Battlestar Galactica Star Katee Sackhoff: “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Acting Career”
I wish that someone had told me that speaking up and standing up for myself didn’t make me ‘difficult’. When I started in this industry I was truly trained to be seen and not heard. I had to actually learn from the younger generation that my opinion mattered because I was trained that it didn’t. I was trained to think that my voice didn’t matter and I was trained to think that the men around me knew better. That was just a societal thing and the irony was that my mom is so strong and opinionated, but the thing that happens in the film industry or in any job where it’s your dream or you are in a position where you need the job is that somebody teaches you that if you have an opinion, it could risk your job. I really wish I would have learned to speak up a lot sooner. I was so concerned and worried I would lose my career.
As a part of our series about Stars Who Make a Social Impact, I had the distinct pleasure to interview Actress Katee Sackhoff.
Katee is an actress known for playing Lieutenant Kara “Starbuck” Thrace on the Sci Fi Channel’s television series Battlestar Galactica. She was nominated for four Saturn Awards for her work on Battlestar Galactica and won the award for Best Supporting Actress on Television in 2005.
Sackhoff and her Battlestar Galactica co-star Tricia Helfer co-founded the Acting Outlaws, a motorcycle-riding charity with which they have worked to raise awareness and funds for causes including the Gulf Restoration Network, the Humane Society, and the Red Cross amfAR.
Yitzi: It’s really a pleasure to get to talk to you, Katee. I think you know that you have a really extraordinary fan base. Our readers would love to get to know a bit of your backstory, how you grew up and what brought you to the career path that you’re on today.
Katee: Absolutely. You’re so correct. I have a fan base like no other, in my opinion. I was blessed enough to play a character early in my career that people really enjoyed and they have supported me and followed me to many, many different arenas in the years following. So I’ve just been really, really lucky.
I grew up in a small town in St. Helens, Oregon, right on the river there and my dad was born and raised there and, and we stayed there until I was about 12. Then we moved to Portland. I was always a tomboy, it was sort of my upbringing.
I grew up in a small town where it was a different time and it was very safe to let your kids wander and roam and play and get hurt and all of those things that my parents let us do that contributed to such a joyful childhood. I was always really athletic and I gravitated towards swimming. I was quite good at it and I envisioned a career as a swimmer. I knew I would probably go to college and swim. I didn’t quite know what I would do after that, but I knew that I would be on the right trajectory with the swimming career under my belt. But I ended up getting hurt when I was 16 and saw that dream fade away and really didn’t know what to do with myself.
My mom saw an ad in the paper to be Kristen Dunst’s body double for a lifetime movie that was filming in Portland, Oregon and she encouraged me to go. I went down and didn’t get it because I’m about six inches taller than Kiersten and probably 30 pounds heavier, so it just wasn’t right to be her body double. But they asked if I could act and you know, being the good little actress I was, even back then, I completely lied and and they gave me the encouragement to try. I went home and my mom helped me memorize the lines and I went back the next day, auditioned and got the part. That would be the thing that changed my life forever. It got me the Taft-Hartley into the SAG union, which I didn’t realize at that point was such a huge obstacle for so many actors.
So I was inside already and the director from that movie, Sam Pillsbury, had directed the Free Willy movie and he convinced my mother based off one scene that I was in, that there was something special and that she should let me move to California. My mom and dad were like, “absolutely not”, but I was adamant and I wouldn’t let it go.
So my mom came down to California with me, and that director, Sam Pillsbury, drove us around, introduced me to my agent who is now my manager. I didn’t have a resume and he introduced me to my lawyer and I’ve been with pretty much the same team since then. I largely owe my career to that man. He changed everything and that’s what got me to California. I moved to LA as soon as I graduated from high school.
Yitzi: Wow. That’s an amazing story. Could you look back at your career and think of either the funniest or the most interesting story that occurred to you? Is there a lesson or takeaway from that story?
Katee: Yeah. You know, I think it’s funny because I grew up where we shot on film. So I was trained to not waste footage and not waste film and not joke around on set because it costs money, so by the time I got to Battlestar everyone was joking around and doing all these things like doing pranks on set but it had been ingrained in me to not joke around on set. I started acting, I guess four years before Battlestar. Battlestar was like my third or fourth series. So I was already trained to be as professional as possible on set. So for me, joking around always seemed like I was doing something bad and Battlestar was the first show that I was on where people were my age, not older than me. So I really kind of learned how to be a young adult on set during Battlestar and I started joking around more and having more fun with it and not taking myself so seriously.
There’s this scene that Mary McDonnell and I had during Battlestar where it’s notorious, I mean, I don’t think they ever put us in scenes again together after that because we… I don’t even know what happened. It was probably a long day and we were exhausted, but it was a very serious scene. It’s the scene between Roslin and Starbuck where they airlock Leogan, and they literally shoot him out into space and it’s a very serious scene where Starbuck is sort of in a way saying goodbye to Leogan in this weird way and we can’t stop laughing.
Mary and I, it must have taken an hour for us to get through a scene with dialogue without laughing because we had to look at each other and look eye to eye and we couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, tears were streaming down our faces and we finally got through it and you can see the relief in both of our faces. The producer, David Eick had his child on set that day, (a baby) and all of a sudden we finished, we got through the scene. We were so freaking excited we got through it.
But then David Eick’s child started crying and we were thinking, you have got to be kidding me and then we had to do it again.
It was so funny because it reminded me not to take myself so seriously. You know, we’re actors at the end of the day, we’re not essential workers. We’re not curing cancer. We’re not saving people’s lives. I think that what it taught me was that there’s a looseness that you need to bring to performances in order for them to be authentic and that whether I achieved it the wrong way or not, it helped me be as relaxed as I am when I work now.
Yitzi: That’s great. That’s an excellent answer. As you know, so many young people hope to make their big break into the entertainment industry. You’ve been blessed with great success and I’m sure a lot of people would love to emulate you. If you were talking to a young person who would love to follow your footsteps, what would you advise them?
Katee: Hmm, there are so many things that I’ve learned over the years, but I think the most important thing is to remember that no matter what you do in life for a job, it does not validate your existence as a human being and you have to find and hold onto things in your life that bring you joy outside of your job.
Because there is so much about this career that you have zero control over and you cannot put so much emphasis on something that is so out of your control for your happiness and your wellbeing. The thing that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that whether this works or not or becomes what I want it to be, whatever happens in my career should not have any bearing on my level of happiness in my life. The lesson in that is to make sure you have a well rounded life and you are experiencing everything that it has to offer you. It’s only going to make you a better actor because you’re experiencing life.
Yitzi: That’s really profound and I’m really excited that you said that. That’s great. I think that’s really everyone’s struggle.
Katee: I think that nobody gets to the end of their life and says, “I’m so happy I worked so hard”. Or, “I’m so happy I had all that money”. I was speaking to somebody years ago who worked in a hospice and he was the one that was there a lot of times at the end of a person’s life. He said that it’s not about what they did, it’s about who they love and they just want to make sure that people knew that they loved and that they were loved in return. That’s what it’s about.
You know, the career and the money and the things that we aspire to attain, those are just things that cloud our ability to truly focus on what’s really important, which is the people in our lives and the relationships that we cultivate as we go through it.
Yitzi: Wow. This answer is really profound and thoughtful. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and frankly, they haven’t said what you said. Was there a point in your life when you developed this attitude?
Katee: I think part of it is age. I’m not 25 anymore. I think that as you age, you do learn what is important in your life.
Also, I was diagnosed with cancer at 27 and it was very life changing for me. What I realized in that moment was that aging is a gift. Every day that we get on this earth is a gift and it’s an opportunity for constant reinvention. Whoever you want to be, whatever you want to accomplish, whoever you want to love, you get to make that decision every morning you wake up. I think that that was something that really changed my life and allowed me to look at life and the things that hit me in a thankful way.
Yitzi: Wow! You’ve shared two stories about things that ostensibly were very negative that you were able to reframe and turn them around to something that’s positive. You allowed them to take your life to a whole new order of magnitude.
Katee: Sometimes life is about perspective and I think that a lot of times we get caught in the perspective in which we view something, whether it be negative or positive. A lot of times if we could just stand back and look at the circumstance as if it were happening to somebody else and if we were trying to talk that person into flipping it to be a positive, it allows us to have a different perspective on the things that happen to us. We truly don’t know if the things that are happening to us are good or bad until the end of our life. So you can’t possibly know if what’s happening to you right now is a negative or a positive. If you can spin it into a positive, it could change your life for the better.
Yitzi: Amazing. I like to talk about how people use their success and their platform to bring goodness to the world and we would love to hear about the meaningful causes that you’ve been engaged with and what you’re trying to address.
Katee: Right now, aside from philanthropy, I think that during the quarantine, the thing that became evident to me that was needed as far as social media was concerned, was transparency and honesty.
We’re all going through something unprecedented and nobody really knows how to react and we’re all truthfully just doing the best that we can with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. So for me, it’s, my YouTube channel and my social media that helped me to connect with people on a deeper level that was more honest and transparent. I really wanted to try to connect with people and not give them the pretty version of my life and my success. I wanted to let people know that I was struggling too, that we’re all struggling and these are the things that I’m doing to get through this.
I’m on an adventure to find honest, authentic connections after 20 plus years as an actor with a screen between me and…www.youtube.com
For me it was about fitness and it was about staying active every day and trying to stay positive and, you know, flip those negatives into positives. I’ve been doing live Q and A’s on my YouTube channel and we’ve been putting out workout videos that people can do at home and really just sort of shifted the direction that the YouTube channel was going in. Because that’s what people needed at that moment and it’s been really great.
It’s been really great to talk to people. I sort of peeled back the layers on the outside of the onion of what a celebrity is or what they view it as and really let people into my life to a certain extent.
Yitzi: That’s beautiful. Is there anything that our readers could do to support or encourage or promote these efforts?
Katee: As far as social media is concerned, it’s about supporting each other. I think that the main thing that we’re dealing with right now is a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear and anger. I think that the main thing for us right now is to have empathy with each other and to really think before we speak. Also just to check in on each other. I think that one of the highlights and one of the things that I’ve really noticed throughout this entire quarantine is mental health and how that has really been affecting people.
The main thing for me and, in terms of philanthropy, and the organization that I actually give most of my time to is the Humane Society. It lends itself to what we’re talking about with the quarantine because what the Humane Society has been doing is so important right now, shelters are closed all over the country. They’re not able to help people and they’re really trying to not take in new pets unless they have to.
What the Humane Society has done with their Pets For Life program is to keep pets in the home with their owner. I mean, I have three pets. I cannot imagine if I had gotten sick and I didn’t have the ability to take care of my animals, what would happen to them? And/or if I lost my dog and I couldn’t afford to feed my animals, what would happen to them? I cannot imagine having to, as a last resort, drive my dogs to a shelter and leave them there because I couldn’t afford to take care of them anymore. You know, they’re a part of my life. They’re my three children.
What the Humane Society and Pets For Life has been doing is that they shifted their focus from their normal fights. They’re not given those up, but they shifted into Pets For Life and they’re providing food and supplies to families to keep the pets with the family at the home, which is so important right now.
That also lends itself to the importance of mental health that I was talking about earlier. Animals bring so much joy and unconditional love and support to people when they’re going through hard times and it’s so important for people who want to have pets to have them because, you know, it’s a physical type of love. They love the animal, the animal loves them back and they become a better human being when they go out into the world because they’ve got less stress and they feel loved and they feel like they’ve got a companion.
All of these things help the world stay a bit more sane and so that’s what Humane Society is doing right now, which is incredibly important.
Yitzi: Beautiful. I read that you and Tricia Helfer founded the Acting Outlaws motorcycle riding charity. I’d love to hear about how that developed and what that was like. If you’re able to share a story, I’d love to hear it.
Katee: It was pretty seamless and easy for us. We both love riding motorcycles and we were both raised that if you have the ability to give, you do. So she and I formed the Acting Outlaws and what we do is we actually use our motorcycles as a metaphor for being loud and we raise awareness and money for charities in need. One of the rides that we do every single year is actually for the Seattle Humane Society and over the last 10 years, we’ve probably raised over $20,000 per ride and it’s helped a lot of animals and a lot of people make connections. It’s been really great.
Yitzi: Wow, that’s amazing. Can you share your “Five things I wish someone told me before I started”?
Katee: Oh gosh, So the five things I wish that someone had told me when I started.
- The most important thing, and it’s about being a woman in this industry and in life in general, is that I wish that someone had told me that speaking up and standing up for myself didn’t make me ‘difficult’. When I started in this industry I was truly trained to be seen and not heard. I had to actually learn from the younger generation that my opinion mattered because I was trained that it didn’t. I was trained to think that my voice didn’t matter and I was trained to think that the men around me knew better. That was just a societal thing and the irony was that my mom is so strong and opinionated, but the thing that happens in the film industry or in any job where it’s your dream or you are in a position where you need the job is that somebody teaches you that if you have an opinion, it could risk your job. I really wish I would have learned to speak up a lot sooner. I was so concerned and worried I would lose my career.
- I wish that people had not told me that as I got older, the job would become lesser. I wished that they wouldn’t have said, “Once you turn 40, your career is over”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that and it made me fearful to turn 40 and I got to tell you, I just turned 40. I’ve got more career opportunities now than I did then. They may not be the ones I thought they would, but I still have them and I think that that’s important. I think that if you’re willing to shift and pivot with the changes in life, you can always find work. You just have to be able to continue to grow and work on your career and work on your skill and your craft and pivot.
- Another thing, and this is slightly negative, is that my parents raised me to trust people and I wish that I had been a little bit less trusting because I’m in an industry where you are a commodity. You have to look at yourself like a commodity and realize that people are there for a reason and that the people that love you are very different from the people that make money off of you. That’s very important.
- I kind of wish someone had told me never to date an actor. That could have helped me a lot.
- I wish that I hadn’t thought that taking help from people meant I cheated. I truly wanted to stand on my own two feet and feel that I didn’t take help from anyone in this industry ever. If somebody wanted to help me, I turned it down. If I knew a friend that had a movie that I could probably audition for, I turned it down. I didn’t want help from anyone because I thought it would mean more when I accomplished it on my own. Looking back, it would not have diminished my success or how hard I had worked. I wished that I had utilized that nepotism just a little bit more because it was not necessarily a statement on my career and what I was capable of. Now I’m constantly helping people that need help in this industry because you need it. The industry is huge and people need help. There’s so many things that need to be navigated and so many people, I mean, what good is success if you can’t take your friends with you?
Yitzi: That’s great. Can you help our readers “see the light at the end of the tunnel of this COVID19 pandemic”? Can you give five reasons for people to be hopeful during these challenging times?
Katee: I looked at this on the list yesterday and I really had to think about it.
- I think that one of the main things that we’ve learned through all of this is what essential means. I think we have started to recognize and applaud real essential workers and what real heroes are.
- I think that in turn has helped us appreciate the small things. Just going outside and feeling the sun on your face is such a blessing.
- Also, it has become evident that environmental toxins in the air are down. Pollution is down. People are shopping locally. They’re eating locally. They’re finding natural cleaners because the typical cleaners are all sold out. Things that are actually better for the environment have become the norm, whether people meant to or not.
- I wish that we could bottle this and realize how little we actually need to be in our cars every day.
- This has also forced a lot of people to slow down. I bet you there are a lot of people that went into quarantine with one job and they realized in quarantine that they want a different one.
Yitzi: That’s great. So as you know, Katee, you’re a person with enormous influence. If you could start a movement with an idea that could bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would you do? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Katee: I truly think it would be about empathy. I think that as we get busier and as we get more technical, for some reason we are losing kindness and empathy and I think that that is a big problem.
Yitzi: That’s great. So what would that look like? When you say empathy, do you mean like feeling the suffering of a neighbor? Or is it something more than that. How do you see that being expressed?
Katee: I think it’s all of that. You know, I think we have so much judgment about other people because they’re not doing something the way that we would, or they’re saying something that we wouldn’t necessarily say. I think a lot of times if we slow down and put ourselves in their shoes, whether it is good, bad or ugly, it would at least make us more empathetic to what they’re actually experiencing and then maybe it would help the way in which we handle them. I think that that is truly important.
We need to start thinking globally and at the same time thinking locally. We used to think that it has to be one or the other but we can think about our neighbor and at the same time, think about the poverty in another country. They’re not separate. This is about one world and trying to make it the best for everyone. That is all encompassing and I think that we just need a bit more empathy and understanding and kindness.
Yitzi: Okay. Super. Do you have a favorite life lesson quote and do you have a story of how that was relevant to your life?
Katee: I do. I have so many, but I think that the one that has become the most important in my life is a Joseph Campbell quote. I wrote it down because I think parts of this all the time, but I never actually say the whole quote.
The quote is that “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us”
I think that it’s so important for me because I am a planner. I plan my entire life out. Every time something didn’t go the way I wanted it I re-planned. I was going to be a swimmer. That was one plan. It didn’t work. So I planned again. I look at my life now, it’s nowhere near what I thought I’d be or what I’d have. It’s a very, very different looking life and it is a very whole life and I’m so blessed to have the things that I have but I got so attached to that plan that I stayed in situations or in relationships that weren’t good for me because they fit the plan. I was so worried to take a chance on something that didn’t fit or that I didn’t see and sometimes I think we need to relinquish control in order to live fully.
Yitzi: Excellent. Can we talk a bit about Battlestar Galactica? I’ve watched the series and I was really so excited to be able to talk to you about it.
One of the most interesting things to me about Battlestar was the moral dilemmas. In that way it was so much like like Star Trek. So much of the tension and drama of the story didn’t come necessarily from an external enemy. It also came from a moral tension.
One of the moral dilemmas commonly raised in the show was that if you have a really advanced AI that could feel pain and suffer and it looks like you, at what point can they be considered human? Is hurting a robot considered torture? Or if you permanently turn off a sentient robot, is that considered murder?
We’re getting closer and closer to that. We have AI and robots that can talk and they can think to some degree. I was wondering if you could talk about that. At what point would a sentient AI be considered self aware enough that it would be wrong to murder or to hurt them?
Katee: In all honesty that makes me think of it in a different way.
What about us as human beings allows us to look past a sentient being and think we’re more powerful, that we can judge whether or not to end it or let it live? You know, I think that it is the same thing with animals and other human beings. If something can feel and if something is sentient, that is the definition of being alive. So if that is what AI becomes, at what point do we have to take responsibility for the creation of that? And we are a product of what we’ve created and therefore we have to allow beings to keep going.
If you can turn off or kill an AI that feels, that says more about you than it does about the AI. I think that that’s the question that we should be thinking about more. What as human beings is making us or moving us in a direction to feeling less or feeling more power or, or not feeling responsibility? If you create something and it feels, and then you turn it off, that says more about you than it, and you should look at yourself a bit more deeply.
Yitzi: That’s great. You know, I was thinking that one of the themes of Battlestar is that the Cylons look exactly like people, they live among us, but they can be our enemy. There’s a parallel today where people are so distrustful of others. The basic idea is that we’ve turned people that are almost exactly like us into “the other”. I was wondering if there’s a takeaway from the Human/Cylon struggle in Battlestar to today’s struggle with treating people as dangerous others.
Katee: Well, I do. I think that there are so many human beings that look down on other human beings because of their socioeconomic background, because of their race, because of where they live. So many different reasons to look down on people. I think that is such a terrible thing in our society.
Everyone can understand for example, that going to a restaurant and having a server, just because that person’s job is to serve you food does not mean that you can be disrespectful to that person as a human being. That is really a much larger discussion of money and race and geography and all of these things that give human beings a sense of entitlement to judge and look down on others.
Yitzi: Beautiful. As you know, today, SpaceX had an attempted launch, the first human launch in a commercial rocket. Elon Musk is striving for his goal of colonizing Mars. He said everything he does is all about Mars. He says the electric cars, the rockets, everything’s all about helping us to become an interplanetary species. We should be a space faring species, like in Battlestar Galactica. That’s his whole focus.
I would love to hear your thoughts about that. Do you think that that should be a priority now for us to get off this planet and be able to populate other planets or not? What are your thoughts about the imperative of humans becoming an interplanetary species?
Katee: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, it won’t happen in my lifetime. You know, where we actually colonize Mars. That can’t possibly happen in my lifetime. God-willing Elon Musk, can go for it, have fun. That is quite possibly the future.
But I think that right now for me the more important thing is to worry about the home that we have and worry about the inhabitants that we have and try to make this more of a heaven on earth, than look for a new home. I think that eventually it’s going to be a reality. I think that eventually we’re going to run out of space and it’s going to have to be and thankfully there are rich people like Elon Musk who are also intelligent and they can do it.
But I think that for me, the more important thing is to worry about the environment that we have. Worry about the people that we have, worry about the injustice that we have and worry about the pollution that we have. Worry about those things, here, right now. You can only control what’s in front of you and what you do right now.
I’m sure Elon would disagree but that’s my feeling. If they had transport right now, tomorrow, I wouldn’t go. I would stay here because this is my home. My children would probably go, they’d be like, sure.
I also don’t like to fly, so going in a spaceship, unless they put me in cryo and knocked me out, I don’t want to know what that feels like.
Yitzi: That’s fascinating. Even though you are the hotshot space pilot in Battlestar.
Katee: Yeah but at the same time, Total Recall was also one of my favorite movies as a kid so colonizing Mars has always been in my imagination. So, you know, I’d love to see it from afar.
Yitzi: So, here’s the last question. Star Trek has one vision of the future. It’s a utopian, idealistic future. Battlestar has a much more rough edged future vision. Where do you see us going? Battlestar or Star Trek?
Katee: Battlestar. I don’t see us anywhere near Star Trek. I think that Star Trek was an idealized vision of a dream of what could be, but isn’t a reality.
I think that as long as we have people with different opinions, we’re always going to be at odds. I see a lot of conflict in the United States and I don’t see it ending anytime soon. It’s really heartbreaking and I don’t see it getting better. There is such a large divide and the divide is just being fueled and getting bigger, sadly.
Yitzi: Wow. I want to respect your time Katee, thank you so much for this joyous, thoughtful and stimulating conversation.
Katee: Thank You. You had great questions. I am so glad. Thank you so much again for moving the interview to a new day, I really appreciate it.