An assistant director runs through the silvery bio lab of NBC's "Dark Skies", past a prosthetic alien corpse splayed on a metal table, and shouts a warning: "Guns are hot, and so are we! Fire in the hole! Protect your ears!"
Across the soundstage, series stars Megan Ward and Eric Close are trapped in a toolshed by some…thing. "Stand back!" shouts Close, whose character, John Loengard, belongs to a clandestine government agency investigating an underground alien invasion know as the Hive. He fires four gunshots into the doors.
While Loengard plays hero, Kimberly Sayers (Ward) steps aside, then helplessly looks around for an escape route. After the scene, Ward grills director Perry Lang: "Perry, did you print that one? I don't feel like IO did anything."
Later, Ward pauses briefly for lunch in her trailer. "They are continually trying to make my character more proactive," says the 27-year-old, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up on the Hawaiian island Oahu. "That was a perfect example [of the need to improve the role] - I had nothing to do in that scene. There was no specific direction for me to do anything but react and worry."
That will all change on Saturday, February 8 (8 P.M./ET), when Sayers, whose body once hosted a gooey alien parasite, discovers she's carrying lover Loengard's baby. The rest of the season will reveal whether the child remains human or mutates into an alien.
"When a woman becomes pregnant, her body is coursing with hormones," explains "Dark Skies" c-creator Bryce Zabel. "We're saying that this pregnancy she goes through causes the hormones in her body to kick in and regenerate the latent [alien] tendrils inside her. They got the main alien out, but the spidery veins of the ganglion were left inside."
Sound far-fetched? Maybe. But Ward is happy to have a strong part to play. "We still need to shake the story out," she says, "but I am so excited. Whether Kimberly is manipulated by the Hive, or whether she infiltrates the Hive and finds out what's going on there, or whether she becomes part of the Hive is still to be determined."
Producers hope Sayers' pregnancy will help brighten the prognosis for the low-rated "Dark Skies", a period drama which tracks the spread of aliens as they dramatically alter historic events after touching down in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The story began during the Kennedy administration, with Ward in a flip hairdo, and is now carrying viewers through the '60s. Though it scores slightly better among young adults, the show routinely performs poorly in its time slot. Nonetheless, the producers have "Dark Skies" planned through New Year's 1999. (Zabel says other broadcasters have expressed interest in picking up the show if NBC cancels it.)
Another move to spice things up came in January, when Jeri Lynn Ryan (Melrose Place) joined the cast as a Russian agent for Majestic-12, the secret group Loengard reluctantly works for. And after Sayers gives birth, she will run off with her child, leaving Loengard a tortured guy in search of his love. "Megan had got real intensity, and she can shift on a dime," says David Nevins, senior vice president of prime-time series for NBC. "We want to see that character when she's not so sweet."
Of course, Ward, a newlywed, would have preferred that the pregnancy coincide with her schedule. "This is what actresses sit around and talk about - seriously," says Ward, married less than two years. "You get a series, then in season two you get pregnant, and they write it in. But in this case, I'm pregnant one week and having the baby the next!"
The possibility of mothering alien spawn should not shock Ward, who got her screen start in 1990 battling a killer android with Paul Ganus in "Crash And Burn" followed by straight-to-video "Trancers II," "Amityville 1992: It's About Time," and "Freaked." "Working with special effects is a whole different kind of skill," says Ward, adding, "The day they shoved the probe up my nose [on "Dark Skies"] really tested the limits of my patience."
In addition to aliens, she's cavorted with everything from a defrosted CroMagnon ("Encino Man") to cockroaches ("Joe's Apartment") on the big screen. But TV viewers may know her best as the ill-fated girlfriend of Bailey (Scott Wolf) on Fox's "Party Of Five."
Ward, the youngest of four, learned to love the spotlight when her drama-teacher parents cast her in plays they produced. When she was 9, her mother's job at a modelling agency led to local department-store commercials. By the time she was 12, she had an extensive portfolio, and she travelled to Japan for modelling assignments for six years. She even briefly hosted a Japanese TV show.
Though Ward has been hard at work for nearly two decades, she's had to adjust to the unrelenting hours required for her lead role on the elaborate hour-long drama, which sources say costs $1.6 million an episode to produce. She hasn't talked to some friends in months. Luckily, she say, "My husband understands, and he visits me all the time on the set, so I don't get any grief at home."
"But when you're working 80-hour weeks," she continues, "and then your weekends are still devoted to your work in some way - whether it's an interview or getting your roots done at the beauty salon - you're just not your normal self. I cannot be the easygoing person I want to be. I have to be more demanding."
That's not to say her job doesn't provide a frequent source of humour. "You'll be standing on a set screaming, emoting to a rubber head like it's real, like it's alive," she says. "Sometimes, you're going, ‘You know, is it just me? Am I the only one who feels silly right now?' That's when everyone finally breaks down and gets a good laugh out of it."