Rachel Skarsten has been going batty.
The “Birds of Prey” actress portrays deliciously demented big bad, Alice, on “Batwoman”. Presumed dead after a car accident, Alice was rescued from drowning by a deranged family that consequently kept her captive. She resurfaced years later, vowing to exact revenge against her father for abandoning her. Further complicating matters, Alice’s twin sister, Kate, [Ruby Rose] is the vigilante Batwoman. Alice became obsessed with Kate and the two often slugged it out, despite their mutual love for one another. In retrospect, Skarsten seems to gravitate towards damaged characters.
“I didn’t set out at the beginning of my career to play redeemable villains, but it’s sort of where I landed,” Skarsten tells ET Canada. “I did it with Tamsin in ‘Lost Girl’ and even with Queen Elizabeth in ‘Reign’, because the heroine was Mary, Queen of Scots, and the best example of that is Alice. My mom jokes I play the redeemable b**ch very well.”
“I find those characters the most interesting because, and I think it’s changing a little bit, but the idea of what a heroine is in a show… You have to be likeable as the protagonist,” she continues. “I find being the antagonist is so much truer to life. Of course, Alice takes it to the extreme. But that brokenness, or the hurt and anger, those are very human emotions, and everyone has felt those emotions. Everyone wants to feel that they, too, can be redeemed from those things. That’s what they love about Alice. That’s why they root for her.”
There’s a fine line between acting crazy and coming off as an over-the-top caricature. Skarsten somehow makes it look easy.
“When I got the part, all my friends were like, ‘This part is perfect for you,’” Skarsten says. “At the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Thanks.’ Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute. She’s a psychotic killer. What does that say about me?’ Once we started production, I had a lot of freedom in what I did. I love the process of working with directors and having them suggest different things. Truthfully, they let me improv a lot.”
The TV gods thew “Batwoman” a curveball in season two. The show’s leading lady, Rose, called it quits after the freshman year. As a result, the narrative went in another direction. A new character, Ryan Wilder [Javicia Leslie] adopted the Batwoman mantle. Skarsten admits she was initially concerned over how her alter-ego would remain relevant.
“The entire first season, we built this story around Kate being the only person that Alice cared about,” explains Skarsten. “Alice didn’t really have a relationship with Jacob Kane. She didn’t have a relationship with Mary. She had Mouse, but, of course, we killed him in the finale. So, I thought, ‘How are we going to justify that Alice cares about this new character whatsoever?’
“I talked to showrunner Caroline Dries about it, and I really respected the way that she approached it,” she adds. “Oftentimes in network television, if the pieces don’t fit together, you shove them together anyway and you pretend like it works. I felt it was important to honour the character we established in Alice.”
Rose’s departure opened up other story possibilities. Alice was forced to grapple with Kate, who may or may not have perished in a plane crash. Then there was the introduction of Ocean [Nathan Owens], a man Alice shared a heated history with… except a mind wipe expunged any memory of those moments. Alice attempted to kill him, but at the end of the last episode, the two were about to get it on.
“I always approached the relationship between Kate and Alice like a love story,” Skarsten says. “They are sisters. It’s not a romantic love story, but it was a love story. They are twins. Alice deeply loved and cared about Kate. That’s what made that dynamic between the hero and villain in our show so fascinating. I really liked that Caroline gave me another love story to play off of. It was also very surprising to give Alice a romantic love story. That grounding is also important with this character. I had it with Kate. I had it with Mouse, and this year, I got to have it with Ocean.”
“What’s next for Alice is probably some devastating heartbreak that includes me being tied up,” she continues. “I joke to the writers that they just enjoy seeing me tied to chairs or handcuffed to tables, crying about my past. Really and truly, what’s next for Alice is a decision, whether we choose the past or whether we choose the future. Ocean represents a different way for Alice to be and a future for her to have. Kate is her past. That’s going to be conflicting for Alice.”
When “Batwoman” returns Sunday night with “Initiate Self-Destruct”, Alice and the Caped Crusader will team up to take down the nefarious Black Mask. The two even share an impromptu “therapy session,” where they disclose some personal issues and feelings.
“There’s this earning of the relationship,” notes Skarsten. “Both of them are using each other, or they begin this journey together as a means to an end for what they both want. It was really important because it humanized both of their characters to one another and gave them the opportunity to learn more about one another.”
The episode’s jaw-dropping twist? Kate is back, alive and kicking. She, however, is a brainwashed version of her former self. In addition, Kate no longer recognizes Alice…and vice versa… and for good reason. Kate sports a white mask now, hiding the facial reconstruction surgery she endured. Not to mention, the part of Kate has been recast with Krypton’s Wallis Day. As expected, their family reunion does not go down as Alice anticipated.
“I was selfishly excited they brought that character back,” reports Skarsten. “Kate was the foundation on which I, Rachel Skarsten, built this character of Alice. We have also flipped it on its head. In the last season, Kate was constantly trying to save Alice. This season, it is in fact Alice trying to save Kate. I love that.”
“I’m excited to see where this goes with Kate,” she adds. “I know some of the things that are going to happen. It’s satisfying for me and I think it will be satisfying for the fans to see Alice and Kate reunited, albeit not in the way they thought it would be, but just having that dynamic back again and getting some sort of closure in a relationship they had invested a lot in with us.”
Years ago, after “Birds of Prey,” an adolescent Skarsten walked away from Hollywood and enrolled at Queen’s University. Upon reflection, the 35-year-old Canadian can’t even contemplate working in any other profession.
“I told my manager to burn all my resumes,” Skarsten recalls with a laugh. “I was very dramatic back then. I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point in my life, as a career. But I never regret going to university. I’m such a huge advocate for everyone to educate themselves.”
“What my degree from Queens gave me was the ability to articulate myself,” Skarsten concludes. “It taught me how to think critically. It also gave me something to fall back on if this hadn’t worked out. Of course, I always say, ‘Go for your dreams.’ But I wouldn’t change a thing about getting a degree. However, I’m very grateful that this worked out.”