Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
March 14, 2017

In the sci-fi thriller Atomica, safety inspector Abby Dixon (Sarah Habel) is dispatched to a remote nuclear power plant to administer repairs to its malfunctioning communications system. Upon her arrival, she is greeted by a lone individual (Dominic Monaghan) who claims that the resident scientist (Tom Sizemore) has inexplicably gone off into the surrounding desert wasteland. Suspicious of his story but compelled to complete her assignment, Abby goes about her duties as mystery and danger begin to unfold around her.

In this exclusive interview, Sarah Habel talks about her experience of working on Atomica. An admitted fan of science fiction, she graciously allows us to pick her brain about the unique filming location of a missile silo, fanciful apocalyptic scenarios, and the efficiencies of the genre overall.

Atomica is currently playing in theaters in a limited release, and is available on demand. How would you characterize your relationship with science fiction?

SARAH: I definitely have been a lifelong fan. I grew up with Alien, Aliens, all of that. One of my favorite TV series is Battlestar Galactica. I feel like it's way underrated...But yeah, just the chance to get to do this role is a little bit of a dream for me.

Most sci-fi fans would probably love pressing all the buttons and playing with all the gadgets on a set like this. How was your experience of dealing with the tech equipment and all of the related technobabble?

[laughs] The technobabble was a huge challenge, but very cool...Saying certain words makes you feel a certain way, you know? So how crisp and precise her language was would completely push me right in the direction that Abby needed to go. And the gadgets and buttons are always cool. Who doesn't like to play with those? [laughs] And also, it helps you. There's a lot of moments [where you] work by yourself, as opposed to doing a scene with another actor--you're interacting with the tech, which is cool about this role in particular.

In what ways did filming at a decommissioned missile silo inform your performance?

I can't separate the experience from that location. It was so powerful. Okay, so, it was about three stories below ground. It was always 40 degrees, really kind of cold. And I'm from California, so that is cold! And doing the shower scene... [laughs] It just added so much tension to be cold like that all the time. But then also, the set itself...That's what it looked like: it was dank and sprawling and creepy. And there's a shot in the movie where there's a bat that comes and flies sort of at my head. And that was just something that happened to occur during one of our takes, and it stayed in the movie. [laughs] And that's how much of a role this particular set played--it shaped the way everybody did their jobs on this one.

Did this facility actually have showers for technicians, or did they have to repurpose a room that had a completely different function?

They repurposed it. Like, they were trying to heat up water. It was all very carefully done in order to make everything comfortable. But yeah, there was no set like that. The bones of the set already existed. The kitchen was built, the bunks...Those kind of things were built into a very enclosing space.

When it comes to reading scripts or watching movies with mystery elements, are you able to easily figure out the plot twists and reveals before they happen?

Whenever I read scripts, especially if there's something that I am thinking about working on, or hoping to work on, I always read it from the character's perspective--like, it's really hard for me to separate and see the thing as a whole. So yeah, I totally get taken by surprise every time. I'm like, "Oh! Really? Oh, okay!" I'm a sucker. [laughs] Especially if the character's like Abby, who is the one who's like the window for the audience to see the world through. I definitely don't see the twist coming.

As a storytelling device, what do you think sci-fi is better at accomplishing than other genres?

I think it takes us out of an immediate, like, "forest for the trees" kind of storytelling. You can tell a story that's about what's happening in the world right now as you know it, but when you tell it in the sci-fi genre, there's a lot of opportunity to learn because you get some perspective, you know? It's not just regurgitating the news. You can see an aspect of a conflict from a different perspective, more removed. There's something very [clinical] about sci-fi that can give you that space to really have an idea and think about things in a different way.

Keeping with the theme of science fiction, what would you imagine your role would be in a zombie, nuclear, or alien apocalypse?

I would probably be more on the tech side, or communication--like, say, trying to communicate with other life forms. [laughs] Something that is as interactive as possible. I took karate as a kid and I couldn't get past yellow belt, so I don't think I would be a very effective warrior.

That's probably more experience than most people have had! I think you'd have a little advantage...

Hey, yeah, that's true! I shouldn't sell myself short! [laughs]

Aside from Atomica, what can fans currently see you in?

Well, I have just wrapped up on Riverdale, which is airing on the CW as we speak. I played Geraldine Grundy, the music teacher with a heart of..."something not gold." [laughs] So you can catch me on that. And otherwise, stay tuned!

I've been keeping up with the series, and thought Ms. Grundy was a gold mine of misinformation and plot twists. I'd love to see her make a return soon...

[laughs] That sounds great! I will second that.

Thanks for your time this afternoon, Sarah, and have a great rest of your week.

It was my pleasure! Thank you, and you have the same!

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