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Interview: Melissa O’Neil and Anthony Lemke dish on ‘Dark Matter’ (Includes interview)

In space, no one knows who you are. At least that’s the case for the characters in the new television sci-fi series Dark Matter.

The show’s fast-paced pilot centers on a group of astronauts who awaken from stasis to find they’re adrift on a disabled spaceship. Worse, no one remembers their name or why there is a huge cargo of weapons sitting in the ship’s belly. After numerically naming each other based on the order they thawed out, the crew sets about repairing the ship and discovering who they are. What follows is an intriguing mix of action-adventure, who-done-it mystery and identity thriller.

Series stars Melissa O’Neil and Anthony Lemke believe Dark Matter, which will air on Space in Canada and Syfy in the United States, is a character-driven gem that will quickly draw audiences in.

“We have actors portraying six humans and an android, and every episode you’re going to get a story that can stand on its own or can be woven into the fabric of the entire story,” said O’Neil, who plays the ship’s kick-ass de facto leader Two. “There’s a character for every kind of audience.”

Lemke, who portrays smirky trouble-maker Three, said he loves the show’s central themes, which revolve around morality, identity and technology. “I think the series asks some really interesting questions, like can you ever really be a different person?”

Created by Stargate SG-1 alums Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, who literally took the novel approach of pitching the series through a series of Dark Horse Comics, Dark Matter is positioned to fill the space opera void left when Stargate ended in 2007. The creatives behind the camera aren’t the only ones with serious sci-fi credentials on the Toronto-shot series; Continuum‘s Roger Cross and Lost Girl‘s Zoie Palmer are among the show’s regulars. Marc Bendavid, Jodelle Ferland and Alex Mallari Jr. round out the cast.

According to Mallozzi’s blog, which is filled with gloriously detailed descriptions of Dark Matter‘s creation, Lemke’s Three is intended to be a cross between Han Solo, Jack O’Neill and Capt. Jack Sparrow.

“I slur a little less than Capt. Jack Sparrow,” Lemke joked. “But Three is a bit of an archetype, for sure, and I think part of the challenge and fun of playing that role is that you have to try to fulfill the archetype, but then you also have to try to bring something new to it.”

Lemke, an Ottawa native whose long list of TV credits include 19-2, The Listener and Lost Girl, views his acting performances as a collaboration between himself, the writers and the production crew, and he prefers to offer as many ideas and character shades as he can while filming. “If I keep giving them the same thing, the same version, over and over instead of giving them 20 things, then they only have one thing [to choose from],” he explained.

Lemke confesses it’s an approach that didn’t always work in his favor early in his career. He was once told after an audition that he would have been hired if he had “just stuck to the text.” However, one of the reasons Lemke was attracted to Dark Matter was Mallozzi’s willingness to creatively engage with him. “He’s very open and appreciative of input,” he said.

While Lemke is an established small-screen veteran, O’Neil is television neophyte. After becoming the first female winner of Canadian Idol in 2005, she developed a successful stage career, eventually working her way up to Les Misérables on Broadway.

O’Neil, who was born in Calgary, said transitioning to television wasn’t “a conscious decision on my part,” but came about because her agent read a breakdown for Two–which called for a master fighter and natural leader who is tough but compassionate–and immediately persuaded her to send in an audition tape, which caught Mallozzi’s attention. She beat out over 250 actresses for the part.

“I’m so grateful,” said O’Neil.

To prepare for the physical demands of her role, O’Neil trained for two months with Dark Matter stunt coordinator John Stead. She then endured two-hour fight rehearsals each day on set before heading home for more practice and to run lines for the next day’s filming.

When asked if she learned a lot during the 13-episode shoot, O’Neil laughed and emphatically answered, “Uh, yes!” She admitted the project was challenging but said her fellow cast and crew were patient and helpful. “Technically, it’s an entirely different medium to be working in, and it’s fascinating,” she said. “I’m very lucky to be working with such wonderful and generous actors and the crew.”

At that moment, Lemke piped up, claiming O’Neil was being far too humble about what she was able to accomplish during Dark Matter‘s first season. “She didn’t even know the [industry] lingo. She’d whisper in our ears, ‘What does that mean?’ and then she’d go around and be a leader on camera…she was amazing.”

If Dark Matter takes off, both Lemke and O’Neil said they would be thrilled to attend conventions and embrace the peculiarly intense fandom that sci-fi and fantasy shows can foster.

“I imagine it’s going to be pretty nutty,” said O’Neil. She noted that the aftermath of winning Canadian Idol was “pretty crazy” and Les Misérables fans can be surprisingly rabid, “but I’ve never been in a situation where you go into a room and sit down with people and they want to meet you and ask questions. It sounds like so much fun.”

For Lemke, the idea of communicating with fans of the show plays into his aforementioned interest in creative interaction. “[Fan] dialogue ends up feeding back into the manner in which the show is created…I love that process of collaboration.”

Both actors feel optimistic about Dark Matter‘s future, but they are each taking a breather now that filming for the first season has wrapped.

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Lemke plans to resume his dual roles as a husband and father during the break. “I’ve got a family with kids who haven’t seen much of me for the last few months,” he said.

Meanwhile, O’Neil is looking forward to some down time with her French bulldog and then plans to begin training in anticipation of Dark Matter‘s second season. “I want to be ready, and I want to go hard,” she said. “Yeah. It’s gonna be good.”

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