RISE AND SHINE:
An Interview With Lisa Kaminir
by Michelle Erica Green
Lisa Kaminir is one of the few people who's ever successfully told off a Vulcan. As Lillias, the guest star of Star Trek: Voyager's third season sweeps episode "Rise," she let Tuvok know exactly what she thought of his uppity attitude.
And under several layers of prosthetic makeup, that can't have been easy.
"I was on the set at about 4:00 [a.m.]," Kaminir reports. "I spent two and a half hours in makeup every day. First you go to the prosthetic guy - the week before the job, they do a plaster mold of your head. And from that, they make your prostheses - then you go in and the guy attaches all this rubber stuff to your face with silicone glue. Wonderful for your complexion!"
"It's an extraordinary process," she notes of the airbrushing that makes the attachments look like part of one's face. "Then you go to the hair people ... in the back, my hair was my hair, but [for] part around my hairline, they attached a piece to cover the edge of the latex - so the very front of the hair was a hairpiece. You go to the hair people and they do that, and then you get touched up again by the makeup guy, and before you know it, it's two and a half hours later!"
Lillias, a young Nezu woman from a planet being bombarded by asteroids, befriends Neelix when he attempts to use an orbital tether to rescue himself, Tuvok, and several Nezu from the beseiged planet. Kaminir, who had never played an alien before, was intrigued by her complexity.
"I did a little film - I don't know if you'd call it science fiction, but it was definitely not in the realm of reality - called Under the Car, she says. "It was about a bunch of yuppies who get trapped in a Jeep Cherokee by this monster under the car, and as they try to figure out what's going on, gradually they all get eaten. That was the closest I'd gotten to doing [science fiction] before I got to Star Trek."
An acclaimed stage actress, Kaminir actually got the part on Star Trek because the Trek casting director spotted her in the Alliance Repertory Company's production of The Adjustment. Kaminir is a member of the company, and the play was a big hit in Los Angeles, running for the better part of a year and winning several awards. Though The Adjustment will open off-Broadway at the Jewish Rep this October, Kaminir doubts she'll reprise her successful part.
"It's a major role that I was playing, and I think that they will offer it out to some stars first, for box office [draw]. If not, I may very well go to New York to read for it. That's fine, because I did it for a long time. We'll see what happens. It's very exciting getting to be in a play that was so well written and so well received."
Voyager's casting director remembered Kaminir from The Adjustment when the role of Lillias came up, so they invited her in to read for it. "The way that casting works in television in general, with the guest starring roles, and the smaller roles as well, is that the producers publish something called the breakdown service which is a daily publication that's faxed or delivered to agencies and managers of what's being cast in the coming days or weeks," Kaminir explains. "The agents look at the breakdowns and send the pictures and resumes of their clients to the casting directors. And what happens over the course of a career is that the casting people start to know the talent pool, so once you're submitted, they know whether you'd be right for a particular role. That's how they decide to call you in."
Kaminir went in to read for Voyager's producers. "They had me read the first scene, where I hold the knife to [Neelix]'s throat," she recalls. "It's always tricky to do those scenes in an audition, because obviously you can't do the action. It's not like doing the job, where you work off of the other actor. You have to go in knowing what the scene is about, because you pretty much have to create it all yourself in the auditions like that."
Because there were two sides to the character - "that very angry, violent side, and the emotional, upset side" - the producers had Kaminer read an additional scene, in which Lillias tells Neelix that her sister has been lost. "That way they get to see whether you can do both ends of the spectrum. So that was the audition process," she concludes.
Though she was familiar with the show, Kaminir was not particularly a Trek fan. "I watch occasionally - I watch most television occasionally, because I need to know what's going on in the marketplace, so I watch everything occasionally and nothing all the time."
Though she knew she would be in for long makeup sessions, including an hour to remove the glue at the end of the day, Voyager was particularly difficult for Kaminir because she was eight weeks pregnant.
"It was a very challenging job, because it was 16- or 17-hour days, and some of the time I felt OK, but some of the time I didn't." Her costume was made out of neoprene - "like dive suits" - covered with burlap, and underneath, she wore cotton long underwear, so that the neoprene wasn't against her skin.
"It was like a sweat factory!" she groans, expressing admiration for Ethan Phillips, who must contend with similar costumes all the time to play Neelix. "It was like being in a sauna all day, it was unbelievable." Kaminir adds that the overall level of discomfort was helpful with the character, who spends most of the episode stuck in a claustrophobic air-car.
"It was fascinating to me to be on the set, because when you watch the Star Trek shows on television, they manage to make all that equipment look pretty realistic - it looks like it's functioning. But when you're up there in person, it all looks very cardboardy - it looks like what it is, set dressing, it looks pretty flimsy," the actress reveals. "It was very surprising to me, because it's amazing how good they make it look when all is said and done. The scene where we were in the wind tunnel and the doors get blown open and we were being sucked out, they have this sand blowing around, and they've got this fan going - it was a great effect, you know, you pretend to be clinging on with your fingernails. It was an interesting experience for me because I've never done anything quite like that!"
But the real thrill of the role was in the character's depth. "It was a nicely written role, because it wasn't like being the alien invader - the role really had some dimension to it," says Kaminir, who adds that television "is not known for its great depth of field." To play the alien Lillias, she drew on "many, many, years of training" in using her imagination to play things "that are not necessarily in your everyday experience."
"As far as the loss of the missing sister, there's always something in your life you can find to draw on that strikes a chord like that, something that would worry you to that extent or somebody that, if you lost them, it would devastate you," she points out.
A New Yorker who graduated from Chicago's Northwestern University, Kaminir knew she wanted to be an actress since childhood. Her parents insisted that she get a well-rounded education so that she "could conceivably get a regular job - they were convinced that I would lose interest after awhile." She worked primarily in live theater for a few years in Chicago and Manhattan, "then I came out to L.A .just for a pilot season - to check it out - and I never left. The real bread-and-butter work for actors is in Los Angeles. To live in New York was really to leave New York, because you'd come to New York to audition, and then get a job out of town and leave."
"This is not the land of paying theater," she says of Los Angeles, adding that she does regional theater regularly. "There's paying theater if you don't mind being a gypsy. but that's not a life that I care for in the long haul." Married to a director and the mother of a six-week-old baby, Kaminir sounds as though she prefers to be settled.
"I've been more interested in working on camera, for a lot of different reasons - one is that it doesn't involve so much traveling around, especially in television," she admits. "Stage work and camera work are very different, and I like them both, for different reasons. I like the interaction with the audience and the continuity of doing stage work. But I like the intimacy of working on camera."
Though she finds theatrical scripts more challenging in an intellectual and philosophical sense, Kaminir notes that TV can be very challenging emotionally. She has done situation comedies, which she labels "challenging in a different way, in that it's hard to be funny! The work that sitcom actors do is really difficult, and the people who do it well are really good at it."
Kaminir says that sitcoms are actually more fun to film than to watch. She cites The Naked Truth as her favorite television role so far. "The original script was really wonderful, an unusually sophisticated comedy script, and I really liked working with the people on the show." The actress calls writer/producer Chris Thompson "a very funny and witty man," and praises star Téa Leoni.
"I played this very dry and sophisticated call girl, and wound up being this wonderful scene with Téa where she finds out - I meet her in the bathroom in the courthouse, she's getting a divorce - she talks to me, and we wind up finding out by the end of the scene that her soon-to-be-ex-husband is a client. It was a funny scene, and it was fun to do. And it's exciting working on a pilot, because you don't know what's going to happen - there's lots of energy."
Kaminir's character was originally supposed to be a recurring role, because the pilot was received so well, but a guest spot by Tom Hanks diverted her first reappearance, and then a shifting of personnel changed the direction of the show. "It happens," says Kaminir nonchalantly. "For example, on Ellen Degeneres' show, they had an original cast, they had a certain set-up for the show, then after the first season, they fired almost everyone. They hired new cast members, they changed the writing staff, and they changed certain things about her life as a character. It happens frequently. That's why you do it, and you go on the next thing."
One of the drawbacks of working in television is the dearth of rehearsal time - "you get to run through it once, and then you start doing takes." So Kaminir had little time to talk shop with the Voyager cast. Fortunately, she and Ethan Phillips hit it off so well that the scenes flowed naturally.
"He is a really wonderful actor," the actress says of Phillips. "It was very organic - we both knew what was going on in the scene, and then we did it, and what happened in the scene was as a result of what happened between us in the scene. If you have two actors who are both grounded in who they are and what they're doing, and who they are to each other and what everything means in the scene, then you throw them together and you can actually have a real organic experience."
Kaminir adds that everyone on the set was pleasant to work with - "an extremely nice group of actors and we had a wonderful director, Bob Scheerer. And it's a good thing that they're nice to work with, because the days are really long because of the makeup." She didn't have any stunts (other than dragging a large man named Hanjuan across the floor) and she says she had a very good time working with Phillips and Tim Russ.
"I didn't meet most of the cast because I wasn't on the ship," she points out. "I saw Kate Mulgrew once in passing, but we were not really together at any point." Nonetheless, Kaminir would be interested in attending a Star Trek convention - she has friends from Trek and Sliders who have been to conventions, and is curious about the following the shows have.
Kaminir's biggest challenge will undoubtedly be juggling her new baby and her audition schedule, but she claims that acting is actually a relatively easy profession for a parent. "It's not like a 9 to 5 job where I'm out all day," she points out. "When I'm auditioning, I can be home a lot, and between shows." Her last project before taking a break during her pregnancy was a show Dick Clark is producing called Beyond Belief.
The actress would like to break into features, but sounds content with her present situation. "Television's really manageable hours" to be working, and, along with her stage work, will probably keep Kaminir nicely busy.
Let's just hope her next role doesn't require three hours of makeup.