Sci-Fi TV #1 (Oct. 1998)

Vulcan Virtuoso

Logically, Tim Russ demonstrates his many talents

By Ian Spelling

The guy performing at the Motown Café in New York City looks remarkably like Star Trek: Voyager’s Tuvok. Only he is sporting blue jeans and a leather jacket, smiling broadly and singing Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes” to an eager lunchtime crowd. Could it be Tuvok testing out a funky new Holosuite program? Nope, it’s just Tim Russ, the Vulcan’s alter-ego, indulging in one of his favorite non-acting activities.

“Wow, that was a rush,” Russ raves moments after stepping off the stage. “It’s great to flex different creative muscles every now and then. In some strange way, actually, it helps keep me more interested in the acting and in Voyager. If I do other things every now and then, I can come back fresh to Star trek and to Tuvok. You don’t feel as locked into doing just one thing when you branch out a bit, when you get away from that one thing for a while.”

It’s now several weeks since Russ wrapped production on season four of Voyager. Tuvok remained as stoic and as loyal to Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) as ever, but the series itself significantly changed. Those changes were punctuated by the departure of Kes (Jennifer Lien) and the arrival of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). “Season four was absolutely crazy,” Russ acknowledges. “We had a two-hour special [“Year of Hell, Parts I & II”]. We had a five-story arc with the Hirogen [“Message in a Bottle”, “Hunters”, “Prey”, “The Killing Game” two-parter]‑which I thought was a blast. They were good, solid shows and the Hirogen finally gave us some formidable alien adversaries.

“Seven of Nine has had a tremendous impact on every aspect of Voyager. Here you’ve got a brand new character introduced on a show that has been running for several years. A lot of focus right now has been on Seven of Nine and on Jeri, so the dynamics have also changed. Seven of Nine brought a great deal of conflict in her wake. As a Borg, she was our enemy. As a member of the crew, we’re still not sure if we can trust her, but we know she can help us. She knows everything about the region of space we’re in. She also has knowledge about all the hazards ahead, all the aliens we could run into. The addition of these elements can only benefit the show.”

The presence of Seven of Nine and Ryan has also impact greatly on the Voyager cast. Several actors saw their screen time diminished and character development curtailed as the writers wove Seven into the storylines. Though some fans complained that Voyager had become Star Trek: Seven of Nine, Russ doesn’t begrudge Ryan. “The main reason they’re giving Jeri so much to do is because UPN, the network, wants to promote whatever is new on the show [in order to boost both its awareness level and ratings]. The writers are beholden to this,” Russ explains in a resigned tone, “and have to write more for Seven oaf Nine because of it. I was told at the season’s beginning that this was going to happen, because they had to make Seven of Nine one of us, a crew member. Also, obviously, there’s a sexual aspect of the character that can be promoted. Seven of Nine is far more sexual than Kes was. There’s almost a day and night difference between the two. Let’s face it, sex sells. UPN wants to see it. As actors, there’s not much we can do about it. Fortunately, they’ve written well for Jeri and haven't just relied on the sex thing.”

Russ himself figured rather prominently in several memorable fourth season episodes. Most notably, there were “Random Thoughts,” “Concerning Flight,” “Hunters,” “The Killing Game,” “hope and Fear” and “Living Witness”, the last of which marked his own directorial debut. “I loved the theme of ‘Random Thoughts,’” he say of the episode in which Tuvok defended B‘Elanna (Roxann Dawson) after she had been arrested for thinking hostile thoughts on the telepathic Mari homeworld. “It dealt with the underground bartering of violent mental images in a society that had eliminated virtually all violence and violent thought‑a good parallel about drugs in our own society. It was very similar to the way Vulcans dealt with violence on their planet. It gave us a chance to see what’s under the surface of Tuvok’s mind. A very good idea for an episode.”

Alien pirates raided Voyager in “Concerning Flight,” an adventure that featured John Rhys-Davies as Janeway’s holographic mentor, Leonardo da Vinci. “Good show,” praises Russ. “Kate got out of the studio for a while on that one. I did not experience the pleasure of standing on that windy hill, freezing my butt off. To work with John is wild. He’s an old stage actor, so he’s always wanting to try things, to be creative. I loved the story, as an actor, because it let me leave the ship for a while and take on an investigatory role, which Tuvok likes to do. It’s also a very good looking episode.”

Then came “Hunters,” the second entry in the multi-episode arc involving the Hirogen, a species of alien hunters who sought to make the Voyager crew their latest quarry. “The Hirogen were interesting bad guys. They had a unique philosophy,” Russ explains. “They had an interesting ship. The Hirogen themselves were large and looked different from most Star trek aliens we’ve seen in the shows and movies. Those were all plusses to me. Tiny Ron [who played Alpha-Hirogen] was just great in ‘Hunters’. He did that work under some incredibly difficult conditions. I was very impressed.”

“Seven of Nine is far more sexual than Kes. Let’s face it, sex sells.”

Next up was “The Killing Game” two-parter, in which the Hirogen forced the crew to unwittingly portray characters in a World War II holographic simulation. “Running as a two-hour show already made that one special. We got to go on location, to the Universal Studios backlot, albeit in this endless rain,” Russ laughs. “The story wasn’t supposed to be set in the rain, but there was no escaping El Niño. It was wet and cold, but even so, it was very exciting to leave the Paramount lot. We had period sets, jeeps, machine guns, different clothes. We were basically playing different characters. Sometimes it’s just refreshing as an actor on a TV series to step into a new environment, to work on a different set. We also had a very interesting story, with the Hirogen using a World War II simulation to further their understanding of humanity. It was very cool.”

The season finale, “Hope and Fear,” honed in most closely on the Janeway-Seven of Nine relationship, but room was made to show how the rest of the crew dealt with the possibility that Voyager might truly return home. “It was an intriguing way to end the season,” Russ assesses. “We were all in the episode, which was good. I think we all understood why it centered on Seven and the Captain. It wasn’t a cliffhanger episode, which surprised some people, but it still left a few loose ends that need to be tied up. It did a nice job of closing out season four and setting up season five.”

Of course, none of the episodes, good as the were, meant as much to Russ as “Living Witness.” Russ realized his directorial dream with that episode, a dream that he had discussed often since Voyager’s first season. So, after all the waiting and all the time spent in the Star Trek directors’ training program, what did Russ make of the experience? “It was like running a marathon,” he replies. “People wonder why other people run marathons. I can tell you that there’s something to be said for the sense of accomplishment you feel when you cross the finish line. It doesn’t matter when you cross the finish line, as long as you cross it. It was also exciting to look at words on a piece of paper, visualize the story in my head and then actually go make an episode. In some cases, for time or money reasons, because of ideas that the other actors, the director of photography or I had, the vision changed and came to life in different ways. That was a major kick. Directing is different from acting because an actor is one person with basically one job, and a director is responsible for everything.”

“It was exciting, but also difficult. You’re doing TV and you have to shoot a certain number of pages a day, no matter what. They can’t give you extra days because it’s your first time and you’re learning on the job. The producers have hired you and they have the ultimate control over creativity and casting. A director on a TV show doesn’t have full rein to do what he or she wants to do. TV, at least episodic TV, is really producer’s medium. A director has to understand that going in and then work accordingly. On Star Trek, we also have very specific things we can and can’t do. Regardless of all that, you can still come on the set of Voyager and put your stamp on a show as a director. That’s what I tried to do.”

The biggest surprise Russ encountered on “Living Witness” proved to be how much attention he ended up devoting to the nuances of the actors’ performances. During his prepping phase, Russ didn’t give the performances much thought, for he knew his cast intimately and figured they would go all out for him. Instead, he contemplated camera angles and the juxtaposition of shots. “I was in there with an A, B and C plan for every scene, so #I wouldn’t have to wing anything. Once I got on the set, I became very focused on the performances,” he recalls. “I was much more focused on them than I ever imagined I would be. Everybody was very open to my suggestions. The actors want to hear what you think. They want, even need, to hear constructive criticism. They need to know if they’re giving you what you need.

“’Living Witness’ called for the characters to behave differently than they had before. That was great, because it gave the actors something to work with that was new. They were having a good time stretching, and it was my job to help them do that and to keep the balance right. I was surprised by a couple of other things, too. There were no producers on the set my first day. I was surprised that I wasn’t as anxious as I thought I would be. I was far too busy to be anxious. I just stayed in there prepping and prepping, doing the homework, so I wouldn’t have to sweat it.”

Did Russ get the episode he hoped to achieve? “Absolutely. I think I lucked out. I got Bob Picardo as the featured actor and he was great. I was very pleased with the episode, Russ notes, “There are tiny things that I would have done differently, no question about it. Overall, I’m extraordinarily pleased. When we actually put the show together, we were a few minutes short in the running time. I hat happened eight or nine times during the last year, so I was not alone. If you run short, it means that the shooting and pacing were very tight. I would be more than happy to direct another one. By the grace of the producers, I’ll get that chance. Every episode is different, so I’ll be ready for whatever the next challenge is.”

“Whatever happens, Voyager will be more edgy.”

During his summer hiatus, Russ elected not to pursue any other acting jobs. Instead, he traveled as much as possible, even attending a Trek convention in Germany with Mulgrew, and toiled to sign a distributor for East of Hope street, the independent feature he co-produced, co-wrote and in which he co-stars. “The film is an inner city, urban drama. It takes place in Los Angeles,” he explains. “It deals with young kids who have been taken out of their homes because they were abused in one way or another. The film follows the path of one of these kids, a young woman, through all of the trials and tribulations of being taken out of their home, losing family members, surviving in the juvenile justice system, on the streets, in group homes and foster homes, and coming out at the end on solid ground.

“It was shot from the heart. It’s based on some actual events. My partner worked for 10 years with girls who lived this story. We made very little of it up. Could we have gone another route and tried to make what could be perceived as something that could more easily make money? Sure. Even that route is hard, though. An action flick costs more to produce. East of Hope Street was something I wanted to make. I’ve got some of my own money in it, too. I’m working hard to get distribution for it because I believe in the film. I want people to see it.”

As for season five of Voyager, which premieres October 14, Russ sounds eager for more. “We started to push the envelope at the fourth season’s end, and I think we’ll see even more of that this coming year. Jeri Taylor has stepped down [as executive producer and the series’ day-to-day guiding force] and Brannon Braga is in charge. That will change the flavor of the show. I don’t know quite what to expect,” Tim Russ admits. “I know Brannon has some plans in mind for the show’s direction, in terms of the stories’ intensity. He plans to take the reins off some things. It will still be Star Trek, obviously, but I think we’ll be exploring many other possibilities. Brannon sounds very excited, and that makes us all very excited, too.

“I’ve heard rumors that we’ll be bringing the ship home next year. It’s an intriguing notion, but I’ve not heard anything about it form any of the real sources. I haven’t discussed it with the other actors. If they brought the ship home, how could they keep everybody in the crew together? Why would these people stay together? What would they do? It would be a real dramatic stretch. Whatever happens, Voyager will be more edgy and will take more risks. I think we need that to keep the show going and to keep it fresh.”