It’s not often that a character can arrive at a series in its third season and completely win over the audience, but Kelly McCormack’s Zeph has become such an integral part of the Killjoys family it’s hard to believe we ever went without her. Now into Season 4, Zeph has been blowing us away with her abilities: discovering a way to cleanse the Hullen without the Green, saving Delle Seyah (Mayko Nguyen) from a fatal childbirth, and stopping Jaq (Jaeden Noel) from aging himself to death. And she’s still not done.
Unfortunately, Zeph’s hit a road block in the form of a spider in Pip’s (Atticus Mitchell) brain, which is quickly turning into a no-win scenario if she doesn’t find a way to stop it. With the pressure building, Zeph is experiencing her share of self-doubt.
The TV Junkies spoke with McCormack about the pressure Zeph is placing on herself this season, why even McCormack herself didn’t realize how much of a hero Zeph has been while filming, and what makes Killjoys such a remarkable series.
This interview has been edited and condensed
The TV Junkies: In our Season 4 preview you said Zeph did a lot of heavy lifting science-wise, but really, she’s been more of a big damn hero. I’m pretty sure she’s saved everyone’s lives at least once this season. What did you think when you saw those first few scripts?
Kelly McCormack: My first thought is always self doubt and they must have got this wrong. My first thought was, ‘oh no, no, this must be a different character or I must be dreaming.’ The first four episodes were so science heavy, and it’s funny because even as I was reading them, I didn’t even interpret them as Zeph was saving the day. I was just interpreting them as Zeph has been given a lot of responsibility, but also so much shit is going down: Delle Seyah’s pregnant, Johnny’s (Aaron Ashmore) Hullen, there’s a child that’s turning into an adult, there’s the Lady. There’s a lot going on. And even as myself, Kelly McCormack, I was reading it going, ‘well, there’s just high stakes and she’s a scientist, so of course she has all this stuff to do.’ Then I go work mode where I’m like, ‘okay, I have all these very intense lines to learn and make them all true to myself.’ And it really wasn’t until the episodes started airing and then people were tweeting at me, ‘oh my god, Zeph’s saving the day,’ that I actually realized that she was saving the day and that, without her, you know, things would have gone differently.
I think that’s a testament to the character and how she’s written. She has an ego about science, but she doesn’t have an ego about having recognition or being the center of attention. She hasn’t got a hero complex. She’s just doing what she does for the people that she loves. So, it was kind of fun because people kept [saying] Zeph’s saving the day. And I’m like, ‘oh yeah, I guess she did save the day.’ But at the time I was just really honored and humbled by the fact that I was getting so much heavy lifting science-wise and also, quite frankly, terrified because I’m constantly terrified that I’m going to fuck everything up and they’re going to realize that this was a terrible mistake hiring me and the network is going to be like, ‘kill that Zeph girl. We don’t like her.’ So, you know, complicated feelings. Did I feel like a hero? No. As a viewer, when I watch it, do I now think Zeph is a hero? In her way that she knows how to be a hero, for sure. I mean, Team Awesome Force is full of heroes and I feel very privileged to be a science hero, and be a lady science hero, more specifically.
TTVJ: I think what you’re saying is reflected in Zeph as a character as well, because with as many lives as she’s saved, she’s still putting pressure on herself and being critical of herself over what’s happening with Pip and the spider.
KM: Right. I mean, that’s something she says a lot is ‘I’m scared I can’t save everybody,’ and I think from my own experience with this and maybe something I’ve added for Zeph that you will see more of in Season 4, but also very much in Season 5, is when someone is really hard on themselves and nothing is ever enough, and she can’t quite give herself the approval and celebrate herself in a way that maybe other people can, it’s usually an indication that she has something maybe from her childhood or from growing up that has left a very deep scar in her too. She’s able to trust herself as a scientist, but she also has a deep fear that she won’t ultimately be able to make everyone happy or make everyone okay. I think that comes from a very childlike fragility and that is something I’ve tried to add to the character and the writers have beautifully woven into her fabric. It’s something that I can’t believe you guys all get to slowly learn about in ways that are, I hope, relatable and potent and important, especially for young women to hear people talk about on camera, in a sci-fi television show.
I can’t reveal anything, but I was given some lines in this season and in Season 5 and some things I’ve said in this season that hit me so hard and hit me so personally that, and I will say this again, I don’t know if I will ever be given such an opportunity to live with a character this long, and be able to have the writers see me so clearly, and me see them, and us have this beautiful understanding about what this young girl who’s becoming a woman has gone through and how that filters into her unwavering trust in science and every type of quantum physics and yet such a mistrust in whether or not things are going to be okay. And whether or not she can keep the people that she loves, which is a beautiful thing to play. I just feel very grateful for that.
TTVJ: There was something Zeph said this season that really struck me this season, back in Episode 4. She was speaking with Pip and mentioned how her family expectations were only for her to have children. It was a moment that really resonated with me, and it’s part of what makes her such a rich and relatable character.
KM: I mean, I feel the same way. I think about how rare it is for a woman to say on camera, ‘the only thing my family expects me to do is have have kids,’ and then her male partner, or whatever he is to her, say, ‘well, they never really knew you.’ He already knows that’s not what she wants. He already knows that’s not what she’s put on this planet for, that’s not what makes her tick. And, yet, you never see that. Again, that little moment was just dropped into that episode and you’ll see it dropped elsewhere. There was another part where Zeph is examining the baby and you see Johnny is trying to poke fun at her with the child and she’s like, ‘cardiomyocytes aren’t really cute.’ Clearly she’s come from somewhere that left deep scars on her and now she has this new family who she fucking loves and adores and would do anything for and would clearly give her life for. And now the only thing that she has to give to that family to make sure it sustains and make sure it endures is her science, and the only thing that’s going to stop her family living on is if she fails with her science. So it’s an incredible amount of pressure.
TTVJ: I’ve really enjoyed the relationship between Pip and Zeph this year, especially with the slight flip of gender dynamics, where it’s the female character who’s choosing to keep things casual. Did you have that idea of gender dynamics in mind while filming those scenes?
KM: Of course. And I was also thinking about all the times I have said the things that Zeph says to Pip in my real life. They’re met with a large question marks because most people aren’t used to hearing that coming from women, right? It is nice for a woman to express herself these ways and to say, ‘you know, I have these boundaries and this is just what I want.’ And in the coming episodes you’ll have an opportunity to hear Zeph kind of “defend her case” as to why maybe relationships aren’t really her thing and that she struggles with the relationship of being in a relationship. She struggles with them as a concept.
I think it’s also really cool that Atticus gets to explore what it is for a guy’s character to want something more and negotiate a woman saying, ‘no, I don’t want those things.’ I mean, in the future it seems like things are much more fluid and obviously within the world of Killjoys sex isn’t shamed and through Dutch’s (Hannah John-Kamen) character you’ve seen her have intimate relationships with various people and it’s not at all [a big deal]. But we can’t forget the fact that, even if in the future a woman saying ‘I don’t want to be in a relationship’ is no big deal, people are watching it in today’s context. So, how do we stay true to the more fluid-accepting and more varied world of Killjoys, but then know that we’re delivering this to an audience where it could be quite meaningful. To see a young woman say ‘people expect me to have kids and I don’t want them’ and her male partner to say, ‘well, then those people didn’t know you.’ That means something. It meant something to me when I read it and I hope that it means something to people to see that kind of stuff. And we’ll only see more of it!
TTVJ: I mean, that’s the thing I love about Killjoys. It’s this fun, sexy show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but through the choices by the writers and Michelle Lovretta it’s very subtly political.
KM: It’s so progressive. I could write a 30 page psychology paper on the show Killjoys, and don’t ask me to, because I will. [laughs]
TTVJ: There’s so many layers to it. There’s sexuality, not just women but for the LGBTQ community, as well as discussions of able-bodied people from back in Season 3.
KM: I know. I love that. As an avid reader of sci-fi books, I grew up reading Ursula K. Le Guin. At Fan Expo I wore a UKLG shirt, which I don’t know if anyone picked up on, but [I decided to wear it] because she just died this last year and she was the reason I became a writer myself. Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks, John Wyndham and Orson Scott Card, all these incredible writers had a huge effect on my life. I find that what I think sets apart Killjoys and the writing on Killjoys, more than maybe any other sci-fi show I’ve seen, is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of binaries. Not just in the realm of sexuality, but in good and evil.
I find in a lot of sci-fi it can get into the trap of, ‘these guys are bad, these guys are good, this is our mission, blah.’ And in Killjoys it’s like who is bad, becomes good, who’s good becomes bad. And it’s the same thing with sexuality as well. I think in general they don’t believe that any one thing isn’t fluid and isn’t up for debate and can’t change and morph in many different ways. I like that a lot about the show because I find that in some sci-fi worlds they can get trapped in ‘this is the forever good and this is the forever bad and this is the person you’re desperately in love with.’ And that’s it. It’s not complicated. You’re just in love with them. And even with Zeph’s relationship with Pip, you see that that’s not true. You can still love someone and care for them deeply, but you can’t fit them into your life in a straightforward way. It’s like Lovretta and Adam [Barken] and all the writers are just spinning a dial very slowly and in all these different ways, constantly. And it’s true, it’s so stealthily progressive. It’s so fun. It’s kick-ass, it’s sexy, it’s fast. And then there’s just these moments when we’re like, ‘damn, did they just say that?’
And it just gets more like that. I’m so excited for all the fans to watch the rest of this season and the next season because I think the Killjoys writers have been given this incredible gift of knowing it’s coming to an end. So, as any artists do, when they know this is the last act you can go for broke. You put out all your best numbers and you put the loudest singers on stage and make it awesome. And trust me: holy shit, is it going to be awesome.
TTVJ: Honestly, it’s been such a treat to cover the show this year and get the chance to speak with the people behind it, as a fan and as a journalist.
KM: I’m glad you noticed some of the more progressive nods that the show does, and it’s a reflection of the sum of its parts, right? A reflection of all the different writers. I’m not sure if you’ve met all of them, but each one of them you’re like, ‘oh, that makes sense that the show would collect someone like you, someone like you, and someone like you.’ The show is a melting pot of all of their brilliant brains and their brilliant hearts and their empathetic minds and souls, in a way. And I hope that fans will enjoy all the places that the show goes and takes it further and further. I hope that down the line [people] discover the show and go, ‘oh damn, Killjoys was doing that back in the day?’ I have so much respect for the show that I hope everyone discovers it in their own time and it gets the kind of widespread recognition it deserves for being always at the front of the cusp of progression, which it truly is. Like some of the things we’ve done on this show, it’s like, ‘damn guys, whoa. Look at us go!’ And then I’ll never work again. [laughs]
TTVJ: You do have an amazing movie coming up.
KM: I do. A Simple Favor, that Paul Feig directed. There was an article that just came out about my audition experience for that in Cineplex Magazine, so people who have been going to the movies for the last couple of days keep texting me photos of the magazine on their lap before a movie. That will be coming out on the 14th and I’m going to the premiere next week, in between shoot days, in New York.
I’m on Letterkenny now, which has been really wonderful. Totally, totally different character. I play a gnarly, raunchy hockey player who’s kind of not that smart. [laughs] She’s had one too many concussions. What else? Me and Atticus were on The Expanse, which was kind of fun.
TTVJ: Yeah, you played two very different characters, but I love that you’re still together.
KM: It was wild because we were in our little space suits just waiting for the setting up and we were like, ‘we’re in a space ship, you’re here, we’re in space suits, but this is not Killjoys.’ It was kind of surreal, actually. I’ve got a gun, I’m wearing a jumpsuit, I have no sense of humor, the stakes are very high, but [Atticus is] still my space partner.
Atticus and I have this hilarious idea that we’re in a remake of Sliders where we’re just dropping inside different universes, adapting temporarily and then peacing out. So maybe we should make a show called “Space Bums” where we’re just two low-key assholes who travel through different space universes and become space partners.
TTVJ: It’s like your own little expanded universe within Canadian sci-fi. But that means the next series you have to go on is Star Trek: Discovery.
KM: I know! I was technically on Defiance, but Atticus wasn’t there so that doesn’t count. So Atticus and I need to be on Star Trek together. I will let you pitch that to the network. We do travel as a space pair, two space bums. We’ve played raging hot-headed, shit-disturbing assholes on The Expanse. On Killjoys we’re the wise-cracking, weirdo, B-team, smart genius and her lovable sidekick. So I don’t know what that leaves us.
Maybe we could be historians. They show up on a planet and we’re just these two people in rocking chairs being like, ‘we’ve seen everything in the universe.’ We’re like the old man in the book The Giver. We know it all. We have lived forever. We have cool little round spectacles. Or, you know, a little bit like a Pinky and the Brain kind of vibe, which is kind of mutilation of Zeph and Pip. [pause] Oh my God. We are Pinky and the Brain! One is a genius. The other’s insane. [Sings the Pinky and the Brain theme] Sorry, Atticus! That’s so funny. Okay, Star Trek, here we come!
What are your thoughts on Zeph’s storyline this season? Sound off in the comments below, and keep and eye out for part two, where we discuss the events of this week’s episode.
Killjoys airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy and Space.
Associate Editor Kelly Townsend always had strong opinions on TV growing up, so it was only natural to evolve from couch musings to online journalism. She can't ever choose a favorite series, so please don't ask. Her writing has also appeared on IndieWire and Tribute.ca. You can find her on Twitter at @kellybtownsend.