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The Reel Queens: Astoria actress finds break in ‘Pelham’ remake

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For three months last year, Astoria’s Katerina N. Gagkas was held hostage in a confined space for 12 hours per day — and she’d love to do it again.

Gagkas, who grew up in New York and moved to Astoria from Florida two years ago, spent several months in spring 2008 working on director Tony Scott’s recently released remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

The film, which opened nationwide June 12, featured extensive shooting at Kaufman Astoria Studios as well as several locales throughout the western Queens neighborhood. “Pelham 123” amps up a story similar to that of the 1974 picture of the same name, which starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. In this new version, Denzel Washington plays a morally compromised Metropolitan Transportation Authority dispatcher who attempts to negotiate with a vicious killer (John Travolta) and his group of armed men who have taken a Bronx-bound subway hostage.

Gagkas scored her first feature film role as one of the hostages aboard the hijacked train.

“This was the first movie I ever worked on, and it was an amazing experience,” she said. “Tony Scott was so kind and full of non-stop energy. He’s an older man, but he’d be going for hours and hours without sleep, lifting our spirits and making jokes to keep us all excited. He really inspired me, so I’m grateful.”

Gagkas said she landed the part after responding to an open casting call. Two days before the film began production, she was notified she would be on board.

Most of the sequences involving the film’s hostages were filmed at Kaufman Astoria and several others were shot underground at Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station, where cast members underwent an intense training session.

“We had to walk on the tracks underground,” Gagkas said. “We’d sometimes be stuck underground for hours. It was hot, dirty and grimy. We’d learn about the manholes and where to hide in a niche when a train was passing. We literally had to hide in a niche and wait while a train passed in front of our noses. I thought I was going to faint. The train was going pretty slow, but it was so big when it was going in front of your face. I hope I never have to do that again.”

The cast also had to take an MTA track certification class prior to filming. Gagkas ended up in the same class as Travolta, who she said kept the mood light on the set in between takes, while remaining intense as villain Ryder in front of the camera.

“He’d greet each and every one of us every time he came on the set,” she said. “But once the cameras started rolling, he was on. It was amazing to watch him transform when the camera rolled and, the minute it was off, he was sweet John Travolta again.”

During her three months on the shoot, Gagkas often worked 12-hour days for five days per week. The production recreated a No. 6 train at Kaufman Astoria Studios, located on 35th Avenue, where she spent a majority of her time.

Gagkas currently works freelance in a variety of fields. For two days per week, she is a concierge at a Manhattan fitness club and is now attempting to get certified to teach classes at the gym. She also hosts events, takes on promotional work and does live interpreting for Greek and English translation.

But she hopes to eventually work full-time as an actress. Gagkas was able to receive a Screen Actors Guild membership following her role in “Pelham 123” and her next plan is to score an agent.

“I’m ready for the next big thing,” she said. “It’s really important for me to take my career to the next level by getting representation. I need someone to get my foot in the door. I work on it every day — it’s like running my own business.”

In the meantime, she has been attending auditions for city theater and feature films, as well as taking part in student and short films. In March and April, she gave her first New York theater performance in “Burlesque-O-Rama!” at Manhattan’s Broadway Comedy Club.

But one of the most beneficial experiences of her newfound career has been the friendships she struck up with her fellow “Pelham” cast mates. In the film, she was teamed up with Sierra Andersen as a pair of teenage friends who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“They put me and Sierra together because they said it looked as though we might be friends in real life,” she said. “It’s funny that we really are friends now. She’s coming to Greece next month with me for my sister’s wedding. I guess we bonded being on that train for three months.”

Read film reviews by Nathan Duke at criticalconditions.net.

Updated 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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