Johanna Schneller, Ultimate TVGuide (January 2000)
Whether she's kicking butt on La Femme Nikita or kissing Ellen Barkin in her new film, Audacious Aussie Peta Wilson is game for anything.
In a nondescript warehouse on the fringes of Toronto is a vast room suffused with a spooky blue light. A dozen men wearing black tank tops and tight shorts are locked in individual black wire cells, where they [punch] punching bags, grind through sit-ups, and spin on exercise bikes. This is the physical training floor of Section One, and it's brand-new set for USA's La Femme Nikita which began it's fourth season on january 9. But fans of the dour, futuristic drama -- about a beautiful street urchin forced to be an assassin for a shadowy government organization, based on the 1990 French film of the same name -- will be happy to note that the mood is as grim as ever. The men grunt, but they do not smile.
At one end of the set is a large ring of mats, and in the exact center -- right where she belongs -- stands Nikita herself: Peta Wilson, the 29-year-old Australian actress who is the subject of many fawning Websites, not to mention millions of male daydreams. She sports a backless black vest, big black boots, an artfully messy blonde ponytail, a sheen of perspiration, and black leather pants that ride so low they almost reveal another cleavage. She's kickboxing, launching a long leg into the air over and over, and she looks tawny and toned and totally in control.
Nikita doesn't say much in this scene. She never does. She just dominates her dojo and glares at everyone, including Michael (Roy Dupuis), the operative who trained her and for who she feels tentative, ambivalent emotion. At the end of last season, Nikita was estranged from Michael, possibly brainwashed. The first four episodes this year will address -- but not solve -- that situation. Nothing in the world of Nikita is ever solved.
After finishing the scene, Wilson flees to her dressing room, which she has decorated with incense burners, strings of beads and kilim cushions, and where a trainer waits to lead her through an hour of meditation. Soon the smell of sage and the sound of loud growling fills the air. It's like feeding time in the lioness cage at the New Age zoo. "Sometimes, if I need energy, I just allow whatever's inside me to come out," Wilson says later. "It's a bit like chanting. It's cathartic."
It becomes clear pretty quickly that Peta Wilson lives her life in a state of nonstop catharsis. She's a Tasmanian devil of energy, constantly changing positions -- now sitting, now lying on her side, now on her back, legs propped halfway up the wall. In conversation she's a speeding Jeep on a safari through her brain. She points out the sites, dodges the quicksand, slams frequently into reverse. It's exhausting. It's exhilarating. It is worlds away from the silent self-possession of Nikita.
"Psychologically, this role is so demanding because Nikita lives in a tumultuous place, very unfulfilled -- no friends, no lovers, no release, no relief," Wilson says, her voice a low rasp that turns lovers into luv-ahs and fear into fee-yah. "That can affect my personal life." So the actress meditates, does yoga, gets acupuncture and takes all kinds of alternative medicine "to maintain balance."
"Peta is so wonderful, because she's an open channel," says Eugene Glazer, who plays Nikita's noss, Operations. "You never know what she's going to do, so she keeps you on your toes."
And, in fact, over the course of two hours, Wilson peppers her visitor with questions ("What's everyone saying about me? How long have you been writing? Do you like it? Why?") and revelations. Some of the things that "just come out" of her include the story of how she, an unknown, snagged the part of Nikita from 150 other actresses. She arrived for her first audition in Los Angeles wearing army boots, and while reading her lines she jumped on couches and desks and bounced a basketball off the ceiling. At a follow-up audition, she excused herself and changed clothes, reappearing in an Alaia dress and spike heels, "just like Nikita would. They liked that," Wilson says, grinning.
She quickly made the part her own by training with an ex-Airborne Ranger -- "because I was scared of guns" -- doing tae kown do with a stuntman, and hanging around runaway homeless kids in L.A. and Toronto. "I've always said Nikita was an angel in wolf's clothing," Wilson says. "Those kids looks like wolves because that's what they want to be. But really they're the most vulnerable of all."
Nikita producer Jamie Paul Rock says it's Wilson's own vulnerability that makes audiences connect with her. "Everybody expected that Peta would be a big draw for a male audience," he says. "But we've found that females identify with her just as much -- all these secretaries who feel like they're trapped in their own little Section Ones, fantasizing about killing their bosses. There's something about Peta that allows them that general interpretation."
That may be because when Wilson was young her family moved frequently throughout New Guinea and Australia, and as a result she often had to reach out if she wanted to make new friends. Her father, Darcy, was a warrant officer in the Australian Army and later a motorcycle cop. Her mother, Karlene, always had three jobs at once, mostly catering or cleaning jobs at the nearest airport, "because mum likes to travel," Wilson says. Peta attended a succession of Catholic girls' schools, where she survived constantly being the new kid by excelling at sports and leading her mates in lunchtime plays, belching contests and forays into the nuns' private quarters.
Wilson's parents divorced when she was "9 or so" (she says she remembers events, not dates). Younger brother Rob, now a truck driver in the Australian Army, went with their father, and Peta went with her mother. "I think it was the worst thing that ever happened to me," Wilson says, "to be the only kid in school whose parents were divorced. It deeply affected me for a long time." She shoplifted all her Christmas presents when she was 16 and at 17 survived a year-long battle with anorexia -- both, she says, delayed reactions to the divorce. "The moral is that you can't keep things inside you," she says. "You've got to let the pain out, or it makes you sick. I think I'll spend the rest of my life working it all out."
These days, however, Wilson is ecstatically happy with her boyfriend of eight years, director Damian Harris, the eldest son of actor Richard Harris. They share a house in L.A. and he visits her frequently in Toronto. "He's passionate, dashing, devilish. When he walks into a room, it's like a Celt just walked in," she says. She recently starred in a movie written and directed by Harris, Mercy, due out this summer, in which she plays a victim of sexual abuse (and in which she appears nude and kisses co-star Ellen Barkin). To prepare, Wilson did three weeks of research at lesbian and S&M clubs in L.A. "I look at it now and go, 'I did that? Oh, my God!'" she says. One can hear the Wilson Websites revving already.
She has one more year on her Nikita contract and, following that, her dreams for the future are big: She wants to have a family and to start a chain of schools that she describes as "a Julliard for street kids, strong spirits who were thrown away, who don't know what love is." For the present, though, she plans to continue to work on herself. Wilson says she has recently "let go of what's not mine. Painful childhood memories, things that were really old and deep inside me that came up, I think, because of this show, having such emotional changes every day. I feel very different walking around now. I feel very tall." She says that there's not one moment that she feels unhappy inside anymore. She says it's fantastic.
"It's like meditation," Wilson concludes. "I'm only just getting started. You've got to really want it and be ready for it. Otherwise it's frustrating, because you can't be quiet. It took me some time to be that." She laughs. "But now I'm ready."
Is she ever. For anything.
Peta's Big Chill
Tyler McLeod, Calgary Sun (January 2000)
Peta Wilson has a cold. While temperatures in her native Sydney hovered around 20 C last week, she was filming Nikita in a metre of snow.
"Why did I take this job?" she ponders jokingly.
Of all the dangerous forces Wilson has battled in three seasons as a member of an elite government force, one named Jack Frost may be the most bothersome.
"It makes me a bit funny, this cold -- I get a bit depressed."
Wilson reveals one of the best ways to beat the winter blues, much to the disappointment of Nikita's fans around the planet.
"When my boyfriend's around, I like to cuddle up with him," Wilson says -- adding cooking, reading and painting to her favourite activities while in Toronto filming the action- adventure series.
"I love getting facials and massages and lovely things like that that girls do."
Of course, only on the days she isn't saving the world from ruthless and cunning supervillians.
Based on the French film La Femme Nikita -- also the foundation for an American remake, Point of No Return -- Nikita airs on DE Saturday nights at 8 p.m. (Tomorrow's episode will be pre-empted by the 1999 Canadian Figure Skating Championships.)
After being accused of killing a police officer, a troubled street youth finds herself "recruited" by a highly secret government force.
Section One moulds Nikita into a superspy -- an assassin with looks to kill.
"She is a female James Bond," Wilson assesses. "She's a real chameleon. It's so interesting and kind of fun."
Although she landed the role without any notable credits on her resume, it is now impossible to imagine anyone better suited to Nikita than the 5-ft.-10 Aussie.
An "army brat" in her youth, Wilson was a member of the Australian national basketball team and brings a natural athletic prowess to Nikita.
"I am a bit of a tomboy, so it sort of makes sense that my first real role is something not too far from me -- the physicality of the character," Wilson says.
Like the character she plays, Wilson also underwent a rounding of character while working with the same modelling agency as Elle Macpherson and Rachel Hunter.
"I gotta tell you something: The 'catwalks of Europe' sounds very glam, but I wasn't like a 'big' model. I did quite well, I got to travel."
And while Nikita spent her days learning how to crack safes and defuse bombs, Wilson spent six years studying acting in L.A.
"Strong girls are sort of my strong arm. In drama school, I played the opposite of that. Quite complacent, very sensitive, virginal characters," Wilson says. "So when I came back to doing my strength, which is tough girls, I had a vulnerability worked into my craft."
Therefore, a dangerous beauty such as Nikita is a perfect vehicle. Someone who's the perfect dinner date before she knocks you unconscious and steals your microfilm.
And while Wilson knows it isn't always Nikita's mind that attracts an international cult following, Wilson hopes upcoming episodes of the show will be a bit more Mission: Impossible and a bit less V.I.P.
"The last few storylines, Nikita's had to have the bad guy fall in love with her -- which I'm not too crazy about. I think it's a little obvious," she laments.
"But it's a better year for scripts than last year. I think the audience will be pleased."
The beginning of season three on Nikita has seen the agent a target of her own organization and coming to terms with the secret life of her mentor, Michael.
"They do some gnarly stuff this year," she says. "They try to brainwash me again ... I play a good Nikita and a bad Nikita in some episodes -- someone clones me."
She might need a third clone. Wilson is building a beachhouse back in Australia ("I'm going to lay the concrete slab myself.") to add to a rented apartment in Ontario and the L.A. home she shares with writer/director Damian Harris.
The couple have just completed Mercy, in which she plays cop Ellen Barkin's love interest and chief suspect in a serial murder case.
"It's kind of a female version of Cruising, I suppose. Very stylish."
It's also the most substantial film role Wilson has undertaken since filming a B-movie called One Of Our Own in Calgary.
"I had a great time. I went to the mountains and I went to sweat lodges," she recalls.
"Give me Calgary any day, I tell ya. At least there are pretty mountains in the background to look at, not a chemically toxic lake."
That's just the cold medication talking, though. Rest assured, Wilson enjoys Toronto and isn't about to pull a David Duchovny.
"It's fun on the whole -- I've got it pretty darn good. I count my blessings every day. Even when I'm tired and sick and cold, I feel lucky.
"It's better than cleaning manure out of the stables at Centennial Park in Sydney -- which I've done."
Peta Wilson, Dressing To Kill
Ray Rogers, US Magazine (January 2000)
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Current roles: Nikita, the secret agent hit woman, in USA Network's action-adverture series La Femme Nikita. She also plays a "submissive lesbian," as she describes it, opposite Ellen Barkin in the forthcoming thriller Mercy, directed by longtime boyfriend Damian Harris.
Fashion philosophy: "I don't think, oh, this is so stylish," says Wilson. "I just think, I like that. I respond to that. That makes me feel good when I wear it."
Inner beauty: "If you walk into a room and radiate light, it can affect the entire surroundings. I like to wear a color that brings that out in me, or something that I'm so comfortable in that it helps to radiate my own inner light. I've got this sort of monk outfit - white Donna Karen cargo pants, a skirt, a shirt that really brings out the angelic side of me."
Background music: "It's really important to have the right music playing when you're getting dressed - it sets the style. I put James Brown on when I want to get really excited."
Dress for success: "As far as Hollywood is concerned, when I go out to get a job, I try to look as expensive as I can, even if it goes against what my better instincts are telling me."
Diamonds are forever: "I'm not a person who wears a lot of jewelry, but when I do, you'll take notice. My favorite piece is this antique, 17th century diamond necklace that's on a fine sterling-silver chain. I wear that with jeans and a T-shirt. I'm not one to keep anything in a safe.
Style icons: "I love Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn and Natalie Wood. I study their looks and then adapt them to my own vision. Hepburn, particularly, is so elegantly casual. To get her look, I'll buy some beautiful trousers, and then I'll go to a thrift shop and buy a beautiful Hawaiian shirt, and I'll wear the outfit with some old alligator-skin loafers.
Gender bent: "When I dress in the morning, I often ask myself, are we going to be the girl today, or do we need to let the boy out?"
Cheap chic: "If you don't have the money, it doesn't mean that you can't be stylish. We never had much growing up. My mom was a single mother, and it was tough, but I always had what I wanted. My auntie would get beautiful things for me, and then re-cut and rebuild then to fit me. Now I have the luxury of being able to afford a Fendi bag or something from Donna Karen, but I don't know that I'm any more stylish because of it.
CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT
Beauty products: I love clothes, but I could live without them. I couldn't, however, live without face cream or Jurlique, this face wash that made of oatmeal.
Accessory: I love my Eric Jabas hat. I have to have a hat with me at all times, because I like to stay white, white, white!
Carryall: What I call my Lois Lane handbag - this beautiful, '40s-style, black Gucci purse. It's unbelievable, and it goes with just about anything.
Sunglasses: My own brand, of course. My best friend and I recently started a sunglasses and running shoes company. It's called Psycht. We are debuting the line in the States this month.
Workout gear: My no-brand jump rope. I skip rope everyday listening to this 27-minute song by the band Underworld.
Intimates: Bras By La Perla - the guy who makes them must have been an actual breast in his past life, because they just fit so well.
Swimwear: My Girls From Brazil bikinis. I have a red and a white one.
My Femme Nikita
Rhonda Baughman, PopMatters (2000)
"I was falsely accused of a hideous crime and sentenced in 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. If I don't play by their rules... I die."
These haunting words, spoken by Nikita (Peta Wilson), open each episode of La Femme Nikita, setting the stage for the USA Network's exceptional spy-drama. Driven equally by a sense of helplessness and outrage, Nikita is an unusual character for television, a reluctant but effective killer, at once brutal and graceful, lonely and hopeful. She's one of the many reasons that I and many others have become fans of the series. La Femme Nikita's additional enticements include a combination of familiar and futuristic (if at times unrealistic) settings, an outstanding cast, a potent soundtrack, and, a set of recurrent and interrelated themes, revolving around questions of identity and trust.
The series has its source in Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, a stylish, dark, and brooding French film about an insolent street vagrant recruited by a ruthless underground agency to serve as one of their several assassins: Anne Parillaud plays Nikita, the young woman caught in an unspeakably violent world. A 1983 U.S. remake, Point of No Return, seems pointless: star Bridget Fonda is miscast, John Badham's direction is lackluster, and the ending unsatisfactory. However, a constant element in all three incarnations is Nikita's illicit romance with her primary Section One instructor, who subsequently becomes torn between his duty and his passion.
This love story seems central to the series' success. Premiering in 1997, TV's LFN attracted a small but dedicated audience with the first few episodes, and has since become an important part of USA's schedule. This has nothing to do with the Nielsen ratings, mind you, but concerns its increasingly international following, fans who watch the show attentively, discuss and research it obsessively on the web, and savor its solid writing and strong cast. I have yet to notice a weak link in the core group of six, all of whom have indie film or offbeat TV experience, in the U.S. and Canada: Wilson (Loser and the upcoming Mercy) as Nikita; Ray DuPuis (J'en Suis, Being At Home With Claude) as Michael, her teacher and lover; Matthew Ferguson (Lilies, Love and Human Remains) as Birkoff; Don Francks (Johnny Mnemonic) as Walter; Eugene Robert Glazer (The Five Heartbeats) as Operations; and Alberta Watson (The Sweet Hereafter, Spanking the Monkey) as Madeline.
The plot revolves around Nikita, "recruited" by Section One when, as she reminds us each week in her opening monologue, she was facing life in prison. The agency faked her death and erased her identity, then trained her as a missions operative and killer. Although Nikita's every material need is met by Section One's considerable resources, she remembers her former life as relatively independent, as shown in repeated flashbacks to her rough street life. By contrast, scenes of her present existence emphasize her sense of being watched and monitored at all times. Section One operates under tight codes of security and secrecy, forcing its assassins to be loyal and obedient. LFN characterizes Section One as greedy and ruthless, but, like any corporation, worried about its image, at least as this is manifested in its "workers." The Section One directors see any display of emotion as a sign of weakness, and any reference to the past as a threat to their deeply undercover missions.
One of these workers is Michael. Also Nikita's lover, mentor, and operations commander, he is the only operative with high-level security clearance, that is, access to invaluable information no one else knows. Section One's leaders distrust Michael, because he knows too much and because he has plainly fallen in love with Nikita. They also distrust him because he one of their top operatives and may one day replace them. And with Michael's increasing access to information (such as the exact location of Section One, which not even the audience knows this season), he has become less tractable: he's often more interested in helping Nikita than in completing his assignments. In response, Madeline and Operations last season considered "canceling" Michael, to prevent him from leaking Section One's secrets.
Michael and Nikita's relationship has remained a complex one from the series' inception. Until last season, it was never quite clear just how much they cared for each other. In the first season, we were led to believe Michael was using Nikita as a pawn in Section One's manipulations. During the next two seasons, he seemed slightly less manipulative, and their relationship matured in response to hostility from Section One. Even when ordered to stop, neither Michael nor Nikita were able to do so. Madeline and Operations' obsessive — even melodramatic — interest with the romance, even amid all of the murder and political intrigue, led to the fourth season premiere, two hours full of intrigue and deception, culminating with the revelation of a key figure's background.
Episode One, entitled "Getting Out Of Reverse," focuses on neuro-engineering. Section One demands complete compliance from its agents, molding them into emotionless assassins. Nikita, however, remains too strong-willed and passionate to be the agency's robot, especially where her feelings for Michael are concerned. So, the directors enlist a scientist who has developed new, more efficient methods of brainwashing, to assure Nikita's acquiescence. "Getting Out of Reverse" then poses the following question: after the treatment, will Nikita remain Nikita, or will she succumb to Section One's plan to make her a flawless, amoral mercenary, rather than the "good actress" she had been up until this point? LFN's three major themes — the instability of identity, fear of deception, and the star-crossed romance — come together when, after her treatment, Nikita tells Michael, "I don't love you anymore." Viewers are left wondering. Does she mean it? Or is she performing for Section One, knowing that she's being monitored at every moment?
The second episode of the two-part season premiere, entitled "There Are No Missions," picks up on these themes. Fans who have been watching from LFN's beginning will know what I mean when I say that the episode reveals that the first neuro-engineering test subject is the "true mother" of Section One. That is, the show reveals that it has, itself, been deceiving the audience over a question of identity. (Not to mention that the identities of both this "true mother" and Nikita are in danger, for a side effect of the neuro-engineering process is a total loss of memory.) Both of these episodes showcase the series' ongoing concentration on three main themes, again concentrating on deception, identity, and romance (Nikita seems poised to "cancel" Michael, though he holds out hope that her deep love for him will overcome her new programming). And both have the full-on visual and emotional impacts of any big screen drama or thriller, though filtered of vulgar language and extreme violence. LFN uses an almost Hitchcockian restraint, implying rather than showing violent excesses, leaving at least a little bit of characterization and action to the viewer's imagination.
I have often pondered what makes LFN work, what makes me watch it so religiously, aside from the titillation of the forbidden romance. I think it is this restraint, the fact that the show doesn't spell everything out for its viewers, that it respects our intelligence and ability to discern the meanings of Nikita's or Operations' subtle glances, body language, and twisted smiles. The show resists the typical TV drama's tendency to explain too much in dialogue or assert easy moral lessons. Actually, most of LFN's episodes close with questions rather than resolutions and feature little dialogue, offering instead stylized visual compositions and evocative soundtrack. Indeed, one of the series' strongest elements is its music, including the eerie theme song by Mark Snow and score by Sean Callery. (A tie-in soundtrack cd, released in 1998, features artists like Mono, Curve, Enigma, and Morphine.)
For many viewers, LFN offers a brief respite from daily routine. In some cases it has become its own routine, even a ritual. The series is surely escapist, quixotic, even, on occasion, campy. But at the same time, its persistent attention to quotidian concerns — common uncertainties concerning identity and faith — continues to seduce and thrill viewers, perhaps even making us look twice at our own relationships.
A Killer 4th Season for La Femme Nikita
Beth Hannah Rimmels, Comic Sutra (2000)
I don’t know how much longer the writers and producers of La Femme Nikita can continue to raise the stakes without the show exploding, but so far so good.
During the latter part of last season, Section One leaders Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) and Madeline (Alberta Watson) were becoming increasingly intent upon breaking up the love affair between operatives Michael (Roy Dupuis) and Nikita (Peta Wilson). In addition to lowering mission effectiveness, it was feared that as a team, Michael and Nikita could perhaps take their places as the masters of Section One. When every effort failed, they launched one final, extreme plan to avoid terminating one or both of the lovers: Nikita was diverted during a mission and Madeline used an experimental technique to brainwash her and eliminate her feelings for Michael.
The double-episode season premiere on Sunday (9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT January 9 on USA Network) picks up in the days thereafter. Not only has the treatment destroyed Nikita’s feelings for Michael, but it has also stopped her from forming emotional attachments to anyone, practically turning her into the robot Operations always wanted.
Michael, of course, knows that this sudden change can’t be normal and is determined to not only find out what happened but use his knowledge of Section One to find a way to undo the damage lest the process be used on all of them. His efforts will be dealt with in a four-episode story arc that begins with these two episodes.
The initial investigation covers the sort of ground regular Nikita viewers would expect. It’s in the second episode that we learn a secret Operations and Madeline want to conceal at all costs, even if it means terminating Michael. The twist is too good to spoil, but I can’t figure out how this arc can resolved while allowing Michael to return to Section.
Simultaneously, the subplot involving Oversight’s increasing scrutiny of Section One and Operations continues to develop, also picking up from last season. As the season goes on, that subplot will continue to grow until it verges on full-scale war between George and Operations.
Other future episodes will have Madeline confronting her Red Cell counterpart and more information on the man who saved Operation's life when he was in a Vietnamese POW camp. Nikita will also learn more about why she was framed and recruited by Section One. A teaser from USA Network also hints that Operations will also use the "mysterious abilities of a very unusual operative from another Section," which begs the question, how many other Sections are there? And how exactly do they interconnect? Does each Section have its own specialty, which might explain why this other group has such a mysterious operative?
My main complaint about Nikita over the years is that the show often rushes its story arcs too much. I certainly don’t want stories to drag on forever, but some plots, such as the Jurgen story arc, were resolved so quickly that it felt unnatural. A fast-paced show doesn’t have to skip the details fans love.
On the other hand, the writers have done an excellent job of bringing back characters from earlier episodes, such as Nick, and tying together the various plot twists over the years. Wilson has improved as an actress since her first season and the rest of the cast has always been good. Walter (Don Francks) and Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson) in particular have grown from minor supporting characters to essential components of the addictive show.
If you haven’t watched La Femme Nikita before, you might be pleasantly surprised. While flashier and a bit more explosive than the superb In the Company of Spies, Nikita is a well-crafted action series that doesn’t neglect the cat-and-mouse aspect of espionage and counterterrorism.
Out of the Shadows
Porter Anderson, Spirit Magazine (Southwest Airlines; January 2000)
Under the ever-watchful gaze of Operations, played by Eugene Robert Glazer, TV’s dark action drama La Femme Nikita opens a fourth season. In this on-set visit with the members of the company, we shed light on some of the secrets behind the show’s skintight tension.
Two operatives, a man and a woman, grapple on a mat.
Their fight is part aikido, part wrestling match. All business. This isn't a prelude to a kiss. One of them may die in this fight. They're surrounded by winking computer sensors, pulsing bars of light, looming semicircular ghost-white combat cages.
And as they struggle to take each other down, a man watches.
He stands on a glowing, raised light-landing, in something like an airlock. He's backed by a gleaming elevator door. He's in an Armani-artful black shirt, the thinnest gray line etched into its fabric for contrast. Black tie. Charcoal jacket. Black trousers. His hands are folded. His expression is interested but serene, engaged but merciless. Sadly pleased.
This man is Operations. He controls Section One, a deeply classified counter-terrorist installation in Europe. On the mat are Nikita and Michael, his two most sophisticated operatives. He has pitted them against each other -- by reprogramming Nikita's emotions -- because they loved each other. Romance made them vulnerable. It opened them to feelings of guilt when people had to be killed. It inspired concern for each other when their assignments required ruthless obedience to a lethal plan. Operations wants this love business out of the way.
On-set for this reaction shot, Eugene Robert Glazer as Operations watches actors Peta Wilson and Roy Dupuis assault each other as Nikita and Michael.
Never mind that it's a balmy, sunny day in suburban Toronto outside the warehouse in which this formidable cult hit is filmed. Inside this cavernous space, it's dark. And Glazer's icy expression freezes everyone watching -- actors, designers, camera people, grips, stunt workers. That expression of implacable regret is an emblematic moment in this month's fourth-year premiere of USA Network's techno-drama La Femme Nikita.
Even the most loyal of the show's Internet-avid viewers may have doubted that the program could recapture its skintight tension after 66 episodes. But when this scene comes to their screens, they'll face a gratifyingly cruel little reprimand for that lack of faith: The Glazer gaze once again has called La Femme Nikita into awful session.
What they won't get to see is the native New Yorker's wide grin just moments after the shot is ordered printed. Someone has fingered Glazer's lapel -- with its inevitable POW pin -- and complimented him on the fine threads his character always wears in the show.
"Oh, yes," he shoots back with a deft tug at his tie. "We dress very well in Section."
And the fans won't see Australian-born Wilson, she of those hangdog-heavenly blonde looks, in a moment of indecision that Nikita would never suffer. When an assistant asks if she wants her stunt double to establish the fight shot with her black-leather jacket on or off, Wilson is stuck for an answer. "On or off? On or off?" She swaggers back and forth, considering her option as she sizes up her reflection in a mirror. "Shoulders," she decides, tossing off the jacket so her sleeveless fight gear reveals those golden-shapely arms of hers. "I think we want shoulders."
Three seconds later. "Oh, now I don't know for sure. Wait a minute." She turns to a companion. "Do you think we want shoulders?"
And the viewers won't get to see Quebecois actor Dupuis in Michael's trademark black Lycra stretch-wool pants plus Gaultier T-shirt -- and fuzzy blue bathrobe. His French accent softer in this fourth season on an English-speaking show, Dupuis sits in his sparsely furnished off-set office. He muses on how "the future will belong to the people who need the fewest things." And he reminisces about the trip he and his girlfriend, actress Celine Bonnier, took last summer.
"I've decided to get into sailing," he says. "But I don't know much about it. So we went down the eastern coast of the United States, and we learned about it and what kind of boat we might want to get." Charmingly unaware that he's now speaking in neither French nor English but in bumper-sticker-ese, Dupuis considers the long wait ahead before his next scene will be shot, and smiles wistfully: "I'd rather be sailing."
What may be most striking about a day with the company of La Femme Nikita is that these are intensely personable folks producing one of network television's most rigorously disturbing shows.
"Their ends are just," as Wilson-as-Nikita says about Section One in the show's open.
"But their means are ruthless."
La Femme Nikita is touched by no angel. If you're not familiar with the show, you should know that Ally McBeal wouldn't survive to the first commercial. Neither Dharma, Greg, Will, nor Grace is here. Nikita & Michael this isn't. Friends need not apply.
"As much as the fans always tell us they want to see Michael and Nikita get together," says producer Jamie Paul Rock, "if we ever let that happen, the show is over."
La Femme Nikita is based on French writer-director Luc Besson's 1990 film Nikita. It was released in 1991 in the United States as La Femme Nikita. The show, in both the film and the television series, centers on a young woman sentenced to prison and then moved to a secret government espionage agency. In the original film, Nikita is correctly convicted of killing a policeman. In the TV show, she's made more sympathetic -- she's framed in a street killing she didn't commit.
But that's where most similarities between film and television drama end.
A wicked thing happened to La Femme Nikita on its way from France to the States, and from the beginning of the 1990s to this year's fin-de-siecle season: The show got smarter. And meaner.
Glazer as Operations runs a Section One that jets agents to the Middle East and North Africa, to Asia and Eastern Europe, to Latin America and all points west. The targets are terrorist cells, illegal weapons transfers, rogue states' commandos. Executive consultant Joel Surnow's writers -- they're based in Los Angeles -- always seem to be brushing off the dust of a real-world embassy bombing or a marketplace explosion.
Section One's agents are almost all conscripts from prison, carefully chosen, tested, trained for various tasks, and relentlessly monitored for obedience. They're given a choice. You work in and for Section One or you die. Being "canceled" is the term: The agency is too discreet to say "execution" -- and too highly classified for an uncooperative operative to be allowed to live. Blood is rarely seen on the show. But casualties are. Aided by a fabulous array of computerization, digital communications, and micro-cameras, the people of Section are deployed on precisely timed forays, the guiding principle being that the deaths of several terrorists and agents -- and innocent bystanders, if necessary -- are better than attacks on whole populations.
But here's where many potential viewers may have been fooled by commercials for the show: La Femme Nikita isn't an action-adventure series. It's not for kids, no, but not only because of its violence. What makes it so distinctive is what happens back in Section One, where everyone, as Glazer notes, is so well-dressed. The program is a social thriller, a modern morality play. Section One is a latter-day Hermes garden, a tiny sealed culture in which life and death are managed by what Dupuis likes to say is the conflict of ideology and logic.
Some say the Nikita audience sees the show as an allegory for today's corporate politics in which another layer of executive force seems to darken each glass ceiling overhead. Indeed, Rock says Operations' conflict with his own "masters" -- the mysterious super-agency called Oversight -- will have increasing importance this season.
"I think we'll climb Olympus this year," he says, "and just see what's up there."
The discovery can only spark more power plays in the sensual twilight in which these characters jockey for information, advantage -- and peace of mind.
Last Holdout Against Chaos
That environment itself, the vast, luminous underground complex of Section One, and the loftier reaches of Oversight, makes up one of the most expressive players in the show.
"Up until now," says show designer Rocco Matteo as he watches director Jon Cassar glide by on in-line skates, "I've never had a chance to show viewers the real size of Section. We haven't been able to show viewers the scope of the place. This season we're doing it."
Matteo stands on a kind of runway that spans the length of this giant warehouse in Mississauga, Ontario, outside Toronto. Tall, wire-mesh cages hold physical-training equipment. Actors playing new inductees to Section One are in those cages working out. "The idea here," Matteo says as he walks across a camera-dolly track, "is that in the fourth year we're finally seeing how huge this place is. This end, where it's dark, is where the grunts are tried out. If they make it through basic training, they get up to the fight area" where Nikita and Michael try to deck each other in the first episode. Beyond that are the upper reaches of Section, where the briefing-center hub and communications pod are located, overlooked by Operations' command bridge.
A specialist in period design, Matteo sees his Nikita work as a chance to develop "future style," as he calls it, often with only the subtlest touches. "You see a screen here, a computer readout there," he says, "and you know the ‘big machine' is somewhere just out of sight. The sort of clean, epic lines we use in the show I think are where we're going as a society. In the future, we'll embrace purity -- as our last holdout against chaos."
We Want Shoulders
"Shoot! I'm sorry! I thought I had it turned down."
Wilson pulls her knit-capped head hack out of the artificial manhole she's working in as her cell phone goes off on her rolling makeup table. The phone has rung just as a quick scene was being filmed. The shot will have to be redone. She's lying face-down, 15 feet above the warehouse floor on scaffolding that holds the wooden cylinder of the fake manhole being used in the shot. By placing the camera at the bottom of this cylinder, the in-line-skating director Cassar can shoot upward and make it appear we're looking up to see Nikita's face.
Within minutes of the scene's conclusion, it's clear what a credit to Velcro it is that Wilson can be kept in costume while discussing her pet project. Ask her how plans for her school are coming. With that, one of Sydney's most ravishing exports is pressing her face to within six inches of yours --that's no exaggeration -- those wide eyes glaring, arms flying in enthusiastic debate.
"Look, I'm talking about the Catskills or maybe Buffalo. I want the kids who come to my school to get out of the city, get out of their urban problems, out of what they live in. I want them to have pretty, nice rooms to be in. And doctors. And therapists. Holistic medicine only. Everybody will come -- actors, other performers -- they'll all come and work with these kids."
Wilson, 29 and signed to a five-year contract with La Femme Nikita, off-camera is nothing like the understated, sulking siren she plays on the show. She's passionately committed to setting up what she describes as a Juilliard-style school for inner-city children, Not to teach them to be artists but to give them enough contact with practicing performers and thinkers that they can find their way out of the crime and poverty that often holds them back.
"I have to make this happen. I have to."
She and her brother were raised as the Australian equivalents to American Army brats, spending the first 10 years of her life based on Papua New Guinea. "I want to love, and be loved," she says, both defiant and imploring at once, "because I know what it is to be an outcast. We were raised in a native community. Rob and I were accepted there and treated as special because we were different. Then we moved back to Australia and the children wanted nothing to do with us. I was made to be an outcast there because I'd been raised in a native culture and therefore I was scary because I was different.
"Childhood gave me this. I was different. I know what it's like. And I don't want what happened to me to happen to anybody else."
So while in Toronto -- the show's shooting schedule runs to June --Wilson says she's contacting youth-services organizations to see if whenever an actor friend visits from Los Angeles, as Sam Shepard did recently, she might take him or her into the city for a session with some underprivileged youngsters. "It's a way to start, until I can get the school going."
For years, Wilson has spent her free moments with her L.A.-based boyfriend and independent filmmaker Damian Harris, son of actor Richard Harris. Together, they've made a film adaptation of David L. Lindsey's 1990 novel about serial killings, Mercy. Wilson co-stars with Ellen Barkin in the film, which Wilson says she hopes will be released this spring.
For now, she wrangles with Cassar and Rock about scripts, arguing for emotional honesty where she thinks it's being slighted. "All I ask for in this role or any other," she says, "is truth. I mean, some actors, you know, they set up their characters so they're low-maintenance. That's not real acting.
'TII do whatever it takes to get truth into Nikita. Otherwise, none of this means a thing."
'Like I Look At Bond'
Faithful Nikita viewers enjoy the winks the show's producers share with them. They know, for example, that the first season's 22 episodes have one-word titles ("Obsessed," "Verdict," "Brainwash"). The second season's episodes two-word titles ("Soul Sacrifice," "Darkness Visible," "Hard Landing"), and so on. They also can look at a show and tell you from what season it comes by the hairstyles. Last season, Dupuis' long locks were cut off. This season, Wilson has the shortened hair. "I did it myself, too, in a hotel in Italy last summer," she says. "I just decided I'm sick of all this hair."
Glazer, on the other hand, rubs his hand through his crew cut as soon as a visitor enters his trailer on the set. "Look!" he beams triumphantly. "My own hair color is back this season."
That bleached-white buzz cut of last season has been replaced by darker hair now, and a younger-looking Glazer knows male viewers look at his character "like I look at Bond. The real James Bond, I mean -- Sean Connery."
Once he's seated in the makeup trailer and has a moment to reflect, however, Glazer concedes he has a much more sobering personal connection to his role in La Femme Nikita.
"I've become a 'Vietnam-phile; "he says, fascinated by stories of American POWs who, unlike Arizona Sen. John McCain and others, are thought by many never to have made it back out of the jungle. His own military service, Glazer says, was a routine stint in the Army. But in recent years, he's followed up on "leads, so many leads, people who contact me, give me someone to call, people once 'attached' to the CIA."
What's triggering this input on the POW issue is an element of Glazer's character -- he's scripted as a former Vietnam POW. In one episode, Operations talks of how he missed seeing his son grow up because he was imprisoned in Vietnam. And that POW lapel pin has become Glazer’s connection with something searingly emotional, amid the sartorial cool of the master spy's wardrobe. When he tells the story of a legless Vietnam vet reunited with a former North Vietnamese soldier -- helped by American vets to get the medical treatment he needed - the Glazer gaze goes misty. There's a human compassion here no operative in Section One could imagine. It drives this artist, whose actor-wife Brioni appeared with him in one episode, to take nothing for granted.
"What I worry about in the show," he says, "is that some moments are constantly repeated. You can go on automatic. Phone it in. This is our fourth year. We have to keep it alive, and that's not as easy in television as it is on stage. On stage, I can change things, make them different. Here ....
"Well, look, people love this show because they love the idea that they've got a female lead, handling herself like Nikita does. And people love to hate my character, Operations. And yet they want to be like him. Power. Control.
"Hell, I wish I were like him."
"I was in Los Angeles last week for a charity benefit. Jon Cassar organized it. And we auctioned off two visits here to the set of La Femme Nikita." Producer Rock sits at a picnic table, an incongruous bit of lawn furniture stationed outside the filming warehouse for the show. Inside, Matteo is overseeing the setup for another take. The size of his new, big-scale Section One has slowed down the shooting schedule. Timing is off. Nerves are showing. This scene must be shot before the crew finally knocks off around 10 or 11 p.m.
"To my amazement," Rock says, barely showing his impatience with the lagging shoot, "those two set visits went for $21,500 and $19,600. I mean, what does that tell you about the popularity of this show? They're paying that kind of money just to tour our set."
He waits only a beat before smiling broadly and adding, "You, I'm only going to charge $10 today."
It's Rock who's charged with keeping this company of actors, designers, and technicians challenged for another 22 hour-long episodes this year. "And that's not always easy, trying to make this story work, trying to make it look good for the money."
The money is reportedly about $1 million, just a bit less. Not a huge budget for a season of dramatic television, let alone TV as opulent as Matteo and costume designer Laurie Drew provide. That's one reason the show is filmed in Toronto. The U.S. dollar will buy almost $1.45 in Canadian dollars, a helpful boost when your company numbers as many as 180 people from first shot through post-production.
"I'm dependent on this gang I've assembled," says Rock -- ironically a former producer with the SCTV comedy team. "This is a remarkable group of people on Nikita, fabulous creators. I take a lot of pride in the result. What we have here is something oh-so-dark, but we can't let it get too dark."
Seemingly the only man in these studios not carrying three pagers and two cell phones, Rock ambles back into the shadows of Section One, where Matteo is tugging at the white mesh on the battle cages, making sure his design in the next shot -- establishing the newly revealed size of Section One -- will look perfect.
"You know that idea of how we're going to see more of Operations vs. Oversight this year" -- that attempt to "climb Olympus" that Rock is talking about for the season -- "it could even mean we get up above ground for the first time.
"Oversight might even be able to see out. We could have the first window."
After the original Section One in Paris was destroyed last year by its own operatives because its location had been exposed, the current Section One facility was put together in a city that viewers haven't identified yet.
"Lyon, I think, if it's still in France," Matteo muses. "Or if in Germany, we'd have to decide between Berlin and Frankfurt. Right now, Frankfurt has the most interesting skyline in Europe." "Quiet, please!" the shot starts.
That Glazer gaze is back in place, the POW pin shining on the lapel. Wilson's newly shorn hair catches the same light. Dupuis hits the mat, hard, on his back.
"Nikita no longer has any feelings for Michael," Matteo says, watching the fight. "This is the show in its pure state. She's the perfect operative. No emotion to get in the way. And that's how we start this year.
Plot Twists Are Humdingers As Nikita Opens New Season
The Virginian Pilot (7 January 2000)
She looks so-o-o-o-o good in black leather.
Peta Wilson, an Australian who grew up in New Guinea, returns Sunday night at 9 for a fourth season in the title role of La Femme Nikita on USAA. As the third season wrapped, Nikita underwent "neuro engineering" mind control.
Section One sought total subjugation.
But did the brain scrubbing work, really?
That's the tease in the season premiere, in which Nikita is still the brassiest of TV heroines -- her high kicks are way more impressive than Buffy's -- and stunning in the close-ups.
Blue eyes that glow like neon. Straw-blond hair. Perfect lips.
"She shows raw complexity and raw sexuality," said the series' executive consultant, Joel Surnow.
Not me, says Wilson, who off camera couldn't be less like Her Grimness, Nikita. She's a smiley face who likes going barefoot. Her life was rootless early on.
"I'm an Army brat," she said.
And an accomplished sailor.
On Sunday, USA in back-to-back new episodes gives us La Femme Nikita with plot twists that are humdingers. Twist No. 1 is what happens after the human icebergs, Madeline and Operations, try to purge Nikita of any emotional connection to fellow agent Michael.
"We've created a perfect robot," the man called Operations says.
Michael, played by master mumbler Roy Dupuis, isn't so sure his lover has been purged of "all emotional components." As Michael takes on the role of deprogrammer, he makes Operation's hit list.
Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) sends Nikita, his perfect killing machine, to "cancel" Michael.
These developments give new life to a series that's been losing viewers of late, perhaps because audiences no longer give a hoot about the darkish missions of Section One. (it's a covertanti-terrorist group that answers to a higher power called Oversight.)
La Femme Nikita continues to put great-looking images on the TV screen with its steely high-tech sets, glam wardrobes and offbeat locations. Wilson may make knee-high boots fashionable again.
What the series has been missing of late is abominable villains -- the Red Cell is no match for the black hearts who try to feed Nikita's cover-girl face to rats*. And so the writers have turned Section One's operatives on themselves.
It works in Sunday's fourth-season premiere. But how can the series continue if Nikita and Michael are at each other's throats? Not to worry, says USA.
"Michael and Nikita together will be placed in colorful and fascinating situations. They'll go undercover as drug dealers. Nikita will infiltrate a mental hospital. Michael will again meet the man who saved his life in a Vietnam POW camp." **
You get all that and maybe a full-scale war between Section One and Oversight. Plus Peta Wilson in leather, head to toe.
* Referring to the episode "War."
** Actually, it's Operations who will meet his savior from the Vietnam days.
Killer Nikita Is Still on Target
David Bianculli, New York Daily News (8 January 2000)
The fourth season of a TV drama series usually is the danger zone — the period in which the show's writer-producers, as well as its viewers, can get bored with the established formula and go astray. But for the USA Network's "La Femme Nikita," there seems to be no danger of a slump.
Based on the back-to-back two-parter premiering tomorrow night at 9, this series has dipped more deeply into the waters of paranoia than ever, and the results are quite intriguing.
"La Femme Nikita," like the original French film on which it is based, is all about an edgy young punk (played, in the TV version, by the formidable Peta Wilson) whose death is faked by a highly secret oranization so that Nikita can be trained as an assassin for hire.
In the TV show, the Operations group for which Nikita is forced to work is an antiterrorist organization, which gives her the good-guy role even while those around her, especially her bosses, are painted with more-questionable motivations.
In last season's cliffhanger, the romance between Nikita and another operative, Michael (Roy Dupuis), so angered her superiors that they submitted her to an experimental form of brainwashing, effectively aimed at robbing her of all emotional attachments. As this season begins, we see whether the experiment was successful — and, if so, what that means for both Nikita and Michael.
Because the story keeps one step ahead of the usual plot conventions, this new twist has Nikita potentially just as untrustworthy as everyone else — leaving viewers with skewed loyalties and a strange, interesting feeling of discomfort.
Meanwhile, whether it's due to the brainwashing or a new costume designer, this season's Nikita is dressed to kill. She's wearing more aggressively styled stuff, not seen since the glory days of Diana Rigg's Mrs. Peel on "The Avengers." Needless to say, this, too, is a great way to keep viewers hooked.
Roy Dupuis Interview
Jane L. Thompson, The National Post (8 April 2000)
When you get angry or passionate, do you immediately speak in French?
No, I rarely lose it in any way. I've never really lost it, yet. I try to be controlled and lofical, reasonable. You have to study the situation from the outside, pull yourself out of it. Most of the time it's nothing....
Do you get weird fan mail?
Sometimes it's weird, sometimes it's great. Sometimes there's amazing stuff. They tell me their life stories, and it's interesting. There are movies in there. More women than men write, for sure. But, actually, I think more women write fan mail, even to Peta [Wilson], or other actresses I know.
What makes a woman sexy?
That's personal, first of all. For me, what makes a woman sexy, at first, of course, is the exterior appearance; for me, her eyes mostly, hands. And what really makes a woman sexy for me is originality and intelligence. That turns me on.
Are you married?
No, I don't believe in marriage. I don't get how you can say I'll be there all my life, and base a love relationship on that. I think it's a lie, that's all. Right now, the woman I'm with thinks pretty much the same way that I do. And, pretty much with all the women that I've been with, marriage was never a concern. For me, making children is like marriage. Just to choose or decide to have a child with this woman, it's a statement that "I think I could be there for a while at least, and it will happen." I'd like it to.
You're renovating your farmhouse in Quebec?
That's mostly what I do in the summer, when I'm off the show. It's an 1840 farmhouse. I've taken off most of the gyproc that was in the kitchen and found it was plaster before. So I found the original recipe and redid the plaster inside. I built a porch in the front garden, and I integrated a round patio. It's all cedar and turnposts and balconies, and a copper roof. I'm pretty proud of it. It's the first thing I've really built.
Would you ever move to L.A.?
No. This house took me six years to find. This house is also ... a dream. I want it to stay in the family, if I have children, so they know where they come from and they have the land, a contact to the earth. I find it very important.
You're writing a film. Is it for a Quebec audience?
No, for me. I don't put a border on what I'm writing. I think the best way ... is to be yourself. That's what interests people -- differences. Other ways of seeing.
What do you do with your down time?
I read, I write, I get some CD-Roms and check out historical things, and sailing information. I also go on the Internet ....
Does This Babe Really Have to Die?
Linda Stasi, New York Post (29 May 2000)
The man I love will no longer be seeing the woman he loves more than me - the big, killer blone he shuts himself off with at least one night a week.
I would feel better if he were dropping her of his own free will.
But as a professional assassin might say, the woman is being "canceled." Eliminated. Done in.
(Do you ever wonder why it's only professional killers and TV executives who say "canceled" when they really mean killed?)
La Femme Nikita (aka Peta Wilson) has killed her last victim for the good of Section, and USA Network is taking a hit from crazed fans all over the world.
When it was announced recently that the ultimate corporate climber had been done in - by the corporation itself - USA and every newspaper was inundated with e-mail and protests.
But Stephen Chao, president of USA Network, told me they aren't the ones who put out the contract on Nikita. Although it was - I swear - a contract killing.
Chao told me that USA wanted to continue with the show, and did not in fact cancel it. Oh, sit down and calm yourself - I didn't say it wasn't going off, I just said it was not canceled.
"The truth is," said Chao, "our deal with Warner Bros. has been - from the beginning - for only four years, and this is the fourth year. We just couldn't come to an agreement."
In fact, Chao is a fan of the show.
"Nikita is a very good, nice, great show, and even though it was only a ratings fireworks one year, we still wanted to continue." There are still 10 episodes which have yet to be aired, and they'll start June 25 and continue until Aug. 27.
No, Chao says, they aren't leaving us with a horrible unresolved cliffhanger.
As long as we were getting along so well, I figured I'd ask Mr. Chao what exactly the last episode would entail. I was clearly mistaken about how well we were getting along. "I'm not telling you!" he said. Geesh.
Meantime, the fans believe that the root of all evil (money, not Section) is behind the cancellation - er, contract disagreement. They are sending Chao dollar bills in protest.
Some protest. Send them to me, and I'll make good use of them.
Chao, clearly more honorable than I, is sending all the money back through the USA attorneys.
In addition to the dollar bill protest, one fan, Jean Thompson of Cornwall, N.Y. e-mailed us that "over 500 fans were [scheduled to] converge on Toronto this [past] weekend to discuss further strategies!!! Thanks for your time and effort with our concerns!"
Clearly, Jean is quite serious, which I can tell by the !!!s.
She said you can find out more yourself at www.heynshussies.com. (If this is wrong, I can't help it. Don't call; this is the address she gave.)
As best selling author/sex therapist/blindly devoted fan, Dr. Judy Kuriansky said about the cancellation: "It's devastating. Just devastating.
"It was my only critical appointment television," she said. "It's about rationality versus emotion. Having a woman as the main character and having her transform the guys into more human-type characters was fabulous.
"Believe me, society has been put backward by this move."
Maybe what she meant is that the fans are battling emotions and rationality.
Now the good news: Remember, how many times you thought that Nikita was dead, really dead, or merely brain dead, and she managed to come back to life? Well, it may happen again.
Chao told me that they are looking into the possibility of making movies. "But, again, there are two sides here."