There are few fandoms as fiercely passionate and loyal as the Browncoats — devotees of the abruptly cancelled TV series “Firefly” who remain dedicated to Joss Whedon’s sci-fi/western cult classic and still pine for its return.
Actor Rebecca Safier has been keeping the “Firefly” faith for over a decade. After discovering the series and feature film “Serenity,” she became a volunteer, secretary, and board member for the California Browncoats, a nonprofit group that raises money for charity through promotional events related to the show.
As a result of her involvement with the California Browncoats, she’s logged many, many hours at conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con, appeared as a character who gets eaten by zombies in a novella set at SDCC, participated in an accidental staring contest with Nathan Fillion, cosplayed as the ethereal but lethal River (played by Summer Glau), befriended nerd queen Felicia Day, and played small parts on geek favorites “The Guild” and “Dragon Age.”
A fangirl since before social media and the internet made rabid fandoms commonplace, Rebecca’s first obsession was classic “The X-Files,” followed by a deep dive into the world of the 1996 TV series “The Pretender.”
With the fate of the California Browncoats in a state of uncertainty at the moment, Rebecca may be ready to move on, but when it comes to “Firefly,” she can’t stop the signal.
You’re a board member and secretary of the California Browncoats. For those who don’t know, what is a Browncoat?
Browncoats are fans of the show “Firefly” and/or the film “Serenity.” As seen during flashbacks in the show, the name is taken from a term for members of the rebellion in which two of the show’s protagonists had fought.
California Browncoats is a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the fandoms of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” TV series and the “Serenity” movie. Members raise money for charity through conventions, auctions, and other events. How did you first become involved with the group?
I met James Riley (one of the founding members of California Browncoats) at a “Serenity” promotional fan event at Universal Studios in August of 2005. He and some other fans in both Northern and Southern California had already been exhibiting at conventions to promote the fandom and the upcoming film. I’d actually been to their booth at San Diego Comic-Con the previous month, but I didn’t know anyone at the time. I ended up volunteering with prep and working at the booth the following year.
In 2007, the organization incorporated due to the large amounts of donations being taken in at events. A few years later, some of the founding members decided to move on, and I was asked to join the board of directors.
When and how were you introduced to the “Firefly” television series?
I was aware of it when it was on. I remember thinking it sounded interesting, but I was in college, and I had a job on Friday evenings, and DVR was not available to me. It basically fell off my radar. It turns out I was late to the party on all of the Whedon shows. Around the time “Buffy” was ending, a friend told me I should have been watching it, so I borrowed DVDs.
At some point, I found out this show I was now enjoying had the same creator as that other show I was previously interested in, so of course I also tracked down “Firefly.” Looking back, I’m ok with not having watched “Firefly” originally because, unlike early fans of the show, I got to watch the episodes in the correct order, and I only had to wait a few months for the movie.
“Firefly” was infamously cancelled after just 11 episodes and then released on DVD by Fox after a massive fan outcry. What was your reaction to the cancellation of the show?
Well, it didn’t affect me at the time, but I do remember after I watched the final episode, I immediately went online to make sure I’d heard correctly there was a movie in production.
The short-lived series premiered in 2002. Why do you think it still holds a place in the heart of so many fans?
It’s just so good. I often find if I go back and re-watch a series, there are some weak episodes I might skip. Firefly doesn’t have any of those. All the characters are great, and you can just tell that everyone involved enjoyed it. I think that feeling is contagious.
Tell me about the role you play as a board member and secretary of California Browncoats.
Well, the board makes all the major decisions for the organization. We decide what events we’ll attend (or create) and select the charity those events will benefit (based on suggestions from, or past support from, “Firefly” cast and crew). We also appoint a chairperson for each event and oversee that all necessary planning is done.
As secretary, I maintain the legal paperwork and take meeting minutes. I also hold the office of Talent Relations, so during event planning, I’m the point of contact for anyone who may be making an appearance.
What do you most enjoy about being so deeply involved in the group?
We are a company, and it is work, but it’s also a group of friends from different parts of California that I wouldn’t necessarily see as often if we weren’t working events together. Also, we’ve supported some great charities.
Have you volunteered at a lot of events with the Browncoats? What are some of your favorites?
Oh, yes. As I said above, I started as a volunteer technically a year before the company incorporated. There was a time when we had several events per year: the conventions run by Comic-Con International, a couple smaller cons, Can’t Stop the Serenity (a charity event), and a few events we organized ourselves or co-sponsored. I didn’t ever get to WonderCon when it was in San Francisco, but I was at almost all of the rest.
Something we’ve had since the early days is a meeting room at SDCC. We make announcements about cool upcoming products or other news Browncoats might be interested in. I used to be in charge of planning what would happen in there.
One year, I had several speakers scheduled, and right in the middle of Shawna Trpcic talking about the series costume design, Nathan Fillion walked in the room. It stressed me out at the time because my schedule went out the window, but it was really cool. There’s also a hilarious picture from a moment when Nathan realized he kept looking at me, since my chair was on the stage, so he decided to stare me down. And afterwards, I got to joke about that time Nathan Fillion crashed my party.
How does working a convention differ from simply attending it?
Last year, I went to my first convention in probably 10 years as just an attendee, and it was really strange. I could just walk around the exhibit hall and not have to worry about what time it was and whether I needed to be back at the booth for a shift. I could make the choice to go wait for a few hours in line for a really popular panel. I can still do that when I’m working, but there’s a difference when filling out the form for our shift coordinator and, for example, saying I’m busy for a six-hour block of time so I can be in Ballroom 20 for a 3 p.m. panel. I can do it occasionally and know I’ll probably be working for the last three hours of the day, but I have to be much more selective about making that request.
Who’s your favorite “Firefly” character and why?
River. As a character, I enjoy her journey from basically helpless (for all we know) to saving the day. As an actor, Summer Glau and I are similar types, especially back when the show was new. We also used to have an inside joke that I had to test if our storage containers were the right size for us to use.
Do you have a favorite episode?
I don’t think I specifically have a favorite, but if I was forced to choose and only had time to watch one episode, it would possibly be “Out of Gas.” It’s a little bit of everything from the series in one episode.
Are you a fan of the “Serenity” movie?
I wanted to say of course I am, but I do know someone who likes “Firefly” but not “Serenity.” But yeah, I like the movie. Remember, I’m a River fan.
Were you devastated by the death of Wash (played by Alan Tudyk)?
Yes, both Wash and Book. But, of course, Wash was the big surprise/shock moment, and as a viewer, you don’t get a lot of recovery time after that one.
Alan is actually the most recent cast member to make an appearance with us, and he’s great. After the event, he even sent us a box of signed things for future fundraising.
Is it my imagination or did you appear as a character in a piece of “Firefly” fanfiction?
I’m not sure about fanfiction, but I am a character in a mostly unrelated novella. One of our board members was acquainted with Seanan McGuire, and she was writing a prequel to her “Newsflesh” series (written as Mira Grant) in which the zombie virus outbreak happened at SDCC. She wanted to do it as a fundraiser, so we auctioned off two characters to be named and modeled after the highest bidders.
Then, to make it more authentic, she also used the California Browncoats members. I hadn’t yet met her, so she just used a little questionnaire. I think she got me pretty well, except “Doctor Who” is not one of my fandoms. I guess that’s how you can tell us apart. Fictional Rebecca who likes that series is the one who gets eaten by zombies in “San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.”
You’re a cosplayer and one of the characters you’ve portrayed is River. Tell me about the process of putting costume together. What sort of fan reaction did you get with that cosplay?
I guess the actor in me gravitates towards characters that are my type, and River was a good match for me. All of my cosplays are on the obscure side, but I think that makes it more fun when someone knows it. River mostly wears normal clothes, so it’s not really recognizable if you’re a solo cosplayer. However, there is the outfit from the beginning of “Serenity” that stands out, so that’s the one I picked. It’s still pretty simple, and as the film gets older, it seems to get recognized less, but people at least know it when I’m at our booth.
When and how did you get into cosplay?
I didn’t really know about cosplay, but I went to my first convention in 2001 and entered a character lookalike contest, so I guess that was my first official cosplay? Or maybe it was the She-Ra costume my mom made me when I was 5 that I wore all the time. However, in 2005, my then-roommate, Dana, asked me if I could make her an Illyria costume for Comic-Con because we were planning to go that year for the first time and as a joke I said I should make one for me too. Then it turned out to be less of a joke.
You sew your own costumes. That sounds challenging. Tell me more about that.
My mom enrolled me in a sewing class when I was in kindergarten. I sewed some things occasionally but didn’t really do much with it. Years later, I needed pants for work and was having trouble finding a good fit, and in the process of making my own, my roommate got an idea.
You’ve cosplayed as characters from Whedon’s other series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” I’d like to hear more about those and other cosplays you’ve done.
Illyria was basically a leap into the deep end of cosplay. The show was recently ended, so there wasn’t a lot of reference material, and there are a lot of pieces to that bodysuit and makeup. I had to watch the fight scene between Illyria and Spike over and over to get the best angles. It’s also the cosplay that has drawn the most attention. We really weren’t expecting that much from a character who was in just a few episodes, but people do know it, and even if they don’t know the character, it’s still a cool costume. And then there was the time that Joss spotted us on the con floor and came up to us.
For a while I also had Dawn’s blue gown from “Once More With Feeling.” I know Dawn gets a lot of hate, but I really liked that dress.
Outside of the Whedonverse, I did Kira from “The Dark Crystal.” I still pull that one out every once in a while. The wings broke a long time ago, but they’re too big to deal with at SDCC now anyway.
Then there’s my most obscure one: Bibi from “The Apple.” Maybe three people per year recognize it when I wear it, but I enjoy a good hilariously bad movie, and “The Apple” is my favorite. Sadly, I don’t have good pictures of that one, and I’m saving up for new boots because my old ones aren’t wearable anymore, so I don’t know if I’ll have it with me this year.
You haven’t had as much time to cosplay lately because you’ve been busy working conventions, but you said you have one cosplay you really want to do. Will you let us in on what that is?
I don’t know! I kinda want to say so that it’s in print and I have to do it, but it’s quite elaborate, and if I don’t get around to it soon, I’ll be mad at myself for saying I was going to do it. I think I’m going to keep it a secret. Sorry!
Does cosplay come naturally to you since you also happen to be an actor?
Probably. I like playing dress-up.
Your bio says you’ve been acting since you were 5 years old. What attracted you to that art form?
I didn’t always want acting specifically, but I wanted to perform. My grandmother had season tickets to the Pennsylvania Ballet and used to take me with her. I started dance classes at 5, and I was in a play in kindergarten. I guess it just stuck. However, I did go through a brief teenage phase of wanting to go into parapsychology. It wasn’t entirely because of “The X-Files,” but it definitely coincided with my obsession with that show. But then it was back to acting for me. Now I get to pretend I’m a ghost or an alien (I’ve been both).
You earned a degree in theater from Northwestern University. What was the most important thing you learned during your studies?
Hmm … I don’t know about most important, but here’s one that can tie into the geek theme. One of my favorite classes was Children’s Theater. We examined entertainment for young audiences and how the argument “it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not because it’s for kids” is nonsense. It is completely possible to make entertainment for children that they enjoy and that adults like too. It’s been interesting having that situation come up in fandoms, where certain entries in a series that weren’t as well received were then dismissed as “for kids,” and I don’t buy it.
So … you met Felicia Day through your convention activities and subsequently played a small part in “The Guild,” which earns you major geek cred. Please tell me all about that experience.
We actually met at SDCC after “The Guild” Season 1. They didn’t have a booth, and through Whedonverse tangents and acquaintances, they ended up sharing ours for part of the time. Then when she needed help with some behind-the-scenes stuff for Season 2, I was available. A few years later, she had a part for me in Season 5. I was in the green room with Brent Spiner and Grant Imahara and Richard Hatch. I’d met geek idols before, and I’d been on set before, but this was the first time I got to combine the two. It was great.
Is Felicia Day as utterly cool as she seems?
Haha … she told me to say no. But yes, aside from being awesome to me and putting me in her projects, she and Jane Espenson recently teamed up to do some spring cleaning and donated a bunch of items to California Browncoats for fundraising purposes. It took two cars to get it all to our storage location.
You also played a background elf in Day’s “Dragon Age” series. I need more details, please.
This is actually one of my favorite stories. I got an email from Kim Evey in November 2010 asking me if I was available on a day in January. I thought it was a typo and had to check if she meant December. When I got to set, Felicia told me she had Kim contact me early because she figured I needed to be an elf and wanted to make sure I was available. That made my day. Possibly my year. I did need to be an elf. If you don’t watch the main action, you can find me wandering around the Dalish camp in Episode 2.
You’ve said that as an actor you get to “watch tons of TV and movies” and “get to pretend it’s research.” Where do I sign up?
It’s actually something I was taught in school, even if I wasn’t doing it already. Watch the shows you could be working on and know what the show is like if you go in for an audition. As a geek blogger, I’m sure you have the same excuse. Know your fandoms!
One of your more interesting acting roles was as a “creature suit performer” in the sci-fi movie “Vanquisher.” Again, I need more details.
I was actually unaware that movie had come out! It was filmed so long ago and they kept pushing the release date. I think at one point my credit had been “skinless Zorn” and I’m not sure why they changed it. It was an interesting shoot, though.
It was my first time in full prosthetics and they covered me in shampoo to make me slimy (I was an alien with no skin). After the makeup was off, I forgot I was wearing black contacts and made myself jump when I caught a glimpse in the mirror. Back then, I was really into “Supernatural” and I think also “Charmed,” so getting to wear the “demon eyes” was probably my favorite part.
You’ve also been a stand-in for HBO’s “Westworld.” What was that like?
In terms of actor day jobs, I prefer working on set in any capacity than doing anything else, and standing in often involves some acting anyway. We do the rehearsals for lighting and camera while the cast is changing wardrobe, in hair and makeup, or not on set for any other reason. I’ve actually been a stand-in on many shows.
I was surprised a few months ago to learn “Westworld” gave me a credit, which hasn’t happened before. I like the show even better than I already did, especially since I was just filling in for one of the regular stand-ins! As for the actual shoot, I don’t think there’s much I’m allowed to say. I don’t want to get in trouble with HBO.
You’re a self-described “sci-fi/fantasy geek.” Tell me your geek origin story. I understand you attended Space Camp twice as a kid, so it must have started early.
Yeah, it started so early, I don’t actually remember. I’m sure I got some of it from my parents. My mom liked Star Trek (The Original Series). I think I started watching “The Next Generation” because my dad was watching it. I was obsessed with “The Ewok Adventure” when I was little, and I vaguely remember thinking I could speak Ewok. I used to dress up as She-Ra all the time. I saw “Labyrinth” in the theater when I was 4 and it’s been my favorite movie ever since.
My cousin, who is a few years older than me, went to Space Camp, and I guess I wanted to do it too when I was old enough. I enjoyed it and went back to the program they have for middle school students. I definitely don’t like all of the geeky things, but my personal circle on a geek Venn diagram would contain a lot.
Space nerdom does not die. You’ve recently been reading a lot of astronaut autobiographies. What’s the fascination?
Out of the population of the world, only a handful of people have left the planet and come back and written books about being in the space program. So that’s one thing. I’d had a few of those books on a list I’d been meaning to get around to reading. One day, I needed to kill some time before going home and was near a small library branch and decided to see what they had that was on my list. They had Deke Slayton’s book, so I got to check that one off.
That one is fun if you’re into NASA history because it has his thoughts on all the flight assignments he handled, including the ones that didn’t happen due to changes/accidents. Occasionally, I’ll keep checking another astronaut book off the list. The most recent one I read was Jim Lovell’s book, which was the basis for the movie “Apollo 13,” and I found the chapter at the end about how they figured out what caused the explosion really fascinating.
Fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle (“The Last Unicorn”) is your favorite fiction author. How did you discover Beagle’s work and what do you love about it?
I think like many of Peter’s fans these days, I first saw the animated film “The Last Unicorn” when I was little. Just like my geek origin story, I’m not sure where my unicorn obsession started, but it could have been there. In high school, I ended up with a copy of “Immortal Unicorn,” which is a collection of unicorn-themed short stories Peter curated. The story of his that was included was my favorite in the book, so I decided to seek out the rest (starting with “The Last Unicorn”).
I like fantasy films, but I often find it hard to read fantasy books. I tend to wander when there’s extensive world building in text. I love the characters, but also with the way Peter uses language, he can hold my attention even when there are (gasp!) no unicorns. In fact, my favorite book is the non-unicorn, unconventional ghost story “A Fine and Private Place.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of his pre-2016 books. With his current legal difficulties, I want to get the new ones directly from him (even though I’ve been so impatiently waiting for “Summerlong” since it was announced about 18 years ago), so a friend of mine who is going to Dragon Con already knows she’s getting a shopping list.
You’re also into old-school detective/adventure-style video games, like Myst and Nancy Drew. Do you secretly dream of sleuthing?
I mean, not professionally, but I’d love to go to an escape room and just haven’t gotten a chance yet.
The original “X-Files” was one of your early obsessions and that was before Internet fandoms proliferated. How was it different from the fandoms of today?
I actually haven’t been active in an online TV fandom in quite a long time. There have been so many technology/website changes, I’m not even sure where you go now (Facebook?), but there are probably similarities in terms of fans and their interactions with each other. “The X-Files” wasn’t before internet fandoms, but it was before I had access to internet.
I mainly read X-Files Magazine and other entertainment magazines when they did stories on the show. Plus, I had a good friend who was also obsessed with the show, so I didn’t need to find anyone else to chat with. Eventually, I did get internet, and I knew about “X-Philes” but I’m not sure why I never sought it out. I guess by then the show was huge, and I ended up gravitating toward the small group I found to chat about another show …
Your entry to Internet fandom came with the 1996 series “The Pretender.” I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed anyone who had that experience. What did you like about it and how did you express your fandom for that series?
I had been a fan of the show and the concept of a genius who could do anything, but I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it. After a couple seasons of that, I got to college and was exposed to unlimited broadband internet. I had been experimenting with IRC and somehow found the chat room #thecentre and met a couple people there who told me a good place to hang out was the Yahoo Club (they were clubs before groups) for the actor Jamie Denton.
There were scheduled chats after episodes aired, and you could also just be in the chat room whenever, with people all over the world in different time zones, and sometimes Jamie would jump in. The woman who ran that club organized a convention that I went to. After the show was cancelled and TNT stopped making movies, Jamie changed his professional name to James and went on to other things, and we as a fandom followed him. I stayed active into the days of “Desperate Housewives” before the group dynamic changed and I ended up having to focus more on Browncoat activities.
Returning to the subject of “Firefly,” do you feel like recent revelations about Whedon’s treatment of women have put a damper on the fandom at all?
I’m not actually sure. I know there were some things said online where some people seemed to be reading more into it in light of everything else going on with men in Hollywood, which as far as I know isn’t what happened with him. He probably fell off a pedestal for some fans, but we were just at WonderCon, and our booth traffic was basically equal to last year, and no one brought the subject up to me.
While we’re on that subject, as a woman is there anything you’d like to see change about the world of geek culture and fandoms?
Oh, sure. I’ve been grabbed at con. I think it’s silly when there’s an uproar over a fictional character being cast as female. I don’t know that I can add anything that isn’t just agreeing with things other people have already said.
I’ve heard the California Browncoats might actually be calling it quits after San Diego Comic-Con in July. How would that impact you?
We made an announcement at the end of last year that we were looking to close the organization unless we could find other people to take it over. All of the founding members have resigned, and those of us who took their places are ready to do the same. As I said, I’ve been involved for over a decade. I’ll be a little sad, but I’m ready to step down and focus on other things.
We did get some interest and are currently in talks with a few people, so we’ll see how it goes. Either way, I don’t know what it will be like in the future if I choose to stop by where our booth has always been. It will probably be really weird. There was only one year where I went to SDCC and I wasn’t working at a Browncoats booth in the back of Hall A.
Do you feel that interest in “Firefly” is declining?
I don’t think it’s declining exactly, but there are so many new shows. There’s only so much a fan can focus on. There are a few companies that have merchandise licenses, and there was a recent announcement about a new series of “Firefly” novels (and one of the authors is a friend of California Browncoats, Nancy Holder, so that’s really cool). People still want “Firefly” things and get excited when they see them, but it might be less of a priority for some. However, almost everyone will still say something about wanting Netflix or an equivalent to step in and make more episodes.
As a fan, would you still be interested in seeing a “Firefly” reboot, reunion, or new movie?
I’d say a tentative “yes.” I’m concerned about a crowd-funded production where the creators feel pressure to include fan service elements that may affect the story quality. I think if a more open-minded studio picked it up and the timing was right for everyone involved, it could work.
Is there a future for “Firefly”?
You can’t stop the signal.