SFX, probably sometime during summer1996
As Voyager blasts off on BBC2, UK terrestrial viewers will get their first chance to watch Star Trek’s first ever pure Vulcan regular. Stuart Banks mindmelds with actor Tim Russ.
Actors in long-running series who protest vehemently that the audience can’t separate them from their characters have become something of a cliché. Tim Russ, however, is the exact opposite. The man who plays the first fully Vulcan regular character in Star Trek: Voyager reckons, “I do believe in the power of logic; the power of objectivity: the approach of objectivity to any problem, discussions or conflicts. I believe in approaching them from both sides in an objective manner. I also believe in efficiency; I detest inefficiency. I think Tuvok would detest it as well – that would drive me crazy! What is the point of doing A if B is not going to be the result? What is the point of going down this path if there is not going to be any reason for it? Not looking to the outside to explain something that is happening on the inside?”
So method acting ain’t his thang? It appears not. “Generally, the best performances are given by those who have the closest identification with the characters they are playing; I think that 80% of what you see on screen is actually actors’ personality, the other 10% or 20% is talent. I think that there are very few actors who can pull off playing the complete opposite of their personality type. I know the characters on our show and they are very similar to the actors who play them.”
Russ tried to get on board Star Trek for several years prior to his being cast in Voyager. Originally, he auditioned for the role of Geordi LaForge (which eventually went to LeVar Burton), but finally made it playing a bad guy in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he was beaten up by Picard himself. He also got to play Klingon mercenary characters in DS9 and made a brief appearance in Star Trek: Generations, which he called “a blast.” He even read for a part on Babylon 5, but I couldn’t do it because I was hired to do something else.”
Then he landed the role of Tuvok. Knowing the history and background of Star Trek’s most famous Vulcan, did Russ feel that Tuvok would always be overshadowed by Spock? “Being the first true Vulcan enables me to separate myself from Spock’s character. In Spock’s situation, although he wasn’t full Vulcan, he always had to prove that he was, to himself as well as everyone else. This was a statement he was making, the choice that he made. He was growing up on a planet where everyone else was Vulcan and he wasn’t, so I could imagine there was a lot of pressure to conform. Although my approach is different and I don’t feel overshadowed by him, I do draw from that character’s influence in terms of story; there is a sense of folklore and history with the Vulcan culture, so you grab everything that you can from what has already been established.”
“We are lucky that we have nine cast members and we’re able to work together and not get all these problems behind the scenes.”
Not that he feels his hands are tied. In fact, he’s been quite vocal at times when he feels that the character is being asked to act illogically. “I do have some artistic interpretation over the role – as much as the producers will tolerate from me – so I interject whenever I can. I interject from an acting standpoint: in terms of character motivation, things like dialogue and any editorial problems. Then I interject from a character’s standpoint: whenever there is something in the script that I’m reading which throws up a red flag or goes against what has already been established. What I try to do is get the writers to justify the deviation from the norm or to change altogether what’s written, depending on how critical it is to the story.”
But there must be particular difficulties playing a character who has to be constantly emotionless? “It is only difficult when you are confronted as an actor by other human beings who are playing either anger, hostility or compassion. When you encounter those kinds of emotions – when someone says something to you and smiles, because what they are sharing is friendly or warm – it is difficult not to smile back. That is kind of tricky.
“It’s also very difficult not to respond back with anger when someone shows hostility. Tuvok is basically like a flat featureless surface which absorbs emotions from other people without reflecting back those emotions. But I do think he’s got a sense of humor, albeit a dry, noncommittal one. From time to time, he does say things that can be construed as funny. People often misconstrue Vulcans as being completely emotionless: they forget that Vulcans have this deep sense of mysticism, of their past, that they have tremendous emotions.
“Tuvok is basically like a flat featureless surface which absorbs emotions from other people without reflecting back those emotions. But I do think he’s got a sense of humor, albeit a dry, noncommittal one…”
“At one time they were very hostile and very violent. What they’ve done is use meditation and discipline to control it. If I remember correctly, there’s a scene with Chakotay where he says, ‘Don’t mistake composure with ease. Don’t think that this is easy.’ Personally, I’d imagine trying to control those emotions all the time must be difficult to say the least. I know this because it’s difficult to control them as an actor.”
Even though he doesn’t have the fallback of half-human ancestry to introduce extra shades to his character, Tuvok has had a fair few episodes which have given Russ the chance to explore the Vulcan psyche more deeply. “The episode ‘Meld’ [in which Tuvok mindmelds with a Betazoid murderer] provided a very stark window to what really goes on underneath that calm exterior. It comes out fully released as it were, and out of control. And I think using a Betazoid in that, as opposed to a human mind, helped bring that out. I don’t think using a human mind, as was originally suggested, would have been suitably challenging. I really enjoyed working on ‘Meld’ because it really stretched me.
“In ‘Innocence’ [in which Tuvok babysits three shipwrecked children], Tuvok states that he has four children and a wife, which in itself tends to change the way you regard the character. We get a chance to peer into that subject. How does he relate to these children as a father? We see more of him as he tries to teach the children in the same way that he would teach his own children.”
Does it worry him that Voyager, in comparison to The Next Generation, is reported to be struggling in the ratings?
“The poor relation, you mean? From what I understand, they have done sweeps over here: they do this so often where they put a number of shows up against each other on the networks. And when we were running against the football games, we did well – the sweeps were exceptional I have to say that ratings points to me don’t mean anything; the production companies and the studios all basically sued the Nielsen Company, who produce the ratings. The studios protested vehemently against the system and the way it works. It is tremendously inefficient and inaccurate, so network numbers are erroneous to me for the most part.
“When I walk out of my house, in an hour I can run into 12 or 15 people who are dedicated viewers. If I can meet that many people in an hour who watch the show on a regular basis and I am in one place – one fragment of this entire country – what does that say about the number of people who watch Voyager?”
But the show has come in for a lot of criticism over a lack of originality. “What you have to understand is that the Greeks were the first to come up with all the original plot ideas. Everybody, including Shakespeare, borrowed from them; he revamped those ideas, as has everybody since… As do we. How many cop shows have been on the air either here or in England which have re-used the same themes? And, personally, I am not entirely in agreement with the originality issue in terms of our stories. We have a staff of people who do their utmost to avoid doing what has been done before.”
He admits, however, that, “there have been over 400 shows altogether” in the history of Trek, which makes coming up with completely new concepts week in week out tricky. But the very nature of Voyager, he feels, ensures that the scripts should at least have a chance of coming across as fresh. “We are trying to come up with new ideas given the circumstances we are in; the ship being lost in the delta Quadrant and a female captain are two ways in which Voyager differs from the shows which have gone before.”
Into the swing of presenting the case for the defence, he adds, “I disagree with the criticism in the press. They can’t report that the fireman got the cat out of the tree, that’s not an interesting story. If the cat dies up the tree, that’s much more interesting. That’s the way it goes.”
Not that he’s wearing a rose-tinted visor. He hastens to add. “There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of staying consistent with basic physics and what has already been established,” he admits. “If something in the story was completely contrary to what’s been seen before, then you have problems. If the studio came in and said, ‘We want more ships flying around and shooting each other, we want more things blowing up, we want it to look like some other show,…. Space: Above and Beyond.’ Well, that’s another show.”
In the UK, the press recently picked up on a campaign, led by Gene Roddenberry’s step-grandson and allegedly supported by Avery Brooks and Patrick Stewart, to add gay characters to the crew of the Voyager. How did he feel about this?
“The writers have occasionally tossed out ideas where we see tow men together, or an individual who might be concerned about another who is of the same sex, within the framework of an episode. The thing about it is that it can only be done if it is within that scale; there really isn’t any reason to make an issue of it because in the future, homosexuality is no longer an issue.
“But America is such a homophobic nation; I think that’s partly why it has not been seen in an episode. You have enough problems just getting past the inter-racial relationships, so you’re not going to get too much of anything else on screen. They’re so terrified of the sponsors pulling out, especially as it’s a network show; on a syndicated series you can get away with a lot more, but they only sell to specific markets. A network show is trying to reach the entire country. They’re so concerned about numbers and sponsorship that they can’t afford to shake the boat too much. What we can do is go after certain issues; whether it’s life after death, suicide or violence. But if you were to show homosexuality, they’d have to present it as part of an alien culture that we encounter – which is typical of what Star Trek does – or they would show it on the ship in a subtle, one-shot sort of way. Don’t play up the homosexuality, simply have it in the background. It would not be the focus of the scene: why would anybody comment on it? Nobody comments on race in the show.”
“When I walk out of my house, in an hour I can run into 12 or 15 people who are dedicated viewers of the series. If I can meet that many people in an hour who watch the show on a regular basis and I am in just the one place – one fragment of this entire country – what does that say about the number of people who watch Voyager?”
Since the beginning of July, Russ has been back to work on the third season of Voyager. He has just finished shooting a story called “The Swarm” – a “Bob Picardo story,” according to Russ – and either at the end of this season or the beginning of the next has plans to direct an episode himself. He reckons the close-knit nature of the cast should help him ease through his directorial debut.
“We all get along splendidly. The only problems we’ve had is that occasionally we’ve had directors that we don’t get along with all that well. We are lucky that we have nine cast members and we’re able to work together and not get all these problems behind the scenes.”
Talking of behind the scenes, it appears Russ has had his fair share of bloopers.
“They’re normally problems with the door not opening – that’s happened twice! But the most embarrassing incident was when I was shooting in the corridor of the ship; we have this long walkway which is curved and you can’t see what’s on the other side until you walk around it, you see. There was to be this long walking shot; I was supposed to walk around the corner, and the camera is meant to pick me up and then back up while I walk towards it. We shot a couple of takes and at the end of the third I was nattering to somebody at the other end of the hall…
“When the call went out for action, I started walking, not realizing that as I turned the corner to look for the camera it wasn’t there. So I kept on walking and as I walked round the corner, I ran into the camera backing up, looking for me – they were shooting in the wrong direction!”
Logical to the end, Russ considers the final question with the kind of depth it really doesn’t demand. What does he think his best Vulcan chat-up line would be? “The only one that I can think of would be, ‘I have a seven year itch that will blow your socks off.’ Because it would have to be kept within that Vulcan sort of mindset, logically speaking of course.” Of course…