Star Trek Monthly #41, July 1998
Joe Nazzaro talks to Star Trek’s very
own Vulcan voyager, Tim Russ
“Being flexible and being able to improvise at a moment’s notice is essential [for a director]. It’s all about weighing out what you need and what you can deal with.”
After spending the better part of four seasons fleshing out the character of Tuvok, the Vulcan tactical/security officer aboard Star Trek: Voyager, it seemed only – dare it be said? – logical that actor Tim Russ would want to move up to the next step of the production ladder. As Star Trek: Voyager neared the end of its fourth season, Russ became the latest actor to take a turn at directing his own episode of the popular science fiction series with the episode “Living Witness”.
“It’s a wonderful story which primarily features the Doctor,” he reveals of the episode, in which the Doctor is reactivated 400 years in the future where he finds that the historical representation of the U.S.S. Voyager is inaccurate. “The story is about revisionist history: the perceptions and misperceptions of history and the difficulty of telling the truth and weighing out the repercussions of telling the truth, as opposed to maintaining a certain degree of peace by not doing so. That’s the decision the Doctor has to make – about whether or not to tell the truth.”
Like fellow cast members Robert Duncan McNeill and Robert Picardo, Russ put in his directorial bid early in the show’s run, but realized that moving to the head of the queue would take some time. “It’s taken three years, not so much lobbying as learning how to do it. The three-year wait was primarily because of the time it took to get a turn, because there are so many other people who want to do the same thing, but also because the producers ask you to go through a program, which takes about two years.”
The actor and director also discovered that no amount of advance planning could prepare him for the numerous last-minute obstacles that would arise during the actual filming process. “The biggest surprise to me was the amount of time and effort I had to spend dealing with some of the performance aspects. We had several guest stars in key roles, and that was a little trickier than I had planned, because I found myself having to tweak the performances a lot more than I would like to have done.
“There were also some technical problems that I was not anticipating I would have to deal with,” Russ continues. “On this show, you may be planning on 15 extras and only get six, so in that event, you have to make full use of those six. You could also be in a situation where you’re supposed to be able to break or destroy certain objects, and then you find out that you cannot break anything after all, so you have to figure out how to make what you have left interesting. Also, you’re always trying to cheat or get away with things. For instance if you’re supposed to have an optical, but the studio can’t afford it, you have to work out how to make the shot look as good without it. Some of those things actually happen right on the set, so being flexible and being able to improvise at a moment’s notice is essential. It’s all about weighing out what you need and what you can deal with.
“I think the episodes are still improving, and as far as my performance goes, I’m perfectly happy with what I‘ve been doing.”
“’Living Witness’ was expensive for a first-time director,” Russ recalls, “ and it was certainly bigger than I thought it would be. It involved the use of three stages, an interior set that was extremely expensive and some very interesting lighting, which was somewhat time-consuming in terms of the actual shooting. Those were some of the surprises that I had to work around, but I cam in under budget and the show looks great.”
Because “Living Witness” was mainly a vehicle for the Doctor, Russ is quick to single out the work of Robert Picardo in the episode. “Bob Picardo was absolutely amazing!” he declares with unfeigned enthusiasm. “Ironically, when he directed his show [last season’s “Alter Ego”], I was featured in almost every scene of it, so this time the shoe was on the other foot, and it was really wonderful. Bob’s style of acting is different from mine. He’s extraordinarily busy, injecting ideas or suggestions. This guy is a suggestaholic! He’s always suggesting things, like how to save yourself from having to make the character cross from the left to the right of the stage three shots later on. Bob may also suggest something that’s going to cost you five shots extra, which may actually be better than what you originally had, but it’s still five extra shots which you’re trying to get finished on time. In some cases, I had to say, ‘Bob, I can’t do it, I’ve got four or five pages of dialogue and I got to get out of here in two and a half hours.’ But I did allow for extra time in some of the most important scenes.”
“The biggest surprise to me [as a director] was the amount of time and effort I had to spend dealing with some of the performance aspects.”
Whether Russ will have another opportunity to sit in Star Trek: Voyager’s directing chair remains to be seen, but his first experience was certainly worthwhile. “It took almost a year to get this one once I was ready to go, so whether I get a chance to do it again depend on the rotation. I’m back at the end of the line now and will have to wait until my turn comes around. I have that credit now, so if I show the episode to someone out in the world of television, they’ll be able to see what I can do.”
With his directorial plans on hold for the foreseeable future, Russ has returned to his full-time job of playing the stoic Vulcan, Tuvok. Storywise, the current season has been a bit quieter for the character, but for reasons that don’t especially disturb him. “This year we had the introduction of Seven of Nine as a regular character,” he explains, “so they had to get her off the starting block and into the story as quickly as possible. I think all of us have taken second position to her this year, but that doesn’t really bother me, because I had a strong story in the middle, I’ve got a couple of supporting stories in the interim, and I think the stories have been very good this year – maybe better than they were in previous years. I think the episodes are still improving, and as far as my performance goes, I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve been doing. I don’t need to have x number of primary stories for Tuvok – that really isn’t necessary for me.”
“The producers had originally intended to have my character go through the Pon farr [in “Blood Fever”], but there are a lot of factors that come into play that made it problematic for me to be involved in that…”
The actor concedes that Tuvok can sometimes be difficult to write for, mainly because he doesn’t have the same emotional range as the Human characters in Star Trek: Voyager. “There are certain situations that you can put Human characters in, and they’re going to react a certain way, and you can have more fun with that and go to more places because of their reactions and the way they would think. Tuvok, on the other hand, might not be affected by those things by virtue of the way he is, so if he’s not affected, where can you go with that? There are definitely potential stories for this character, and most of them have to do with playing against the type, putting him in situations where the type of advantages his character has cannot be used, or situations In which those things are disadvantages to him.”
According to Russ, his character is only difficult to write for if an episode is based on the limitations of a Vulcan’s emotional range. “I think you have to push the envelope in terms of what this character can do. You have to apply the scenarios of ‘what if he was in this situation, what would happen to him, or how would he react?’ and maybe worry about the mechanics of what he would do and not so much about how he responds emotionally.”
Even after four seasons of ST:VOY, Russ still looks to Spock’s character in the original Star Trek series as his essential Vulcan template. Unfortunately, however, he’s never really had the chance to talk shop with Leonard Nimoy, even though the two actors have met briefly. “We’ve never been at the same convention, although we have been at one function together, which was an awards show of some kind at which [Nimoy] had to speak. I only got a brief chance to see him in the green room and there were a lot of other people in there, so we never got the chance to talk about the character. It wasn’t the right place or time, but if he was a guest on the show or if we were able to work together on something else, I might be able to talk to him.
“[“Meld”] was a tremendously exhausting episode, but it was a great kick for me as an actor, as Tuvok was able to be completely unlocked.”
“His take on the entire thing is still very different from that of most of the other actors on the show, even though he’s written two different books about it. I think Star Trek’s not as big a deal for him as it is for other actors, because he’s extraordinarily busy. He wasn’t at the 30-year reunion we had because he was working on something else, and that’s probably about the way it is for him today.”
A long-time fan of the original series, Russ was delighted to work with a different member of the original series cast, George Takei, in the episode “Flashback”. “That was extraordinary, to be able to work with George,” Russ enthuses. “He’s a wonderful actor and a very gracious individual. That was one hell of a show to shoot – it was absolutely exhausting. I think the show really pushed the envelope with regard to how outside forces affect Tuvok’s character and what happens. The other episode which did that was “Meld”, where Tuvok loses his ability to mind-meld. That was a tremendously exhausting episode, but it was a great kick for me as an actor, as Tuvok was able to be completely unlocked.”
As ST:VOY’s unofficial Vulcan quality controller, Russ has never been afraid to voice his opinion if he felt there was any inconsistency in his character’s development, but the actor believes those incidents have decreased tremendously in the last season or two. “The characters have all found their footing much more,” he affirms, “so there have been very few inconsistencies in recent seasons. I think Leonard Nimoy had to do the same thing ‑ he had to really fight for the consistency of his character. Also, he and the writers had to build Spock from scratch, whereas we had that blueprint to follow.
“For example, we were able to build on that blueprint in the episode “Blood Fever”. The producers had originally intended to have my character go through the Pon farr, but there are a lot of factors that come into play that made it problematic for me to be involved in that, such as the fact that Tuvok has already got a wife and children. For an 8.00 pm family show, adultery would not be a very good thing for this character to partake in!”
“From a career standpoint, Star Trek: Voyager has elevated my position within the acting field”
Turning to what the past four seasons of Star Trek: Voyager have given him, Tim Russ is philosophical. “From a career standpoint, Star Trek: Voyager has elevated my position within the acting field,” he muses. “I now have access to a few more options, whether they’re voice-over parts, feature film roles or other television projects, so I’ve established a name for myself as an actor. From an artistic standpoint, my role’s not going to be a growth-oriented, because I’m not able to expand my horizons as far as acting goes on the show.”
As the discussion draws to a close, Tim Russ stresses that Star Trek: Voyager has afforded him untold opportunities, both as an actor and now as a director. Russ hopes that when the series eventually comes to an end, he will have plenty of opportunities to move into other projects and creative areas.
But for the time being, with season five of the show waiting just around the corner, Tim Russ has no doubts about his future on Star Trek: Voyager. “I accept the series as it is,” he affirms, “and will continue to appear on it until it’s over.”