The premiere episode of NBC's Bionic Woman remake distinguished itself from the '70s camp classic right away with an extreme sense of gravitas. Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is in a serious automobile accident, faces a betrayal from her boyfriend, has a crisis over her new robotic limbs, has a knock-down drag out brawl with an evil bionic woman (Katie Sackhoff) and is still trying to raise her younger sister as a surrogate single mother. There's no room for cheesy sound effects in this one.
The producers only use the title as a retrospective homage to the concept of a woman with robot parts. With name recognition, they hope to address real women's issues via science fiction. Star Ryan has not even seen the '70s series, so she comes to Bionic Woman with a fresh take.
"I remember seeing a couple of clips as a child and thinking that Lindsey Wagner seemed like a very nice, very pretty lady," said Ryan. "That’s the only memory I have of it, really. I know Lindsey Wagner became an icon for doing it and she was incredible and I’m not trying to be her. I’m just doing my own interpretation. I haven’t heard from Lindsey Wagner. Everyone is sort of [asking], 'Have you met her,' and I would like to. She’s seems like a very nice lady. I did share a lift with Jennifer Garner which I thought was an interesting omen. I didn’t say anything, though."
The British actress makes her American debut in Bionic Woman. At 23, she has already been working for seven years. "I got started in a [British] soap [opera] when I was 16, so I spent five years there, which I was sort of very well known for doing. Then I left two years ago and worked non-stop in lots of different roles. I sought out lots of different characters just because I like to keep the variety and have a challenge."
The show films in Vancouver, so Ryan will be shielded from the Hollywood life. She is prepared, however, for any recognition Bionic Woman brings her. "Having spent five years on EastEnders, I felt like it was the best apprenticeship, because at times the show was watched by 20 million viewers an episode. So I kind of feel like that was the dress rehearsal for this moment. And I’m just kind of in a little cocoon in Vancouver, working all hours. People have emailed me pictures of the big billboards but I feel kind of detached, which I think is good because I can just focus purely on the work. Then I come over to L.A. and do some press and I’m like ‘wow, this is real and this is happening and it’s huge and it’s everywhere.’"
By uprooting her life and taking the lead on a major network series, Ryan is on a similar journey as Jaime, discovering her super powers and the responsibilities they entail. "I feel definitely a connection. I feel like I’m on this journey of self-discovery. I moved out of home and I’m away. I’ve had two and a half months on my own and I do feel like I’m learning all the time, as Jaime is. I definitely feel like it’s sort of helpful being away from home. I feel like I’m at the same sort of turning point as Jaime is, really."
Jaime Sommers is a red blooded American girl, so Ryan did have to learn the dialect. "I think accent-wise, the American accent is definitely something I had to work on. The Cockney accent, just having been in and around London, I did very easily. And now I feel like the further we’ve gotten into the series, the easier and easier it becomes."
Bionic Woman is the perfect role for Ryan, who calls herself an adrenaline junkie and a tomboy. Running up hills and learning Krav Maga combat fighting fit right into her athletic interests, but now she gets paid for it.
"The stunt coordinator and [co-star] Will [Yun-Lee] have been coming up with some really dynamic moves for Jaime. It’s lots of sort of flying spinning kicks. They had me up in a harness yesterday and then I’m on another harness today doing these sort of crazy stunts. I absolutely love doing it and as much as possible I’ll do my own stunts. So there’s lots of punches. There’s a whole big sequence with Antonio Pope and Jaime where he tries to bring out the animal instinct in Jaime and that’s a really dynamic, really sort of hardcore fight."
The controversial Isaiah Washington joined the cast of Bionic Woman to play Antonio Pope. Working for the bionic limb initiative, he wants to see Jaime kick more butt. "There’s lots of high-speed running and lots of jumping. I think my dance training comes in very handy because I have good flexibility and we’re doing all these big flying spinning kicks and I think they’re looking really dynamic and sharp on screen. I’m just sort of learning the fight before I go on set and quickly preparing and then we’re shooting it. It’s moving very fast."
The action was a major selling point for Ryan, but it only works if the audience is invested in Jaime Sommers. The struggles in her mundane home life may be even greater with bionic parts.
"I love the fact that we’re bringing back this strong, young female character and I think it gives a great message. I feel with the character, you’ve got Jaime making scrambled eggs for her sister and she’s breaking the eggs, and at the same time you’ve got her on these missions and really scared before she has to use her bionic abilities. I think it’s absolutely the human side. I haven’t read a script like Bionic. Yes, she has these deeper abilities, but at the core of it, it’s this young woman’s journey of self discovery and her rise to empowerment, and I feel like I’m on that journey and I just felt an instant connection."
In addition to acclimating to her new life with robotic limbs, there are character dynamics that will evolve throughout the series. Those too can inform exciting action sequences. "There’s this sort of triangle between Jae, Jaime and Antonio. Jae is trying to keep Jaime in touch with the human side and the spiritual side of herself so she doesn’t lose her identity as a human being, whereas Antonio Pope is saying that you need to give in to the machine and bring out the animal instinct, otherwise your human side is your weak side. That's where the fight comes in, where he and Jae are trying to train Jaime and they have very different styles of training her. Antonio Pope crosses the line and he does something that really offends Jaime and she completely flips out. That’s when this really intense fight comes out and he does bring out the animal instinct in Jaime."
Though Bionic Woman was total science fiction in the '70s, it is a lot closer to reality today. Nobody is getting super robot parts yet, but there have been amazing advancements in prosthetic limbs. There is a world available for Ryan's research purposes, but she prefers to remain in the dark, as Jaime would be.
"I sort of feel like Jaime learns something new at each stage; I do. So I've specifically not done [research] because I feel like Jaime, she’s trying to deal with her sister, she’s trying to deal with a boyfriend that wasn’t entirely honest with her. She’s learning as she goes along. I feel like with each new step, that’s when I’ll sort of sit down and work out what to do when Jaime views something new for the first time. So I feel like I just let it come along organically; as the character evolves and learns more, I do too."
Ryan returns to the notion that the science fiction and action part of Bionic Woman are fun, but the core of the show is more human interest. "I love that she’s just this very grounded, multi-layered character and person, and that’s why I thought, yeah, there’s so much to play with her, aside from the action sequences and the sci-fi elements. At the core of it, she’s this human being and I just feel like she’s got so much depth, really, and I think that’s what I wanted to be like. I wanted to find my voice, and I want to find my voice, and I want to be strong and confident, and I feel like playing Jaime is helping me get there."
Bionic Woman airs Wednesday nights at 9 pm et/pt on NBC