Rachel Skarsten on landing one of the supporting roles in the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey
When Post City reaches Toronto-born actress Rachel Skarsten by phone, she is at the swanky Soho Club in New York. She has been doing interviews with the American media and has found a quiet spot to talk to us. So far, so movie star. Then she specifies that quiet spot is actually the bottom of a stairwell — she’s run afoul of the club’s rules on cellphones in its lounges and been asked to take our conversation elsewhere.
“I am so A-list,” she says, ladling on the irony.
There’s something disarmingly self-aware and grounded about Skarsten, an actress who, by any measure, is having something of a moment. This winter, she will return to Showcase playing fan favourite Tamsin in the fifth and final season of supernatural drama Lost Girl; next year, she’ll be seen (fully clothed) in mega-movie Fifty Shades of Grey.
Yet Skarsten doesn’t seem in the business of burnishing her own image. When we talk about what she’s doing in New York, the actress, who splits her time between Toronto and L.A., freely admits to feeling like she’s blown in from the sticks every time she’s in the frenetic pace of the Big Apple. She’s not shy about referencing her mom’s advice and calls herself a “dork” for going on in interviews about how much she likes her castmates on Lost Girl.
Perhaps that openness is because this is the second go-round in the limelight for Skarsten, who is still six months shy of her 30th birthday. Having fallen into acting almost accidentally during her teen years, she became known for playing Dinah Lance on the superhero series Birds of Prey but then decided to step away from acting and get a degree. She went to Queen’s University where she studied English literature and classical history and briefly toyed with a number of careers, including becoming a writer, until she decided that her future lay in acting.
But memories are short in Hollywood and it was a long stretch of pounding pavements and knocking on doors in L.A. before she started getting parts again. Two years ago she was cast as kick-ass cop Tamsin on season three of supernatural drama Lost Girl. It was Skarsten’s highest profile role since returning to acting and it thrust her right into the eye of the storm that is modern fandom.
“I had obviously heard of Lost Girl when I signed on, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the fandom surrounding it,” she says.
“Instantly when I signed up, my Twitter started blowing up and all these people were so excited. Even last night, I was in New York in a restaurant and the owner was a Lost Girl fan.”
For Skarsten, whose last major show had been a decade earlier — when, as she points out, there was no Twitter or Instagram — being put at the centre of a fan culture driven by social media was an eye-opener.
“Now, as actors, we are so much more accessible to the general public. We can hear what individuals have to say versus just putting our work out there and hoping for the best.”
Although Skarsten emphasizes the “incredible benefits” of having direct dialogue between those who make a show and those who love watching it, there’s also a flip side. Placing herself at the sensitive end of the spectrum of actors, Skarsten admits that it’s tough to read online comments from fans who don’t like the character or the way she’s portrayed. But, ultimately, Skarsten remains philosophical, pointing out that even the most sensitive actors still have thick skins.
“While the general public sees the more glam side of this business all the time, it is actually a lot of rejection and criticism,” she says.
One major upside of being part of Lost Girl, which wrapped filming on its final season in October, is that it was shot in Toronto.
Having been brought up in north Toronto — where she also nurtured a sporting talent, playing hockey in goal for the Leaside Wildcats — she now bases herself near Yonge and St. Clair. It’s the perfect location, she says, to zip south on the subway into downtown or north to see her mother uptown. Now that filming for the series is over, she has more free time; she hopes to spend much of it with her younger brother, with whom she is close.
These next few months are likely to be the calm before the storm for Skarsten. On Valentine’s Day next year she will appear in theatres everywhere playing Andrea in Fifty Shades of Grey. Already a movie phenomenon before a single ticket has been sold, the film has witnessed its fair share of controversy, what with an online petition demanding the recasting of the lead duo; the departure of the original male lead, Charlie Hunnan, apparently for reasons outside of the petition; and his replacement, Jamie Dornan, stepping in to fill Christian Grey’s shoes.
Skarsten plays the personal assistant to the wealthy entrepreneur Grey and is one of the few characters that doesn’t engage in the sexual shenanigans. Her casting in the role came as something of a surprise. After receiving what she believed to be an audition call for the part, Skarsten ended up face-to-face with the movie’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who offered her the part then and there.
Skarsten recalls: “She said, ‘I’ve seen your tape. I’ve seen a hundred girls for the part, and I just want to offer it to you. I didn’t even have to audition. It was one of those moments in your career where you are like, ‘Oh my goodness, hold it together, do not cry right now. I ran out to the car and called my mom. I was just shrieking.’”
Given the international success of the book trilogy on which it is based, huge numbers at the box office would seem guaranteed. Having already born the displeasure of fans following the original casting, the movie carries an enormous weight of expectations — both from the books’ fans, who will want to see if it lives up to the hype, and from film critics, many of whom will likely be willing it to fail.
Easily the biggest movie Skarsten has worked on, she says the atmosphere on set was highly charged. “I think the first time you are on a movie like that nothing can really prepare you for that experience because it’s just in a different stratosphere. We had to hand in our scripts at the end of every day, we had to wear robes over our costumes, everything was covered in black tarps — it was all shrouded in secrecy,” she says.
“It’s a lot of pressure. You’re making something that a lot of people are going to scrutinize and a lot of people have high expectations for.”
Regardless of how the movie is received, simply being part of the Fifty Shades juggernaut will boost Skarsten’s profile enormously, and that’s never a bad thing. After rebooting her acting career once, this time Skarsten is here to stay.
Fifty Shades of Grey premieres in Los Angeles on Feb. 9 and in Canadian theatres on Feb. 13.