In the new Canadian-transplanted CW drama “L.A. Complex,” Jewel Staite plays actress Raquel Westbrook.
A decade earlier, Raquel was the star of “Teenage Wasteland,” a cult drama that she has to keep telling adoring fans “had a bad time slot.” Now, she’s living in an apartment complex populated by fresh-faced Hollywood wannabes doing anything in her power to prove that her best days aren’t behind her.
It was only nearly a decade ago that Staite was the star of a cult drama that “had a bad time slot” and that still has fans eagerly approaching her to express their support.
In real life, “Teenage Wasteland” is no “Firefly” and Raquel Westbrook is no Jewel Staite, whose pre-Whedon resume included shows like “Higher Ground” and “Da Vinci’s Inquest” and who has been seen guest-starring on FOX’s “Wonderfalls,” as a regular on “Stargate: Atlantis” and in the recent Sundance Midnight Movie, “The Pact.” Yes, Staite is Kaylee Frye, but she’s many other characters as well.
Perhaps that’s why Raquel is scheming, manipulative and occasionally desperate, while Staite is entirely grounded, good-humored and comfortable with her professional life. Staite’s also a really good interview. I’d be scared to interview Raquel.
I chatted with Staite last week about “L.A. Complex,” playing an “aging” actress and about why Raquel absolutely, positively isn’t evil.
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: I like to ask this when actors play actors in things: So how talented an actor is Raquel Westbrook?
Jewel Staite: I love that question. I haven’t gotten that one yet and let me tell you: She is one of the best. If given the right role, Raquel is an Academy Award winner. I want to put that out there.
HitFix: Why have things been so tough for her, then?
Jewel Staite: Raquel gets in her own way a lot. She’s gotten to that point where she’s super-desperate to work, she’s fed up and she’s so jaded that she’s walking into these auditions and kinda insulting people as opposed to charming them. It’s hurting her. It’s hurting her in the long run, definitely.
HitFix: How does Raquel compare as an actress to Jewel?
Jewel Staite: I would say we’re about the same. Raquel definitely has more of an ego, that’s for sure. I would put my own priorities as personal life first and then career second, while Raquel doesn’t care about her personal life. She’s all about career, career, career. So, in her eyes, she’s just the very best. She would completely school Jewel Staite in the acting department.
HitFix: I’ve seen three episodes, so the jury seems to still be out, but is Raquel evil? Or is she just misunderstood?
Jewel Staite: Oh, she’s definitely not evil. No, no, no. She’s an opportunist, that’s for sure. She will do what has to be done to get what she wants and if you’re in her way, she will very gladly take you out of her way. She’s extremely competitive and she’s ruthless in getting what she wants. But in no way is she evil. She’s not a bad person. And she does come to terms with the things that she’s doing and knows that maybe they’re not the best decisions that she could make. She definitely comes around in the end.
HitFix: But I assume that it’s fun for you to play the opportunistic side of her and you probably don’t want her to come around on her behavior too much, do you?
Jewel Staite: No I don’t. It’s a lot of fun playing the desperation, for sure. And when she gets nasty, there’s nothing more fun than doing that. But when she does find out that her choices weren’t the best, it’s too late, of course, and then she has to find a way to pick everything up and move on and get what she wants.
HitFix: How right or familiar does this character feel? How many people have you run into over the years who are like Raquel?
Jewel Staite: Quite a few, I would say. Hollywood is crawling with people like this, who have been at the game, so to speak, for years and years and years on end and are just so so desperate to get any kind of taste of fame or stardom. They’re usually very lonely people, because they’ve shut everybody out in their life or they’ve burned so many bridges to get to where they supposedly want to be. I wouldn’t say that I get to know them very well, but there are people out there, for sure, that are a lot like Raquel.
HitFix: How clear of a sense do you have of the kind of show that “Teenage Wasteland” was?
Jewel Staite: I think “Teenage Wasteland” was one of those cult hits like “My So-Called Life,” something that came along and got a lot of viewers and then somehow fell into a bad timeslot that nobody ever watched and then the network pulled the plug prematurely. So I think it was a cult hit that she still gets recognized for, which is starting to drive her insane, but it was one of those cult shows.
HitFix: You’ve obviously had steady work since “Firefly,” but do you view “Firefly” very differently from how she views “Teenage Wasteland”?
Jewel Staite: “Firefly” was and always will be such a positive thing for me. I hold a lot of really good memories associated to that show. I do a lot of these science fiction conventions where I get together with the rest of the cast and we sign autographs and we meet the fans and all that, so that’s still positive and those people are still in my life and they’re a big part of my life, that cast. I think I view “Firefly” a lot more positively than Raquel views “Teenage Wasteland,” for sure.
HitFix: And you’ve never had that moment of “Firefly” love where you’ve just wanted to give a short “We had a bad time slot” or “FOX aired us out of order”?
Jewel Staite: I may have uttered that phrase once or twice. I’m not going to lie to you.
HitFix: I saw one early review of “L.A. Complex” and it made me laugh and I hope it makes you laugh, but it referred to Raquel as “an aging actress.” Does that make you chuckle?
Jewel Staite: [She does, indeed, laugh.] Well. Hey. You know? They never really say how old Raquel is in in the show. I would put her at a couple years older than I am, so I don’t take offense to that in real life. In the casting process for the show, they were actually a little worried that I would come across as too young, so I had to go into my last and final audition wearing a ton of makeup and I kinda dressed a little provocatively to look older. I guess it worked. And now I’m trapped into this role that makes me look older. But it had to happen sometime. So here I am!
HitFix: Is that the kind of thing that causes any concern for you at all when you go in for it?
Jewel Staite: Yes and no. The fact of the matter is that we’re all aging and there’s this stigma that older actresses don’t work as much as younger actresses and I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think there are better and better roles for older women in this industry, so it doesn’t scare me. No.
HitFix: Sure, but you don’t often see actresses voluntarily going in for roles that are older than they are.
Jewel Staite: Right. I’ve had that happen to me a lot, going against what an actress would commonly want to be. I’ve had to gain weight for roles and ugly myself up for roles. So yeah, I’m game. I’m game for that kind of thing. I’m certainly not too vain in that respect. If it’s a great role, I’m willing to do whatever it is that it takes.
HitFix: You might not be old, really, but is it easier for you to understand this role because of how long you’ve been in the acting game?
Jewel Staite: For sure. For sure. I think both Raquel and myself have been been in the business for 20 years and view it as a job more than anything else. A lot of the characters on the show have stars in their eyes and show up to The Lux hoping for fame and fortune and glitz and glamor and think that that’s what Hollywood’s all about and I know that that’s not what Hollywood’s all about. It’s a business and TV show are a business. It breaks my heart when I meet these “Firefly” fans at conventions and things like that, because they’re so heartbroken that the show got cancelled and they just don’t understand how a great show would get cancelled and I say, “Guys, it’s a business just like any other.” It’s about money and that’s a lot of the time the bottom line. And shows are expensive to produce and if a network wants to invest, then great, but if they don’t, then unfortunately they’re going to put their money elsewhere. I don’t have a glamorized view of the whole thing anymore. I do realize that it is just a business and acting is just a job. It’s an amazing job that I’m super-passionate about, but in the end, it is just a job.
HitFix: In theory, you’re cast as the “elder stateswoman” here. How did that feel on set with the younger actors?
Jewel Staite: They’re a lot like their characters. That dynamic was definitely real. They were really, really, really excited. And I was excited, too, but I’ve always had that little bit of apprehension in the pit of my stomach when I start a new series, because I’ve been down this road a lot. This is, I think, number nine for me as the lead in a show? So I know what it feels like to get attached to something and then have it yanked out from under you and get cancelled. I’m always prepared for that, mentally. And they would say things like, “This is the best time ever!” and “I can’t wait for Season Two!” and “When Season Two starts we should all take a trip!” and I’m going, “Whoa, whoa. Guys. Let’s finish Season One and have Season One air and then we’ll talk about what we’re going to do on Season Two.” So yeah, they’re lovely and charming and so excited, but I’m just always going to be careful and I’m never going to let myself fall into that frame of mind. “I’ve been hurt before!” is basically what I’m trying to say.
HitFix: One of the things I found interesting in the early episodes is Raquel’s realization that she needs to take control over her career and maybe seek projects through different streams. How does that compare to what you did with “The Pact” where you did a short film and then it became a feature and suddenly you were at Sundance?
Jewel Staite: That was a very weird situation in how it came to me. Morena Baccarin, of all people, is a really good friend of mine and her fiancé’s friend had written that script and put it together and her fiance said, “Oh, I know this really great actress who’s in LA right now” and he introduced us. That’s how that came to be. But yeah, I’ve always felt weird about putting myself in the position where I’m taking over control of my career. I feel weird asking people for favors. I feel strange putting myself out there in that way. Raquel doesn’t. Raquel just has no qualms about going, “Get out of my way. This role is mine and I’m going to do everything I can to get it made or get it produced or get the part.” She’s more ruthless than I am. I wish I could say that I had her guts, but I don’t think I do.
HitFix: But then I’d be asking you if you thought of yourself as evil and I’m sure that would be awkward.
Jewel Staite: Yes. I’m definitely not evil. No, no, no. I’m much too nice for that.
HitFix: My read on this show is that it feels very notably Canadian, which isn’t particularly surprising, I suppose. Does it feel Canadian to you?
Jewel Staite: I don’t know! I am Canadian, so it’s hard for me to judge. I think it’s completely different than anything Canadian television has seen and the response we got up here was how different it felt and how Un-Canadian it felt. So when I hear that it feels very Canadian from the US, it kinda me go, “Huh?” So yeah! I think it all depends on who you’re asking, you know? I think more than anything, and the thing that I love hearing the most, is that it feels different and that there’s a freshness to it that maybe hasn’t been around for a while and that feels good to hear. So hopefully people just jump on that bandwagon, as opposed to whether it’s Canadian or American or anything like that?
HitFix: When you signed on to do this, did you always assume that it was going to find an American home?
Jewel Staite: No. Not at all. Not at all. When I signed on it was a tiny little six-episode show that was going to premiere one episode on our biggest network up here and then the rest was gonna be put on MuchMusic, which is our MTV. So I had no idea what was going to happen to it. And when we did make the deal with The CW, we were totally thrilled, because we all felt that that was the perfect home for us in the States, absolutely.
HitFix: Was that something that mattered to you when you were considering the project? Whether it would have the chance of reaching a big North American audience or just air in Canada?
Jewel Staite: Yes and no. I think the only thing that truly mattered to me was that I completely fell head-over-heels in love with the character and Martin Gero, who’s our showrunner and creator, is one of my very best friends and has been for a long time. We worked together on “Stargate” and I knew I would be working with him and he promised me that we would have an amazing time and an amazing summer. And it was! It was truly one of the best experiences of my career and I adored it. So all that mattered to me was that we were having having a great time and I knew that we were making something special. But I honestly didn’t have any expectations for going to the States so I’m just thrilled.
HitFix: And how reassuring was the relatively quick pick-up for the extra 13 episodes?
Jewel Staite: Well, I wouldn’t call it quick. We had a bit of a waiting game. We had a bit of a waiting game on our hands and I think we were all sweating a little bit, for sure, but once we did get the green light, it felt great. It just felt like there were so many stories to tell about these crazy characters and especially once we reach Episode Six in the first season, things are just so intense and everyone’s just totally lost their minds. So it’s nice to know that we can flesh out these storylines a little bit more and keep going. The second season will start right off the bat from where we left off, which is really great and really exciting and I think gives the audience a chance to find out what happens to these characters that they’ve invested in.
“L.A. Complex” premieres on Tuesday, April 24 at 9 p.m. ET.