JEFFREY COMBS TURNS ANDORIAN
by Michelle Erica Green
Jeffrey Combs, who plays mysterious Andorian Shran on Enterprise, returns to the series this week as another character, Krem -- one of the first group of Ferengi ever encountered by humans. Combs is known to Trek fans as Deep Space Nine's Weyoun, the Vorta mouthpiece of the Dominion, and Brunt, the greedy Ferengi who wants to chop Quark into pieces. He also played fight promoter Penk on Voyager's 'Tsunkatse' and appeared in DS9's 'Meridian.'
During a career that includes nearly a hundred theatrical appearances and dozens of films, he has played H.P. Lovecraft and Montgomery Clift. But for many genre fans, Combs will always be remembered as Herbert West from the classic cult film Re-Animator. He talks to Trek Nation about his new Enterprise characters, working with Scott Bakula, twisted Vulcan logic and the horror movie that won't let him go.
Trek Nation: Welcome back to Star Trek. It seems like once you're in with this group, you're in -- I see that Ethan Phillips is doing the Ferengi episode, and Rene Auberjonois will be appearing too.
Jeffrey Combs: I saw Rene a couple of weeks ago. I was finishing up my episode and he was showing up for a costume fitting for the next episode. I came back from a rehearsal and Rene was standing there saying, 'Is that the way you're going to do that? You're not going to do it that way, are you?'
I love Rene. I wouldn't be here without Rene. I guest-starred in my first Deep Space Nine, an episode called 'Meridian' directed by Jonathan Frakes, and because of that I got to reacquaint with Rene -- I had done theater with him at the Mark Taper Forum some years before. We reconnected, and about a month later, he was directing his first episode, which was a Ferengi episode, 'Family Business.' He suggested me for the role of Brunt.
Trek Nation: Now you're Andorian as well as Ferengi. What's the Enterprise set like for you, after having been on the other shows, where you must have had a lot of friends?
Combs: The camaraderie is great. Morale is really high, in large part due to Scott. He's just a leader -- he is the captain, and a great pace-setter. He's very engaging, he approaches everybody, he's friends with everybody, a great wit, and expects in a quiet and strong way that that's the way the set should go. It's a good place to work, a fun-but-serious place, 'Let's get the work done but let's have fun doing it.' It's a great place to go in large part because of him. He sets a tone that is phenomenal and no one wants to disrupt that. He's like the quarterback and everybody wants to do their best, including me.
Trek Nation: Is it a lot of the casting people and crew you knew from DS9 and Voyager?
Combs: The casting people, yes. The director of photography is the same, a lot of the directors are the same. There are a number of familiar faces. It's the same wardrobe people, makeup people -- maybe on the earlier shows they didn't have as much responsibility, some moved up and some moved on.
So it's the same, but different -- kind of like a parallel universe. Enterprise is on three soundstages, two where Voyager was and one where a lot of Deep Space Nine was, so the bridge and the torpedo room, the launch bays and all that -- that's all on a soundstage that a lot of Deep Space Nine was done on. So it's sort of weird. I walk on and think, 'I've probably stood right in this exact spot and been Weyoun.'
Trek Nation: Shran reminded me a bit in the first episode of Weyoun, because he was going to get the information through torture if he had to, but he could stay above it and smile about it.
Combs: In the first one? I don't remember smiling very much. I remember being determined and pissed and ruthless. The ruthless part is certainly the same, but Weyoun would circle his prey. These guys are much more visceral and hands-on than Weyoun.
Trek Nation: Are you playing him as paranoid, or as completely straightforward -- this is what he believes not because he's paranoid, but because he knows the truth? When he first says he had to come rescue Archer because he couldn't sleep at night, it sounds sort of neurotic, but we know so little about Andorian culture that it may not be neurotic to them.
Combs: That was a hard line. I couldn't sleep at night? He doesn't sleep any night, probably, because he's got his finger on the trigger. I just took it as a metaphor about my overall angst about owing anybody anything. Really it's because he just doesn't want to be in anyone's back pocket or have anyone need him, from a political point of view; he wants his slate clean so he's free to do what he wants.
That was sort of the way I approached it. It's like saying I had bad dreams and I want to get a good night's sleep. I think that I have the data on the Vulcans; I know for sure what they're doing. There's no paranoia in there.
Trek Nation: Do you have any sense of how high up Shran is in the Andorian hierarchy?
Combs: No, I don't. I don't know how uniform and organized their resistance is. They have some pretty good technology -- they have communicators and pretty good weapons, and they can get around. They have a pretty good spy network. But how far up he is, I don't know. Give me some medals! He's probably kind of a free radical, just kind of roams around.
Trek Nation: 'Hey, you blew up P'Jem, now go deal with Coridan.'
Combs: That was another thing I thought was interesting. The captain is taking our side in the argument, saying you know, if the Vulcans were in the position of the Andorians, they'd do the same thing. He told the Vulcans, you did have a center there that you didn't say that you had. You basically lied to us about the reality of the situation, so you can't come to us and be all haughty about it when you were caught with your pants down!
We Andorians can maybe trust these humans because they did the right thing by us even though we beat them up and interrogated them. In the end they know right from wrong. Which to me is the kernel of the Andorians' issues -- what's fair, what's right, not just who's strongest, though that could easily turn, too. There's no reason they can't be the bad guys at some point.
Trek Nation: Might they become villains? Did the producers talk to you about whether your character would be recurring?
Combs: No, that would be conveying too much information! They were very effusive the first time. Brannon came down to my trailer and said that this was going to be the best show, so they were very enthusiastic. But they never said you'll be back, definitely. I don't really know what their philosophy is on this show about ongoing storylines. I don't know whether we're going to be recurring villains or what.
Trek Nation: The Andorian we know best from Star Trek is the one who wasn't really -- the disguised Orion from the original series. And then there were throwaway lines on Next Gen, I think that was where we found out they get married in groups of four. Did they tell you anything more than what little we know?
Combs: No. I watched 'Journey To Babel' -- again, because I had seen it a long time ago -- but I think they want to start a clean slate. They didn't hand me a bible or anything. They didn't say, 'Remember this.' The makeup isn't the same, and even the whole commando idea -- in 'Journey to Babel,' they're more diplomats.
Trek Nation: So far it seems this show has set the Vulcans up as the biggest villains -- bigger than the Klingons.
Combs: I know, and I think that's great. Remember how Scotty was sort of anti-Spock? Here's the reason why. It's not just bigotry -- there's probably a personal and historical justification for it. These guys keep laying it in, every show, 'You kept secrets from my father, you didn't give us the antidote for something when you could have, you didn't give us the technology, you told us one thing when it's another, P'Jem was just a sanctuary when in reality it's a surveillance center of huge proportions.'
Trek Nation: And now Shran says the Vulcans are massing a fleet.
Combs: We know that they're waging a war against us. We know it! When I see those lines, I go, okay, isn't that interesting! I love the Vulcans' use of logic -- that logic can be tortured to attain them the things they really want. You can use logic to justify your territorial needs or your strategic needs. It's a very curious sort of examination of the Vulcans. I think that's one of the strongest notes that they've brought up, an ingenious note. All these aliens are manifestations of humans, in one extreme or another, so you can delude yourself even with logic.
Trek Nation: I read that you had said you thought Enterprise was closest in style to the original series.
Combs: Not in style, so much -- in structure. It's a single ship out there exploring the universe; it has a lot more action than the others, which tended to fall into a lot of walking-and-talking stuff, whereas you're guaranteed some things going on physically in this show. A strong captain who is instinctive...in that way it's very similar to the original series.
The simplicity of the form is like the original. To seek out strange new worlds...to go where no man has gone before. I don't even think Next Generation did that quite so on the nose. I always found Next Gen kind of cold. And with Voyager, you're lost and you want to get home -- there's no stronger premise than that, that's The Odyssey -- yet every time I watched that show I never got a sense that they were doing anything to get home. Where were the moral conflicts, the sacrifices to be made, decisions that had to be stuck to, or temptations that pulled you away from the central motivation? Enterprise has the human dynamic. It's Captain Archer deciding how to do the right thing.
Trek Nation: It looks like you're part of a core group of Andorians.
Combs: Two, at least. My cohort in the first episode, who liked T'Pol, was in this one too. It will be interesting to see if we're both back, though they're free to introduce other Andorians too. Remember, with Weyoun, Weyoun started as a guy who oversaw a little troupe of Jem'Hadar, making sure they got their Ketracel-White. Then he evolved into overseeing the entire Dominion War.
Trek Nation: Although they kept having to bump off his defective clones. At least on that show, you knew that having your character die was of no consequence.
Combs: When I first was killed, in my very first episode, I thought, 'That's that.' But they went, 'Wait a minute, we like this dynamic,' so they found a way to bring me back. One of the first questions I asked with Shran was, 'Does he die? He doesn't die, does he?'
Trek Nation: 'And if he does, does he have an identical twin brother?' But you're playing a Ferengi, too. Do you survive 'Acquisition'?
Combs: Yes! Ferengi never get killed. They're too lusciously cunning, like animals. They're selfish and clever but they can be put back in their place. The Ferengi were originally supposed to be intimidating, not comical; that lasted about thirty seconds. In their nature they're humorous because they're so one-track. But they can be very different from one another. Ethan Phillips is doing one in this episode and we're very different.
Trek Nation: Of your Ferengi characters, who's meaner, Brunt or Krem?
Combs: I'm a much nicer guy this time. This is a Ferengi caught in a situation he doesn't want to be caught in. He's the innocent. I appreciated that they gave me that -- I think originally they thought of me doing the Ferengi version of Shran.
Trek Nation: Playing a Ferengi before must have helped you with this character.
Combs: Actually not. I was scared -- I'm in this makeup and my sense memory tells me it's Brunt makeup, but it's not. So I had to shed away everything ingrained in me about how I would react, because I'm not Brunt.
Trek Nation: Have you ever asked about playing a Starfleet officer -- a human?
Combs: When you play all these villains, it's hard for the producers to think of you as one of the crew. I'm the utility player at the end of the bench, tarring my bat, and every once in awhile they say, 'Combs, get in there and hit one.'
Trek Nation: Who's the hardest makeup job?
Combs: That's a hard one. I like the Ferengi least of all just because it's the least comfortable. It closes off your world, you can't hear very well, and as the day accumulates, it starts really doing a number. The Andorians are fairly comfortable...although the first day was not, because we were still getting the kinks out of the contraption that works the antennae underneath the wig and forehead piece.
Trek Nation: Do you control those?
Combs: No, there's a battery-pack transmitter on the back of my belt, and there's a puppeteer who operates the controls off-camera. He watches rehearsals and talks to me about when we need them. I try not to think about them. That's his world -- I hear them clicking and whirring every once in awhile, but not when the camera's rolling. I get tunnel vision and I don't hear.
Trek Nation: Did you see The Tick? He has the world's most expressive antennae.
Combs: I did see a little, when I was getting out of my blue makeup one night. In the makeup trailer they had it on TV and I'm going, wait a second! Blue is everywhere! I wonder if it's the same technology.
Trek Nation: I'm sure you get asked about the makeup at conventions. What are the questions you get asked most often?
Combs: 'Whatís the makeup like? How long does the makeup take? How do you remember those lines?' The interesting one, I always find, is, 'Do you like working with all that makeup on?' The implication of the question is, 'Is that less than acting?' Which is a silly notion really. An actor has tools, and special-effects makeup is just a part of that tool bag. In many ways it's harder, because you have to find other ways to express things. It's an extra challenge. It frees you up, though, because you're not you anymore. You can go to the market and buy milk without being recognized. You can do something else. I do other things.
Trek Nation: What have you been working on?
Combs: Last year I went to Luxembourg and shot a movie with Stephen Dorff called FearDotCom, which is going to be out in theaters sometime this year. Warner Bros. picked it up for North America and they're going to give it a really good release. I play something totally different -- a slovenly, lazy, dried-up, apathetic cop. Stephen Dorff is the more caring, edgy detective still dealing with the case that got away. I'm sort of 'Eh, who cares, can't win 'em all, you want a donut?' I'm basically a lost-my-edge kind of cop, which is really different from anything I've ever done before. That's what I like to do.
Trek Nation: Is this a straight thriller or supernatural?
Combs: Itís sort of Seven meets What Lies Beneath. If you log on to this web site, you end up dying of your worst fear. Sort of that icky Seven tone, with maybe a little esoteric feel to it. So that was good. I went to Spain and shot a movie called Faust. And I did a little independent movie called Attic Expeditions, which Blockbuster has picked up and will put out in their stores, which is a twisty-turny little mind-bender movie. So I'm keeping busy.
Trek Nation: Are people still asking whether there's going to be another Re-Animator?
Combs: Oh, I still get that. It's out on the web as if it's happening, as if I'm attached, and at this point none of that is true. The web is an interesting place. If one site posts something, then other sites pick it up and perpetuate it as if it's gospel, without asking the people involved. Beyond Re-Animator is all over the place, my name is there, supposedly it's in pre-production, and this is the farthest thing from the truth. There is no deal in place.
Trek Nation: Would you like there to be, or is it been-there, done-that?
Combs: I'm ambivalent about it. Re-Animator has been very good to me, but I don't think that you can get the genie back in the bottle. It's very hard to make a successful sequel, and there is a little bit of been-there, done-that.
Earlier in my career I was considered a horror actor, which kind of irked me because that perpetuated itself for awhile. I'm an actor -- horror found me, I didn't find it. I've gotten out of that little box, though now perhaps I'm thought of as a sci-fi/horror actor with great potential I hope to break out of that into much more. So if I went back and did it, it might very well not help my cause. I have nothing against horror if it's done well, but I have my own vision of the future too.
Trek Nation: Do you write or produce?
Combs: Write? No. That's a different part of the brain, I suspect, that has to be engaged. Produce, if I found a project that gassed me up, I would probably give it my all. I do a lot of reading, but how could I get anything done if my interests lie outside of sci-fi/horror? Everyone would say, 'The only way we could get money is if it were sci-fi/horror,' and my interests are much more varied. I tend to read historical novels and mysteries. Right now I'm reading The Corrections.
Trek Nation: The book that had the brouhaha because the author didn't want to be commodified by Oprah.
Combs: Well, good for him. He probably didn't want to be lumped in with her list. Although if you compare Oprah's list to the bestsellers...oh my god, people would rather pick up the latest Dawn Steele? Isn't it demoralizing? I don't get it. I look at the bestsellers and I go, 'What? This is what people want?'
But my tastes are not mainstream. I remember in high school everyone talking about Night of the Living Dead, and I thought, that's going to be too creepy for me. And I didn't see it for a really long time. I had a block about it. I imagine that that was the case with Re-Animator for a lot of people. Everybody now remembers it as this huge cult hit, and it certainly got incredible reactionary reviews -- if they weren't glowing, at least they were very strong!
Trek Nation: So many movies have copied it, and it was influential on other people making horror movies.
Combs: But it did not have a huge release when it first came out. It had a very small theatrical release. Word of mouth was very strong. We didn't make that product. It's grown in stature as the years have gone by.
Trek Nation: Do you still see a lot of the DS9 cast?
Combs: I'm going to see Casey Biggs' production of Richard III tonight with Marc Alaimo. We live near each other. With Marc Alaimo and Casey Biggs, I do a three-man show, so we see each other periodically and travel together. We're going to be at about four conventions this year together doing our show.
Trek Nation: Enjoy the fans! Thanks very much for this.