Gina Torres on Playing Strong Women

Gina Torres Interview - Suits, Firefly, and Strong Characters
Gina Torres as Jessica Pearson in ‘Suits’ (Photo by: Nigel Parry / USA Network)

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Of all the strong women she’s played throughout her career, actress Gina Torres stated that she didn’t choose these roles. “I think they choose me. As an actor, you get what you can. You audition and hope for the best. Somewhere along the line – or as it would seem, all the way down the line – these fantastic, dynamic, powerful women have chosen me to be their vessel and I’m happy to oblige,” said Torres, laughing.

Currently, Torres – who’s married to actor Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne, best known as Morpheus in The Matrix film franchise – plays high-powered attorney Jessica Pearson on the legal drama Suits, which returned for its fifth season late last month.

“The show in and of itself in its entirety was a great premise, an opportunity to see something we haven’t quite seen yet – and I watch a lot of stuff. Here was this woman who’s the ringmaster of all these varied and strong personalities – that was very appealing,” said Torres. “Jessica at the start of Season 5 is still very much large and in charge. As always in all seasons, there’s always someone who wants to knock her down. A new sparring partner is revealed, I will say. There’s a lot going on. All of our characters – the population of (law firm) Pearson Specter Litt – they’re all going through some things.”

She also has a recurring role on the NBC series Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs movies based on the best-selling novels by Thomas Harris. Torres and her husband play a married couple named Jack and Bella Crawford. For them to be playing a married couple isn’t much of a stretch.

“Laurence had already been cast as Jack. He’s worked with one the producers before who was more than thrilled he was available and willing to come onto the show. I had done Pushing Daisies with Bryan (Fuller). Hannibal shoots in Toronto, Suits shoots in Toronto, (the creators) figured while I’m in town, they asked, ‘How would you feel about this?’ I had a chat with Bryan about what it entails, who this character was, and it just worked out – it seemed to be perfect. A perfect fit. It was one of those circumstances where the stars aligned and everything worked out; it’s not always that way,” explained Torres.

A New York City native, Torres is a mezzo soprano with classical opera training. She broke into acting doing guest-starring roles on Law & Order and NYPD Blue in the early 1990s and appeared on the soap opera One Life to Live. She eventually segued her way into genre shows – Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and La Femme Nikita. She won an ALMA Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Helen Carter, alias Hel, on the syndicated sci-fi series Cleopatra 2025. From there, she played Anna Espinosa, an espionage agent for clandestine criminal organization Prophet 5 on the spy drama Alias.

Gina Torres Interview
Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres (Photo Credit: Fox)

In 2002, Torres landed the role for which she’s most famous: Zoe Washburne on the short-lived cult favorite series Firefly. Created by Joss Whedon (writer/director of Avengers: Age of Ultron, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Firefly was a Western set in outer space circa the 26th century where Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Castle) commanded a starship called Serenity, the crew of which were several outsiders living on the fringes of space. Mal and Zoe are veteran Independents, more commonly called “Browncoats,” of the Unification War, an interstellar civil war fought by the outlying worlds against a governing body called the Alliance for independence. Even though the Browncoats were on the losing side, they maintain the stance that they were on the right side. Zoe is married to Hoban Washburne, alias Wash (Alan Tudyk, Frozen, Big Hero 6), the pilot of Serenity.

“There wasn’t a script when I auditioned for Zoe; it was an outline. I remember thinking this could be a very interesting dynamic: a die-hard soldier who’s loyal to her captain yet she’s married to the pilot – how does that work? When it all came together and I got the part… when I started working with Joss and the writers and all these wonderful actors, I was looking forward to exploring that for a period of time,” Torres said, laughing. “I had no idea I wasn’t gonna get that chance.”

Torres follows the Serenity comics published by Dark Horse, which occurs after the movie. In fact, Zoe gets the spotlight in Serenity: Leaves on the Wind.

“The comic books have been great,” she said. “The comic books have taken off and really have continued to give these characters a life.”

Asked if she plans on penning any Serenity comics the way some of her fellow Whedon alumni Juliet Landau and James Marsters have written comics about their respective characters, Torres said no. “I’ve been in the Jessica Pearson world for a while now,” said Torres. “Firefly was a long time ago.”

When FOX originally aired Firefly in September 2002, the episodes were aired out of order (most notably, the 2-hour pilot aired last). Due to low ratings, it was cancelled in December 2002 after 11 of the 14 completed episodes airing. However, it has a strong and vocal cult following.
Coupled with strong DVD sales (where fans got to see the show in its proper chronological order), fans – called Browncoats – united on the Internet. That combined with Whedon’s pitch to sell Firefly as a movie gave birth to 2005’s Serenity. Despite positive word of mouth and critical acclaim, Serenity did poorly at the box office, making $25.2 million. Still, Serenity did well on DVD, only serving to strengthen its cult following even more.

Torres can’t explain why Firefly/Serenity has such staying power after 13 years.

“I honestly don’t know. It is one of those wonderful examples of lightning in a bottle where everything really came together at a time to create this wonderful universe of people, old and new, science-fiction and Western – (they even had) a new way of speaking – it just gave everyone such a strong sense of family,” she postulated. “I like to say that very often the family you choose can be more significant in your life that the family you’re born in. That was the running theme for us. We chose each other and we stayed together through impossible circumstances. There were a lot of us – there was somebody for everyone to find themselves reflected in.”

Torres recently filmed her role in Con Man, an upcoming web-series created by Tudyk, but wouldn’t get into specifics. Con Man reunites the majority of the Firefly/Serenity cast, including Torres, Tudyk, Fillion, Sean Maher, as well as other Whedon alumni Amy Acker, Seth Green, and Felicia Day.

It’s about a washed-up actor named Wray Nerely (Tudyk), whose 15 minutes of fame evaporated after the sci-fi series Spectrum – where he played pilot Cash Wayne – was cancelled. His co-star Jack Moore (Fillion), who played Capt. Rakker on Spectrum, went on to mega-stardom – something Wray envies. The only way Wray makes his living is going to comic book and science-fiction conventions. Spectrum is an obvious nod to Firefly.

Con Man may indeed be the closest thing to these actors reuniting and reprising their Firefly/Serenity roles. As for an eagerly-awaited continuation of the cult hit, Torres stated there’s currently no plans she’s aware of, but would definitely be up for playing Zoe again.

“I can’t say that (Joss) has reached out to us…We’re all game and how that realizes itself and how that ends up on screen, that’s all on his head,” said Torres. “I don’t know what’s going on in there – there’s so much going on in there; he is capable of doing so many things and telling so many stories. I can’t imagine him moving forward or backwards, depending on how you think of it, with a Firefly reunion. I know this is something that’s dear to our hearts. If my phone rings, that would be great, but I can’t say whether it’s going to or not.”

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