Stana Katic takes on a badass anti-heroine in psychological thriller Absentia

Stana Katic had a few things on her acting wish list: doing a serialized project, playing an anti-heroine and being an action star.

She’s crossing them all off with Absentia, the psychological thriller series that debuts Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. on Showcase.

Katic is FBI agent Emily Byrne, who reappears six years after she was kidnapped and presumed murdered, setting off a string of unforeseen consequences involving her personal and professional life, and the lives of those around her.

No spoilers here, but the twisty, action-packed show sees Emily regarded as both victim and villain as its 10-episode first season progresses.

For Katic, best known for the eight seasons she played detective Kate Beckett on the ABC dramedy Castle, playing Emily has been “an extreme high velocity psychological thriller of a journey.”

She’s unlike anyone Katic has played before, the actress said during a visit to Toronto.

For one thing, she’s a female anti-hero.

“There are so many great anti-hero characters out there,” says Katic, 39, who was born in Hamilton, Ont., raised in Chicago and went to the University of Toronto.

“I sat there and watched a lot of them. I watched Tony Soprano do (awful) things … and yet I rooted for him the whole time. I watched Cillian Murphy do that in Peaky Blinders, Tom Hardy do that in Tattoo and I imagine that’s a part of what this character is.

“She’s riding a really interesting line between morality and immorality, and not all of her reasons for doing things are entirely pure, but if we did a good job the audience will stick with her and they’ll root for her. They’ll be angry with her, they’ll be upset, but they’ll stay and ride that line.”

Playing Emily involved both physical and psychological challenges for Katic, and she can barely contain her excitement about the fact she did a lot of her own stunts for the show.

“Yes, yes, it was so fun!” she enthuses. “It was great to be physical and it was really lovely just to play action hero for a while. The chick is badass too, right? I had to race my own cars and do my own fight scenes and so forth, and of course we always have our stunt double. My stunt double was lovely… but I got to do, I think, a great majority of it and it was awesome.”

As for the psychological aspects of playing a character who had been held hostage for six years, Katic says, “Coming back you’re technically alive, but you’re dead to everybody that you’ve loved. That was a journey and that was tough for me. Luckily I had actors who were playing alongside me and I didn’t have to do it alone.”

(Her co-stars include Patrick Heusinger, Bruno Bichir, Ralph Ineson and Cara Theobald.)

When she got the role, she happened to be reading about female survivors of the Second World War, women who had worked in the Resistance, as well as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which deals with how he survived Auschwitz. Both those things helped inform the character of Emily.

“This doesn’t do the book justice, but Frankl said people that survived had a reason to hope, something outside of the camp to live for … The part that really informed this character is what was she living for in those six years of captivity and she was in so many ways living for her son, for the opportunity to reunite with him,” Katic says.

The reunion, of course, doesn’t go quite as hoped, nor do other aspects of Emily’s return to her former life.

Katic says Emily’s struggles aren’t unique to her being a woman and a mother.

“There’s something for me that’s relatable regardless of your gender. This character could even be Liam Neeson in Taken or something even further removed, like any of the characters (in) The Manchurian Candidate … or a soldier returning from war. Who are they now in the world that they came from and how do they relate?”

Katic sees acting as both a job and an art, and says she wanted to be an actress from the time she was “really little.”

“I don’t want to be famous. I just wanted to live in the world of imagination, and it’s really fun to explore different worlds and lives through what it is we do; to find a level of compassion for human beings and to also dig in, almost like a detective, into what it is that drives us,” she says.

As for playing Emily, “I love the character’s grit … For a section of our story she’s victimized and then she’s a shell of a person, like lost, right? And at some point she just grabs her own life and her own destiny and says come hell or high water I’m going after what I want in my life, not at the cost of anyone else but to fight for her child, to fight for her sanity, to fight for her future.

“It’s awesome.”