Just as the presence of Jake Sisko helped humanize Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so too did the arrival of Sisko’s mother, Sarah, spectral and possessed though she may have been for the most part. Deborah Lacey played Sarah in five seventh-season DS9 episodes – “Image in the Sand,” “Shadows and Symbols,” “Penumbra,” “Til Death Do Us Part” and the series finale, “What You Leave Behind” – and she did lovely work bringing a complex character to life. More recently, Lacey delivered touching performances on Mad Men in the recurring role of Carla, the Drapers’ housekeeper. StarTrek.com chatted with Lacey last week, discussing DS9 and Mad Men, and everything in between, as well as her upcoming appearance at Star Trek Las Vegas, which will be held August 2-6 at the Rio Suites. Here’s what she had to say…
Catch everyone up. Where do you live and what are you working on at the moment?
I live in the Pasadena area of California. Since DS9 I’ve recurred on Mad Men as Carla, the Drapers’ housekeeper, for the first four seasons. I recurred for two seasons on The Fosters as Mary, an adoption attorney, and have done many other episodics. I also had a cameo in the feature film, Straight Outta Compton, and I co-starred opposite Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. I’ve also been starring as the lead actress in several short films that have been seen around the country in film festivals. And I’m back in the theater now.
What are you up to when you’re not acting?
My day usually starts with some form of exercise. I eat protein in the morning and head to the gym for Yoga and/or equipment exercise, or I take a two-mile walk around my neighborhood. I enjoy exercise. I’m a big fan of Turner Classic Movies; the old movies are my acting classes. I also enjoy bowling, political debates, but only if they’re civil. I love going to movies, the theater, and I’m a cook. And I do enjoy social media.
If someone reads this, isn’t aware of your previous work and wants to check it out, what are some of your performances in films and shows that you’re proudest of?
I’m definitely proud of my work as Carla on Mad Men, The Closer, The Gregory Hines Show, The Five Heartbeats feature film. I had fun with my character on Bones, and I’m proud of my very first starring role opposite Harry Hamlin and Beah Richards in the HBO series The Hitchhiker. There are so many others. I’m very proud of the film I shot on location in Ghana, West Africa in 1989… African Timber, about the smuggling of the most expensive wood in the world, mahogany. I played an African heiress.
Your Twitter introduction references The Miki Howard Story. What’s that about? Whom do you play? What’s happening with the film?
This a TV movie for TVOne that tells the inspiring story of R&B singer Miki Howard and her struggle to overcome her battles with drug addiction, domestic violence. and a mother who kicked her out at 16. That’s when she comes to stay with my character, Tressie, who takes her in and helps her with her two boys. The movie can be seen OnDemand.
How familiar, or not, were you with Star Trek in general and DS9 specifically when the opportunity to play Sarah Sisko came along?
I was familiar with Star Trek. I had been watching since The Original Series. I watched some TNG as well, and I watched DS9, too. I was actually very excited to see Avery Brooks starring in it, and I really wanted to work with him. I had been auditioning for other roles on other Star Treks, so when this role of Sarah Sisko came along, the producers were well aware of me. I believe they had me in mind for her because at my audition I remember one of the producers said to me, “I can’t believe you’re the Sisko’s mom.” I’m still not sure why he said that, though, but I was flattered and it made me feel I had the part.
What did they tell you about the role, her backstory? And did you know it would be recurring?
They told me Sarah, the Prophet, had taken the human body of Benjamin’s mother, Sarah, in order to make him the Sisko, to give a story as to why he was chosen to be the leader of a people he was not a part of. They told me Sarah was linear. I did know there would be other episodes, but not how many.
We first saw you in “Image in the Sand.” How did they shoot that bit with your face in the sand? And what was it like for you to see that striking image?
This experience was so exciting for me. There was a clay mask made of my face. I had to go to the makeup department at Paramount and sit in a chair with my hair covered, eyes closed and straws through my nose so I could breathe. They placed the clay over my face and I sat for a little while until it hardened. I don’t think it was very long. They made two of them. The masks were clay colored, so they had to apply makeup to match my skin tone and makeup for masks to make them look like my face. They looked like a sculpture of my face… pretty amazing. I still have one of two that were made. These masks were used to create the special effect of seeing my face appear in the sand. So, on a sound stage on the lot, they made a medium sandbox and they first filmed the masks in the sandbox. They had both masks to work with where my eyes were closed. After they shot the mask in the sand, I was then asked to lay down face up in the sandbox, and they shot my face in a very tight closeup, just to get my eyes to open. So, I did a few takes of opening my eyes, with the direction that I was opening them to speak for the first time. So, this is the amazing work of the special effects (team), who then interchanged the opening of my eyes with the shots of the masks in the sand to make it look like there was a face in the sand that opened its eyes. Pretty cool. I was blown away when I saw it. It felt so real, and it really helped set me up for the performance of a celestial being. I loved it, and it was spooky at the same time. The masks look exactly like me, like seeing myself in a quiet peace.
You had to play Sarah as both ethereal and human, there and not there. How did you wrap your head around that and then bring her to life when the camera rolled?
Well, it helped that I had played a spirit being before on Roc, the live sitcom on Fox starring Charles Dutton. So, I knew how to play feeling distant from other people. It’s a feeling of living in outer space, of knowing you’re not a part of this existence, feeling you’re in a better place even, removed from their world. I was directed to play Sarah in the beginning as “searching for words,” not really sure of the words. So, it’s a little “choppy.” That’s what I tried to do. I relied on that direction, and searched for communication. I imagined what it would be like if I struggled to communicate in a foreign language and only had my senses to work with. You’d find a way to express yourself.
How did you enjoy working with Avery Brooks?
Wow. Just wow. I don’t have a better word. He is, hands down, the best actor I’ve ever worked with. And I’m pretty proud of the actors I’ve starred with. Avery is a generous actor. He cares so much about the art of performance. He’s intense, so you can’t help but feel engulfed by him. He makes you perform at sis level. So, he definitely made me a better actor. I absolutely adore him. Every moment in his presence was like a gift, the gift of working with a master thespian. I’ll never forget it.
We’ll talk about the series finale in a moment, but what do you recall most vividly about making the episodes “Shadows and Symbols,” “Penumbra” and “Til Death Do Us Part”?
“Shadows and Symbols was awesome.” My first scenes with Avery, we had so much fun. It started when we met in the makeup trailer. He was so funny and he was so kind to me. We talked about Sarah and the God versus mother relationship I had in store for me, and he really helped me understand the Prophets. I remember being determined that I would perform with him on his level, so I focused on everything he had to say, absorbing it. When we got on set there was a natural rhythm, a dance that seemed to be created between us. I remember the director saying that and how much he liked it. I remember how intense Avery was. I remember how profound some of my dialogue was, how it stuck with me, how it still sticks to me today, that line that says because there could be no one else so powerful.
“Penumbra” was a lot of fun too, I remember being given the note to search for the words because they wouldn’t come very easily, and this is the episode where I was playing being present but distant, hovering like a spirit being and yet being human enough to try and connect. I used my voice to sound far away and I remember Avery reminding me that I was a god, so nothing he could say could intimidate me. We were dancing again. It came so natural, and then Sarah started showing signs of attachment, of love for her son, and she says, “You are a part of me.” I remember feeling so touched by those words. I loved that I got to touch him to show that affection, how our mother and son bond was beginning to happen. I remember feeling the shift in emotions happening for Sarah.
“Til Death Do Us Part” was a power episode for me. I remember focusing on the god I was in trying to control Sisko, trying to warn him not to go against me, this feeling of chastising my son, protecting him from danger. It was a haunting feeling, but then giving in to him because she was trying to understand but still very concerned. Another one of favorite lines was in this episode, which is, “Be careful, my son…” There were tears in my eyes and I was very moved when I grabbed his face and put it to my chest.
Sarah is a key part of the end, for now, of Sisko’s journey in “What You Leave Behind.” How pleased were you to figure in that on such an important, emotional level?
I’m very pleased that Sisko made it through his journey to complete his destiny and found his mother again. By that episode, I was feeling Sarah Sisko had made that connection of mother and son, and the bond was sealed. She’s proud of her son, as any mother would be. It was a journey of love. They found each other, and I thought it was great she wanted him with her.
If you could have had one more scene as Sarah, what would you like for it to have been? What would you have want to learn about her and/or her relationship with her son?
Hmmm… I would have liked to see her as the human Sarah, the wife, the mother. I would have loved to work with Brock Peters and Cirroc Lofton. Maybe some kind of flashback before the Prophet took over that would show Sisko’s memories of his mom. And it would’ve been pretty cool to see Sarah interact with her grandson, just what she looked like being a human being. Also, how she loved him (Benjamin) as a child, where the nurturing began. I’m sure she loved him then, and that memory is shared between them. So, they have it to rely on. That’s what first comes to mind.
You will be at Star Trek Las Vegas in August. How many conventions have you done in the past, and how eager are you to meet the fans and share your memories of DS9?
Yes, I’ll be there, and this is the very first time I’ve been asked to join in, my first Star Trek convention. I’m over-the-moon excited to be there. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the fans and sharing stories and memories. I can’t wait. This is definitely one of the highlights of my career, another wow. Just hearing the question sends chills through me. I’m honored. I’m proud. I’m amazed. I’m soooo grateful. It means a lot to me because I’ve always believed in what Star Trek stands for. For me, I always saw stories and characters that were about tolerance of differences, of struggles of human dignity and human rights, of leadership, of values that uplift and inspire, of overcoming controversies with mutual resolve, and a whole lot of fun and laughter. This is the legacy of Star Trek for me, and why it’s such a phenomenon, because it is a legacy of inclusion.
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