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1999, Page 3
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Nikita Nearly A Femme Fatality
Pat St. Germain, Winnipeg Sun (3 July 1999)

TV femme fatale Nikita's noble conscience almost gets her killed, but saves the day for a harem of captive women in a new episode of Nikita on CKY Ch. 5/7 tonight at 9 p.m.

In the first of seven previously unaired episodes from the Toronto-made series' past season, reluctant anti-terrorist agent Nikita (Peta Wilson) has to infiltrate a sinister Eastern European talent agency that isn't what it seems.

The agency's evil operator lures women with promises of lucrative modelling jobs, then forces them to take part in a deadly spectator sport for wealthy international clients willing to shell out bucks for perverse entertainment.

For Nikita, of course, being trapped by a top-secret organization and forced into violence is nothing new -- "I come from a place not unlike this," she tells a fellow captive. And the allegorical elements of the plot also extend back to Section One, where big cheese Madeline (Alberta Watson) has to dispose of a female rival brought into play by Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer).

For summer newcomers, the episode titled "Hand To Hand" makes a good representative sample of the cold, clinical Section One, with its hint of warmth in Nikita's complex relationship with her mentor and former lover, the enigmatic Michael (Roy Dupuis).

And for long-time fans, there's a nice teaser scene, when it seems ice-man Michael might actually consider, however briefly, compromising his mission rather than let Nikita die.

A CTV spokeswoman said fans clamoured for more new shows after the finale. Seven episodes pre-empted during the season will air Saturdays in July and August.


Nikita's Iciest Femme Fatale
Jim Bawden, Toronto Star (18 July 1999)

"Yes, it's too true," sighs Alberta Watson, "I'm trapped in this gigantic hit. Not that I'm trying to get out. I just want to savour every moment."

The "hit" is Nikita, the Toronto-made spy caper - CTV is running new episodes all summer long (Saturday nights at 10 on Channels 9 and 13).

"We're a far bigger hit in the States than here," Watson reports.

Indeed, TV critic Kinney Littlefield, of California's Orange County Register, gushed over "libido-lifting Nikita, a deadly dream, a rush too perfect to be true."

Washington Post critic Alysia Bennett rhapsodized that the series "is high on style and sophistication, with a hip soundtrack of alternative music."

Based on the 1991 French film La Femme Nikita, the TR version has rapidly become the most popular series on U.S. cable. At a recent Toronto charity auction of costumes and props from the series, Watson found herself "engulfed in this sea of enthusiastic fans, mostly women who had driven all night from American cities to get here."

"And they were willing to buy anything - all they wanted was a piece of the show, from Roy Dupuis' used leather pants to an old script autographed by Peta Wilson."

She brushes the hair from her face and looks terribly bewildered. "The show has great style. But I'm being told a lot of fans find my character, Madeline, quite sexy. Let's face it, she's the dominatrix of the organization, Section One."

"She's always immaculately dressed, beautifully coiffed, so very sure of herself. She's older than Nikita, wise in the ways of the organization, a control freak."

Relaxing in a west end coffee shop, Watson denied she carries any of Madeline's forceful characteristics. She was dressed in a sort of Annie Hall get-up and had to be persuaded to put on lipstick for a photograph.

Wrote U.S. critic Joyce Millman for Salon magazine: "The show's most intriguing plot line 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, Madeline is elegant and inscrutable and she has a smile that could flash-freeze boiling water. She's the sort of deeply flawed anti-hero usually written for a man."

Watson said she'd just heard from the Paris actress who loops her dialogue into French for the European market. "She told me Madeline has a cult of her own. European men find her sexy - they prefer their women to have experience."

People have assumed Watson is from western Canada because of her first name, "but I'm named for my father, who was an Albert, and not the province."

She grew up in Toronto and wanted to be an actress "from about the age of 15. And I started disliking school so much I needed to escape."

"I took an acting workship at Bathurst Street United Church and the kids from Hair, which was currently running, were enrolled. We did everything from skits to Hamlet. And do you know who directed a film of our Hamlet? A young director named Rene Bonniere and now he directs me in Nikita. Isn't that cool?"

At age 19 she was cast in the CTV television movie Honour Thy Father. Then came the big break - a Genie nomination in 1979 as best supporting actress for In Praise of Older Women.

Flushed with success, she left for the states and worked in New York City and Los Angeles. She made the series Buck James (1987), partnering Dennis Weaver depicting life in a Texas trauma centre. And she was a guest star on numerous shows, from Law & Order to The Equalizer to Hill Street Blues.

"When I lived in New York I worked all the time in L.A. In L.A. I was always getting jobs in New York." She compromised by moving to New Jersey with her husband and when they divorced she moved back to Toronto.

"It's home. There's enough work here and that never used to be the case."

When Watson gets stopped on the street, it's either for Nikita or her independent breakout feature Spanking the Monkey (1994). She loves the fact it was turned down by every big-name actress over 40, including Susan Sarandon and Isabella Rossellini.

"I took it because it was a heck of a challenge. And I'm not a name with an image to protect. The subject was incest. It didn't scare me at all. I seized the character and made her something. She was a deeply disturbed woman with a roller coaster of emotions. Her son visits for the summer and she's laid up with a broken leg and things get out of hand."

"We rehearsed for three weeks in director David O. Russell's living room. And we shot it quickly in just 26 days in Prawling, New York, on a budget of $80,000. Did I ever feel we were treading on dangerous ground? Lots of times."

The reviews were superb and Watson went on to make another small film she's proud of, Shoemaker (1997). She also co-starred in Atom Egoyan's Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter.

She's already completed her next film, also filmed here, called The Life Before This, starring Stephen Rea.

Watson is considering producing and has co-founded a small company called Books For Ears to put Canadian novels onto tape. "Audio books are hot, but you can't get the standard Canadian works."

She starts filming the next season of Nikita in October. "I'm assuming this will be the last, but who knows? I'm riding this success for all it's worth. If it takes being a dominatrix to get some attention, hey, I'm game."


Nikita Star Wilson is Cable's Hit Woman
Jefferson Graham, USA Today (30 July 1999)

The star of USA Network's La Femme Nikita is in the makeup trailer, having smudges strategically applied to her face for a scene. "But it's clean dirt," says the 5-foot-10 actress. "It washes right off."

Spend time with Wilson on the set, and you'll watch her not only get dirty, but also get upside down in an exercise contraption for assisted headstands ("It really wakes you up"), pace about her dressing room and lie down on the couch, as the interviewer/psychiatrist asks about her life.

"I'm not well-mannered enough to be a Canadian," says Wilson, 28, who was born in Australia and lives in Toronto when Nikita is in production. "I'm very straightforward."

Wilson works 15-hour days. Still, her sexy, statuesque self has been featured often on international magazine covers. So how does she stay in such incredible shape with so little time for exercise? With humor.

"I was doing yoga every morning," she says. "Then I got sick with the flu and had to give it up for a while. Now, I just laugh a lot and stay positive."

In its third season, Nikita (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET/PT) is tied with USA's Pacific Blue as the highest-rated drama on basic cable, averaging 1.6 million viewers. Based on the 1990 French film of the same name, Nikita -- wrongly accused of murder -- is freed by the top-secret intelligence outfit Section One in exchange for her services as a hit woman. Her job: to stop terrorism.

"It's like playing cops and robbers when you were a kid," Wilson says.

Nikita, she offers, has no life. "No dog, no friends. I feel very sorry for her. But she does have a lot of integrity."

She also has a lover, her Section One leader Michael (Roy Dupuis). When the current season concludes Aug. 29, the relationship is out in the open -- and the two must be punished. What will happen? Producers aren't saying; tune in.

Wilson grew up as the "Army brat" daughter of a career soldier in Australia and New Guinea, a would-be actress who emulated Gena Rowlands and Lauren Bacall, "really strong women."

She moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to study acting, starting with local theater, then on to small parts in independent films and cable. Then she was picked for Nikita, a role originated by Anne Parillaud and played by Bridget Fonda in the remake Point of No Return.

"She was outrageous," says executive consultant Joel Surnow, remembering Wilson at the Nikita casting sessions, where she was the third candidate up out of 300.

"She had this very dangerous attitude. She sprawled on the floor in a tight shirt and gave it everything she had. And my initial feeling was that this woman would be too dark to deal with," he says. Then she "sat next to me, composed herself, and acted like a normal, fluent person. This side of her made her even more interesting, because she had clearly done a remarkable acting job."

Still, everyone was nervous about hiring a star with such minimal credits. Wilson had to audition another five times before the network, studio and producers agreed she was Nikita. Now, she's so closely identified with the role the she dreams of opening schools for runaway children -- a nod to Nikita, a child of the streets.

Outside Nikita, she has filmed an independent movie, Mercy, with her boyfriend, director Damian Harris, due out next year.

Over summer, Wilson went to Spain with her mother and grandmother, to the Bahamas with Harris and is now in Australia, where she's having a 20-room seaside home built near Sydney.

Then it's back to Toronto in October for year four of Nikita.

"I went from a nobody to a small dot on the map in Hollywood," she says. "And I look forward to discovering where Nikita is going next year when I come back."


Discovered Love Adds Intrigue to Nikita
Faye Zuckerman, New York Times Syndicate (August 1999)

Some of the most stilted acting on the small screen occurs in the violent spy action series "La Femme Nikita," USA Sunday at 10.
The characters speak in short sentences. They never show emotion, and they are rewarded for cold-hearted behavior.
Their place of employment is called Section, and it's an anti-terrorist organization that sends hired killers to destroy terrorist organizations.
The characters shoot to kill without batting an eyelash. They'll even murder each other if the bosses, Madeline and Operations, give the order.
"La Femme Nikita" would be completely gratuitous and unacceptable on the small screen if it weren't for the show's conscience, better known as the only female killing machine at Section, Nikita (Peta Wilson).
She's a murderer with a heart of gold. She's also one of the strongest females on the small screen.
She's competent, smart and savvy. She questions authority, challenges her bosses and offers sympathy to co-workers.
Nikita thinks out of the box by coming up with alternatives.
Her only foible is that she has fallen in love with her immediate superior, Michael (Roy Dupuis). He's a brooding assassin with a talent for icy stares, short sentences and little sex appeal.
They might be a mismatch but, as the show completes its season, we've come to care for her and want her relationship with Michael to work. That's why most of us are curious about how the two-part finale concludes, since Nikita and Michael (Roy Dupuis) have declared their love for each other and have been meeting in secret.
Madeline and Operations have discovered their tryst and want them separated. They are assigned a do-or-die mission involving bioweapons.
Can love conquer all? You'll have to tune in to find out.


Nikita Star Peta Wilson Revels in Series' Success
Jefferson Graham, USA Today (August 1999)

TORONTO -- Peta Wilson is getting dirty.

The star of USA Network's La Femme Nikita is in the makeup trailer, having smudges strategically applied to her face for a scene. "But it's clean dirt," says the 5-foot-10 actress. "It washes right off."

Spend time with Wilson on the set, and you'll watch her not only get dirty, but also get upside down in an exercise contraption for assisted headstands ("It really wakes you up"), pace about her dressing room and lie down on the couch, as she's asked about her life.

"I'm not well-mannered enough to be a Canadian," says Wilson, 28, who was born in Australia and lives in Toronto when Nikita is in production. "I'm very straightforward."

Wilson works 15-hour days. Still, her sexy, statuesque self has been featured often on international magazine covers. So how does she stay in such incredible shape with so little time for exercise? With humor.

"I was doing yoga every morning," she says. "Then I got sick with the flu and had to give it up for a while. Now, I just laugh a lot and stay positive."

In its third season, Nikita, airing Sundays at 10 p.m., is tied with USA's Pacific Blue as the highest-rated drama on basic cable, averaging 1.6 million viewers. Based on the 1990 French film of the same name, Nikita -- wrongly accused of murder -- is freed by the top-secret intelligence outfit Section One in exchange for her services as a hit woman. Her job: to stop terrorism.

Nikita, she offers, has no life. "No dog, no friends. I feel very sorry for her. But she does have a lot of integrity."

She also has a lover, her Section One leader Michael (Roy Dupuis). When the current season concludes Aug. 29, the relationship is out in the open and the two must be punished. What will happen? Producers aren't saying; tune in.

Wilson grew up as the "Army brat" daughter of a career soldier in Australia and New Guinea, a would-be actress who emulated Gena Rowlands and Lauren Bacall, "really strong women."

She moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to study acting, starting with local theater, then on to small parts in independent films and cable. Then she was picked for Nikita, a role originated by Anne Parillaud and played by Bridget Fonda in the remake Point of No Return.

Now, she's so closely identified with the role that she dreams of opening schools for runaway children -- a nod to Nikita, a child of the streets.


Peta Wilson: Nikita Is Quite A Hit, Lady
David Martindale, Zap2It (20 August 1999)

"I don't have any expectations. And if you don't have any expectations, you don't have any disappointments."

That's Peta Wilson's philosophy on life, but it also fits neatly in context with "La Femme Nikita," the third-year series based on the 1990 French film of the same name. The actress plays Nikita, a young woman who, once wrongly accused of murder, has become a hit woman for a covert anti-terrorist agency.

When Wilson, a native Australian who moved to North America in 1991 to pursue an acting career, landed the show's title part, she refused to concern herself with whether it would be a success.

"I had been auditioning about four months when I got this role," she recalls. "And I went. 'Well, let's see where this one goes.' That's as much as I would allow myself. Because in my life, I've always set attainable goals, so that every single day I attain one or two new goals. Little goals, inching toward big ones.

"And with the show, it was the same kind of thing. I never thought about trying to make it a hit. I just tried to do the best job I could. And that's all you can do, isn't it? The rest is for the people to decide. If they like it, they like it. If they don't, that's okay, too."

But viewers do like it. " Nikita" boasts a weekly audience on USA of about 1.6 million, small by broadcast network standards but rock solid for cable.

" I'm not sure you can even call it a `cult' hit any more," Wilson says. " It's too big for that. I'm not surprised it's a hit because it's very different. But if it hadn't have been a hit, I wouldn't have been surprised either -- and for the same reason: because it's very different."

Wilson is the first to admit that many appealing aspects " Nikita" are wholly superficial, from the beautiful cast members and stylish clothes to the clever camera angles and flashy editing.

But the show is succeeding over the long haul because Nikita is such a compelling character: She is self-reliant yet at times fragile, always compassionate yet often begrudgingly brutal.

" Well, that's a woman, isn't it?" says Wilson, 28. " Women are very interesting and complex. And this particular woman, Nikita, is so primal. I think many people like the show because my character is a woman who doesn't mess around -- she's blunt and straightforward -- and yet she's also very vulnerable.

"Sometimes people compare the show to `Xena' and `Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' because we're women. But I think there's no comparison because Nikita's real and she's urban. She's not in the past or in the future or in fantasy. She's right here. Today."

The husky-voiced 5-foot-10 blonde is the Army brat daughter of a career soldier. She grew up in Australia and New Guinea. In retrospect, she finds it ironic that she has made such a splash on TV, given that there was no television in New Guinea while growing up. Then again, with no TV, she and her brother had to entertain themselves, which might have sparked an early interest in acting.

Wilson moved to Los Angeles in 1991. She started by doing local theater, then moved on to small parts in independent films and cable. Eventually, she beat out about 300 other actresses for "La Femme Nikita."

Executive consultant Joel Surnow says Wilson instantly stood out from the rest, so much so that he was not discouraged when presented a resume that was relatively skimpy. It's also worth noting, though, that she still had to audition five more times before everyone signed off on the casting.

"From the moment Peta Wilson walked into my office to read for the part of Nikita," Surnow says, "I stopped pitching the show to executives. Instead, all I did was get them in a room with Peta. She's electrifying. After that, the rest of the cast fell into place."

Indeed, the chemistry between Wilson and costar Roy Dupuis (who plays Michael, Nikita's Section One leader and secret lover) is so good that it has fed one of TV's steamier romances, one that will come out in the open in the Aug. 29 season finale.

Wilson's performance has contributed mightily to the show's success, but she won't take any bows for anything beyond that.

"Joel Surnow is responsible for everything else," she says. "The reality in television is it's an executive producer's medium, more than that of any director or writer or actress. And it's Joel who makes it all work. He's the machine and I'm his muse. I will take responsibility and credit only for the acting."

It might be healthy to enter a new series without sky-high expectations, as Wilson did, but as a result she also never imagined how much the show would change her life.

"In television, I've got a lot of balance in my life. But my personal life suffers a great deal. I miss my family very much. I miss my friends. I miss little simple things like going for walks in sunlight. The schedule [15-hour work days] makes it difficult. The weekends come and I'm tired and I can't be the girlfriend I was. It's very hard for us to get together and for me to make a big roast dinner and be fabulous.

" But I'm very grateful. What a great thing. I bought 10 acres of land in Australia on the beach. I'm having a place built there. So I'm a very lucky girl. It's hard at the moment, but one day I'll sit back and say, `What a wonderful time.'"


La femme Peta
A coltish Australian naif finds herself a cult hero for
an oddly nineties kind of pop feminism. But Peta Wilson
- a.k.a. Nikita - is refreshingly unimpressed by her own
uber-blonde success.
Tralee Pearce, The Globe and Mail (30 October 1999)

Toronto -- Peta Wilson, the woman better known as Nikita, doesn't so much introduce herself as whisk a visitor into her orbit.

She swooshes into the lobby of the TV show's Mississauga production office, thrusts out a serious handshake and blurts, "Hi, I'm Peta." Then she drags her hapless guest along in the tailwind of her long black leather skirt, the heels of her knee-high leather boots clicking on the cement floor as we dash onto the high-tech set.

The TV version of French director Luc Bresson's 1990 film La Femme Nikita is two weeks into shooting its fourth season, produced by Toronto's Fireworks Entertainment. It is set to air in January on CTV here and on the USA Networks in the States. Nikita, the story goes, is a scrappy street kid who gets framed for a murder, and avoids being executed by agreeing to go undercover as a government anti-terrorist agent. She's a gutsy-yet-fallible broad who oozes sex and style, much to the glee of both male and female fans.

The uber-blonde Nikita is taking her place alongside Buffy and Xena as strange sorts of feminist icons, nineties TV action babes whose left hooks are as killer as their looks. In person, Wilson may not be packing a semi-automatic, but she is still a force to reckon with. "I've always had a really strong identity -- the same one since I was about 11," she says. "My mother says I even came out of the womb working the room."

The role is so snug a fit, it's hard to believe Wilson, now 28, nearly passed it up. After growing up all over Australia and New Guinea as an army brat, Wilson moved to L.A. in 1991 and studied acting. After a few years, she found herself in Calgary shooting a small film called One of Our Own, when she got the news that Nikita was hers.

"I got really scared. I didn't want my life to change. I had a normal life in L.A. I liked acting classes. I didn't care if anyone saw my work. I didn't think I was ready for that kind of responsibility, either. I was like a racehorse, wild out of drama school."

But once the decision was made, Wilson threw herself at the role in true type-A fashion. Not realizing she wouldn't have to do all her own stunts, she hired an killer. "I submerged myself. . . . That's why it's still on the air. I didn't say, 'It's just TV,' like some actors do. This is me on screen, so I gave it all I had."

Her all helped the drama score two nominations at this year's Gemini awards, a week from Sunday (Nov. 7) -- not bad for a show often slammed as "fake" Canadian content. And it's earned Wilson appearances in magazines such as Details, Gear and Flare, and on just about any talk show she agrees to. At two recent Nikita fan conventions, bidders won trips to the Nikita set to meet Wilson -- at $20,000 a pop. This summer, Canadian fans forced CTV to run two new episodes they knew USA was airing, though CTV had been holding them for fall.

When we left our protagonist at the end of last season, Nikita's stern overlords had had enough of her pesky moral pangs -- she's forever blowing her cover to spare lives, thus compromising "the mission" -- and her surreptitious love affair with her superior, Michael (QuÈbÈcois star Roy Dupuis). They administered a sort of futuristic lobotomy, which erased her emotions and, presumably, much of her spunk.

"It's very Stepford Wives meets Blade Runner," Wilson deadpans in her throaty Australian voice, before she breezes off to do a scene as the newly -- albeit, of course, temporarily -- dulled Nikita.

When the scene is over we're in motion again, galloping back to Wilson's dressing room for a costume change. In one corner, a rolling rack is filled with turbo action chick gear. Against one wall is a bed-sized mat, covered with Indian silk cushions and a laptop. Against another is a simple wooden desk loaded with homeopathic tinctures and girly clutter. A humidifer puffs out lavender-scented mist, to keep the peace amid the flurry of activity.

We continue the conversation on our feet, as Wilson slips out of the black, floor-length Ann Demeulemeester wrap skirt and snug matching tank. She doesn't skip a beat discussing the new season, despite standing in her chic, tiny black bra and panties before a complete stranger.

"We don't know who Nikita is anymore," she says. "It's like if you're in a bad relationship and the more you stay, the less of yourself you have.

"That's what's happened to Nikita. She's in a bad relationship with this company. They've gotten to her and she's lost herself. She'll find herself again. Women always do," she says, shimmying into a slender Costume National leather skirt, this one to the knee.

She begins to speculate on sociology of the character's appeal. "When viewers met Nikita, she was worse than Eliza Doolittle. She had no social boundaries, the ones inflicted on most women today. So she was always honest about the way she felt. We keep it in. She just lets it out."

Such larger-than-life powers -- emotional and physical -- are key to the fervent response Nikita draws, suggests writer and avid feminine-mystique observer Lynn Crosbie (Paul's Case, Dorothy L'Amour). As well, she says, the highly stylized Nikita world offers "the thrall of the disguise -- a contemporary masque where all of our desires can be played out . . . and where we may abdicate all responsibility."

Wilson motions me to an arm chair, clearing away a pair of sport socks, crumpled white briefs and handcuffs to make room. The handcuffs are a Gucci collector's item, bought in Italy during Wilson's two-month European hiatus from the show. When she's working in Toronto, Wilson lives with a friend in the chic Yorkville area, spending many of her weekends at the New York apartment she's just bought.

Reflecting on her three years in the role, Wilson is quick to admit she hasn't always been proud of herself. "I watch some of the first episodes and wonder, 'What was I thinking?' I've gotten better."

Her character's transformations, she says, aren't far removed from her own. "When I started it was great because Nikita was so young. I had no idea about continuity, no idea about anything. Nor did she. So it allowed for my inexperience. Now we're both melding together. And I understand now, much more than when I got this job, how lucky I was to get it."

The latest bit of character evolution -- or regression, as the case may be -- comes not a minute too soon. Wilson is outspoken in her criticisms of the assassin-with-a-heart-of-gold plotlines of last season, when The Globe's TV critic, John Allemang, complained that Wilson's "main job is to pout, stare, frown and pose."

Wilson says she sees where he was coming from, though clearly tickled that scads of fuming Nikitaphiles flooded the paper with nasty retorts. "As far as the poutiness goes, it's the same stuff I complained about to the writers." Wilson felt so strongly about this, she didn't want to submit an entry into this year's Geminis (though her producers did so anyway).

"This season is not like that, thank God. They used to rely on my heart all the time, to the point where I was like, 'I can't do that anymore. I've got no heart anymore.'

"I couldn't do anything about it because I have a job to do. These people have families to get home to," she says, motioning to busy crew members scurrying around the set. "Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do what you can."

Likewise Wilson's matter-of-fact appraisal of the merits of her show compared to the original film is enough to derail any cultural snob. "There's no way that you could look at the French film and look at our show and talk about them in the same breath," she says, back in the on-set makeup chair. "You just can't. I accept that. We do the best with what we have.

"Anne Parillaud [the original Nikita] and Luc Bresson -- they're responsible. It's still their movie and she is still Nikita. I'm a good actress but I'm nothing compared to what she was. There's only one Nikita. We do something completely different.

"I'm not an icon," she concludes. "The character is an icon."

But Wilson will take credit, where it is due, for fleshing out what could have been a one-trick bad-girl cardboard cutout. "I've given this character real range. I believe bad guys can be funny and sexy. I could have just been fierce, but that would have been limiting and boring."

And that's not to say Wilson doesn't also fully embrace her vicious vixen image. "It's not just anyone who can do high kicks to the head in Manolo Blahniks, you know."

As a result, Wilson's enjoying just enough success to be able to throw her star weight around, Bob Geldof-style. Her philanthropic dream is to build an arts school for street kids -- appropriately enough, with Nikita's background -- and to "bloody do something with my life."

She and a friend are launching a watch, sunglass and running shoe line called Psycht in January, the proceeds from which will fund first one school, and then perhaps a downscale-Montessori kind of franchise. "I have enough energy to carry a show with 160 people. I can make a school happen," she says, adding that she's on contract for five seasons. After that she'd love to devote herself to Psycht for awhile.

For her own benefit, she keeps a roster of beloved alternative-health experts on hand, including a macrobiotic nutritionist, an acupuncturist and a naturopath. Sitting in her dressing room again, after squeezing in a session with her yoga healer and a heaping lunch of salad and lentils, Wilson is as relaxed as I imagine she gets, though still talking a mile a minute.

Then, she asks me something Nikita never would: Would I like to hear a poem she's written, a poem that sums up where's she's at right now? She leans in.

"Nothing really matters, except the beating hearts of babies. Birdies bouncing tree to tree. Left foot in front of right. That's all that really matters."

Extra points, I suppose, if those feet happen to be clad in a wicked pair of Manolos. Birdies notwithstanding.


La Femme Nikita -- Time To Say Goodbye
TV Zone (December 1999)

The television version of la Femme Nikita has prided itself on its intrigues and surprises, but when its fourth season draws to a close, it's likely to conclude with one final twist that no one outside of the production team had expected: cancellation.
"It's highly unlikely the show will go past four years," says creative consultant Joel Surnow, in an admission exclusive to TV Zone. "It's a contractual thing. Warner Brothers had a four-year deal with the USA Network and they're not happy with the contract. In effect they've said they'll honor the four years and that will be it. They may try and shop Nikita around, but it will depend on what the numbers are this year and whether or not anyone wants it. Two years ago, we would have automatically had three buyers."
Based on Luc Besson's French film Nikita, the television incarnation changes the killer-turned-assassin of the original into a young woman falsely accused of murder, who is forced into a secret government agency known as the Section. Charged with the responsibility of protecting the country, this organization's ruthless means include using people like pawns. If Nikita co-operates, she lives. If not .... well you get the idea.
The show stars Australian model turned actor Peta Wilson as the eponymous agent. "Peta grew up in the wilds of New Guinea," says Surnow' and part of her has never left. She's got this incredible combination of rawness, vulnerability, sensuality and unpredictability - equal parts of all four of those things. It's a very tough part to play and you've got to be a lot of different things. She is. We read 200 different women and there wasn't even a close second."
"All of a sudden, Nikita is put into this weird world, kind of like the Adams Family," laughs Wilson, asked about her character's new life. "You know, when the world sees people and says, 'Look where he lives, look how he or she looks, they're bad people.' You can't judge a book by its cover, but in the Section's case, they did judge me by the way I looked, not even thinking about what the truth might be."
"As an actress playing this role," she adds, "I actually enjoy being out of the Section. I love when I go on missions, because I can draw from my environment much more. It's dull when I'm in section all the time because it's the same background to draw from. I can't show my cards, because if I do I'm dead. I can show subtle things, but it's a little complacent. Whereas Nikita being out provides more opportunities for the audience to see different colors of her."
The actress adds that during the show's third season, she was able to instill a certain sense of defiance into the character and her attitude to the amoral world in which she finds herself. 'The bottom line, 'Wilson notes, "is that Nikita wants to go to heaven and not to hell. She's discovered so much in the second season and she's grown up. I see her like Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair - a lot stronger. She might eventually become quite introspective. It happens in the last three episodes of the second season, and in the third, as we're seeing the evolution of a spy. Nikita is still defiant and unwilling to submit, but she's found a way just to do her job. She will always question Section - I think the world should always question everything - but I just see her being a little less wily."
It's an aspect of the character Wilson attempts to bring out through unscripted moments. "It's not written, but a lot of times when the phone rings on the show, Nikita just lets if ring. She finishes her drink, her dinner and goes off to her next assignment. Just little things like that.
I think we've added strength to her that was in the original movie. "Nikita changed a lot from the feature, because it's for television and you have to turn it down and tame it down. I had that color going in the first season and they all got a little frightened. Understandably, because it was really strong. I saw the French film when it first came out years ago and loved it. I sat there and said 'I can do that.' When I got the show and went in for the audition, my manager said 'You are this role. Just go in and have fun.' So I sort of went in, tore up offices and did all kinds of things and just had a great time.
"In the first few episodes, I was full out, right out there and the executives were a little nervous, so I pulled it back a bit. But when we came back for the second season, I felt it harped too much on the vulnerability of the character. She came across a little bit complacent, which is never what I wanted to do. It was always there in my face that there was something else going on, but there's only so much you can do. Action speaks louder than words, and there were so many words the second season. Season three was much more interesting."
"Our main alteration from the feature," Surnow agrees, "is that she's not quite the psychotic criminal she was in the film. She's a street girl and accused of killing a cop, but it turns out that she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she didn't do it. So she comes out of the 'program' two years later after all this training and isn't aware that they had found out she was innocent but didn't do anything about it because she's so talented and special."
Such a manipulative twist is typical of the multi-tiered storylines and characterizations that have elevated La Femme Nikita above typical crime drama fare, putting it into the same league as Wiseguy and Miami Vice.
"In the early stages of development," Surnow says, "one of the questions we explored was exactly what types of situations she would get involved with. There is a concern that American audiences don't really respond to international spy stories, when it gets into Le Carre territory with, 'Who's the good guy, who's the bad guy in the shadowy gray world of the CIA?' They like their crime stories neat - you know, 'He's the bad, he's the killer, he's hurting this person, go get him.'
"I think what we've done is kind of visceral CIA stores," Surnow adds, explaining how they've managed to balance the two approaches, "Like hostage situations, terrorists and international drug dealers - maybe on a larger scale, but still accessible.
"Interestingly, a lot of the same qualities and shadings that you find in Wiseguy you find in Nikita," he adds 'particularly in terms of the idea of dealing with a tortured soul. You're dealing with an operative moving through a dangerous, violent world while trying to carve a little piece of a real life for herself. I call it an action tragedy."
The real tragedy is the fact La Femme Nikita was something of a media event when it debuted on the USA Network in the States nearly four years ago with Wilson adorning a wide variety of magazine covers and critics deeming the show one of the hippest things on cable. Yet in subsequent years, Nikita has been lost in the wave of publicity surrounding shows like Dawson's creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and neglected by the network itself since the arrival of its new owner, Barry Diller, and programming chief, Stephen Chao.
"The reduction of press coverage had a lot to do with the change of regimes over at USA," says Surnow, "who controlled the show for its first three seasons, but is moving into a more supervisory position in the fourth, allowing Nowhere Man's Lawrence Hertzog to guide the series from day to day. "Throughout the entire second season, there was either a regime on its way out or one on its way in. That was compounded by the phenomenal hyping of wrestling, which garnered a lot of their resources. You know what? You really can't promote our show on wrestling. It's not really the same audience. It's not a compatible piece of programming. Let's face it, this is not a mainstream show, but I expected a little more critical take-off of it, because it's a unique show and a smart show, and there aren't so many smart shows that it's not worth writing about one.
"In terms of real numbers, obviously Buffy - which is a wonderfully well done show - does well, but it does far less than, say Seventh Heaven. But it gets a ton of press. It's a critical darling. It's a good show, I'm not knocking it at all, but we do things that nobody else has done on television in all the weird, psychological, sexual, blurring of the good guys and bad guys. I don't know what it is, whether it's a bias against cable or a bias against the fact that we're more of an action show. Going back in the past of my experiences, during the first year of Miami Vice, no one thought it was a good series because it was an action show, they just thought it was a popular show. You look, there were some really smart and cool episodes. Wiseguy had that. There's a bias: 'It's a Stephen J Cannell show, how good can it be?' But we all know how good it was."
Surnow feels that the series has suffered from lurking a little below the radar, while Buffy continues to grow in popularity. "Sarah Michelle Gellar has done four movies," he notes, "The Dawson's Creek people have made movies. Because we skew a little older, we're a little less visible. I think we just didn't cross that media barrier, whatever that is, to become quite as well known as we hoped we would be. You rely on your fan base to give you support, because after doing sixty-six episodes of this show, you need to feel like you're writing for someone who really enjoys it. I think our fans are fairly rabid. They're extremely dedicated and vocal - the folks on the Internet. But while there is a very strong show of support for the show, I think it needs to have gone a couple of orbits (further) out to have done what I think the show should have done. It's frustrating, but at the same time it was very wonderful to be able to do the show you wanted to do and not be interfered with."
Unfortunately, it's apparent that while USA isn't interfering with the show, the network has become decidedly indifferent about it since the change of regimes. "We were one of the old shows," comments Surnow, "You can mark the day from when Diller and Chao took over to the change in attitude. Especially Stephen Chao, who I like personally but this isn't what he wants to do with the network. He wants GvsE. He wants to phase out the old shows and come up with material like GvsE, skewing younger and hipper. Nikita is hip, but it's not [filled] with pop culture references, which, to me, are boring.
"I think what makes shows like Nikita, Wiseguy and The Sopranos work is in what they do with the characters," the producer adds. "You just haven't seen people operate with these kinds of agendas. It startles you, yet it makes sense within the context of the show. That's what I like. That is actually harder to do and more original and hipper than just doing a bunch of people doing outrageous stuff. There seems to be a sense that in today's 500 channel universe, you have to really make a splash and be outrageous. But I think there's room for both. I don't think anyone wants to see Nikita leave the network, especially the affiliates for whom it has done well demographically, and it probably won't go quietly."
"Look," he closes, "if I had to bet on it, I'd say that this is the last year. But who knows?"


La Femme Nikita: Sexy Complexity
Julian Jenkins, co-ordinator of the Humanities program at Christian Heritage College in Queensland, takes a look at La Femme Nikita, the philosophical cult series buried in the Channel Nine Australia graveyard
www.shootthemessenger.com (1999)

Considering that it is one of the few American television programs to have an Australian in the starring role, it is surprising how low-key market reception has been for the pulsatingly hip and intriguingly unpredictable series, La Femme Nikita (Nine Network in Australia, Mondays around 11.00 pm). Even the appearance of its sexy Australian star, Peta Wilson, on the covers of a couple of glossy magazines does not seem to have rescued it from obscurity on commercial television.
The Nine network has buried the programme late on Monday nights, despite a brief splash of advertising over the summer of '98-'99. Clearly the programme doesn't meet the network's demographic, as it refuses to provide viewers with happy endings and conflicts which resolve themselves in the space of one hour's viewing time.
But La Femme Nikita has much to recommend it. Its creative and artistic production techniques are first rate and it seeks to explore complex and at times disturbing philosophical questions.
It may be an insult to its producers to compare it to Mission: Impossible, but in many ways it is a postmodern equivalent. The broad parameters are similar: each week a team of highly-trained and resourceful agents working for a shadowy government agency (Section One) battle the forces of evil. But the world of Mission: Impossible looks rosy by comparison, comfortingly black and white. The world of the Section is grey and ruthless, where normal human emotions and esprit de corps are systematically squashed, in favour of creating hardened and subservient fighting machines.
For those with slightly longer memories, there are resonances of the cult British television series of the '60s, The Prisoner. Indeed, Nikita is being kept prisoner in a carefully controlled environment from which there appears to be no escape. And, judging by the sites devoted to it, La Femme Nikita is similarly achieving a cult status.
The series is based on the Luc Besson film, Nikita (remade by Hollywood as The Assassin). A woman who has been sentenced to life in prison on the basis of a false accusation of murder is given a diabolical choice: survival in a ruthless world of counterterrorism as an alternative to no life at all.
Once a member of the Section, Nikita's life is no longer her own. She endures a rigid regime of psychological conditioning and is kept under constant surveillance, even inside her own apartment, lest she develop friendships or emotional attachments which might prove a liability. After all, "you can't hide who you are from the people you care about." Even within the Section her feelings are toyed with; her trainer and mentor, Michael (Roy Depuis), consciously and callously exploits the simmering sexual tension between them to serve the Section's needs, one minute encouraging her, the next rebuffing her. In one episode, after suffering a particularly intense emotional battering for having dared to try to start a relationship with a man from outside the Section, Nikita shouts in a rage of defiance at the Head of Operations, "You don't own my soul!" To all intents and purposes, though, they do.
The wider world inhabited by the members of the Section is a ruthlessly Darwinian one, where any measure of weakness will be fatal in a survival of the fittest. While it is explicitly stated that the Section is fighting the forces of evil, this is no black-and-white world of good guys and bad guys. Pragmatism rules and there is no place for moral scruples. As the Head of Operations explains to Nikita, "we have to be ruthless, because they are ruthless. We have to be stronger." His attitude throughout reflects the same unshakeable confidence in rightness and omniscience as the megalomaniac TV producer, Christof displays in The Truman Show.
Within a Christian understanding, the world of La Femme Nikita is thus a profoundly "fallen" one in which evil thrives and there appears no possibility of redemption. Even those who are ostensibly on the side of law and order are trapped by its insidious undermining of moral boundaries.
This is also a world where justice is mocked; in one episode, Nikita and the rest of the team risk death to thwart the plans of a particularly egregious, somewhat kinky arms smuggler who has a nuclear trigger for sale. Not surprisingly, having endured his sexual advances and witnessed his criminal wickedness at close hand, she is appalled to see him drinking and laughing with the Head of Operations when she returns to the Section at the end of the mission. Justice does not have to be satisfied; while the immediate threat has been averted, the smuggler may well be useful to the Section on another occasion.
Appropriately, given the program's strong postmodern overtones, the truth is never secure, and reality is only ever defined by the gloss that the Section wants to put on it. When Nikita asks what it means to have passed the first set of tests and to have been put on probation, she is told that it "means what it means until they want it to mean something else". Indeed, the real world which normal people inhabit is described as an illusion (similar to how modern scientists view the life of the mind), in which the members of the Section are merely ghosts who belong to another dimension of reality. Looks deceive: the master strategist and "mother superior" within the section, Madeline, seems superficially to be an image of warm femineity, but her soft appearance conceals her veins of ice. She is the one whose job it is to inflict psychological torture on hardened criminals when information is needed quickly.
The downside of living in a shadowy world of misinformation and double-crosses becomes apparent whenever Nikita is asked to put her life on the line for an illusion. It's all very well to risk death or grievous bodily harm when one is fighting for what one believes to be true and right, it's another story to endure constant fear and danger only to find that it was all a mirage. In a recent episode, Nikita was sent to rescue a badly injured Michael from behind enemy lines, only to discover that Michael was in fact an expendable resource who would have been abandoned, had it not been for the need to provide an escape route for the general who was leading the enemy's secret police in the manhunt, who also happened to be a deep cover agent for the Section.
For those who find Nikita's world too depressing and inhumane, there is at least the comfort that it is far removed from our own - -or is it? Nikita is surrounded by authority figures who deceive even those who are close to them. She is judged, also, not on the basis of her intrinsic worth or her unique personality, but her ability to perform with total efficiency. Are we not headed down that path? No one knows where to find truth any more, people are valued increasingly according to impersonal standards of utilitarian productivity. Justice seems to have lost its meaning. And is there any cause worthy enough and unambiguous enough that we might feel justified in putting our lives on the line for it?
Above all, there is no possibility in Nikita's world for that old-fashioned concept called "grace". Grace is that quality that allows us to be fully human, that forgives us for our shortcomings, that goes beyond what is strictly necessary to give us more than we deserve.
So many people feel trapped in a hostile environment like Nikita's, their humanity placed under constant pressure by conditions beyond their control, their lives subject to the whims of powerful external forces. Life seems to make promises that it fails to deliver and there doesn't seem to be any room for acceptance of our human limitations. Perhaps we haven't realised it yet, but ultimately all of us must face the sort of questions which Nikita is regularly confronted with: "What value do I put on my soul?", "How long can I endure this pain?" and above all, "What must I do to be saved?"