ODO SHIFTS SHAPES:
Rene Auberjonois Prepares To Leave Deep Space Nine
by Michelle Erica Green
Odo's had a great couple of years on Deep Space Nine, even though there's a war going on. He went through a dreadful period when Starfleet considered replacing him as the station's security officer with a humanoid; then, his shapeshifting species punished him for killing one of their own by depriving him of his ability to change form. All the while, Quark pursued nefarious dealings and Kira pursued other men. But now Odo is firmly entrenched in his office by virtue of his loyalty to the Federation during the Dominion occupation, with his shapeshifting abilities returned by a fledgeling changeling. Quark is mostly working for the good guys, and Kira finally reciprocates Odo's love.
Actor Rene Auberjonois has also had a great couple of years on Deep Space Nine, though he's not sorry to see the series drawing to an end. Though his portrayal of Odo "has been completely challenging and fulfilling" for the actor, he is ready to move on. "I never thought it would go seven years, frankly," he admitted recently in his trailer on the Paramount lot. "I'm thrilled that it has, but I'm also ready to set sail on some new seas. It's been a wonderful journey."
Odo has evolved from a shapeshifting, stunt-performing detective into one of the most complicated characters on the series. He has had to struggle to work out his relationships with the humanoids he works with, the Bajoran mentor who raised him, and the pool of changelings who cast him out and then invited him back to the Great Link which comprises the Founders of the Dominion, now the sworn enemy of the Federation. Moreover, he's had to face two wars: first on Bajor, now on the station against the Cardassians backed by Dominion might. His close friend Dax was recently murdered by a possessed Gul Dukat. But his friendships with the other humanoids - even Quark - have deepened, and he has a holographic mentor now.
On the Friday afternoon of this interview, Auberjonois had finished shooting, removed his makeup, and was waiting to leave for the weekend to visit the house he and his wife of more than 30 years are building in northern California. He's not planning to give up the small screen or abandon Los Angeles when the series concludes, but the actor has several priorities which may take him away for awhile.
"I certainly want to get back to the theater," noted the veteran of over 70 plays, who has not been able to commit to a full rehearsal and run of a play during the past six and a half years because of the nature of Deep Space Nine's schedule and the brevity of the hiatus between shooting seasons. Although he has performed as the Devil in a concert version of Don Juan In Hell with Ed Asner and Harris Yulin (the latter of whom did a stunning turn as a Cardassian in the first-season episode "Duet"), Auberjonois has done virtually no live performances outside of Star Trek conventions, where he is a popular guest who reprises the Chef's song from The Little Mermaid and tosses out lines from Benson in addition to discussing Deep Space Nine.
Both Auberjonois and the producers have credited the fans as the driving force behind Odo's romance with Kira, which has proven popular with many who have waited for a long-term love relationship between major characters on a Trek series. The seeds of this one were planted early in the second season, though Auberjonois insists that "they did everything in their power to write away from it." Producer Ira Behr has been quoted as saying that the writers watching the dailies realized that Odo was in love with Kira during the last shot of the episode "Necessary Evil."
"I'm not sure I played it like I was in love with her, but it's easy to add those elements when you're playing opposite an incredibly attractive, charismatic woman, and your character is so vulnerable, so it was just sort of there," agreed Auberjonois. "I was not as aware of it, but there was a certain faction of the fans who really wanted that to happen." While the actor was not aware of support on the internet for the pairing, it came to the attention of producer Ron Moore, who frequents America Online's message boards. A decision was made last season to pursue the relationship. Laughed the actor, "There of course is another faction of the fans that think it's a terrible idea, but that's one of the wonderful, crazy things about being in this space soap opera."
An interesting choice of phrase, given that one of the concerns often cited by Voyager's writers for not pursuing relationships among the major characters is the fear of turning the show into a soap opera. "They're battling another set of problems," Auberjonois said. "We battled the problem of being a space station that a lot of the fans felt didn't go anywhere - how could we really keep the spirit of Star Trek going where no one has gone before when we're spinning around in space?" My answer to that is, they're all sound stages anyway, we really don't go anywhere!"
Laughing, the actor pointed out that all the Trek shows are about relationships anyway. "It's all about living beings, human or humanoid or alien, how they react and interact." Considering that most of the major characters on Deep Space Nine are involved in ongoing relationships - Sisko and Kasidy Yates, Miles and Keiko O'Brien, Leeta and Rom, and until recently Garak and Ziyal as well as Dax and Worf - Odo and Kira are in good company.
Will the love between a human and a changeling have a happy ending? In a Mania interview earlier this year, Nana Visitor said she didn't think so: "I understand that at the end of the series, Odo goes back to the pool [of Founders]. I doubt Kira will join him."
Listening to that quote, Auberjonois agreed, "I've always assumed that. But it hasn't been decided, and the fact is in one of the last episodes that we've shot, there's an intimation that Odo may be the only survivor of the Great Link. Frankly, I would think it would be a really brilliant way to go, rather than having some sort of rainbow ending. I do believe it's a doomed relationship; I hope it is, dramatically. He began as a man alone, and it would be quite astonishing and brave of them to have him end as a man alone. I've always felt that he was basically a tragic character."
Responding to wails of protest from the interviewer, the actor then laughed, "Any suggestion I've ever made, or any guesses I've ever made about my character have proven totally untrue. They have never happened, so I wouldn't bet any money on what I think should happen. To tell you the truth, I don't think they have the stomach for such an existentially brutal thing for a character." Such a dark fate, particularly for all the changelings, would seem to be rather in opposition to the usual optimism of Star Trek; this is after all the universe in which Kirk made peace with the Klingons and Voyager allied with the Borg.
Auberjonois can't comment on the arc which will conclude Deep Space Nine because he hasn't yet seen the scripts; the cast has just finished shooting the eighth episode of the season. "It's going along like it goes along - there are shows that you think are absolutely classic, and shows that you think, well, they're reaching." But he admitted that that may be inevitable when a series has to turn out 26 stories in a season. "It's a huge endeavor for the writers; I'm always amazed at how strong they are overall," he noted. "I think there are some very interesting things happening; there are certain things we've found out about everybody's characters that might give you hints about where it's going to go, but they haven't told me. I read it on the internet before they tell me!"
Asked what part of Odo is closest to himself, the actor groaned. "You love to think that you're creating a character that is completely unique and doesn't really draw on you, but then when you see it, you think, 'My god, I'm revealing that about myself.'" Auberjonois confessed that Odo's shyness is probably closest to himself: "I became a character actor rather than trying to be a celebrity, a person who projects his own personality, because I'm basically shy, I'm a private person. I don't mean to skirt the question; I think it's his shyness and his difficulty with exposing intimate details about himself. I don't think I'm that way with people that I'm intimate with, and I don't think Odo is either, but to the world, that is an aspect of my personality in real life, and I think it's an aspect of Odo's personality."
Was it tougher to play Odo as a shapeshifter, or during the season when he became a "solid" and had to deal with human sensations and desires? "Candidly, there was no difference," said Auberjonois, pointing out that the writers never really addressed the transformation. "They took away his powers and there were a couple of lines that referred to the fact, but they never got around to dealing with what the difference was." For the actor, the positive aspect of the development was how Odo got his powers back in "The Begotten," in which the human Odo raised a fledgeling changeling whose dying act was to return Odo's ability to shapeshift. "That episode with the baby changeling made it all worthwhile. You just have to trust and have admiration for the writers, that they bring it around like that, but if they hadn't had that episode, I would have thought, 'Is that all there is?' I wouldn't have known why they bothered doing it."
Practical concerns like the desire for fewer prosthetics did not play a role in the decision, though one side effect was that Auberjonois was involved in less blue screen filming for the special effects department. The actor believes that that would have happened anyway, however, as the excitement of Odo's morphing skills began to wear off. "That's one of the things I thought would happen that did actually happen - that there's a lot less emphasis on him as a shapeshifter, because frankly it is a technology that was invented for a Schwarzenegger film and was very spectacular, so they adapted it to a television series," he pointed out, noting that special effects are interesting at first, "but on a regular basis they don't really work. It's sort of like The Incredible Hulk - you waited every episode for him to turn into the Hulk. In Kung Fu, you waited in every episode for him to let loose. I always thought it was the least interesting thing about the character to me except as sort of a symbolic thing."
In Odo's case, Auberjonois didn't think it was very important to keep seeing the shapeshifting onscreen, "because you've seen one morph, you've seen Goodyear tires morphing in commercials...why do we need to see it in the show?" Yet playing someone so alien, not only from another planet but with a completely divergent physical body, was not difficult for him even during the effects sequences; "it's everything I want and love to do as a character actor, which is to not do anything that's reality-based, but that has a truth to it that the audience can recognize. They can know it's not real, but at some very primal level they have to recognize it as being truthful." In particular, he enjoyed acting with a mask on. "I taught mask work at Juilliard, and it was just a very happy extension of work that I've done all my life, so I've really loved doing it. My classical training just was crying for a chance to do this sort of thing in a popular medium."
Though he has directed for the series, the New York native did not pitch stories. "I did after the first season, and it was met with kind of a blank stare of disinterest in what I had to say about it," he said wryly. "I don't blame them; they get set on ideas, and they've got to just keep churning them out. I'll say, 'I think this line maybe should be this way,' and 99 times out of 100 they agree with me and will change it, but in terms of character development, they're on the track doing their thing and they want you to interpret it. I come from regional theater and a whole sense of ensemble acting. Here to a certain degree it's, 'Ours is not to question why.'"
The actor is comfortable in the knowledge that the legacy of Star Trek will follow him through life, though he doesn't hold out much hope of being in one of the feature films - "That might work for some of the actors who play Starfleet characters, but I just can't imagine it happening for my character, and I cannot believe there will ever be a movie of Deep Space Nine. I know it will be connected to my name, but the truth is that it will be a lot easier to move on from Star Trek than it was to move on from Benson for various reasons, not the least of which is, I wear a mask and I'll take off my mask."
The actor portrayed Clayton Endicott III for the better part of a decade on the long-running comedy, to considerable acclaim but also the hazards of typecasting. "One of the first things I said to my wife when I signed to do Star Trek was, at least in my obituary it won't say, 'Best known as Clayton on the half-hour sitcom Benson.' My face was out there every Friday night in front of millions of people, so it took some time for people to be able to conceive of me doing something else. We finished Benson in 1986 and we started shooting Star Trek in '93, so it took seven years - almost as long as I did Benson - to get to the point where I could convince another television studio that I could play a regular character on a TV series, and that was really because I was going to be covered."
Now he finds that when directors approach him, "in a sense, I will take my mask off. To a certain degree in the business, I'm a good actor and I haven't been around for awhile." Auberjonois just did a cameo in Inspector Gadget, a new Disney film that will come out next summer, "and it was so weird to go on a movie set and have them not put any makeup on my own face hanging out there. It was fun."
Auberjonois can't even remember all the parts he has played over his lengthy and very successful career as a character actor; the Internet Movie Database lists over 90 films and TV series. Most people remember him as Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H, but even the performer was surprised to recall that he was on Man From Atlantis. "It's scary when you get to be my age and you've been lucky enough to have worked as much as I have. People keep trying to compile bios of my work and it gets so thick in the pages. 'What did you play on an episode of Batman?' and I have no idea what I played, I just go in and they say, this is a Scottish detective from Scotland Yard, so you put on a phony Scottish accent. Anyway, it is hard to keep track at this point."
While the actor said he did not particularly favor one genre over another among film, television, and theater, he admitted that at this point he feels a real imperative to get back to the stage, "because the stage is much more like a sport, in the sense that when the starting gun goes off, you have to be ready to run the race; there is no stopping to say, 'Let me go back and run that last ten yards again,' as you can do in film. So in that sense I'm concerned about getting out of shape." But he finds that each of the mediums presents different challenges, "and have taught me different things that hopefully have resonated and helped me in the other mediums. Things that I did on the stage have helped me as an actor in film."
Auberjonois is reluctant to name a favorite role among the 200 or so he has played since the age of six, when he decided on performing as a profession; his only other job consisted of one week at a Gimbel's department store in the men's slacks department. "Whenever anybody asks me what's the funniest, the best, the favorite thing - anything that has an implied or an actual 'est' on the end of it - I have a great deal of trouble answering, especially about roles," he laughed. "I'm also bad about predicting what I'm going to play. I wait for people to say, 'You should play this role.' Then I go, 'Hmm, that's weird, why did they think that?', and then I tend to roll up my sleeves and try to figure out why someone thinks I should play a role like that."
The classical roles he would most like to revisit are Moliere's Tartuffe and Shakespeare's King Lear. "I was twenty-five years old when I played King Lear. I went on later and played the Fool in King Lear at Lincoln Center with Lee J. Cobb, and then I played Edgar with James Earl Jones at Shakespeare in the Park. So I've been in the play many times in my life, but the trick about Lear is, you've got to do it when you're old enough to understand it and young enough to have the physical stamina to play it. You've got to stay in good shape."
The actor has worked in a number of voiceover and cameo roles during the run of Deep Space Nine, including the fan-anticipated film Snide and Prejudice, which also stars Claudia Christian. "The film that will never be seen!" Auberjonois laments. A comedy featuring Hitler and Picasso, Snide and Prejudice "got a good review in Variety and was screened at Cannes, but since, as Auberjonois revealed, the actors have not yet been paid, the film cannot be released. "I hope it is, just because it was so bizarre...I mean, talk about science fiction!" he exclaimed. "It was just an insane experience, we shot it in ten days and it was basically improvised. I've never seen it; I was out of the country when they had the one screening that there ever was." The actor wishes that someday the film will be released: "I hope so, because it was great."
Now the father of two actors, Auberjonois has no illusions about how difficult his profession will be for them despite his own success. He is interested in writing, and has long-term plans for a project which he would write, direct, and produce, but not star in. "I'm actually trying to work on something right now that is not really possible to talk about; I'd love to talk to you about it if it ever starts to happen as a real thing," he said. "Appearing in it is not my priority. I'm really interested in evolving - I want to keep acting, but not in this project that I'm interested in doing."
Whatever he does next, he will have a built-in following from Odo, of which he sounds genuinely appreciative. "The fans are great," he said twice during this interview, expressing some surprise at the number of web pages devoted to him: "Kira/Odo romance pages, Odo pages, there's Rene-Philes, ORACLE (the actor's official fan club, http://www.thegreatlink.com/). I don't know what will happen when I'm no longer doing the show." He worries slightly about what will happen if the fan mail doesn't abate when he no longer has a trailer and an assistant on the Paramount lot; "it's easy now to separate the letters which are just, 'Can I have a picture?' from those which actually talk to you, but I just don't know what will happen when I no longer have my trailer to do that - I have a feeling I'll get busy doing other stuff."
Most of his fan interaction has been at conventions, which have temporarily taken the place of live theater in his performing career. "When you work in television you reach millions of people, but they become a great blur," he pointed out. "It's not like in the theater where you have a real communion with your audience. Star Trek conventions allow you to have that communion, above and beyond the fact that they're the easiest audience in the world; you get out there and they'll laugh at anything you say. They always make me sing the song from The Little Mermaid, but again, you have that communion, which is a real gift that Star Trek gives you." He resists trying to characterize the fans of the series, noting that "fans are people, and that means there some seven year old little girls who love Dax, and Hell's Angels who love Klingons, and M.I.T. professors. That's why Star Trek has been successful for so long, because it has such a broad demographic."
Exciting as it is to be a part of the franchise, Auberjonois is excited to be moving on. "There are a lot more roles out there to discover and do, and I must say, as sad as I'm going to be that this ends, I am really sort of excited about the possibilities of being free to do a lot of different things," he concluded. Once Odo's mask comes off, he can be anything again.