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Starlog
Issue #254

September 1998

Space Ace of the Apocalypse

As shuttle pilot Jennifer Watts, Jessica Steen flies Armageddon's unfriendly skies.

by Ian Spelling

"Megamovies are just so exciting to do, to make and to see. There's just such a high level of adventure to them, and the casts tend to be phenomenal," says Jessica Steen, endeavoring to explain the appeal of blockbusters like Armageddon. "We've got a whole cast of fine folk on Armageddon," adds the former Earth 2 star, who shares screen time with Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi and Billy Bob Thornton. "Working on something of this magnitude is wild. It's really larger than life. I got to go nose-to-nose cone with a real shuttle. I was up in the gantry and wore a space suit. This is major stuff. The whole thing was very exciting."

Armageddon casts Steen as Captain Jennifer Watts, a NASA astronaut who's part of a team responsible for putting a bunch of roughneck oil drillers, among them Willis and Affleck, through a cosmic crash course to prepare them to be astronauts. An oncoming asteroid will devastate Earth if not diverted or destroyed. Enter the oil drillers, the best equipped men around to plant an asteroid busting bomb. Later, Watts and three other pilots ferry our heroes deep into space, where-after two hours, much machismo and hundreds of special FX-they set out to accomplish their mission.

Shooting Stars
As might be expected from a film with a $100-million-plus budget, an A-list superstar like Willis, action movie producers Jerry (Top Gun) Bruckheimer and Gale Anne (ALIENS) Hurd and wunderkind director Michael (The Rock) Bay calling the shots, Armageddon proved to be an alternately tough, fun, easy and tense shoot. "It was all of those things," Steen acknowledges. "Really, we had all of that. We shot for a long time, so there's no way not to experience a myriad of emotions. There was tension and giddiness, happiness and camaraderie. One day, we would be laughing our heads off, because most of us became close-knit. Other days, Michael would crack the whip, and pressure would be high. That was fine. It helped create the air of tension that we needed to play the scenes convincingly. There are tons of little elements that Michael had to get, and then he had to put them all together. He had several units and cameras going at all times. It was, in a word, busy."

As Captain Watts, Steen found herself pretty busy as well. Good thing then that she had already earned her FX wings not only in Earth 2 but also in Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, the syndicated SF series that featured Steen as the doomed Jennifer "Pilot" Chase. "I never venture onto the asteroid surface, where there are explosions, fissures, geysers and earthquakes. But even on the ship there's a great deal of action, because we're flying around and I'm running around a lot," Steen notes. "I've never been covered in more bruises in my life than I was the week we shot inside the shuttle for the asteroid landing sequence. The shuttle set was actually several sets. The shuttle bay was its own set, and the cockpit was on a gimbal that put all the Magic Mountain simulator rides to shame. I had to pitch myself around, leap into and out of my seat, run down to the ship's hull. And I had to do it again and again and again. I was very active.

"What was great was that so much of it felt real, like what astronauts really do. That's one of the great things about being an actor, and especially about doing a movie like Armageddon. You get to blur that line between reality and fantasy. Initially, we went to Houston and went through their training facilities. The people there were, if you'll pardon the pun, really down-to-Earth. They were generous and excited about showing us everything. The weightless chamber and the pools are very exciting.

"We also shot some of the movie at Cape Canaveral. Jerry Bruckheimer introduced me to Susan Still, who will be the first female shuttle pilot ever. He said, `This is who your character is based on: That was really cool. We followed the path that the real astronauts follow. We got to drive the tank that carries the shuttles down the gangway to the platform. The tank is an enormous piece of machinery with a tiny little steering wheel up in this claustrophobic cockpit. The magnitude of it all was impressive."

Rattles & Roles
Steen also sounds impressed by her costars, particularly Willis, Affleck and Patton. Willis and Patton begin the mission on Steen's shuttle, while Affleck starts out on the sister ship. On the way back, though, Affleck winds up on Steen's ship. The actress describes her fellow space mates as good guys, each with a very distinct personality. "It was fun to be the girl, to hang around with them all and watch them be boys," Steen says, laughing. "Will is a real character, very sweet and a great actor. Bruce is the host of the party, gracious and funny. He loves to rehearse and is very inclusive. He has done so many of these huge movies that it was all familiar territory for him. Ben is a riot. He's intelligent and funny, and he does great impersonations."

And how did Willis, the veteran action star, and Affleck, the eager-beaver, Oscar winning star of the moment, get along? "They worked very well together, I thought. They had a great rapport on and off camera,'' Steen replies. "Everything was happening for Ben while we were shooting Armageddon. The amazing thing was that nothing seemed to overwhelm him. Every single second we weren't making the film, he was busy publicizing Good Will Hunting. He was flying all over the place. He was in New York all the time. One day he came in with food poisoning and was as sick as a dog. But we had to shoot this whole scene that was mostly close-ups of him. He was a real trooper. That's the charm about Ben. Nothing seems to faze him; nothing seems to be out of his range."

As every genre fan knows, Armageddon and the similarly themed Deep Impact were filmed almost simultaneously. Deep Impact reached theaters first, raking in well over $100 million. What did the Armageddon team make of the competition? "I personally didn't feel any competition with Deep Impact," Steen explains. "Movies always seem to come out in twos. That's just a ridiculous phenomenon that happens in Hollywood. Maybe 'ridiculous' is not the right word, because it happens so often. But Michael is competitive. Bruce is competitive. They were all like, `What are they doing? We have to get some of their dailies and check it out' So I think there was a healthy sense of competition and curiosity for any good gossip and rumors. Deep Impact did very well, and, to be honest, I'm not sure what that. means for us."

Armageddon director Bay has developed into a filmmaker with a knack for capturing explosive action on screen while generating strong emotions behind the scenes. Bad Boys was a comedic-action stew that unexpectedly came together in a winning fashion. While making The Rock, Bay reportedly didn't see eye-to-eye with stars Sean Connery Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris. Steen came away from Armageddon with her own opinions about Bay. "As massive a film as he was making, he was so focused. He blew me away with that," she asserts. "Michael knows exactly what he wants for every shot.

How he goes about getting his shots will sometimes make you pull your hair out. He wants to have a say about everything, about every little detail. I was impressed, because we had so many people, so many departments, and he was on top of everything. Another thing that was interesting was that he would sometimes play music while shooting a sequence, especially if it was going to be a montage sequence. All I can say about Michael is that I was impressed by him and sometimes I was utterly infuriated by him."

Earth Too Expendable
The actress felt pretty much the same way about Earth 2 (which she discussed in STARLOG #213). On that short-lived SF TV series, Steen played Dr. Julia Heller, doctor to a team colonists seeking a new, Earth-like world inhabit and liaison/spy for the mysterious group called the Council. Though executive

produced by Steven Spielberg, filmed on beautiful New Mexico locales, bolstered by a large per-episode budget and promoted-at least initially-quite well by NBC, the series lasted only one season. To this day, Earth 2 fans write NBC and Spielberg, hoping against that someone will greenlight either further episodes or a two-hour reunion/wrap-up TV movie. Steen, too, still receives bags of fan mail.

"Just the other night I sat down with a couple of old crew members who came visit, and we watched the Earth 2 " pilot. It was fascinating to look back at it " Steen recalls. "The pilot was expensive. You could see the money on the screen. It brought back a lot of memories. The most outstanding thing about Earth 2 was being on location in Santa Fe. That was the most awesome place. If could live there and make a living doing what I do, I would do it. I keep in contact with many of the cast and crew members. We had a real bonding experience. We worked in all types of weather, on all types of topography, and we got to know each other pretty well. The politics were minimal, and the adventure was high. I look at Earth 2 rather differently now than I did when I was doing it. When you're right in the middle of it, you try to judge it, try feverishly to improve the show as a whole what you're doing in particular. Watching it now, I can see why it has a huge fan base, why there are so many die hard Earth 2 fans."

So what went wrong? Why didn't Earth 2 catch on?

"It's funny you should ask that," Steen says, laughing. "I was recently out with the president of Universal TV, and I asked ' that exact question. Ultimately, it was a matter of finances. The epic quality of Earth 2, being on location as we were, became too expensive. The ratings were never that great, even though many people  loved the show. That combination, high costs and low ratings, isn't good for the survival of a series.

Steen recognizes that her co-star Antonio Sabato Jr., who portrayed Heller's romantic interest, Alonzo Solace, has made it clear that he despised the show, that he considered it downright dreadful. What are her feelings about that? "I would say that my time in Santa Fe made Earth 2 a great experience for me. The work was not the entire picture," she argues. "Antonio did not like the show for a number of reasons, I thought it had an incredible concept with years of exploring to do and stories that could be told. Sometimes it was frustrating. There were elements that were disappointing. But, overall, we made a pretty good show. Sitting down and watching that pilot again, to me, was like watching a journal of how I spent a year of my life. And I felt it was a good year."

Though Steen is currently in Edmonton, Canada shooting the big-screen independent drama A Question of Privilege with Michael Ironside and Wendy Crewson, she makes it clear that she would welcome encores to both Earth 2 and Armageddon. "I would be all for an Earth 2 reunion. It would be fun," Jessica Steen enthuses. "The likelihood? I say never say never, but I don't know who would fund it. Also, everybody's off doing new things, and Amblin TV doesn't really exist anymore. I think people are going to have to make do with watching the repeats on the Sci-Fi Channel. Who knows, maybe the Sci-Fi Channel will finance a reunion movie. In terms of Armageddon, hey, I survived. If there's a sequel, I can ride again. Sure, I would do it again."

 
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