Tapping into grace
Amanda Tapping is probably one of the most gracious women in show business — and her unwavering integrity nearly cost her the biggest break of her career.
The year was 1997, and Tapping was newly arrived in Vancouver to film the pilot for Stargate SG-1, the highly anticipated television spin-off of the 1994 blockbuster film. The British-born, Toronto-raised thespian had been cast in the pivotal role of Samantha ‘Sam’ Carter, a brilliant astrophysicist and USAF captain who would serve shoulder to shoulder with a team of equally gifted men.
Tapping was eager to sink her teeth into this dynamic character. For years, she’d guest-starred on shows such as The X-Files, Due South, and Street Legal; she was hungry to take her career to the next level, and knew full well that Stargate SG-1 could do just that.
But then Tapping arrived for her wardrobe fitting and laid eyes upon the uniform that her character was expected to wear: a push-up bra and a provocative, low-cut tank top. “I was devastated,” Tapping says. “It was my first really big break so I was very aware of the fact that they could fire my ass at any moment, but I burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t. I’m sorry, but I won’t do this.’ And I said, ‘You can tell them to come down and talk to me about it, but [Sam’s] in the military.’ I was fiercely proud of the military aspect of it, of being true to women in the military, and having big boobs and a low-cut tank top, well, it’s not being honest. It was very disrespectful.”
But the various network/studio powers-that-be who’d pushed for a sexualized Sam Carter (Tapping won’t name names) didn’t push back, and over the course of 10 seasons of Stargate SG-1 — not to mention several spin-offs and movies — Carter dressed in uniforms befitting her position, and Tapping carved out her place as a sci-fi icon.
Her emphatic refusal to compromise her integrity is but one example of the grace with which Tapping — also widely known for her role as the enigmatic Dr. Helen Magnus on Sanctuary — operates. “Grace is my favourite word,” says Tapping, 47. It’s a word that Tapping repeats numerous times over the course of an interview conducted in the lobby lounge of a downtown Vancouver hotel.
Currently, the fan-dubbed “Queen of Sci-Fi” is in the midst of a transition phase. Tapping’s most recent series, Sanctuary, had been her passion project. Sanctuary began on the web in 2007; the early webisodes were sold directly to viewers via the series’ website. “We were never afraid to say, ‘Let’s try it!’” says Tapping, who was one of its earliest investors. “And that kind of became our can-do attitude, like ‘It’s never been done before? Great! Let’s do it!’”
By 2008, Sanctuary had found a home on the SyFy network, and Tapping was both its star and one of its executive producers.
Despite its legions of diehard fans, Sanctuary was cancelled in 2012. For the first time in 15 years, Tapping isn’t a regular on a series. “It’s funny because I’ve always known what’s coming up, and now I don’t, and I’m sort of enjoying the not knowing, but also hating the not knowing,” she said. “I’ve really had to discover who Amanda Tapping is outside of being on a TV series.”
This discovery process has led Tapping right to the director’s chair. In 2012, Tapping directed several episodes of Primeval: New World, and an episode of CBC’s top-rated action-adventure drama, Arctic Air, scheduled to air later this spring. “When Arctic Air came along, I was at a bit of a crisis of confidence,” says Tapping. “When I finished Arctic Air, I could not have been happier. It restored a passion that I have for this industry, and it restored a huge amount of confidence that I felt I’d lost.”
Her grace is evident in her directing. When casting a show, Tapping says she never loses sight of the fact that many actors struggle with insecurity before, during and after their auditions. “First thing I say is, ‘thank you so much for coming, and let’s see what you’ve got,’” she says. On set, she’d rather collaborate with cast and crew than bark out orders.
But don’t count Tapping out as an actor just yet. “I love directing and I will continue to hone those skills… but I’m not ready to not be an actor, because I love it,” she says. “It’s funny because I auditioned in the same room that I’d recently been casting [Arctic Air] out of… I was like, ‘This is messing with my head!’”
One thing that keeps her level is her charity work. Tapping is one of the co-founders of Sanctuary for Kids. Its mandate: to improve the lives of children in crisis. Locally, the foundation works with Watari, which transitions homeless youth — including those with children of their own — into housing and new lives. The money comes from online fundraising, as well as the auctions and raffles that take place at GABIT, a convention for dedicated Amanda Tapping fans held annually in England.
“[Every] year I bawl like a baby because I can’t believe we’ve raised as much money as we have,” says Tapping. Since November 2009, Sanctuary for Kids has raised more than $455,000 for its charities.
To many fans, Tapping is a role model — a fact that she regards with humility. “The characters [I portray] are role models but I’m not solely responsible for them, but when it’s Amanda that’s the role model, I’m like, ‘whoa, you have a responsibility to be honest,’” she says.
Her voice is thick with emotion when she speaks about her own role models: her grandmother, who “didn’t take shit from anybody” and lived well past 103; her friend Cynthia Semon, who Tapping described as the epitome of grace as she battled the cancer that eventually took her life; the children she’s encountered through her charity work. “[Then there are] fans that I’ve met who have struggled even just to make it to a convention, who have overcome anxiety issues just to come and donate money,” said Tapping. “Those are the role models.”
Somewhere between meeting fans, philanthropy, acting and directing, Tapping is getting to know herself all over again. She’s tubing on Cypress with her husband and seven-year-old daughter. She’s heading out on long drives. She’s bending her body into yoga poses.
If Tapping has learned anything from the past year, it’s that many of life’s bumps can be soothed with grace. “[We’re] all fallible, crazy little beings and the best you can hope for is that people feel like you’ve respected them and been honest with them,” she says. “It feels good when you try to put good out there. It sounds so hokey, and I don’t mean it to, but if you want people to like you, then you’ve got to be likeable.”
Read more with Amanda Tapping in CHARACTER BUILDING.