On the Syfy series Van Helsing, from showrunner Neil LaBute, a catastrophic volcano eruption has led the last remaining underground vampires to rise up to overtake America. Vanessa Van Helsing (Kelly Overton), a descendant of the legendary line of vampire hunters, awakens from a three-year coma to discover that she’s not only immune to being turned, but she also has the ability to make vampires human again, putting a huge target on her back.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Kelly Overton (True Blood) talked about how she came to Van Helsing, the show’s different take on the mythology, how her own fascination with vampire lore came about, balancing the character’s strength with her vulnerability, that viewers will learn more about how and why Vanessa is the way she is, getting to have more of a say in the work, and the challenges of being the lead on a TV series. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: I love this show and the different take it has on vampires!
KELLY OVERTON: We really are doing some new stuff with the genre, at a time where it feels like everything has been done with vampires and it’s like, “Another vampire show?! No one wants to watch that anymore!” But, I think we’ve done some really cool stuff that nobody has seen.
How did this show come about for you, and what was the audition process like?
OVERTON: Being athletic has really become a big part of my career. When I’m shooting things, I’m training. And then, when I’m not, I’m training for the next thing because it will probably have some elements of being physical in it. Probably three or four months before I was handed this script, I just knew that something was coming up and a job was in the works. I just started in the gym because I felt like I needed to start training really hard and trained different than I’ve ever trained. I started boxing more and body building. I was doing more weight lifting and trying to bulk up and build my muscle mass. I got really intense about it. Then, came the script. I think that’s a cool beginning of it. When I got the script and read it, I was like, “This is what I’ve been training for!” I got the script and my agent was like, “I think this is right up your alley. You’re gonna love it!” And he was right. There were so many components to it that I thought were so compelling. It was such an easy fit, in so many ways, at this time in my life. I got the script at the point where they were only seeing a few girls, and I went in and read for Neil LaBute and Michael Nankin, who is also a producer and he directed the first three episodes. We just talked and we played around with the material, and it was really fun. I was really relaxed and it was really freeing, which not all auditions are. And then, I got a call the next day saying that I booked the job. It was such an easy thing. Most of the time, you have to jump through so many hoops, like they’re trying to make it as painful as they can. This just was the right fit. It happened really easily, which was so nice.
You’ve said that you loved the vampire books of Anne Rice, and movies like The Lost Boys and Fright Night. When and how did your fascination with vampire mythology come about, and what was the appeal of it for you?
OVERTON: I was one of those people that got sucked in with the romance aspect of it. It was the first time I had those feelings, as a young adult, falling in love, or what I thought was love. I’d had the fascination before that had happened, with movies like Fright Night and The Lost Boys, and had already known about the romantic aspect of it, but I had never experienced those feelings myself, so I couldn’t really associate with it. I think it was just around my coming of age, where you start grappling with and really thinking about things like death and love, and you’re still holding onto a part of your imagination that you used so intensely, as a child, or I did anyway. So, I think it was just that passage from child to adult that the vampire mythology really spoke to. In a lot of ways, sci-fi is the genre that, as an actor, you have to suspend your disbelief for the most. In that way, I feel like it’s more about using your imagination, like you did when you were a child. I feel like all of the sci-fi genre stuff, when I was coming of age, it made sense that I’d be going from using my imagination into some more adult material. I think that’s how the transition happened for me. That whole thing about immortality, eternal love and flying is dark and sexy. When you’re going through your sexual awakening, it’s all a part of that.
I love how viewers are immediately dropped into this world, and then have to figure out what’s going on, as they go. Did you enjoy getting to discover things that way, yourself?
OVERTON: Originally, the scripts were written in a different order. Originally, you understood a little more about what was going on, in the first episode, but they switched the order around. But, I think it works.
Especially when you were shooting the pilot, did you think about how terrifying it must be to wake up in a world that’s entirely changed without having any idea what happened or where you fit into it all?
OVERTON: Yes, of course, I did! And this is so contained and it’s so threatening. What’s so horrifying about it is waking up and not knowing where her daughter is.
Along with this vampire apocalypse that’s happening, there’s also the very human story of a mother looking for her daughter. If you were going to play such an intense bad-ass, was it also important to you to see a more vulnerable side to this character?
OVERTON: 150%, yeah! I did not want to play a character that came out of the gate just as this monster killing machine that was impenetrable. I really wanted to make her a real person with strengths and weaknesses. The vulnerability was really important to me and, in fact, was one of the biggest challenges for me, in playing Vanessa. I had to find the places where she was vulnerable, and find the balance between her vulnerability and her stoicism. That was something I really focused on and really wanted to do justice for the character.
We know that Vanessa is special and has unexplained abilities. Will we learn how and why that is?
OVERTON: Eventually, yes.
Will Vanessa get more selective about which vampires she turns back into humans?
OVERTON: Yes. We know that when she’s bit by a vampire it turns them human, and also when she bites them it turns them human, but not all of them turn back to human. Some of them die. There’s a lot to still be learned about what exactly the power is that she has and what more there is to her bite. There’s apprehension because there’s a lot of unknown with the gifts. As she continues to learn about her abilities, there is caution, but also there are times of great risk because the stakes are so high.
This is a character that’s wanted by the vampires and she’s wanted by the humans, and her existence could be a major advantage or a serious disadvantage, depending on which side you fall on. So, how dangerous is that going to get, not just for her, but for anyone around her?
OVERTON: Very dangerous! She definitely has a target on her back, for the vampires and for the humans. She has a responsibility that she didn’t ask for, and she has her own agenda, which is to find her daughter. When you’re a mother, that’s #1, not being savior of the world. She’s got to find out if her daughter is even alive out there.
This show has quite a pedigree of folks behind the camera, from the writers room to the producers to the directors that you have. What was it like to have that group of talented folks to collaborate with, and how much of a voice do you have in the whole process?
OVERTON: It was great. It was such a collaborative atmosphere. The great thing about Neil [LaBute] is that she’s a playwright. He has a theater background, and most of the actors, myself included, come from theater, so we all had a common language. We all understood how to work in a way that I think you only can, if you’ve had that experience. I had a lot of say. This was the first time I’ve experienced being the lead of a show, and with 13 episodes. I had a lot of strong opinions and a lot of say about who I thought she was and the story we were telling. Everybody was so wonderful about being collaborative and hearing that. It was always that the best idea would win. So, I got to be involved in the creative process in ways I haven’t been before, and it was really amazing and really challenging. I think I can speak for everybody when I say that one of the most important things we wanted to do was create an atmosphere on set that allowed everybody to push themselves in ways they’ve never been pushed before and do things they’ve never done before, and to have the freedom to make bold choices and be spontaneous.
As an actor, if you’re doing TV, the goal would obviously be to be #1 on the callsheet, but what’s the most challenging thing about actually doing that?
OVERTON: Well, the hours are really hard. We worked about 16 hours a day, and you’re just always on. The hardest thing is that you’re in a leadership position and you’re working yourself very hard. Everybody at that level is exhausted and when you get that tired, it becomes really challenging to keep bringing your best foot forward. It’s really hard, but there’s just such good people involved that we all did a really good job of working through all of that. This is a really ambitious show, shot on a really crazy schedule, and that took a lot of passion.
Van Helsing airs on Friday nights on Syfy.