Star Trek Communicator # 137, Spring 2002

Surviving the 'risk' of playing a Vulcan

by Melissa Perenson

"Watching Vulcans is like watching a high-speed car race, because they'rejust waiting for a crash." postulates actor Tim Russ.

Russ knows this first-hand: For seven years, he portrayed Captain Janeway's Vulcan security chief, Tuvok, on Star Trek Voyager. Long before that, he was a fan of the first Vulcan introduced in the Star Trek universe - the original series' Mr. Spock.

There's something about  being Vulcan that makes things more interesting, both from the perspective of an actor and a viewer, he concurs. "You could always count on [Spock] being somewhat counter to what was going on around him in terms of his personality and behavior - he was always  counter to human beings," Russ points out. "And people like to see that kind of thing: they like to see characters that comment on the human condition directly and indirectly. I think that's what makes Spock so exciting."

Given his own familiarity with Star Trek prior to being cast in a Star Trek spin-off himself, Russ had some idea of what was in store when he learned that he'd be playing a Vulcan. "My focus was on trying to make sure this character was believable as a Vulcan character," he recalls. "I was aware of the fact that the series had a very enthusiastic and scrutinizing fan base, and that they would be looking out for the portrayal of this character as being accurate to what had been portrayed in the past. That was the main thing I was concerned about when taking the part on initially."

Because so much time had passed since there'd been a recurring Vulcan character on a Trek series, Russ remembers feeling some added pressure when he stepped up to the plate to play Tuvok.

"It was very important to try to get this character portrayed properly because there had not been a regular Vulcan character on there for subsequent series - The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, or almost two decades," he says. "So coming back into this character and playing him at the time was a revival, more or less. People were aware of Spock's character, but except for the feature films, they were not seeing him on a regular basis on a TV series. And because of the immense popularity Spock's character garnered over the years, I was more aware of how important it was to get this character right [from the get-go]. Spock was so immensely popular in the original series that it was very important to portray the Vulcan culture and character mystique accurately."

Yet another reason behind his desire to get it right from the outset: his pioneering role as a "minority Vulcan character."

"I used to tell the fans pretty much that, in just the same way that not all human beings on this planet look the same, who's to say that the species or animals or creatures from other planets will look exactly the same from one hemisphere to the next?" he notes. "We literally cross a border on this planet, and see people who look entirely different from each other. That's how I used to explain it, based on the same theory of evolution that existed here. But that [issue] was also another hurdle to jump over."

Russ went into his audition for the role of Tuvok armed with the foreknowledge of who Vulcans were - and he used that knowledge to his advantage. "Initially, I kept the character as close to what had been portrayed in the past as I could to get the role," he says. "It was very important, and I didn't want to jig around on a limb necessarily and push the envelope at that time. I wanted to get the role first, and to make sure that he would be portrayed as closely and accurately to what the Vulcan framework would be. It was important to stay within the primaries of what these characters had been shown to be like, and I didn't want to go outside that to get the part."

After he secured the role, Russ was largely left to his own devices to hammer out the nuances of how to play Tuvok. "They didn't show me very much of anything," he says. "From time to time they would bring in footage of the show that had been done earlier, whether it was the original series or not. But I already was aware of most of that to begin with; I had seen enough of the episodes in the past to remember how things like the mindmeld or the neck grip were done. They did have a couple of people in the show who were more or less consultants who handled all of the information about past Star Trek folklore, and they could brush it up [for me] every once in a while."

So who are the Vulcans, exactly? "Their methods of carrying out actions are logical, their methods of thinking are logical - but their choices are another matter," Russ comments. "The way in which you execute that choice may be perfectly logical, and that's the difference between how logic is interpreted, They may make a choice that may seem unusual, but they go about it in a logical fashion in terms of carrying it out. And if you make a personal choice to do something, that's a personal choice. Each individual has a destiny of his or her own in that respect."

This precept is exemplified by Tuvok's decision to be a tactical officer, notes Russ. "Tactical is simply a position he chose. He could have been an operations officer, he could have been a helmsman, he could have been anything. He chose to be tactical/security. He may have had an aptitude for that; it just turned out to be that way. He takes orders, and he works within the envelope of strict discipline, and that's just the way he is. The analytical mind of a Vulcan, I think, is perfectly suited for that position."

Sometimes though, there are "certain things that contradict those basic philosophies of their culture," he admits. "They are theoretically pacifists in their philosophy and their culture, and yet this character is a tactical/security officer onboard a starship, which means he's got to fire phasers and blow up things on occasion."

Exploring aspects of Tuvok's Vulcan nature was largely an outgrowth of, and not the focus of, the various story lines the writers came up with over the years. "We just got possible interests and hobbies and things like that in there from the very beginning," Russ recalls. "From there, the character develops and sort of blossoms, based on what the stories were like when they came down the pike. We learned about his past, his family, we learned about him when he was a child - these are the kinds of things that came up over the years. There was no [advance] knowledge that this character had children. Spock's character did not have a family; mine did, and that distinguishes my character from his character.

"That means," he goes on, "Tuvok's gone through the Pon farr, selected a wife, had a family - there's a whole different perspective there. And we had an entire episode based on his relationship with children during the series [Season 2's "Innocence"], and that's based on his past, too. We explored the concept of mind-melds very heavily and the concept of what lies beneath the surface of the Vulcan veneer - and just how delicate that balance is between controlling emotions and potentially very violent emotions. And [we explored] how these people behave and function: we made it very clear that Vulcans are always in control, they're always suppressing; they have to focus on it; it takes work and effort and energy to maintain their behavior. It's not something that comes naturally. They are able to do it physiologically, but it's something they have to work at consistently through meditation and things like that. We really focused on the struggle to maintain that control and that discipline, and how it's always there, but a matter of keeping it under wraps."

The character's personal journey was an enriching one for Russ. "Every single story that we had that focused Tuvok was a growing experience, one that I had a chance to discover," he continues. "Each one of those stories allowed my character and myself to see him change, or see him discover something about his past, discover something about what lay underneath the surface. So we learned a lot about that. And to see him go from point A to point B in the show like that is kind of cool. To some degree, a lot of it seems like a blur, it went by so fast, so quickly. But I think that by the end of the series, just by virtue of what he had gone through, that people would be able to see him in a different light."

Since Tuvok was often a supporting player and not the focal point of the A-storyline, in the early years Russ often found himself concentrating on perfecting the subtler aspects of being Vulcan, including speech and movement.

"Those are the things that I had to focus on and make sure I had right, because the character has a very narrow spectrum of visual behavior in public when he's around other people," he explains. "Vulcans stand a certain way, they walk a certain way, they carry themselves a certain way, and they speak a certain way. And these kinds of things are what we're consistent with when it comes to their culture and species. We tweaked a few things here and there, tweaked the language every once and a while, and used contractions more often than not. We'd tweak little particulars about certain decisions and choices the character would make at different times, but basically we did remain pretty consistent to the way they are. And all of those physical points are definitely things that have to be carried through - you never saw him with his feet kicked up and lounging around in a casual manner."

The decision to introduce contractions was a conscious and deliberate one, according to Russ - and reflected Tuvok's comfort zone with his own 'inner Vulcan'.

"It's just that it's a distinguishing characteristic or marker," he notes. "There was no firm rule in terms of dialogue and dialect and the way Vulcans speak. They don't have to use words without contractions - and the fact that he's been working in and around human beings for many years. Also, unlike Spock - who was half human and half Vulcan, and felt he had to prove that he was a pure Vulcan - my character was already Vulcan, and could therefore forgo that kind of scrutiny. He was very comfortable being Vulcan - and we demonstrated this in a number of episodes: that he could feel at least somewhat more comfortable or understanding or tolerant in or around human beings. I think he just settled into a very easy sort of groove, if you will, in the way that he behaved and the way that he spoke."

That easy groove is what enabled Russ to glide through his seven years as a Vulcan at 'high speed' with ease - and no fear of crashing.