Cult Times #59, August 2000
Playing a character with no emotions presents something of a challenge. But as if that’s not enough Tim Russ, the man behind Voyager’s Tuvok, has also been writing, directing and making music…
It’s a darkly lit room and people are sitting round tables whilst listening to the voice of a crooning Star Trek favorite. It must be Vic Fontaine in one of DS9’s holosuites, right? Actually, it’s Voyager’s very own Vulcan Security Officer, Lt Tuvok, and his angst-ridden outbursts are anything but logical.
We caught up with Tim Russ during a soundcheck for his imminent gig in front of the crew of the USS Excalibur in Bournemouth. Having wrapped the penultimate season of Voyager, he was touring the UK to promote his eponymously-titled CD, and was keen to get back to his musical roots.
“Once in a blue moon you get to do something different, but it’s still the same old tune”
“I’ve been singing for 25 years, since I was 16, and playing guitar off and on all that time. So this is all second nature for me,” he explains, whilst forcing an unco-operative lead into the back of his guitar. Tim’s musical talents might be news to most fans, so perhaps we’ll be seeing him plucking a Vulcan harp on Voyager next year? “No way, I don’t even want to start treading that path. I want to keep the music and the Vulcan separate. The Doctor is already singing regularly on the show and had a whole story set around it [Virtuoso].”
Tim started his promotional tour shortly after completing season finale Unimatrix Zero. Was it a good year for Tuvok? “The end of Season Five and most of Season Six have been fairly light for me, but remember there’s nine of us and we’re still doing a lot of background stuff on Seven of Nine,” he says. “Everybody else had three years before her to cover their past and she’s had to catch up. I have to be on set three or four times in the shooting week just because the security officer has to go where the action is, even if I only have one scene or one line. But this has also given me the time to do the music and anything else that I can lay my hands on. It’s a boring routine job and anyone who’s ever been on the set and watched for four hours will know that. The fun is in everything that goes on around it, and that includes the conventions and gigs like this.”
After the long hours on set, writing music is a welcome change for Tim. “It’s a total release for me because Tuvok is so stoic and devoid of any emotions. Even playing a TV role that required just standard emotions would still generate a need to go out and do other things,” he adds. In Season Six’s Riddles, Tuvok was zapped by an energy force and suffered severe neurological trauma, and this gave Tim the opportunity to explore a different side of his character. “Riddles was a good show,” Tim remembers. “Once in a blue moon you get an opportunity to do something different, but even then you’re still playing the same character in the same old show – it’s still the same old tune. You can play it in blues format or a waltz, but that same old song stops being interesting and you look to do other things such as directing, producing or writing.”
One of these directing assignments was Living Witness, a compelling fourth season Doctor show that looked at the consequences of making incorrect assumptions about history. “Directing that show was just one of the many doors that voyager has opened for me. Rick Berman told me that I was due to direct another show last season, but that didn’t happen and so technically I’m next in line. Whether or not it happens next season depend on there being two light episodes back to back so that I can prep for the show and shoot it.”
Tim’s directorial chores have not just been limited to Star Trek. In 1998 he co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed East of Hope Street, a movie that deals with abuse and child protection in LA. “I was able to pay for most of that movie because of the show. I wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise and I would have had to try to sell it to someone else.” Since its release, East of Hope Street has won Best Urban Drama at the New York Film and Video Festival and Best Feature Film at the New Orleans Urban Film Festival. “That’s the real plus,” Tim continues. “Being on Voyager has given me the funds and fan base to enable me to record my album and release it on a label. An actor in Hollywood on a hit show for six or seven years can’t guarantee that at the end he is going to get any more work. You might just fade away, so you need to diversify.”
Part of this diversity includes Russ’s latest venture, Fahrenheit 452: The Art Police, which has been favorably described as Men in Black meet Cops. “It’s based on the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It premiered on the Web on 23rd June on Galaxy [www.galaxyonline.com] and they’ll be showing two episodes a month in five minute segments.” Tim continues by explaining the connection with Bradbury’s tale about book burning. “The episodes are satirical short stories based on cop shows and police dramas but with the theme of art censorship as the basis of the crimes. The public judge what constitutes good taste and we [the Art Police] are the enforcers. We come to the scene of the crime and take care of business when someone has violated a crime against art – poetry, music, dance, ballet, whatever.” The series has already included turns by Ethan Phillips and Robert Beltran.
As well as The Art Police, Tim has also lent his voice talents to audiobook Star Trek: Vulcan’s Heart as well as the upcoming Star Trek: Voyager Elite Squad, a PC CD ROM first-person shooter game where Tuvok leads a team against the Borg, Hirogen and other species. However, time is running out for Tuvok (and the rest of Voyager’s crew) with only 26 episodes left to run. Does Russ have any final desires for Tuvok in this last chapter of the series? “Not really. I think that the stories have continued to develop his character. I’m sure that I can count on the writers to come up with something that’s going to explore one more facet of this character.”
Tim is unique within his peer group by having appeared in all recent incarnations of the show and a feature film (Klingon T’Kar in DSN’s Invasive Procedures, terrorist Devor in Nest Generation’s Starship Mine and a Lieutenant on the Enterprise-B in Star Trek: Generations). With all this first-hand experience of the shows, you’d expect him to notice significant differences between them. “The whole reason that this franchise has continued successfully between incarnations is because they are all the same. They don’t change the production styles and they spend the same amount of money. Technically, the shows use more CGI now than models, but that’s it. The sets are the same, the directing is the same.” Because Star Trek sticks to such a rigid formula, Russ found this constricted his creativity whilst directing Living Witness. “As a director on television you have to creative choices because it’s a producer’s medium, not a director’s medium. A director is just a hired hand like an actor, you come on and do what the producers want you to do – it’s a fixed format.”
When Voyager completes its final season next year, fans will face the prospect of no new Star Trek episodes on the networks. Some have argued that the franchise will benefit from a temporary rest, and rumors are rife about when the net new series will be produced. “It’s all speculative,” Russ confirms. “I don’t know what they’ve got planned, but I would hope that they will take a break. I appreciate that I don’t have the same perspective of the fan or the person who records the show and watches it over and again several times a year. I also realize that a young 10-year-old fan doesn’t know anything about the previous shows and that the older generation has to take a back seat now whilst the new generation are growing up with Voyager.
“I could have easily ended up on Baywatch”
“I watched the original series, but I wasn’t actually a fanatic,” he continues. “At that time there were only three or four networks and they re-ran that show for years. If you didn’t see it then you must have been blind. I watched the original shows, but I preferred the feature films. I didn’t actually watch Next Generation or DSN that much at all.” So, getting a job on Voyager wasn’t actually a realization of a long-held dream to appear in a Star Trek series? “It’s a job, man. I could have easily ended up on Baywatch for seven years as opposed to Voyager. I could have been called up to appear in anything, but at that time I was looking for a series that was going to stay on the air. I knew that this one would because it was Star Trek!”
Paramount have officially confirmed that Season Seven will be Voyager’s last. If the show had been renewed for an unprecedented eighth year, Tim might have been interested in staying. “There would be other things that would need to be negotiated. It’s a double-edged sword because you want to get away and do other things, but then I’d probably stick around for one more year because it’s a very solid financial resource and a way to get things done.”
And finally, the hot question on everyone’s lips is whether Voyager will return to the Alpha Quadrant next season. “I don’ have any control over the stories in the last year,” he confesses. “All I can do is show up for work and learn my lines. I do have some minor input into the stories but I don’t have a clue what will happen in the wider picture. Quite frankly, even the writers don’t have a clue about what they’re going to do. The only people who know the answer to that question are the executive producers of the studio, and they’re not going to talk.”