Mary McDonnell, ‘Battlestar Galactica’

Geena Davis’ promotion to commander in chief may have been big news last fall, but technically she wasn’t the first female president on a weekly television series. That title belongs to trailblazer Mary McDonnell, who recently finished her second season portraying Laura Roslin, president of a small group of terrorist attack survivors, on Sci Fi’s acclaimed drama “Battlestar Galactica.”

McDonnell was initially skeptical when the script for a new series inspired by the original ’70s space opera came across her desk, but she now describes the show as a “surprise jewel” in her acting career.

A two-time Oscar-nominee for “Dances With Wolves” and “Passion Fish,” McDonnell is no stranger to difficult roles. During “Galactica’s” second season, her character faces a corrupt military, religiously polarized antiabortion advocates and the debilitating effects of cancer.

In a scene every bit as dramatic as anything you’d find on “The West Wing” or “24,” season two climaxes with Roslin deciding whether to fix her own re-election to save her followers from a new leader whom she deems a traitor.

“She does things which could be, if I stepped outside of it, wildly irrational,” McDonnell says. “I’m always asked to go deeper and understand that her agenda is about everyone else, that her actions don’t really matter as much as they accomplish. It’s been a very interesting territory for me as an actress.”

The jaw-dropping season finale positions McDonnell’s character to become an even more inspiring leader when the show returns in October — but don’t expect the actress to give away any of creator Ron Moore’s secrets. And as long as she has “partner in crime” Edward James Olmos by her side, McDonnell can’t imagine any scenario but staying onboard “Galactica” for the long haul.

“We want to take our talent and put it into stories that have meaning and relevance,” she says. “‘Battlestar Galactica’ has given me that. I don’t think I have had any of those moments where I go, ‘How long can I do this?’ ”

Still, the show has endured an uphill battle convincing skeptics that some of the best dramatic writing — and acting — on television might turn up in a sci-fi show. According to McDonnell, “Galactica’s” recent Peabody and AFI awards have helped.

“Even on a personal level, I’m finding more and more people who are watching,” she says. “Once you dive into it, it’s hard not to become involved with the show.”

SOUND BITES

Favorite scene of last season?

“In ‘Resurrection Ship, Pt. 2,’ Laura gives Commander Adama (Olmos) his Admiral rings. There is a brief moment where I saw how genuinely tickled Laura is watching him receive something, because all he does is give. That moment just haunted me.”

Favorite shows?

“’24.’ My husband (Randle Mell) was on it for a year, and I got involved during that period. I was a great ‘West Wing’ fan, and I feel sad to see it go.”

Underrated actor?

“Mary Lynn Rajskub from ’24.’ Her performance is the kind of thing that goes into your heart and soul. I’ve been constantly impressed by her gifts.”

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