Starburst Special #25, August 1995
A Starburst interview by Joe Nazzaro
In some mirror image of our universe, Tim Russ is not playing Tuvok, the Vulcan security officer on Star Trek: Voyager. Instead, this other-dimensional actor is known for his role as Lt Cmdr Geordi La Forge, the chief engineer in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
If this scenario sounds far-fetched to fans of either Star Trek series, they might be surprised to know how close it came to being true. Seven years before Russ landed the coveted role of Tuvok, he actually auditioned for La Forge, only to see another actor on the producers’ short list – namely LeVar Burton – cast as the Enterprise’s newest engineer.
It seems strangely logical, Tuvok might say, that half a decade after trying out for The Next Generation, Russ would get a chance to work with his distinguished competition, when Burton walked onto the Voyager set to direct an upcoming episode of the series. “I don’t know if I talked to him about it directly at the time,” says Russ, “but we do work together quite well.
“As a matter of fact, LeVar Burton, Kate Mulgrew, Avery Brooks and I all worked together in the same scene, in the Roots Christmas special. It’s a very small world, particularly with Kate and I coming on board Star Trek, as well as Avery Brooks. LeVar had already been doing it, so for all of us to work together was very strange.
Strange twists of Fate
“This whole series of events has been strange. It feels as though all the arrows were all pointing in this direction, and even though you couldn’t see those arrows in the beginning, they were all there.”
Talking about his involvement with the Star Trek phenomenon in general, and his current work on Voyager in particular, it’s easy to see how enthusiastic Russ is feeling about the new universe he’s been exploring over the last several months. “It’s not just a successful series starting off from scratch,” he elaborates, “It’s already a machine in progress, so in that sense, you’re jumping on board a juggernaut that’s already rolling.
“There’s a great deal of comfort and security knowing that you’ve got a lot behind you, plus you’ve got a studio that wants to launch a network and is using your show to do so. Voyager is their main show, so we have all their support, plus the popularity of the [Star Trek] series already. As an actor, it’s a very secure feeling.”
For Russ, appearing in an episode of either The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine always seemed inevitable. It was just a case of auditioning for the right part at the right time. “[Executive Producer] Rick Berman was always in my corner,” he notes, “but he was overridden by Gene Roddenberry at the time as far as LeVar’s role. Down the line, I read for The Next Generation several times, and I think I only got on the show after Rick was in charge of it. Either he didn’t have the power or influence at the time to get me on sooner than that, or they just didn’t see me as being right for whatever particular role it was.”
Russ finally landed a guest-starring role in The Next Generation episode, Starship Mine, playing one of the saboteurs whose attempts to capture the Enterprise are thwarted by Captain Picard. That was followed by a short stint as a Klingon in the Deep Space Nine segment, Invasive Procedures.
“Some of that stuff was pretty rugged,” says Russ, of his latter role in DS9. “It was the first time I had ever done that heavy a prosthetic makeup before, and it was pretty amazing; very long days, early mornings, and relatively uncomfortable. Once you’re made up and in costume, the character is very easy to define, because you’re feeling miserable. It’s hot and uncomfortable, and by the time you get on the set, you feel like a Klingon. You walk into the trailer, see yourself in the mirror with the hair, face and teeth, and for all intents and purposes, you are a Klingon.”
Between his voyages into outer space, Russ made a brief foray into inner space, courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s seaQuest DSV. In the first season episode Photon Bullet, the actor plays a megalomaniacal computer expert, who tries to bring the world to its knees with the help of Lucas and a group of teen hackers.
“seaQuest was a real kick, because it was a different kind of role, but looking back, I didn’t like a lot of the moments. Some of it played well, but there were some things I would have liked to have done differently. That’s par for the course as far as what actors do when they see themselves on screen. He was a manipulative character; very two-sided, with a hidden agenda, which to some degree played, but I would have preferred to see a bit more eccentricity.
“I had a choice between doing that part in seaQuest, and doing a feature for four weeks, which would have paid more money. It was a comedy, but the character was not interesting, and I had also played similar characters before. SeaQuest was only one week and paying much less, but it was such an interesting part that I chose it because of the character. It was a decision based on art rather than business.”
Just before landing his role in Voyager, Russ also put in a brief appearance in Star trek Generations. Sharp-eyed movie-goers will probably have spotted him in the film’s prologue, as one of the crew members aboard the Enterprise-B. While the actor spent most of his screen time being battered about by the ship’s proximity to the Nexus, it was still a rare chance to work with crew members from the original Star Trek series.
“Most of the stuff I had to say was basically the chatter back and forth for instructions. That really doesn’t take anything more than the director saying, ‘Louder, faster,’ or whatever.
“I thought the actress who played Sulu’s daughter was quite good, and the guy who played the captain. Alan [Ruck] is a wonderful actor, and he did an excellent job, considering there was great deal of pressure on him. Part of that was, do you want to steal a scene from Shatner, and try to surpass or overshadow his performance? Alan had to impress the legend, he had a ship in trouble, and he was acting opposite an institution. That is very though to do.
“Most of us, outside of the captain, and the lady who played Sulu’s daughter, only had four or five lines, pretty much evenly dispersed. The scenes were not about us, they were about Kirk. He comes over to my station and I say, ‘Captain, the shields aren’t doing this and that.’ You can only play that one way. The rest of it is the ship falling apart. It’s Chekov, Scotty, and the Captain; that’s it, man! Nobody is looking at anybody else anyway, but it was just a thrill to be working on a feature, and to be working with Kirk.”
When Russ hear that the producers of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were putting together a third Star Trek spin-off, he made sure he was available to audition for the new series. This time, the role he had his eye on was Tuvok, the ship’s Vulcan security officer.
“It was mentioned to me during the feature that Voyager was coming up, and Rick Berman wanted me to read for it. He had wanted me on [The Next Generation] from the very beginning, and knowing that, I designed my schedule around being able to read for Voyager. I didn’t take any work for three and half months, which was a major investment of time and career.
“In this case, it was worth the gamble, because the goal for my agent and I was to get me on a show that stayed on. It seemed very simple to me: I already had a relationship with these people and I knew I could get in there and read for it, but I couldn’t do it if I was in Oklahoma shooting a movie of the week. You have to be there when the door opens, so I didn’t take any work at all for almost four months out of the year, and half of that was pilot season. We shot the feature in February, and pilot season goes at least until April, so I didn’t take any work. All I wanted was a shot at this show. I didn’t feel that way for The Next Generation, but I knew this one would have everything behind it, and I wanted it in the worst way.”
In the end, Russ was one of the first actors cast for Voyager, beating out enough would-be Vulcans to populate a small planet. While some of the remaining roles took much longer to fill, the result is a carefully chosen group of actors who work well together.
“What we have thus far is a cast with a great deal of camaraderie. There are no prima donnas, there are no people with eccentric personality problems, there isn’t any division between the cast. It’s very even, and everybody is very friendly to each other. We have a lot of fun, but at the same time, we also get the job done. For these long days you have to work together and being tired and under the gun, we work together quite well.”
Russ chuckles at Caretaker director Rick Kolbe’s description of Tuvok as a ‘pained English butler’ citing the now-classic bathtub scene with Neelix. “That’s a perfect analogy, because it’s pretty much the way I would have played it: that pained way of having to tolerate this character, who’s the farthest thing from Starfleet. He’s an alien who’s gregarious, friendly but also obnoxious in a certain way, and I have to deal with him at that point in time. Now he’s part of the crew.
“That’s the way it should be played, and once you go there, you find little subtleties and different levels within that. Those little beats are easy for me to play, because the humor I’ve generally played in the past has been dry.”
The actor credits Kolbe as well as the other Voyager directors in helping to create an enjoyable working atmosphere on the set. “Rick is probably the best, because of his relationship with us, and also his sense of humor. Rick is always cracking jokes, no matter what the circumstance is. He’ll be explaining to you what he wants to see in the shot or the scene, and he’ll suddenly say something completely off the wall without breaking his stride; a bizarre literary analogy to some offbeat opera or character, and it’s just hilarious. He doesn’t take the show too seriously.
“Les Landau is very competent and straight-ahead, and knee-deep in the moments in the characters, as well as the honesty of those moments. Les will want to see certain things in those scenes, and he’ll keep taping until he gets it. It’s the same thing with Bob Scheerer. Bob is the ‘old-timer,’ and knows how to line up a shot to get things done on time. He’s very quick and very efficient. There’s a lot of wisdom in what he’s doing.
“Kim Friedman is pretty quick. She did one show in six and a half days, which is just about impossible. She’s very quick, a little more excitable than the others, but that’s just her personality. I also think she knows the show very well; she knows the characters and the history of the show, what’s consistent and not consistent. She’s very practical.
“LeVar Burton is great to work with. He’s an actor-turned-director, which gives him an extra edge. He understands what the actors need, what makes them look good, what they want and how to work with them. He also knows the camera and how to work with the DP [Director of Photography].
“David Livingston’s shows tend to look really great. Working with David as a director is a little more difficult, because he does a lot of takes, so the scenes take longer to get down. He’s also the boss, so we have to deal with that. Out of all those people, I enjoy working with the vast majority of them quite a bit. We have a great relationship, with good understanding, and right now, just noticing the relationship I have with most of them, is that of understanding. It’s being able to go into a scene and both of us knowing we’re thinking the same thing. That’s starting to come together now, with the majority of our directors.”
Because of Voyager’s large ensemble cast, the actors are often given a brief respite from their demanding filming schedules. For example, if one or two episodes feature Tuvok in a major way, his presence in the following installment may be somewhat lighter. “There are a lot of interesting things coming up, so I’m very happy,” says Russ. “God knows I don’t need to have a heavy show every week; I have to have a break every once in a while to get the laundry done and the bills paid, and all that other crap you have to take care of!”
During his infrequent periods of down time from the series, Russ continues to pursue his long-running career as a successful musician; an activity he works hard to maintain.
“I’ve been a musician for 25 years as a guitarist and a vocalist, and I’m trying to keep that relatively consistent, doing it on a routine basis. My sister will notify fans if they’re in a certain area about where I’m playing. I played last week at a coffee house, and there were only four or five people who were fans of the show. The rest were there for the coffee house or the music.”
And how would Russ feel about an audience filled with Voyager fans dressed in full Starfleet regalia? “That wouldn’t bother me in the least! All I’m thinking about is remembering the words to the songs. As long as there are people there, as opposed to a bunch of empty tables and chairs, I don’t care what they look like, as long as they’re there.”
As for the strong possibility of working on Star Trek: Voyager for a good part of the next decade, that’s just fine with Tim Russ. Now that fate has finally given him an opportunity to explore the final frontier, he’s not about to resign his Starfleet commission any time soon. “The brass ring finally came around and I was able to grab it,” he reflects. “There was no guarantee or formula I necessarily had to follow, and if I had to do it again, I don’t know if I’d necessarily do it the same way. Who knows if I missed an opportunity five years ago to reach this point? I just have to be glad that the carousel came around again, and it’s only a short ride. I think seven years will go by quite quickly.”