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An interview with 'Pan Am' star Karine Vanasse

Karine Vanasse plays Colette Valois on ABC's
Karine Vanasse plays Colette Valois on ABC's "Pan Am"
Courtesy of ABC

Tonight ABC airs the season finale of "Pan Am" but it very well may be the series final because, as of this writing, ABC has not revealed any plans to continue making the show. While not a runaway hit in terms of ratings, the show does have a strong fan base and it has garnered critical support for its art direction and soundtrack, as well as individual performers of the ensemble, including Karine Vanasse, who plays Colette Valois, the French member of the stewardess team who lost her parents in World War II. You can catch up with the series at ABC's website. A few weeks ago we had the chance to speak with Vanasse about her work on the show.

KPCC: "Pan Am" is a gorgeous show to look at, how does this environment, from the set to the uniforms, to the music, prepare you as Colette?

Karine Vanasse: I think at first I really wanted to make sure that I was grasping the 60s, I did a lot of research. I was worried about moving the right way, not just speaking, but if I was walking properly and moving my body correctly for those times. They do such a great job on the wardrobe and set design, we're really immersed in the 60s. When you put on those dresses and shoes, just with the clothes, you put them on and that's it, you're not in 2011/2012 anymore. We were shooting an episode and I had to wear gloves and for some reason, in all the scenes I shot I was always wearing gloves and it was so different, I know it's a little detail, but I realized I was moving my hands completely differently, and then I had a scene without gloves and I just felt naked. Those little details and where it brings you completely somewhere else which is really interesting.

You mentioned that you had to act like a woman in the 60s which is something that the series really focused on in the first few episodes of the season, what women had to do to get a job in the 60s and deal with behavior that wasn't considered discrimination 40-plus years ago. You're playing a character who had to operate in this environment without being resentful of it.

Karine Vanasse: Oh yes, absolutely. For me it was so interesting to see this contradiction for these women. They were able to go around the world and experience things that none of their friends back home had a chance to experience. But they had the negative side to deal with as well, being weighed and all those things. The beginning of the series was interesting because it put everybody into that frame of mind. We now know how things were in the 60s and how things have changed but I don't think we appreciate how much things have changed. We have a producer who was a Pan Am stewardess and can talk directly to her and her friends who were stewardesses when they come on set to realize that it really was a short time ago. If you wanted to be an independent woman then you really needed to have a strong feeling about it, you had to fight for it, and as you said, without feeling resentful about it.

You're part of an amazing cast, you have a lot of scenes with everybody, is there another actor that you've particularly enjoyed working with? Or perhaps another character that you've liked working with?

Karine Vanasse: I've had a lot of scenes with Mike Vogel and Annabelle Wallis and Kelli Garner. I think it was really interesting to see Colette and Dean's relationship is tricky at times, she wants to open up to him and at the same time she's so scared, it's been interesting to see this developing. It's always fun to share the development of a story line with another actor. We try to put something on screen that people react to and have fun with it, and the fans are really into it. We had that one episode, the one in Haiti, "Unscheduled Departure," where I had many scenes with Michael Mosely who I hadn't even shared a "Hello" with up to that point in the show. It was really funny because I arrived on set that day and realized that I hadn't even looked at him in a scene yet. It creates different dynamics and I love when the writers do that. There was also a great scene in the "Truth or Dare" episode where are the girls are together and having a kind of picnic on the plane. It was the first time that all the girls were really together and you could see that the relationships between all these women was possible, I really liked that as well.

When I watch the show I can't imagine acting in it without hearing that wonderful music because the music brings everything together so well. The music is so perfectly paired with the scene and the scenes seem to be edited to the rhythm of the music. I watch you guys as you're walking through an airport and I just have to think that you're hearing this great song but you aren't, are you?

Karine Vanasse: I know, but we're not! That would be so great! You're right, the music makes such a big difference. But I have to tell you, all the vans that take the actors from their apartments to the sets and trailers, they're always playing 60s music on the radio and it's 60s music in the trailers as well. Even though we're not hearing it on the set, it's staying with us. I think we're keeping that rhythm with us somewhere. It's funny that you mention this because I did a movie, Without Her, in Quebec a few years ago and the director knew what music was going to be put on the movie. We were shooting a scene at a very windy location where we couldn't use the sound so he decided to play the music and it's interesting because you would have thought that the music will help you get to the emotion of the scene earlier and to be more in synch but strangely it brought us to an emotional spot that we kept returning to. It was limiting us because we couldn't get past that spot but it was a great experiment, it was really surreal.

You've had a lot of experience working in Canadian-Quebecoise television, other than more money being behind a major US TV network show, what are some differences that you've observed?

Karine Vanasse: The process is a little different. What I did in Montréal is that we would shoot the first season and then we'd stop and then the show would start airing. Then the entire show would air, and afterwards we would see if we would come back for another season. You never have in mind while you are shooting, in Canada, the question, "Are we going to be here next week? Are they going to keep the show?" That was a big difference. Here we don't know what's coming up week by week, hoping that you'll be there for the next few months. Another big difference is that, with "Pan Am," is hearing back from viewers from all over the world, right away. You just feel that millions of people are watching, people from different cultures and different countries. Knowing that all these people are watching and that what they are saying and what they are writing might influence what the network asks for from the writers is also very interesting. Another difference is knowing that my performance might also influence the writers and that they might write something different for me within a couple episodes - they don't have the entire season written out.

You moved from Quebec to the US to work on "Pan Am," what's that experience been like?

Karine Vanasse: It had always been a dream of mine to come to New York to work. Coming to New York and looking for work is one thing, but coming to New York and already having a job and feeling like you are already part of the city has been an amazing experience for me. I had come here when I was 19 with some opportunities, maybe I wasn't mature enough, but I think I was overwhelmed by the city. To have the chance to come back and feel like I could put my feet down and that the city is welcoming me has been rewarding.