JEFFREY COMBS GETS REANIMATED:
Weyoun Returns as a Hirogen
by Michelle Erica Green
A legend from Re-Animator who played three different characters on Deep Space Nine, Jeffrey Combs returns to Star Trek in February to play...well, not a villain. "I never play bad guys," declares Combs from his home in California. "That's just not how it works. I'm just very...intense."
Combs, who played both Ferengi sleazeball Brunt and Dominion mouthpiece Weyoun, appears on Voyager's "Tsunkatse" as Penk - a character described by co-star J.G. Hertzler as the Don King of the universe. "Oh, tell J.G. to find a short pier and jump off of it!" jokes Combs, who's actually a friend and fan of Hertzler's. "I do play the Don King of outer space - without the hair. The resemblance is that I'm sort of a fight promoter."
"Tsunkatse" has been getting a lot of publicity as the episode which will feature The Rock, the WWF Smackdown! star making a crossover appearance on UPN's Voyager. But most of the power games go on among Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), an aging fighter (Hertzler), and Penk. "I decide what the matches are," he gloats. "There's a lot of double-crossing and double-double crossing. My agenda is chess-like. I own them all. And Seven of Nine is my latest acquisition - she's my new champion. She's going to make me some money!"
In The Arena
The actor is not a wrestling fan, but the week before getting called about Voyager, he was channel-surfing and stumbled across a WWF show. "They had this limo pull up outside the stadium, and they had this remote camera, and I see this guy in shades. He starts doing this rap, and I think, who's this guy? He's actually pretty good! And it turned out to be The Rock. He's very suave, very cool, he knows that a little bit goes a long way - most of those guys, the veins are popping out, but he knows how to tone it down. He knows all that he needs."
Combs adds that when he went to work on Voyager, he walked up to the wrestler and greeted him: "Yeah, The Rock! And he said, 'Just call me Duane.' Duane. No wonder he calls himself The Rock!"
Labeling the merger of Star Trek and the WWF "a savvy maneuver," Combs laughs, "Pull those fans in! Somebody came to the table with this cynical notion. UPN has the contract for the WWF and Star Trek, so they figure, what a nice marriage."
Still, the writers took the concept seriously. "There might be a few yuks in there, but it's a pretty serious episode. There are some great fights in it. I have nothing to do with them except to observe them, but they have some wonderful fight choreography, sort of kung-fu, Universal Soldier, no-holds-barred kind of battles, not really reminiscent of any strict martial arts doctrine."
"You know The Rock is very physical, and Jeri can move pretty well, and for the really difficult fight stuff they got an incredible match for her. Of course, J.G. has a presence, and he was pretty well covered in makeup so he was well doubled too. It was being shot really well too. Mike Vejar, who did a lot of DS9 stuff, directed. Boy, they've really been pushing this one!"
An original Trek fan, Combs was amused to learn the episode's working title was "Arena" - the title of the classic series installment where Kirk fought the Gorn. "Oh god yes. We could have done it like that! 'You step on the red and you step on the green...'" The actor imitates the original Trek fighting theme music. "Did you see Galaxy Quest? 'The red thingie is coming towards the green thingie, and I think we're the green thingie!' You always knew the guys with the red shirts were going to die. My wife and I call those guys 'fodder.' Five to beam down...four to beam up."
The actor was flattered to be summoned back to the popular franchise to play yet another character. "They just called me. They had this zany idea, and it was a compliment to me and J.G. to include a couple of DS9 alumni, to lure some DS9 viewers over to Voyager."
Greed and Power
Combs got his start on Deep Space Nine in "Meridian," the story of a planet invisible to the rest of the universe for all but one day every 60 years. He went in to audition and learned that Jonathan Frakes was directing the episode. "I'd known Jonathan a long, long time, so that put me at ease. As luck would have it, I had done theater with Rene Auberjonois, so we reacquainted ourselves on 'Meridian.' It turned out about a month later that he was directing his first episode, a Ferengi episode, and he suggested me for Brunt."
The producers objected that Combs had just been on the show, but Auberjonois pointed out that he'd been covered in rubber and would be covered in rubber again. "So they called and offered me this other character. I went in and did Brunt, and they must have liked me because they brought Brunt back again. Then there was the fateful day on the set when Ira and Hans came to me and said, 'We really like what you're doing, and we want you to come back where you're more recognizable.'"
Combs thought they were just giving him a compliment, but the next time they called, it was to do a new character, Weyoun. "Weyoun died, and I said, 'That's the end of that. They did follow through.' But Weyoun was cloned, returning to life again and again, "and it turned out that Weyoun surpassed Brunt. He came from someone who oversaw a few Jem'Hadar to overseeing a whole quadrant of space! Quite a promotion! I had a great time doing that."
In fact, Weyoun briefly ran Deep Space Nine, as a member of the triumvirate that took control during the initial Dominion invasion. Weyoun and the Founder he represented held most of the power. "Gul Dukat was too busy with Canar and Nana. When they finally figured out what they were going to do with Dukat, they rolled the drinking problem onto Damar instead. For like six episodes, we were in charge, but that's all the studio would allow the writers to have us control the station."
Since Weyoun was a clone, several incarnations died over the course of the series. Did Combs have a favorite? "They're all my babies!" he exclaims. "The last one was written to be a much bigger creep. They had to push him that way so that it would be a dramatic payoff when he died. My favorite episode, I suppose, was when I got to play two Weyouns in one episode: 'Treachery, Faith, and the Great River.' A defective Weyoun defects, so they clone another Weyoun who is not defective, and that Weyoun wants to kill the previous Weyoun. I had little subspace communication verbal battles with myself, where I got to be scornful. That was quite fun!"
Combs says he understood the character the first time he saw himself in makeup. "Once I looked in the mirror, I realized that he's a very refined gentleman. He's very fluid, very good at what he does. He tries to put people at ease. The voice sort of comes along with his intent - to lull you, to let you have a false sense of security before the eight daggers go into your back."
That was the actor's take on Weyoun. "Elegant. Middle management. He's the guy who comes in and says, 'You're doing a wonderful job, you have nothing to worry about, my report will reassure the head office that this is the best office I've been in, thank you for being so hospitable,' and then two days later you get a fax telling you that you're fired. He's that kind of guy."
Brunt was never quite as smooth, not even when he managed to get Quark disinherited on Ferenginar, and insinuated himself into the Grand Nagus' good graces. Of course, it's harder to be suave wearing Ferengi teeth. Surprisingly, Combs reveals, Weyoun's makeup took longer than Brunt's prosthetics.
"The Ferengi makeup took about an hour and a half. It's one big head, they glue it under your eyes and then around and down below your ears and back around your neck. The thing is that the Ferengi don't have any hair to deal with. With Weyoun, because there's hair involved, I would get to a certain stage in the makeup - put the ears on and a base - then I'd go to hair, and hair took about an hour. It's very delicate Kabuki sort of stuff. That was about two and a half hours."
Despite the 4:30 a.m. set calls, Combs admits to missing DS9. The actor adds that he has heard little about a possible movie or the Trek sequel series. "The only thing I had heard snippets about was that Simon and Schuster is coming out with a whole new series set after the series is over with. They were going to do an audio tape of it and maybe a video game. Maybe they'll entail some parts of DS9 in the next movie, but I don't see a melding of the casts and I don't see a full-blown DS9 movie. Voyager doesn't want any connection. Weren't half of them Maquis? And they never did anything with that."
What a Horror
Why does Combs think that the Trek producers found it easy to envision him in four different? "I'm sure that I have a certain intensity, I can't help it," he says. "I don't know how not to do that. Whenever I lay back on something it's really boring. Part of it is that I don't see very well, so I have to really focus in order to see even with contact lenses, so maybe that gives me intensity. And because I'm from a theater background, my philosophy on acting is maybe a little more acute, a little more committed."
"This kind of goes into Star Trek," he adds. "I've said this before: I think that Star Trek, the original series, was the success that it was because of the acting style of those gentlemen. If you look at their style, it is leaning forward, balls out, committed." Combs then launches into a dead-on imitation of Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, and Doohan playing their respective characters. Convention patter? "No! I should do that!"
A veteran of horror conventions, Combs has only attended one Star Trek con, though he is slated to be at Creation's Grand Slam this year. "I appeared with Andrew Robinson and Mark Alaimo. We were on for 30 minutes and signed autographs for more than five hours, then we had to cut it off. That to me was really remarkable. But about the time I started doing a lot of Star Trek, a lot of the conventions started falling by the wayside. There's still a lot in Europe."
Combs remains in touch with Casey Biggs, Armin Shimerman, and his old friend Rene Auberjonois, plus producer Ira Behr. "Ira was a huge fan of Re-Animator; Ira is my deity," says the actor. "I am forever grateful to him."
Being known as Herbert West from Re-Animator has been both a blessing and a curse. The film gave him cult classic status, but also got him typecast. "We got great reviews but we also got backlash," he explains. "Pauline Kael had put it on her top ten films of the year, but people treated it like we were a garage band and we just weren't up to their standards, when actually we were ahead of the curve. There's no special effects stuff that doesn't hold up today."
He appeared in many other genre films, including Necronomicon and Cyberstalker, plus the recent teen screamer I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. "I was there with Brandy and Jennifer Love Hewitt. God, she was great. Really a professional actress, really prepared, and really a sweetheart. They called and asked me to do that - last year was very good. I finished off Star Trek and did The House on Haunted Hill and the Voyager and Attic Expeditions, then I went to Spain and did a movie called Faust. I had a really rich experience last year, but this year so far there's nothing out there."
Combs had been slated to do The Attic Expeditions a couple of years ago, but the filmmakers ran out of money after shooting most of the film and had to postpone. "I was the final week - all of my scenes. So it went away, but to their credit, those guys tenaciously battled to keep it alive and get more money, and were able to put it all together. It's an interesting little movie, and the director and writer, Jeremy [Kasten], has a lot of enthusiasm."
Nevertheless, it was a difficult shoot. "I play a doctor who runs a private sanitarium where a lot of research is done, and it's primarily set up so I can get information from just one patient. I send him off to a halfway house with a lot of other people who 'need therapy' when in fact they're all actors under my employ. He's the only one who needs the help. Everyone else is playing mind games with him and messing with him until he gives over what I want him to give over."
Slated for release next Halloween, The Attic Expeditions has a cast full of popular names in genre entertainment, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Seth Green and Xena's Ted Raimi. "I had a lot of dialogue in a very short period of time, and the way that Jeremy was shooting, it wasn't just set the camera up and let it run. We were under the gun time-wise. But it was very interesting, I'm real interested to see how it all comes together."
Though Combs' resume is packed with stage roles - "I've probably done a hundred theater productions" - he remains best known for his work in horror. "My tastes are across the board, I'd love to do Westerns, I'd love to do dramas and comedy, I have a really wide spectrum, which makes it all the more frustrating that these things perpetuate," he says. "I've never been a leading man, although I've played them. Once you get known in a particular lane, the powers that be don't think imaginatively; that's who you are. They want to easily categorize you so they don't have to think too much. The good thing about Star Trek is that it moved me to sci-fi. I used to be thought of as 'the horror actor.'"
Not surprisingly, some of his favorite career roles are those outside the genres for which he is best known. "In Love and a .45, I play a Southern piece of sh*t," he recalls gleefully. "I want to do different things like that. I believe in versatility, but the versatility kills me, because then no one knows its me and they can't categorize me."
Combs played actor Montgomery Clift in Norma Jean & Marilyn, a biopic about Marilyn Monroe for which he almost refused to audition. "They wanted me to go in and do a reading, and I said no, because I don't look anything like him. They're going to wind up offering it to somebody who looks like Montgomery Clift! They called back and they said, we really think you're right for this, come in and read for the director. And I thought, well, gee, they're sort of serious about this. They reassured me they weren't looking for people who look exactly like the people, they were looking for actors who had a quality. So I guess I have a tortured quality! A sensitive and tortured quality about me!"
Growing up north of Santa Barbara near Brandenburg Air Force Base, Combs started acting by imitating his favorite television shows, then commuting to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in nearby Santa Maria, where he "met lots of theater people, Robin Williams, Harry Hamlin did plays there." After three years in the University of Washington theater program in Seattle, he got his first job at the prestigious Old Globe in San Diego, "though Shakespeare wasn't really my forte." An agent who saw him in play there suggested that he come to Los Angeles, where he worked in theater until Re-Animator gave him cult classic status.
"There's nothing better. I have a great time doing it," he claims. "Every time I see somebody I used to watch when I was little...Clu Gulager comes up to me at a party and says, "Re-Animator is one of my all-time favorite movies.' And I'm going, Clu Gulager of The Virginian is complimenting ME? I'm still the little boy who's dazzled by all of that. When I get to interact with them, it amazes me. When I was a kid, those people in the box really seemed to be having a good time, and I could do that for a living!"
In the long run, Combs would like to be in another television series "that didn't really take up too much of my time, but was a steady thing and kept my creative juices going." At the same time, he would like to "move up a notch or two in terms of movies - continue to do two or three movies a year, but on a higher plane. If I were a rock group, I would want to do some stadium. I would like to do a really good indie that was not within genre, a breakout role. I'd do it for ten cents. I really want to look for good material."
Directing interests him and he has a lot of experience on sets "with so many good and bad directors," but he says he needs to know his lenses. "I don't feel like I know enough technically to be a really great director. I wish I were a writer. I could fill more of my time when I'm not acting. I'm a madman, I don't know what to do with myself. That's real hard. I need the box to play in."
A father of two, Combs would like to take a break to spend more time with his baby. "But since I have a baby, I can't take a break!" he laments. A producer is floating rumors of a Beyond Re-Animator film. "I am not against doing the project, but only if everything is right," says Combs. So it's likely he'll be running around again very soon.