With the rising popularity of supernatural and werewolf tales, it was only natural for Syfy to jump at the opportunity to bring the Otherworld books by Kelley Armstrong to television. The tale of a lone female werewolf living amongst a clan of protective male werewolves who find that there are other clans seeking to challenge their rightful place in the werewolf realm makes for a rich tale that will enthrall viewers. In a recent press conference call, star Laura Vandervoort and author Kelley Armstrong talked about the lure of bringing the Otherworld story to life for television.
How did you each of you become involvement with BITTEN? And Kelley, what was your inspiration for the book series?
KELLEY: For the books, BITTEN actually came out of an X-FILES episode. I was in a writing group and as part of a writing group you’re expected to actually write new stuff. I was trying to come up with an idea, sat down and watched THE X-FILES. It was way back in their first season and it was their one and only werewolf episode. It was your typical big guy who changes into some beast like thing and goes around slaughtering people under the full moon. And I said, “That’s not how I would do werewolves.” And for a writer, that then sparks: How would I do them? And I wrote a short story with this character named Elena and I loved that world so much that I wrote a book.
LAURA: I had no idea it was THE X-FILES. That’s really cool for me to know as well.
KELLEY: Which goes to show you how long ago I started writing BITTEN. It was the first season of the show; it is old stuff.
LAURA: I actually love THE X-FILES. Like I was watching that as well. So that’s cool to know. I actually received an offer for the role — which was amazing, first of all — and ended up speaking to J.B. on the phone just to get an idea of the premise of the show and how it would look and how the wolves would be done. So we spoke for about an hour and I heard how passionate he was about the project and it just sounded like something I’d really been looking to do, such a layered thing and the character who is both flawed and strong. So I read the books. I read Women of the Otherworld and BITTEN and did a bit of research. And as soon as I realized the amazing quality of what was there I jumped on. We did some auditions and chemistry-reads with the guys and we just sort of hit the ground running—no pun intended. It was the most challenging six months I’ve had thanks to Kelley and the writers. Every day was a challenge for me. And there were days where I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle the emotional side of it or the physical side of it or just being in every scene. And I did. And I’m so grateful for the experience.
Since one of you created Elena and one of you plays Elena, kind of tell us a little bit about her and does your interpretation of her kind of differ from each of your versions of her?
KELLEY: The creation of Elena really was — I mean it is my first published novel, so it was way back and I wanted to create a character who would be a werewolf and be uncomfortable with that role, but ultimately come to embrace it. At that time, we saw werewolves asa curse, something that you wanted to end to get out of. And I wanted a character who, while she would feel that she should think that way, really deep down doesn’t. And BITTEN was about coming to understand that what you think you should be is not always what you’re meant to be.
LAURA: And I agree with what Kelley said. A lot of there’s a lot of parallels with Elena in the show and women in general. Elena flees to Toronto to try to hide who she truly is and try to have this almost perfect image of what she feels people need from her, but she’s just pushing down the animal inside of her. It’s such an amazing character that a lot of the skeletons in her closet are explored this season. You learn a lot about her history and some of her demons come back. So every episode was shocking to us when we’d read it. We had no idea where they were going to go with it. So I think even if you’re not a sci-fi fan, you’re going to find something that you truly love about this show because it’s not just about the sci-fi. It’s not just about the werewolves, it’s about the characters and their relationships and it’s just very layered.
Did you see Syfy’s other shows with strong lead female characters, BEING HUMAN, LOST GIRL, and CONTINUUM and did they give you any tips about how to play your character?
LAURA: Syfy has been fantastic with having women being strongly dominant on their show. So I love Syfy for that. I’m aware of BEING HUMAN. My friend, Sam Witwer — who was Doomsday on SMALLVILLE with me is on that — so I think that’s a fantastic show and then CONTINUUM as well, by my producer friend Jeff King. So I’m keeping tabs on all these shows because not only am I fan of being in them, but I’m a fan of watching them and watching these women kick some ass. And so I think that the lineup’s great. I’m glad that we’re a part of it, especially right behind BEING HUMAN.
How do your werewolves kind of differ from BEING HUMAN’s Josh and Nora’s werewolves?
LAURA: Our werewolves are actually more down to earth. They’re life-sized to any other wolf. It’s not a fantasy show. It’s as realistic as we can be with the situation at hand. And the wolves have the actor’s eyes and their fur is the same coloring as the hair. So it’s obviously we are dealing with a mythical idea of werewolves, but we’re trying to make it as true to life as we can. And that’s making sure the werewolves aren’t any different to a typical wolf.
Can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between Elena and her pack?
LAURA: It’s complicated. She grew up in a foster care system. So never really had much of a family dynamic. So once she’s bitten into the pack it’s conflicted because she is the trade. It wasn’t by her own will. They bit her. And she had to survive it on her own. But at the same time she finally has a family that she’s always wanted and people who will look out for her. So she’s torn between what she’s always wanted and how she got it, and the life that she should be living in Toronto. But eventually within the season you realize that she is very close with the pack and she is their best tracker and she does love them all equally in different ways. And wants to help them and help the family.
What is Elena’s relationship like with the werewolf who changed her?
LAURA: Right. Well, I can’t answer that.
KELLEY: Difficult. Just say difficult. There we go.
LAURA: It’s complex.
When you’re bitten, is there like an innate sense of connection to the pack? Or is it simply because these people understand her the best? How is that connection formed between the werewolves?
KELLEY: What I was doing when I was creating my werewolves is really basing them on — as much as possible — a wild wolf pack. So it’s not as if being bitten brings you in, but what it does is it strengthens that instinct for pack. It strengthens that instinct to need to be with others who are like you and to form tight, tight bonds as an actual wolf pack does. So while she’s not drawn to these particular people, she is drawn to the idea of needing to be in a close knit group like that. And, of course, because of her circumstances, it’s the American pack.
What does abandoning the pack mean for Elena and for them?
LAURA: I think at the beginning all she’s truly thinking is she needs to escape and she needs to get away from the people that have betrayed her — especially Clay — and just get back to Toronto and live a normal life. But I’m sure within the first year of being back in Toronto and staying away from the pack she does feel this internal pull to be with them. And, like Kelley said, I think that that’s just a part of the maybe a part of the DNA or just a family mentality that she’s never had that she finally does. So it is tough for her. I don’t think she shows it. But it is tough for her to be away from the pack. And obviously the pack they need her. She is rare. She is the only female to have ever survived the bite, and she is the best tracker. They all do have a love for her, but they also respect the distance that she needs to deal with what has happened and how much her life has changed.
Can you talk a bit about the chemistry read that you did Greyston Holt, who portrays Clayton?
LAURA: We auditioned a lot of actors for both the Paul and Clay characters, and I think Greyston just embodied everything that we wanted for Clay. Not only physically was he like a wolverine and just a wonderful spirited guy, but he was an incredible actor. I think we connected immediately in the scenes. He was respectful and we worked off of each other. I think the minute he walked in — especially Daegon and I — the two women in the room just looked at each other and said, “That’s him.”
In the books, Elena has overcome a history of some pretty awful abuse. Why was that important that you give her that history? You’d kind of think that having become a werewolf unwillingly would be more than enough to cause havoc.
KELLEY: It’s never enough.I mean for a character like that you really need to pile as much as possible on them. Seriously, what it was for Elena was looking at the psychology of a character who could have a background and come to become a werewolf and embrace that. And Elena’s overriding need is for family. It is for family and acceptance. And that, of course, comes out of this really rotten background. If she’d had great parents and she had a great support system at home, she would have found that break from the pack much easier. She just would have gone home, lived her life, and not really felt that pull to go back to people who had betrayed her. As it is, because it’s been so bad for her — and she really has no one that pulls for pack. You’re combining both the werewolf instinct with her own desires and her own what she really needs to feel fulfilled. And it’s both a push and a pull because the pack does offer family, but it does not offer the type of family that she has grown up expecting — which is get married, have kids, live in the suburbs somewhere. So it really is difficult for her. And for me, my background is psychology. That’s what my degree’s in and mainly counseling psychology. So I really do layer that in for background. In order to get this type of character, I thought, “What would be the background that would cause that character to be the way I need them to be?”
Is there something that maybe really surprised about how they did either change it or stuff that they left in or anything like that?
KELLEY: I’ve read and really enjoyed the first two scripts. Apparently screeners are on the way to me of the episode. So I haven’t seen anything. So I can only go on from early versions of those couple of scripts. And, of course, I mean one of the things that they really needed to do was bring in other points of view because BITTEN is written first person, from Elena. So when we see her and she’s not with the pack, all we know is when she has communication with them. And we’re not seeing what they’re doing at the same time. Can’t do it in first person. That is one of the drawbacks. But on the TV version, they were able to show what the other characters are doing. So that was a lot of fun for me to read them imagining what the other characters were doing while Elena was in Toronto.
The show don’t use a lot of prosthetics, it has more of the CGI. Can you talk a bit about that?
LAURA: That’s been a wonderful part of the show as well. We don’t have to do the furry prosthetics and in the makeup chair for four or five hours in the morning. We have a wonderful visual effects team that some of them worked on the “Life of Pi” on the tiger’s fur. So they’re just amazing artists who know exactly how to make the fur move and in certain lights. And we have actually a German Shepherd that our producer has that will run throughout the scene and we’ll get the motion of the wolf and then capture that onto camera with our visual effects wolves. So we haven’t had to worry about too much of that. It’s more of the transition from human to wolf that the actors portray, the bones shifting and snapping and contorting. And then after that it’s all visual effects with the actor’s eyes.
Kelley, as the original author of the books, did you get a chance to write any of the episodes for the first season?
KELLEY: No, I have not written any. There was talk of that early on and they had asked if I wanted to. And I definitely did. But nothing came of it, but maybe at some point in the future.
Laura, I know you have a background in martial arts. Are you glad to be able to exercise that skill in this role?
LAURA: I grew up doing martial arts. So Elena feels like the other part of me. I relate to so much about her. Obviously, not the werewolf part, but the fact that she can take care of herself physically. And I think it was great that the writers wrote in some extra hand-to-hand combat scenes. Especially in the finale, we have this epic fight that I just had a great time doing. We had great stunt coordinators that help us so as incorporate the animalistic side to the fighting. It wasn’t a part of the audition, but I think it definitely benefits the character. The fact that most of the actors on the show are physically able to do the fight scene sequences.
What makes BITTEN different from TEEN WOLF because this looks to be a very different show from TEEN WOLF?
KELLEY: The one great thing for me was that this book was written in the 90s. It was written in the late 90s when I didn’t have to worry about what else was out there. My point of reference was, like, “The Wolf Man” and “American Werewolf” in London. I didn’t have to do that where I’m saying, “Okay, what’s currently out there and how can I be different?” If anything, the fact that I wrote about werewolves was a huge strike against me because nobody knew how to sell a book where the werewolves weren’t monsters. So when I’m comparing it to other things, that’s a whole lot tougher for me because I did. I built mine from folklore. I’m a huge folklore geek and I went through everything I knew about werewolves, and cherry-picked what bits of folklore made the most sense if putting it into a contemporary context where I want people to believe that the werewolves could actually live next door. So there are lots of things in the folklore, like they can only be killed by a silver bullet, but don’t realistically work if you’re trying to say they have existed for hundreds of years unknown. The only “Teen Wolf” I know is that old reel of Michael J. Fox movie. So totally different, different thing.
LAURA: Yes. And I’m sort of the same world. I love Michael J. Fox in “Teen Wolf” — and that’s about it. I really didn’t watch a lot of werewolf movies there or TV shows. But I know there are some out there. They are for younger audiences and I think they’re more geared towards the teens. And where I don’t know if Kelley agrees, but BITTEN is very much adult in that it’s risky and it’s raw and it’s sexy. And like she said, it is to the point where you feel like you could live next to a werewolf and not really know because of the way they’ve lived. They live in this beautiful home. They’re cultured. Our pack alpha — played by Greg Bryk — is just very intellectual and artistic. And they sit down to nice meals and they only kill what’s necessary for food or to protect. They’re very educated. So they’re not monsters even though Elena has trouble at the beginning seeing herself as anything but a monster.
How much influence did you have on the TV show in keeping it closer to the books and will fans be happy about any changes that they might have had to make for the TV show?
KELLEY: I really didn’t have any influence and that is what I felt was the correct stance to be taken. I mean a TV show is an adaptation. It is another version for a different medium. And to take a book and translate it directly to screen would make a very boring book. Because I will warn you, in the books I spent way too much time in Elena’s head and to put that on the screen would have been boring. Somebody else has to take it with fresh eyes and reconstruct it for a different medium. And I personally feel that by getting involved that I’m, of course, so attached to my characters and so attached to my world that I would be objecting to things that I shouldn’t be objecting to. I was so thrilled with the early scripts I read. I was so thrilled with the writing and how they got the characters. And there are changes, but there should be. I was quite happy to leave it in everyone’s capable hands and just step back, and I think that is very difficult. But I think it’s also very, very necessary because this is my work envisioned by other writers and by actors and I’m thrilled to have that happen. I’m thrilled to have current readers see it on a screen and new people see it. But it’s not supposed to be my books translated to the small screen.
What you think any differences or challenges that you faced doing this new character different from the other characters that you played?
LAURA: Like I said, it’s the most challenging role. I mean SMALLVILLE, playing Supergirl, she was an iconic superhero that had existed since the 80s — if not earlier. So there was a lot of pressure there to play her, but I had no room for interpretation. It was already laid out and that was that and that was great. With V, again, with just a minor character for the first season and she was actually just intended to be a guest star. So they hadn’t really thought her out very much. Then when they saw the dynamic and chemistry with the other actors and I, they wrote her in as the daughter of the queen, so then it became more interesting. And then Elena — with BITTEN — not only was Kelley gracious enough to allow us to interpret a little bit and add our own personalities into the characters, but she’s just a colorful character for me. I can’t even express how much I feel in love with her. I’ve been acting since I was 13 and I’ve never fallen in love with a character the way that I fell in love with Elena. Like I was leaving a person behind on the day that we wrapped because I just became so attached to her and also, obviously, the cast and crew. But she’s the closest to heart for me with a character that I’ve ever played. Everything about her is just so redeeming. She’s sad and she’s layered and she’s not perfect. It’s such an interesting role for me and the most adult role that I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of. And not only that, but it’s my first lead on a series. So I invested a lot of my heart and soul and a lot of personal things that were happening to me at the time of filming are on camera because you just can’t hide something. So there’s a lot of overlapping between Elena and myself.
Do you see Elena as being a role model?
LAURA: Yes. And that’s exactly why I loved what Kelley had created. I grew up as tomboy and I wanted to be not necessarily a role model. I mean I would go to Comic Conventions after playing Supergirl and I’d see 8-9 year old girls who look up to superheroes. But those superheroes are in tube tops and short shorts. And it just turned me the wrong way. So I wanted to always play women that I would be proud of young girls looking up to. Obviously the show isn’t necessarily for young girls, but Elena is an individual. She speaks for herself. She always comes out on top. She’s strong. She puts these boys in place when she needs to in the pack. And I love that about her.
KELLEY: And I’ll just say, Laura, thank you for taking that stance on it in general for young women because I do agree. Especially in the world of fantasy and superheroes, giving role models who aren’t in the skimpy little outfits in in impossible poses is so important for young women.
LAURA: Yes. I agree with you 100%. And I mean there is a sexuality to the werewolves and needing to see that part of it. The fact that she is just so strong, I think is a great idea of what women should be and can be on television.
To see how Elena struggles to find her right place in both the human world and the Otherworld realm, be sure to tune in for the premiere of BITTEN on Monday, January 12th at 10:00 p.m. on Syfy.
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