WHAT A BEAUTIFUL FOREHEAD YOU HAVE, MARY KAY!
Adams on Playing Grilka and Na'Toth
by Michelle Erica Green
Mary Kay Adams has played European royalty, an ambassador's aide, and the head of a noble household, but you'd have only recognized her as the first. That's because she played Babylon 5's Na'Toth and Deep Space Nine's Grilka in full prosthetic makeup. Not that she wasn't a babe even with forehead ridges. Hey, both Quark and Worf lusted after her.
Surprisingly, the long-time star of Guiding Light felt very comfortable in Grilka's Klingon skin. "So many times in Hollywood, or in show business in general, women are not really allowed to be strong," she observed in a recent interview from New York, where the daytime drama films. "We are tempered. Our power is taken away. Playing the Klingon woman was such a joy because throughout my entire career I have had directors say to me, 'OK, Mary Kay, just pull back a little bit.' This was the first time I was ever told, 'OK, we need you to be stronger!' It was Christmas!"
The Ferengi bartender met Grilka in "The House of Quark" when he accidentally killed her husband in a drunken brawl, then learned that under Klingon law, he was obligated to marry her. In the end, he rescued her family's finances, for which Grilka was so grateful that she later let him court her.
Grilka's most memorable line was probably, "I'm grateful to you, Quark, for helping me. That is why I am going to let you take your hand off my thigh instead of shattering every bone in your body." After the pair became lovers, they ended up in Deep Space Nine's infirmary to be treated for the consequences of unbridled Klingon passion.
"It was such a gift to be able to take it to the hilt and not be self-conscious like you can be in other roles," recalled Adams. "You're worrying, 'Uh-oh, they're going to be afraid of me now!' If you are a strong woman, you're labeled a bitch, or threatening, or difficult, or temperamental, or a whole lot of other things."
Looking For Par'Mach
A fan of science fiction from her childhood, when her father read genre novels, Adams grew up wanting to be a character on the original Star Trek series. "When I was a little girl, my brother and sister and I would play in the backyard, and I was Captain Kirk, and he was Bones, and she was Spock," the actress laughed. "We had some of the original Star Trek toys, like the little phaser that shot the plastic disks out, and we had little communicators."
Her statuesque looks made Adams a natural to play beauty queens, which she did on several soap operas. Her resume includes One Life To Live and As the World Turns. But after changing agents in Los Angeles in 1994, she auditioned for Deep Space Nine. "I read the script, and I laughed out loud, and I remember thinking, 'I have to do this role.' God was with me, and I did!"
The actress thought the character was "fantastic," with all the strength of her Klingon attributes, "but then she also has a sense of humor. I just thought she was the bee's knees." Asked whether Grilka had a real crush on Quark or whether she was just grateful to him for saving her finances, Adams said enthusiastically, "Oh, absolutely it was real! We slept together!"
In the follow-up episode, "Looking For Par'Mach in All the Wrong Places," Worf becomes smitten with Grilka as well, but because he has been dishonored among the Klingons, he cannot court her. "Losing to a Ferengi was the cherry on top of it all!" laughed Adams. "They had said to us when we had gotten the script, play it very Cyrano de Bergerac." So Worf wooed and won Grilka for Quark, then found Dax waiting for him to realize she was a much better match for him.
"Actors I am close to who have done these shows all agree that Star Trek is fabulous because it's the closest thing to playing classical theater," she noted. "It's very archetypal, it's very Shakespearean in its scope. All the aliens are of heroic proportions. Plus you're given direction to be bigger, to be stronger, to fill the makeup. The makeup does a lot of the work for you, but you have to find the balance of matching it somehow."
Though she is now familiar with the work Barbara March and Gwynyth Walsh did as the Duras Sisters on The Next Generation, Adams did not watch previous Klingon episodes for homework. "I based Grilka on what was given to me in the script, working with the director of my episode," she said. "The stake involved for me was controlling my own house, but I'm not well-versed in the evolution of Klingon history."
She was delighted to be called back after "The House of Quark," which happened after she auditioned to play a Bajoran love interest for Odo in 1995. "I really am a huge fan of Rene Auberjoiois, so I was excited about that. I had gone in for the producers to read for this Bajoran character, but in that session I saw a lot of the guys I had known from my first time on the show, and they were all wonderful and said, 'We were actually thinking about bringing Grilka back.' And sure enough, the next season they brought me back."
The uncomfortable Klingon teeth proved to be an asset to Adams because they change the actors' speaking voices so drastically. "You get to know me and I sound perky, but if I did that with the makeup on, it would sound ridiculous. So it's my job to find the right pitch. The balance is to find how the makeup works with that and works against it - how to find the right channel to make it happen."
Questions about the number of hours she spent in makeup for Grilka and for Na'Toth on Babylon 5 are among the most frequent Adams is asked at conventions. "There's a subtlety that has to switch on when you're used to using your face for expressions," she observed. "It just happens naturally: there's a lot being expressed simply by what your face is doing when you're listening to someone. But the prosthetic covers up a lot of that. So you have to find a different way to get the emotion out."
That Darn Narn Makeup
Adams was actually the third Na'Toth cast on Babylon 5, after several previous actresses left the series because the prosthetics were so uncomfortable. Narn ambassador G'Kar's original assistant, Ko'Dath, was played by Mary Woronov, but she bowed out because of the demands of the makeup. Then Susan Kellerman was cast as new ambassadorial aide Na'Toth, but claustrophobia made it impossible for her to play the role. Julie Caitlin Brown stepped in for five episodes, but she, too, found that the prosthetics were destroying her skin, and with it her ability to play other roles.
So Adams took over at the start of the second season. "Na'Toth's makeup was much more uncomfortable than Grilka's," she admitted, though many actors who have played Klingons have said it was an experience they would not repeat. Na'Toth's costume required a full rubber head coupled with contact lenses that are larger than normal. "It felt like wearing dinner plates. And then having the full hood on...it was very claustrophobic. There was actually an actress who had been hired before Julie who never made it onscreen because the full makeup gave her too much anxiety."
The prosthetic was molded so that the collar came down onto the shoulder. "It covered the collarbone and came down just about to the breastbone, but in order to make it fit for the whole head and neck area, they took a cast from just above the bustline up," Adams recalled. "Wearing this rubber hood, your ears were covered all day - the ears of the prosthetic were not where our ears are. So hearing was muffled."
Then the costumers would paste the facemask on to match. "They cut the mask right up underneath the eye, and popped those contacts in. We couldn't see or hear. It was like being submerged. The only thing that was ours were our lips. Typically, normal calls were around 5 in the morning and you'd go as late as 7:30 at night." It was a grueling schedule, and the character disappeared from the series for a long stretch during Adams' tenure, presumably killed in a terrorist attack.
After moving back to New York following five years of bi-coastal living, Adams has been working primarily on daytime, where she has played the role of India von Halkein on Guiding Light on and off since 1984. The genres of science fiction and soaps both have passionate followings, and Adams feels blessed to have been welcomed by both.
"You hear the same thing. If I had a nickel for every time someone said condescendingly, 'Oh, I don't watch soaps,' and it's the same thing I hear with, 'Oh, I don't watch science fiction." So what? Watch what you want to watch!" In both instances she describes the audiences as "a very knowledgeable, very supportive, very loyal group of fans who take it very seriously, and they care. That's one of the greatest gifts that an actor can have. They care about you personally. They care about the characters. They care about the integrity of the show."
The Woman You Love To Hate
Writer Pam Long created India Von Halkein in 1984. "Originally I was going to be sort of a Midwestern tart, but they changed it to be this baroness from Andorra," smiled the regal Adams. "I was very manipulative, always broke but coming across as being very wealthy because I came from a lot of money. I embezzled, I blackmailed, I twisted the knife in as many people as I could. It was done with a real flair, always with a sense of delight, of really loving what she was doing."
Over the years, India was given a complex backstory that made her character understandable for the audience. "As much as you loved to hate me, you really loved me too, because you understood I was doing it all for my father," the actress sighed dramatically. She was on the show until 1987, left to appear on Roseanne and in the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil, then returned in 1990 for a brief stint. A year ago October, she moved back to New York and returned to the series once more.
"God bless them, I could have stayed on Guiding Light from the time I came on," she admitted. "The character was really well embraced by the audience, and I probably could have stayed there forever. It was my decision then not to, because I wanted to try other things. Every time I went back, they wanted me to stay a long time."
Now the industry has changed a great deal. "Soaps aren't what they were back in the '80s; the audience is down, the storylines are very different," noted the New Jersey native. "If you work with a really great head writer, or someone who knows what you do and takes advantage of it, it can be a great experience. On the flip side, it has its challenges when somebody doesn't quite get you, or wants to go in a different direction and expects an entire cast to go along with it even though a lot of us have been here longer than the writers. That's very tough. It's like, 'Excuse me, we know the show! Ask us questions!'
The actress believes that the five-day-a-week format of soaps makes for intense fan followings. "There's more of soap operas to have a reaction to; there's something new every day. What happens sometimes affects the long term much more than one episode of a Star Trek. I don't know what ten years from now brings - I really don't know what happens next year frankly! I don't know what the industry's going to be like in ten years."
The process of casting is "very, very ethereal" to Adams, who said she could sometimes go to an audition and change someone's mind about the background of a character as she did with India. "But other times they need you to fit exactly in very small parameters." When an agent suggested a few years ago that he wanted to see her go out for grittier roles like streetwalkers, Adams remembered rolling her eyes.
"I think my reputation is that I'm strong, and I tend to read for wealthier people than not - something about the way I look. I don't necessarily look like a farm mom from the Midwest. I adapt as best I can to suit the character, but there are limitations. There are people who would not be able to walk in and look like a baroness, no matter what they wore or what they did."
She can laugh about the fact that she was cast as a grandmother on Third Watch, and that on the first pilot she did in California, she played the mother of a 16-year-old. "The joke in the pilot was that the romance was actually going to be between him and me," she recalled. "I'm getting hired to play ten years older than I am. As much as it hurts, it's painful to go through it, I have great compassion for these 21-year-old people who are in a panic, but my friends who are 50, 60 have been in this business 30, 40 years and they're being discarded. It's all about young; the evolution of this industry is not as rewarding as it once was."
Adams has done some directing, which she enjoys, and names a Broadway workshop of Leon Uris' Trinity as her favorite role. "It was a two-evening play, six hours of theater, just phenomenally well done." But for fun, she's most likely to be found watching baseball, rooting for the Yankees.
"I've been blessed where I've done a lot of different things," Adams concluded. Now if only she could find a way to play someone as strong as Grilka without going through hours of prosthetic makeup.