Rachel Skarsten is not the type of actress that demands champagne served with bendy straws (so as not to smudge her lipstick), or worse, bottled alkaline water. The Toronto-raised actress is more the type to bring her own coffee to set, along with a smoothie for later, which she ultimately forgets in the fridge because the bagels from the morning breakfast platter, are too tempting not to tuck into again come lunch.
Not quite what one expects judging from appearances alone. The picture of a Hitchcock blonde, Skarsten gracefully eases into roles that have her playing the desirably untouchable; coolly controlled characters like the glacial beauty, Andrea, from this year’s blockbuster hit, Fifty Shades of Grey. After no more than five minutes of conversation with the actress though, it’s obvious that while she would be cast perfectly in a remake of the The Birds, as a person herself, there’s more Pollyanna in her than the aloof sophistication preferred by the Master of Suspense.
Skarsten is not just down-to-earth for an actress, she is down-to-earth full stop. Like the best friend you met in kindergarten and continue to travel across the continent to visit annually, chatting to Skarsten has the effect of transporting one to a sleepover, where playing Girl Talk is next on the evening’s agenda. She’s the type of person that when asked about celebrity culture and her rising star, makes statements like: “Social media is so funny…I wish I was as a cool as the Rachel Skarsten on Instagram.” Or, casually segues the conversation into a gush about her younger brother’s philanthropic endeavors.
She’s disarming, and it’s genuine. “I really truly just want to be known for kindness,” she shares over a glass of ice tea at a café in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. Grounding the 30-year-old actress is her past experience in the business. “I think at the end of the day, this job—as great as it is…and I know from experience because I have had this happen to me—it can be taken away in an instant. And while it is so wonderful, and I feel so incredibly humbled and blessed to be a part of it, it’s not real life. At the end of the day, you have yourself and the people you have come in contact with.”
Skarsten has been immersed in the arts since she was a child, training with Canada’s Royal Academy of Dance before she began acting. Her onscreen career started at the young age of twelve, eventually leading Skarsten to move from Toronto to Los Angeles when 16-years-old. As she shares, it was these early years in the business that taught her the lessons she holds onto firmly today.
Still a teenager when her Hollywood break came knocking, Skarsten landed a series lead on Birds of Prey—a Batman spinoff for the now defunct WB Television Network—in 2002. Starring Ashley Scott (UnREAL), Mia Sara of Ferris Bueller fame and Criminal Minds cast member, Shemar Moore (not to mention notable guest stars, including a young Aaron Paul and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, as the voice of the Joker), the show’s premiere hit record numbers for the network, but ultimately was not renewed due to a drop in viewership.
After Birds of Prey’s cancellation, the actress’s career slowed, and she would eventually put acting on the back burner to enroll at Canada’s prestigious Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. (And, notably not in a I’m-a-celebrity-going-back-to-school sort of way, but in an Ontario-scholar-am-fluent-in-Norwegian-and-play-AA-hockey sort of way.) Flash forward past the actress receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Classical History, and shortly thereafter embarking on a backpacking journey across Europe, and we come to in and around the time of Skarsten’s return to Hollywood…by way of the North.
Following guest appearances on Canadian shows, including Flashpoint and Republic of Doyle, Skarsten joined the cast of Showcase’s acclaimed Lost Girl (aired on Syfy in the U.S.) in its third season back in 2013. And, as those fickle acting gods would have it, it would be this role, as the bounty hunter Tamsin, on a homegrown series—one produced with the participation of the Canadian Media Fund created by the Government of Canada and winner of the Fan Choice Award for Favourite Canadian Show at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards—that would ultimately result in Skarsten getting stopped in the streets of Los Angeles, where she lives when not filming in Toronto. As for her celebrity status at home, that’s there too, it’s just more…well, Canadian.
“I get recognized all the time in the States for Lost Girl. Rarely ever do I get recognized in Canada,” starts the actress. “Now, does that mean people don’t recognize me? Absolutely not; it just means they are way too polite to say anything to me. And I love it so much…although, I would rather they just come up to me because often times people will kind of be looking at me, and I’m like, “shit, do I have something on my face?”
The love to hate fixture on Lost Girl up until its highly anticipated series finale, aired just last month, Skarsten is moving on to a new project that takes her out of the realm of science fiction and into period drama, while keeping her as audiences’s steady going love to hate character.
Come October, audiences of the hit CW Network series Reign, will meet its new Queen and rival to show lead Adelaide Kane’s Mary Queen of Scots. In the role of Queen Elizabeth I’s, Skarsten jumps into a narrative that has been unfurling since day one of the series: Elizabeth’s battle against Mary to claim the English throne. Cue the fan freak out.
“This is the second time now that I have joined a show in its third season, so I’m no secret to the third season entrance,” laughs Skarsten, who empathizes with feeling invested in a series and its characters. “I’m crazy too when someone joins a show that I really love. I’m like: ‘Who are you? Get off my screen!’” Skarsten anticipates that some audience members may not feel warm and fuzzy towards her character at the beginning, but the mischievous smile on her face as she explains this, suggests that there is an amusing challenge in that for her as an actress. “I think that they have written Elizabeth as a character that obviously is a nemesis to Mary, who is like a heroine. So, one of the things that Elizabeth does is she has to be unlikable. Those are always interesting characters to play…I hope some people don’t like me.”
Having already made a teaser appearance on the show at the end of the second season, anticipation surrounding Skarsten’s and her part in the upcoming season—premiering October 9th—is high. With induction into the CW being a golden ticket to the front of the line for the train headed towards young Hollywood, an increase in fan attention is an inevitable development in Skarsten’s foreseeable future. Come October, even polite Canadians may not be able to suppress their urge to ask for a selfie with the actress.
Currently in production for Reign, Skarsten takes a break from her hectic filming schedule to talk about the show, celebrity culture and what it means to be a Canadian actress straddling the 49th Parallel.
So, let’s start by talking about “Reign.” The introduction of Elizabeth has been a long time coming, fans are excited! You must be too, no?
I am! Obviously playing Elizabeth on any show or film in any capacity is a big responsibility because she was just this incredibly vivacious, powerful, strong leader, and you want to do that justice. I think it was even more special to be that in the time that she was, because she was up against so many odds to have that position and be a woman.
It’s true, she was fighting against a lot of prejudices. Were you already familiar with “Reign,” or have you had to do a bit of binge watching to get all caught up with the storyline?
I watched all forty-four episodes before I started filming because I wanted to know what was going on! Literally, I would be watching the show, and my friends would call me because they hadn’t seen me in two weeks, and I would be like, “I can’t talk to you, I’m watching Reign, bye.” I looked like a feral child coming out of my bed!
Since you’ve watched every episode, you’ve probably noticed how much your character has been mentioned in the show already? No pressure there, right?
I started to get really nervous because they talked about Elizabeth a lot! It was like “Elizabeth this, Elizabeth that and what about Elizabeth.” And I thought, oh my goodness, this is going to be really nerve-racking.
At least you have some experience with coming on later in a series. You joined “Lost Girl” in Season 3, interestingly enough, also as a character that fans loved to hate. I’m guessing it will be a bit like that this time around with Elizabeth too, do you think?
Oh yeah! Tamsin was crazy. I loved her. Growing up, I would say, “crazy is just part of my charm.” And I think that crazy is part of Tamsin’s charm as well. But yeah, people love to hate her. I seem to play these redeemable villainous characters…the redeemable bitch. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know what that says about me. Everyone is like “Oh Rachel…but she’s redeemable.” (Laughing.) I like those characters; I think they’re more true to real life.
On that note, will “Reign” stay fairly close to Elizabeth’s true life history? There’s definitely potential for some interesting drama there; she led quite the life.
It’s so funny because people are always like, “can you tell me anything about the show?” And I’m like, “you can just Wikipedia it.” I caught off her head, that’s what happens; so I win. (Laughing.) Adelaide and I joke about it, like “it’s just a matter of time before I…”
Break out the guillotine? It’s great for tension, you know what’s coming.
At least with this show I know that I’m sort of the last man standing, unless I completely screw it up. If I die on the show, it’s pretty much because I was terrible.
Well we don’t predict that happening! Besides, Elizabeth is too interesting a character to write out of history. She was a very cunning and dynamic women and ruler, while also so young.
She’s caught in a place that I think all women find themselves in their early teens on through their mid-twenties, where you’re growing into your adult self, but you still carry with you so much of that child that you’ve just sort of grown out of being. We see Elizabeth, who’s in this position of extreme power, but also very vulnerable; her position sort of mirrors her life.
That’s a delicate stage. It’s almost like being two different people.
Yeah. Some of the decisions she makes, some of the things that she says and the way she handles herself is incredibly mature, and then in other ways—like how she is with her love interest, Dudley—she’s just a girl. She’s madly in love with him, yet they will never be able to be together. So there is sort of this dichotomy, which I can really relate to…having been twenty-four, and having been completely insane. (Laughing.)
You brought up Dudley, Elizabeth’s main love interest, romance is a big part of “Reign,” which makes your character especially interesting as the Virgin Queen who never married. Can we expect some secret trysts to get thrown your character’s way this season?
Yes, I have a lovely co-star, Charlie Carrick. He’s just the absolute best. He was a Rising Star at TIFF last year. It will be interesting to see how people react to his character, because obviously historically he’s married, and he is married in the show. At the end of the day, he’s cheating on his wife.
And that makes Elizabeth harder to like as well.
The challenge is to make her likeable despite that, and to make people root for their love story.
It’s difficult when you’re someone like a royal, in a position that often has people forgetting that you have emotions like a regular person. Did you sense that struggle as you were getting to know Elizabeth as a character?
It’s so funny because I’ve become so intimate with Elizabeth now. She very much has her public and private persona, and I can relate to that because as an actor, you have to have your public and private persona.
It’ll be interesting to see how the show plays out the private side of Elizabeth’s history. What aspect of her life are you looking forward to exploring?
Everyone talks about Elizabeth, and talks about what kind of character she was. She was this leader, but…what people don’t think about is what she was like when she was on her own—behind closed doors. She was afraid, she was confused, she was in love, and all of those things…I think that is what I’m most excited to play.
It’s a very complex role because her personality does have so many layers and she is such a strong female figure.
One hundred percent. I would like to think of myself as a feminist…I like the idea of being a trailblazer in a role that is typically meant for a man, or, vice versa, men in female jobs. Elizabeth is definitely one of the earlier feminists, but I think that we see more of the intimate side of that.
How do you mean?
I think that some women do wake up and think, I’m going to be the face of this cause or I’m going to be the leader of feminism, and other women just find themselves in that position. I think that was sort of like Elizabeth. I don’t think she set out to be who she was, she did what she needed to…to follow her heart and to survive in that time, and out of it came this amazing story and character.
It’s true. Mary is also a very strong woman and leader, and history has the two pitted against each other. How have you come to understand the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary?
Elizabeth goes back and forward between hating Mary and respecting her, loving her because they are family and they are both a similar age, thrust into a similar position by different circumstances. I think even nowadays, when I read an article about an actress struggling with some sort of gender equality issue, or being put in a position to have nudity where their male counterparts don’t, and being taken advantage of for that, even if they are my competition as an actor, there is this incredible empathy that I feel for them. You root for them. And, so I think Elizabeth is very conflicted in terms or her relationship with Mary. Hopefully we will have some seasons to figure that out.
Here’s hoping! After you and Adelaide are finished pretend hating each other on set, do you two hangout much?
Adelaide was so wonderful when it was announced that I got the part. It was not five minutes before I got a DM on Twitter welcoming me to the show. It’s a little bit frustrating now because the show basically films for eight days, and she films for four and I film for the other four; it’s like English court, French court. And so, she is like, “hey, I’m off want to hang out,” but I’m working. So yeah, we never really get to see each other. (Laughing.) Although, on the weekends we do! Yesterday we went to Pet Value together to get stuff for our pets. We’re just wild and crazy like that. (Laughing.)
What about the rest of the cast? Do you hangout much?
Yeah, actually, this is one of the most family-like casts I have ever been with.
When talking about the cast, I have to ask about Megan Follows. She’s such an incredible actress, on stage and in film and television. And then there’s of course, “Anne of Green Gables.” Were you already a fan of hers?
I mean, Megan’s reputation precedes itself, everyone knows who she is. I actually became a huge Megan fan when I watched the show, and she is hands down my favorite character. I’m obsessed with her on the show! I find it hard actually not to just want to copy her on the show. (Laughing.) She’s so good…she’s so good at playing bad, you know? You literally root for her. She’s brilliant in real life as well.
I like her look on the show too, it’s austere, but still feminine. All the fashion on “Reign” is amazing. It straddles the line between being period appropriate and modern, well. I mean, some of the outfits you could almost wear out to a red carpet event today…minus the crown. Don’t you think?
That’s what Meredith, the head costume designer, wanted. She wanted Reign to feel like if you caught these people on a Tuesday afternoon. So not when they were in their full formal garb, more when they were just around the castles with each other, and I love that. Today actually, I tried on a coat inspired by the current Versace runway, mixed with inspiration from a Spanish princess that was a fashionista. She had this portrait of her, and she melded the two together. The jacket that she made for me was this perfect combination of the two.
It must be so fun playing dress up like that.
I love to see all the pieces! It is so intentional, each character has a color palette and Meredith sort of stays in that theme, so that you recognize the character, even just by the colour that they’re wearing.
That’s interesting, I’m going to watch out for that.
Yes! Adelaide wears a lot of Snow White colors, like red, white, black. I wear gold, Catherine wears a lot of black.
So gold, huh? How very royal!
As a blonde, when she was like, “you’re going to wear a lot of gold,” I was like “great, I’m going to look like shit.” But I forgot that I’m actually a redhead in the show, so it looks amazing! (Laughing.) I’m going to wear one of those dresses for my wedding someday.
In your everyday life, what’s your personal style like? Would you say your fashion sense is girly, laid-back, more edgy?
Pretty much like this. [The actress is wearing a white t-shirt maxi dress.] My favorite outfit, on a girl or guy is I think what you’re most comfy when wearing: a t-shirt and beat up jeans. I love that look. I think it’s timeless. It was great in the ‘80s, ‘90s and now. That is very much my style. One of my girlfriends actually, who has great style, she describes mine as classic with a twist. Very classic all-American clothing, but then with something very funky.
A twist here and there is good.
I also like to change my style depending on where I am. Right now I’m living in Parkdale, so I find myself pretty hipster. It’s great; I bring out all my plaid! (Laughing.) Whereas, when I was in New York, I was much more sort of J.Crew, Ralph Lauren. To me, I think personal style doesn’t have to mean that you have one look that defines you. I think personal style can be sprinkled over different types of clothing, different looks and different designers.
What about the red carpet? Are you already a pro?
The red carpet is my worst nightmare. I always say, a film camera, no problem, but a still camera, I just freeze up. It’s the oddest thing because when you think about my job, I literally stand in front of eighty to a hundred people, depending on how big the crew and cast is that day. I play act with a grown male or female, and I can be hysterically bawling or having a love scene, and I do it all in front of these people. Yet when it comes to standing still and smiling on a red carpet…no.
It’s tough. I think the whole red carpet thing comes naturally to a rare few people. Does it ever feel difficult to maintain a positive body image with all the pressure to look like the “perfect” star?
Absolutely. And I’m also tall, so you know I can have a similar body type to someone else, but because I’m 5”10, only if I stopped eating would I be a size 0. Truthfully playing hockey saved me, because I was more concerned with being strong, than I was being skinny.
I feel like all that sort of stuff is a bit better in Canada though, would you agree? Little less paparazzi over here than in places like the U.S. and Britain?
Oh, one hundred percent.
What do you think of the way the Canadian media cover its own? In general, there really isn’t too much that’s comparable to the way say the U.S. covers their celebrities.
To me it is sort of a double edged sword. I think as an actor…that is all part of the machine that makes the industry. While I think that there is a line that should not be crossed, to get into this business and be upset about the fact that that is a part of it, I mean…you can’t be. It would be like the royal family saying they don’t want anyone visiting Buckingham Palace. People get a little curious. I think it just takes proper management. Having said that, I’m not a Kardashian, so I don’t know. (Laughing) And, while it’s so great being in Canada—having no one really bother you, no cameras following you around—we also don’t feed into our own industry, in that sense.
So a little more attention on our own stars wouldn’t hurt, you mean?
I think we can kind of take a page from Australia or the UK or the States, where they are interested in their own celebrities, and what they are doing.
What about celebrity culture and fandom in general, would you say it has gotten better or worse with the advent of social media? In some ways, I guess you can control the conversation more now through your own channels.
I think it is much easier to control your image, but not for the better necessarily. Twitter I tolerate, Instagram I actually really love because I love taking pictures; it’s kind of an artistic creative outlet. Twitter is sort of the annoying younger brother that has to hangout with Instagram. [Laughing.] A lot of people feel celebrities are too accessible, and that you know too much about them as people. I would agree with that to a certain extent. But, we knew a lot about Grace Kelly and her life, and that—in so many ways—overshadowed her as a film actress. But, it didn’t change my love for her.
I think the thing is too, social media doesn’t really give a realistic picture of a person’s life, and people forget that.
I think people put forth this image, and I’m guilty of it to. You don’t know about the shitty days or when an actor has been rejected for a part.
You only see the good stuff. The enviable stuff.
I actually took a video and put it up because I had a huge pimple. Oh! You know that try to make yourself look skinny app? I tried it. I think I did it wrong. It looked really weird.
Yeah, I think that app is weird. Have you ever been on the receiving end of any memorable mean tweets, or have you managed to dodge those?
I mean my fans are actually really lovely. I rarely have anyone make rude comments. I actually once had a YouTube video made, someone had digitally put poop on my eye. Yup! That is totally true. (Laughing.) And that actually really hurt my feelings. And now it’s funny, I kind of admire how much work that must have taken for someone to digitally put poop on my eye.
I can’t believe someone digitally put poop on your eye! Just back to the industry, is it important to you to work on Canadian shows and films, in addition to nurturing your career in Hollywood? Is that choice something your especially conscious of?
I wish I could say it was all on purpose. I mean, I love filming here, I love the crews and I love the people, but, I also love adventure and love travelling. That’s one of the reasons I signed up for this crazy life. I’m in love with that part of it, filming in different locations, you know?
I know you say it hasn’t quite all been on purpose, but do you think down the road, you will still seek out Canadian projects?
Oh, yeah! Sometimes I fantasize about if you brought all the amazing Canadian actors who have left back to Canada, and they all just made movies here, how great the Canadian industry would be. I think it is beaming with talent here, and we need to embrace that a little bit more and celebrate it, which is why things like TIFF are so great. That’s one of the reason I really admire an actress like Sarah Gadon, who has worked really hard to maintain her career in Canada. I do think it is becoming possible, in a way that it would have never been before.
Styling by Matthew Chow | Makeup & Hair by Anna Barseghian