TV Zone #118, September 1999
Voyager’s stolid Vulcan talks about the show’s evolution, as well as his work outside the Delta Quadrant.
What do you do if you are a Vulcan stranded 35,000 light years from home and living and working aboard a starship with sometimes highly emotional and not always logical humanoids? You adapt, of course, which is exactly what Star Trek: Voyager’s Lieutenant Commander Tuvok has done over the past five years. Although he still relies on his logic, Tuvok has discovered that Human feelings also have value and should not be dismissed so easily. His road to understanding has had some illogical pitfalls but these have helped make the character far more interesting for Tim Russ to portray.
“As an actor, one of the difficulties that comes from working on a long-running series is that you’re playing the same role every week for 10 months out of the year,” says Russ. “You’re on the same sets in the same space and, even though the words change, the dialogue starts to sound the same after a while. It can be tough on a daily basis and, I think, perhaps more for myself than some of the other Voyager actors because Tuvok has a far narrower emotional band. The writers can’t give ma scene in which Tuvok gets really upset because it’s not in his nature, so it’s a challenge to keep my performance fresh on a year-to-year basis.
“Fortunately, what’s been a blessing for me in playing Tuvok is that he’s been compelled to come to terms with and understand the way Human Beings behave. By doing so he is exploring, realizing and learning more about who he is as a person and this allows me every so often to introduce the audience to a different side of him. This process began way back in the show’s first season with the episode Prime Factors in which Tuvok decides to violate protocol, much to Captain Janeway’s [Kate Mulgrew] disappointment. From there, he reaches into the mind of a killer in the second-season episode Meld, while in the third season he comes to appreciate Neelix [Ethan Phillips] intuition and intelligence in Rise.
“We did an episode in the fifth season called Gravity which is a major eye-opener in terms of Tuvok’s past and how he experienced love for a woman when he was a young man,” continues the actor. “It shows him questioning his emotions and learning how to control them and how this affects his present-day relationship with a female alien named Noss. The story also teams Tuvok up with Tom Paris [Robert Duncan McNeill] and viewers get to see more of the friendship that’s developing between them. There’s great deal going on and I think it’s an excellent story. Although the pages may fold back very slowly on my character, we are, at least, seeing growth in terms of his gaining a greater awareness of and respect for those around him.”
At the start of Voyager’s fourth year, Tuvok lost a friend and protégé when Kes’s (Jennifer Lien) burgeoning mental abilities forced her to leave the ship so that she could evolve into a higher form of life. The crew quickly gained a replacement in the shapely Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a Borg drone who, with Janeway’s guidance, is slowly being assimilated back into human society. Her arrival initially generated some tension on Voyager as not everyone was pleased about having a Borg onboard. In real life, the addition of the character caused a bit of concern on the Voyager set.
“The network generated a tremendous amount of promotion surrounding Seven’s coming onto the show,” explains Russ. “Subsequently, the writers were pressured to write stories favoring the character so that Seven was prominent in several episodes during the past two seasons. The fact that she is part Borg has an enormous appeal among Star Trek fans, so the character certainly drew a lot of attention to the program, especially when she was first introduced.
“If there was any increase in viewership because of all this publicity then obviously that’s positive for us. However, in their efforts to promote Seven they kind of forgot about the rest of the characters, including the captain. That didn’t make much sense because normally the captain is the one who would generate most of the publicity and get the majority of the story lines in terms of taking care of business. What they ended up doing a lot of times was pairing Janeway with Seven to make sure she was involved in the story. So for a while the ensemble element of the series suffered. It’s one thing to introduce a new character into a show with an ensemble cast and for he or she to then break out because of their own popularity. It’s something else when the popularity precedes the event, do you see what I’m saying?
“The only other concern that I had is that Seven is very similar to Tuvok,” he adds. “They are both somewhat dry and understated, logical and technical and, for the most part, unemotional. So we have two very similar characters running around in the same group and that, to me, can be a problem. Seven was human to begin with and is supposed to be evolving and delving into various aspects of becoming human, which really isn’t on my character’s agenda. However, until all these human qualities begin to emerge she and Tuvok are basically marching to the same beat and whatever he does isn’t all that unique in contrast to the other characters. I’ve expressed my concerns to the writers but, as always, there are two sides to every issue so it’s important to be able to give and take.”
Although he and Seven get along just fine, out of everyone on Voyager’s crew Tuvok is, undoubtedly, the closest to Janeway. She often turns to him for his logical viewpoint on a situation, while Tuvok has, more than once, risked his career and even his life to help the captain. After the show’s second season, the writers tended to focus less on Tuvok’s and Janeway’s friendship in favor of her budding romance with First Officer Chakotay (Robert Beltran). That fizzled out just in time for Janeway to become Seven’s mentor. While it may not be as obvious, Russ says the bond between his and Kate Mulgrew’s characters is as strong as ever.
“Flashback was probably the last time that Janeway had the chance to find out about Tuvok’s past and for him to reveal this information to her, which I think was important. Since then, their relationship has become subtler and may play out in an exchange here or there as opposed to an entire story line,” notes the actor. “There’s a lovely scene in Year of Hell, Part II, when Tuvok has been blinded and he must give up his bridge post and leave Janeway behind. We see an actual embrace take place between them and that moment really sums up how they feel about ea h other.”
Besides his work as Tuvok on Voyager, the actor has also directed an episode of the program, Living Witness, in which The Doctor (Robert Picardo) serves as sole witness in a war crimes’ trial involving Voyager and its crew. Like his co-stars, Robert Duncan McNeill, Robert Picardo and, most recently, Roxann Dawson (Chief Engineer B’Elanna Torres), Russ completed a three-year intern director training program prior to going behind the cameras.
“It was quite a task, “ he says. “I was very anxious coming into it because I knew what was at stake and I only had one shot to prove that I could do it. The one thing I learnt more than anything else is that I have to pay more attention to the subtleties of performance. When an actor directs for the first time he usually tends to focus more on the technical aspects of shooting because that’s not his forte. However, when a technician, let’s say a director of photography, directs, he will over-indulge on directing the actors as opposed to worrying about the technical side of things. I’ve seen it done both ways on our show and there really is a difference.
“I spent a lot of nights and weekends on the set trying to get prep work done but the actual filming of the episode went smoothly, in fact, extraordinarily so. I was very lucky, though, to get a good script because, I’ll tell you, it’s all about the script. You can direct all you want but if you don’t have a decent story you might as well forget it. Also, I had Bob Picardo as the lead, and with Bob you just cut him loose and let him do his thing. The only issue we talked about in any detail was the Doctor’s android alter ego.
“Bob said, ‘I’d like to play him more along the lines of Data [Brent Spiner’s character on Star Trek: The Next Generation], sort of matter off act and slightly flippant.” I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea because it will remove the threat of the character. He won’t seem as cold and as evil, especially with those [solid black] eyes. Let’s try him quite the opposite.’ Sure enough, when Bob played the part he was just as icy and stony as he could be, which is a sharp contrast to our Doctor, who’s somewhat animated and full of himself.
“Living Witness was great because almost everyone in the cast was able to break the mould for a while and play a very dark and sinister version of their character. If I have a favorite scene it would be the one in the briefing room, no question about it. Everyone did precisely what I had in mind and it was hilarious to see all of us physically and verbally fighting with one another. We never get a chance to do that. Even Tuvok got to flash a rather fiendish smile at Janeway, “ chuckles Russ. “The episode was definitely a kick to direct and I may very well do another one in the next year or so.”
Away form the Voyager set, Russ keeps busy working on other projects. He recently co-wrote and co-produced a small independent feature film with his old college friend Nate Thomas called East of Hope Street, which Thomas also directed. The movie won the Best Urban Drama award at the New York Underground Film Festival and has caught the attention of the Sundance Channel, the Independent Film Channel and Black Entertainment Television.
Long before he began warping across the Delta Quadrant, the actor supported himself working six days a week as a musician. He still performs at coffeehouses around Los Angeles, in particular, Common Grounds, and last fall Russ released his first CD entitled Only a Dream in Rio.
“As with directing Voyager or producing the film, I learnt the most when I actually began recording the songs for the CD. I ended up completely trashing the first two songs I did. I produced and sang them and after mixing them at the studio I said, ‘These are not going to work.’ They were good op tunes but they didn’t fit who I am, and the critical aspect in doing something like this is choosing music that feels right to you. I am not a monster songwriter by any stretch of the imagination, so consequently I will usually use other people’s material and then arrange it to my liking. I was pleased with the final result and I’m planning to do a second CD, maybe with some of the Voyager cast, but if not then it’ll be another solo.”
While it is unlikely that Tuvok will ever burst into song on Voyager’s bridge, Russ is hoping the show’s upcoming sixth season will reveal one or two surprises about his character. “We know at one point he left Starfleet Academy and I think it would be interesting to find out what he did during that time. He’s talked about his wife and children but that part of his life still needs to be further explored. With nine regular characters and roughly 45 minutes to tell our story each week it’s hard to spend a lot of time on any one topic, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”