EMPATHETIC MARINA SIRTIS:
On Voyager and Earth: Final Conflict, She Gets Some Range
by Michelle Erica Green
Deanna Troi's return to Earth on Star Trek Voyager represents a homecoming of sorts for Marina Sirtis as well. Though she played Counselor Troi in three films since Star Trek: The Next Generation ceased production in 1994, filming Voyager's "Pathfinder" episode "was kind of stepping back into the way that she was before - in the movies she went a little zany, so we haven't seen the old Deanna, the psychologist, doing emotional scenes, and I realized I missed doing them."
Sirtis will appear on Voyager next week. But if you can't stand the wait, you can see her in syndication this week in a guest appearance on Earth: Final Conflict, where she worked once more with Majel Barrett Roddenberry - the producer of her late husband's syndicated series, and the actress who played Sirtis' mother on Star Trek. Still close friends with many of her co-stars from TNG, Sirtis has enjoyed these reunions, but found them bittersweet as well.
"The awful thing was that I got depressed again when it was over," she said of her Voyager guest spot. Returning to film at Paramount was uncanny, particularly since Voyager shoots on Stages 8 and 9 - The Next Generation's former home. Because all of Sirtis' scenes were with Dwight Schultz, who played Reginald Barclay on TNG, "it was like I was doing an episode of Next Gen. A lot of the crew are the same people that we worked with. It was great, but kind of surreal, wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time."
Barclay, famed for becoming obsessed with fantasy doubles of the command crew in one Next Gen episode - another turned him into a spider, while a third evolved him into a super-genius - has made an appearance on Voyager before, in the second season episode "Projections." There, he existed as a holographic version of the real engineer who helped design the emergency medical hologram.
Now, the real Barclay is stationed on Earth, working with Starfleet on a plan to bring Voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant. When he begins to work with holographic recreations of the crew in order to predict their responses to Starfleet contact, he becomes obsessed with the lost vessel.
"He's not on the Enterprise anymore, and he hasn't made friends on Earth," explained Sirtis. "He goes onto the holodeck and he creates the Voyager crew, and he gets obsessed with trying to make contact with them. Because everyone is fearful that he is going back into his holo-addiction, I show up - I take leave from the Enterprise to help my friend out."
Did long-time romantic interest Commander Riker mind letting Troi leave? "I don't know if Troi and Riker are still involved - we haven't seen Riker and Troi since the last movie," the actress laughed, noting that she was pleased the couple reunited in Insurrection, which happened at the request of actor-director Jonathan Frakes. Troi had been involved with brooding Klingon Worf when Next Gen went off the air, but when actor Michael Dorn joined the cast of Deep Space Nine, his character became involved with and eventually married Jadzia Dax.
"He had moved on, and I thought they actually made a much better couple than Troi and Worf did," noted Sirtis. "The characters were much better suited, and the fans were really much more into the Troi and Riker relationship." Two successful Trek Pocket Books by Peter David, Imzadi and its sequel, explored that relationship.
Ironically, Troi had become involved in one Next Gen episode with a clone of Will Riker created in a transporter accident years before. "I liked Tom better than Will!" laughed Sirtis of the bad-boy Riker who went on to join the Maquis. "He did resurrect the character, but he didn't get the lovey-dovey stuff with Troi." The actress described co-star Frakes as "pretty hunky...though Michael Dorn's not too shabby either!"
Yet the sexy bathtub scene in Insurrection wasn't nearly as exciting as it looked on camera. In fact "it was disgusting, actually." Both Sirtis and Frakes were wearing body makeup, "despite the fact that you're going to be in a bathtub, just in case bits of skin show, they make your body up so it looks gorgeous." However, "when you're sitting in a bath full of bubbles, it all starts to wash off. So there was this layer of slime with the bubbles that we would have to agitate. It was actually quite gross towards the end of the day! It looked very romantic, but the reality of the situation was quite different."
Will Riker and Troi ever get married? "If there's another movie, maybe we'll find out, and if there isn't, it'll be one of those questions left for all eternity!" exclaimed Sirtis, who said she knows nothing about the status of the next Trek feature. "We hear rumors the same way that everyone else does, and they vary 180 degrees from 'No, there isn't going to be another picture' to 'Yes, there is.' The actors are probably the last people to know. I've heard that it may be a DS9 movie. I'm sure the executives at Paramount have a game plan, but we're not aware of what that is at this point."
Sirtis watches the sequel series sometimes because she's friendly with the crew and many of the actors. But "that's an interesting thing, because I remember when we first started and the original cast would say that they weren't really up on Next Gen, I couldn't believe that they weren't watching it, even out of curiosity. I find that I'm kind of in that same boat now. I watch occasionally, but on a certain level, it's too painful to see our successors. It just makes me wistful. I wish I was still doing it - I wish they'd put me back on!"
The actress finds it hard to believe that so much time has passed since Star Trek: The Next Generation ended its television run. "It's five years now, but it seems like it was yesterday. I think when the show first ended, everyone was really keen to put it behind them and move on, not get stuck in that whole rut of TV, but as time goes by and you look back, it was such a wonderful experience. I worked with the best group of actors that I've ever worked with, not just talent-wise - we're still best friends. That's probably the only time it's ever happened in Hollywood, people who work together for seven years and then do three movies together and can still be best friends."
She still speaks to many of her castmates regularly, and is delighted when called for the films. "Now I look back on it really fondly, so when the opportunity comes to resurrect the character, I'm really up for it, because it was such a positive experience for me. To get together every couple of years for two-three months and work with my best friends and play this wonderful character, I do jump at it. I'd like to do one more feature, so we can say goodbye like the original cast did when they signed off at the end of Star Trek VI. It would be nice to have some kind of closure. "
Counsel From Troi
It's interesting that Sirtis describes Deanna Troi in the movies as "zany," because the more lighthearted character seems much closer to Sirtis' own personality. "I was happy that I was able to do that, to bring more of me into it," she agreed. "I think in Hollywood, actors who play closer to themselves have a much easier time than actors who play specific characters that are very far away from who they are. Career-wise, it was a very good move for me."
Sirtis said she had tried to bring more of herself into the character during the series, "and basically that meant making it more comedic. I had gotten feedback at conventions, and I was trying to impose that sense of humor on the character. But because the lines weren't there, it never really worked. In fact Jonathan used to say that to me, 'Don't be funny, Marina. Troi is not funny.' But it seems because of that one scene in First Contact [where Troi was drunk], they decided that they liked it. And I was delighted, because it's always much more challenging to do something different and not repeat the old stuff over and over."
Sirtis added with a laugh, "My husband always used to say, actually, when he would watch the series, during episodes where I had lost my empathic powers or when I was possessed by an entity or drunk or whatever, 'Why is it when that happens, Troi becomes much more like Marina?'"
She has several favorite episodes, each an installment that she sees as a turning point for her character. "The first one, I'd have to say, was 'The Child,' [in which an alien entity impregnates and is born to Troi so that it can experience life as a humanoid]. On a certain level, that was the most important episode for my character as far as I was concerned. That was a real turning point for me psychologically. During the first season, they were very kind of confused about what to do with my character, and I was getting written out of a lot of episodes. I was getting very nervous about being let go. It was scary; I was literally a nervous wreck at the end of that first season."
The cast had bonded already, and nobody knew that Gates McFadden's Dr. Crusher would be replaced by Diana Muldaur's Dr. Pulaski at the start of the next season. Denise Crosby had already left the series, "and that helped me out a lot, because when Denise left, it kind of secured my place a little more." Ironically, Sirtis and Crosby had originally auditioned for one another's parts. The security chief was originally conceived as a dark-haired Latino woman, while Roddenberry envisioned the Betazoid counselor as a taller blonde.
"I remember we were at Jonathan's wedding - he got married in the first season hiatus - and at the reception, Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman both independently took me to the side and told me that the first episode of the second season was going to be a big Troi episode. What that meant to me, I can't even put into words. The fact that I still had my job at the beginning of the second season, and that they had enough faith in my character and in me as an actress to launch the second season with me playing the primary role...I was just flabbergasted, I was so happy that they had that faith in me."
With her place secured, Sirtis got to have some fun playing "evil possessed Deanna," and "episodes like 'Fistful of Datas,' which was really the first time we saw Troi being a little lighthearted." She also enjoyed "Face of the Enemy," where "you saw Troi having the strength of character in a kind of combative situation and she wasn't possessed by an entity or some alien - she was just strong."
"The media tends to portray strong women as unfeminine - if you're a strong woman, you're usually a bitch," observed the actress. "What I loved about Troi was that there was no doubt in anyone's mind she was a strong personality and she had high moral values, but she was also very feminine and cared about how she presented herself to the world."
Though she never made a conscious decision to play the character as such, "That was something that really was Marina. Despite the fact that maybe in certain ways we're very different, that was one way that I could really bring something of me to the character, because I feel that I'm a very strong person, but I'm also a very girly girl. I don't think the one excludes the other. And I think that's what a lot of women like to see - that you can be pretty and you can still be strong and smart. A lot of times beautiful women are not portrayed in that way. They're kind of decorative and don't have a strong character. That, I think, was very good for younger girls to see."
Sirtis laughs that the great lighting in the films has enhanced her appearance. "I've finally gotten thinner and thinner over the years," she said, adding that when she was offered a role on Voyager, "I went on a diet and started working out every day in case I had to be onscreen at the same time as Jeri Ryan - I didn't want to look like the Goodyear Blimp standing next to her!" As it turned out, all of Troi's scenes were on Earth with Barclay, so Sirtis interacted very little with the Voyager cast.
Of Ryan's popularity, Sirtis noted, "The bottom line is that shows stay on the air because people watch them, so if guys tune in to see Jeri Ryan because she's a babe, then good for her. She's gorgeous and she's a really sweet girl, and a good actress. The Borg were always the most popular of all our bad guys, and I think she's brought something to the show - it gives the other characters a lot of interesting stuff to do when they have to interact with her. I think it's good to bring fresh blood in. It makes it interesting and exciting."
A Generation Beyond
Asked whether playing Deanna Troi changed her, Sirtis replied, "I think it did. It made me a much more confident person. Looking back now, I had such horrifically low self-esteem when I started. Playing someone who was just really together, I think when you play that person for fifteen hours a day for seven years, it mellows you out quite a lot. I was really quite...loud and obnoxious wouldn't be putting too fine a point on it!"
Some of her peers from the series have tried to distance themselves from their association with Star Trek, but Sirtis feels the opposite. "This is such a big part of my life, it's still a big part of my life. On a certain level, I do feel an obligation to the fans - I really owe them everything I have in my life. It was because these people turned their TV sets on for seven years that our show ran, and then they paid money to go buy movie tickets. It doesn't really have any effect on your showbiz career if you do conventions and keep in touch with the fans. I'm just thrilled that people still want to pay money to come and see me after all this time."
Some of the Trek actors say they fear typecasting. "I've looked at this, and I don't think it's specific to Star Trek; I think it has to do with being in a long-running TV series," said Sirtis. "It's a generalization, since there are people who do one series after another, but what generally happens is that the public associates you with your character whether you're on Star Trek or Cheers."
"I think you have to accept that some actors will have a slow period after they've been on a series because they are so associated with one character, and I find that it's kind of cyclical - you'll kind of get rediscovered again," she added. "But I think to try to say 'That was a part of my life that's over' is unrealistic. I was in Toronto when I was shooting Earth: Final Conflict, and Next Gen was on three times a day. People are still watching it, and if they're still watching it, then I want to say hi."
It was her bond with Majel Barrett that linked Sirtis to the newer Roddenberry series, which has been on the air nearly as long as Next Gen has been over. "We have a psychic connection!" laughed Sirtis of Barrett. "I had said to her, 'I'd love to do a guest shot on your show,' and she said, 'We'll keep an eye out.' Then, about four months ago, I called Majel out of the blue just to see how she was doing. We were chatting - she was telling me about her new show with Kevin Sorbo. It seems that things are going really well for her."
The actress who played her mother for several years told Sirtis that her timing was impeccable, because Barrett had just received a new script for Earth: Final Conflict and was planning to call Sirtis to see if she was interested in playing a guest character. "She described the character and I said sure. I'll be involved with anything with Roddenberry in the title. And it was a really nice part."
Nice? A woman who runs a cult of pregnant women working with the Taelons? "Well, she is really evil! And so unlike Troi, and not even that attractive," said the actress gleefully. "It was great to really do something different. The wonderful thing was that while we were shooting the story, they decided that it was a storyline they would like to pursue, because it was very interesting and it was going so well. I don't think I'll be associated with it, because - without giving too much away - it's not feasible. She's in one piece at the end, but she's not breathing. Though mind you, it's science fiction and anything can happen!"
These days, the London-reared Sirtis says she looks for "just something that's quality" in scripts. "I still have this feeling that I was on a very high-quality show, and if I do another show, I would want it to be of equal quality. I don't really put any parameters on it, I just want the character to be interesting. I don't really mind if there are similarities with Troi because I could do something different; if they called up and said they want me to be a psychologist, I wouldn't say, 'Oh, no, I've played a psychologist for seven years.' I just look at things as they come in and say, 'Is this interesting, is this something I could see myself doing for a long time?"
The "dreaded pilot season" is coming up, so Sirtis expects things to become very hectic very soon. She joked about being a television addict when she's at home. "Brent Spiner and I would always say, when we're not on television, we're watching it. I watch everything - the TV goes on first thing in the morning and gets turned off just before I go to bed. I have my favorites. I watch Law and Order three times a day. I like Frasier, I like The X-Files. I'm a big Must-See TV fan Thursday nights on NBC. I know that's not politically correct for someone who works for UPN most of the time, but I can't watch wrestling!" Still, she says she will watch the upcoming Voyager wrestling episode with The Rock, "just out of interest to see what they do with it."
She has made several films since Next Gen went off the air, most recently Paradise Lost, "a movie that we had real hopes for when we shot it, but I've got a feeling that it didn't get distribution, so we'll probably see it in the video stores at some point. That's something that happens so much these days - you do all this work and no one ever sees it because you can't get a distributor. I was watching Janeane Garofalo on Regis and Kathie Lee recently, and she was saying the same thing, so it's not just me! You kind of just have to keep going with the stuff you believe in."
Sirtis doesn't rule out the possibility of producing her own material, though she says someone else would have to write and direct it. "What's happening now in Hollywood seems to be that if you have a passion for a certain project, you have to do it yourself. This is something that I've never, ever considered before, but now I'm realizing that it is considered acceptable, especially for women; it's happening much more to get projects off the ground. I am kind of looking into perhaps doing some of that."
Her current project, however, is outside the film industry. "My husband and I just bought a restaurant," she said. "This is a new and exciting phase in our lives! It's been open about a month. If I'm there and it gets busy, I'll be behind the bar pouring drinks. I'm not doing the cooking, but I'm making my famous cheesecake this week because my husband thinks it's better than the one they're making right now, so I might be handing over that secret recipe." The Mexican restaurant in Lake Arrowhead Village, California is called Casa Coyote, and the Star Trek Continuum reports that Sirtis' husband Michael Lamper's band plays there frequently.
When she's not working, Sirtis supports charities, especially those which benefit animals. "There's a wonderful organization in Utah called Best Friends for Animals which is a no-kill sanctuary, I try to do a lot for them and I sponsor dogs there. And the humane society, I'm an animal person so those tends to be the charities I support." The empathic Counselor Troi lives on.