TIM RUSS' PON FARR:
Doing It All, Logically
by Michelle Erica Green
People who only know Tim Russ from his portrayal of Tuvok on Star Trek Voyager miss out on ninety-nine percent of his range. An accomplished musician as well as an actor, Russ works behind the camera as well as in front of it - he has directed episodes of Voyager, and wrote and produced an award-winning independent film, East of Hope Street. At the annual Shore Leave convention this July in Hunt Valley, Maryland, the actor sang, showed clips from his movie, and cracked the audience up in a way his Vulcan character would never dare.
Five years ago, Russ took on the task of playing the first series-regular Vulcan since Spock. He is committed to remaining with Voyager for another two seasons, through the end of what is expected to be a seven-year run. A Trek fan since childhood who appeared on Deep Space Nine and in Generations, Russ was thrilled to be cast as the logical Vulcan tactical officer. Yet after many months of playing the same character, he wanted new challenges, so he took up directing for the series, then producing his own films.
"The difficulty with Tuvok from an actor's standpoint is that you don't get a chance to cut loose very often, and you miss that," explained the actor in an interview just before his appearance at Shore Leave. "I haven't had a chance to really go all-out for four or five years. It's the opposite of what I've trained for, but on the other hand it's a challenge to try to allow the slightest, most subtle emotions. One of my acting parners said Tuvok is the character who can play Hamlet with his eyebrow. That's basically what I'm doing: playing the emotional content of what's going on with very, very subtle gestures and inflections."
From a creative standpoint, Russ noted, playing the stoic Vulcan got a bit restrictive. "I've always made the analogy that it's like having Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel over and over, only this time he puts God on the right side instead of the left side," the actor explained, laughing, "Not that I equate myself with Michelangelo as an artist! But it's the same basic creative thing, as opposed to getting a new canvas."
"Voyager is the same gig that I've been doing for the past five years," he added. "Directing is a new slate. Music is something that I've always been involved in; it's a different type of expression. Producing is not terribly creative - in fact it's a pain in the ass - but in terms of bringing a project from script to completion, it can be very rewarding. And doing other types of projects, voice-over projects, narration projects, animation projects, all those things I've had a chance to do since coming on board the show."
Russ learned some of Tuvok's backstory along with viewers last season in the episode "Gravity," which revealed that Tuvok was nearly the opposite of Spock as a child - while the half-Vulcan hybrid of the original series spent much of his life trying to be a perfect Vulcan, Tuvok rebelled against tradition and craved emotional freedom. The actor noted that he had already considered the differences between the characters, however.
"Tuvok is 100 percent Vulcan, not half-Vulcan; he didn't have to prove himself as Spock did, which is the main factor I used to distinguish myself from his character. His character had to prove something to himself as well as others. Mine did not, because I was already Vulcan. You can imagine Spock growing up, being taunted or looked down upon or ostracized by his fellow Vulcans. Could you imagine being the only kid in his entire region having to deal with this sort of thing? It's exactly the same sort of thing we go through today - being teased for being overweight or having one arm or whatever, not being perfect or being the same."
Because he never had to prove his Vulcan pedigree, and because of his age - married for several decades, Tuvok is a grandfather - Voyager's chief of security is comfortable showing aspects of himself which Spock tried to repress. "I don't think Tuvok is nearly as stiff and unrelenting as Spock's character was - I think he lets his guard down," Russ observed. "He has a very dry sense of humor and sometimes he exercises it - he'll never admit it, but he does. Vulcans don't admit to that stuff, but they do it. He just says things to people from time to time, he's picking with them. He's not trying to be funny, but he's funny to us in the circumstance."
Seven of Nine has a similar sense of humor, based on her wry observations about human foibles, and although she and Tuvok have shared several memorable screen moments - notably in "The Year of Hell" and "The Raven" last season, when Tuvok ironically assisted in the former Borg's development as a human - Russ is one of many cast members who feels that his character's screen time has been compromised since Seven arrived on the series. "I think it's going to be a little bit different coming out of the gate, but definitely from a network standpoint, they are still promoting Jeri [Ryan] to try to sell the show, which I never really understood," admitted Russ. "The show has its own audience; we're not going to be an E.R., we're not going to be a Cheers, it's just not that kind of show. The ratings have been the same since the show started."
Vulcan fans are as passionate as Klingon fans in their insistence on the reality and coherence of the alien culture, but although several Voyager stories have embellished upon or twisted original series canon, Russ said the number one complaint he gets from viewers about Tuvok stories is simply that there aren't enough of them. "This year I haven't had a really heavy episode yet and I haven't been really heavy in the shows yet, but I guarantee you, it will happen, and I will have more than my share of 16-hour days. I have people complaining about this or that, from people who like the Vulcan character. The goal is to tell the story, not to make sure something is totally consistent with episode 332 of The Next Generation. Mostly they're complaining about not seeing enough of me on the screen."
Though he misses the opportunity "to cut loose," Russ occasionally gets an out-of character moment such as Tuvok's psychotic rage in "Meld" when he linked his mind with that of a murderer. In the Klingon-heavy show filming the week he attended Shore Leave, "there's a moment where I do break from this Tuvok veneer, but it's because of the circumstance of what's happening, it's not reality. The very next show coming up it's the same situation: I have to do all kinds of things in there, but we discover story-wise that it's not happening in real time. There is a lot of that on Voyager."
That Time of the Reproductive Cycle
The story Russ gets asked about most often, of course, is when Tuvok will be due for pon farr, the biological drive which necessitates that a Vulcan take a mate, engage in ritual combat, or die. Well? "That's the 64,000 Question," confessed the actor. "But I think there are a series of built-in difficulties with that story. How do we make it different from what we've already seen? Is he going to have ritual combat with one of the cast members? That's been done. Is he going to take a mate, another woman on the ship? Given that he's already got a wife, that's not going to look good with the Star Trek family viewing audience; it doesn't send a very good message. We can't have him go onto the holodeck for an hour - that would be boring and stupid. What's he going to do, sit there by himself meditating or recreate his planet? So I think we're sort of stuck."
Russ observed that for all we know about pon farr, there's much more that we need to find out. For instance, we learned from Spock in the original series episode "Amok Time" that the Vulcan mating drive operates on a seven-year cycle. "If it's an insect and it doesn't mate until the seven-year cycle is up, it's going to mate at seven years - not a day before or after. So if he's in that mode, then I assume that is has to be something that is pretty well fixed. But is it exactly seven years, or can it be eight or six? It's not certain whether it happens exactly on the hour."
As the actor pointed out, Tuvok is not a human being, and his control may operate very differently. Both Spock and Vorick - the young Vulcan of Voyager's "Blood Fever" who tried to mate with B'Elanna Torres but was defeated in ritual combat - were experiencing their first pon farr. Might it operate differently in a Vulcan of Tuvok's age, married for many years? Sarek, Spock's father, had a human wife; does that mean a Vulcan betrothal (according to Spock, always arranged at age seven) can be negated? We have no canonical answers, which just raises more questions.
"What are all the particulars of this phenomenon?" demanded Russ. "What happens if the wife dies? If she's human, she's not even part of the whole ritual - she couldn't have been betrothed to Sarek. And in the original story, the character says she can choose whether she takes him or not, so that's not fixed. What else isn't fixed? If you don't go back to the planet, do you necessarily die if you don't go through a fighting ritual or if you don't take a mate? That's what has to be determined, the ritual and the actual pon farr experience. If Tuvok is not on his home soil, will he perish if he does not perform some kind of ritual? Can he exist in that part of space for that many years without that kind of contact? What are the actual facts and what are the variations? We only have the basics, so that's what has to be figured out in the story."
When the writing staff was working on "Blood Fever," which was originally meant to be a Tuvok episode, the actor spent quite a bit of time discussing these matters with the scriptwriter. "I spoke to the writer for several hours while they were in the process of putting it together, because initially it was going to be me, and they switched the character because they didn't want to deal with the difficulties of it."
Are there Tuvok storylines Russ would particularly like to explore before Voyager winds down its run? "I told [executive producer] Brannon Braga at the beginning of the season that we need to pair us up with some other people we haven't worked with," the actor revealed. "Chakotay and I have never had a lot together, only a few moments here and there. I haven't worked with Beltran really. Roxann I haven't worked with very much at all; we just completed this scene last week in my quarters, which is very unusual, I think we had one scene last season. I haven't worked with Garrett hardly at all. Once in awhile you get a scene or two, but you've got to have a storyline."
As Janeway's oldest friend, Tuvok shares many scenes with the captain, and he has served as a mentor of sorts to Seven of Nine in the early days when she resisted her humanity. Most of the landing parties of late have been led by Tuvok and Paris. "I've had a lot with Paris, it's been heavy in the past three years," observed the stage veteran. "'Gravity' was all Tuvok and Paris, though I did get a chance to work with Bob [Picardo] a little bit more on that. 'Future's End Parts I and II' were with Paris, 'Bride of Chaotica' was with Paris. I really enjoyed that one, myself. When they first started the series, they wanted to break away and do some stuff that was fun. That is absolutely a kick and it's kind of cool - the concept of phototronic characters coming into this program and thinking it's real and playing it out."
Russ is juggling many balls at the moment as an actor, writer, director, producer, singer, composer, and speaker who alternates his weekends among playing music in coffeehouses, developing new film projects, attending Star Trek conventions, and spending time with his four-month-old child. "I want to keep busy outside of Voyager," he said. "It's a very good position to be in, working on a relatively successful television show - people will return phone calls. I've got open doors to television departments and feature departments at the studio, and it's not a good idea to let that kind of opportunity go by. That is what gives you longevity - not waiting for the phone to ring for the next acting gig, which is not guaranteed."
"My main interest is creating projects of my own from the ground floor, which would mean producing feature projects and developing and producing television or video projects," he added. "I'm interested in producing and directing these projects, not necessarily appearing in them. Writing I'm not as excited about - I don't really enjoy the process. I'm working on a feature now with a writer, and my role is basically executive producer in terms of paying the writer to work on the story outline. But I will own the project, and then from there shop the project to see if we can get it done."
Russ and Nate Thomas, an independent filmmaker who was a longtime friend of the actor, worked together on East of Hope Street, for which they raised the funds and wrote the screenplay. Thomas directed the film based on his own experiences working for a decade in a Los Angeles residential treatment center for pregnant teenagers; Russ starred in the gritty drama, shot on a budget of under $100,000. Having won acclaim at film festivals, the producers are now seeking wider theatrical distribution.
"Because of Voyager, the resources were there for me to put money in to getting a project made," noted Russ, who thought East of Hope Street was likely to earn critical attention because of the subject matter despite the lack of studio backing. Though he says he might have chosen to do a comedy or satire for his first production, Russ thought the true story upon which East of Hope Street was based would make a strong story. "Basically we simply put the true story in motion, and put together a linear script. We did have to write the dialogue, but we knew what was going to happen from start to finish."
The central character, who must overcome an abusive home and the painful facts of life growing up in an inner city, was based on a young girl Thomas knew from his social work. "I play an autobiographical character, my partner - he worked in the home for ten years," Russ recounted. "The girl was from El Salvador. She was brought here, taken out of an abusive home. She was abused in the foster care system. She became pregnant, she had the child, she got involved with some guys and I think a friend of hers was killed. The only thing we put in was that she was wounded - that was the only thing that did not happen. But being raped and attacked...that all happened."
A tough story; was it tough to write? "The process is probably more therapeutic than anything else," said the actor, who was himself raised on Air Force bases around the world by his military family. "I did not come from that background. But I'm profoundly aware of the effect of your environment in growing up on your behavior as an adult. That environment is critical for what occurs in the individual. I look at people who are put into the prison system and go down death row, and they're executed by the state, when in fact they never had a chance at the beginning. They came into this world, they have no control over their destinies - if adults are abusing them, by the time they're old enough, they will act out."
"I was very good friends for twelve years with a forensic psychologist who's in the prison system at Chino, on the ward with very hardened criminals," he added. "I'm very much aware of why people do what they do, and it helps in writing because people's motivation comes from what has happened to them in their pasts. It helps in driving these characters in the writing."
Russ said his training as an actor contributed to his understanding of the process. "I want to know why the characters I'm playing do what they do. You actually try to step into their shoes and feel what it is they're feeling. Now, it's impossible for me to feel what somebody went through as an abused child, so I have to imagine what that is like and get as much into that as I can to be able to portray it. But at least having an understanding of the fact that what happened to this individual as a child directly relates to how he acts as an adult makes it easier for me to portray that character. It is extraordinarily beneficial to always have a first-hand knowledge, but nobody lived on a starship in the Delta Quadrant and that's still being written every day."
Of the decision to produce the film independently, the actor explained, "When you're trying to get something done in the studio process, unless you are relatives of the people who run them or Matthew Broderick wants to do your project, you're not going to get in that door. You have to do it on your own, because you can shop that thing until you're blue in the face. There's only 25 or so major motion pictures made every year by the studios. My partner brought this story to me. It was something we could probably do on our own, for not a lot of money, and we got a couple of breaks in production; we were able to make the thing for what we initially budgeted upon with a typical ten or fifteen percent overrun." The well-reviewed movie was named Best Urban Drama at the 1998 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, and won Best Feature Film and Best Actor at the New Orleans Urban Film and Video Festival.
Having directed the acclaimed alternate history episode "Living Witness," Russ will direct another episode of Voyager either at the end of this season or the beginning of next season. "It's entirely up to the good graces of the producer - he has been giving people the opportunity since Next Generation, the person to thank would be Jonathan Frakes because he blazed the trail," Russ explained. Almost half the Voyager cast will have directed by the end of this season - Russ, Robert Duncan McNeill, Roxann Dawson, and Robert Picardo. "It takes a lot of time, you have to go in there on your days off. And it can take up to three years to get a slot. It's not an easy process, a lot of sitting on screenings and talking to the editors, all the time you have on the outside of the show."
Does the Washington, D.C.-born actor expect to be directing an episode set in the Alpha Quadrant? "Bob thought we were going to get back last season, I was standing next to him when he told some reporter, 'Yeah, we'll get back at the end of last season,' and I said,'No, I don't think so," laughed Russ. "If they decide to launch a new series, that's when they'll bring us back, because they'll probably tie that in. That to me would be the strategical thing to do."
Then should we expect a new series before Voyager makes its exit? "The higher-ups would rather not have anything at all on for at least a year or two, they'd rather take a big breather, but it does not make sense to the studio," the actor suggested. "Paramount is about money, and they just want to milk the cash cow. The children who are watching the show now know Voyager. There are some growing up who haven't even seen Next Generation, they're going to know a lot about this show. They'll be able to watch the older shows in syndication, but that's not the same as growing up with the new show that's on the air. The show that follows us will bring in another generation of kids watching it for the first time. You have people growing up with Star Trek who are going to be the next series of fans."
What about people like Russ and myself, who fell in love with Classic Trek not during its original run in the '60s but in syndication in the '70s; couldn't that situation repeat itself? "I think that those shows in syndication don't run in sequence," he pointed out. "With DS9, that could be very difficult. I heard it was spectacular, but you need to see it in sequence. Next Generation doesn't necessarily run in sequence, but it helps. Ours you don't need to see in sequence; right now you could watch an episode from first season right next to a show this season. The only difference might be the people involved. You could have Jennifer [Lien] in one but not in another."
I think you can get away with that with Voyager, and then they can sell the show very easily in that regard - people can tune into the show right now who've never watched any Star Trek at all and be able to pick up on it because we don't have a history with one particular character for a long time," added Russ. "We see the characters come, we see them go."
In terms of his own favorite episodes, "different ones you like for different reasons," he noted. "I thought 'Gravity' was a great show, I was very happy to get that. 'Future's End' was one of my favorites because I liked the story and it was fun to shoot it." In that two-part episode, Voyager is transported back to Earth in the 20th century, and Russ got to spend time filming on the beach in Santa Monica in a sleeveless shirt. "I'd rather do that than sit in a stuffy studio all day!" he laughed. "It was a very relaxing, very pleasurable two weeks, and there was a lot of fun stuff in that show."
"There are some other stories that I really liked," Russ continued. "'Distant Origin,' with the alien archaeologists discovering who their ancestors were. It was beautiful. I really dug "Nemesis," Ken Biller's story on the planet with the rebel force that brainwashed Chakotay. Here we're thinking these guys are the good guys when in fact they're the bad guys, and the guys who are ugly are the good guys. The dialogue in that story was very cool because it wasn't straight-across English, it was fragmented and modified. I thought it was brilliant the way it was written."
Neither "Distant Origin" nor "Nemesis" were Tuvok-heavy shows, but Russ agreed that they were very "Classic Trek" in tone. Of the Tuvok episodes, he was challenged most by "Meld," in which he linked his mind to a Betazoid psychopath named Suder and could not control the ensuing violent impulses. He also enjoyed "Flashback," the episode in which Tuvok relives his time serving under Captain Sulu on the Excelsior. "That was a great, well-written, very difficult show for me to do - a lot of work in it, but a great story and a great challenge, to have to play the past and the present all in the same moment," the actor recalled. "It was really clever and really well-done."
At this point, Russ sounds as if he would rather direct a great episode than star in one. "It doesn't bother me in the least to step on the other side of the fence for awhile," he noted. In terms of his goals as a performer, "I would love to do a Mad Max or a Waterworld type of flick, with a really bizarre nebulous period in time, that sort of action-adventure thing. I've only done a couple of things that were close."
A star of Heroes of the Storm, a television movie based on true-life stories from Operation Desert Storm, and as the Answering Machine Guy in NBC's The People Next Door - in addition to playing a slave in Roots: The Gift, which also featured Trek stars Kate Mulgrew, Avery Brooks, and LeVar Burton - Russ is comfortable with the idea of segueing out of acting over the next several years if that's where his career leads him. "Hopefully I'll either be directing or producing projects and still playing music," he said. "The acting is always going to be there - it doesn't go away."
Neither do conventions or appearances--Russ sang at the Godzilla convention in Los Angeles last weekend, and will be doing the same at Fantasticon and the New Grounds Coffee House in August. His film opens November 5 in L.A. That could be the start of a whole new chapter.