By Claire Bickley
"Tia digs the adventure. Carrere chats on the T.O. set about her second season as Sydney Fox on Relic Hunter"
September 17, 2000.
Tia Carrere is exploring a Roman ruin where human skulls cover one wall and spiderwebs hang in the dry, dusty air.
A bottle of designer water is tucked between the bony hands of one currently off-camera skeleton, thanks to some comedian among the Relic Hunter crew.
"Amazing set design. Visually, I'm just so proud of the show," the 33-year-old actress says during a break in shooting the program, which begins its second season on CITY TV Tuesday night at 8.
That means another 22 action-adventures for Carrere's Sydney Fox, the archeology professor who can teach a class, dispatch a villain and rescue an ancient artifact with equal aplomb.
I'm watching at their Front St. E. studio as they film Roman Holiday, an instalment in which Sydney battles a baddie who has stolen a magical breastplate that belonged to Julius Caesar and was meant to render him invincible.
"The stories we're telling are rooted in truth. It may be real. It may be rooted in myth," explains producer Jonathan Hackett, sitting in the show's stuffed prop room. A metal shopping cart full of bloody body parts shares space with a pair of golden Egyptian temple cats, a shark's-tooth-decorated voodoo cross and a wicker rickshaw.
"The truth (this episode) is rooted in is alchemy. There's a long history of alchemy. It's not been successful but nonetheless it's a part of the myth. It's possible that Caesar was, and in fact likely that he was, having an alchemist protect him from his enemies. We all know he failed, and so we're weaving a fantasy using those truths."
Some coming episodes are tied more closely to real-life events. One storyline finds Sydney trying to rescue a relic about to be lost forever when China's Yangtze River is dammed and a lake is created.
"They are damming the Yangtze," Hackett points out. "It is going to bury towns and have a tremendous impact. The impact on what was once there is total destruction."
Carrere, who calls National Geographic her favourite magazine, alerted Hackett to a story about the systemic pillaging of Cambodia's 800-year-old temple site, Angkor Wat.
"It struck a chord with me. It was desecration of sacred ground, and selling off on the black market of a culture, of a people, of a memory of a people," she says of the article, which described a French archeologist being brought to tears when he found pieces of the temple being sold in a tourist market.
"This thing is being dismantled piece by piece. It's crazy. The lady said, 'No, this is not stolen. It came up from underground. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.' "
That's why Carrere likes to think Relic has potential to be more than just a romp. And it's the reason she wants to do work for the National Geographic society and the World Wildlife Fund, and perhaps public television, to raise awareness about such issues.
Not that anyone involved in the show is making the mistake of taking it too seriously.
Other new episodes include a Heart Of Darkness-esque mission in which Sydney goes to Papua, New Guinea, to deal with a maverick secret agent. She and sidekick Nigel (Christien Anholt) will be in a jungle plane crash with dubious fellow survivors. She'll rescue another relic hunter who has removed a cursed object from an African sacred site. Thuggies -- murderous religious fanatics in 18th-century India -- inspired an episode about a cult of assassins who think human skulls make dandy candleholders.
Fred Dryer guest stars in Tuesday's season opener, as Sydney's father.
"Yeah, Hunter is Relic Hunter's father. So bizarre," Carrere says, laughing.
And Sydney will still sometimes slip out of her trademark stretch pants, suede boots and vest and into something a little more comfortable -- and a little less covering.
"We're not going to avoid the sexiness, because that's a part of the fun of it, as it's part of the fun of life and certainly part of the culture that we are as North Americans," Hackett says. "If there's a reason to be in a place where there are beautiful, scantily dressed women, then we'll be there. You can go into the fantasies of the harems or the dancing girls or whatever."
Carrere is herself a fine example of what Hackett calls the show's "believable fantasy." She's tall and strong and curvy and doesn't even come close to provoking my "For God's sake, eat a sandwich" reflex.
Earlier in the day, I spotted her walking around eating toast and jam, a prelude to a meat-and-eggs breakfast. All of which makes she and her character decent role models for the 'tween girls who are among the show's most avid audience. Especially when compared to, for instance, Pamela Anderson on V.I.P., a show Relic Hunter got lumped in with before it premiered.
By contrast, Sydney Fox is eminently capable, smart, resourceful and courageous, to the extent that Carrere observes, "She's a role model for me. She's an ideal for me. I wish I could be so brave and daring and strong."
Sydney's also single. But she's no Ally McArcheologist, mooning around about not having someone to play Indiana Jones to her Indiana Jane.
"It's like she tried it but it didn't work out. She's always travelling. She's a moving target," Carrere says, and now she could be describing herself.
Although Los Angeles remains her official address -- her little sister is there housesitting and keeping her affairs in order -- Carrere spent less than two months at home last year. It takes 10 months to produce Relic Hunter's season. Shooting is done 80% here, 20% in France, because the show is a co-production between Toronto's Fireworks Entertainment and France's Gaumont Television. Filming began here in May and moves overseas in November.
During the show's first hiatus, she turned down two feature-film offers in favour of time off.
With no downtime scheduled until Christmas, she's longing to go to her native Hawaii and see her grandmother. Her mother has moved to Toronto to keep her company and help out.
When she does get some breathing room, making music is a project Carrere wants to turn her attention to. She has sung on Relic Hunter, in an episode in which she played Sydney's grandmother singing La Vie En Rose at the Moulin Rouge. But it's unlikely there will be a repeat performance. Sydney herself has been established on the series as having "an annoying tinny voice that just comes out and scares people. Not only can she not sing, she sings horribly."
Carrere does not.
"I'm champing at the bit," she says of wanting to record her second album. "That's a whole other part of me. I feel like I've been walking around with a limb missing not doing my music."
She's also missing a wedding ring this year, divorced after seven years of marriage to producer Elie Samaha. The pair were professional as well as personal partners, with the movies The Big Kahuna and 20 Dates among their joint projects.
"We still have properties that we handle together. We still talk. It's fine," says Carrere, who has gone back to dating with a vengeance.
"It's more like dating with good intentions," but little time or energy, she says.
One day, she hopes that she and Samaha will collaborate again.
"Even if we wanted to make it work, right now it's impossible. My life is the show and I take that very seriously and all the responsibilities that go with it, and that's why I travel all over the place and work really hard, and that's what I need to be doing right now."
AROUND THE WORLD IN 22 EPISODES: Africa, New Guinea, India, China and the Amazon are just some of the places where Relic Hunter episodes are set this season, each and every location created right here in Ontario by art director Ed Hanna and his team.
Their talents can transform a Tottenham train station into a Nepalese bazaar, Milton into a jungle, the Scarborough bluffs into Greece.
But this city's ethnic neighbourhoods aren't as helpful in serving as authentic shooting locations as you might think, according to producer Jonathan Hackett.
"We did use Chinatown, but one has to be careful, because even though it's written in Chinese, for those who read Chinese it says, you know, '54 Dundas St., Toronto,' and we look like idiots for the foreign audience."
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