TV sci-fi heroine Katee Sackhoff talks about playing tough characters—with and without long hair.
Four years ago you were playing adolescents on such shows as MTV’s Undressed and The Education of Max Bickford. At age 23, how’d you land the part of Starbuck, a hard-drinking fighter pilot who was a male on the original Battlestar Galactica? At first the producers didn’t want to see me, because up until that point I’d only played angsty teenagers and stereotypical blond girls. About five or six auditions later I chopped my hair off, went in and said, It’s my role, shut up, give it to me. I convinced them I was tough even though I had stiletto heels on. Then I got the job, and they chopped my hair off even more, and I started crying. I got out of bed at 2 a.m. to see if I could put bobby pins in my hair.
Playing tough couldn’t have been a total stretch, though: Growing up in St Helens and Beaverton, you were an athlete. The sports thing was always my focus until I hurt my knee. I swam the 50-, 100- and 200-meter breaststroke in high school. I loved the adrenaline rush and the nervousness right before a race. I miss that tremendously. And I miss the team aspect of it. Acting’s also a team sport, but it’s different; there’s no finish line.
So when did your ambitions shift to acting? I never thought I’d actually be an actress until I moved to Los Angeles after high school. Then I didn’t have a choice: Failure was not an option.
Not that you would have lacked a place to live. Your father, Dennis Sackhoff, co-founded Arbor Custom Homes when you were growing up. I’ve heard that he’s built half the subdivisions in the metro area. Exactly—you almost can’t live anywhere in Oregon without living in something my dad built at one time or another. When I was little, my family owned Sunshine Pizza in St Helens. But by the time I was 15, he was building hundreds of houses.
Battlestar Galactica and your new show, Bionic Woman, shoot on the same Vancouver, BC, soundstage. Do you have trouble keeping the parts straight? The two characters are actually completely different. Starbuck is a very reluctant hero, whereas Sarah Corvus, my character on Bionic Woman, is in love with the fact that she’s evil. She’s not just Starbuck in heels; she’s more maniacal, more focused. You can’t read her, and that’s really hard to play. Starbuck comes so easily to me, I don’t even memorize my dialogue anymore. I just come to the set, read the script and do it.
How do you deal with the physical differences between the two characters? Starbuck always has a little extra layer of fat on her, because in my opinion she isn’t a specimen of physical health. If she’s in the weight room, she’s lifting weights, not doing cardio. But Sarah is in perfect condition, so I’ve been working out on a Spinner. Now my Battlestar Galactica wardrobe is falling off me.
It seems that you play up your girly-girl side in public. Is that in order to differentiate yourself from Starbuck? You’d think that I was doing it on purpose, but that really is just me. I would rather wear heels than tennis shoes. Girly-girl is a side of me, and Starbuck is a side of me. I like having nails, and I like doing the hair and having makeup on, but I also like to go out on a boat and gut fish with my boyfriend. Growing up an Oregon girl, we all knew how to play in the mud.