The actress discusses the role of Susan Francisco, Sci Fi and working with TV legend Raymond Burr

With an acting career that began with 1980s Prom Night, actress Michele Scarabelli perfectly sums up the consummate working actress. Doing her fair share of both television and film work, she has carved out an interesting niche for herself tackling a bevy of different roles. Whether acting in the John Irving adapted The Hotel New Hampshire, or the comedy 2001: A Space Travesty, Scarabelli always seems to find the center of whatever role she may be playing.

It is precisely this talent that helped her find the character of Susan Francisco in the TV series Alien Nation. Playing an alien wife and mother would be daunting for any actress, yet Scarabelli very matter-of-factly brought her own human element to the character. Playing a newcomer from another planet, Scarabelli drew on her own experiences of being an outsider and used them to her benefit in the role of Susan Francisco. We discussed this and some of her other roles when she recently sat down with MovieWeb.

Can you tell the readers about the character of Susan Francisco in Alien Nation?

Michele Scarabelli: Susan Francisco came from a culture that was matriarchal. She was very strong and is very strong, but now has to adapt to a different environment and more of a patriarchal society on planet Earth, where her husband, initially, goes out and gets a job and she’s staying at home. So the tables are a little reversed, though not in her mind. She really is the strong one at home and he relies on her. She, later on in the series, goes out and gets a job and starts a career in advertising and leads a different life. Their lives are substantially different than what they were as slaves, of course. So there’s the plusses and minuses of that kind of freedom. She’s a very determined mother. In the pilot she very much puts her foot down in protecting her kids, her daughter in particular when she sees that she’s going to be under fire at her new school.

What was it about Alien Nation that made you want to be part of the TV show?

Michele Scarabelli: Well, I think just the novelty of playing an alien as an actor is wonderful. It’s a little scary, too, because on some levels you have nothing to fall back on, initially. I’ve never been an alien, I don’t even know where Tencton is! But then you realize, “Of course you don’t.” And the writers are creating it out of their imaginations so you go from there, and you tap into whatever you can of your own life experience and bring that to the part.

I had gone to a French school when I was a kid, back in Montreal, so I knew what it felt like not to be a part of the gang. Part of the group. To be alienated in a way. So I brought that to the character.

Had you been a fan of the original movie?

Michele Scarabelli: I had not seen the original movie. No, I wasn’t much of a Sci Fi fan to begin with. Later on, I watched the movie, but there is not as much to go on, certainly for the family in the feature, was not a developed entity. That’s why I think FOX thought, “Well, lets see if we can do something with this and build this into a series.” And that’s certainly where Ken Johnson took it.

Did your interest in Sci Fi change after playing that part?

Michele Scarabelli: Well, yeah, also in terms of characters I was on Star Trek, I played Data’s girlfriend in an episode. I’d done a couple of other things before. I read some Sci Fi. I was fascinated with the possibilities as an actor.

I see you’ve done a lot of TV and you also have a lot movies to your credit. Do you have a choice between the two?

Michele Scarabelli: Well, no, acting is acting. I think certainly stage is a different vehicle, but if you’re doing film or television you just have the luxury of more time when you’re doing film. It’s a slightly different process... more relaxed at times. Sometimes you’re under constraints of time as well, but generally when you’re doing an hour show in eight days, you’re cranking it out and you really have to hit your marks and hopefully get it right the first time! Usually, it’s technical glitches that hold up the process. It’s basically the same medium and choices, as an actor, when you’re starting out you go out for whatever. Some actors don’t want to do commercials, I started out doing all kinds of stuff. Film, commercials and whatever. Whatever comes your way that you find interesting you do. No matter what it is.

How did you end up getting involved in acting?

Michele Scarabelli: Well, my background is psychology. While I was in college I started modeling, and I started getting commercials and from there that led to auditioning for films. My training was not in the theater, so I jumped into films, because I think I had some experience in front of the camera. As model I was very comfortable in front of the camera. Whereas a lot of people I was working with who had a theater background, it took them a little while to figure out the camera and become comfortable with it.

What was it like working Raymond Burr when you did Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter?

Michele Scarabelli: We didn’t have much contact. He kind of kept to himself as you do on those shows where you’re the star. What I remember was that the courtroom scenes, the rooms were pretty chilly because Raymond, at that point, perspired quite a bit if it was standard 78, 80 degrees; as it would get in a studio or courtroom scene with a lot of lights and everything. So, we were all freezing while Raymond looked perfectly calm, cool and collected which he should have been playing that character.

What are you currently working on now?

Michele Scarabelli: A couple of projects I’m waiting to hear about up in Canada. I’ve got some of my own things that I’m developing that I can’t talk about quite yet.

Alien Nation - The Complete Series is currently available through Fox Home Entertainment.

Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs