Ex-basketball star Peta Wilson kills them softly as TV's La Femme Nikita
Steven Lang & Natasha Stoynoff, People Magazine (14 April 1997)
It's almost as if Peta Wilson has been preparing since age 12 for her role as the vampy but highly athletic spy on USA Network's La Femme Nikita. As a schoolgirl growing up in Australia, Wilson remembers that her doting grandmother Elizabeth would "wake me up at 4 a.m. for swimming. I'd come home, and she'd feed me lamb chops and eggs, then I'd go off to basketball. After school, I'd [practice] judo." When Wilson was about 15, her mother decided it was time to temper all the jock stuff with a few courses in grooming and deportment. "Mum wanted me to be a bit more feminine," Wilson, 26, says with a smile.
Wilson's venture into modeling had some frightening consequences. But in the end her training proved the perfect recipe for the role of Nikita, a petty hood who, sentenced to life in prison for a crime she didn't commit, gets dragooned by a government group into becoming an undercover assassin. (Nikita was first played by Anne Parillaud in a 1990 European film, then by Bridget Fonda in the '93 American remake, Point of No Return.) It's a job that calls for Wilson to slither through a ventilation system suspended 30 feet above a soundstage and seduce terrorists in a gown cut down to there. "From one angle she looks like she could be on a runway in Milan. From another she looks like a street tough," says director Ken Girotti.
Wilson learned to be a chameleon early on. The army brat daughter of a retired warrant officer, Darcy Wilson, and a caterer, Karlene White (they also have a son, Rob, 25, an Australian army truck driver), she was born in Sydney but moved a dozen times before she was 13. "When you go to new schools where the kids have all been friends for years, it becomes a necessity to adapt, to act," she says. Adding to her problems was a nine-month case of malaria, caught in 1975 while living with her family in Papua New Guinea. She also had to cope with her parents' painful divorce seven years later. For a long time after they split, she says, "I'd sit and wait on a fence for my dad to come back."
As she moved around, sports were Wilson's calling card. In high school she became the youngest member and "best player" of the Australian national netball (basketball) team, she says. Her height also proved an advantage when she began modeling, and though the 5'10" beauty landed work in Australian magazines and on European runways, success came at a price. Wilson became anorexic and bulimic, dropping from 140 pounds to 110 in one year. "It was a natural neurosis from being that age, in a career built on the external, and my parents' divorce," she says. After two years, Wilson finally overcame her eating disorders through simple maturation. "I just grew out of it," she says.
Trying to decide what to do next, Wilson moved to L.A. in 1991. She rented a house with a girlfriend but didn't stay long. At a party a few months later she met film director Damian Harris (Deceived). Three months after that, they moved into a three-bedroom Hollywood Hills house. "She's very confident and has a good soul and a big heart," he says.
Finding love, however, proved easier than finding work. Intent on trying show business, she modeled occasionally to pay for acting classes. After four years and just a handful of parts, Wilson was on the verge of going to New York City to try theater -- until Nikita's producers chose her last summer over 200 other hopefuls. "She came [to the audition] in scruffy jeans and had a big [appendectomy] scar on her belly," recalls Joel Surnow, the show's executive consultant. "She was really gnarly, hair flying in every direction. Afterwards, she sat on a chair ... and became the most charming, chatty Australian girl."
Nervous about carrying the lead in a series, Wilson asked costar Roy Dupuis, who plays her mentor Michael, for acting advice. "She learned quickly," he says. "She's very intelligent." Wilson also persuaded her widowed grandmother Elizabeth, whom she calls Nan, to move from Australia to share her rented loft in Toronto and take care of her, just like in the old days. "I didn't think I'd be able to cope with the stress," explains Wilson. It was an inspired idea. "Every night when I come home, Nan runs a bath with my essential oils, lights my candles and has dinner on the table," says Wilson. "She wakes me up at 5 a.m., gives me a big kiss and tells me to say my prayers if I have a rough day." Of course other goals, like marriage ("I'd love to live in a villa and have 10 kids"), have been shelved while she settles into the series' 17-hour workdays. But then no one ever said spying was an easy business.
E! Interview with Peta and Roy
People Magazine (14 April 1997)
Reporter: Australian beauty, Peta Wilson takes on the life of "La Femme Nikita", her new TV series based on the successful French film. The show is filmed in Canada and Jewels Asner (sp?) has a behind-the-scenes look at all the action.
Nikita: (come on everyone, you know you can repeat this one from memory. Say it with me now) I was falsely accused of a hideous crime and sentenced to life in prison. One night, I was taken from my cell to a place called Section One, the most covert anti-terrorist group on the planet. Their ends are just, but their means are ruthless.
Reporter: On screen, Nikita's adventures may seem glamorous, but that's not always the case off-screen.
Peta Wilson: (to E!) Last week I had my face stuck in a cage with, like, sixty rats. That was good, that was nice. I was very happy with that one. In an old garbage factory. Attractive. Glamorous, very glamorous.
Roy Dupuis: (to E!) The Section is...We have to be precise about that. It's not Mission Impossible. We're not, like, trained, willing operatives. We are there...We are forced to be there. We are dead for the eye of the society. It's like being in prison. You have to do what you have--what they tell you to do.
Reporter: Roy Dupuis is Michael, Nikita's mentor and trainer, though the relationship is never allowed to get too close.
Roy: (to E!) Michael learned, by experience, that to get emotionally involved with other operatives can get you hurt...a lot.
Reporter: Peta Wilson is no stranger to vigorous physical activity. She was named Australian Champion Trailer Sailor with her father and brother.
Peta: (to E!) My brother actually came here and he saw me. He couldn't help it. The first thing he did, 'cause I'm, like, walking around with a machine gun going, "Check this out, Rob." 'Cause he's, like, six-foot-four and built like a backyard. And the first thing he could say, in front of the entire crew, was, "Well, I can still put her in a headlock." And so, he did, like, in front of everybody. (In a background scene, they show her acting) (acting) No! (to E!) They (her family, I'm assuming) think it's very cool. They think it's very cool that I handle guns, and I'm tough.
Reporter: "La Femme Nikita" airs both Monday and Friday night on the USA Network.
Nikita Star Shoots Straight For the Top
Peta Wilson Knocks 'Em Dead on Cable
Jefferson Graham, USA Today (14 April 1997)
Now Peta Wilson is the star of USA Network's La Femme Nikita (a big hit the cable channel has just renewed for a second season), the subject of a feature in People magazine and a major Internet babe.
USA's Web site features a gallery of 20 shots of the statuesque Australian blonde, under the heading "Drop Dead Looks." A search of the Net finds several Peta shrines set up by fans.
"This is all new to me," says Wilson, 26, by phone from the set in Toronto. "At airports, people are coming up to me all the time. Three months ago, I couldn't get a flight. I don't know f this is one of the perks, but I'm enjoying it."
Nikita is adapted from the 1990 French film about a cop killer forced to join an elite government operation and perform clandestine duties such as assassinations. (A U.S. remake of the film, Point of No Return, starred Bridget Fonda.)
In the TV version, which airs Mondays and Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT, Nikita has been wrongly accused of murder.
USA Entertainment chief Rod Perth knew there was room for Nikita on cable. "It's a show that was simply not on TV, with a strong female character who is action-oriented but is smart and happens to be beautiful."
It took several years to put the deal together, and then USA had a lengthy audition process. In came Wilson, who had appeared in such forgettable films as Sadness of Sex and Reasonable Force.
"She was just riveting," Perth says. "She's an actress who, when she's just standing still makes a statement, and when she moves is so agile. It was clear that she was a fantastic potential star."
After she got the job, Wilson spent eight weeks training. "In the theater, if you're going to play a blind person, you hang with the blind," she says. "I hung with street kids . . . I learned tai chi, how to fall and kill, how to take punches and kicks. I went to video arcades and worked on virtual reality cops-and-robbers machines. I went to gun ranges and shot ammunition."
Filming took her to Toronto, where she had to appear in scenes that required very little clothing -- when it was 25 degrees below zero outside.
"My teeth were chattering," she says. "The big question was, 'How can I look less freezing?' It's hard to look sexy in down."
Wilson was born in Australia, an Army brat who lived in 13 places before she turned 18, with most of the time in New Guinea. Going to so many schools made her outgoing. "With a name like Peta, a voice like a tomboy and being rather loud, it was somewhat difficult."
(Her parents thought they were having a boy, and Pete was the chosen name. When he turned out to be a she, Wilson became Peta.)
Wilson eventually moved to Los Angeles and studied acting. After tiny roles in films (and episodes of TV's syndicated Highlander and HBO's Strangers), she decided to try for a TV series instead.
"I did seven scenes in my audition," she says. "They wanted to see if I had the juice. When you're unknown, they're taking a risk."
Production for the season is scheduled to be completed in June, and she is looking forward to returning to her Hollywood Hills home and spending time with her boyfriend, Damian, a writer and director.
"I'm thinking about the warm weather every day," she says. "I can't wait to see the sunshine."
Roy Dupuis and Yvonne Scio Interview
Entertainment Tonight (26 May 1997)
ET: Well, here's one job that Tom Cruise or John Travolta or Sandra Bullock cannot delegate to an assistant and that is shooting a steamy love. Those sexy scenes are smooth and natural when we see them on TV or at the movies, but actors need coordination and nerve to make it work. It's time to shoot a scene for "La Femme Nikita." For the crew, it's just another shot, but for the actors, it's time to get nervous. This will be a love scene.
Roy Dupuis: (to ET) Love scenes are always touchy. It's always hard to do. (In the background, to Yvonne Scio, laughing) I'll just lie down here.
Yvonne Scio: (to Roy while laughing) Lie down!
Roy:(to Yvonne) Yeah! (to ET) The woman is pretty, so it makes it easier. (He's *smiling*)
ET: In the secret-agent series, Roy plays Michael, Nikita's boss. But in this episode, he's out to seduce guest-star Yvonne Scio. Michael and Nikita must stop her evil husband's deadly plan and if that means decieving the innocent Yvonne, so be it.
Yvonne: (acting) I'm afraid.
Michael: Your husband doesn't have to find out.
Yvonne: (still acting) I'm afraid of falling in love.
ET: Yvonne says it's all just acting, and putting herself right in the moment.
Yvonne: (to ET) Well, you love the person so you look at him, and you love him. So you touch him, you feel him, you desire him.
ET: But Yvonne, a veteran of European films and American TV movies, admits she wasn't always so easily excited.
Yvonne: (to ET) Oh, the first time, I was so uncomfortable. I drank so much; I think I was totally drunk.
ET: The actor's movements are mostly spontaneous. The director didn't want to choreograph too much since he wanted to film the nervousness of new lovers.
T.J. Scott (director): (to ET) They're discovering as they go along who goes where and, as you can see, there's moments where they're spontaneously laughing.
Roy: (to ET) You take your clothes off, and you're shy and then three hours later, you're going around naked on the set.
ET: The idea, of course, is to make the audience believe what they're seeing. At least, until the director says, "Cut."
Yvonne: (to ET) Well, this isn't making love. I'm sorry to tell you. This is fiction.
Newsguy: If you want to see it, that episode of "La Femme Nikita" airs in July on cable's USA Network.
Hot Zone: Peta Wilson
Hilary Sterne, Us Magazine (June 1997)
When Peta Wilson, 26, auditioned for the starring role of a street kid turned assasin in the USA network's La Femme Nikita, she knew the part called for a knockout. But not until she suffered a concussion performing her own stunt did she know what she was really in for.
Luckily, Wilson, a former model, was a champion basketball player in her native Australia and was used to a few bruises. Back then she cut her hair boy short "just to piss Mum off" and answered to the name of Pete. These days her locks are longer and a bit darker. In fact, when stylist Art Luna bleached Wilson's hair a lighter blond for the show, she persuaded the producers to let the roots grow in, as her character might.
Nikita's style, which Wilson describes as "an interesting mix of masculine and feminine," is not unlike Wilson's own. She's as soon wear a '40s dress as a man-tailored Gucci suit. For the beach, she favors sport-inspired swimsuits over anything overly revealing. "I'm careful not to be too va-va-va-voom sexy," says Wilson. "I may be a blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie, but I ain't Pamela Anderson [Lee]!"
What USA's La Femme Nikita Lacks in Stars It Has in Pizazz
Tom Shales, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (21 June 1997)
It's become one of the more dependable trends in television: Each year the total audience for the broadcast networks goes down a little, and the audience for basic cable networks goes up a little. One reason has to be that the broadcast networks show reruns all summer whereas cable tries harder to supply first-run fare.
If Macy's had put a sign in the window that said "Closed for the Summer," it's not hard to figure out that business would have been booming at Gimbels.
Tomorrow night, the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox prime-time lineups will consist almost exclusively of reruns....But over on the USA Network, there will be new, never seen episodes of The Big Easy and La Femme Nikita. And USA promises new episodes of its other Sunday night series Pacific Blue and Silk Stalkings in August.
USA's shows tend to be more cheaply produced than those of the big networks, but sometimes that just means producers and directors have to use more imagination and enterprise. Clearly this is the case with La Femme Nikita, a highly stylized action-adventure series shot in Toronto. It may cut a few corners on sets and stars, but it makes up for that in style and pizazz.
La Femme Nikita is loaded with milieu and atmospherics and a tantalizing sexiness. The episode airing tomorrow (at 10 p.m.), called "Recruit," is especially tense and enigmatic. It's certainly a lot more fun than a rerun of 3rd Rock From the Sun -- or even a first-run 3rd Rock for that matter.
Peta Wilson, the kind of icy blonde Hitchcock would have admired, stars as the femme called Nikita in the series, which is very loosely based on a hit French film that was later made into a flop American film. One change is evident from Nikita's opening narration: "I was falsely accused of a hideous crime," she says, "and sentenced to life in prison." In the original movie, Nikita wasn't falsely accused at all. She was guilty as hell.
But what happened next is the same: Nikita is plucked from prison and trained to be a secret agent with something called Section One, "the most covert anti-terrorist group on the planet." Nikita must accept all manner of dangerous assignments because, as she notes, "if I don't play by their rules, I die." Borrowing from the parlance of television itself, failed agents are "canceled." Which means, killed.
Karyn, the recruit in "Recruit," is played by Felicity Waterman who, USA Network notes, was the producers' "alternate choice" to play Nikita. Instead, she's guest-starring as a novice agent whom Nikita must evaluate over two weeks of on-the-job training. There's a certain sly resonance when Waterman says to Wilson, in character of course, "I belong here....I've earned my place here, Nikita, and you do not have the right to take that away from me."
From the beginning, you know there's more to this setup than meets the eyes and ears.
The subplot of "Recruit" has Section One agents trying to retrieve a secret NATO documents stolen by a man who wants millions for its return. In gowns or tank tops, the two women go after the bad guys with guns blazing. There's lots of shooting but no gore. The series is rated TV-14.
Reza Badiyi, who directed the episode, created two of the best and most famous opening credit sequences in TV history: Hawaii Five-O and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Talent like this helps make La Femme Nikita seem not second-rate but top-flight. If basic cable is TV's off-Broadway, it's certainly giving Broadway a run for the money.
USA's Summer Hotshots
Richard Huff, New York Daily News (22 June 1997)
Peta Wilson is tired. "The body is aching," she said in a phone interview from her New York hotel room. "I feel like going on an island where nobody is there, of course."
She should be tired, having recently wrapped up production on the final installment of a 22-episode order of "La Femme Nikita," a USA Network action-adventure show that runs Sunday nights at 10.
The series is based on the big-screen film of the same name and revolves around Wilson, who portrays Nikita, falsely accused of murder and, in order to save herself, an unwilling member of a secret, ruthless government agency. Paul Dupuis co-stars as Nikita's mentor Michael.
As such, Wilson, 26, is in virtually every scene and performs most of her own stunts. And to do Nikita's job properly, she usually ends up killing folks in every episode.
"It's draining, physically and emotionally," she said, her Australian accent evident. "I'm so happy to be doing it. . . . It's really hard work being on a TV series. We're carrying machine guns around. It's always cold. [The show is taped on location in Toronto.] I'm really earning my money."
The series also marks Wilson's first series. Her previous television work amounted to appearances in a handful of movies. She also has performed in a few stage projects.
"La Femme Nikita" is one of four USA original series that are being packaged together on Sunday nights starting tonight under the banner "Summer Heat."
The programing block kicks off at 8 o'clock, with the set-at-the-beach police drama "Pacific Blue" (think "Baywatch" on bikes), which stars Rick Rossovich, Paula Tricky, Darlene Vogel and Jim Davidson.
"Silk Stalkings," USA's longest-running original series, about a pair of detectives dealing with crimes of passion, airs at 9 p.m. Chris Potter and Janet Gunn top-line the Palm Beach-based show.
"La Femme" steps in at 10, and "The Big Easy," another hour-long series based on a big-screen movie, airs at 11. It stars Tony Crane.
Wilson's introduction to series television has been both trying and rewarding. "I'm paying my dues," she said. "No rehearsals, no read-throughs. It's really not an actor's medium. It's a bit frustrating: I'm doing the best with what I'm given and that's a great lesson in itself."
Wilson said the production schedule often 16 to 18-hour days helped her to be able to react instantly for the cameras.
"You can get really freaked out," she said about the schedule. "It teaches me about being in the moment."
Compared to theatrical projects, where the cast will shoot approximately three pages of script a day, the team behind "La Femme Nikita" will go through a dozen. "It's really scary," she continued. "Television is so huge."
The cable channel's decision to put the four originals together on Sunday night is an effort to take advantage of the broadcast networks' shift to repeats during the summer.
In recent years, USA, as well as a number of other cable channels, has seen its summer Nielsen ratings soar as viewers seek out original programing rather than warmed-over network fare.
Since its launch in the fall, "La Femme Nikita" has averaged 1,265,000 homes tuned in each week. "Pacific Blue" has been logging 1,114,000 homes. "Silk Stalkings" draws 1,071,000 homes and "The Big Easy" has been attracting 1,051,000 homes each outing.
Of course, USA Network is banking on even higher ratings now that the episodes are batched together.
Meanwhile, Wilson says the role is fun, work stress notwithstanding.
"It's entertaining," she said, trying to put her finger on why the show is popular. "It's MTV meets Eliza Doolittle . . . the 'Thunderbirds' meet 'The Avengers.' USA was so brave to put it on the air; it's a difficult sell.
"I think what makes it so popular is that it's so different. Up until a year and a half ago [when the show was announced], the last lead female in this kind of show was Angela Lansbury ['Murder She Wrote']."
Not surprisingly, Wilson and the series have generated something of a cult following, and the stunning actress gets plenty of fan letters, many praising her work. Personally, though, Wilson would like to see Nikita's murderous spree slowed a bit.
"I used to think that Nikita was a role model in the beginning," she said, "but, once I saw the way the show was going, I don't think I can say that any more."
The trouble, she continued, is that Nikita kills innocent people to preserve her own life and that "doesn't sit well with me or the character."
"Basically," she said, "she's an angel in wolf's clothing who has to run with the wolves. And the wolves can't find out, or she'd be killed. . . . The only way she's going to get out of this place is to get rid of all of them."
As for Wilson, she eventually wants to get out of "La Femme Nikita." Indeed, she views the show as "a small step in her career."
But until she's out, Wilson, like Nikita, will be generating heat on the screen and adding to the body count. Then, of course, she'll get some rest.
Australian Star Propels Nikita
Marilyn Beck & Stephanie DuBois, (Cleveland, OH) Plain Dealer (29 June 1997)
The frosh series "La Femme Nikita" has become a cult favorite thanks to the rapidly spiraling popularity of actress Peta Wilson.
A tall, striking blond, the Australian native brings an uncanny verisimilitude to the role of Nikita, the ruthless government assassin, in the USA Network drama that airs Sundays at 10 p.m.
Wilson's conversation reveals that she is, at the very least, as forthright and outspoken as her television counterpart.
"It's been really overwhelming for me this year. I find every day, more and more, it's constantly testing [my] integrity. It's fine to talk about the character, but the whole thing of wanting to talk about me ... it's sort of narcissistic, isn't it? And narcissism is just boring."
Like so many of her predecessors, abruptly thrust into the oncoming headlights of sudden fame, Wilson has found "the hardest thing is maintaining balance in your life.
"For me, it's really important to have a balance, so I'm constantly looking at my roots and my family. It's like a major thing for me."
The 26-year-old actress says while shooting the show in Toronto, she often finds herself reflecting on how far she has come from her childhood.
"I think about where I was in 1975, the daughter of an army man living in a culture where they still wore plates in their lips. In 1970, when I was a year old," she recalls, "we moved to Papua, New Guinea, a small island above Australia. My brother and I were the only white kids in an all-black community. We always wanted to be like the native kids, so we were constantly shaving our heads and doing things to try to fit in.
"I grew up with no TV, no music - except for a few eight-track tapes my mom had. ... Living in a native community was the most incredible thing ... there are no neuroses ... it's all natural. They were some of the best times in my life with them."
Wilson says maintaining the balance she would like in her six-year romance with director Damien Harris has also "been very, very difficult."
"Things in the relationship changed because I was no longer as available," she says. "I was kind of like a wife before. I was footloose and fancy free and was able to be there for him. Then all of a sudden I didn't even have time for myself. I was working 17-, 18-hour days, and when he'd come to visit I'd be exhausted. ...
"Fortunately for me," she says, "Damien's father's an actor and his brothers are actors, so he understands and he's been incredibly supportive." Wilson says she's going to try to make it up to Harris, who is 12 years her senior, while she's on hiatus from "La Femme Nikita" this summer.
"He's going to be doing one of his films, and I'll just go be a wife. I want my boyfriend. I love him. ... I need that. He's going to be there when I have kids, when I'm not pretty."
Wilson says she's hoping that when the new season of "Nikita" starts, "they'll give me a little more time with my guy. That's one of the things I'm going to ask for, so I can maintain the wonderful relationship that I have. It's like a flower. It's beautiful, but if you don't water it, it's going to die."
La Femme Nikita...Will Kick Your Ass
Joyce Millman, Salon (4 July 1997)
Anyone who has suffered through Don Johnson's slurpy pseudo-sincerity on "Nash Bridges" and Lance Henriksen's morose I-feel-your-freakin'-pain empathy on "Millenium" knows that there is something deeply wrong with network TV's male action heroes.
In a misguided attempt to lure prized female viewers, networks are softening and sweetening and sensitivity training all over the place -- as if we delicate women would have to take to our beds at the sight of a hero with a big fat gun who didn't give a rat's ass about the bad guy's abused childhood. Hey, who do you think is buying all those tickets to Nicolas Cage action movies? Men? I think not. So what is the deal with these allegedly female-friendly TV heroes, like "The Pretender" -- an overgrown, dull-witted child -- and the boring puppy-dog Superman of the mercifully canceled "Lois & Clark"? Wimps. All of them.
The toughest, coolest TV heroes right now are women. There's "Xena", of course, whose female viewership is on the verge of eclipsing its male numbers. There's teenage Buffy Summers, the kickboxing heroine of one of the year's new cult hits, WB Network's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And there's Nikita, the sleek, strapping secret agent of the year's other cult hit, USA cable network's "La Femme Nikita." They don't look alike, they're not all the same age or body type, they don't even exist in the same century, but Xena (and her feisty poet-Amazon sidekick, Gabrielle), Buffy and Nikita have the right stuff. They're hard of muscle, flinty of eye and they get the job done because somebody has to. The major networks have got it all wrong. We don't want girly men -- we want manly girls!
Thanks to "Xena," "Buffy" and "Nikita," there are now more women on TV whose boots should be registered as lethal weapons than at any time since the glorious '60s heyday of Emma Peel, Honey West, Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain's character on "Mission: Impossible") and Catwoman. Oh sure, we had "Wonder Woman" and "Charlie's Angels" and "The Bionic Woman" in the interim, but they were kid stuff compared to the women who came before and since. Xena, Gabrielle, Buffy and Nikita are action heroes for grown-ups (and, in the case of "Xena" and "Buffy," mature girls). They're moody and sarcastic. They're thrillingly agile and strong. They fight with confidence. Yet, they're all but absent from the Big 4 networks.
Above ground, so to speak, female power is depicted as cerebral (Scully on "The X-Files") or sexual (Amanda on "Melrose Place"); it's measured by career success (Murphy Brown, Dr. Austin on "Chicago Hope") or by how indispensable a woman is to her family (Jill on "Home Improvement," Debra on "Everybody Loves Raymond"). The most physically imposing women on network prime time are Brooke Shields on "Suddenly Susan" and Kristen Johnston on "3rd Rock from the Sun," but both use their stature strictly for bull-in-a-china-shop laughs. The networks have been mired for years in (perhaps homophobic) showbiz canards that women don't want to watch female action heroes or women's sports (the latter notion was recently debunked when ratings for NBC's first telecasts of WNBA games exceeded the network's projections). But in TV's subterranean realm of cable, syndication and "emerging" networks, it's the power-suited career women and supermoms who are the anomalies -- here, the fierce, fantasy figure avenger women rule.
"La Femme Nikita" (10 p.m. Sundays, USA), which just began a new round of episodes June 22, is gaining on "Xena" for fan website popularity -- as much for the show's high-tech noir look and "Mission: Impossible" tone as for star Peta Wilson's statuesque charms. "La Femme Nikita" is based on the 1991 Luc Besson film (later superfluously Americanized as "Point of No Return") in which a feral junkie cop-killer (played in the original by Anne Parillaud), sentenced to life in prison, is furloughed by a super-secret government agency and transformed into a chic assassin through rigorous training at a facility that's a cross between finishing school and Hezbollah summer camp. If Nikita screws up, she dies.
Fans of Besson's flamboyantly brutal thriller might (rightly) dismiss the TV series as a cleaned-up approximation of the real thing. The TV Nikita never actually killed the cop, ya see, she was framed. And compared to Parillaud's grimy pit bull characterization, the exceedingly healthy-looking Wilson is a poodle with a mohawk. Since the show's January premiere, Nikita has gotten more and more lovable. She doesn't seem terribly concerned about being killed ("canceled," is the show's term) by Section One ("the most clandestine organization on the planet"); she rolls up her sleeves, ties her white-blond hair into pigtails and digs into her anti-terrorist missions with such cheerful ardor you practically expect her to whistle while she works.
Still, "Nikita" has an awful lot in its favor. It's reminiscent of two of executive consultant Joel Surnow's previous credits, CBS's "The Equalizer" and UPN's "Nowhere Man," in the way it plays out themes of identity, patriotism and personal and political corruption within a hypnotic shadow world of espionage and paranoia. And "Nikita" has the strapping Wilson, who is pure uncut heroine from her square-jawed mien to her kinky boots (this show has the best spy-femme fashions since "The Avengers"). The Australian Wilson is convincingly toned and athletic; she kickboxes with balletic grace and her husky voice reverberates with authority. And she's amazingly changeable -- she can look wholesome one minute and slinky the next, which serves the part well.
Nikita becomes whatever her prey wants her to be, from a woman arms dealer's long-lost daughter to a high-society slave trader's classy arm candy. There's a "Vertigo"-like current of masochism and voyeurism running through "Nikita," and the episode about the slave trader slyly made the connection -- wearing a blue strapless ball gown that bared her sturdy shoulders, with her hair pulled tightly up onto her head, Wilson was a ringer for Kim Novak in the Hitchcock classic.
The show's most intriguing plot line, though, is the relationship between Nikita and her Section One mentor, Madeline ("You can learn to shoot. You can learn to fight. But there's no weapon as powerful as your femininity"). Played by the wondrous Alberta Watson ("Spanking the Monkey"), Madeline is elegant and inscrutable and she has a smile that could flash-freeze boiling water. Madeline is the sort of deeply-flawed anti-hero character usually written for a man. She orders cancellations without blinking. She is a frighteningly efficient torturer. In the recent "Gambit" episode, we learned the crucial information that, as a child, Madeline caused her sister's death by pushing her down the stairs in a fight over a doll. Nikita, whose function it seems of late is to get her tight-lipped bosses to talk about their feelings, tried to let Madeline off the hook ("It was an accident"). Madeline eyed her for a beat, then offered a succinct correction: "I wanted the doll." End of discussion.
"Nikita's" acknowledgment of women's violent impulses gives it a gravity, a provocativeness, that sticks with you long after the rush of the martial arts and the plastique-in-the-lipstick-case gadgetry have faded.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (9 p.m. Mondays, WB) is a considerably sunnier show -- if a show about a teenage girl methodically driving stakes through the hearts of vampires (did I mention that her fictional California suburb sits atop the mouth of hell?) can be considered sunny. This action drama-with-humor was also based on a movie, but its creator, Joss Whedon (who wrote the movie, as well as a little something called "Toy Story"), has built a better Buffy for the small screen. Here, the preordained, once-in-a-generation vampire slayer is played by 20-year-old daytime soap veteran Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose petite frame and sweet face in no way prepare you for her character's snappy sarcasm or her poise and agility when she's facing monsters twice her size in fights to the finish.
What's so clever about "Buffy" is the way Whedon never resorts to obvious high-school-as-hell metaphors. Yes, Buffy has her problems -- she wants to fit in, have boyfriends, be a cheerleader and all that. But she has to hold back so as not to endanger her friends with her nocturnal exploits. Although she may whine about having to spend the night of the big dance keeping watch over a fresh grave, Buffy takes her responsibility seriously, and that wisdom beyond her years gives the show a dash of poignancy. Buffy knows that high school heartaches are trivial compared to, like, saving the world.
In this awesome task, Buffy gets help from her trusted pals Xander (the geek who is hopelessly in love with her), Willow (the geekette who is hopelessly in love with Xander) and Giles (played by Anthony Head, the Taster's Choice guy), the shy, veddy British librarian who serves as Buffy's "watcher," or portent-interpreter, and who seems to be ever so slightly smitten with his underage charge in a Henry Higgins sort of way. But at crunch time, it's always just Buffy, and it's thrilling to watch her going one-on-one with some fanged creature, keeping her wits about her as she somersaults in the air, comes down kicking and drives the point home -- literally.
Yes, the Scullys and Captain Janeways still matter: Their intelligence and courage are now firmly anchored in the pop consciousness. Sometimes, though, in our wildest daydreams, we want our heroines to fly.
Nikita Is A Gusher for West Grad
The [Madison, WI] Capital Times (8 July 1997)
If someone asks whether you'd rather own an oil well or write the pilot for a hit TV series, write the pilot. That's the word from Cyrus Nowrasteh, a 1974 Madison West High grad who wrote the series pilot for the hit USA Network show La Femme Nikita. When I spoke Monday with Nowrasteh, he was about to fly out of his Camarillo, Calif. home to Vancouver, where he'll direct a movie for Disney based on his original script. That is, if the deal doesn't fall through.
"You never know in this business," says Nowrasteh, who also has written for two series, The Equalizer and Falcon Crest. What Nowrasteh does know is that every time any episode of La Femme Nikita airs he gets a royalty check. "That's why writers out here fight to write pilots," he says.
Nowrasteh suspected La Femme would be a hit when he met the starring actress, Peta Wilson, on the Toronto set of the pilot episode last winter. "She is hot," he says, adding that 26 new episodes have been commissioned by USA. Nowrasteh's brother Saeed and his parents, Daryush and Parvin Nowrasteh, still live in Madison....
Cyrus Nowrasteh is a former city boys high school tennis champion.
Femme Leads Earn Piece of the Action
John Dempsey, Variety (14 July 1997)
NEW YORK The trend may still be in its early stages, but three female TV action heroes -- Xena: Warrior Princess," Femme Nikita" and "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" -- are starting to power their way into more and more American living rooms.
The Nielsen ratings are proof of the growing audience strength of all three series, led by the runaway hit "Xena." A spinoff of Universal's high-rated "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," "Xena" was on the air only a few months -- the show made its debut in firstrun syndication last October -- before it pulverized its competition and climed into first place among weekly syndicated action hours -- ahead of "Hercules" -- where it currently reigns.
Warner Bros.' "Nikita," the bellwether of USA's Sunday night lineup of original hours, and Twentieth TV's "Buffy," which the WB network schedules on Monday night, are not in "Xena's" Nielsen league, but the two shows have generated a positive critical buzz and enough viewership to command renewals for the 1997-98 season.
The largest proportion of the audience for "Xena" is boys and girls from 12 to 17, with an average rating of 4.3 for both in the second quarter of 1997. "Nikita" gets a predominantly adult audience, skewing more toward men than women. Teenage girls are the ones glued to their TV sets for "Buffy," with a 3.4 rating during the May-1997 sweeps, compared with a 2.0 rating for teenage boys and a 1.4 for adults 18 to 34.
Most showbiz observers point to the uniqueness of all three shows, citing the near complete disappearance of action-adventure series, whether they feature a male or female lead, from the primetime schedules of ABC, CBS and NBC.
"We're panning for viewers that fall through the sieve of the broadcast networks," says Ned Nalle, executive VP of firstrun programming for Universal TV. "The market was ripe for a female action hero like Xena, and we decided to take advantage of it."
Similarly, USA Networks entertainment prexy Rod Perth says "Nikita" "is a character we've never seen on TV before."
Peta Wilson plays "La Femme Nikita," the title of the French movie on which the series is based, a distaff James Bond -- lean, blonde and sexy -- who works for an anti-terrorist organization against her will; she'll be exterminated if she tries to quit.
"Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," which, like "Nikita," also comes from a theatrical, got a pickup from the WB netlet at least in part "because there were no TV shows out there pitched to young girls," says Gail Berman, one of the executive producers of the show.
Berman says Buffy "is a role model in a metaphoric way. We put her through all of the things you have to face in high school, from a date that goes wrong to a final exam that seems impossible. But she also has to save the world" from a near army of very disagreeable vampires.
If "Xena," "Nikita" and "Buffy" are starting to turn industry heads, they haven't yet created a stampede of producers pitching Women in Black, female Rambos or lady Indiana Joneses.
Jack Fentress, VP of programming for Petry National, a rep firm that advises TV stations about what shows to buy, says, "TV viewers in foreign countries may not accept female action heroes for cultural or religious reasons." Expensive action series harvest the bulk of their profits from international sales, Fentress says, so they'd have to cease production if too many of their foreign markets dried up.
But executives at Universal, Warner Bros. and Twentieth say they've had no problem selling the three shows internationally.
Russ Kagan, who runs his own worldwide distribution company, says that, in his experience, the three most lucrative markets outside North America -- Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia -- have not shown any noticeable reluctance to buy an action-adventure show with a female lead. (Coincidentally, both Peta Wilson and the star of "Xena," Lucy Lawless, are native Australians.)
One reason for a development slate that's as scanty as one of Xena's costumes is that "it's really difficult to find a strong female actor who can carry the role of an action hero," says Dick Askin, president of the Tribune Entertainment Co., which is distributing two new syndicated hours this fall, "Earth: Final Conflict" and "Night Man."
Even when the actors are as accomplished as Sandra Bullock and Geena Davis, Askin says, they weren't able to prevent the movies they dominated -- 20th Century Fox's current release "Speed 2" and last year's "The Long Kiss Goodnight," from New Line -- from foundering at the box office.
Another executive who has to be cognizant of female entertainment habits, Doug McCormick, president and CEO of Lifetime, which bills itself as "television for women," says, "I'm not in the action-hero business."
Lifetime has a number of drama scripts in development for proposed one-hour series, he says, "but none of them features women in short skirts and high heels who specialize in gunplay and karate." As McCormick puts it, if Lifetime produces a woman-detective series, she'll solve crimes through detection, not mayhem.
USA's Perth takes umbrage at McCormick's analysis of the "Femme Nikita" character. "Is he saying that women who watch Lifetime find sexy women offensive?" asks Perth. "If that's true, then a magazine like Cosmopolitan would go out of business."
The ad campaign for "Nikita" has drawn fire for its hard-breathing emphasis on the sultry Wilson, particularly the copy with the headline "36-24-.45."
Perth says he's looking at pilot script ideas for a women's action series specifically tailored to lead out of "Nikita" in a two-hour block of programming.
Spin into future
And Nalle says Universal's new action series "Team Knight Rider," which begins in firstrun syndication this September, "has two strong females along with the three males on the team." If the show clicks in the Nielsens, Nalle says, Universal could spin off one of the females on the team into a series of her own.
Maybe it's a measure of how far society has come, concludes Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for rep firm Blair Television, that if Universal executives decided to produce a new version of its 1983-87 all-male action series "The A-Team," "they'd have to add at least one woman to the cast."
As Losak puts it, "At least we've made some progress."
Hot Faces: Peta Wilson
Kirk Miller, Total TV (26 July 1997)
As the street urchin forced into a mercenary's life by a shadowy government agency, the star of La Femme Nikita (USA, Suns., 10 p.m. ET) has to be strong, sexy and vulnerable. No problem. At 26, Australian actress, athlete and model Wilson has stayed tight with her family and developed a work ethic she credits to her Down Under upbringing. "People there work hard, live hard and play hard," she says matter-of-factly. "You just get out and do your thing."
But she makes it look so easy. After just months on the Toronto set of La Femme Nikita (which is loosely based on Luc Besson's 1990 French action thriller of the same name, a film later remade in America as Point of No Return), she can effortlessly kick a terrorist's butt onstage, finish a feature-film audition tape during a ten-minute break offstage and entertain visiting relatives while being interviewed during her remaining free moments. Asked about her weaknesses, the tall and boisterous beauty laughs. "I'm scared of heights, and running in heels is hard," she admits, though she performs some of her own stunts. But for her art, she'll gladly suffer all this and more. During a bleak modeling gig a few years back, her cousin graciously offered her a new career opportunity at a construction site. "I lasted about three days," she confesses. "Then I realized my job ain't that bad."