Voyager Magazine #17, June 1998
By Ian Spelling
It is, as a certain Vulcan would say, a fascinating sight.
Tim Russ is relaxing in his temporary trailer, comfortable in plaid slacks and a black sweater. But he’s still in makeup, still sporting the pointy ears and eyebrows that mark him as Tuvok on STAR TREK: VOYAGER.
Outside, in the pouring rain, VOYAGER’s behind-the-scenes crew scrambles to set up the next shot of “The Killing Game, Part II,” that rare VOYAGER adventure that finds the ship’s senior officers out of uniform and the show’s actors and production staff off the confines of the Paramount Pictures studio complex. In fact, today everyone has converged on the famous Universal Studios backlot, transformed into World War II-era Sainte Claire, France, for the occasion.
“I’ve worked at Universal a couple of times over the years, but to be on the actual outdoor lot is kind of neat,” Russ enthuses, as he shuts off his TV to talk. “I remember taking the tram tour not long after I first got into town. To be shooting on the backlot now makes me appreciate how far I’ve come. The sets are great, though I could live without the rain. It’s ironic: We only work outdoors on VOYAGER once or twice a year, and guess what? Once or twice a year, it rains.”
Russ is deep into his fourth season on VOYAGER, and the actor doesn’t hesitate to admit that it does feel as though four years have passed since Tuvok’s ears were first applied. “The only thing that gets difficult is to separate the years out, in terms of specific shows. That gets a little hazy,” he says. “But as far as the time we’ve been actually doing the show, it does feel like four years. That said, it has been time pretty well spent. This particular job, this gig, is a career step. It’s something I had been shooting for for some time, and I was able to land it with VOYAGER. Whatever comes of this particular step, good or bad, is all part of that particular package. There are benefits that I am enjoying now, and, hopefully, there will be more benefits down the line. That’s what I mean by a career step. I want to do a lot of things, and VOYAGER will hopefully be my first step in achieving them.”
What, then, has Russ learned from his VOYAGER treks? “I’ve learned a great deal. From a practical standpoint,” he notes, “I have gained a great deal of knowledge about producing and directing, which I’ve already put to use in the past year on a movie [a drama entitled East of Hope Street, which Russ co-wrote, co-produced and in which he plays a small role]. Many other things I’ve learned doing VOYAGER I already knew or at least had been exposed to before, but here I’ve gotten to see or be a part of it on a weekly basis over a period of several years. That, in and of itself, has been very valuable. So has being on a show that’s popular or that at least has a very enthusiastic core audience. I’ve been on a few series before, but they were not as popular and did not last as long as VOYAGER. That makes a big difference.”
And what of Tuvok, Vulcan Security Officer aboard the Starship Voyager? What are the challenges Russ encounters through his alter-ego? “The role itself, on an everyday basis, is not a challenge. What becomes a challenge is when you step outside the norm of the role. That’s not a common thing. From an actor’s standpoint, it’s one of the difficult parts of doing a series. You have to play the same part all the time. Before I got into STAR TREK, I was doing a different role every time I worked. The characters might ha e been similar – I may have played a detective in one thing and another detective in something else three years later – but at least I had the option of being able to play these guys differently. Tuvok, on a daily basis, has to be the same. I know that, and I knew that going in. That’s why I love any opportunity to stretch, both as the actor playing the character and in other roles and capacities outside of STAR TREK.”
Early in VOYAGER’s run, Russ took a great deal of heat for the fact that Tuvok displays precious little emotion, even less than STAR TREK’s legendary Spock. Some people criticized Russ for being stiff and complained about his line delivery. Russ quickly responded, arguing that Spock was half-human and could therefore show some emotion every once in a while. He also pointed out that Tuvok was the first-ever full Vulcan on view as a regular character on a STAR TREK series and that, as a result, Tuvok wouldn’t change all that much from episode to episode. Still, the actor believes, four years into the show’s run, that the audience knows far more about Tuvok than they did when “Caretaker” kicked off the series. “We have more of an awareness of who he is, what he’s about. We’ve explored in the past couple of years the relationship he has had with the darker side, or the hidden side of himself, the Vulcan mystique, the violence that lies under the surface of the Vulcan veneer,” Russ says. “We’ve seen that Tuvok, like all Vulcans, uses a great deal of discipline and meditation to suppress that violent side. We’ve examined that a number of times over the past few years.
“On the flip side, we’ve examined his curiosity and his desire to understand the human condition, in terms of compassion. He has tried to understand all of humankind’s frailties and needs. He has learned that it can be helpful to perhaps spend time with others when he’s not working, and to not remain completely isolated all of the time. I’ve enjoyed seeing that aspect of Tuvok. I think the defining moments for Tuvok have been in ‘Meld,’ ‘Random Thoughts’ and ‘Alter Ego.’ I would also add ‘Innocence’ to that list and, I guess, ‘The Gift.’ ‘Meld’ and ‘Random Thoughts’ both explored suppressed and deep, violent thoughts and the problems those things created for Tuvok. We also saw how Tuvok worked with others in ‘Random Thought.’
“’Alter Ego’ was our Fatal Attraction episode. It was a very interesting episode, and I liked the scenes between Kim [Garrett Wang] and Tuvok. In ‘Innocence,’ Tuvok worked with all of these kids, and he acted as their guardian. It was a very important episode. It let you peer into how Tuvok might have raised his own children. The scene in ‘The Gift,’ where you see Tuvok reacting to Kes [Jennifer Lien] having left the ship wasn’t perhaps a defining moment, but it was important. I didn’t have as much to do in that episode as I thought I might. Her departure ended up being very abrupt.”
And what remains to be learned about Tuvok? Russ grins broadly. The wordless answer is “quite a bit,” though the spoken response goes into detail. “I think, down the line, there are going to be circumstances within the stories that will allow him to expand, that will creep into his psyche, stories that will shake him up and put him in situations that are very, very uncommon for him, very unusual for him. Those are the kinds of things I would like to see, and I think that’s where we’re heading with him. We did a shot in ‘Waking Moments’ that involved a dream sequence. Each individual had a dream sequence that was actually a nightmare. Some people had dreams that were very frightening, but Tuvok’s dream was not frightening. It was embarrassing – Tuvok was seen naked in public.
“A human would be embarrassed by that, no question,” the actor says. “O a Vulcan, though, embarrassment isn’t something they would bother feeling. They wouldn’t allow themselves to feel that. And, in fact, Vulcans probably don’t have the same hang-ups humans have about being naked. So my take on that, as the actor playing a Vulcan, was to find a way to make that moment work. I decided to play the improper aspect of that, to show Tuvok’s reaction to being out of protocol, to being out of uniform in a setting where he’s supposed to be in uniform. I also had to deal with Tuvok’s response to the reaction of others. He knows it’s out of order for the humans around him, that his nakedness makes the others uncomfortable, and that was interesting to play. We never had a chance like that to look at the societal differences between the cultures in so specific a way. I hope we get to do more of that.”
the beginning, Tuvok never trusted Seven of Nine.”
These days, Russ is frequently playing Tuvok opposite Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine, the Borg character introduced in VOYAGER’s fourth season opener, “Scorpion, Part II.” The ex-Borg filled several holes left by the departure of Kes, who had come to rely on Tuvok for friendship and guidance over the last three years. “From the beginning, Tuvok never trusted Seven of Nine. He always saw her as a potential threat. And, of course, she did go off a couple of times and cause a great many problems for us,” Russ explains. “After those incidents, he kept even more of an eye on her. As she has become more human and less of a threat, he has become something of a sounding board for her. I like that aspect of their relationship, this Vulcan helping a human reclaim her humanity. Both of us, at this stage of the game, think very similarly. We behave similarly. We have pretty similar speech patterns. She’s coming form a mechanical background, where emotions are not part of the deal. I think Tuvok finds that interesting and worth exploring.”
Seven of Nine entered the STAR TREK Universe with a great deal of fanfare. The character was designed to be eye-catching, and she certainly caught eyes. Ryan, posed in her form-fitting Seven of Nine outfit, turned up everywhere as the publicity push went into warp drive. And, bottom line, the ratings spiked up. But why? Did fans, particularly male fans, simply cotton to a STAR TREK babe? Did female fans, despite concerns about sexism, realize that the producers and writers had introduced in Seven of Nine a forceful and interesting character?
Russ admits that he thought long and hard about the motivations behind the creation of Seven of Nine, and that he, too, wondered if what many perceived as the jiggle card was played simply to boost the show’s ratings. “As an individual, and as an actor on VOYAGER for all these years, it’s my feeling that 30 years of STAR TREK did not become 30 years of STAR TREK by portraying actors and actresses as you would on Baywatch. That’s not the gist of STAR TREK, even the original series, and it’s still not,” he argues. “Seven of Nine is a dynamic character, and she has been a very good addition to the show. Seven of Nine has some very practical pluses, in that she’s an ex-Borg and she knows a lot of the countless alien species we’ll be encountering [in the future]. She’s also familiar with the vast areas of space we’ll be traveling through, all the way back to the Delta Quadrant. That’s invaluable to us as a crew.
“She’s also a good source of internal conflict and friction. And for Jeri, it’s a great character. To play that character arc, to show her learning curve as she goes from Borg to human, is a revelation to watch and, I’ve got to imagine, a great challenge for an actor to play. So, in all of those respects, I think the addition of Seven o f Nine is a very positive thing. Do I think we could have toned down the sexual aspect of it? Yes. I don’t think it was absolutely necessary to have her blast onto the scene in a skintight suit. I think it takes attention away from the actors who are working with her in a scene, and I also think it detracts from Jeri’s own talents. It’s hard enough to get a character to portray these moments and to play the dynamics without distractions. In the end, though, I think it’s working out fine and, again, Seven of Nine has developed into a very important character.”
Russ earlier referred to VOYAGER as a career step, as a period in which he’s discovering and experiencing something new on a daily basis. The latest experience is calling the shots on a VOYAGER episode, as cast mates Robert Duncan McNeill and Robert Picardo did before him. Russ spent more than two years in STAR TREK’s unofficial directing school, sitting in on editing sessions, chatting with the series’ regular directors and the like in preparation.
“The producers decide when it’s time, when the time arises to let an actor take on a show,” Russ notes. “I had no idea what kind of show I would get. It could have been a character show, a light show, a spooky show or an action show. For my first show, I would rather do something not so crazy and all over the place. I decided to make the best of whatever they had me do.”
And he has – making his directorial debut on “Living Witness,” which airs this spring.
As for future directorial stints, Tim Russ is optimistic: “We’ll see what happens.”