Continuing my coverage of the 50th Annual WorldFest-Houston film festival, I had the privilege to interview Tracey Birdsall about her role as Sienna in Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter.
Set in the distant future, Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter depicts the overthrow of human intelligence on Earth and other worlds, with a determined rebel who goes up against the Droid Empire. The film embraces an ongoing theme of its director: Artificial intelligence will be the downfall of humanity – humans will never learn that lesson. The battle scenes take place against a sci-fi landscape created in the desert near the Salton Sea, California and Yuma, Arizona.
HorrorGeekLife: What was it about the script for Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter that drew you to the character of Sienna?
Tracey Birdsall: Multiple things. One was her journey. You know the fact that she has so many arcs and so many different places that she can go. The other one is that I have a love for robotics. My father ran the largest power electronics convention in the world when I was a kid, and I used to tour all these robotics factories. One was run by this lady and I remember thinking that I would go into robotics if I didn’t love acting so much. So, it’s always been a thing of mine, artificial intelligence and robotics. I’ve always been fascinated by it. Neil (Johnson) and I were talking and he had this script that I also found fascinating. I like anything where I can go really deep into the depths of someone else and I like the fact that she had such a journey. There are so many parts in the movie where she doesn’t know who she is and it just slowly unfolds and then she becomes her own identity that isn’t any of the identities that she was already given. As an actor, that’s really challenging.
HorrorGeekLife: I’m sure it is, and you did a great job. I loved the movie, I love the genre. I know you’ve been doing a lot of sci-fi films lately. Are you drawn to that genre as well?
Tracey Birdsall: Thank you. The last couple of years, yeah. I grew up doing comedy and drama, and everything else. I’ve always been in the industry, and I’ve always loved sci-fi, but I just couldn’t get booked in it. I auditioned for one of the Star Treks once and I always wanted to be bald and blue, y’know. (laughs) I think the meatiness of this, and the fact that he wanted someone who would really get down and deep into it. Because, of course, with a lot of sci-fi stuff, anyone could play it– but with this, every step of the way she had to completely only know what she knew in that moment, and I had to color code the script. It was kinda lucky for me. I had done some voice-over work for Neil before, and when he asked me to be the lead in this I was game.
HorrorGeekLife: So, obviously, this was a very physically demanding role, as well as being emotionally demanding. Did you have to do any physical conditioning to prepare?
Tracey Birdsall: I workout five days a week whenever I’m not shooting. I have since I was 13. I have scoliosis, and so that’s how I got out of physical therapy. I’m a really heavy weight trainer, and I grew up running, swimming, and fighting. My dad was a wrestler for the Navy, so we used to wrestle. I’ve just done a lot of training in my life, but for this I had to work with extra trainers and things. I had to do a lot of falling, as you saw.
HorrorGeekLife: I did! You also did a ton of walking. It’s a sci-fi movie where half the film takes place in a spaceship, and the other half is shots of you walking through the desert.
Tracey Birdsall: They would drop me off. It would be 120 degrees out, and they would drive so far away that I couldn’t even see them. All I could see was waves from the heat. I would literally take half a bag of ice, and shove it all inside my costume, and I’d get about a third of the way to where I needed to be and it would be completely gone- Just evaporated. I wouldn’t even be wet at all.
HorrorGeekLife: Wow, that’s crazy. Since most of Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter was shot in the desert, did you ever have any problems from the heat?
Tracey Birdsall: Oh yeah, lots of times. Sometimes at the end of the day, I would be pouring water bottles over my head. I have a problem with heat anyways, I overheat really easily. So I had a really hard time, but I wouldn’t quit. There’s no way. For me, if a camera is rolling, I don’t think. Say you have to jump from ‘point a’ to ‘point b’ and you’re human, you might think, “I’ll go this way, it’s a little safer,” but if the camera’s on, I’m just conditioned to never even question it. I just keep going.
HorrorGeekLife: Was there ever any point where you wish you had a stunt double, or were you just happy to do it all yourself?
Tracey Birdsall: No, there were definitely times where I had to sit down. There were times– like the scene with that three hundred foot sand dune– where I had to scale up the back of it so there were no footprints. The sand was up to my thigh with each step, and he would say, “Okay, when you get to the top of the sand dune and you see me put my arm up, it means we’re going to start rolling.” I said, “When I stand up… that means I’m ready for you to put your arm up.” I would literally get up the back of the mountain, sit down, dump all the sand out of my boots, breathe in and out thirty times, and THEN stand up.
HorrorGeekLife: That sounds rigorous!
Tracey Birdsall: It was, but also a lot of fun! And you’re so proud of yourself at the end of the day.
HorrorGeekLife: I can imagine. How long did it take to film Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter?
Tracey Birdsall: Well, the principal photography took three weeks, but we probably shot for eighty days. He’s kind of Peter Jackson-ish, where we would shoot so many things over and over and over again until it was perfect.
HorrorGeekLife: That really came through in the film though. It seemed like every shot was crafted to be exactly how he wanted it.
Tracey Birdsall: It was, yeah. I would never say no. (laughs) I would get all the costumes packed away, and a few weeks had gone by and he would call me up and say, “You know…” and I would start digging them out again.
HorrorGeekLife: What was your favorite scene to work on in Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter? Did you have a favorite character to interact with?
Tracey Birdsall: Physically, my favorite thing was the war out in Yuma, between the robots, because it was the most demanding day I’ve ever had. At the end of the day, I ate my food, the rest of his food, and any crew member who had any leftovers.. I ate everything. I went home and I looked like a snake that had eaten a huge rodent or something. (laughs) I was starving.
Emotionally though, I liked it once she began unpeeling her identity and revealing her true self because she goes from an almost childlike vulnerability to finding her own inner strength. I think that as a human being, I’ve had to go through that. We’ve all had to do it. You know, I was the youngest of three daughters, and I had two gorgeous sisters and it was a rough journey. You just get to that point where you brush the dirt off, and I’m gonna be who I am. You might identify me as this or that, but this is what I really am, and even though I have no idea what it is, I’m moving forward. There was something really empowering about that for the character. I’m not as much of an emotional person as she is, and so it was really fun to go on that journey and feel those feelings. I wouldn’t personally have felt them quite as deeply as she did.
HorrorGeekLife: I loved how much humor is in the film, and a lot of it comes from you and your robot sidekick Hoagland.
Tracey Birdsall: Thank you. I love Hoagland. He’s in my office still, I can’t part with him. I’m so attached to him.
HorrorGeekLife: Did you keep any other props from the movie, or just him?
Tracey Birdsall: Yeah, I have a couple, but Hoagland was in my office for four or five months before we began shooting, because I needed him to be real to me. So I asked if I could have him in there on a stand, and I would talk to him every day, and I would develop his personality. Then we’d get on set and a crew member or reader would start reading his lines and it would completely take me out of it because I already had an idea of his personality. So I had to memorize Hoaglands lines too, so that I could just react to them with the right timing and it wouldn’t take me out of it. It had to be real. So it was kinda fun. I’m very attached to him.
HorrorGeekLife: I can imagine. He’s a great character with a great sense of humor. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, I loved the movie and will be writing up a review shortly. When can people see the movie?
Tracey Birdsall: It will be out June 2nd in theaters, and June 6th exclusively at Wal-Mart for sixty days. We’re the only independent film there beside the studio films.
HorrorGeekLife: What’s coming up next for you?
Tracey Birdsall: Who’s Jenna is a comedy that comes out in July, and then we’re in post on The Time War, which is a time-travel film and I play about twenty different characters in that one, and they’re all different from each other. Talk about complicated.
HorrorGeekLife: I’ll definitely keep an eye out for both films. Thanks again for your time!