In 500 years, the Galactic Empire will face its downfall—unless a band of exiles, later known as the Foundation, can combat the catastrophic reality predicted by psychohistory. This is the premise of Foundation, Apple TV+’s epic sci-fi saga based on the original books by Isaac Asimov. Dreamt up for the screen by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, Foundation takes its audiences on an endless time and space loop via a narrative that jumps through centuries. At its core, is the reigning Empire on the planet of Trantor, where the Cleons—Dawn, Day and Dusk—have been sitting on the throne for as long as people can remember. Amidst impending chaos and a rebellion brewing in the sidelines, Queen Sareth, a new cast entry in Season 2, throws yet another spanner into the mix—messing up the very DNA on which the Empire has been built on.
“She walks into that situation with absolutely nothing to lose. She just does what she’s got to do,” explains Ella-Rae Smith, who wields the honour of being Queen Sareth in the sci-fi sequel. With her own life at stake in a colossal universe that’s on the verge of desolation, Queen Sareth is both spunky and courageous, yet noticeably honest and vulnerable—all traits easily gathered via her on-screen relationships with Day and Demerzel, played by Lee Pace and Laura Birn respectively. Below, the rising actor takes us on her journey through the Foundation universe, as we get to know Queen Sareth more deeply—and how Smith committed to bringing her to life.
Tell us more about how you booked the role—were you already a fan of Foundation?
So Foundation had been on my radar for a while; I knew about the first season because I actually auditioned for a role in it—I won’t say who. And then I auditioned again for a different role in Season 2. But they asked if I wanted to come in as Queen Sareth instead. At the point when I was auditioning, Season 1 wasn’t even out yet but I feel like sometimes with projects like these with so many different characters, there’s an inkling that you might get from the audition process where the casting team might want to have you as part of this universe that they’re building, but they’re not quite sure yet. So I did have a good feeling about it but it was still such a crazy experience and I just couldn’t have expected that I would be a queen out of nowhere.
What do you love most about your character, Queen Sareth?
I think what I love most about her is her calmness. You feel this in the first few episodes—she’s walking into such a grand space that most other people in the galaxy would be terrified to walk into but she enters that space with grace, confidence and a few tricks up her sleeve. I love her composure but also her wit; how biting and funny she can be. I also really, really love her intelligence—she’s always thinking and has a plan. Yet she’s also very led by her emotions, which I feel like a lot of women, like myself, could relate to. But to put it simply? It’s such a gift to be able to play an actual queen—and a space queen at that.
How did you get into character for Queen Sareth when you were on set?
I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier: her calmness and quiet confidence. For me as a person and an actor, those traits are something that I always need to feel, so it made for quite an easy transition into my character.
The thing that really got me into character though was my first fitting—just seeing the mood boards and costume designs. I looked at them and thought to myself: “Am I dreaming, is this really the world we’re going to create?” Suddenly a few hours later, I had glitter thrown all over my face, I’m in a silk dress, and I’m a queen. It was incredible. I really do think the hair, make-up and costumes all made me feel transformed into my role as Queen Sareth.
The sci-fi genre and the world of Foundation is quite a complex one to get into—with all its psychohistory lore and time-spanning universe. Was there anything you did in particular to better prepare yourself for this role?
Even though Foundation was loosely based on the original books, the world that David Goyer was building was quite different and much wider. So I decided to stay in that new world—one that Queen Sareth was actually part of. When I got the scripts, I would read my scenes and I would build a storyline just for my character. I wouldn’t even read other people’s parts because it was easier to isolate my storyline and focus on it. So when I finally watched the show, it was cool because I initially had no idea what was going on with everyone else and really enjoyed seeing everything come together for the first time.
What was it like developing your on-screen relationships with the other silver screen stars you were working alongside, such as Lee Pace or Laura Birn?
Lovely—they were so welcoming. Lauer Birn, in my opinion, is one of the greatest actors of our time. I can’t wait for people to see her in this season; from the way she moves her body to the way she controls her face, she’s just a beautiful actor and it’s such an honour to work with her, really.
And Lee? I mean, it’s Lee Pace. He’s so fantastic. I think some people will be a little nervous to act opposite someone like Lee Pace but it was such a gift to work with actors of that calibre. It takes your work to the next level. Even the scenes that are unpleasant in nature. Because when you work with people who are that talented, it makes you better and you find new things in yourself. So yeah, I really loved working with both of them—I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.
Queen Sareth enters Foundation at a very interesting turning point for the Cleons’s Empire, which has all along been presented as a rather hard, masculine space. In all her vulnerability and emotion, how do you think Queen Sareth is a relatable character for her audience?
What essentially happens with Queen Sareth is something that has just been very common across time: a woman being forced to marry a man. It’s just consistently repeated itself throughout history and lots of women have been unable to find a way out of it. For the Cleons, the Empire’s power has really gone to their heads; they’re in need of a reality check, and she really gives them that. She’s willing to raise concerns, call them out, talk about the things that they don’t want to talk about. She walks into that situation with absolutely nothing to lose. She just does what she’s got to do.
With a particular scene in the doctor’s room, she has to go through a pap smear—and despite it being such a regular part of women’s lives, it’s not seen on screen much at all. As an actor in that scene, it was so interesting because I found a common theme with Sareth then: hiding vulnerability, whilst physically being in such a vulnerable situation. And she just has to swallow it down all the time. It was interesting to be feeling it two-fold, as myself and as Sareth.
It must have been quite a scene to get through. Could you share more about what your experience on set was like?
Yeah, sure. When I was reading the script, I completely forgot that I was going to be the one doing that particular scene. It was a lot to take in when I finally realised. But in reality, I was so looked after; on set, we had the most incredible intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien. She is an absolute legend in the intimacy coordination world and she physically held my hand, looked after me and my performance would not have turned out the way it did without her being there.
I’ve been doing this acting thing for eight years now, and intimacy coordinators weren’t really a thing when I first started out so I have been in situations where I felt uncomfortable or compromised. But for this, O’Brien just made sure I felt safe and comfortable, despite the fact that I was sitting there with my legs wide open—which is quite a weird thing to find yourself doing all day long.
Do you have a favourite look from Queen Sareth?
So most of my looks were these sort of beautiful, purple silky dresses. One of our seamstresses used to do couture—and she’d be making my dresses and I would just know that they would come back and fit like a glove. But there’s one dress that when I tried it on, I pretty much cried. I told our costume designer Jane that I felt like I was trying on a wedding dress. It’s incredible. I wore it for the engagement scene; it looks like a perfectly cloudy day and the way that the material floats around, it’s so stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier in a dress.
Anything on your personal wishlist for the future seasons of Foundation?
I found it quite a pity that we never got to see my home planet, Cloud Dominion, in this season. I had always imagined it to be a little heaven; the people would be really happy, and everything would be really soft and gentle. So if I could wish for anything in Foundation, it would be to see Cloud Dominion come to life.
Photography David Reiss
Hair Carl Campbell
Make-up Emily Wood
Watch Foundation Season Two on Apple TV+ from 14 July 2023.