Star Trek Monthly #33, November 1997
“I believe as far as a Vulcan can think of someone as a friend that he does think of [Janeway] as a friend.”
Sue Schneider meets Tim Russ, who extols the virtues of Star Trek: Voyager’s ever-present Vulcan, Tuvok
Playing a Vulcan is no small feat, and treading in the footsteps of Star Trek’s legendary Spock is not a challenge that most young, up-and-coming actors would take on lightly, but Star Trek: Voyager’s Tim Russ, who breathes life into resident Vulcan Tuvok, is no ordinary actor. Having played the likeable, if extremely exacerbating, Vulcan for the last three years on the series, Russ has created a voice all of his own for the character, and one which he, in fact, hasn’t found all that difficult.
“There is a certain percentage of Tim that is Tuvok,” Russ explains. “I think my physical attributes lend themselves towards the character. The tone of my voice and my build, I think, fits his character. Also, some of the attitudes that I have are similar to his attitudes in terms of trying to approach certain situations and certain things analytically as opposed to irrationally. Also, not wasting a great deal of time doing things inefficiently, that is something that is a pet peeve of mine. I personally think that if you just take a few minutes to get something reasonably organized, it will work efficiently. I am very much a stickler about that. Something that should only take five minutes but takes an hour and a half I have a problem with, and some people just like to operate that way.
“It drives me right out of my skull as a matter of fact”, Russ laughs. “And that kind of thing is very much something that bothers me, so I’m very much like the character in that way as well.”
Russ recalls how he initially became involved in Star Trek. “It began with the original Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot,” he recalls. “I read for LeVar Burton’s part for that [as Geordi LaForge], and I was second in line for the role. [Executive Producer] Rick Berman was second in command at the time. He was one of the producers and he really wanted me to play the part. In the end, what it came down to was the fact that Gene Roddenberry wanted LeVar Burton. Since that time, Rick Berman has always wanted to have me on the show or get me onto a show in some capacity or other. So I went back to read for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for a few guest spots here and there. I finally got a guest spot on ST:TNG and one on ST:DS9, as well as a part in the feature film Star Trek Generations. At that time, Star Trek: Voyager was just about in development, so Rick Berman came up to me and said, ‘I’d like you to read for this at some point when it is put together.’”
Russ goes on to explain the initial concept for the character of Tuvok. “I was not physically right to play Tuvok, as he was a lot older,” he remembers. “He was going to be older than 50 or 60. He was going to be mentor/grandfather type of character, and therefore older than anybody else on the ship. But then they changed it. They cast for about two weeks or so and I guess they didn’t get what they wanted, so they reduced the age. As soon as they backed the age down they brought me in to read for it.”
One major factor about appearing in Star Trek which has been known to put a lot of actors off is the heavy make-up. “My ears don’t bother me,” Russ comments of his own make-up burden. “They itch on occasion, but that’s about it. The make-up itself is very little bother. I don’t even know that it is on. I am most fortunate with the prosthetic make-up in that there’s very little I have to wear. It only takes an hour or so to get it on. Sometimes the make-up artist is rather persistent, wanting to maintain it during the day,” he laughs, “and that gets a little annoying, but that is his job.
“The make-up artist does a remarkable job matching the ears to make them look natural. It’s almost harder to put the small prosthetic piece on and make it blend into your face than it is to put a big piece on that covers most of your face. When it covers you, you don’t have anything for a reference point, but with the ears, I have the rest of my head as the reference point. The skin on the bottom half of the ear is mine. The artist then has to make the whole thing come together without any seams and without the color looking strange. Also, it photographs differently from how Human skin does, so he has a lot of work trying to keep the thing completely intact and a lot of shots are profile close-ups. The ear is dead in the middle of the camera, and you can’t miss it.”
“I read for LeVar Burton’s part in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I was second in line for the role. Since that time, Rick Berman has always wanted to have me on the show or get me onto a show in come capacity or other”
For other actors on both Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine the make-up process can be an even more grueling one. “René’s [Auberjonois, who plays Odo] is really nasty. It’s his whole face, and is a seamless make-up. It’s also very nasty for Armin [Shimerman, who plays Quark] on ST:DS9, an on our show Ethan Phillips [who plays Neelix] and Roxann Dawson [B’Elanna Torres] have a good hour and half to two hours to get their hair and make-up done. It’s really a long, long process. I do not envy them.”
Tuvok’s character has undergone a number of changes over the last three seasons, possibly the first and most significant of these being in the episode Prime Factors, when he went down to a planet to secure Alien technology in an undercover trade without the captain’s permission. “That was entirely un-Vulcan,” Russ notes. “His motives were for security and based on the relationship he had with Janeway and her goals to get them out of there. His act was self-sacrifice. It was just a choice that he made, but people were very surprised that he made it.
“In the second season we learn about his family,” the actor notes, explaining that this is an area where his character and Spock differ greatly. “Tuvok has a family and Spock didn’t have a family. He has a wife and four children, as a matter of fact. He has been married for 67 years… that’s Vulcan years. There are a lot of different things that have come up and still will.”
Talking of Star Trek’s first Vulcan, Russ recalls his first meeting with Leonard Nimoy, in New York some years ago, noting that what always surprises fans when he tells them of the meeting is that “Leonard Nimoy is not in the least interested in the fact that I’m playing a character like his former character. Everyone always asks me whether I talked to Nimoy about playing a Vulcan, and the truth is that before I met him I knew he wouldn’t be in the least bit interested, and he wasn’t. Most of that is behind him.”
The conversation turns to the difficulties of playing a character who cannot show emotion. “It’s tricky because as an actor you train to show and get in touch with your emotions and you learn how to find them,” Russ comments. “Now, as a Human being, when you are confronted with hostility, the tendency is to show it back. When you are shown compassion, it is very easy to show it back. And when you are playing this part and there is someone showing you some kind of compassion or caring or whatever and you cannot show it back, you catch yourself wanting to do so. I’ve had several scenes with Captain Janeway in which she’s showing some kind of concern. The emotion is displaying what the friendship is about, and his character has to remain very calm, very straightforward and very neutral about it. Chakotay, on the other hand, is always in my face. He is usually hostile about one thing or another because of our past relationship, and I cannot be hostile towards him.”
Russ feels that the strongest relationship Tuvok has on the ship is with Captain Janeway. “I believe as far as a Vulcan can think of someone as a friend that he does think of her as a friend. He’s been working with her very closely for a long time, or for longer than anyone else on the ship. He has been her confidant and counsel and also her sounding board. So it would definitely be Janeway.”
As a comparison to playing Tuvok, Russ recalls playing T’Kar in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Invasive Procedures. “Oh man, that was a picnic! That was an absolute field day. Klingons are the opposite end of the spectrum. They all operate purely on their emotions. I mean, they are just stormtroopers. They just come sloshing through the scene, saying: ‘get out of my way, I can do what I want…. don’t talk to me like that.’ They are basically bullies.”
Even so, Russ does not relish the idea of playing a Klingon character on a regular basis. “T’Kar’s character was basically a mercenary and he was stock Klingon,” he explains. “A Klingon with different levels might be interesting to play, but the Vulcan is the most fun. Over a long period it is more interesting because there are places you can go with him in contrast to the other characters. The contrast is what really makes the Vulcan character work. There will be a contrast with the Klingon surrounded by a bunch of Humans because he has the temper, but the Vulcan playing against the emotional aspect of the grain is really a challenge and is more interesting, because it is like going to a race track and watching the cars go around. People are waiting for an accident. They are waiting to see Tuvok slip up. I think it is fun to try to walk that tightrope between one side and the other.”
Many of Russ’ co-stars on the series, in particular Kate Mulgrew, have alluded to his comical behavior on the set, including his tendency to wear a bathrobe whenever he can. “I do that just to be comfortable,” Russ explains in earnest. “One of my all-time philosophies, just a general sort of philosophy about life, is that I like to swim downstream, not upstream, whenever I can. I like to make things as comfortable and easy as possible in any given scenario. I never go out of my way to make things a headache, because there are enough headaches as it is.
Those uniforms just aren’t comfortable,” he laughs. “Some people are comfortable wearing stiff clothing, others are not. But these are painfully uncomfortable. They force you to stand to attention. They are designed like military outfits. Starfleet is a military outfit, and the uniform is a staunch, straight-laced sort of think.”
Naturally, the conversation turns to what lies ahead for Tuvok in the coming season of Star Trek: Voyager. “I don’t have any idea what they have in store for me,” Russ states. “I think I will have an episode or so that involves myself and the new Borg character, Seven of Nine. I think we have a show coming up fairly soon together, myself and Seven of Nine, but I don’t know exactly what that entails, nor do I know if they have any major plans for me in terms of my character. It’s hard because we only know what’s happening three or four shows ahead and we don’t even have any details on those shows.
“I think that the episodes are going to concentrate a little bit more on ensemble stuff instead of single characters or relationships between other characters.”
“I think that the episodes are going to concentrate a little bit more on ensemble stuff instead of single characters or relationships between other characters,” he continues. “So you will get two or three people featured in each story. I haven’t had a chance to work with B’Elanna Torres yet, and I’m hoping to get that chance. The writers have a storyline that involves us both to some degree, as there are some discoveries that could be made on both sides. We haven’t seen that yet, so hopefully it will happen.”
We have heard of many upcoming or ongoing romances for some of the characters on the show in the coming year. Janeway and Chakotay, Paris and Torres… but there has been no mention of anything for Tuvok. Does Russ think he is likely to be involved with a romance of some kind? “No way!” he laughs. “The only thing we had last season was a ‘Fatal Attraction’ kind of thing [in the episode Alter Ego]. The character really isn’t cut out for any kind of relationship in that sense, firstly because he is Vulcan, and secondly because he is already married. He has a wife and kids and really doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship or sexual relationship until he reaches the Pon farr, and we don’t exactly know when that will be. So there really isn’t any possibility for that kind of thing to happen.
“That particular episode,” Russ recalls of Alter Ego, “involved a sort of ‘Fatal Attraction’ towards me, and my character sort of learned how to not live quite so isolated. He is generally isolated. He spends time by himself. He meditates by himself and plays the game Kalto by himself. In that episode he actually offers to play this game or teach the game, and in that sense he actually learns from this alien woman about sharing activities with other people.
“The producers sort of made up the game and how to play it,” Russ explains of Kalto, which involves building up a kind of puzzle and which requires extreme concentration. “It’s a game of concentration, skill and aesthetics – aesthetic structure mainly. It’s a very bizarre game. It’s very hard to explain it, but that is sort of what it is like. By putting these loose pieces together and making a formation, this thing turns into an object. There are certain ways you cannot force it to happen, it has to happen piece by piece at a level. It is like stacking sticks, almost like a house of cards. It’s just about balancing delicate pieces and being really aware of physical attributes in special relationships.”
Turning to Russ’ expectations for the future, where does he want Tuvok to go, now that he is 10,000 years closer to the Alpha Quadrant? “I would like to see a few different levels to his character,” Russ says. “I want to see him develop.” It is obvious that the very logical Vulcan still has plenty of development in store, in terms of his interaction with other characters and what we can still discover about him. We certainly couldn’t wish for a more devoted actor to play such a difficult and challenging role, and look forward to finding out where Tuvok goes as the new season takes off.