TV Zone #98, January 1998

Tim Russ in Focus

During his service on the Enterprise, half-human, half-Vulcan First Officer Spock usually relied on his Vulcan stoicism and logic to get him out of a dilemma. Occasionally, he would surprise everyone and trust his human side to offer an unexpected solution. Fellow Vulcan and Starfleet officer Tuvok does not share a similar insight into the human mind. Being a full-blooded member of his race, he can depend only on his Vulcan logic to guide him in his life aboard Voyager. While not being in tune with others’ emotions may be a handicap for Tuvok, it makes the Voyager character far more enjoyable for Tim Russ to portray.

“Tuvok acts as a foil for the human condition,” says Russ. “It’s almost like having a running Vulcan commentary on the way other people are. He’s really a sounding board for the unthinking nature and volatility of human emotion and behavior. His response to these things is such an antithesis of all that, and to play against the human type of personality is a treat. It’s fun to be subtle and, in many cases, let only the slightest hint of what he is feeling out form under his skin.

“From an audience standpoint you can relate it to why people go to car races. They’re waiting for one of the drivers to crash. Viewers always watch Tuvok to see when he’s going to crack. In what way is his reaction to a particular situation different to the way in which human beings would react under the same circumstances? You know, the slightest raising of his eyebrow or the hint of an expression on his face is what audiences like to look for. It’s walking that thin line between how much you show and don’t show that continues to make the character interesting to play.”

Although he may not fully comprehend or be able to express human emotions, Tuvok has been put in several situations in which he is forced to deal with confusing human behavior. In Ex Post Facto the Vulcan must make sense of deceit, anger and passion to clear Tom Paris of murder. He learns to bend his logic to train a group of Maquis personnel in Learning Curve while in Alter Ego he unwittingly becomes the object of a female alien’s desire.

Pon Farr

“In general, I think the characters are sort of held hostage by the writers of any particular story. A lot of times characters grow by virtue of the circumstances they are put into,” says the actor. “For example, we did Blood Fever which deals with the Pon Farr [Vulcan mating ritual] but didn’t use Tuvok’s character to explore this part of his Vulcan heritage as the writers felt it wasn’t the right story to put him in given his background. Because he already has a wife and children a story concerning him and the Pon Farr would tend to become a bit more complicated. They didn’t have the proper platform for it at the time so they decided to use another character [Ensign Vorik] to carry out that theme and have Tuvok involved indirectly. In doing this story we were able to peer further into the Vulcan culture as far as this ceremony or ritual is concerned. We answered several questions and created new things in terms of how this culture works and, in particular, this whole phenomenon of the Pon Farr.

“So the development of a character is always based on where he or she is in the scheme of things and what they’re doing at any given moment within a story. We explore the dilemmas and pitfalls of mind melding in a story called Meld which up to then hadn’t really been looked at from that particular angle. So this opens up lots of other possibilities for the future. In Flashback we delved into Tuvok’s past to some degree. So these are the times the characters have an opportunity to grow and I believe that we’ve all grown substantially because of such things since the show began.

Pulling Together

Another important element contributing to a character’s growth on any television series is the amount of interaction he or she has with others around them. The close rapport shared between Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew on The Next Generation was a crucial element in the show’s success. This type of bonding finally made its way to the Delta Quadrant during the latter half of Voyager’s third year and has followed the series into its fourth season. Focusing on the show’s characters has given Russ the opportunity to work more with Ethan Phillips (Neelix) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris).

“Ethan and I have a nice bit with Rise where we are together for the entire show. It is a good story in that it includes some powerful scenes in which Neelix tells Tuvok how he feels about the way the Vulcan treats him. Beyond that it’s been Tuvok and Paris, which I am happy to get back to,” he says. “There’s an episode at the very beginning of our first season [Ex Post Facto] which involves Robbie McNeill’s and my characters but then we never really did anything for a while after that. So it was nice to expand on the relationship between our characters and see it come to fruition last year in such episodes as Future’s End and Worst Case Scenario. I’m hoping Robbie and I have more good stuff to do together this year.”

Direct Action

Along with developing his character, Russ has been working to gain some further experience behind the camera. He has followed in the footsteps of fellow cast members McNeill and Robert Picardo in learning how to direct a Voyager episode. He will finish the two-year training program this December and hopes to direct an episode at some point this season.

“I may get only one shot at it,” explains Russ. “There’s going to be four of us and [Co-Executive Producer] Rick Bermann has to do a delicate tap dance between satisfying the various unions and guilds that have directors they want employed and giving new directors opportunities. One has to be extremely careful in how you go about it, so I don’t know how many chances I’ll have to direct Voyager. There’s also a possibility that the producers may not be as enamored of the job I do. Perhaps my episode will not turn out that well. There are any number of reasons why I may get to do only one.

“Also, the networks are very apprehensive about new directors because they’re concerned about putting out a show that’s going to get them the highest ratings. So it’s quite a precarious position to be in when it comes to giving out such privileges. The first time it happened was with Jonathan Frakes [Riker] on The Next Generation. It took him a long time before he got to direct an episode of that series. He was the person who broke the ice and opened the door for the rest of us.”

Logically Speaking

While some may think the make-up process would be the most difficult part of playing Tuvok, this is far from the truth. Even after walking in Tuvok’s boots for over three years, Russ still sometimes finds speaking like a Vulcan to be a challenge. “On a technical level the hardest part of playing the character is usually the dialogue because of the way Tuvok speaks,” he says. “It’s not a natural or casual style of talking and that means it’s harder to memorize. The associations are very different be3cuase you need to remember things word for word. Because of how the dialogue is structured and the way he speaks it, it usually takes him a lot longer to say things. There’s a lot of extra words involved in his saying something that someone else would probably be able to say in a few words. “Sometimes it’s very difficult, unless one has a photographic memory, to get all of those words into your head. Ultimately, though, it’s worth it.”

Crossing Frontiers

Russ was born in 1956 in Washington, DC. His father, a retired Air Force colonel, is the Deputy Director of Education and Training for the Sacramento Job Corps Center. Because of his father’s military career, the actor literally grew up around the world. He went to Izmir High School in Turkey and received his diploma from Rome Academy in New York state. Russ went on to Saint Edwards University in Austin, Texas where he earned a degree in theater arts. After graduating, the actor continued his theater studies at Illinois State University. He vividly remembers his first paying job as an actor.

Pulling Together

“It was a couple of fairly decent scenes in a Masterpiece Theater project for America’s Public Broadcasting System [PBS]. At the time I was probably pretty nervous but the terrific thing about being young is that you tend to dive right into things. You don’t have nearly as many inhibitions or anxieties, I think, as you do when you’re older and trying something for the first time. It’s funny, but I guess that’s just the way youth is.

“I think I’ve been more frightened now about doing stuff than I was back then,” he chuckles. “At that time I’d never acted in front of a camera before so I didn’t have all the savvy about where the camera is placed or about being on – and off – camera for lines and dialogue and that sort of thing. I did, however, know what I was doing in the part. It was an excellent day’s work for me the first time out of the gate and I was pleased with it afterwards.”

In almost 20 years as an actor Russ has appeared in a variety of stage productions as well as such films as Death Wish 4, Crossroads, Spaceballs, Mr. Saturday Night and Star Trek: Generations in which he played a human tactical security officer. On TV, he has appeared in such series as 21 Jump Street, Hill Street Blues, Murphy Brown, The Twilight Zone (1980s version) and The Next Generation, as well as in two episodes of Deep Space Nine.

Almost a Geordi Boy

He also tried out for the role of Geordi LaForge on TNG. “When I think about it, the audition scene itself was not that intriguing to me,” muses Russ. “It sort of laid there on the page and was not at all interesting. It was two or three pages of a personable exchange between Geordi and Data and it was kind of like, ‘Eh,’ when I read it. Once in a while you go to read for something and you’re left wondering why they have given you material that is soft as opposed to dynamic. I couldn’t get excited about that scene. Of course, I felt lucky just to be asked to go in and read for the show, so when it didn’t come down the pipe I wasn’t that upset or shattered about not getting cast. It was a good opportunity that I missed but I had to go on with things.”

When he is not acting Russ can often be found performing at a coffeehouse in Northridge, California called Common Grounds. “I have a trio I play with. It’s not really a set band. It’s basically me doing all the vocals and stuff and I hire players to back me up. I’ve been a guitarist for 25 years, so I do guitar, bass and lead vocals.”

Balancing Act

“I’m happy to still have some time to do my music as well as to act,” he says. “As far as acting goes, though, I feel that I’m very lucky in that I can say it is how I make my living. It’s challenging as well as fun to be able to play different things all the time. The main difference between television and theater, for me, anyway, is rehearsing. When you’re working on stage the rehearsal process is the discovery process. Once the show is running, then you’re basically doing the same performance. You really can’t change things too much unless it’s a solo show. When you’re part of an ensemble, though, you have to play your part.

“With films and especially television you can go in and do something entirely different every week. There are a lot of advantages working in this medium. It reaches so many people, profoundly so in many cases, and has such a direct impact on society. It’s also nice when you become known for a particular piece of work such as Voyager. So it’s the variety and constant challenge found in one’s roles that makes this job fun and rewarding.”

Steven Eramo