Stage & Dance

'Battlestar' star Mary McDonnell's leadership isn't just an act

Even if you don't immediately equate the name of Mary McDonnell with that of Battlestar Galactica's President Laura Roslin, you've surely seen her.

The hard-working actress has been seen everywhere. She was on Oscar ballots twice in the '90s, including her role as Stands With a Fist, opposite Kevin Costner, in 1990's Dances With Wolves. McDonnell played first lady Marilyn Whitmore in the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day, in which she performed much of her role after being slammed by a helicopter panel when space aliens blew up Los Angeles. She was the mom in the cult favorite film Donnie Darko, the surgeon with Asperger's syndrome on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, and last season, she was Kyra Sedgewick's sparring partner on TNT's The Closer. In between, she has done TV sitcoms, stage and teaching.

But it's her work on the critically acclaimed cult hit Battlestar Galactica, which ended last year after four seasons on the SyFy channel, that makes her recognizable to so many TV watchers.

So McDonnell, 57, has a few things to say about leadership and acting — and conveying leadership via acting. That's the reason she'll be at Transylvania University on Wednesday to deliver the William R. Kenan Jr. Lecture.

She says her speech "is using the body of work that I've been privileged to be part of ... to reflect it back onto ourselves, women in particular, how we feel we're moving forward and how we're not."

In a coincidence of timing, she was a hard-charging president of the 12 Colonies on Battlestar Galactica when Hillary Clinton was making a futile attempt to become president of the United States. Will there be a female United States president during her lifetime?

"Oh gosh, I hope so!" McDonnell says. "We're a little lagging as a country in that sense. ... I was a little surprised but kind of amazed by the kind of resistance. ... I do think it's born of a fear of the feminine in general."

Laura Roslin was a president, but she was no pushover. She blew away opponents by blasting them out spaceship airlocks, unsuccessfully tried to fix an election and narrowly survived a firing squad, but she ultimately succumbed to breast cancer. McDonnell says that having a defined end — Laura had ups and downs with her cancer, but it was obvious from the beginning that she was not going to outlive many of her compatriots — was a liberating force in Roslin's character.

In a Battlestar episode midway through the final season, Roslin yells to an unsuccessful interloper that she'll bring him down if she has to use every bit of the fleet's arsenal and even her own eyeteeth. Her threat ends with her bellowing, "I'm coming for all of you!" It's a moment that brings chills.

It's also one of McDonnell's favorite lines.

Kathy Simon, director of special programs at Transylvania, first invited McDonnell for the Kenan series — which showcases speakers from fields ranging from literature to music — in 2003.

McDonnell urges those who might reject the idea of going to hear an actor speak about leadership to "come and get to know me. It's really about what we collectively understand in the room about power and leadership and a grace in our lives."

McDonnell says that the Roslin character speaks not only to women, but to "men who are embracing their own feminist side. ... It's not just about women; it's about what men are experiencing in this time of women's growth."

This is not McDonnell's first or last encounter with the legacy of Laura Roslin. In 2009, McDonnell, her Battlestar co-star Edward James Olmos and show producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick appeared at a United Nations forum to discuss political and human rights issues raised by the series.

Says McDonnell: "Given what I went through with Laura Roslin, she brought me even further into the world. I've started to bring the rest of me with her."

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