their wits.”
Torres’ ability to balance strength with vulnerability served her well when she was cast in another cult favourite, Bryan Fuller’s lush Hannibal series in which she played the terminally ill Bella Crawford.
“Bryan Fuller wrote a beautiful, beautiful arc for Bella,” she said. “Bella was very, very much alive until the moment that she wasn’t, and I loved that about her.”
She added that her portrayal of the character, who died of cancer in season three, drew from her own mother’s death from the disease. “I have had a close-up view of that struggle and It was my job to portray that struggle with as much dignity and grace as I could.”
It’s this grace that defines her best characters, no matter what planet they hail from or what circumstances they find themselves in.
During the Q&A segment, a fan quoted Joss Whedon as saying that Firefly was about “nine different people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.”
“What did Zoe see?” the questioner asked.
Torres’ reply? “Hope.”
Guest: Gina Torres
Venue: Ottawa ComicCon, EY Centre, Ottawa ON
Date: Saturday, May 11/2019