ALIEN OF MANY FACES
Vaughn Armstrong Has Been Klingon, Romulan, and Borg
by Michelle Erica Green
Vaughn Armstrong has made life difficult for three different Starfleet captains in a half-dozen guises, but none of them would recognize him if they fell over him on the Promenade. The only actor to play a Klingon, a Romulan, a Cardassian (two, actually), a Vidiian, and a Borg has only one remaining Star Trek fantasy: on the upcoming fifth show, he thinks it would be nice to play a series regular.
"There's nothing I like better than going to a set every single day," says Armstrong, who has played the most prosthetic makeup-heavy species in the Trek universe. "I can be on a set from six in the morning until three the next morning and beg for more. I know some actors complain about having to be there, which annoys me because there is nothing I would rather be doing."
The veteran of several dozen film and television roles, Armstrong's first love is the stage -- he has helped to build five theaters, including one in Vietnam when he was drafted in the early 1970s. His first co-starring turn with Kate Mulgrew came in a production of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, and he directed Anthony DeLongis (Kulluh) in two plays at a theater in Studio City. "In the last 8 to 10 years or so, I haven't been on a stage where I didn't know at least a couple of people in the play from something else we had done," says the 50-year-old actor.
Larger Than Life
Many stage-trained actors with diverse resumes -- DeLongis, Andrew Robinson, Wayne Alexander, to name a very few -- have played guest aliens on television to great effect. J.G. Hertzler, who played Martok on Deep Space Nine, has attributed this to the need for performances that are theatrically grand yet believable, and Armstrong concurs.
"One of the nice things is that you get to put on all that makeup, and suddenly you have a Cardassian neck, for instance, that looks like it's been straining with tension for fifty million years, or you have a Klingon with a forehead that looks like they used to run into each other with their heads when they were growing up. That gives you some idea where they're coming from. I tend to start with the human behind the mask, then allow the mask to take its effect."
Which alien was his favorite? "The Klingon holds a fond spot in my heart because he was the first," admits Armstrong. "When I read that role, I thought, this is perfect for me. He's a warrior, he wants to live the way he was meant to live whether it hurts other people or not. It was sheer passion. 'Heart of Glory,' it was called, and the character is just that. You can't not enjoy a character like that. And it sort of sparked the rest of them."
The producers liked Armstrong's performance as TNG's Korris, the Klingon who taught Worf the death roar. So they kept calling him back for other roles. He played two Cardassians on Deep Space Nine -- adversarial Gul Danar in "Past Prologue," and Damar's ally Seskal in "When it Rains..." and "The Dogs of War. On Voyager he played the Romulan Telek R'Mor, the first person in the Alpha Quadrant with whom the ship made contact after being stranded across the galaxy, who responds to Captain Janeway's homesickness. Later he played Two of Nine, one of Seven's former Borg shipmates, and a Vidiian with whom a futuristic Kes plotted to destroy Voyager. He also played Klingon villain Korath in Star Trek: The Experience.
"The Borg was fun, but I think the Romulan was probably the most interesting character to do. He's more subtle than the rest," notes Armstrong. "There's sort of a heartfelt truth about all of us in any quadrant being connected by the love of our children. That was kind of a touching thing to play. But the Borg had his qualities too, I got to play a robotic, mindless follower of whatever I had been programmed to do, then turn around and play the guy seeking to break out of that to look for the truth in his heart."
Armstrong watched reruns of the original series in college every night and kept up with the franchise through his father and brother -- both big fans. He enjoys working with the "very professional" casts and crews, and also the perks. "When you do a little play, you pour 24 hours into it for weeks and you get $20 a week. You do Star Trek and make a pretty good salary in a week and a half, and the world sends you fan mail, even it's partially because of the shape of the forehead you've got on."
Having worn the foreheads of most of the major villains, which was the most hellacious makeup call? "They claim that the Borg is the most difficult, and that may be true. However, the only reaction I ever had was to the Klingon. When they took the forehead off, my flesh was riddled with these little white blisters, hundreds of them. Michael Westmore was dumbfounded. It's never happened to me since, even in the same prosthetics. I guess you have to acclimate your flesh to this sort of makeup."
"The Borg suits were something else -- mine happened to be three times too small, but it was the biggest one they had. You suck in the gut until they zip it up, and then you can exhale. They were concerned about how claustrophobic we were going to be, and kept wanting to unzip the costumes between scenes, but I just wanted to zone out. If I could get into a meditative state and wait for the next scene, it was a lot less difficult than having people pamper me."
Armstrong had met Jeri Ryan on the set of her previous series, the alternate-history saga Dark Skies, when he played a guest role in the episode "Burn, Baby, Burn." Though he had no scenes with Ryan, he met her on the set when they did a reading together. Tim Kelleher, who played Four of Nine in "Survival Instinct," was also a regular on Dark Skies, "so they were real happy to see each other."
"Jeri was great to work with on Voyager, a consummate professional and an absolute sweetheart at the same time," recalls Armstrong. "She had knowledge of what the Borg do, while we, being new Borg, had no idea that they never slept, never sat down and never ate. Had it not been for her telling us this was a big deal for the Borg we were playing, we would never have known. She was nice enough to give us all these hints so that people who know didn't catch us in our failures."
"One of the things about being Borg is that they do take hours to get the technical apparatus and the suits working, so that you're in them a lot longer than you're acting in them. It can make you weary, and you could see that it was difficult for some of the actors. But she was in the suit as long as anybody and maintained a good working atmosphere for the rest of us. And that's good, because if the upper echelon of the cast is sour, it spreads like wildfire. She was a lot of fun to work with."
Armstrong has been a fan of Mulgrew for years, since working onstage with her at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. "I love Kate," he says. "When I got the first role on Voyager, I had the carpool for my kids' school, but on the way I had to stop by Paramount to visit the makeup people so they could measure my head. I hadn't seen Kate in awhile. She asked how my boys were and when I said they were outside, she got them and took my and their two friends through the ship. 'This is where we beam people up, and this is where we get our food.' They were thrilled."
Armstrong's first Voyager episode, "Eye of the Needle," is famous as the one in which Janeway paces her quarters in a spaghetti strap nightgown. "If she did more of them, the ratings would soar," laughs Armstrong. "Our interaction was mostly onscreen, both when I spoke to her on her ship and when she spoke to me on my ship. For her scenes, I would be standing in front of her as she was looking at the screen, and for my scenes, she was standing there for me. She's the consummate professional -- she was there for every single off-camera line. Even in those other [Star Trek] pieces I was in, the off-camera lines aren't always done by the leads - sometimes they just want to stay in their trailers until they have to be there, so a stand-in does them."
The Vidiian he played last year on Voyager in "Fury" was the first role he didn't have to read for. "You don't see a whole lot of the face, and they've always liked my voice. It was just me -- Jennifer Lien [Kes] had already finished her scenes. I sat there for hours with a mask pulled over my face, and as soon as I stood in front of the camera, they were shoving the contacts in, shoving the teeth in, putting foam in my mouth to make my tongue red, and yelling 'Action!' We got it in one take, but I had to quit giggling before they said 'Roll.' It was brief but fun -- the two scenes took about twenty minutes."
Of the Deep Space Nine cast members he worked with in his two episodes, Armstrong feels particularly warmly towards Michael Dorn, whom he worked with as a director on the newer series after their co-starring turn on The Next Generation. "I didn't really know the people on the set, it was a whole new cast, and the captain, Avery Brooks, was the guy I worked with most. Michael Dorn was appreciative that 'Heart of Glory' sort of began the story of the Klingons and that I taught Worf the death yell, reminding him of his heritage. So as soon as I walked on the set, he made it very welcoming for me."
In the episodes Armstrong did in the concluding arc of Deep Space Nine, "It was completely different. Everybody on the set was somebody I had done work with elsewhere -- Casey Biggs and Rene Auberjonois and John Vickery, all of us had done work onstage together at the Mark Taper or at the Old Globe in San Diego. And I had done the show with the other people in that cast, so the second one was sort of like going home. It was ten years after my first Star Trek, seven years after the first one that I did on Deep Space. I had known these people for a long time by the time I came back."
Armstrong played a rebel Cardassian "who was pushing the limits -- it was kind of like starting a bar fight just for the heck of it. I was on the side of our guys and there were people there who weren't." After several scenes with Casey Biggs in "When It Rains...," he appeared in "Dogs of War" long enough to "just see them off and wish them luck, then get blown to smithereens. I jump back and the stunt guy takes over. His son said that Vaughn Armstrong was doing the acting for his daddy."
Armstrong has remained in touch with Biggs, who played Damar, though he never saw the finale and was shocked to learn that Damar had been killed. "Casey Biggs actually called me not too long ago and asked me to do a production of Hamlet he was directing at a local theater, but I couldn't do it because I was going off to do an episode of Seven Days."
That episode, which aired this May, cast Armstrong as the governor of a midwestern state who was a prisoner of war for seven years. "My character is the front-runner in the presidential race. He gets assassinated, and they go back in time to fix it, but it turns out that wasn't a good idea because he's crazy. He was kept prisoner by the Koreans, so as far as he's concerned, anyone Asian is evil. He's been warped by the desperate time he spent in a prisoner of war camp, and they need to try to help him, but he wants to start major conflicts all over the world. I got to run the whole gamut from political rhetoric to inward, conscientious thought to rage. Rare characters allow you all of those. This Seven Days was a whole lot of fun."
UPN has been good to Armstrong: in addition to the two series, he co-starred with The Sentinel's Richard Burgi in I Married a Monster. "That was fun, a couple of weeks in San Diego. Nice guy, I liked Richard Burgi a whole lot. He was easy to get along with, but I think he made the production crew nervous because they never know whether he was serious or not!"
I'm not a huge fan, but I do like science fiction -- I don't watch a whole lot of television," admits Armstrong, whose genre credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, The Net, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.. At the time of this interview, he was about to film a Power Rangers on which he played "a dark and mysterious good guy, a secret angent who is trying to get a crystal from Vypra because if she gets it, she can destroy the world. When I'm with my father, the first thing he will turn on is sci-fi of any kind. If I have my choice and it's between a love story and sci-fi, I'm going to pick the sci-fi!"
Last year the actor appeared on The West Wing, E.R., and NYPD Blue in addition to genre shows, which he says aren't particularly more difficult from an acting perspective. "I always start with who the guy is deep down, what his desires are, and what the scene was that happened just before the scene when I come on - the imaginary scene. After that, I just get the flavor of the shows when I'm on the set. I don't spend a whole lot of time researching what they do -- I figure whatever I did in the reading is what they're after, so I try to stay in their particular energy and see what happens."
"I think for every character you have to know where he's coming from and what makes him tick, who he loves, who he hates, and why, then add the physical characteristics," he adds. "On Star Trek, a lot of the extras know because they have to be ready at a moment's notice to look like they have been living these characters forever. They'll volunteer that information for you."
While Armstrong says he would be delighted if called to play a role on the next Trek series, "the ideal element would be to do three or four films a year and maybe a play that I find particularly interesting." The rest of the time he'd like to spend with his family, which includes two teenage children.
"One of the things that's been nice about being an actor is that I've had time off, I've been with them their whole lives, so I've been able to have a real influence in how they think. My oldest one won the humanitarian award at his school; I was so proud I can't tell you. Both of them have 4.0 averages. One of them seems to want to be an artist and the other seems to lean toward music and acting. They decided they want to get as much of the academics fulfilled as they can so they can later concentrate on what it is they love to do. I like to think it's because I've been able to have a regular influence on their lives."
Armstrong spends as much time as he can with his kids' baseball teams, and doing volunteer work for the home where his brother is institutionalized. He is a writer, director and producer for the stage. Though he admits, "I have a film script stuck in the bottom of a shelf that I keep thinking I'm going to show to somebody," he doesn't have any intention of switching careers.
"I've been an actor for 34 years, since the time I was 16. I was a little hoodlum growing up in a small town, and my mother was looking for some kind of activity. She offered me money to do something more positive, ten dollars to audition for this play in school. I got in it, and there were all these girls! Money and women were what got me into it. The reasons change as time goes on -- now it's money and my children. But I've never done really anything else."