Starburst Issue 238
Voyager’s Tim Russ shares some thoughts about the Vulcan Mr. Tuvok. By Melissa J Perenson
Four years have passed since Star Trek: Voyager made its début, and for actor Tim Russ, who plays the series’ intrepid tactical officer Tuvok, that time has gone very quickly indeed.
In fact, he admits that playing Tuvok is routine by now.
“On a daily basis, he’s a very easy character to reach. He has been since the beginning,” explains the actor while taking a break in his trailer from filming the epic fourth season two-parter, The Killing Game. “The difficulties lie in what kind of circumstance they place the character in. That’s where I have to break out or to be challenged by circumstance, because the character is very subtle in what he does.”
Toning down to become a serious Vulcan mostly involves finding the right inflection. “Sometimes it’s very technical and that’s usually how I end up working, anyway,” says Russ, who enjoys having the opportunity and flexibility to explore different approaches. “Those are just the moments where it becomes fun. Interesting to do. Sometimes it’s not that much fun, sometimes it’s just very routine – if it’s on the bridge and he’s scanning for this and that.”
Take the episode Waking Moments for example, in which a race of aliens affect the minds of the Voyager crew – the result being that the humans suffer a series of bizarre dreams.
“It’s interesting the nightmare that they chose for me was one that would be embarrassing for most human beings – showing up in public naked. And I thought about it and talked with the director as well and thought, ‘My reaction would not be that large to this kind of thing’. Once I discovered that I was naked, in fact, it would be something in the fact that he is Vulcan, his culture and his society would not view being naked in public as a big deal. So his embarrassment wouldn’t be so much for himself as it would be for his comrades, who would see that as a problem.”
Keeping Tuvok fun to portray is another challenge after so much time has passed. “It really is based on what the character is given [by the writers]. There are a lot of small moments here and there – for example, when he has to react to something that Neelix says to him.
“We get a scene every once in a while where either he or Paris or someone else says something to him that would be completely non-Vulcan or that he would react to in a sense that this is whatever they’re doing is over the top. His response would normally be very dry, very flat. Sometimes those responses can be a lot of fun, they can be very humorous. I enjoy looking forward to those times when they happen.”
Even though Russ is beholden to the writers in terms of Tuvok’s actions, he’s had many opportunities to flex his own interpretation of his on-screen alter ego. “It’s mostly just a matter of a few tweaks here and there, dialogue and things like that. I have certain input and I usually wait to call them back and ask about it. There was a moment in the third season episode, Flashback, that was a very important moment because the Captain asks me what I did during all this period of time that I was away from Starfleet. In the initial draft of the script they just gave me one flippant line that was designed for people to wonder about. And I said, ‘Here’s an ideal opportunity for us to open up a window into the past of this character’.”
By having Tuvok answer Janeway’s question, the result was to add new layers to what the audience – as well as the other Voyager characters – understand about the character. It had been entirely on Russ’s suggestion that the writer on Waking Moments provided another page and a half of speech.
Being active in the development of his character dovetails nicely with Russ’s expanding interest in the technical side of making television. Russ has been a participant in Paramount’s internship program for cultivating directors for three years now, the same program which gave Trek actor Jonathan Frakes his training as a director. “There’s no absolute guarantee of anything on either side, it’s just a matter of the doors are open to go in and see what happens behind the scenes on every aspect [of making a show],” explains Russ.
“There’s a lot riding on this particular thing for me. A lot more than anything else I think I’ve ever done.”
Because Voyager is a network show- as opposed to siblings Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, both of which were syndicated series that gave ample opportunity to those actors who were willing and able to make the jump to directing – it’s more difficult to grant actors-turned-directors that opportunity. “I think there are a lot more decisions being made above and beyond the production of Voyager that there were on the other two shows,” says Russ, who directed his first episode, titled Living Witness, at the end of the fourth season. “The atmosphere and climate for that kind of thing was much easier earlier on than it is now.” He may play an unflappable Vulcan, but the very human Russ is not above feeling the pressure tied to his first opportunity to direct a Voyager episode. “There’s a lot riding on this particular thing for me,” he asserts. “A lot more than anything else I think I’ve ever done. Playing a character is a cake-walk, comparatively.”
Voyager’s fourth season has proven to be not only the series’ strongest, but also its most tumultuous. Foremost amongst the major shifts in the series was the departure of Jennifer Lien, who played Kes, and the addition of Jeri Ryan’s brash Borg, Seven of Nine. Of all the characters on the show, it was Tuvok who was most affected by Kes’s transition to a higher state of existence.
“Kes and I developed an interesting relationship during the time she was on the ship, because she was telepathic and my character was partly telepathic as well,” recalls Russ. “There was a certain connection, a certain bond that we achieved during that time. It was, I think, that my character was being in the process of helping her along the way of developing her abilities and focusing her mind and using discipline to control what she was able to do.
“The dynamic of Seven of Nine’s character,” he continues, “is explosive because from a pragmatic standpoint, she brings to us her knowledge of the Delta Quadrant. Almost as far back to home as we have to go, because the Borg have stretched that far. In terms of the character dynamics it’s also interesting because since she had been a Borg since she was a child, she had not had the opportunity to really integrate socially among others and work as a team. Now there’re different dynamics involved in command structure and human beings and their feelings.”
Early on, Seven’s presence caused conflicts for Russ’s Tuvok, who didn’t trust her because she was a Borg.
The fourth season also saw a number of epic-quality episodes, including The Killing Game, the final story in the Hirogen story arc which aired during February ‘sweeps’ in the States. Filmed on Universal’s backlot for three days, the story thrusts Voyager’s crew in the midst of a battle situation initiated by their latest predatory enemy. “They’re basically hunters who’ve captured our ship and forced us to participate in a battle simulation,” elaborates Russ. “And this particular simulation is something that they’ve found in our records, our databanks involving World War II battle styles and plans of the Nazis in Germany. They’re interested in that kind of thing, so they’re learning from this as well. During the simulation, we, as crew-members, are participating in part as Allies and in part as the French Resistance.”
“From a pragmatic standpoint, Seven of Nine brings knowledge of the Delta Quadrant”
Implanted devices are controlling the crew’s participation. “If we knew we were aware of doing this we would spend all of our time trying to get out of it,” he explains. “So most of us have been given these devices in order to keep us honest with the game. Of course, the parameters have been taken off, so that you can actually be injured during the simulation, naturally. The people who are left on the ship are trying to get us out of the situation. It’s a very good story.” The episode required the actors to dress in civilian, period costume, which together with the location shoot provided a refreshing change from the usual routine.
Change from the routine is what’s prompted Russ to expand his horizons beyond acting and learn the craft of directing, as well as that of producing. As a director, says Russ, “You can visualize a scene or a series of scenes and then apply that vision in real time and actually see it come to life. I think it’s very rewarding seeing the dialogue come off the page with an actor.”
Last year, Russ produced a feature film titled East of Hope Street, which should be distributed later this year. The experience gained from the being in the director’s program at Paramount proved to be an asset to Russ’s first turn as a producer. “I was with the producers in pre-production meetings and post-editing and during the process of shooting, so I’m always aware of what’s going on on the sets as well as the screenings of the producers of the projects. Hopefully, having done each area from the actor to the director to the producer all the way across the board will help me with whatever I get involved with later on.”