KNIGHT RIDER FEMMES
Beyond swapping quips with cars,
they have very serious agendas
By FREDERICK C. SZEBIN
Femme Fatale, June 1988
Never say die to Glenn Larson's talking cars. During the past decade, he tapped into a cult audience via KNIGHT RIDER (1982-'86), the adventures of Michael Knight and his very vocal vehicle. In 1994, a spin-off was tested, found wanting, and - back-peddling a bit- the producer of such TV fodder as THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO, B. J. AND THE BEAR and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA revised his concept into TEAM KNIGHT RIDER, a three-man, two-woman team who cruise across the U. S. to right wrongs and verbally spar with their high-tech Fords.
Along with the macho quotient - Brixton Karnes as team leader Kyle Stewart, Duane Davis as ex-cop Duke DePalma and Nick Wechsler as the wily techno-wizard Trek - are Christine Steel as former marine Jenny Andrews, and Kathy Trageser as con-woman Erica West; the duo supplements the super-secret Knight Rider stratagem with a more feminine touch, than in previous incarnations.
Both ladies have strong theater backgrounds, but are new to the rigors of weekly television. Steel, a New Jersey native raised in San Francisco moved to L. A. at 18 to graduate cum laude in theater arts from UCLA. She landed featured spots on UPN's LIVE SHOT series and WOLF for CBS, in addition to some indies including INERTIA, a drama about infidelity, and POWER PLAY, the latter a tale of sexual harassment. She crossed into the CD-interactive medium with RIVEN: MYST II and toured in the title role of Pocahontas, a theatrical adaptation of the famed Disney film.
Trageser switched from pre-med at NYU to follow her histrionic goals. Her New York background includes the Broadway engagement of The Will Rogers Follies, in which she appeared with Mac Davis and Larry Gatlin, and an off-Broadway production of OTHELLO. Trageser was eventually hired for gigs on popular afternoon soaps, including GUIDING LIGHT, DAYS OF OUR LIVES and ANOTHER WORLD. Five years ago, determined to beef-up her career, she transplanted herself to L. A. and found work in prime time stints (MURDER, SHE WROTE, BOY MEETS WORLD, LOIS AND CLARK, etc.).
TEAM KNIGHT RIDER offered the ladies that Holy Grail of struggling thespians-prolonged employment. But the auditioning process can be frustrating since the performer, who may be saddled with a mediocre script, can hardly volunteer to improve the dialogue: in the case of TEAM KNIGHT RIDER, the initial material was somewhat limited.
"We had so many auditions in the spring ('97), specifically March and April," Says Trageser. "Originally, they read me for the role of Jenny. A few weeks later, they called me back to read for Erica. Christine read for both parts, too. Originally, Jenny was a blonde. I guess we changed their minds. I decided I liked Erica better than Jenny, anyway. Back then, the roles were pretty flat. No one knew who they were. They had this idea of the military, straight-laced woman and the break-all-the-rules con artist, but the characters were pretty flat because they were just so new. I kind of took a liking to Erica and decided to go for her. I never worked on the Jenny audition, but I would just go for Erica. I guess that changed their minds.
"Erica is a con artist, she's been in prison and had a tough time with men in the past. She's cynical, very sarcastic, very funny. I like her because she's brutally honest most of the time, except when it comes to real personal things. She's very daring, likes to take big risks-not physically, but mental risks. A lot of times in the script, a problem is solved because Erica takes it on in a way that's not in the book. She's strong, she uses her talents, know-how and looks as a woman to get what she wants which, I think, is smart."
Steel recounts, "When they saw us together, they probably felt that I was better for the role of Jenny. I like this character. There are some points where she shows some vulnerability further on in the season. She's a little more complex in the sense that she doesn't show much, so she leaves a lot to mystery in a sense. You find out about her later. Jenny's much more athletic than Erica. Erica would never want to live in the wilderness or anything like that: Jenny's definitely an outdoorsy person, which I am.
"Jenny is in charge and very aggressive, and is usually the first one out of the gate if they have to chase a villain or two. She's a tough cookie. Personally, I think I'm much more . . . goofy (laughs) . . . silly and more vulnerable. And less confrontational. She's very confrontational and ready to fight-not that I won't. I do fight for what I want, but she's very strong in her beliefs. I love playing her. Being on this show is like living a childhood fantasy: we're these action heroes and we get to win every battle . . . well, almost every battle. I love the fact that we are able to play these roles and be, in a sense, role models for children to just lead good lives and save the world."
As action heroes, the actresses not only found themselves surrounded by the high-tech toys of their profession, but entrenched in stunts and pyrotechnical effects. "A huge part of the show is second unit, and they're just incredible," enthuses Steel. "The stunt people make us look so great! I like to do my own punching, kicking and that type of thing because I've taken Tae Kwon Do before. When I have to punch or kick the Tae Kwon Do definitely helps. The background I have enables me to do different types of stunts. The stunt people do all the tough stuff with the bombs blowing up, or jumping off buildings, or when you have to jump out of a car or do a flip into a car."
Not quite as gung-ho as her co-star, Trageser throws only the obligatory punch. "That's kind of fun," she says, "but it really is unfamiliar territory to me. Even in theater, I rarely threw punches. There was a scene where Christine, the guest star and I were probably about 50 feet away from a planned explosion. I think it was more because of the paramedics who were prepared for fire, but they had us all nervous and moved the mat that we were going to be thrown onto another 20 feet away. The explosion went off and we hit the mat just fine, but we still felt the heat on the backs of our legs. It was scary."
This may be one of the few series where a pivotal player blithely shrugs off "blowing-up a bus the other day," but for all the technology inherent in the premise, the actors' compass is character. The undeveloped psyches, outlined in the Spring audition, were subsequently embellished with another dimension. "Once the writers get to know the actors," says Trageser, "they start writing for us specifically. Erica speaks in a sort of Erica-slang, and that's become much more comfortable to me. Before it was a little-not cliche-but a little bit everyday, ordinary. The writers warmed her up a lot. I think if somebody has such a hard side it's because they have such a weak underbelly. And they gave me some great episodes where I have to go there, which I think is very interesting for a character who's supposed to be so hardened."
"In the later shows, we definitely are able to bring parts of ourselves into the scenario," adds Steel. "And the writers are so wonderful: we are able to add a few lines, or say things that they didn't think of, because we can mold our own characters. The writers are very open to that. Of course, the directors will guide us, but that's why it's great to have a specific character to develop and work on. You can do a lot of research. I've been reading this book called War Fighting, which is about the Marine Corps and their fighting tactics. So you can bring a lot of that into the character, and add nuances that the director wouldn't be able to direct, simply because they don't have that knowledge. As an actor, you know what you can and cannot do."
Each actress was extricated from TKR's ensemble to singularly shine in the limelight. Trageser's favorite episode is "Inside Traitor", which reveals much of Erica's past-her husband, her vulnerability and concerns about men and money. Steel laughs with affection over "Angels in Chains," a promising moniker for "a real fun episode to look forward to. It features both Kathy and I, and we finally have a female bonding show which was really fun for both of us."
The players are similarly motivated by their rapport with the guest stars. Last year, TEAM KNIGHT RIDER created a precedent in series television by filming an episode in five days, every week, from May through October. Under such an intense schedule, the TKR troupe bonded with nary an ego in sight. "We get along fantastically!" beams Steel. "It's wonderful. We're quite lucky because we are working in such a confined space and in such a confined time: we are spending a lot of time with each other, and I think we're all very fortunate that we get along so well. I love Kathy. Someone had asked, 'Is there any competition?' I said, 'Well, on the show there's a competition between the two characters, but we actually get along great. 'We're really good friends. She makes me laugh. No one has played the diva role, and that's just such a blessing."
One thing that helps the cast relax is "the sing-along": older members opt for The Eagles and Burt Bacharach, while the youngsters go for Tori Amos and Alice in Chains. Stage vets Steel and Trageser add a little musical theater to the repertoire.
While TEAM KNIGHT RIDER finds its audience, Steel savored some professional latitude in another medium. Live-action CD games are occasionally cast with celebrities (e. g. Karen Allen, Tia Carrere, Tracy Scoggins, Sean Young, Amanda Donohoe, Stephanie Seymour, Julie Strain, Tanya Roberts, Morgan Fairchild): Steel plays a central character in RIVEN: MYST II, the sequel to the most successful CD-ROM game in history. Sales for its precursor, MYST, have been estimated between two and a half to three million units (but reviews for Part II have been less than charitable. ". . . Puzzles are so obtuse that you'll need to be clairvoyant to figure out the solution"--PC Gamer). Upon wrapping Steel's scenes, the game's designers invested another two years in postproduction, with their extensive venue of CGI effects.
"I play one of the connections to Catherine, which is who they're looking for in MYST," says Steel. "It was a lot of fun. We did a lot of green screen work, which gave me good practice for TKR. In fact, all of it was against green screen. It's pretty technical, and amazing for an actor because you're in this room and you're skimming your emotional work, but then you have to work in this completely green room. The cool part is when the special effects have been fit in and you see the finished product. While you're filming, you have an idea of what you're acting with. It's all explained in the script and you hope the director isn't joking around (laughs)."
Although some actors have professed a loathing for the green screen experience, Steel isn't one of them: "I think it's pretty much the job of the actor to have that type of imagination to really create your own world, so, even if there isn't anybody working with you, you can make it work. It's fun, actually."
The actresses have already tallied some feedback on their collaborative work in TEAM KNIGHT RIDER, and most of it has been very positive. But Steel had an odd encounter while communicating in Net chat rooms, those anonymous, mean-spirited electronic communes occupied by venomous viewers: "It's kind of funky, even in the rooms set up for the show. I've decided I'm not going to look at those anymore. Somebody said, 'I saw the first show and taped it. After I saw it one time, I didn't like it but I saw it four more times and I thought it had some potential. 'If I didn't like a show, I wouldn't watch it again. They were so involved with the show, that they watched it four more times just to get something out of it. It just makes you realize the type of person you're dealing with."
Steel and Trageser are acclimating themselves to weekly production schedules and celebrity. No problem: after all, they've developed an immunity to the Hollywood boy's club and its legacy of stereotypes: "When I first came to Hollywood," recalls Trageser, "I had so much classical theater training and performance experience. Coming to L.A. as a blue-eyed blonde, I would walk into the room, do the audition and their jaws would just hit the floor! It was like, 'Oh my God! She can act, too!' They just couldn't believe that I wasn't just a pretty face. At first I found that a little bit odd and insulting, then I thought, 'Well, obviously, the competition can't be that stiff if they're shocked," Trageser laughs easily. "This is the toughest business," she continues. "Anytime that anyone says they want to get into acting, I say, 'If there's anything else you like to do, you should try that first. 'It's tough and it's not fair. It doesn't matter how hard you work, it's just timing. There are so many roles you want and don't get that you have to have a water-off-a-duck's back attitude, because there will always be something else."
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