KURTWOOD SMITH TIME-TRAVELS:
Three-Time Trekker Dares To Disco
by Michelle Erica Green
These days, Kurtwood Smith is best known as the conservative, down-to-earth dad on That '70s Show. But Smith has also spent quite a bit of time in space and other weird places. In addition to his role as the President of the Federation in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Smith played duplicitous Cardassian Thrax on Deep Space Nine, obsessed time traveler Annorax on Star Trek Voyager, murderous agent Bill Patterson on The X-Files, and psychotic Clarence Boddicker in RoboCop.
Red Forman might think that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a "dumb-ass," as he said in the Star Wars episode of That 70's Show, but Smith is more open-minded. "I've always thought of those science fiction shows like doing Shakespeare," he says. "It's a period piece - just a different period. There's a level of grandness to most of the characters." The Wisconsin native knows whereof he speaks, having worked in regional theater and taught college in the Bay Area for many years, winning a drama fellowship from Stanford University's MFA program.
That '70s Show has been picked up by Fox for another two years, so Smith will spend at least a couple more seasons grousing at his onscreen family and calling people dumb-asses. His latest film outing, Girl, Interrupted, received wide critical acclaim. But Smith is quite willing to consider more Star Trek.
"I've always enjoyed doing the genre things, because it is so much punching those buttons from when you were a kid. You also get interesting characters. I think one of the reasons they get the kind of guest stars they do is the caliber of characters. I mentioned Shakespeare before. They're big characters with big goals. It's about the only place you get to do those sort of things."
Year of Hell
Smith got the role of the Federation President because of director Nicholas Meyer, who had also directed him in the Gene Hackman film Company Business. "It was a Cold War movie, but the wall came down while we were shooting, so the war was essentially over," Smith recalls. The film was not a success, but Meyer called Smith for Star Trek VI and introduced him to the Trek production team. "That sort of puts you in the family there; it lets them know that you like the genre."
Deep Space Nine called several years later to offer Smith the role of Thrax in "Things Past," a strange time-travel episode in which Odo relives a past mistake from the perspective of another person. Time travel was also the theme of Smith's best-known Trek appearance, crazed captain Annorax from Voyager's "Year of Hell." Annorax used a timeship to alter history for the benefit of his species, but in the process, he caused the deaths of millions, including his beloved wife. When Voyager encountered the Krenim vessel, Janeway fought to save her crew and set the past straight.
"I was happy with that show," says Smith, noting that when they started shooting the episode, the second half of the two-parter hadn't been written yet. "When I started the job, I didn't know it was going to have a happy ending. He isn't a villain, as far as I'm concerned; he's an extremely bright man who's gotten himself caught in this situation, and the only thing he can do is keep moving ahead. The moral and ethical problems that he's faced with haunt him all the time. I think he just got single-minded in his purpose and feeling guilty about what he did initially, but it was tricky to find that balance."
Though the episode took on epic proportions as Janeway and Annorax began to resemble Captain Ahab and Captain Nemo, the two characters never shared the screen, so Smith never worked with Kate Mulgrew. "We had one scene where we were talking to each other over the comm, but we didn't film that together. They had done hers first, and they showed me her side of the conversation before I did it, so I was able to see what she was doing. I could see she was being very strong and angry, so the best thing for me to do was to try to go the other way."
"It was very smart of them to show it to me," Smith adds. "When I did Company Business, Gene Hackman came in on his day off and did the other side of a television conversation for me. I was so impressed by that. He did it for the work, he did it for the craft. Years later when I was doing Deep Impact and I played the guy in the flight control center, I told them at the time to let me know when Robert Duvall and the other astronauts were doing their stuff so I could go in and do the off-camera. It was because of Gene that I did that - it was my way of paying him back."
Smith's only complaint with Voyager was the "weird" makeup, which he thought made it look like there was "mold growing with a doorbell on my temple." But it was a lot better than Thrax's makeup. "When I did a Cardassian, that was just a nightmare. It took four hours to put that stuff on! They kept saying, 'Be glad you're not a Borg,' as if that made a difference to me."
Though he enjoys science fiction shows, Smith admits he doesn't watch them regularly. "I try to see everything that's on once or twice, but otherwise I watch whatever's in syndication at dinnertime - that's the only time I watch regular television, it's a question of time." A member of the Motion Picture Academy, Smith sees all the films in contention for Academy Awards. "I vote every year, I take it seriously. I thought this was a particularly good year - I like all the films that are nominated."
Though he wouldn't reveal his Best Picture choice, Smith says he voted for his co-star Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted, and expresses surprise that Jim Carrey was overlooked for the second year in a row. "You know how it works in the Academy: you nominate for the field that you're in, and you have five choices. Jim Carrey was one of my first choices. I thought he did a superb job and I was shocked that he didn't get nominated, especially after last year. There are a couple of nominations that I don't think have any business being there."
Smith has a long and eclectic resume of film roles, ranging from Woody Allen's Holocaust allegory Shadows and Fog to Sylvester Stallone vehicle Rambo III. "Robocop and Dead Poets Society are the movies that put me on the map, and are excellent films," he observes. Though many people remember the rigid father who drove his son to suicide as the villain of the latter film, Smith found him a fascinating albeit difficult character.
"I didn't ever think of him as being mean. The reason it was hard to play is because he was such an uptight, closed-minded guy, but everything he's doing in that movie, he is doing out of a sort of misguided love. He really thinks that everything he's doing is right for that boy. He just can't see it from anybody else's point of view, especially the kid's. It's difficult making that palatable and understandable."
Among the films on his resume, which include A Time To Kill and Under Siege 2 as well as the telefilms A Bright Shining Lie and The Nightmare Years (on which he played respectively General Westmoreland and Dr. Goebbels), Smith cites several favorites. "It's been a real fun career. There were so many that I liked doing."
"Citizen Ruth was really one of my favorite experiences, working with those people," he says of the controversial 1996 film about the politics of abortion. "Laura Dern is terrific in it. It starts out as sort of a heavy movie, and gets funny. 12:01 P.M., which is a short film I did awhile ago, got nominated for an Oscar for short film. Boxing Helena was peculiar, but it should have been more peculiar, I think - they decided they wanted to make it a bit more palatable, but I think it was a stronger, more bizarre script originally."
Because he played a "psycho villain" in Robocop, Smith briefly feared typecasting, "getting all these psycho offers." Instead, he kept getting offers for the same sorts of roles he had done previously, "bureaucratic authority figures who are nasty at best or horrible at worst. I'm sure that's probably what they'll come back for again. I can do a few years playing this down to Earth grumpy dad Red Forman, and they'll come back to me with nasty villains in suits!"
That '70s Dad
Writers Mark Brazill and Bonnie Turner have described Red Forman as a comic riff on their own fathers. "Of course, he's based an awful lot on my dad," Smith counters. "I think that's what makes him the kind of guy that people respond to. So many people of all different types say, 'Oh, he's just like my dad.' The things he says and he does come out of their lives, things their dads said and did and behaved, as opposed to inventing some father figure."
The show shoots before a live audience on Friday nights after a week of rehearsals. "There are always a couple of scenes that we pre-shoot - a lot of the Star Wars episode was pre-shot," explains Smith. "Shooting live really makes it fun, it just brings about a whole excitement to it. It's sort of like doing a mini-play every week: you rehearse and then you do it with an audience on Friday."
Because That '70s Show - unlike Malcolm in the Middle, The Wonder Years and many other family comedies - is a multi-camera show, the producers have a lot of flexibility. "I like it," laughs Smith. "If you have an idea, they'll listen to it or just go ahead and try it even if they think it's dumb, but we pretty much don't ask, because they know what they're doing. It's pretty scripted. By the night of the show, it changes a lot, but it's the writers who do the changing."
Smith says he continually forgets that the show is set in the 1970s. "My clothes are not as dopey as most of the other characters," he declares. "You just get used to things the way you get used to any sort of world you're working in, so I'm more concerned with the relationships of the characters in terms of the world that we live in, as opposed to the trappings of the world. We kind of develop the backstory as it goes. The backstory wasn't as important to them as the essence of the characters."
Though the show tends to hover in the middle of the overall weekly Nielsens, it does very well among Fox's demographics. "Considering that they moved us all over the map, we managed to retain a core audience," Smith is pleased to report. "I don't have any idea how long this show is going to go - it will go for a couple of years, and then we'll see."
The actor doesn't have a clear idea about what he wants to do next, though he hopes to work on a film over That 70's Show's hiatus. "I used to direct plays when I taught theater, and I always wanted to write, but I just can't - I don't have the discipline. I'm going to try to do some jobs during the off season more just for fun than anything else. I would like to do a little independent film. There's always such a kind of shared enthusiasm on the part of the cast and crew. Again, it's a throwback to the early days in theater when you were doing it just for the love of it."
Married to a health care activist, Smith enjoys getting to travel for work. "I've been to Europe and Asia and Southeast Asia, and Australia and Canada, which I love. When you're on location, you're also in a situation where you're interacting with people more than when you're working in town. I've been really lucky."
Now in his 50s, Smith is appreciative of the career he has had on many different levels. "I think back to when I quit teaching to come down to L.A., and everyone just thought I was insane. I had a good job teaching acting and directing, you can't get much more secure. Now I look back and say I've had such a great life, it's hard to imagine that I'd be up there thinking about retirement. One thing about acting is you don't bother to retire - you just always keep on."