Cinefantastique Vol 27, #4/5, January 1996

Tuvok of Vulcan

Tim Russ on playing Janeway's right-hand man, picking up the torch of Leonard Nimoy as Spock.


By Dale Kutzera


From the Voyager bible:


The Vulcan Tactical/Security Officer is getting on in year – he’s 160 (about 60 in human terms), but is as fit as people half his age. He is a powerful combination of maturity, wisdom, experience – and vitality. His Vulcan equanimity and patience serve him well in his role as the ship’s peace-keeper, but it is his unofficial role which most binds him to the other crew members. His grandfatherly presence is comforting to many – particularly the young and head-strong B’Elanna… He married young, has four children (three of whom are Starfleet), and outlived his wife of 90 years. He has worked for Janeway for some time; they know each other well and have achieved the kind of comfortable relationship that comes with time and experience. She turns to him as a strong shoulder; she is the person he turns to when he needs one.


In the whirlwind of long shooting hours, publicity duties, and TREK conventions, Tim Russ finds it hard to believe it has been just over a year since he was cast as Tuvok, the Vulcan confidant of Captain Janeway. For the 39-year-old Russ, the year has gone by quickly, so absorbed has he been in the task of carrying the Vulcan torch on STAR TREK. “The time seems to have gone by fairly quickly since we started shooting, because the days get rather long. I was talking to Roxann Biggs-Dawson, who is playing Torres – we auditioned the same day and were cast basically on the same day – she thinks it feels like a long time ago.”


The character of Tuvok was created in part to give the audience a familiar alien among the strangers the Voyager will meet in the Delta Quadrant. Aware of the difficulties any actor would have in filling the shoes of Leonard Nimoy, the series creators sought to put a new spin on the Vulcans we have become familiar with. Just as TNG’s Lt. Worf broadened the background of the Klingon empire to include a variety of skin tones, Lt. Tuvok would do the same for the Vulcans. “We came up with the wrinkle of making him a black Vulcan,” said Jeri Taylor. “We had just used a black Romulan on TNG [in ‘The Pegasus’] that we thought was a nice touch. Subsequently I have learned we were not the first. In the third feature there was a black Vulcan priestess, so it was clearly established there were different colors of people on Vulcan.”


In Russ, the producers have not only found an articulate, cerebral actor, but a storehouse of knowledge on Vulcans as well. Russ is the only member of the VOYAGER cast to have been a long-time fan of the original series, and he is no stranger to the STAR TREK soundstages. Seven years ago he was a finalist for the part of Engineer Geordi LaForge. Rick Berman preferred him to LeVar Burton at the time, but Gene Roddenberry was the executive in charge and had final say. Berman never forgot about Russ, however, and took the young actor under his wing, providing the occasional acting assignment such as playing the Klingon in last season’s DS9 episode “Invasive Procedures.” Russ even read for the part of then-black doctor on the DEEP SPACE NOINE pilot, before the character of Sisko was cast as an African American. (The doctor role eventually went to Siddig El Fadil.) It was while working on a small speaking part in the STAR TREK: GENERATIONS feature, however, that Berman told Russ he wanted him to read for VOYAGER.


“I thought it would be a good idea to make myself available for that,” said Russ. “And the only way you can do that is to not take any work that will overlap that period of time. It wasn’t like I was a major celebrity and they would hold out and wait for me to be available. So I did not take any work for about three months. I did not audition for anything that was going to be shooting anywhere near that period of time. It is very much a calculated gamble as a career option. My agent and manager, for the most part, supported me, because they knew that this could be a major opportunity.”


The gamble – trading a few months of unemployment for a chance at the several years of steady employment a STAR TREK series invariably guarantees – came to a disappointing end when the cast of characters for VOYAGER was distributed to agents. “When the breakdown came out the character description did not fit me,” said Russ, “which is par for the course in this business. They were looking for an older character originally. I think they were specifically looking at Robert Guillaume. That is what I heard, somebody like him to play this character. So there was nothing in there for me to read. Consequently, I waited for a couple of weeks, read for some other things that were popping up, and I thought maybe there was a back door – maybe a recurring character – that I could get in through. But after about two weeks I went into my agent’s office – this actually happened – and I was talking to him about moving on and putting this whole thing behind us. I had made a good effort, now let’s take whatever else comes down the pike. And sure enough as I walked out of his office, the receptionist came up and said they had called from VOYAGER to have me come in to read.”


“The character outline did not fit me. They were looking for an older character. They were looking at Robert Guillaume, I heard.” – Tim Russ, Tuvok –


Noted executive producer Michael Piller, “In the case of Tuvok, we had created a character who was supposed to be an elderly man. Somebody who was an older Vulcan, who had the sort of breadth of experience and life adventures that could bring a different kind of voice to the ensemble. We had never cast an ‘old man’ in a regular part of the series, and we thought that would be a good idea. We definitely wanted that to be an African-American actor in that role and we found some, but non of them jumped out and said, ‘Vulcan.’ Then Rick said, ‘I really want you to see this guy who finished second to LeVar when we started this thing, Tim Russ.’ So Tim walked into the room, and he was a Vulcan. It was very simple – he looked like a Vulcan, he talked like a Vulcan, he was a Vulcan. We didn’t have to go any further – we just knew.”

Added Jeri Taylor, series co-creator with Berman and Piller, “It’s been reported we were reading white men in their 60s for Tuvok. That is not true. We always intended him to be black, but an older person. We were not finding this character with the people we had read at that age range, so we decided to lower our age limit. Tim Russ was one of the first people to come in and once he nailed it we abandoned the search for older people.”


Russ is appropriately philosophical about his gamble paying off. “There is no guarantee, no rhyme or reason to half of this stuff. It‘s like a continuous horse race. The only way you know you are not going to win is if you get off the horse. You’ve got to stay on the horse. And the longer you stay on the horse, the better you get at learning how to play the field. Sometimes you’ll come in first, but the purse may not be that big. Sometimes you’ll come in second or third. One of those times you’ll run around and hit the big jackpot.”


No doubt Russ’ familiarity and affection for STAR TREK, in particular the original series, helped him succeed in his audition. He was well versed in the diction and mannerisms Leonard Nimoy imbued in Spock, Russ had already accomplished the hours of viewing and study it would take a typical actor to become well-versed in Vulcan body-language and speech patterns by simply growing up with the show. “I had been doing that, involuntarily, for a couple of decades,” said Russ. “And I was reading the novels based on the original cast as well. There is a certain rhythm and quality to the speech written into the dialogue of the character – a certain formality – and yet it is not monotony. There’s an analytical way he speaks, and a matter-of-fact way he speaks; and he’s not harassed or razzed by any kind of emotional onslaught, whether it is good or bad, from anybody else. That’s what I played when I read for him.


“I remembered everything I could remember about the way Nimoy played his character; and I just did the same thing. At that point in time I didn’t have the luxury of doing a lot of different nuances or twists to this character. I could have rolled that dice; but seeing as how I had gambled all the way up to that point, I wasn’t going to gamble anymore. I think that the other contributing factors were that I have the same build – it’s a slender build, sort of a swimmer’s build – and the height, and also the vocal quality. Those factors are genetic. I can’t do much about that.”


Russ recognized immediately that the role a Vulcan plays in STAR TREK is historically defined. Tuvok is destined to provide much the same intellectual knowledge, wisdom, and emotional impartiality that Spock gave James T. Kirk. How then could Tuvok be seen as separate and distinct from his famed predecessor? In the process of defining Tuvok and distinguishing him from Spock, Russ proved he can “talk Trek” with the best of them. Noted Russ, “Because Spock was half human, he had to overcompensate. He was on a planet where everybody else was open, and he was not. In order for him to fit in – you can imagine the pressure to fit in that all children go through – he would have to kill the human side, as it were. Whereas, my character is full Vulcan. I’m comfortable with who I am, so I can feel and do what I wish. The difference between myself and Spock is that this character has a family. He has a wife and four children. I think that has changed him somewhat, the same way that it would change human beings. He looks at the world differently. And I think that my character has maybe a small percentage more sensitivity – a fraction more perhaps – in understanding the human beings he works with. Particularly in his relationship with the Captain.


“I think Spock’s character might have been a little older than I am. In fact, he may have been 10 or 20 years older than I am. And the experiences he has gone through have made him a different person. We see this in UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. I loved the mellowed Spock, who talks about logic only being the beginning, where all we had heard before was that it was everything. He is so laid back, and then he also seems very angry with his protégé in that film. He forces that information from her in a mind-meld. That is not a Vulcan thing to do. Typically, he should have been very reserved and calm, but he wasn’t. So there are nuances and differences in these characters.”


So thorough is Russ’ knowledge of Vulcans, and so careful is he to never stray form the narrow boundaries of appropriate behavior, that barely an episode goes by without a call to the writer/producers, usually Jeri Taylor. “I have called her at home on the weekends. Twice that has happened. And you know, it’s not entirely unusual because she works on stories on the weekends and she is quite open to all that stuff. Now it’s a joke: whenever I call the office the secretaries say, ‘Oh, no, here we go again.’ Typically on every script here is going to be some kind of phone call, usually about the dialogue. It is very small things – this phrase is too casual, or that expression is not Vulcan. Minor things.”


The major things to Tim Russ are story points, aspects of the plot that don’t jibe to established Vulcan lore, or to his own concept of Tuvok. One such discussion occurred over the script of “Prime Factors,” in which Tuvok assists a mutinous action in an attempt to send the ship back home. Another happened during the filming of “Cathexis,” and revolved around Vulcan physiognomy. “One of my pet peeves, whether movies or stories, are things that are not consistent,” he explained. “Particularly if you are dealing with science fiction, you are setting up a series of premises and things that have never been seen before. If you are going to do that, you cannot introduce things later on in the story that contradict the premises you set up in the first place. That’s a story hole. I know, sometimes you have to go with tiny ones here and there, but in most cases, these things can be corrected in five minutes.


“If it is a new show, like BABYLON 5, where you have never seen these people before, then it is a discovery process. You are laying down the tracks. But if the tracks are already laid down, then the train’s got to stay on them. Otherwise, you’ve got serious problems. If you do not distinguish between characters, what is the point of having different characters? When a developed character walks into the room, you know for the most part, as an audience member, what he is going to say and do. Even if this character is unpredictable, that is an element of the character that has to be consistent. You can always discover elements of this character within nuances of the story and in situations, but it has to be consistent with what he would do as a character.”


Although Russ has never spoken with Nimoy, they share in common a protective attitude as custodian of their character, and a willingness to pepper the producers with questions and concerns. “And that must have been twice as hard at that time,” said Russ. “Then again, he was dealing with Gene Roddenberry, and I bet you that Gene was listening to him. It seems that he was that kind of individual. I bet he had to fight for it, but I bet he got a lot of what he wanted. I think he started out with a basic outline of his character that they gave him, and then he stuck to the outline and built upon it slowly, based on the story circumstances. Then the stood on the platform and said, ‘This is the base you gave me. What you are telling me to do now is completely contrary to that base.’ And that is the job of the actor; to take the clay, to work with it, and to make it into something. You just can’t look at a page of dialogue and just spew it without knowing what the hell it is you are doing.”


Russ gives as an example a scene in “Learning Curve,” in which Tuvok forms a kind of Starfleet Academy night school for the Maquis crew members. In the story, Tuvok claims to be a stickler for protocols, yet, as Russ explained, “Clearly, in ‘Prime Factors’ he directly violated protocols up and down the line. Then two episodes later, you have him talking about how stern he is about protocols? This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. There’s a line in an episode we just finished, ‘I’ve always respected the Captain’s decisions.’ And that line was difficult to say when, in fact, we know he again violated protocols by taking matters into his own hands. The bottom line is: it is very difficult to believe a character and stay with him if you are going to consistently jump the ship in terms of what he’s laid down.”


The long hours continue for Russ, already back in pointed ears for VOYAGER’s second, full season of 26 episodes. The long hours of shooting are broken by practical jokes, humor, and a genuine sense of friendship among cast and crew. And with a cast of nine there are episodes in which Tuvok plays a minor role, giving Russ some valued days off, part of which he spends autographing photos for fans. “It’s a long season and can be pretty tedious. We’ll end one episode on Tuesday morning and start the next one on Tuesday afternoon. Literally, the next shot will be the next episode. So, you are finishing up one thing and you are jumping right into the next – out of sequence, mind you. So, it is a lot of time-consuming stuff. Your weekends are spent learning stuff for the next week.”


Despite the long hours, it’s clear Russ has settled in for what he hopes will be a long run of molding his clay, protecting his foundation, keeping the train on the tracks, and riding the horse. Years from now, he still anticipates eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next script. “[The writers] will go out of their way to challenge what we have established thus far. They will give me alien creatures, they will surgically alter me, they will do all kinds of things to challenge this character. It’s not going to be so much about my character; it’s going to be about the story. To me, the most fascinating thing is the story, the science fiction premise. We’re all sitting in the trailers wondering, what’s the next script? Trying to get the preliminary copy from Hair and Makeup – they always get it first, you know, before all of the revisions and stuff – just to see what the story is. And I’m sure I’ll be on the phone to Jeri many times.”