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Mary McDonnell Dishes About All-New 'Battlestar Galactica'

Two-time Oscar nominated actress Mary McDonnell plays reluctant President Laura Roslin with a quiet strength and depth on 'Battlestar Galactica,' whose third season premieres Fri., Jan. 6.

In her long career, McDonnell has played several strong women including First Lady Marilyn Whitmore in 'Independence Day,' the mother of a troubled teen in 'Donnie Darko,' Dr. Eleanor Carter on 'ER' and the breakthrough role of Stands With a Fist in 'Dances with Wolves.'

McDonnell chatted with AOL Television editor Sean Doorly about portraying a strong woman, attending science fiction conventions and her character's haircut.



What makes President Laura Roslin tick?
I think the core of the character is that she was put in this position to support the survival of the human race. It was a discovery of a destiny thrust upon her. Somewhere along the way, relationships begin to develop and she learned about her ability to handle power. It has been a very interesting internal journey. There was no ambition for this position.

What are some of the difficulties in portraying a woman in power?
A lot of the difficulty has a lot more to do with the position itself and not being a woman in the position. It is about understanding what it costs you internally to have to make life and death decisions for people. It is all about understanding what shifts inside you when you are forced to order assassinations or sending creatures out airlocks that you have to make for the survival of the human race. You shut down. If you leave it open these decisions are almost impossible to make. They cost you so much pain that you cannot survive it.

What drew you to this role?
The entire story drew me to the role. I was very drawn to the script as a miniseries and I didn't expect to be because I said, "'Battlestar Galactica' -- what? For me? That doesn't make any sense." This happened to be a really superb role because it is a middle-aged woman who is dealing with everything. She is also dealing with breast cancer, which is our biggest female pandemic, and she is dealing with loneliness on a very profound level. In the beginning, she was dealing with a gender power struggle with the military. She had to figure out how to quietly cut through that every time it came at her because if she reacted, all hell would have broken loose and she would have gotten nothing accomplished.

Any chance of a romance for your lonely character?
(Laughs.) My feeling is that for her to open up her heart would be a disaster. The risk would be so extraordinary given what is going on in her life. She is a woman keeping it in control and when you get involved in romance, it gets out of your control.

What is in store for your character this year?
I don't want to give away any spoilers, but there will be changes aboard and she may have to get smarter to keep committed to what she thinks her purpose is. There are some very interesting and radical things that occur. By the end of the 20 episodes this year, even we were saying, "How are we going to get out of this?" The cast cannot wait to see the beginning of season three. It will blow your mind. We keep on asking, "Now where will we go?" Ron Moore just digs us in deeper.

What are the good and bad things about working on a TV show?
I think TV and film both offer wonderful things. Having done a lot of television I have gotten used to the pace and I like it. There is an edginess to it. The immediacy of this show is amazing. We work at a breathtaking pace. To work at this pace really supports the show. This urgency really brings out the best in the cast.

Were you a science fiction fan before this?
No. Although I have always been drawn to the metaphysical. There are areas of quasi-science fiction that I have always been fascinated by and I saw those in the script. A sort of spiritual/scientific/human thing. Those three things have always fascinated me. But I never really watched sci fi. When the original series was playing I was in New York living the bohemian life and doing theater. I didn't own a television. I knew the name of 'Battlestar Galactica,' but I had never seen it. It was off my radar.

Have you been to any science fiction conventions?
I have been to a couple of conventions and the people I met and the discussions of the show pleasantly surprised me. It had a seminar kind of feeling about it. Our show is a little different because we are human, we all share the same DNA and Earth was part of the same consortium, so people don't relate to us as the exotic. They relate to us as normal. I think this show attracts a different kind of sci fi fan. It is basically a human drama in space. The aliens on our show look like us.

Have you watched the episodes again on DVD?
No. I watch them professionally to see what can be improved upon or things I would like to ask the producers about. I don't spend a lot of time watching the show. For me, if I get too absorbed as a viewer, I lose some of my innocence as a player. I don't want Laura to be invaded by Mary's ego. My ego is much more active than President Laura Roslin. She is a much purer, devoted, clear-minded and ruthless person who has her eye on a goal and could care a fig about her self. I care about myself much more than her. I don't want that invading her space. It is better for me not to watch too much because I will say, "I definitely need new clothes and what about this haircut?" If she did start going to the beauty parlor then it would be like, "I thought you were trying to help this race survive?" She is a lot more mature than I am.