The Farscape and The Nevers actress looks back on the complexities of living with (and unpacking) trauma, and a now-viral Twitter thread.
Science fiction fans are very familiar with Claudia Black. From her work on Sci-Fi Channel’s (now SyFy) Farscape and Stargate SG-1, as well as films like Pitch Black and Queen of the Damned, she’s been a fixture in the genre for more than twenty years and counting. But the road to such notoriety has not been without its pitfalls: In recent years, she’s been exceedingly open and transparent about her past experiences with trauma, recounting the vagaries of a business where sexual harassment was (and, in many ways, still is) the norm for women. She’s even become a provisional Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, a form of holistic trauma treatment, which has itself helped her unpack her own experiences.
It’s the kind of clear-eyed insight that leads to soulful, insightful performances in even the most outlandish sci-fi worlds – whether she’s palling around with a crew of interstellar misfits as Farscape‘s Aeryn Sun or playing a world-weary soldier facing the end of the world in HBO’s The Nevers.
Not only that, it’s given her a great deal of perspective on the business, and the moments of gratitude you can find within it. Which, endearingly enough, became the center of a viral Twitter thread she posted in late October after learning from a /Film interview with James McAvoy that he took advice she gave him as a young actor (around the time of Children of Dune) to heart:
In that thread, she chronicles her struggles as a working actress, especially in an industry that often sees women as disposable the older they get, and the gratitude she felt at sharing that story with her son. “I felt something I haven’t in a long time,” Black remarks. “Visible.”
Nowadays, Black balances her acting work with life as a single mother, which dovetails interestingly with her latest role in first-time writer/director Spencer King’s Detroit-set drama Time Now (which recently played this year’s Austin Film Festival). Black plays Joan, the giving, supportive aunt of Eleanor Lambert’s Jenny, a young woman haunted by her past who returns home in the wake of her twin brother’s death with young son in tow (played by Asher Atkisson). It’s a role unfettered by laser guns or futuristic gadgets, and Black embodies the role with remarkable grace and warmth — a model for positive, engaged motherhood, one that the withdrawn, revenge-obsessed Jenny can’t provide. Catch a glimpse of that warmth in an exclusive clip from Time Now below.
The Spool sat down with Black over Zoom last week to chat about Time Now and her viral Twitter thread. But it also dovetailed into a lengthy, insightful discussion about everything from the way our bodies respond to trauma to the challenges of motherhood in lockdown, to what to do when a Muppet looks like tandoori chicken.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk to me about “The Comeback Curry” thread and what the response to it has meant to you the past week or so.
CLAUDIA BLACK: Oh my God, so funny. Yeah, I… gosh, a lot of feelings. I think what’s powerful are the things that I didn’t say [in that thread] that people just felt, and that it moved and touched so many people and leaves this impression. I was surprised that people really understood how positive it was in spirit – that it wasn’t a “woe is me” story.
But there were still some people who’d leave comments saying, “You know, don’t worry, you matter.” And I’m like, “Well, we all matter.” I don’t matter any more than anybody else, or deserve more than anybody else. But I’ve seen the value in other people sharing, and I think you really have to think about why you’re sharing. If you’re sharing from the scar or if you’re sharing from the open wound. It’s always really empowering when you’re speaking from the scar, and the timing is yours. You’re choosing it.
The biggest thing that I hadn’t mentioned in that thread was that everything’s multifactorial. There isn’t just one thing that creates a constellation of disasters in someone’s life. But I think there are some universal themes that really resonated. The other thing, of course, was that [at the time] I went into total burnout. I wasn’t good to anyone. For the longest time, I was having kids and trying to do it all and have it all. Matriarchy is just as harmful as patriarchy is, and not the response we need in the culture right now. I’ve been dismantling a lot of that inheritance, personally, and that resonates [with people] too.
And obviously, to be honest, James McAvoy is really revered and loved, and part of what’s lovely about telling stories about these people — because we’ve had so many fallen stars; cancel culture is, for the most part, effective, but sometimes really reactive — is the chance to say nice things about a hopefully deserving person.
One thing that resonated too, is thinking about the ways the smallest gestures ripple through time, you know? You got this very public, large reminder that something you did twenty years ago meant something to someone who means a lot to somebody. There’s this butterfly effect of positivity that rings out from that.
BLACK: And the resonance of that is really great. With all the trauma training I’ve done, and understanding who we are as human beings, we’re really creatures that somehow got very socially sophisticated. But we’re still creatures in the end. There are certain basic needs that have not been met during the pandemic, and those have unhealthily fed into toxicity with the politics in America and now spreading across the world. We co-regulate; we’re picking up signals and cues from each other all the time. We take that for granted and often don’t understand it. And the Internet itself can be such a space of reactivity rather than response.
One aspect that I think touched people about the thread is that human connection is vital and beautiful, and yet so humbling. Thinking about it as a mom, where life gets small, the only feedback of my existence sometimes is just whether my children respond to me. I spend most of my time saying, “Did you hear me?” “Yes.” “Then I need you to respond to what I’m saying.” I’m with these monosyllabic teenagers, and that shouldn’t be my only experience, but that’s the nature of how things are right now.
Liminality is where everything transforms; that’s the really juicy space where we can change.Claudia Black
I’m a part-time single mom, often almost full-time, and we’re also in a pandemic. So my ability to socialize has been very hindered. Last year, filming in London, it was nice to see the way they dealt with single parenting. If you’re a single parent in the UK, you were allowed to be absorbed into a bigger, familial bubble so you weren’t isolated. You could go to another household if you designated them as your bubble, and you could have social interaction and community. But otherwise, I was in this experience where I don’t want my children to be responsible for my socialization, and I was getting nothing. And it’s their right as teenagers to not want to talk about things. But that was the reality of my experience and has been for quite a while.
I imagine it’s also the exact wrong age for everyone to be locked in a room together for a year.
BL:ACK: And great for them to suddenly have permission to binge-watch everything. I’d been so responsible as a mom with screentime, and now I just say, “Whatever, just go juggle knives.” I just got to this point where I’m now the parent I never thought I’d be, and let them play shoot-em-up games and what have you.
Well, we’re all experiencing the aftereffects of a collective burnout, and it feels weird to ask permission to be relieved from it. We’re still very much in a pandemic, even though people are taking the first furtive steps back out into the world with vaccinations and everything. But that liminal state is interesting to try to unpack.
BLACK: And liminality is where everything transforms; that’s the really juicy space where we can change. I’m so happy to be in that liminality with people, which is partly why that thread was so great, since I’ve navigated a big chunk of it. From a bridging standpoint, which is what I do with my [trauma] coaching, I’m like, “I’ve been here and it sucked, and I get it,” but I can also be here to help you get from there to here. Use me as you will!
All our training is about engendering autonomy and agency in the other person, so they’re doing it for themselves. It’s not about how clever I am that I can change you; it’s “hey, look at your skill sets that you didn’t realize you had, and let’s see what you can do with them.”
Going back to the thread, though, another element was your specific advice to James about acting in genre, which is interesting, having watched quite a bit of it in my day. You get an eye for when sci-fi is good, and when sci-fi is bad, and when certain actors are able to elevate the bad stuff. I remember an old Farscape DVD commentary for a season-one episode (“Jeremiah Crichton”) that you and the other cast and crew did, and you just unpacked what made it a bad episode of TV.
BLACK: It’s essential to know the difference. By the way, what a lost gift, DVD commentaries; you can learn from the greatest filmmakers unpacking their process, which is so useful. I’d forgotten we did that, actually.
But that was one of the things we did very openly on Farscape; we would do everything but look directly at the lens and say, “What a stinker!” But we had these ridiculous turnarounds; in Australia, you do things off the smell of an oily rag. We only had eight hours at home before we had to get back in the car and make our own way back to the studio. The conditions were not favorable, the people were exhausted. And Brian Henson had always wanted to prove that he could do very high-level prosthetics and animatronics on a fast turnaround. Australia does fast turnarounds better than anyone — Home and Away, Neighbours. We don’t do it better, but we do it faster than anyone.
The scripts would constantly be changing or not delivered on time, so it was impossible for the Creature Shop to deliver things with any real confidence. Sometimes they’d just be burning the midnight oil and produce something and wouldn’t be sophisticated enough or even finished. That’s how we ended up with the tandoori chicken [a particularly shoddy Muppet from season 2’s “Beware of Dog”]. It was probably very frustrating for the short stature actor who’d come to perform the piece and bring that character to life; it was supposed to be menacing and ended up becoming the punchline of a joke. But we ended up having to call it on screen because we knew we couldn’t be that show that tried too hard and was precious.
Going from tandoori chicken to something a little more grounded, let’s talk about Time Now. You’ve had such a long, storied career in sci-fi and fantasy, and I feel like you don’t get to do non-genre stuff very often. What was it like to, for lack of a better term, play a normal person in Joan?
BLACK: I think there’s a pretty common thread to my characters, but I always love the non-vanity projects. I’m pretty no-nonsense, I’m a real tomboy. You know, it’s interesting: if you have enough trauma, it becomes personality, even though it’s not really our essence. I’d say my tomboyishness is partly maladaption, but I really abhor being in the makeup chair and having to sit for long periods of time. But I’m always really grateful because I always say I look better than I deserve to look when the Pretty Committee comes in and does their thing.
Conversely, I just love being unfettered and unencumbered, and not having to worry about how I’m going to look. Do I look like a movie star? Am I at the right angle? I’m more interested in working on a set with the people behind the camera as if we’re part of the same time, which is possible to my detriment. I’ve got great camera awareness but for performance rather than appearance, if that makes sense. [For Time Now] I loved being a team player; I loved helping them get their shots. Maybe that’s a fawning response, you know, a trauma response of being outwardly directed and wanting to support and not focusing enough on myself.
I’ve often played very armored characters that have a soft center, and Joan was more outwardly, openly vulnerable. So that’s a nice change for me, but also probably part of my own personal progression toward feeling comfortable.
Well speaking of comfort: I know you said this is a non-vanity project, but I was extremely envious of your cable-knit sweater in that film.
BLACK: That was actor’s own! When I saw the movie the other day, I thought to myself, “This is a great sweater, it’s actually quite a fancy one in a way; I bought it in London years ago; would Joan have access to that?” Maybe if she was a really good knitter or one of her friends was. That was probably one of the stars of the movie.
I feel like Joan would be the kind of person who would treasure the one expensive, fancy thing she owned, and would wear it all the time.
BLACK: Like her gorgeous car. You know what’s really funny (and this is probably a sign of my age)? No one on the crew, director included, could drive shift except me. So I had to shoot the day, then drive the blood picture car back at the end of the day to the compound where we were securing it so it was safe for the next day. Someone had generously lent it to [director] Spencer [King] — he had to call in so many favors, as you do on your first project.
Joan also dovetails, I think, into a lot of your own exploration of trauma and its lingering effects. She’s also an extremely maternal character, playing the mother figure to the main character’s child in a way that woman isn’t able to. What were some of those moments like, especially working with that young actor?
BLACK: He was gorgeous, really lovely — so responsive. I regret the fact that, because of all my trauma and the responsibilities I ended up with, that it was my greatest fear that I would become a single mom. And now, having a good hard look at parenting and not feeling like a fun mum myself, I wasn’t able to be present and playful and light and airy with my kids because I was so burdened with so much trauma. My focus when rearing my own children was on just trying my best not to take it out on them in any way. There was so much going on that I just didn’t have anything left in the tank to be playful. The most devastating thing about trauma is that it takes it out of the realm of play, which would actually be the most healing place to be. That’s one of the many paradoxes of trauma.
So this movie was a great opportunity to have a corrective experience. One of the most powerful things about trauma healing is learning what you can do differently that you couldn’t do before; here, I got to run around and play with this gorgeous little kiddo. A lot of those scenes we just improvised and played.
I lucked out in working with a great cast and a beautiful director who, for his age and where he’s starting in the business, is brave in his sensibility of wanting to give scenes a lot of oxygen and space. He gives the audience room to feel included, and not manipulated.