The actor: Morena Baccarin has a knack—and a look—for playing otherworldly characters, whether she’s leading an invasion on Earth or a regime in some far-flung corner of the Milky Way. She’s also been the voice of The Flash’s A.I. and one of DC Comics’ most notorious assassins. Baccarin shines just as powerfully in more down-to-Earth roles, including her Emmy-nominated turn as Jessica Brody on Homeland. But even with all of her zipping back and forth between comic-book universes, including a seasons-long arc on Gotham, Baccarin is probably still best known for her work as the regal but warm Inara Serra on Firefly. So when The A.V. Club had a chance to speak with Baccarin, we of course asked her about one of the most ardent fandoms in the ’verse, her forays into zealotry on TV, and being a newly minted romantic comedy lead.
The A.V. Club: Romantic comedy is a genre you haven’t explored that much, so what drew you to Ode To Joy?
Morena Baccarin: It was light, it was fun—a great actor, Martin Freeman, and director [Jason Winer] involved. I loved the character: this person who has had so much suffering in her life, but has such a joy for life, and is just this force of nature. At the same time, she’s vulnerable to what we’re all vulnerable to: our insecurities, not knowing how to figure out our relationships and our lives. She’s kind of a hot mess. It was very real, very grounded, and just really funny. I thought it would a really fun character to try to do. That scene in the library was what hooked me.
AVC: You might not have appeared in too many rom-coms, but do you have a favorite?
AVC: Jumping from your most recent role to your first, I’m wondering if you remember anything from being in Perfume.
MB: Oh, my god. Wow, you’re going back. Yes, I do! I remember that I learned for the first time what my mark was on the floor, where to stand. [Laughs.] I was just watching all those amazing actors like a hawk, trying to get any information—I’d never acted before, I’d never stepped foot on a film set or a TV set or anything. I’d come straight from a conservatory training theatre school where they taught you none of that stuff. So it was trial by fire. I feel like I learned the technical aspects of what being on a film set was like.
AVC: What is the most frequently asked question you get about your time on Firefly?
MB: “Is it coming back?” [Laughs.]
AVC: How does it feel to have been part of something that people still hold so dear all these years later?
MB: It’s kind of amazing. I never expected it in a million years. Obviously, we were a little show that got canceled. I loved working on that—I’m still really good friends with everybody on the show. It was my first TV experience. It was so lovely, and it really set the bar for everything else I did. I am really humbled by the intensity of the fans when it comes to the show. It still surprises me.
AVC: If you got a green light and the schedules worked out, would you be interested in a revival or sequel? And what would you like to see Inara doing in that future—where would you like to see her at in her life?
MB: That’s a good question. She’s just so tortured. I’d really like her to be a little bit happy. [Laughs.] Maybe she’d find a way. But her relationship with Mal is so contingent on both of them being slightly unhappy, so I don’t know that they’ll ever be happy. Would I be interested? Sure. I’m open but scared—we did something great, so why touch it? And we’re all older and different and I don’t know if you get that kind of mojo back again.
AVC: And you’ve already revisited it to some extent with the movie in 2005.
MB: Yeah, exactly.
Justice League Unlimited (2005-2006)—“Black Canary / Dinah Lance / Edgar Mandragora”
Batman: The Brave And The Bold (2011): “Cheetah”
Son Of Batman / Batman: Bad Blood (2014)—“Talia Al Ghul”
AVC: You’ve done a lot of genre work and stuff related to comic book adaptations. You’ve had voice roles in various DC projects, including Justice League Unlimited and several animated Batman shows. Did you feel like you already had a distinctive voice for those projects, or was it more creating something that suited the character?
MB: Well, every one of those projects was really different. I feel like it’s easy to lump together the genre, but Justice League [Unlimited] is somewhat of a kids’ show—it sort of falls in between. I don’t know how to describe it, but I felt that was so much more of a perky action-type thing. It was really fun to do. I feel like every project, even doing voiceover work on The Flash, was very individual to the project and the role. Each one is slightly different. So I kind of approached each one given what the need was. Gotham was its own kind of film noir-ish world. So I think it was just sort of case-by-case for what the role required.
AVC: Your role here is reminiscent of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as the voice of the computer on Star Trek—it’s authoritative, but still human.
MB: The Flash was very dry and computer-like with a little hint of an intelligence, but slightly emotional. I don’t think I’m actually credited on the show and that’s on purpose. We wanted it to live in its own world and be slightly mysterious, but be a voice that you kind of go, “I feel like I know who that is,” but you don’t. And [Barry Allen, The Flash] has such an intense relationship with that computer and then many people end up having a relationship with Gideon. And it’s just kind of fun to play with the levels of how much does Gideon actually care, you know?
AVC: Here, you played the villain for the first time. What was it like to sink your teeth into what’s basically the role of a zealot?
MB: It was hard at first, because I didn’t want it to be a caricature of a bad person, and that show can be so far out there—you know, aliens, and all kinds of different people who are not grounded in reality. But I really wanted to find sort of the root of that character, which is really about saving her people, and a survival thing. She’s, like you said, a zealot with mommy issues, basically. I thought it would be really great to ground it in what she felt was really important and I sort of took off from there. And then the other things, like being able to flash my eyes and make somebody go across the room or whatever, all that stuff was just fun. Pure fun to do.
AVC: What you just said about Adria wanting to protect her people—it goes hand-in-hand with your character Anna from V. What drew you to that particular sci-fi show?
MB: Well, I had been unemployed for quite some time, and I was getting a little panicky about what I was going to do next. [Laughs.] And I felt like I was in this rut where I was testing for a million pilots and not getting any of them, and coming close to so many parts and not getting them. Then V came along, and I just heard this kind of click in my head, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this part, and in a way I kind of didn’t care if they hired me or not. I just had so much fun at the audition. I had a really short haircut at the time that was a total coincidence—I had already had that haircut. And I went in, and I remember it being a big debate amongst everybody whether or not to keep that haircut, whether they wanted me to wear a wig—and I just said, “You know what? I’m just going to do what I want to do, and they can take it or leave it.” And it really ended up working and being a very iconic part of that character—that look with the short hair and the long neck. The kind of strangeness of something so feminine and this harsh, kind of dry character. I really liked that.
AVC: When the show originally aired, some critics saw the story as an allegory for the excitement that met the Obama administration—people got caught up in the campaigning and the message of hope. At the time, Kenneth Johnson, who created the show, said there was no agenda or anything. Looking back on the show now, though, do you see parallels to real-life events in the late 2000s, or is it more straightforward story?
MB: What excited me about the show to begin with when I first read the pilot was that you could relate us to modern-day—what was going on in the world. It was a really great parallel for anything. I was excited about the possibility of the political statements that we could make with the show. Obviously, on a network show, we’re not going to get too much into politics, but I liked the idea. Originally what was intended with the show, the aliens—the visitors had been amongst us for hundreds of years and were the impetus and the catalyst for a lot of plagues and a lot of world wars, and had kind of instigated these things to kind of try to end humanity and to control humanity. I thought that was the direction that we were headed, and then we ended up having two or three different showrunners, and ABC didn’t really know which direction they wanted to take the show. It became kind of a mess, but what first attracted me to the show was definitely this possibility that we could make parallels to the modern world.
AVC: This was also kind of a reunion with Alan Tudyk.
MB: That’s right. We also went to school together, and we ended up doing Firefly, which was a total coincidence. Yeah, he came on to do a few episodes. And he was great. He was a lot of fun—although he and I didn’t get a lot of time together on that show.
AVC: Homeland is a show much more direct about addressing the shift in politics, about reflecting the presidency of its time and the life in this country post-9/11. Was that part of the appeal for you?
MB: Yes, I have to say I really enjoyed the subject matter, the role, the writing. The level of people I was getting to act with every day was really a true gift on that show. I loved working with Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon. I feel that was a really special project and special mix of people. I loved that character. I thought, what a great concept: being married to this guy and you don’t know if he’s lying or telling the truth, and having to hold your family together through all of that. The joy of having this husband that you’re in love with, then thinking he’s dead, and then he comes back but he’s completely different. There were so many layers and aspects of that story and that part that I really, really loved, and it gave me an opportunity to do something grounded, something very real, very naturalistic. And I really learned a lot from that project.
AVC: You were nominated for an Emmy for playing Jessica. Do you remember how you first got the news that you were nominated?
MB: I do, actually. I was on a babymoon. I was about to have my first kid and I took a break from filming in North Carolina. And my husband at the time—he’s now my ex-husband—took me to, I can’t remember now, but it was like Outer Banks—somewhere in the South. And I honestly was not even aware that that was the day the Emmy nominations came out, I had completely put it out of mind. We were laying in bed—it was really early in the morning—and my phone was blowing up, with like 20 or 25 voicemails. And I thought, “Okay: either somebody died [Laughs.] or something really good happened.” And I checked the messages and I really couldn’t believe it. It was like, “Wait a minute: What day is it today? What’s going on?”
It was awesome to get that news. You know, it’s funny how things like that kind of always come when you least expect it or when you aren’t obsessed about it. I was about to have my first baby. I was much more interested in my personal life, and to get that call was a nice affirmation—a moment to celebrate all that I’d done.
Spy (2015)—“Karen Walker”
AVC: Karen Walker is the epitome of the secret agent: She’s suave, she’s beautiful, she’s great at her job. Improv is big in Paul Feig movies; how did you respond to being in that environment?
MB: It was a lot of fun. I love doing stuff like that. And it actually was all improv. I didn’t realize it was rare in the industry. So when Spy came along, I thought, “great,” because comedic improvisation scared me a little bit more. But Melissa McCarthy was so awesome and so much fun to work with and really generous. We talked a lot about alternative lines, things we could use and say. She and Paul [Feig] were great. We all kind of chipped in and came up with alternative lines—you know, you have to choose one to be in the movie, but there were several, several takes where we just did a lot of playing, and it was just really, really fun.
AVC: Was there any really big moment where you guys all just kind of broke?
MB: Yeah, Melissa McCarthy was hysterical. So was Miranda Hart, who was her partner for much of the movie. She was incredible. She was so funny. Watching the two of them, they were practicing constantly. I came in for two or three days shooting on that, and I didn’t feel that I had earned my time to be able to crack up, so I really tried to hold it together, but they were constantly laughing.
AVC: When you look at what Leslie on Gotham has been through with Jim Gordon, it kind of feels like a story that could have come out of a soap opera. The broken engagements, her attempts to kill him—
MB: Oh, my god. I know—the drama! [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s hard enough to be in love, but what is it like to depict a relationship with such high stakes?
MB: I feel like that’s what happens when you do a show for five years: you have to constantly reinvent the character, and you end up taking it sometimes to absurd levels. There were moments when I was like, “I am not buying this. But you know what? It’s written and I’ve got to play it.” So I did. But it was the tone itself of the show that I really enjoyed. I really liked playing that demure, film noir with a slight camp aspect to it, which I got to play more in seasons three and four, when Lee turns kind of bad. Yeah, I guess in season four I was with Nygma. It was fun, and it was interesting to see a character go through so many iterations. Every time the show would start up again, I would go, “Okay, where am I going this year?” And they’d say, “I have no idea. Let’s figure this out.” And we would chat about it and see what was happening. It was a great project for me at the time. I was able to take care of my two kids and be stable in New York City and work with my husband [Ben McKenzie]. It’s a show that’s very dear to my heart for many reasons.
Deadpool (2016) & Deadpool 2 (2018)—“Vanessa Carlysle”
AVC: You’ve been able to move through two very big comic book-slash-cinematic universes. What’s it like going back and forth between something like Gotham, which as you mentioned is very noir-ish, and something like Deadpool?
MB: I mean, completely different tones. You can’t even compare the two. I was lucky enough to be able to do Deadpool in between seasons of Gotham, and going back and forth from one to the other was really great, because it was just so different in tone. Deadpool is irreverent and fun and we can curse and whatever, and nothing’s safe and nothing’s precious. Talk about improv-ing—Ryan [Reynolds] is a master at that. The outtakes are just as hilarious as what ended up in the movie. And we would try every scene so many different ways, and try different things—it was a total blast. It was the most fun I’ve had ever on a film.
AVC: Few comic-book movies are rated R because studios want kids to be able to see them, so your own kids aren’t likely to see them anytime soon. But do you think you’ll ever be comfortable with your kids seeing the Deadpool movies?
MB: Oh, my god. I don’t know if ever. [Laughs.] I don’t know if they could see their mom in several sex scenes with Ryan Reynolds until they’re, like, 35. Parts of the movie I guess they could see when they’re older: 18, 20, 25. [Laughs.] I don’t know when it’s age-appropriate. But it was fun. It was so great; it was really the first and only time I have been able to let it all hang out as a female love interest in a movie—be just as witty as the guy, just as irreverent, and not give a fuck. Also, I didn’t feel I had to be likable and or even sexy, even though it turned out to be all of those things—it was great not playing into those stereotypes of what a female love interest should be in a movie.
AVC: If there’s a Deadpool 3, would you want to come back as Vanessa or as Copycat?
MB: I don’t know. I mean, I love both of those ideas. If you do Copycat, then you do mess up the relationship between Wade and Vanessa a little bit, because I think that at that point they were kind of at odds, but maybe there’s an opportunity there to make it a little bit different. It would be fun to see her transform for sure, but I would just be thrilled to come back in any form for those movies because it was such a blast to work on.