Babylon 5 ’s Commander Ivanova is a screwed-up latent telepath. Actress Claudia Christian likes cookies and laughs. A lot. Guy Haley probes the differences between the two...
“Basically, I came out of the womb screaming, ‘Hollywood!’” laughs Claudia Christian, her hair flopping over her mischievous eyes as she gestures expansively. “I just loved to perform. I was on the stage at five in a Thanksgiving play. Because I was the only one with the long hair and braids, the head-dress looked the best on me, so I got to play the chief. From that point on my ego was solidified and that was it. Lead roles.”
She waves her finger menacingly, eyes narrowed, and says in a gangster voice: “I’m gonna be chief in every goddamn thing I do.”
As second-in-command, Commander Ivanova, in Babylon 5 , she’s steely, determined and emotionally reserved. If you think she’d look unkindly on someone running around like a blue-arsed fly and arriving 30 minutes late when they should be interviewing her, you’d be right. Ivanova would’ve killed me. Fortunately, Claudia Christian is a far cry from her screen alter-ego. She just takes the mickey.
Christian is fun, not stern. She laughs, she tells jokes, she doesn’t tie her hair back and she got her first major role by by padding her breasts out. It’s true. After her first TV appearance, aged 18, as an extra in Dallas , she applied for a part in now cult sci-fi movie The Hidden as a stripper taken over by a heavy-metal loving entity.
“The audition was exciting but it was also scary because they wanted a girl with enormous, erm, mammary glands. You had to wear a bikini to show them what your body looked like. I was 20 years old and I stuffed my bikini with these fake gazongas and flashed them. I got the job and then panicked because it was supposed to be a topless role. So they built me these prosthetic breasts and put them under the T-shirt. [In the end] I didn’t have to do any nudity and I got the ultimate payback on the typical Hollywood producer.”
Christian has clocked up well over 100 “jobs” to date, including her still active duty on Babylon 5 , a handful of TV shows and numerous films, quite a few of them science fiction-based. “I’ve been in the theatre since I was five, but I got my first TV job at 18. I’m 31, so I’ve been in this business for 13 years. I love it. When I’m old I’m going be a handsome old dame in the theatre. At my opening night, they’ll be saying, ‘How did it go?’ and I’ll say, ‘Those that were awake thought I was marvellous.’ I’ll just be some horrible old biddy saying, ‘I was the Commander! I was the Commander!’ Mind you, I’m planning to be a dame or something. Dame Claudia – it has a nice ring to it.”
She’d have to move to England for that... “Yeah, I’ve got to kiss ass to the Queen. But I’m definitely not kissing up to Chuckie baby.”
My God, is there no stopping this woman? She bounces around the conversation like an excited Lemur, shooting off impressions, asides and throw-away gags. But after a swingeing piss-take of some Californian guru, and yelling “TEA BREAK!” into my dictaphone (almost deafening on replay), she settles down (a bit) over a hot cup of char and decides to talk about about her fans.
She’s off again. Waving her finger round like a pistol, she rattles off a rather good impression of a machine-gun. “They just come back and kill their co-workers. The mail was late for a week, darling.”
After nibbling another “cookie” on the plate (then passing the half-eaten remnants to me), she changes tack again.
“What I most enjoy is being in love, that’s the best,” she says in a fluffy Miss World voice. “That’s the most beautiful feeling in the whole world.” She grins again. “But I could’ve said getting laid. I like to do creative things. I love to write. I like music.”
Hmm, yes, the infamous raunchy single... “You must have laughed at me. But I usually write fairly provocative lyrics for dance music. I’ve also written fairly conservative lyrics for Country and Western and alternative stuff, and I do some sort of R&B stuff... It’s completely different. It’s just that European dance erotic music should be just that. Nobody wants me to be singing about popsicles. Hey, but Bill Mumy has done a song called Fish Heads . ‘Fish heads… Fish heads… Roly-poly fish heads,’” she sings in a Pinky and Perky falsetto. “When I heard it last night I was kind of like, ‘Huh?’”
Then, to further vindicate herself, she pulls out a cassette of Gillian Anderson’s effort from her pocket. “Listen,” she says. “I sing... She just talks on it.”
She takes her singing career seriously, does Ms Christian. Indeed straight after her sojourn in England, she’s back in the studio in LA to record the remainder of her album. Apparently, it’s the culmination of some ten years of accumulated musical musings – and hey, at least it’s not Bilbo Baggins . And she strenuously denies that her single’s raunchy threesome lyrics are a bid to cash on Ivanova’s sexual ambiguity, a theme she would have liked to explore further in the show.
Then she starts to joke. “Well, there was that one wild weekend… I was so drunk, it was that lemonade stuff... Yeah, right.”
How does she feel, in that case, about her popularity with lesbians?
“They really like me, don’t they? Well, I’m happy to be their poster child. Any fan’s a good fan and the girls are terrific. I usually play up to them because I think it’s fun and it’s flattering. It’s harmless and if it justifies them or makes them feel more viable because they’ve got somebody on television speaking for them then that’s great. I’m happy to be the one.” She smiles again, and says in mock desperate voice: “I still have some boys that write to me too. Really I do. I’m not just popular with lesbians, you know. Aren’t I still attractive?”
Then she turns serious again. “What I like, though, is that Joe just puts it in. He doesn’t make a fuss. Homosexuality’s been part of our society since the beginning of time and we should stop making such a big deal out of it. It’s ridiculous. Anybody who’s homophobic has gotta look at their own life and ask why are they spending so much time on a group of people. If they don’t like it, ignore it. I mean, there are people beating their children every day, there’s wife abuse and God knows what. Who cares what two consenting adults are doing? What’s worse is that they think what two consenting adults are doing is any of their damn business. If someone’s shoving it in your face maybe you have the right to say you don’t want to talk about it because it makes you uncomfortable. But if someone’s just living their life to beat them up with a baseball bat because they’re gay is absurd. We have a lot of gay-bashing in America. There are some parts of America that are so backward they’ll never be tolerant to homosexuality – or race. You can only hope that the ignorant ones will die off and the new generations will be more tolerant.”
Race is something else Babylon 5 tries to address. Not in an issue-of-the-week way, but merely by making Babylon 5 a polyglot society.
“I think we employ more extras and guest stars that are of different race than anyone; there’s a lot of Asian people and African-Americans. But the bottom line is that in the US, for instance, blacks make up 12% of the population. It’s a minority. And SF is reflective of the society you’re living in. Do you see any Caucasians in Indian films? Look at an Eddie Murphy movie and you’d think there were no white people in New York. We’ve taken representatives from all over the world. We’ve had Chinese, Japanese, Polynesians, a regular African-American... I play a Russian. I’m a Jew. I think we have a melting pot on B5 . Joe makes point of it when he writes his scripts.”
This subtle appreciation of contemporary issues has made B5 a firm hit with SF fans the world over – but despite being the fourth highest-rated drama in US syndication, the likelihood of the series reaching its planned fifth season still seems slim. “I don’t know if we’ve been picked up for a fifth season, so I don’t know what I’ll do after,” wails Christian, pretending to cry.
Fortunately for her, work on the B5 universe will continue in the short-term via the new spin-off movies, currently in production. “I’m in the first movie, but Ivanova’s only in one scene in the second because it takes place ten years before [the series].”
So what’s she going to do afterwards? “I’ll just go and get another job. I’ve been working for 13 years so it shouldn’t be a problem... Famous last words. You’ll see me on a corner: ‘Spare a dime, sir, you were late for me once!’”
Yeah, yeah, rub it in. But it might not be a bad thing for her if B5 is cancelled. Perhaps 88 episodes of anything is enough. Christian agrees. “Listen, after four years playing any character, it’s nice to move on. Luckily, Joe has made it interesting enough for me, and we have so many people on the show so I’ve never become exhausted... But you kind of want to play something else. I love playing comedy and I love drama. Every once in a while, Joe throws me something really good that reignites me, but I need some more creative stimulation.”
Seeing as she mentioned it, I take the plunge and ask her what working with JMS is like. Okay, she’s sick of it and I did promise not to ask, but this is a B5 interview, so she only pretends to shoot me...
“He’s a wonderful man, very talented, works his butt off and stays in his office or at home most of the time writing. He’s the first guy to write two entire series [in the US], so he has no life, he’s got a can of Coca-Cola attached to his lip at all times.The guy never sleeps.”
Then it’s time to finish, so she heads off, but not without telling a joke.
“Two peanuts were crossing the street,” she says in a low, monotonal German accent. “One was assaulted.”
And she wants to play comedy?