By Hugh Hart
HOLLYWOOD — “I want to be the poster girl for engineers and computer nerds,” says actress Alessandra Torresani, and she’s off to a good start. That’s her with the apple in the ubiquitous billboard (pictured below) for new science fiction series Caprica, which debuts Friday at 9 p.m. on Syfy.
In the compelling Battlestar Galactica prequel, set on the planet Caprica 58 years before BSG’s journey begins, Torresani plays the feisty, 16-year-old daughter of billionaire computer genius Daniel Graystone, maker of the world’s first Cylon.
Following Battestar Galactica’s groundbreaking achievements, Caprica is trafficking in high expectations. Happily, the show lives up to the hype.
Assembling a sturdy cast of veteran actors yoked to a complex storyline that mixes soap opera-style family dysfunction with heady excursions into technology and religion, Caprica co-creator Ronald D. Moore and his team hurl a wild card into the mix with the casting of Torresani, whose memories are downloaded into her father’s Cylon prototype in the show’s pilot episode. Torresani’s gutsy presence kicks the show into intense gear while introducing a fresh talent ready for fanboy consumption.
To explain the craft of acting like a Cylon, Torresani hit the ground running at a cafe in Studio City, California, showing up in a black tank top and tight gray jeans with shades propped on her jet-black bangs. Over a glass of iced tea and a vegetarian panini, the 22-year-old actress power-chatted about her zany coming-of-age gigs, her excitement about doing a show that appeals to introverted geeks, and her own computer genius of a father — a Silicon Valley inventor who created a computer chip used by IBM.
Wired.com: Were you a fan of Battlestar Galactica before getting cast for Caprica?
Alessandra Torresani: I wasn’t really into sci-fi. When they asked me to read for Caprica, I’d had a tough day. I said no. Then I got the audition scenes and I went, “Holy shit. I’m doing this!”
Wired.com: It took seven auditions, but you got the part. At that point did you go back and watch Battlestar?
Torresani: I didn’t want to watch Battlestar Galactica on purpose. I’m the first Cylon, right, so I wanted it to be from a 16-year-old girl’s perspective: How would she create a Cylon? How would she act? I didn’t want to mimic Tricia Helfer, I didn’t want to mimic Grace Park. They’re beyond fabulous but I still wanted to create a new kind of Cylon.
Wired.com: But now you’ve seen the show, right?
Torresani: After we shot the pilot, I went back and watched it over and over again.
Wired.com: You start out as Zoe Graystone, daughter of this brilliant inventor millionaire guy played by Eric Stoltz. How did you approach Zoe?
Torresani: Original Zoe is the richest girl in the world. I don’t know if they establish how wealthy they actually are. Her father is supposedly the equivalent of Bill Gates, so she’s this spoiled brat.
Wired.com: And she’s been tinkering with this virtual world her dad invented …
Torresani: My dad created the holo-band and created V World. Then these kids hacked into it and made sex rooms and drug rooms and kill rooms where they sacrifice virgins, like all this superdecadent stuff. As Zoe, I was like a slut in the R room. I killed people, I did all that, but then I realize that, you know what? There should be only one god and things should be changed. I truly believe in this and I’m this changed woman.
(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow)
Wired.com: To help save the planet, Zoe downloads all her own memories into a virtual replica that will eventually become the first Cybnernetic Lifeform Node, aka Cylon. What’s the secret to playing a Cylon so she doesn’t seem too human?
Torresani: You have to totally zen out. Unlike natural Zoe, Zoe A is like a child. I see her as a newborn baby. She has no idea what’s going on. She has the memories that were put in her, so she knows how to talk and remembers her father and everything, but there’s no emotional connection.
Wired.com: So you’re flipping back and forth between the flesh-and-blood character and her virtual creation.
Torresani: I go from playing this know-it-all to this girl who doesn’t understand what the hell is going on around her. Everyone else has an avatar, but they take the holo-band off and go back to their normal lives but Zoe is stuck. She put her trust in this girl who died, but she does not know why, or how she died. It’s all just so confusing. Than when dad puts Zoe A into the robot and she falls apart halfway into it — he fucked it up, really.
Wired.com: And then you sort of inhabit a robot. Kind of weird to play as an actress, right?
Torresani: Originally we were going to take mime lessons, but I’m a dancer so I totally understand the movement of a robot. It needs to be very rough, very fast.
Wired.com: You grew up an only child in Palo Alto, California, where your dad ran startup tech companies and your mom worked as a CEO. You’ve taken a different route.
Torresani: I came out singing and dancing. Here’s my parents staring at their computers, figuring out math equations and running multimillion-dollar companies — they didn’t know where the hell I came from. Sometimes I think I’m adopted. I use my mathematics and everything but in a different way.
Wired.com: You got a big break hosting a TV show in San Francisco when you were 8 years old, right?
Torresani: On the WB network, in between cartoons they had 20-minute segments, and I interviewed everybody from the mayor to John Waters. I could quote every line from Serial Mom. He couldn’t understand how this 8-year-old knew about Pink Flamingos and Divine. I was a very special child. I did stand-up comedy. I did it all. My family didn’t understand. “Aren’t you tired?” I’m like, “No”. I’m like insomniac, I hardly sleep, I’m always on the move. We did that for two years — got bit by the camera bug and had to keep doing it.
Wired.com: So you moved to Los Angeles with your folks, made a bunch of pilots that never got picked up, did guest spots on sitcoms like Malcolm in the Middle, then, finally, here comes Caprica. From Star Wars‘ Princess Leia and Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan to Tricia Helfer, the Cylon who came before you, sci-fi has a long tradition of heroines who have attracted a massive fanboy following. If Caprica takes off, are you prepared to deal with all that geek love?
Torresani: Everybody’s like, “These fans from the conventions are so strange,” but I’ve been to three now and I think they’re wonderful. They’re so smart, they’re so intellectual, they actually have real questions, not like, “Oh you’re so hot, would you ever be with me please?” No, they have real, intelligent questions. They know more about the show than I do, which can be really awkward.
Wired.com: So you’re psyched.
Torresani: Never in a million years did I think I’d be on a show that appealed to intelligent genius computer guys. I’m serious! Growing up, that’s how my mom and dad were. My dad could be beyond brilliant but totally introverted. If we’re talking about computers, he’s on. Otherwise, he’s a total recluse — he stays in the house and won’t leave, and I’m like that. If I’m not working, I’m locked up in my room.
Wired.com: Now, at age 22, you’re being seen everywhere on these racy Caprica posters. Were you comfortable doing the shoot?
Torresani: I’m a free spirit. I was walking around topless in a thong for the whole photo shoot. They had a closed set and I’m like, “Oh, hi, come on in!” I was the child who would leave school and take her clothes off the second I got into the house. I made my mom buy me lingerie when I was 5 years old. I was a sicko. My mother must have been mortified.
Wired.com: You’ve always been interested in attention?
Torresani: When I was 6, my dad had this huge business meeting, millionaire Asian businessmen came over to our house. I dressed up in this sexy bra, this big fur hat, the red lips, the fake eye lashes. I had my mom go, “Would you please join us in the living room?” and there I was laying on top of the baby grand piano and my 6-year-old neighbor Thomas started playing “Hello Dolly” and I started singing and lifting my legs, doing these kicks. Then I’d go around and sit on the men’s laps. Let me tell you, my dad closed every deal because of that — these men were fascinated that this little girl came out of this guy and this woman. It was the funniest thing.
Wired.com: If you weren’t really into sci-fi as a kid, who were your favorite entertainers growing up?
Torresani: I love Howard Stern, Pee-wee Herman, John Waters — people who are so out of the box that people either love them or hate them. I don’t want everybody to love me. I want them to sometimes despise me or think I’m crazy, think I’m insane. Not like Lindsay, “Oooh, I’m going to drunk-drive.” No. I want smart reactions.
Wired.com: Caprica co-creator Ronald D. Moore has become a master at provoking strong responses with his stories. What’s it like to have him as your boss?
Torresani: If you don’t understand something in the script, he’ll pause and think about it for a minute and you go, “Oh God, he’s judging us, this is the stupidest question.” But he listens so well, and then he gives you this elaborate, detailed answer. Most writers don’t have time to deal with your bullshit, but he really is this soft-spoken genius and a great father, which is all expressed in his writing. He’s like a god.
Wired.com: Speaking of gods, religion plays a pretty major role in Caprica, just like in Battlestar Galactica. Your character, Zoe, is into the idea of one god, whereas the Caprica mainstream believes in many gods. What did you bring to the table as far as your own belief system?
Torresani: OK: I’m very witchy. I believe that everything you put out into the universe happens. A lot of people think that’s a joke, so that’s how I take Zoe’s point of view: “Oh, I believe in one true God”. Some people think I’m nuts, and some people agree with me. So that’s how I relate to that issue.
Wired.com: Friday nights is a tough slot for TV, but you’re optimistic about Caprica?
Torresani: I feel like this is going to start a huge trend: Sci-fi is coming back to bite everyone in the ass and say, “Hey, I’m here”.