Before interviewing Tim Choate, I'd heard more guesses on how to say his last name than I'd heard ways to pronounce Zathras. "It's Choate," says the actor, with a hard 'ch' and a long 'o.' As for his Babylon 5 character, "There's Zathras - and then there are his relatives Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, and Zathras." As he explained in the episode "Conflicts of Interest," Minbari, Centauri, and Drazi can hear the variations...but alas, humans cannot.
"There's a slight difference in pronunciation in each one, and the trained ear can hear them," Choate explains. "People keep asking me about the pronunciations, but that's not just a wisecrack answer."
A veteran performer with more than twenty feature film credits, Chaote laughs that he doesn't have to believe he's an alien to play one, but he wasn't even sure whether he wanted to audition for Babylon 5 until a few minutes before the audition, when he found Zathras' voice while sitting in the parking lot. The show had been on the air for barely a week when he read for it, so - having missed the pilot - Choate had no idea what he was getting himself into. Now he's not only part of the original Babylon Project, he's part of Crusade.
"I knew that I was going to be under a lot of makeup, my agent had said I'd have to be OK with that, but they had given a description of him as being ferret-like, so I thought he would have a long, pointy snout and be kind of hairy. I didn't know what to do with it, and I almost didn't go." His years of theatrical training kicked in, however, and Choate came up with a voice for Zathras while waiting for his turn to read.
"It was kind of an accident - you can slip and slur on something if you keep rehearsing it over and over again, and an accent can come out. That's sort of what happened: the voice started sounding like a little bit of an Eastern Indian accent, so I started playing with it. I don't really believe in channeling, but it sort of channeled this guy that I'd made up only ten minutes earlier." Throwing himself into the part, Choate "concentrated very hard because I knew that I would either look really good if I could make it work, or I would look really foolish. I got out of the room fast, it was the only way I could not be embarrassed." He got the part.
Having starred in Westerns, thrillers, and comedies, the actor was fascinated by his first big science fiction role, which became an instant fan favorite - the Yoda of Babylon 5, as one fan put it. "Nobody had ever told me at the audition that this character would recur, but there were so many loose ends left dangling in the script for that episode that everyone's feeling - mine and the people on the crew - was that he must be going to be on again. The costumers, I remember, were saying, 'We'd better hang onto his costume.' Choate thought the situation might not be resolved until the final episodes of the five-year arc, so he thought he might not hear from the production company again until the conclusion of the series.
But with the cast change which replaced main character Michael O'Hare with Bruce Boxleitner, the dangling storyline about the disappearance of Babylon 4 was resurrected, and Zathras became an important part of the historical plot about the Minbari war against the Shadows. Though he made some of the most powerful, enigmatic statements of the series, the alien also provided a great deal of quirky humor. "I've never thought about whether Zathras thinks he's funny," muses Choate. "I think just like I know when I'm being funny, he must know when he's being funny...because otherwise he'd be stupid, and I think Zathras is very bright. He's not being funny intentionally, but he knows it will be taken as humorous and that's OK with him. He does things in a humorous way and can't help but speak in those terms - the way slave humor can be."
When Zathras has something important to say, though, he doesn't do anything funny. Choate remembers the nearly five-minute speech from the end of the two-part episode "War Without End" to Boxleitner, O'Hare and Mira Furlan, in which Zathras explains the trinary belief system of the Minbari, then turns to Sinclair: "You are the One Who Was." He moves to Delenn: "You are the One Who Is." He gestures to Sheridan: "You are the One Who Will Be. You are the beginning of the story, and the middle of the story, and the end of the story that creates the next great story. In your heart, you know what Zathras says is true. Go now. Zathras' place is with the One Who Was." At that moment, there is nothing funny about Zathras, any more than Yoda describing the Force. "When he wants to be taken seriously, he's very methodical about the way he speaks."
Choate is unsure when or if we will see Zathras again; though he filmed an episode of Crusade last month, he did not play his former character. Instead he appears in the twelfth episode playing another alien, a Lorkan called Polix. There are three Lorkans in the episode, two of whom are major villains. "I have a partner named Ris, and we're the bad guys. I don't look like Zathras and I don't look like Tim Choate - I use a voice which is not my voice and is not Zathras' voice - so people will have an interesting time guessing who I am!"
While he knows the initial arc for the series - "There's a disease on Earth, and they have five years to find the cure for it" - Choate says he knows little of the gossip which have plagued the series since the start of shooting. "I had heard rumors that they had scrapped five episodes and were going to start all over, but that's not the case, from what I had heard last week - I hear those five episodes are going to air, they just took a break and rethought the series. I was wondering what the working atmosphere would be like over there, if the people from Babylon 5 would get carried over, and it was wonderful. They film in the same studio, and some of my scenes in Crusade take place with Tracy Scoggins on Babylon 5."
Choate believes the new series will be easier to follow than the original, which even he did not follow regularly. "I feel very endeared towards the series and I wish that I had watched more, but now I feel like I missed the boat and I don't have the time to sit down and watch five years' worth. I have really high hopes for Crusade, I don't think it's going to be so much dependent on a storyline that you can lose like Babylon 5 - I think you can tune in any time and not be lost. I think my Lorkan character could conceivably come back, and if I was on a second episode, your viewing experience would be enriched if you'd seen the previous one but it won't be necessary."
Choate has attended two conventions which he greatly enjoyed, re-enacting his audition at one of them so that fans could see how he created Zathras. "People really want to hear me do Zathras, even though I'm not in the makeup and it doesn't really work. I go in and sit down, I tell them who was in the room and what that was like, and I do a piece of the audition. They're like a fly on the wall in the casting session for Zathras; they get to see what Straczynski and Copeland and Netter saw that first time. That seems to go over really well." The first convention Choate did, he shared the stage with Bruce Boxleitner and Michael O'Hare, "so the audience understandably was a lot more eager to speak with them than me - but the second time I had two one-hour sessions where it was just me. The people love the show and the charater so much, they are so fascinated to see what's underneath all that makeup, so you can't help but enjoy that experience."
The University of Texas graduate finds it difficult to "do" Zathras without the makeup and suspects it would be the same for Polix, his Crusade character. "It took three hours to get into the makeup, my full face was covered except for my nose - there's a hole in the face for my entire nose to poke through. But I had theatrical contact lenses that cover my eyes, and my ears were taped flat to my head. It was much more uncomfortable than Zathras."
Still, he adds, "I love acting with that on, it's very freeing and I take big risks that I wouldn't normally take if I looked like myself, because I'd sound foolish. It just wouldn't work. You really see how everybody had to use their imaginations when they cast me, they didn't even know themselves what the makeup would look like - there was a sketch of the Lorkan that I just played, they did a drawing of him, but on me it sort of halfway looks like the drawing - sort of like a police sketch, you can sort of see what they had in mind but it doesn't really look that much like him."
Choate had never before played a character in full prosthetic makeup, but likes to play characters with different looks and accents: "I like to be unrecognizable, I do things like grow facial hair or wear glasses." His favorite actors - Paul Muny, Robert De Niro, Sean Penn - are all known for their ability to change drastically from role to role. Choate was hooked on the profession when as a 12-year-old, he got a book about the history of the movies, "a pictorial, hundreds of thousands of pictures." Though he trained in theater and claims he's a better theatrical actor than film actor, he has starred in Westerns and wants to play a detective on film.
"I'd like to play something in the Humphrey Bogart-Columbo frazzled-police-detective genre," he notes. "I wanted to play westerns for some time, walk through the saloon doors and ride a horse across a river, do the draw scene. Now I'm working on a murder mystery called The Seventh Veil, in which I am one of the suspects, and I just had a scene with the lead where he's interrogating me, a classic police detective, he's kind of rumpled, and I was very jealous. I'd love to play a part like that!"
Though Choate is in his early forties, he appears younger on camera, which may have prevented him from being cast as a world-weary detective. "When I get older and have the heft," he laughs. "I still feel kind of boyish."
Though he's not a regular TV-watcher - E.R. and The Practice are two he finds worth keeping up with - the Dallas native would like another crack at Hamlet,, which he has never played in a full-scale production. His favorite roles have mostly been onstage, but "Zathras is definitely a favorite part, and I want to play him again." Given the popularity of the character with Babylon 5 fans, the popularity of the actor with convention crowds, and the vast span of history which Zathras has already experienced, it seems possible or even likely that he might turn up on Crusade. "I wouldn't be surprised if someday he pops up on that show," concludes Choate.