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La Femme Nikita: Pain Perfect
Porter Anderson, CNN.com (6 August 1999)
A Third Season Ends

(CNN) -- Those wired walls of Section One are closing in.

The dark domain is centered on a great-hall hub, observed from an elevated control bridge and riddled with gleaming tunnels. This post-modern bunker glows and hums with intrigue. Pools of light. Glistening slate. Winking video monitors. Toronto-based designer Rocco Matteo's epic environment for USA Network's espionage melodrama "La Femme Nikita" is one of the most agile characters in the show.

It's the spies stalking his stony surfaces who are starting to feel the squeeze. They're caught in a latter-day "Huis Clos" of their own success.

Three seasons and 66 hourlong episodes have taken a toll on these artists. What seduces their viewers -- this luminous dance of sex, power and techno-tactics -- is precisely what's becoming harder to sustain. The company is keenly aware that in the upcoming fourth season, the real work begins.

"I don't have any idea where the show will go next season," says Peta Wilson, who plays the title role. "This is the first year I've said that, too." (Read our special interview with Wilson.)

The actress is as serious in interview as she is in character. She knows what draws the show's core of Internet-fluent fans. A lot of them are the action-adventure boys, sure. But a considerable contingent is made up of sophisticated escapists. At first, they may have been come-hithered by Wilson's wiles. What they stay for is the creative team's allegiance to a dire scenario.

If you're new to the show, you may find its open misleading: You have to get past that lurid shot of a street-urchin Nikita holding up the bloody knife that got her "falsely accused of a hideous crime" and inducted into "the most covert anti-terrorist group on the planet."

Once an episode begins, you'll find the kid stuff is over. Nothing here is so campy as that open. The rare joke is inevitably bitter. The characters find few places to hide. "La Femme Nikita" is so addictive to so many because it's played very much for keeps.

"We pride ourselves on making the smart, unexpected choices," says Joel Surnow, the show's executive consultant. "Our heroes don't have to be heroes."

And they're not. They scheme. They deceive. They kill. Often within the computerized confines of Matteo's Section One.

In a season-ending round robin of conversations, the show's artists talk of nothing so much as that narrowing range in which they function.

"The way it's ending up" this summer, says Wilson, "there's not much more I can play."

Out of the box

Wilson and her cohorts are on their production break now. Some are staying in Toronto, where the show is shot. Several are traveling. Others are taking short-term acting assignments. One is working on his restoration of a 19th-century farmhouse. Until shooting starts again in October, they're free of the swank, sealed society their characters inhabit.

But as the third season's closing episodes play out over the next four Sunday evenings (10 p.m. ET), these people say they're contemplating the velvet trap the show's ingenuity has sprung on them -- and the aesthetic ironies they'll face when production begins for January's start of the fourth season.

"When you have a show that has a lot of sexual tension between your two leads," says Joel Surnow, "there's a desire to have it resolved. But at the same time, you don't really want it resolved.

"In our show, not only is there that kind of tension, but there's also tension among all our characters. Section One is a very oppressive place. The mood that pervades the show drives our fans, and maybe the actors, too, to look for some kind of peace, to look for a solution to the problem of being in Section.

"There's a desire on the audience's part to see this thing move forward. To see things change. The problem for the writing staff is that if you change it too much, you lose what the audience watches for."

Quebec-raised actor Roy Dupuis plays Michael, Section's top operative and Nikita's love interest. He goes into a long, searching pause worthy of his laconic character when asked what the program means to its most dedicated viewers.

"I think I'd have to say the show puts morals and logic in opposition," he says. Dupuis' melancholy Michael, more than anyone else in the show's unfolding story, acts out of searing choices -- love vs. duty, compassion vs. authority, efficiency vs. casualties.

"We do certain things, not because we feel they're right but because logically they're better," he says. "Or because they seem to be better in the larger picture. Does this come only from instinct? Or from religion? In a world that's changing so much as it is now, that's what I think I see in it."

Someone else's shadow

"La Femme Nikita" bases its premise and characters on Parisian writer-director Luc Besson's "Nikita" of 1990. It was released in 1991 in the United States as "La Femme Nikita."

In that film, Anne Parillaud plays a different lead, an urban-feral punk correctly convicted as a cop killer. The series' Nikita, Wilson's character, is innocent -- wrong place at the wrong time -- and thus more sympathetic from the outset. In both cases, Nikita is "imprisoned" in a shady government espionage program and trained as a sharp-shooting agent.

Surnow's television rendition has, in a couple of episodes, followed the film closely.

Nikita's introduction to the work of an operative, for example, honors one of Besson's most memorable sequences. Over dinner she's handed a gift, beautifully wrapped. She pulls at the bow, touched. Unwraps the box. Lifts the lid. It's an automatic pistol. She's ordered to assassinate a fellow restaurant customer, at point-blank range. Her escape car will wait only two minutes.

In a later episode, the series recalls the film's assault made on a VIP who's targeted from a hotel bathroom window. On both the large and small screens, Nikita has an uncomprehending boyfriend in the hotel suite with her, a man endangered by what he might find out about her.

In a nod to Besson this season, Surnow's writers revealed for the first time -- and shortly after Bastille Day -- that the TV show's spy base, like Besson's, was located in the French capital. The streets fluttered with Seine-side tricolor charm.

But with typical "Nikita" fatalism, that telling shot of a sunny Eiffel Tower came just moments after the facility had been evacuated and blown apart. Section One had been exposed and its self-destruct explosives detonated by its own people. By the end of the episode, a new Section headquarters was being manned -- and the audience once more was in the dark about its location.

"But I like Paris," systems mastermind Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson) said ruefully.

"So you'll visit," said munitions chief Walter (Don Francks) with a matter-of-fact shrug. No sentiment.

Hand to hand

Section One is run by Operations, played with determined precision by Brooklyn-born actor Eugene Robert Glazer. At his direction, strike teams of agents are given hologram-aided briefings, then dispatched on international missions against terrorist cells. You catch direct mentions of Hamas; you guess at references to the Basques' ETA; you assume you've heard allusions to Osama bin Laden.

But those action sequences aren't the real engine of "La Femme Nikita." Here, the internal power plays are the point.

"My suspicion," says Ferguson -- whose young hacker-genius character Birkoff is featured Sunday in an episode called "Any Means Necessary" -- "is that this is all too familiar to people who work in the corporate world. It's the ruthlessness of losing your job, of losing yourself. Our metaphor is being 'canceled' by Section. You lose your life.

"There's the trouble people have in running relationships in their work," Ferguson says. "The question of putting your work before your relationships. What we do on the show is heighten that reality."

Among Operations' chief assets in heightening that unforgiving reality is Madeline, his key associate, a former lover and sometime rival. In Besson's film, she was named Amande and played as a kind of waning-Collette by the ubiquitous Jeanne Moreau.

Here, she's transformed into Section One's chief strategist, a younger and more imposing woman. Canadian actress Alberta Watson gives this Machiavellian role such an incisive reading that her Madeline has become a bafflingly sympathetic character. She's an accomplished torturer and a rigorous mercenary, an admirable logician and cold as ice.

"Alberta will continually try to push Madeline to be more humane," Surnow says with a laugh. "But when she does, she loses the character."

"The emotional parameters are pretty small," Watson agrees. "And I do think what I'm doing with her is colder than she was in the film. It seems pretty clear to me where I have to go with Maddie. Or where I can't go."

Like her colleagues, Watson concedes, "I have no idea on development" of the show past this third season's conclusion. Most of the actors are on four- or five-year contracts. Should the show continue to thrive on USA Network, Watson says in her character's relentlessly rational cadences, so will her Madeline. If not? Well, it's called being canceled.

Slipping into darkness

Watson, Surnow, Ferguson and Wilson all credit Dupuis with what may be the show's most potent weapon: its playing style. It's not from Besson's film. It originates, like Matteo's setting, with the television program. And what you're seeing on the show is unusual for a commercial series.

"La Femme Nikita" is a work of modern mannerism. That's a 20th-century phrase coined to refer to a 16th-century European art movement in which realism was deliberately "mannered," or distorted. A mannerist work warps everyday expression. There's often a sense of neurosis to it. On some level, it hurts.

"The challenge and the choice I made at the beginning," Dupuis says, "because of the situation Michael is in, was to take away any small, normal gestures. Actors usually use natural gestures to give life to a character. But you rarely see Michael look at his watch to get the time. And yet I still have to make it look human."

Why impose such an artificial playing style on the work? "I don't think you can still be normal after killing so many people," Dupuis says, "and not of your free will. We're all in prison. That's the difference between our reality and 'Mission Impossible.'"

Dupuis' response to this dilemma is the fierce economy of style you now see in his, Watson's and Glazer's characterizations. To some degree, Wilson's Nikita deploys the approach, too, as she navigates the hostility around her. "It's all those blank stares and slight moves," as Surnow good-naturedly puts it.

"I know the producers were pretty scared at first," Dupuis says. "It's not something you see on American television. The producers were scared until they saw how much interest was on Michael. Then they were glad."

Surnow wholeheartedly backs up Dupuis on this: "At first, when we were shooting a firefight," he says, "we had arguments about this. Roy would just walk away as Michael. He wouldn't run. I'd tell him that was ridiculous. I'd say, 'You've got to run. Bullets are flying. Michael has to run.' But what he was doing was right. It's not real-world logic we've got here."

All good things

Ferguson's character Birkoff has a story-line advantage, he points out, in the third-season development of a friendship with the older weapons wizard Walter. "When small things like that open up," he says, "it feels like a great leap because the show's so mannered."

There may be more such openings to come, with return appearances by Birkoff's cyber-competitor, Kris Lemche, as hacker-prodigy Greg Hillinger. Lemche is in Sunday's episode and in "Three Eyed Turtle" on August 15. "The episode on Sunday (in which Birkoff must infiltrate a terrorist cell as an anti-government cracker of computer codes) will have a lot of impact on where my character goes next year," Ferguson says.

But Watson, for her part, is adamant: "I have no idea on where the story or Maddie will go next. I never watch the show, in fact. I think I just sat down with Joel (Surnow) about a month ago and he finally said, 'This is where we're going' for the rest of this season. The writers put a huge amount of effort into it. Sometimes it's a mess, and they straighten it out as we go."

Dupuis may be more satisfied than the others with the tight fit of the show's range. "I don't see Michael moving too much inside Section," he says. "I kind of like the mysterious stability that Michael has. He's evolved, in 15 years in Section, as the perfect operative -- except what he feels for Nikita. That duality (affection vs. profession) is what's interesting."

This summer, Dupuis says he's working on his restoration of an 1840s farmhouse in Quebec. "And I might travel. I've been thinking about Nepal, Tibet, maybe China -- I'd like to see what's there before the Three Gorges dam project floods it. Maybe some acting work. There's a small underground movie I'd love to do but I don't know if I have enough time. Whatever 'underground' means anymore."

Ferguson -- who says he's far more into sports than the computers his character revels in -- has plans to head for Los Angeles. "I'll look for other work; stage, TV, film, anywhere they'll hire me. You know, Peta was over at my house and we were saying how fun it would be to do a different show, different characters, all of us together."

And Watson says she's working on a film this month -- "Desire," a project with director Colleen Murphy, who directed Watson in her Genie-nominated work in "Shoemaker" (1996). "I've also formed a company with some women friends," Watson says, "to produce audio books for children."

Any means necessary

The actors are outspoken in their regard for each other. And Surnow -- saying he's proud of what he and producer Jamie Paul Rock can do on an annual budget of about US $1 million -- knows how important the show's casting has been. Each actor, he says, is close in temperament to his or her character. As Watson puts it, "You're getting a piece of each of us."

Surnow brings the wise calm of Section One's "Oversight" division to his artists' talk of nerves about the future. "Listen," he says. "After the first eight episodes, I thought it was all over." That was 58 shows ago.

"We've just brought in new writers, strong ones," he says. "We're about eight or nine stories into the fourth season of scripts now, and we're not losing steam. Rocco's set is an incredible world, we have everything we need right there in Section, our own USS Enterprise.

"And we pride ourselves on operating in this narrow bandwidth."

So like most strong creative endeavors, "La Femme Nikita" in its new maturity is not only broadening its appeal to a wider viewership, but it's also deepening into an education for its artists and audience.

"I have so much still to learn," says Ferguson. "I need to watch more, listen more, see how I'm doing."

"Teach the audience," Peta Wilson says. "That's how you do it. Don't just give them what we think they want. Raise them up."

Peta Wilson: Not Just Another Pretty Entrepreneur

'Tell the truth and do good work'

(CNN) -- "Creatively, television isn't the best medium for an actor. You know that, right?"

Peta Wilson is making tea as she talks.

"In TV, there are only so many squares for a circle to roll around in."

From kettle to cup, each step of the process gets its own little sigh. She stops to be sure her point is brewing properly in her listener's mind.

"Know what I mean?"

Too easily seen as merely big, blonde and bankable, Wilson turns out to be thoughtful, determined and starkly honest about the difficulties that lie ahead in playing the title role of USA Network's "La Femme Nikita."

At the end of the third season, she's established herself as a widely recognized artist pegged entirely to one role. As much as she appreciates the vehicle of her fame, it's taken her far enough now that she can see where else she'd like to go.

"It's just not enough, is it?" she says. "As an actor, you think all this stuff you use for a role can last forever. 'All this abundant energy I have, all this truth,' you tell yourself, 'it's never going to run out.' Well, after three years of making a television series like 'Nikita,' it starts becoming hard to find new things to do for the character. You run out of things to give.

"So I've decided to take these few months off" during her July-August-September production break, "and just see what my next move's going to be. Just take the pressure off. Otherwise, you burn out.

"I mean, what's the point in being Frances Farmer?"

Soul sacrifice

There seems little chance of Wilson going the way of the 1930s and '40s film star victimized by inhumane mental-health treatment. A devastated Frances Farmer died the year Wilson was born.

"I'm a Scorpio. And what are you?"

This most handsome of Australians, 5 feet 11 inches tall and 28 years old, is mapping out ways to keep her wits about her in the entertainment business.

"I've just recently made the decision," she says, "that I can do 'what's right' for my career, or I can do what's right for me -- and let that dictate what career I'll have. Acting is cathartic for me. I love the research. Learning something new about people.

"Next year (in the fourth season), I'm going to try to see if it can't be compulsory for all our actors to be at each episode's read-through. So everyone's on the same page. So we all understand the rhythm.

"In a show like 'Nikita,' as good as it is, you really can do only as much as the writers give you. You can go outside it, but if the show's editors can't see it on the page, it's hard for them to understand your subtext. So it gets cut. And that's right when they should have left it in. Because no matter what I said, I've just completely redeemed it by what I looked like, never mind what's on the page."

There's no rancor in Wilson's frank discussion of the limitations of television-series work.

"But I've decided I really want to produce, and on different levels. For one thing, I want to have a school -- a Juilliard-type school, to help keep kids at least one crime away from going to jail for the rest of their lives. Not to turn them into actors or artists. But to help them understand they can use the arts and self-expression to relieve pain in their lives, get some clarity.

"Of course, I'm a complete novice at this, but I'd like to produce things, then any monies that came in would go into this school."

Open heart

One project she's contemplating is a screenplay she'd like to produce. She mentions Billy Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins as a possible link-up on such a project, to generate profits from a soundtrack. The film in question was written some eight years ago "by my beautiful boyfriend Damian." That's writer-director Damian Harris, son of actor Richard Harris.

Wilson, her "beautiful boyfriend" and actress Ellen Barkin are a lot farther along on his film adaptation of "Mercy," David Lindsey's 1990 novel about serial killings in Houston. "We're seeing the final cut of the film now," she says. "And Damian's been an incredible support to me for the past years."

She met him shortly after coming to the United States to kick her career into gear. Born in Sydney, the equivalent of U.S. Army "brats," Wilson and her brother Rob spent much of their childhood in New Guinea. They're natural athletes. She, her father and brother are all ranked in the Australian Interservice Champion sailing program.

Wilson moved to California in 1991, and worked with acting coaches including Arthur Mendoza of the Actors Circle Theater in Los Angeles. The company's production of Sam Shepard's difficult "Fool for Love" was her first U.S. stage work.

Still close to her family, she often has a relative near her on the set in Toronto. Her production break this summer started with her mother and grandmother joining her in Toronto for the third-season wrap, then going along with her on a trip to Spain.

"Then it's some time in Los Angeles with Damian. I'll go with him and his daughter to the Caribbean," she says. "Then to Australia. I've got some property on the beach, an hour north of Sydney. I want to build a little house there. So I'll see my brother and my father and start doing a bit of work on the house."

Psychic pilgrim

Wilson knows the true long haul comes after the summer's travels. She analyzes with cool passion where she believes her character has gotten into trouble.

In three years, she notes, viewers have watched Nikita evolve from a resentful holdout against Section One's lethal ethos to a conflicted woman with a growing attachment to her captors.

"Their ends are just," as her show-opening monologue says, "but their means are ruthless."

The character hasn't quite gone native. But she's escaped from Section and come back. She's worked apparently to sabotage Section, only to save it at the last moment. In more than one episode, the real intrigue has been about whose side Nikita's on at any given moment.

"On the show," she says, "Nikita's been the one translating everyone else's emotions. I felt this year they assimilated me into Section, which took away a lot of the tension.

"Then -- so I wouldn't appear unsympathetic to Michael (Roy Dupuis), which isn't possible because I love him -- they didn't allow me to have an angry reaction against him when I found out he had a wife and child." (It was revealed that Michael was maintaining a family as part of a Section One mission to reach an arch-terrorist.)

"That got me lost this season," Wilson says. "I've kind of been hanging around, going back and forth. I'm in love with him one week. Not the next.

"It's like one long jumbled-up movie to me. We don't film in sequence. We might shoot three episodes out of order. Without the beginning, middle and end of a series, it's very hard to get sequential character development. And there are commercial breaks to consider. I tell you, I've really come to respect actors in television now."

No one is more complimentary about Wilson's work in the show's lead role than executive consultant Joel Surnow. He says that for all her sexy beauty, Wilson does for the role of Nikita what Sigourney Weaver has done for Ripley in the "Alien" films.

"You never think of her as a woman," Surnow says, "you just think she's great, the character, the person. It's not about, 'Here's a woman doing all this.' Peta gets you right past the woman issue and on to the character of Nikita."

He knows Wilson will be reading between her scripts' lines for Nikita's development in the fourth season. She'll be looking to get "on to the character," as he puts it. She's certain of her critique as to what's needed: "I think they need to bring back the whole thing of Nikita not liking Section One.

"And I'm looking at the show now as an ongoing exercise in patience. When I auditioned for it, I had to choose between this role and a couple of film things. I was up against a couple of stars. And I knew I wasn't going to end up on the cover of the studio newsletter: 'The one to watch.' I could sit around for two years or more waiting for a break.

"So I said, 'Look, I'm going to take Nikita.' Learn about continuity. Get the experience. And you know what? I'm pleased that I did. It's keeping me working. It's bringing me lots of things."

End game

Among those things, Wilson says: "Potential money-making opportunities so I can afford my artistic habit. Maybe another TV show, but only with more involvement (as a producer) for me."

Wilson has a start-up design company in the works -- "running shoes, sunglasses, watches. My intention with it is to raise money for the school. And also to do the first bit of financing for a film project I might want to produce.

"Damian's a very accomplished writer and director. And it's been good for me to watch how hard he works. That's what you have to do. You have to get cool with the idea that the result is in every moment -- not in 'getting there.' It's the journey. You tell the truth and do good work.

"I realize how fortunate I am with all that's come to me. This is a long way for a small-town Australian girl to have come. But being a television star isn't enough. And being a film star would only be more of the same. I want to be able to finance whatever project I want to do next.

"I'm grateful to the 'Nikita' audience. And I've really enjoyed these other actors. We all get on so well. We're all complete opposites.

"When I was young, I could put my mind to something and always win. And I started feeling guilty about that. So I spent a lot of energy trying to give too much to others to try to compensate for that. I was living only vicariously through other artists.

"So I came to America. Didn't even know if I'd have a career. But I found there's no stigma of narcissism attached to being an artist here. I can just act as a means of self-expression.

"I've found a career. And being in 'Nikita' has opened my mind to a lot of other potential. I'm not the kind of person who sits back and waits for things to come. Once the show's finally over, I'll be ready."

Take A Tour of Section One

Toronto-based Rocco Matteo's design for 'La Femme Nikita' is centered on a highly flexible evocation of Section One. The hub of the facility is a vaulted great hall under Operations' control-room bridge.

Just off this hub and opposite the bridge, Birkoff has his communications center. In another area off the hub, Walter's munitions center is a stop for agents being armed for missions. Operatives are briefed at a conference table in one area of the hub, often with holograms as illustrations. From the hub, tunnel-like hallways lead to mission departure and arrival ports, data storage areas and offices. Nikita's home has grown from a bohemian hardwood-funky apartment to a sleek, neon-and-chrome extension of Section One imagery