Walk All Over Me's Tricia Helfer: farm girl with a whip

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Your favourite Cylon, Alberta-bred Tricia Helfer, slides on hot pants and thigh-high boots as Walk All Over Me's dominatrix.

As much as her new movie, Walk All Over Me, makes a great case that she was born to wear PVC hot pants, Tricia Helfer wasn't exactly convinced she was a sex bomb during her high-school years.

"I grew up a farm girl where I was into sports and into school," the 33-year-old former supermodel says, interviewed in Vancouver's just-off–Main Street Argo Cafe. "I was very tall and gangly, and you certainly don't think that's very pretty when you're a kid."

There's no point pretending otherwise today: Helfer is hot. You don't have to be sitting across the table from her for confirmation of that. She's squeezed into a booth at the Argo, a retro-cool '40s diner where the tables are vintage green Arborite and the specials are scrawled on chalkboards. Helfer, more La La Land than Lotusland, doesn't look like she's from around these parts, even though she splits her time between Vancouver, where she keeps a condo for work, and Los Angeles, where she lives with her lawyer husband and six cats.

She's wearing a low-cut grey sweater, skinny-leg jeans, and black stiletto boots. Her teeth are impossibly white, her hair off-blond, and her eyes Caribbean-ocean blue. The first thing you notice about her is that she looks different in person: preternaturally beautiful and somehow less hypersexualized than what you might have seen in Maxim, Stuff, and the countless other men's magazines that regularly name her one of the most desirable women on the planet.

The world, of course, has seen plenty of Helfer over the years, whether it's been as the elegant face of Chanel's Cristalle perfume or the host of Canada's Next Top Model. But these days, her profile has never been higher. Science-fiction aficionados who rarely leave their parents' basements know her as the ass-kicking Cylon operative Number Six on the critically lauded Battlestar Galactica. Those who buy Playboy for more than the articles were delighted to find a revealing shoot in the magazine's February 2007 issue, which celebrated its coup by putting her on the cover. And she's evidently on the speed-dial of whoever's job it is at Maxim to get hot women to pose in glorified dental floss. On Friday (December 7) she'll hit local multiplexes in Canadian director Robert Cuffley's Walk All Over Me, a comedy-thriller in which she plays a dominatrix who aspires to something more.

Even when she's not wearing fishnets and thigh-high boots, Helfer is one of those lucky few who's going to turn heads wherever she goes. What's refreshing about her, though, is that she doesn't seem to understand what all the fuss is about.

"I certainly didn't think that I could ever be a model," she says. "And I had no ambition to be an actor. I was petrified of being on-stage; I wasn't a singer and I wasn't a dancer. I was much more of a tomboy into basketball, volleyball, track and field, and soccer. And, again, I worked on the farm: I drove tractors and fixed farm machinery."

Today, Helfer is a world or two removed from her rural hometown of Donalda, Alberta, whose main claim to fame is that it's the home of the world's biggest lamp. But despite that, she clearly hasn't forgotten her humble, stubble-jumper roots. Reached at home in Calgary, Cuffley recalls Helfer arriving on the set of Walk All Over Me and promptly winning over the entire crew.

"The way she did that was by making herself accommodating," he remembers. "No ego, just, 'Can I do that again? What can I do to make this shot easier? Would it help you guys if I did this?' Those were all phrases that would come out of her mouth. After a while, you'd be like, 'Wow, she's not a prima donna Cylon from Galactica. She's a down-to-earth farm girl.'"

In Walk All Over Me, Helfer's Celene has hightailed it out of Buttnugget, Alberta, for Vancouver, where she pulls down big bucks humiliating sex slaves. Although she finds herself saddled with a delinquent younger sister played by Leelee Sobieski, Celene hasn't given up on Hollywood and an acting career. Suggest to Helfer that Celene's story somewhat mirrors her own–albeit without the whips and fetishwear–and she quickly shoots that down.

"From an outsider's perspective, the movie looks like it maybe mirrors my own life," Helfer says. "Celene leaves this small town to go be an actress, and I left a small town to model and now act. The difference is Celene didn't like where she grew up and couldn't wait to leave. I, on the other hand, had a great childhood and loved where I lived."

Her journey out of Donalda started in a theatre lineup in 1991. Helfer was out for a night at the movies when she caught the eye of a modelling scout. That was the start of a celebrated career that would take her to runways around the world and land her on the covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. As much as the jump from small-town Canada to international 17-year-old jet setter had its challenges, Helfer was ready for them.

"I worked on the farm for a wage and had to do budgets, so I knew how to take care of myself," she recalls. "A lot of people going out on their own don't have a strong family base. I knew that if I got into trouble, I could call my parents and they would be there for me. Not everyone has that support. That really helped me to be comfortable with taking risks."

Taking a major risk was exactly what Helfer did a half-decade ago. Realizing that–unless your name is Kate Moss–modelling is a profession with an early pull date, she decided some advance career planning was in order.

"I thought I'd take an acting class," Helfer says. "I instantly fell in love with it. Part of the reason that I have this passion for acting is that I like the idea of getting inside someone's brain to study their characteristics–why it is that they do the things they do. My focus was suddenly very clear on what I wanted to do after modelling."

Assuming you're not running for president of the Tricia Helfer fan club, things you might not know about her include the fact that had she not been "discovered", she probably would have gone on to become an animal behaviourist. Beyond that, she eats fish and the occasional turkey burger but consumes no red meat. She's concerned about the environment but is not holier-than-thou about it; although she's currently building a solar-powered "green" vacation home in rural Alberta, she guiltily admits to riding a Harley and driving a Porsche. She's never been a party girl, which explains why you won't find a single mention of her on PerezHilton.com. She was raised without television but now loves "smart comedy" like South Park and Arrested Development. She doesn't have much use for fantasy fare like The Lord of the Rings, admitting she's more drawn to darker, reality-based films like Requiem for a Dream. She would love to work with Cate Blanchett, Quentin Tarantino, and Darren Aronofsky. She excelled at sports in high school, but these days she's focusing almost all her energy in one area: acting.

With major roles in two feature films this year, Helfer has given every indication that she isn't going to be another Cindy Crawford when it comes to leaving the catwalk for the screen. Georgia Straight contributor and Vancouver native Mark Leiren-Young directed Helfer in his 2007 movie, The Green Chain, which looks at the issue of logging old-growth forests from various sides. Helfer, who plays a celebrity jumping on the green bandwagon, blew his mind when she showed up for filming and proceeded to rattle off a 13-minute monologue in one perfect take.

"I kept asking her, 'So, no theatre experience at all?' 'No,'" Leiren-Young tells the Straight by phone. "I had trouble believing she wasn't a theatre-trained actor. She was just astonishing."

Helfer's first high-profile role found her playing–what else?–a model on a 2002 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. She credits her big break, however, to Battlestar Galactica, where she landed in 2003, a year after she quit modelling and left New York for L.A. to pursue acting full-time. What started as a miniseries reimagining a sci-fi show that impressed no one in the late '70s has hit big with both audiences and critics. Battlestar Galactica in now headed into its fourth season, with Helfer's platinum-wig–sporting Number Six salivated over by Comic-Con obsessives who can tell you which ship Saul Tigh served on during the first Cylon war. Helfer never saw the original Battlestar Galactica before signing on for the miniseries; her main attraction to the project, she says, was that she'd be learning from the Oscar-nominated likes of Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell.

"As a new actor, I looked at it as a great opportunity to work with these people and maybe pick up a few things," she says. "In the grand scheme of things, I got really lucky. I got Battlestar when I'd been acting for a year. To get a show that goes on to win Peabody and AFI [American Film Institute] awards is pretty lucky, I'd say."

Battlestar, filmed in Vancouver, has taken Helfer to a level of celebrity well beyond anything she experienced during her modelling days. What makes her feel blessed is that she's been able to maintain a degree of anonymity.

"On Battlestar, most of my characters–and I say characters because I'm a robot–have white hair, which is a wig, so people almost never recognize me," she says. "When I'm at the airport or on my own time, I don't have makeup on; I have my hair in a ponytail. People only seem to recognize me if I'm done up. For me, it's a blessing in disguise because you can really retain a normal life."

Not that most people living normal lives end up fielding offers from Playboy. Helfer says she thought long and hard before she agreed to do the shoot for the magazine. "If I was going to be sitting there spread-eagled and smoking a cigarette, then it would have been a big deal," she offers with a big laugh. "But I had total control over the shots, and coming from a modelling background, I believe that photos are art."

With Battlestar Galactica currently filming its final season, Helfer is now working on getting an amnesia-themed film titled Unforgettable off the ground on this side of the border, and thinking about pitching an HGTV–style series about building her green-themed house. For the immediate future, Cuffley rightly figures Walk All Over Me will end any arguments over whether or not she is just another genetically superior face.

"The bubble she is poised to burst, and I saw her burst it at the Toronto Film Festival," Cuffley says, "is that people go in [to Walk All Over Me] saying, 'Jeez, I don't know, this could be a sink-or-swim for Tricia Helfer because she's the second lead in the film.' I overheard some of this, saw some of it with my own eyes, and heard some of it secondhand. Every single time, people came out going, 'Holy cow, she's really good.'"

Getting Helfer to admit that is, predictably, not easy. "Obviously, after four seasons on Battlestar and a couple of films, I'm getting more used to it than when I started," she says. "It's a learning process, and I hope to never stop learning. I don't want to get to a place where I feel like I know it all."

If those sound like the words of a down-to-earth kid from the sticks, that's no accident. Except you somehow get the feeling that by the time this unmistakably driven farm girl is finished, Donalda, Alberta, will be famous for more than being the home of the world's largest lamp.

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John Lucas
Am I being too picky when I point out that she's actually pictured with a flogger, not a whip per se?
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