INTERVIEW

"Resident Alien" star Sara Tomko on otherness and relationships: "It's so hard to be human

The Syfy star on her character's relationship with Harry, music and how we're all on the ground floor of a hotel

By Alison Stine

Published February 26, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

Sara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees in "Resident Alien" (James Dittiger/SYFY)
Sara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees in "Resident Alien" (James Dittiger/SYFY)

"Resident Alien," the Syfy show now its second season, may have used Alan Tudyk, beloved cult character on "Firefly" and other nerdy delights like "Rogue One," to lure in fans. But once they were there, in the fictional town of snowy Patience, Colorado, viewers fell in love with Asta Twelvetrees. 

Played by Sara Tomko, Asta is a nurse, a survivor of domestic violence, a bio mom and a woman of color in a predominantly white, small town. Matching wits with Tudyk's character, Harry, an alien who has come to Earth and adopted a disguise with the intent of killing us all, Asta is the beating heart of a show whose star has glowing green blood — and a new obsession with pizza.

At the end of the first season, Asta discovered Harry's secret: He's not human. Trapped together in an ice cave, Asta has a reaction only the best of humanity might: She takes care of him. The second season finds Asta trying to balance her family, work and community responsibilities while seeing quite a lot of her newest, closest — and strangest — friend, who wants to kill everyone on Earth except her.

The fate of the world? It's on on her shoulders.  

RELATED: Syfy's charming "Resident Alien" lets its star(man) shine

Tomko was born into a military family on Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside of Dayton, Ohio. Classically trained, she began her career as a singer and always dreamed of Broadway. She spoke with Salon about "Resident Alien," the intense relationship of her character and Harry, her hope for the future — and her advice for struggling artists. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed. 

I wanted to start with talking about "Resident Alien." Your character Asta has emerged as such a fan favorite, which I understand because I love that character myself. What do you like about the character? What's fun about playing Asta for you?

Asta is so complicated, layered and sensitive, and it's one of the first things that drew me into her because I myself am an emotional being. Aren't we all? But I know that not everybody wears their heart on their sleeve — and Asta really does. She picks up on the energy of other people. She also, when she's not doing well, she doesn't hide it. That's definitely something I relate to. I'm not somebody who can stuff down my feelings. If I'm upset, you're going to know. I'm very forward, and very honest about how I'm feeling in the moment — which I think is refreshing about her too, because I understand how she feels.

She comes right into the world, having had a really tumultuous relationship, and feels a bit lost and unsure about her relationship to herself as well as to men or to love. I think that's just relatable for a lot of people on a lot of different levels. I myself was coming into the show after having a similar situation — not abusive, but it was definitely very toxic. So, right off the bat, I knew what she was going through. It's been really amazing to play her on this journey of discovery of herself and finding her soul again, rediscovering what she wants in this life that has nothing to do with a relationship to a man. That is a similar journey that I went on at the same time . . . It's been a lot of fun to play such a layered character. 

You know, when you get a role, you just hope that it will be three-dimensional, full and purposeful and meaningful. And you hope people will relate to it. Then on top of that, you hope, like you said, it will be likable or that people will want to know more about not only the show, but your character. I feel like that's been true after season 1. I'm really grateful for that.

Related: When Harry met Asta: Syfy's kooky "Resident Alien" is a love story

Like you said, Asta is very complex too. She has layers, and she has a past. I think that we don't see a lot of the relationships in her life on TV very often. There's the mother-daughter relationship that she has with her daughter, adopted as an infant. She's back in Asta's life, but doesn't know at first who her bio mother is. I also love that Asta's character is nurturing, despite everything that's happened to her, including relationship violence. How do you play somebody who's been through a lot of pain, but is still loving?

That's a really great question. I think I try to take on a very core purpose of compassion, whenever I'm approaching that [issue]. And also as Sara just approaching people in the world, I've learned in my small time here on this planet as a human that we are all complicated beings. More often than not, we're all going through something pretty meaningful on a day-to-day basis. So, when you bump into people and they may not be in the best mood, trying to look at them with compassion has always been helpful to me. I think it's something that Asta does really well, to take care of others — but maybe we're not so good about taking care of ourselves.

That's something that I had to learn. I grew up in a big family. I always felt like I was sort of the peacekeeper. Everyone felt they could talk to me. I was always grateful to be able to help people, and Asta is the same way. She grew up in a community of people. She's always been great about taking care of others. But what I find most interesting is this journey to take care of herself. That was definitely something that I've been on in my own journey in the last few years, as I've been playing her as well. So, the compassion that she has when she's going through this painful process, is really just reflected back on knowing that other people are in pain as well, and operating from that thought process.

If I'm in pain, then you must be in pain.

Resident AlienAlan Tudyk as Harry Vanderspeigle, Sara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees in "Resident Alien" (James Dittinger/SYFY)

That's why it's so refreshing when Harry comes along and is also so very brutally honest. He's sort of a person who doesn't seem like he's in any sort of pain. That's refreshing to her, because not everybody in her life is that forward . . . She's sort of intrigued, because nothing bothers him, and that's why it's so interesting after finding out he's an alien. 

In season 2, what we've seen so far is that he's starting to feel human emotion in a way he wasn't planning on. She's got to start talking and teaching him about pain and heartache, and how to also still be compassionate to others, not just kill people. Not just kill the world because you're upset. You can't just obliterate the planet, which is a really funny on a metaphorical, big scale of anger and pain. I'm sure there were days in the last two years where we've all felt like, "Man, wouldn't it just be great if we could just start over?"

Every time there's a meteorite or something headed this way, so many people are like, "Yes, take us with you!" Or, "End it all!"

Right! In some ways, it's weird to laugh about it because it's so morbid, really, but it's the truth. We are all coming from a place of pain, because it's so hard to be human, just existing on a planet. My girlfriends and I, we always remind each other: "Hey, we're just floating on a planet in the sky right now, okay? There's a black hole somewhere. We're only here because of gravity." . . . When we're going through some serious stuff, we have to remind ourselves: The greater purpose of what we don't know is that we're just sort of floating around in a galaxy that's huge, so beyond our control. We have to come back to just what is in the present. I think that's something that Asta has to remind herself of a lot when she's dealing with other people — and remind herself of a lot when she's dealing with Harry, specifically.

That leads me into a question I wanted to ask about one of my family's favorite moments of the first season of "Resident Alien," when Asta tells Harry that she's always felt like an outsider, too, and maybe that's why that she understands him. She's different. He's different, and she knows what it feels like. Can you talk a bit about the different ideas of outsiders on the show, and why maybe Harry isn't the only one who feels like an alien?

I love that line, too. In fact, when I said it during the pilot, I remember I looked over at Chris Sheridan and I said, "That's going to be on T-shirt, that line."

Feeling human is alien to me. 

There are so many examples of "others" in the show. In fact, I feel like what is truly ironic about the show is the alien seems to be the only real normal one walking around. We all have these different quirks and personality traits. Mayor Ben with his candles, and Deputy Liv just trying to be loved and feeling kindness from coffee. Sheriff Mike having all this turmoil inside of him, but really just wanting to be accepted by his father. You start to unravel all of these characters, and you see that they also feel like they're outsiders in either their profession or their place in life.

I think you see it in a lot of ways on the show with Asta specifically feeling like an outsider mainly because she gave up her daughter for adoption and she's feeling like, "What is it to be a woman in this world, to be a mother, but to not be connected to your child?" There's so much pressure for women . . . There is a lot of judgment, specifically on women in the world for the choices they make when it comes to children . . . We also showed on episode 3 of season 2, a comment on equal pay — that women in Patience are not treated equally. 

I think in the end, Harry starts to learn that he of course feels like an other, as an alien versus human — but he starts to learn that there are lots of complicated ways to be human. Even in this most recent episode, he meets Drew, played by Tommy Pico, who just says, "Have you ever felt like an other?" 

We constantly are dealing with themes of finding ourselves, and finding what really rings true to us as people in Patience. Harry's also trying to figure out what it means to be human while he's still an alien, and now he is really torn between the two. I think it's beautiful that we have this theme constantly being sort of ping-ponged back and forth for all the characters, because it reminds us that we all can feel that way at any given time. 

If Asta stands for anything, and if Harry stands for anything as a unit together, they remind people that it's OK to be an other, whatever that means for you.

Resident AlienAlan Tudyk as Harry and Sara Tomko as Asta in "Resident Alien" (James Dittiger/SYFY)Another strength of the show is obviously the chemistry and deep friendship, really the love, that develops over time between Asta and Harry. How would you describe their relationship?

You know, they feel so much like chosen family to me. They choose to stick together. There's something about Asta that Harry doesn't quite know how to describe and at the end of season 1, you see him sort of figure out: "It's you. You are the reason I feel all these feelings. I don't want you to die." What a concept, right? Another being comes to the world, has no emotional pull towards any of us here and is meant to just kill us all — and then meets another other, and has this sense of soul-kindred spirit-ness. He doesn't understand it. It's a beautiful metaphor for how we are connected to people, and we don't really know why.

It's same thing as why you love who you love. You can't explain it. It's just a feeling. Harry's really sort of trying to figure out what that means for him. All the while, Asta is so, I think, grateful to have a connection with a man, specifically that isn't sexual in any nature whatsoever — but she can trust him . . . She tells her father, "I really do. It's just a gut feeling. I do trust him." . . .  I'm so curious as an audience member, watching the show as well unfold: How is this all going to turn out? How are they going to work through these feelings and not abandon one another?

I think it's really interesting to explore that without there being sex involved or intimate relationships involved. I think it's really beautiful to explain how two can love one another, and never have that be a factor.

It's confusing and it's meaningful. It just proves the point that I think we all have felt in our lives, having at least one person where you just feel drawn to them, but you don't quite know why. They mean something to you, and you just always think of them. For all your life, you're like, "Man, I think of that person," and maybe they're still in your life. For some, they kind of come and go, quickly. For Harry and Asta, they still feel like they're sort of stuck together . . .

It's beautiful to see their friendship blossom in this way, where it's a little bit also like mother and son. There's a familial thing happening. It's like Asta gets a chance to really be a mom from the start, that she didn't get to have with Jay, but she's not [Harry's] mom either. He teaches her things, too . . .  I feel like they really are chosen family, but they're connected in this greater, grander purpose that they both don't quite understand. 

Resident AlienSara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees in "Resident Alien" (SYFY)Did you always know that you wanted to act? I read about your love of Jim Henson's movie, "Labyrinth," which you saw when you were very young, and which also had a huge impact on me when I was about the same age — did that influence you?

I honestly feel like 'Labyrinth" is a metaphor for life, and we can talk about it all day. That's another phone call. It's like a whole thesis.

It's a whole other book, probably.

Right. It's a metaphor for our entire life. When I talk to people about that sometimes, I'm like, "You either know, or you don't know." Again, it's just a feeling. To answer your question directly, I didn't always know I wanted to be an actor — but I did always know that I connected to others through storytelling.

I talk with my hands. When I was younger, I had older brothers who wanted to play sports, and they didn't really want me to play with them, so I would play by playing around them. They would be playing baseball in the yard, and I would be the cheerleaders, the fans, the coach, the popcorn man. I found ways to still involve myself in play time by being visual and telling a story.

So, I don't think I realized that was truly me taking on acting approaches at a young age, till much later. My parents were always really great about whatever you want to be, we support you. But, it always seems like, obviously there'll be this practical part of the career you choose, right? . . . When I was looking at what I'm going to major in, in college, I remember being shocked that theater was something you could major in. I thought theater and art and entertainment was something that was an extracurricular activity. I thought it was something you go and pursue on your own, time to time. 

Sometimes our education system teaches us: You have to have a practical job to make it in this world. Art is not necessarily something people are always encouraged to pursue, because it's such a hard way to live . . . I loved my show choir. I loved doing plays and musicals in high school. But it wasn't until college when I really started to dive into experimental theater, and impulse work, physical comedy and drama, that I realized I didn't ever want to do anything else.

After senior year, I played this role in a play called "Bash." I felt entrenched by that role. It was the first time I ever sort of lost myself in a character in such an organic way. When I came out of that play, I remember thinking that is a drug. I am addicted to that point of getting totally immersed in someone else's life, but also still connecting back to my own soul. It was so spiritual. There's nothing else that could provide that for me. That was when I really pursued acting, specifically. I thought Broadway was where I was headed. I thought New York all the way. 

Then, I had a friend who lived in LA. I came to visit her and I fell in love. Day one, I happened to stumble on the Pride parade . . . I thought, "I'm in love with these people, this town, the energy. Everywhere I go, people are talking about film and television." I just was entranced. I thought, "This is it. This is where I want to be." I have never left since. It's been 15 years, and I'm still so in love with LA.

I'm glad that you mentioned your music, and I know you write as well. Do you get many opportunities to pursue your other arts, or is that something in the future you'd like to pursue?

It's definitely something that's in the future . . . I remember being so obsessed with "Moulin Rouge." I would love to work with Baz Luhrmann. I love the idea of combining the musical world with the film world. I just saw "West Side Story," and it is breathtaking. I love how close and intimate you can get with a camera, and also how you can still bring a character to life.

You feel something so deeply, you have to sing it. There's something beautiful about that.

I'm interested in doing that in the future, but I think for me, the reason I sort of got away from it for a while was, I find once you choose a path, you kind of just have to stick to it. Eventually, it will open other doors, come back to these other skill sets you might have. I had to focus on acting in film and television as an art form, all its own. I think now that I'm in a position where I can be a little bit more thoughtful about the things I'm working on, I'm definitely looking for that outlet, because it means a lot to me. There's people in my childhood and my youth who only knew me as really a singer for the longest time. I was constantly singing, everywhere. 

Musicals were my first love. That's really what got me into the industry in the first place, being a 10-year-old in the front row of "Crazy For You" on Broadway, on a Tuesday. No one else was there but me. There were other people in the audience, but you know what I mean? No one else was there but me, just me and those dancers on stage. 

I think that's great advice for creative artists in general: Once the path has been chosen for you stick with it, and then other doors will open up along the way. That's really excellent.

I talked about it once with another actor friend, and we sort of described it metaphorically as the lobby of a hotel.

Oh, I love that.

Everyone's invited in. Everyone's welcome. You kind of mingle in the lobby, but depending on which floor you're on, and how good the room is and how much opportunity you have and oh, maybe you'll get the penthouse and whatever, but you're all still on the same level when you come to the lobby. You come in with these different skill sets, and maybe at one point you can go to the fifth floor and you can work on your tap dance. Then, on the sixth floor, you work on your comedy skills.

But ultimately, you come into the lobby as people with all these different skills, and you're still equal. It's just whether or not you're invited to these other floors. It seems like a weird metaphor, but to me it makes sense.

We're all here. We're in the same building. We all have these different skill sets, but eventually we're going to bump into each other and be like, "Oh, you do that? Okay. Maybe we could work on this together." . . . "I'll meet you in the lobby," is what my friend and I would say to each other. "No matter what you're working on, I'll see you downstairs."

You never know what door's going to open, and if you can wedge the door open with your foot and try to hold it for somebody else coming up behind you.

Right. Hold the elevator.

And this is just one step on your journey as an artist. Who knows what the other floors will bring?

Exactly. This is a great hotel. I'm really looking forward to who I'm going to meet next.

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Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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