Cult Times #35, August 1998
Tim Russ has spent four years charting the outer edges of the Delta Quadrant as Tuvok, but he was willing to briefly return home to discuss Star Trek: Voyager with us
Back in 1964, NBC television censors tried to persuade Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to jettison Leonard Nimoy’s character of the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock because they felt that audiences would reject the devilish-looking alien. Roddenberry stuck to his principles, however, and, as a result, created a television icon with a rich cultural history. Over 30 years later Tim Russ carries on the tradition of the Vulcan race with his reserved yet riveting portrayal of Lieutenant Commander Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager. In his four seasons on the series the actor has found Tuvok’s logic sometimes to be a double-edged sword but considers this just another challenge in creating a more believable character.
“Tuvok has this natural sort of Achilles heel built into his personality because of his philosophy and where he comes from,” explains Russ. “He doesn’t really possess a sixth sense or intuition or even the ability to have a hunch. Because he does not have access to the same types of emotional feelings that others around him have he ends up being very uncomfortable when having to deal with such situations. I think the third season episode Alter Ego started to tap into some of this. Suddenly, he finds himself the object of an alien woman’s romantic desires. How does he get out of this predicament without making her angry or vengeful in any sense while also explaining to her in the best way he can why such a relationship would never work? He doesn’t have a great deal of experience and understanding in his mind, however, about the whole aspect of being obsessed with someone in this way. So how do you communicate?
“How do you impart information when that piece of the puzzle is missing? You have to find some way to relay such information the best you can and it is a real struggle for Tuvok in this instance. Stories like this peek into a side of him with which he’s not quite as familiar. I think those are always far more interesting circumstances to be involved in whenever you get the chance. This is one particular area of Tuvok’s personality I’d love to see the writers explore further.”
Both critics and viewers were skeptical of Voyager when it first came on the air. Many wondered whether or not the Star Trek franchise would be stretched beyond its limits trying to support yet another incarnation of the original series. Although it has taken several years, Voyager has finally begun to gain the acceptance of some of its earlier doubters and the show is currently basking in its highest ratings ever.
“There was a slight switch in storylines during our third year which opened us up to a lot more fun and interesting plots”
“I think the biggest change in the program this year has been the departure of Jennifer Lien [Kes] and Jeri Ryan’s [Seven of Nine] arrival,” he says. “That’s really the major change we’ve had to deal with, I thin, since the show began, because it’s a shuffle in the personnel or cast. There was, of course, a slight switch in story-lines during our third year which opened us up to a lot more fund and interesting plots. This change in direction also served to lighten up the atmosphere or tone of the show a little bit. During the first two years everything was so serious,” notes Russ. “Now there’s more of an opportunity to develop a sense of humor among the characters. We had a great time, for example, with the episode Future’s End. Yes, there was still a crisis or a dilemma at the root of the story but there was also time for a laugh or two in terms of the action revolving around the characters.”
Besides allowing Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her crew the occasional chuckle, Voyager’s producers have made a concerted effort this season to develop relationships between characters who have, up until now, shared very little on-screen time together. The most obvious example of this is the budding romance between Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson). In Revulsion, the Doctor (Robert Picardo) and Torres team up to defeat a psychotic hologram and in Mortal Coil Chakotay (Robert Beltran) helps Neelix (Ethan Phillips) cope with his loss of faith. Russ welcomes such interaction and looks forward to Tuvok becoming better acquainted with his fellow crew-mates.
“With nine regulars you have to wait in line for the chance to interact with various characters,” says Russ. “I still haven’t had an episode where the action focuses on Tuvok and Torres. The potential was there in Blood Fever but we had very little contact with each other. It was more Torres and Paris, but in the original script it was supposed to be Tuvok.
“Sometimes the studio will buy a story from an outside source and write a script around the idea they purchased. A lot of times they’ll look at a story and say, ‘Hey, this might work better if we put so-and-so in this part. What if we use Tuvok instead of Chakotay? What happens to the dynamics of it now? No, wait. Let’s use Paris.’ Alter Ego, initially, I think, involved Garrett’s [Wang, Harry Kim] character. He was the one who had the love interest, but they got more mileage out of the story by having me be involved in it. The last man on Voyager she should become obsessed with would be me. By doing this we also explore Tuvok’s character and his tendency to isolate himself. He is very much a loner but by the end of the episode he comes to the realization that one need not be by oneself all the time. Stories such as this allow the character to stretch in new directions. So each episode plays out differently depending on the situation and you just have to wait your turn sometimes as it may take a while before they get around to you. They don’t say, ‘Well, why don’t we write a Tuvok/Torres story?’ They’ll write the story and then say, ‘Well, let’s put these two characters in.’”
“Sitting through the first set of dailies was like an actor working on a movie or television show for the first time and hoping they like his work enough to keep him on”
Russ’s involvement in the show extends far beyond tending to security matters aboard Voyager. Over the past two years the actor has been busy learning the ropes of becoming a director on the series and since then he’s gone on to direct the fourth season episode Living Witness. The idea of Star Trek actors directing themselves and their fellow performers on television was pioneered by Star Trek: The Next Generations’ Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker). Since then, a number of regular castmembers from that series as well as from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager have made their début behind the camera.
“Most of us on Voyager have been involved in what is called a voluntary internship program,” he says. “This basically means that we’re granted access to all the behind-the-scenes production aspects of the show – everything, I believe, except casting. I don’t think you’re able to sit in on the casting sessions until you’ve actually been given an episode to direct. You’re free, however, to observe other directors as they work, sit in on production meetings, observe the editing process, watch the dailies and see how the special effects and music are created. So whenever you have a day off from filming you have to go back to the studio, probably the last place you want to be, in order to participate in one of these areas.”
“As far as I am concerned it was a daunting task,” notes Russ. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my life. I make no bones about the fact that it was a nerve-racking experience, at least until we get started. Once I was shooting, however, and saw that things were going relatively smoothly, I think I did OK. Sitting through the first set of dailies, however, was like an actor working on a movie or television show for the first time and hoping they like his work enough to keep him on,” he jokes.
Unlike the Alpha Quadrant, which is populated by Klingons, Vulcan, Romulans and other species familiar to the Federation, the Delta Quadrant is filled with new alien races and cultures Voyager has yet to encounter. In their four years lost in Space, Captain Janeway and her crew have crossed paths with the Kazon, the Vidiians and the Krenim, all of which have been thorns in their side. Voyager producers also recently came up with a recurring antagonist much like the Master on Doctor Who, named the Hirogen. “It was good to see them introduce a long-running villain which we could really tangle with on a level that would keep us occupied for quite a while,” says the actor. “Exploring new cultures, philosophies and beliefs has long been a staple of the Star Trek phenomenon. Given the fact that we’re in uncharted space means we can encounter all sorts of new things. The only drawback of this nomadic adventure, however, is that we don’t get to see most aliens more than once because we’re always on the move. It would be great now if they came up with a culture or even a civilization in which there are good and bad elements so we could explore the whole politics of the situation instead of just action/adventure elements.
“So far this season we’ve been busy with the addition of Seven of Nine as well as in developing relationships among the other characters. There are episodes that focus exclusively on the self-examination and self-enlightenment of one particular character. Others deal with familiar contemporary social issues played out in a futuristic scenario or are basically action-packed, shoot-‘em-up, good guy versus bad guy tales. Some even have an element of intrigue or mystery. We have so many exciting options open to us and I feel the addition of a regular adversary helps spice things up even more.”
Although cruising through the Delta Quadrant takes up most of his time Russ can sometimes be found playing the guitar as well as singing at the Common Grounds coffeehouse in Northridge, California. Whether he is practicing a new ballad or exploring a new facet of Tuvok’s character, it is an opportunity to do something a little bit different that keeps the job exciting to him.
“An audition is like going out on a hunt… you nail it [the part], bring it home on your back, eat for a couple of weeks and then go out to hunt gain”
“When you’re working on stage, it’s the rehearsal process that’s most interesting because it’s a time of discovery,” explains Russ. “You’re busy creating and building your character. Once that’s done then it comes down to your performance, although you may pick up a few more things while the show is running. However, with films and television there isn’t much time for rehearsal. You basically get your script and go out and do the job. So you have to find this character quickly on your own. What makes going from job to job fun, at least for me, is being able to play different people and explore areas of your personality you may or may not have been aware even existed.
“An audition is almost like going out on a hunt,” describes the actor. “You’re literally like a tribesman in search of dinner. You would go without food for two or three weeks and suddenly an audition comes up and you’re on the prowl. You’re out there with just the tools you have looking for prey. You nail it [the part], bring it home on your back, eat for a couple of weeks and then go right back out to hunt again. This is a pretty accurate analogy of being an actor and going from project to project. Each time you go out you come back with a brand new character in different circumstances and experience a wide range of emotions. You never quite know what you’re going to end up with in this regard,” says Russ, “but that’s part of the thrill as well as one of the rewards of this profession.”