Starlog Voyager Magazine #2, June 1995
By Ian Spelling
“In terms of a regular acting job, I haven’t ever done anything like this before. I had done an episode of THE NEXT GENERATION, an episode of DEEP SPACE NINE, one as a humanoid alien and the other as a Klingon. And I was in GENERATIONS. I was also into STAR TREK a long time ago, watching the original series and its cast. I’ve always been a fan of some of the STAR TREK novels. The last one I read was Disinherited, which was quite good. So,” notes Tim Russ, best known to STAR TREK fans as Tuvok on STAR TREK: VOYAGER, “I’ve been doing the TREK thing for a while.
“When I signed on to do VOYAGER, I was very much aware of the STAR TREK ‘Institution.’ Cognitively, I’m aware of how much exposure the show is going to get and what a potential effect my being involved with this show will have on my life and my career. Emotionally, the only thing I’m aware of is coming into work and putting in a great deal of time at the studio and not having much time for anything else right now but VOYAGER, which is OK, because it was my choice.”
Tuvok, of course, is the first STAR TREK series regular to be a Vulcan since some guy named Spock (Leonard Nimoy) back in the 1960s, although several Vulcans have appeared on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. Unlike the legendary half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, however, Tuvok is a pure Vulcan. Both of his parents still live on his home world. As a result, Tuvok has a better understanding of his lack of emotions. This trait has come in handy since the U.S.S. Voyager’s Starfleet crew and the Maquis rebels were forced to reluctantly band together following the events of STAR TREK: VOYAGER’s ‘Caretaker’ pilot. Further testing Tuvok’s ability to keep his emotions in check is the fact that once the U.S.S. Voyager was, without warning, catapulted roughly 70 years travel from home, he was suddenly cut off from his family.
Fortunately, Tuvok has his work as the U.S.S. Voyager’s Tactical/Security Officer, a position he holds after gracefully moving aside so that Chakotay (Robert Beltran), the former Maquis commander, could take over as First Officer under Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).
“I like the relationship between Tuvok and Chakotay, who is now Janeway’s second-in-command,” Russ says. “That’s only for diplomatic purposes, and that’s exactly how Tuvok looks at it. Because my character was a Maquis infiltrator, Chakotay doesn’t really like Tuvok. There’s a hostility still coming from him, but Tuvok doesn’t harbor any ill will towards him. Tuvok understands why Chakotay feels the way he does. It’s the way humans are and Chakotay is human. There is nothing that will change that.”
What had begun, for the most part, strictly as working relationships are slowly transforming into friendships or situations of grudging respect.
“Tuvok has been the counsel to Janeway for a while, and he worked with her on other missions. He’s her confidante, her steadying force,” explains Russ, as he sits in a chair near the Bridge set. “That relationship has continued. Another relationship with great potential is the one with B’Elanna Torres [Roxann Biggs-Dawson], our half-human, half-Klingon character. She’s going through so much and she looks up to Tuvok as a mentor, in terms of the way he can control the duality of emotions and logic. She has to deal with that struggle, so she looks to him for guidance.
“All of these relationships will build on one another because Tuvok is so different from Chakotay and Chakotay is so different from Torres, and Torres is so different from Captain Janeway, who is so different from Paris [Robert Duncan McNeill] and the others. All of those parts should balance out and build upon one another as time goes on.
“What’s interesting to me is that there is a tremendous similarity between the personalities of the characters and [those of] the cast, it’s really tremendous,” he continues. “For example, Ethan Phillips, who plays Neelix, is an absolute card. We’ll be right in the middle of a shot and he’ll tell a joke to the entire cast and crew, right on the spot. He always breaks the ice just at the right time. When we’re working hard and killing ourselves here, humor really lightens up the set quickly. The cast are all a lot of fun and we’re having a good time doing the show and getting to know one another.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Russ is the son of an Air Force veteran, a background that explains why he has spent time in many parts of the world and eventually chose to become an actor. After all, actors, like military brats, are constantly uprooted and must start anew with each role. With every new start comes fresh ups and downs, fledgling friendships and, eventually, emotional goodbyes. While in high school, Russ acted in a musical stage show, winning positive feedback from the show’s director and the audience.
It was very much a lure and Russ began to take acting classes at his school. When it came time to choose a college, he selected St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, a small private school with “a hell of a acting program.” Russ appeared in several productions there, even sharing the stage with a visiting guest artist by the name of Leonard Nimoy. “It’s very strange,” says Russ, laughing. “There are several pretty interesting connections and little coincidences, in terms of my becoming involved in STAR TREK.”
“I was very much aware of the STAR TREK ‘institution.’”
Russ made his professional debut in a Masterpiece Theater project called Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree, about one of America’s oldest living citizens. “I played a young friend of Charlie’s. It was my first part,” he says. “I was still in college at the time.” After school, several years passed before Russ began to earn his living solely as a professional actor. His stage credits include Dream Girls, As You Like It, Cave Dwellers and most recently, Romeo & Juliet. He received an NAACP Image Award for his work as the title character in the Los Angeles Theater Center production of Barrabas.
Among his earliest television assignments were parts as partner to Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon) in The Highwayman and as the bothersome Answering Machine Guy in the slightly out-there sitcom, The People Next Door, which starred genre veteran Jeffrey Jones. “There were a few episodic roles I really enjoyed. I did Freddy’s Nightmares, which was a low-budget, sort of tongue-in-cheek horror show. I enjoyed it because of what I got the chance to do. I played a type of character I hadn’t played before and was in the episode from the beginning to the end as a straight-laced scientist. I did the pilot for Journey to the Center of the Earth. I played a military-type role, which was a lot of fun to do. I also did a Melrose Place and Bitter Harvest, a USA cable movie with Virginia Madsen.”
Interestingly, Madsen was the star of Russ’ first feature film, Fire With Fire, in 1985, and Russ recently appeared with her brother, Michael Madsen, in the low-budget actioner Dead Connection. “That’s cops and robbers, a serial killer being stalked by the police,” notes Russ of Dead Connection. “I play a young rookie detective, the new guy on the team with Michael, and I have to prove myself. It’s out on video and on cable now.”
“Some producers or casting directors like you and some don’t.”
To STAR TREK fans, of course, Russ was the humanoid terrorist Devor in the sixth season STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION episode “Starship Mine,” the Klingon T’Kar in the STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE outing “Invasive Procedures,” and a nameless human tactical officer in STAR TREK GENERATIONS. “I had read for Rick Berman when they were auditioning for the NEXT GENERATION cast. I was second to LeVar Burton. At the time,” he notes, “Gene Roddenberry wanted LeVar over me and that was it. Rick has been a fan of mine since that time. He said something to my manager about it that many years back. Since then, my manager would keep reminding me about that.
“I read for a role as a regular on DEEP SPACE NINE, but the role was changed. I read seven or eight times for episodes and I didn’t get the jobs. Finally, three years ago, I got a role on NEXT GENERATION and then the one on DS9. In ‘Starship Mine,’ I come on board the ship while it’s undergoing a baryon sweep. Everyone is off the ship, except Captain Picard [Patrick Stewart]. So, he is left alone while my partners and I try to take over the ship. My DS9 was ‘Invasive Procedures,’ the one where John Glover tries to steal the symbiont from Dax [Terry Farrell]. I was the Klingon mercenary, the hired thug. I got to do a lot of stunt fighting, quite q bit, actually.
“I enjoyed those two experiences a great deal. The Klingon was the most interesting, because it was the first time that I was in that heavy makeup, and I got to do so much stunt work. Then, I got the role in GENERATIONS. I was in the original cast sequence at the film’s beginning. So, my scenes were with William Shatner and the others, which was another of those interesting STAR TREK experiences for me.
“While we were shooting the film, Rick Berman expressed to me his interest in having me read for this part on the new STAR TREK. The role wasn’t really there [the Tuvok character as initially conceived was 150 years old] when the breakdowns [the casting sheet that details a show’s characters for actors’ agents] came out. I didn’t take any other work for about three-and-a-half months so I would have an opportunity to read for it because Rick expressed an interest in me doing it.
“After the role was changed and the age level was dropped to something a younger actor could play, I got the role. Rick then told me that he really had always been a fan and he told me what had been happening. Gene Roddenberry had overridden him. I had to wonder, because all [of his STAR TREK work] happened after Gene Roddenberry died and Rick Berman came into power. It happens. Some producers or casting directors like you and some don’t. Pure and simple. I’m just glad my time finally came.”
Now that his time finally has arrived, Russ isn’t pressuring himself to be the next Leonard Nimoy. That’s a trap far too easy to fall into, so he won’t let it happen. Instead, he’s turning a potential negative into a positive, noting that he’s using Nimoy’s portrayal of a Vulcan as his starting point for turning Tuvok into a flesh and blood character of his own.
“If I was coming into this character not knowing anything at all about him or his background, or if it were an entirely new character, I would have to make up a whole history for the character, create a past or just take what was given to me as research material. In the case of Tuvok, there was Nimoy, and there are his episodes, not to mention all the books that feature Vulcans and go into such detail and delve into the thoughts of Vulcans, in terms of their reactions to situations. I’ve got everything I know of. So, I came into this thing, before we even started, knowing a lot about this character. It was certainly more beneficial than starting from scratch.”
Not surprisingly, Russ reveals that his greatest challenge in portraying Tuvok has been learning to go against the grain of what he was taught to do as an actor, and that is to emote. “You spend your whole career doing workshops and this and that to try and get in touch with your emotions, so you can bring them to the surface. Now it’s just the opposite,” he sighs. “You want to suppress them, but there’s a temptation during some scenes to react with emotion to something that’s said to you, if it’s something said in a hostile way, or even if it’s the most satirical or cynical comment. In confrontation scenes, I naturally want to be more pointed, to be more on the offensive, in terms of a response. But, in fact, it has to be completely flat, logical, practical. If it’s a situation with Janeway, where she has confided in Tuvok about something and told him she feels close to him, he still can’t show a reaction. That can be tough.”
Also no surprise is Russ’ price in being given the opportunity to play STAR TREK’s first black Vulcan. He considers it both an honor and a responsibility, and he hopes that young minority kids will learn something from the way Tuvok controls his emotions, tempers his anger and tries to rationalize his way through situations. “There’s also something to be said for the fact that Tuvok is a well-respected, high-ranking officer in Starfleet. That aspect is very important,” argues the actor. “People are always asking me how there could even be a black Vulcan. If Vulcans are humanoid and other humanoids were the species they most often encountered, then logic would follow that because of genetic mutation and random selection, you’re going to have different colors and different variations of the species at one time. So, Tuvok is a black Vulcan.”
“People are always asking me how there can even be a black Vulcan.”
Looking into the future, Russ would like to see the writers explore more of Tuvok’s inner workings. What does he do in his leisure time? What kind of Holodeck adventures would he try? The U.S.S. Voyager is nowhere near Vulcan, so what will happen when Tuvok reaches the time of his seven-year pon farr cycle and has to return home to mate? “There are lots of questions like those. I’ve also wondered what would happen if you put Tuvok in a command situation, where you need a certain degree of intuition or some other human element. They did that with Spock and with Data [Brent Spiner], too. Tuvok doesn’t have that ability, which is an innate thing. A leader has to feel as one with his troops. Then, the troops will do anything for their leader. You can’t alienate your people if you want them to follow you. So, that will hopefully be one of the many things we’ll be able to explore.”
And what of Tim Russ? Is he ready for STAR TREK to be a permanent part of his life? “Oh, yeah. The benefits of being able to do a gig on a regular basis outweigh any other compromises I might have to make in terms of my career. I’ll have the opportunity, during the off-season to work on other things, to take workshops and pursue my music, which is a hobby of mine. I play the guitar and have been a musician for 20 some-odd years. This is a business,” concludes the actor, “and if I didn’t want to do this, I should have been a plumber or something else.
“I always knew that if I was going to really work as an actor, then I was going to have to take all the rejections, the ups and downs, and the breaks that came my way. Whatever happens with STAR TREK, I’m ready for it. I like the character. I like the show. I like the people I’m working with. So, I consider myself very lucky to have gotten this opportunity.