J.G. HERTZLER, INTERGALACTIC TOUGH GUY:
General Martok Goes on a Rampage
J.G. Hertzler, who plays Klingon warrior Martok on Deep Space Nine, sat in the press suite at the Hunt Valley Marriott listening to his manager try to prepare him for the events yet to unfold. Hunt Valley hosts the annual fan-run con Shore Leave, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this July, but Hertzler was what's known in fan vernacular as a "con virgin." That evening he was scheduled to host to a Klingon dinner, and had no idea what was in store for him. "Will they drink blood wine?" he asked calmly. "Will there be any ritual sacrifices?"
Hertzler - a tall, white-haired actor who scarcely resembles General Martok until he begins to laugh - wasn't particularly worried about getting through the feast. A 25-year veteran of the legitimate stage, he practiced broadening his shoulders, then smacked my tape recorder. "Does that make a noise on the tape so you can't hear?" Gleefully, he leaned forward to speak into it. "Well, the most important thing about DS9 next season...we all know Dax is dead, but the next person who's going to be killed is..." WHAM!
Hertzler is committed to several consecutive episodes next season, so it seems likely that Martok will be involved in whatever scheme the Federation comes up with to deal with the death of Dax, the Dominion, Dukat, and the defunct Bajoran wormhole. The latter probably won't stay dead, of course, and neither will Dax - Jadzia is gone along with actress Terry Farrell, who played her, but rumors are already swirling about the new host for the Trill symbiont. "I don't know who has the part," said Hertzler, who thinks Martok should lead a blood feud to avenge the murder - since Worf is his adopted relative, Dax Jadzia was his in-law. But Trek being Trek, Hertzler knows Jadzia could come back, just like Spock and Tasha and a long list of people who didn't stay dead in the Trek universe.
Hertzler himself has played Martok's death and returned...except of course that it wasn't Martok, it was the shapeshifting Dominion double who had taken his form. "I was blown to smithereens, but it wasn't me," the actor pointed out. "And where is smithereens anyway, and how many people have been blown there over the years?" Executive producer Ira Behr told Hertzler that he really likes the character of Martok, so the actor hopes that even after the series winds down this season, there may be hope for him in future Treks.
The role of Martok came as a happy accident - Hertzler was at Paramount to audition for a different series when casting director Ron Surma passed by him. "He gave me a script and said, 'Why don't you take a look at this, this is an interesting role.' So I read it, and I thought - fantastically interesting. I thought it would be really great." Hertzler had played a Vulcan captain in the pilot episode, "Emissary," and had always liked science fiction, but he believes he connected with Martok because he was angry about something else in his life.
"The director said, 'Do you know much about the Klingons? Make it angrier.'" And I said, 'FINE!' And I picked up a chair and threw it into the wall, I ripped my thumbnail off, so I was not only bleeding, literally, giving my blood during the audition, but I put a hole in the wall with the chair and scared the guys sitting there because they didn't know me. And they said, 'THAT'S a Klingon!'"
The actor played football in college, and said he drew on those experiences to play an alien. "I think of Klingons as a race of linebackers. You have to get yourself psyched into a frenzy of honor, rage, hate, love - it's at a heightened level of activity, much farther beyond the extremes of human behavior. You get to really stretch the range of everything, emotion, physicalization, psychology. I think it was that terror that I exhibited and laid upon the people sitting there [at the audition]: that they were going to die or else hire me. And they could have died, we will never know - I might have killed them!"
Because the part demands such range and so much physicality, Hertzler described it as "an actor's dream." He also think the writers have different ideas about precisely what Martok's function should be on the series, "and that's why I get to do such an odd number of things. Either I'm Worf's surrogate father or his best friend, or his enemy, or his nudge, but it's all really focused on him." In "Soldiers of the Empire," for instance, Worf came aboard Martok's ship Rotarran and discovered that Martok's command was in jeopardy, but the crisis focused on Worf's decision whether or not to attempt to assassinate Martok and take command himself under Klingon law. "It's irrevocably attached to Worf, to offer a different argument - wherever Worf is, I seem to be elsewhere, opposing, from a Klingon point of view. There was a line in 'Fathers and Sons' that was cut, where Worf says, 'But that is not the Klingon way,' and I say, 'Whatever Klingons DO is the Klingon way!' So I'm always in some sort of opposing position to offer a conflict."
This season we met Martok's wife Sirella in the very popular episode "You Are Cordially Invited," during which Worf married Dax. Sirella was played by Shannon Cochran, with whom Hertzler had worked on Treasure Island: The Adventure Begins. "I didn't know who was going to play [my wife] until the actress showed up on the day of filming. But it was perfect [on Deep Space Nine] because she has the background in theater - Martok and Sirella were really Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, and she knows that because she comes from the same kind of background. In Treasure Island I was Black Dog, black long hair, great costume, the major bad pirate who does all this swordfighting with Anthony Zerbe; Shannon was the young mother, and I liked her then, we got along very well." Despite his lengthy Shakespearean resume, Hertzler had never played Benedict - "I certainly would never get another chance, I'm past the long-in-the-tooth stage to do it, but as a Klingon I could do it" - so he was delighted with the script for "You Are Cordially Invited."
"I have heard that the worst sound in the universe is Klingon opera - if you look up Klingon opera in the Klingon Dictionary, it says, 'Worst sound in all known universes.'" In "You Are Cordially Invited,' Worf and Martok sing Klingon opera in a scene on the holodeck with a huge bonfire burning beside them. "That was another hoot. There was like a five thousand degree fire going on, it was a hot day outside, we were standing next to this fire pretending not to feel it because we're Klingons. Those other guys complained, those wimps, Colm [Meaney] and Sid [Alexander Siddig], hanging from their little fingers over the fire, wimpy boys!"
The classically-trained actor draws parallels between other Deep Space Nine episodes and famous literary antecedents. "I loved the furniture-chewing, rug-eating emotionalism of 'Soldiers of the Empire' - it was like Julius Caesar, Caine Mutiny Courtmartial, and Twelve Angry Men all wrapped into one," he noted, adding that they also got to sing 'The Warrior's Anthem' on the bridge. "We're going to do it at the Klingon feast tonight, and probably onstage. It's a great tune, catchy, people just can't help themselves."
Did he know he was playing himself as a changeling from the start in the arc during season four, or did he learn that news only when the rest of us did? "I can't say. Next question. HAHAHA!" Hertzler roared. OK - what was it like playing a 20th century human writer in "Far Beyond the Stars," last season's episode in which Sisko hallucinated being a human writer victimized by racism in the 1950s?
"It was a powerful, powerful script. It was different. Time travel is very interesting. Star Trek writers say they want to stay away from time travel scripts, but they do them a lot, and they're always fascinating - I think they're saying it's got to be really compelling if they want to sell a time travel script. This one, though...I ask people what is it that draws them to Star Trek, what has drawn people to it for thirty years, and one of the things is the idea of community and a hope for the future. Far Beyond the Stars was so reconjuring of a major, major negative aspect of society today that bothered me - you don't have to go past Jasper, Texas to encounter racism at an unbelievable depth, you don't have to go back to 1953 to feel it with an impact that's devastating. It creates a hopelessness, it creates a sense that we can't overcome this in the future, whereas Star Trek is about, yes, we can overcome this. It gives an idea of hope, but that particular episode was not about hope. It was a struggle that was so powerfully hard to recall."
A common frustration with Star Trek is the disjuncture between where we are and where the series expects us to be - the idyllic future is dependent on the invention of assorted technologies which are well beyond 20th century abilities, and it's rare for the show to deal with how we get from here to there. "We're in a very strange time now, that's causing a great deal of dislocation and disorientation, as had to be the case with the Industrial Revolution," Hertzler solemnly said. "The Information Age is basically putting an entire country out of work. We don't manufacture anything except information. That's a tremendous disorientation for society, not withstanding every other problem that we have. Who we are right now is a good question. What's a blue collar? We don't have money in the 24th century - YEAH!"
These questions continue to interest Hertzler, who's a writer as well as an actor and spends a lot of time working on screenplays. "There are three scripts out there right now - one was optioned by Edelson Entertainment. One's a weather disaster script, one's a script about the Spanish Civil War, and the other is a script about militias versus Wal-Mart in today's economic strange times. None of them are comedies. A kid blows up a Wal-Mart - it's not really Wal-Mart, I changed it to Heartland - but that's the beginning of a story about small-town America at the end of the millennium, which don't go together. Small-town America and the word 'millennium' just don't go together."
The Spanish Civil War interested him in part because so little is written about it. "A lot of American writers, painters, sculptors, artists volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, but that war has been eliminated from our educations - nobody could decide whose side we were on. Very little has been done on Franco, but he had a brother who was like an aviator/communist/international playboy. My screenplay is largely about him, and about the Americans who went over to Spain." Hertzler believes that writers are the primary artists in any performing art: "Unless an actor is improvising, you need a writer. You need somebody who has sat down and thought clearly, condensed, intensified, and dramatized the moment so that you can appear to be brilliant. An actor is an interpretive artist - the writer is the person who creates."
Ironically, Hertzler has appeared in only two feature films during his lengthy career. "I did a film in 1975, with Pacino, And Justice For All, and I did a film in 1997, with Christopher Walken, The Prophecy II, and those are the only two films I've ever done." This is not, however, from any sense that theater is an inherently more rewarding medium. "I don't believe that there is truly an artistic loss between theater and film. There's a lot of craft differences, but emotionally, aesthetically, there's not. Great filmmaking is great theater, and great television is great theater. Bad theater proliferates - bad theater is everywhere in this country - and there is certainly bad TV and bad filmmaking, but you shoot for greatness all the time. Frankly, theater is the art form of the 19th century. Once film was discovered, it basically performed the same fuction that theater had performed. The difference is that it isn't live, so each performance is always identical. With theater, performances change, because you have the extra character, being the audience, which bends your performance."
Many actors say that Method acting, in which the actor becomes immersed in the character, is impossible on television, where the norm is repeated short takes rather than a sustained performance. "I guess, it's hard to say," Hertzler said skeptically. "Stanislavski was a Russian who watched what the Moscow Art Theatre actors were doing naturally in their style of theater at the time, and wrote three books, and he said, 'I'm going to quantify it and qualify it beat by beat' - which is his word. I think if you are a good enough Method actor, you can conjure up the emotional or psycho-physical reality, everything that you need to recreate the same performance. It's not going to be the same because it isn't the same - it's not a take of what you just did, it is a second take, but in that way, nobody's takes are identical." Hertzler then mimicked Olivier: "'Well, you must act, dear boy.' I think I'm sort of of that mind. You certainly try to find all the emotional connections with you that there are for a certain moment, but in the end, it's all pretending, it's acting. It's not rocket science or brain surgery, it's pretending."
For Hertzler, who holds a graduate degree in set design from the University of Maryland and who has worked as a director for half his life, an audience is necessary to act. "I suppose there are actors who can perform strictly for the lens, and focus their concentration only at the glass or at an imaginary audience member in a movie theater who will be watching what they are doing. With me, I'm performing for the entire studio. On the soundstage, there are 70 to 100 people standing around watching the scene. That is a live audience - they're looking at different things to evaluate, but so is a live audience in a theater. They still have to be entertained - if you're not entertaining them, you're not entertaining the lens. Maybe it's my theater background, but I cannot reduce or eliminate them from my circle of concentration." At the convention, Hertzler added that Patrick Stewart is one of four people he would most like to shake hands with, and revealed that the Trek actors occasionally did Shakespeare seminars on the Paramount lot.
Born in Georgia to an Air Force family, raised in Texas, Casablanca, Omaha, and Maryland, Hertzler worked in the Nixon Administration for the National Environmental Policy Act and jokes that to support his acting, he was a thief and a hit man on the side. But he was not a waiter for long: during a dinner theater production of Cabaret in which he played a Nazi, the actor found himself distressed to be collecting checks from patrons with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms while he was wearing an S.S. uniform, and asked to become a bartender instead. "So I was a bartender, then I got a Hanson cab license and drove the buggies like Kramer did on Seinfeld. I've been very lucky, I've usually worked as an actor onstage. But there's a certain point where if you want to have any part of the American Dream and not live below poverty level, you have to get out of theater."
What keeps him in the profession, then? "I played football as a performer. I was very competitive and I liked meeting people. You don't know the ending of the performance - I've always said that if you could get the emotional investment on the audience's part in a play or a film like there is in the sports arena, where you don't know the outcome but you have two sides vying in conflict, giving everything they possibly can to achieve a victory, if you can get that kind of emotion in the theater, you're going to have something." Besides, there are other rewards. "At University of Maryland for Romeo and Juliet, I did the cleavage on the women. I was just damn good at it! There's a certain aesthetic, and you have to get the shadow and the highlight just right - it's very technical, you need the slide rule," he laughed.
With his writing background and a smattering of sci-fi on his resume - he appeared with Justine Bateman on an episode of Lois and Clark, and appeared on Highlander as well as about forty episodes of Zorro for The Family Channel - Hertzler has pitched a few stories to Star Trek. He said he needs to do "massive amounts of reading" to catch up on the genre: "I never read all the Galaxy Magazine articles up through the Philip Dick, the early Harlan Ellison stuff, all these writers I'm trying to catch up with great gaps. Star Trek stories are two things, an internal and an external plot: the internal plot usually deals with a major character's emotional or psychological struggle, or some conflicting value within that character that has to be worked out, and it's usually put together with an external plot where something enormous physically is threatening life and death for the ship or the planet or the universe. And those two have to resonate with each other. It's not an easy thing to create those out of thin air, especially after how many episodes have been written since 1966? It's not easy to come up with new stories, so I think they do an extremely good job."
The stories for next season will have to include some repairs to Martok's ship and crew, which got pretty banged up in the season finale. "Yes, but we kicked some Cardassian ass!" he roared. I adored David Birney, that Romulan, that little bastard, he has an immense disdain for Klingons and that was fabulous, because I wanted to leap over the table at him. That's going to go somewhere if he comes back, that character and that relationship. I know I'm going to be in the first few episodes. But who knows, it might even not be the last season. I was reading the trades in Variety in the fall, which I did almost every episode last fall, and we outdrew Xena, Warrior Princess. HAH! And guess who was big in the shows?"
Without Dax, of course, it's hard to predict how the series will change. "I liked Jadzia, Terry especially - the character really is whoever the person is underneath, and she's just a tremendously nice, down to earth person, I was really sorry to see her go. I think it's a tossup who's the sexiest woman alive, between that Borg chick [on Voyager] and Terry. I never acted with Jeri Ryan, until you sit and look into the eyes of someone you're working with, you don't know how beautiful they are. With Terry, you look into that face and it's so open. Beautiful, sexy woman. Hopefully it's a hole that rather than just filled, it will be dealt with in a major way. That is of great potential for stories."
Though Nana Visitor was the first performer Hertzler really came into contact with, because Kira was standing next to Martok when the latter was introduced, "she didn't know me, and I was such an angry sonofabitch! I had to be, if I was going to stand next to these guys. Ferengis? Poor pitiful little creatures! Disgusting conniving bastards!" The actors, on the other hand, are among his favorites. "I get such a kick out of Armin [Shimerman] and Aron [Eisenberg], they're very, very funny. Armin is so dry, he's perhaps the dryest actor I've ever come across. I knew him a little bit before, from theater, and Rene Auberjonois was in ACT."
Asked by his fan club president which of the other roles on DS9 he would want if he didn't play Martok, Hertzler roared, "I think Martok is the best damn character on the show! Gowron, pttth," though he added that he very much enjoys working with Robert O'Reilly], who plays the Klingon leader. "I don't think there's a character I would rather be playing. I love Gul Dukat because he's the villain, but I get to do things which are villainous to some characters and heroic to others."
Not even the prosthetics bother him. "I don't think I have real skin - I think it's some kind of teflon, because I don't get bothered by rashes from the rubber, the neoprene and the latex, the wig doesn't bother me. It does get hot, and if there's something wrong with the eye that gets glued shut and the eye comes open, there's a great deal of pain in that. But my makeup guy is the best in the world." He laughed that he's a danger to the makeup people, since they're all so much shorter than he is, and he's working with one eye glued shut while the other - "it's a lazy eye anyway, I don't use it" - has an artificial scar blocking it so he can't really see what he's doing and knocks them over.
"WE...ARE...KLINGONS!" he roared, in full Martok voice, though he admitted to working on his writing between scenes on the bridge of his Bird of Prey. Whatever happens to Martok, this guy seems likely to remain a popular convention guest for years to come.