TV Zone #128, July 2000
Tim Russ uses more than just logic when playing Voyager’s resident Vulcan.
When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry first pitched NBS Television the pilot for the original series back in 1965, the network was concerned about a certain pointy-eared, arched-eyebrowed, half-human, half-Vulcan named Mr. Spock. Many of its executives felt that such a “satanic-looking” character would ruin the show’s chances for success and urged Roddenberry to jettison Spock or at least bob his ears. Fortunately, Roddenberry stood his ground and the Vulcans eventually became one of the program’s most popular alien races.
Thirty years later, Tim Russ was cast as Security Chief/Tactical officer Lieutenant Commander Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager. He is the only other actor besides Leonard Nimoy (Spock) to play a Vulcan on a weekly Trek series. Unlike Spock, Tuvok is a full-blooded Vulcan and this calls for the actor to use plenty of stoicism and, of course, logic in his portrayal of the character. The role has kept Russ on his toes and presented him with a variety of acting challenges in his six seasons so far on Voyager.
“Keeping the aspect of playing the character exciting is extremely difficult because creatively he does the same thing every week,” explains Russ. “The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with is not becoming complacent or apathetic in my portrayal of Tuvok. Again, I’m speaking form a creative standpoint. I’ve always made the analogy that it’s like asking Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel over and over again and simply switch the subjects around. That’s basically what happens on Voyager. No matter what the circumstances are that your character is in, it’s still the same character. Naturally, you get hungry to do new things and to play other parts.
Growing and Adapting
“Of course, we as actors are beholden to Voyager’s writers to come up with situations that allow our characters to grow and to discover something new about themselves,” he continues. “In our third year there was an episode called Rise, which was really the first time Ethan Phillips [Neelix] and I got the chance to work closely together. During this story, Tuvok learnt to respect certain attitudes and ideas of Neelix’s that he’d previously been somewhat condescending about. I just loved that.
“That same season we looked back at my character’s time serving under Captain Sulu [George Takei] aboard the USS Excelsior in the story flashback. That was a hell of a lot of work to shoot but tremendously rewarding for me as an actor. The fifth season episode Gravity delved into Tuvok’s past and his struggle to control his emotions while trying to deal with a relationship. So my character’s growth has been gradual but also continuous and based more on the stories themselves than anything else.”
Early on in Voyager’s sixth season Russ got to give his acting muscles a good workout in the touching episode Riddles. In it Tuvok falls into a coma after being attacked by an unknown energy force while on a mission aboard the Delta Flyer with Neelix. The security officer eventually awakes but in a state of child-like innocence and with no memory of who he is. It is up to Neelix to help Tuvok recapture his past and rediscover what it means to be Vulcan.
“Riddles was the most unusual episode that I’ve done since I’ve been with the show. It gave me the rare and wonderful opportunity to step into a character who was very unlike Tuvok,” enthuses Russ. “The biggest challenge was playing out the entire story arc that has him going from comatose to barely speaking to finally speaking fluently because the scenes were all shot out of order. We had to really be careful where in the sequence we were as far as Tuvok’s development so that the way he walked and talked would make sense once all the scenes were edited together.
“My favorite moment in the story is towards the end when Neelix tells Tuvok that the Doctor [Robert Picardo] has found a way to restore his memory and return him to normal. That scene was so well-written and, fortunately, they kept all of it in the final edit. The episode ran overtime and nine minutes of other material ended up being cut out. That’s almost a whole act. Can you imagine how much more detailed and in-depth Neelix’s and Tuvok’s relationship would have been if we were able to keep that additional footage in? The more screentime you have developing a relationship the more your audience will believe in it.”
Unfortunately, with the exception of Riddles, the Tuvok character was not featured heavily in any other sixth season episode. “Initially, he was supposed to do a lot of the fighting in Arena [which was eventually renamed Tsunkatse],” says Russ. “From a plot standpoint it would have been the perfect choice to put Tuvok in the ring. You think, ‘Who could fight better than he could?’ On the other hand, you might wonder, ‘Yeah, but what would be more dramatic? Probably someone who can’t defend himself as well as Tuvok.’ It would make for a more compelling story to put, say, Harry Kim [Garrett Wang] in the arena against a monster. Now you’ve got a situation where there’s a bit of a risk involved.
“In this instance the writers used Jeri Ryan’s character Seven of Nine, who’s very adept at fighting but has a disadvantage in terms of her body strength and size. However, because she’s part Borg this gave her the edge to survive in the arena. It was also a clever marketing ploy using Jeri rather than, for example, Garrett Wang, Robert Duncan McNeill [Lieutenant Tom Paris] or myself because UPN tends to promote her character quite a bit. This episode also guest-starred a popular wrestler called The Rock [Duane Johnson], so the network was able to draw in an even wider audience.”
Russ’s involvement with Voyager is not limited to his work as an actor. He ahs also directed an episode of the program (Living Witness). Like his co-stars Robert Duncan McNeill, Robert Picardo and Roxann Dawson, the actor had to complete an on-set directing course (set up by series co-creator and executive producer Rick Berman) before stepping behind the cameras. According to Russ, directing is similar to juggling in that you have to be adept at handling a number of tasks at any one time.
Attention to Detail
“The directing challenge is huge because you’re overseeing the entire process, unlike an actor, who only has to worry about his or her scenes and lines,” he says. “You have to be concerned about everything from the story not making sense to the number of extras in a scene. If you’ve had a chance to prep properly, things will run fairly smoothly with you at the helm as long as you know what*’s going on. In some cases you’ll want to do things differently than you’d planned, while other times whatever you’ve planned doesn’t work so you’ll have to improvise. You’ve got to stay alert and always need to be thinking from a visual perspective of how everything is going to come together. At times it feels as if you’re running a marathon but once you cross the finish line you experience this incredible sense of accomplishment. There’s nothing quite like it. I hope to direct Voyager one more time before it ends next year.”
In June, Russ and the rest of the Voyager cast will be back at Paramount Studios to start shooting the show’s final season. The actor is thankful for all the support the show’s fans have given him and his character of Tuvok over the past six seasons. It certainly would have made Gene Roddenberry proud.
“Beyond any initial skepticism about Tuvok being played by a black actor, which had not as yet been done, the fans’ acceptance of my character and their appreciation of my portrayal of Tuvok has been just wonderful,” he says. “That’s been the most positive part of this whole [Star Trek] experience.”