Talking with Tuvok (Mania.com)
Date: Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Tim Russ is a man of many talents. Known best for his role as Star Trek’s first black Vulcan, Lt. Commander Tuvok, on “Star Trek: Voyager”, he is also a director, screenwriter and musician. His latest role as Frank the sarcastic doorman on the ABC series “Samantha Who?” has garnered him much praise.
Tim has had an extensive role in the Star Trek franchise beyond even Voyager. He has played several minor roles in various Star Trek series and films prior to landing the role of Tuvok. In addition, he has voiced his Vulcan alter ego in a variety of Star Trek computer games and an animated feature. After Voyager, Tim directed and co-starred in the acclaimed fan series Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. Extremely approachable and friendly, Tim is a fan favorite at Star Trek conventions and took some time out of his schedule to talk with us about his days on “Star Trek: Voyager” and his thoughts on the current happenings in the Star Trek universe.
Mania: Tim, when did you first realize that you wanted to be an actor?
Tim Russ: I would say it was in high school in theatre class. I really found it intriguing, fascinating and exciting. From there, I did a musical called You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. By the time I got out of high school I thought, “This is really a lot of fun.” After being on stage and in front of an audience it was really incredibly exciting. I was “bitten” from that point on. I decided to study theatre in college and that was, at the time, my goal. I just thought about taking it for a degree. After I got a BS in theatre, I went back to Northern California and lived there for a couple of years. I have been playing music since I was sixteen years old so I was doing that also. I was supplementing my income with that until about 1981 when I took a break from everything and I decided that it was time to pursue acting professionally. I decided to make a move to Los Angeles and do that. It was actually something that happened in stages.
M: How do you deal with the rejection that all actors have to go through at some point in the beginning?
TR: The advantage I have coming into this business is the fact of my upbringing. I think it was partly responsible for me to consciously pursue this line of work. When I moved to LA I was not married and had no family. Right off the top my overhead was fairly slim at the time! It was easier to survive then than it is now here in LA as far as expenses. It was just me and I was younger and had a lot of energy and I kept a specific goal in mind. I was already aware that there were a lot of variables in getting acting roles. You have to audition, get accepted, given the job, etc., etc. I figured that my lifestyle growing up was one of moving from one city to the next over and over being an Air Force brat. What that does is that your world becomes one of transience. That is the way this business is – it is transient. The whole nature of this business is transient. You go from job to job, working with people and then saying goodbye. You don’t know what is coming next week or next month or the next year. That is the way I grew up. I am used to that. I’m hardwired for it. A lot of people in this business are military brats. It was roughly about four or five years before anything really happened. I had a couple of little breaks here and there – a couple of little bites. But I hadn’t made it to where I wanted to be yet. You do have some doubts once and awhile. Finally, it was just a matter of pure luck – being in the right place at the right time and being right for the part. All of that came together in one shot. Once it happened and I was in the loop at a certain level, then everything else took off.
M: Once you get a part in something substantial is it easier for an actor then to get other roles?
TR: Yes, it is. I was just getting these little parts – guest spots, walk-ons, etc. You start off doing those. Once you get enough of those, then the casting director gets familiar with you and they will bring you back in for larger parts. Then you get to start reading for guest star roles. Once you land a few of those, then you might get a lead or a part in a feature. Eventually, you might get to read for a regular series role. From there, if you get to read for a series regular role and you get the chance to test for a series, now you are at the status where they will bring you in to test again for something else. You go from TV shows to Movie-of-The-Week and things like that. It just ramps up like that. Essentially, I didn’t do any soap opera work at the time, I focused on other areas. My first break was in features. I did a Walter Hill film and a few others. Once I made it to that level, I kept auditioning for features and then more television work and the television work ended up being the bread and butter. Once you have one of those good parts in your pocket, you can be sold to another casting director. It gives you credibility and gets you in the door. Once someone else has validated you, then you are valid! That’s the whole secret to this game. Once somebody wants you then everybody else wants you. That’s how it works.
And you have to adapt to the rejection because there are monstrous amounts of rejection in this business. But, on the other hand, there are times, even recently, when I thought, “Man, I couldn’t have screwed up that audition any worse!” And then they call you back and say, “You did a good job!” I have called my manager and said, “Oh man, I just blew the hell out of that audition! The casting director is never going to bring me back.” And he would say, “You got the part!” You have to have thick skin for the rejection, though.
But there are a number of variables that come down to why you get this work or not; in some cases, it may just be that you are missing something. I didn’t get any comedy roles for a long time. I was doing almost all drama – doctors, lawyers, cops, etc. I couldn’t get these comedies. I went to my agent and he said, “Why don’t you take a comedy workshop?” And I did. I took one for eight months – a comedy/improv workshop. Not long after that, in the following year, I landed parts on a couple of sitcoms and I got a regular role on a sitcom. It was a direct result, I think, of coming off of that workshop. It was simple as that. If you study the craft and the art – it’s just like going to the gym and working out – you’ll get stronger and land more work. Theoretically, even though I am working right now, I should still be studying stuff and doing another class here and there.
M: What is your earliest recollection of your association with Star Trek?
TR: I received a phone call. All the work comes in through a phone call. My agent tells me “You’ve got an audition. You are reading for this role for the new Star Trek series, The Next Generation.” I think, at the time, I didn’t realize how close I was to getting in that show. I went to read for the part of Geordi LaForge on The Next Generation. I didn’t know that the character was a regular or a guest-star or what! I went in to read for it. Because this was Paramount and Gene Roddenberry – it was a syndicated show – not a network show. Because it was being syndicated, they had more control over the piece than, say, going to read for a network show. That would’ve been a different process. All I had to do was satisfy those guys – not a whole room of people from the network. I read for that role a couple of times and that was it – I didn’t get it. But about three years down the line, I went back to read for other parts while the show was on the air. I didn’t get anything until, ironically, Gene Roddenberry had passed away. Rick Berman, his second in command, took over and he liked me. I don’t think Roddenberry liked me that much but Berman did. And Berman remembered me and brought me back after Roddenberry passed away to read again for a couple of projects. It took me three years to get a part on that show. Eventually, I got a guest spot on The Next Generation and I got a guest spot on Deep Space Nine. Then I got a part in the feature film, Star Trek Generations – this is all because of Rick Berman. At the time I was shooting the feature he said, “I’ve got a series coming up called Star Trek Voyager that I would like you to read for.” He told me twice that he wanted me to read for his Voyager show. I didn’t forget that.
M: Did he tell you that he was going to have you read for the part of a Vulcan?
TR: No, he did not say what the part was.
M: Up until that point, we had not seen an African/American Vulcan.
TR: No, that’s correct. I didn’t know what it was going to be. Sure enough, when the day came up for me to read this, I told my agent “I don’t want to be busy working on something else and miss out on this opportunity. This is a series that will stay on for seven years!” I had already been on several pilots, which didn’t go to series. I had been on a couple of series that didn’t make it, too. We were trying to find something that was going to stay on the air. That could be my bread and butter right there! I turned down a reading for projects that were shooting over that period of time because I didn’t want to be tied down and miss that audition date. When the breakdown came out, we looked at the various characters and damn it if there wasn’t a black Vulcan on there! But the character was 65 years old! I thought, “Damn, I am too young for that!” I thought I had really messed things up. I was losing work for not getting this thing to happen. We got a call to come back and read for this character but they had reduced the age down to 30. I thought, “Now we got it!” I went in there and read for them over two days and that was it.
M: Do you think Rick Berman lowered the age because he wanted you specifically for the role?
TR: I think that they couldn’t find anyone older to play the part that they liked. It was also the fact that the character was just too old for that position.
M: How did people react to you when you told them you were playing a Vulcan on Star Trek?
TR: I didn’t get that much of a strange reaction. It was just slaps on the back. They thought it was wonderful. They were glad I had a gig!
M: I remember when the cast was announced for that show, there was great curiosity about your role as Tuvok, the first black Vulcan.
TR: I had the task or duty to turn in a role that was convincing because it had already been established by Leonard Nimoy and others. I wasn’t making it up from scratch for something we hadn’t seen before. You create that character and that image so if you play a Ferengi, you got to be in that ballpark otherwise nobody is going to buy it. So this character had to be in the ballpark to start with. After that, the writers and yourself come up with ideas for storylines and flesh out his past and his choices, etc.
M: What kind of research did you do to play a Vulcan?
TR: I had all that stuff in my head to begin with. I grew up with only three channels that ran continuously Gilligan’s Island, I love Lucy and Star Trek. It wasn’t like I was going to miss this show growing up! I had been watching it off and on all the way from high school through college because that’s all we had to watch! So, eventually, just like everyone else in the world, there are cultural lines and slogans and dialogue from the show that everyone knows. Everyone knows who Kirk and Spock are even if they didn’t watch the show. All I had to do was remember. I had seen enough of it that it was permanently recorded in my brain. I knew exactly how to carry myself and how to speak, what attitude to have, etc. I just happened to be the right height and build for the role. If I were short and fat, I would not have gotten the role! If I had had a dialect from the inner city or from the south I wouldn’t have gotten the role. So, there right from the beginning, is the proof that you’ve got to have all that stuff line up in a row to get a role. Plus, the producers have to like you! That’s what it really comes down to. Those things worked out and the rest was just me dialing it in based on what I remembered. That’s how it came down. When they changed the character’s age, that’s when the door opened up. If they hadn’t changed it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
M: Over all these years, has Leonard Nimoy ever given you any feedback on your role as Tuvok?
TR: No, I have only met him a couple of times here and there. We spoke briefly and that was it.
M: I am assuming that some of your thoughts and feelings about playing a Vulcan on Voyager are the same that Zachary Quinto has now been going through to play a young Spock in the new JJ Abrams Star Trek film?
TR: He would have to get Spock dialed in because he is playing a younger version of a specific character. Good luck on that! I don’t envy him on that.
M: How do you feel about the new Star Trek film portraying the original characters much younger?
TR: Well, I personally don’t care for prequels. I just don’t like them. It’s like reading the end of a book first. We know Spock is not going to die because we have seen him later on in other shows. We already know what is going to happen. You know that he can’t die so automatically the suspense of them making it or not making it is lost. What was so intriguing about the Wrath of Khan was that Spock got killed. They killed him off and people were stunned! That is movie making and great storytelling. You kill one of the most popular characters on your series?! That was powerful stuff. That was one of the best of the series of films. People talked about that over and over again because of the fact they were rolling the dice! From my standpoint, I am not really that intrigued, from a story standpoint, in prequels of any kind. I like to go forward – parallel or forward. I have heard that the story for the new film is supposed to be really amazing and really good. It may very well be a good story and very exciting. I certainly wish them the best and hope the film does fantastic. It looks good. But I, traditionally, don’t like prequels. The Star Wars prequels had a lot of eye candy but the casting on those was bad and the whole thing was a disappointment.
M: Do you think Star Trek will ever get back to TV?
TR: I don’t know. All that is speculation. I don’t know anything more than anyone else does. By the time I would know about it, it would already be out there! It is up to the studio and CBS to decide. Star Trek series are expensive to shoot. It was over a million dollars an episode when I was doing it. I am sure they are more than that now. You are operating in a deficit for four years.
M: Tell me how you got involved with the unofficial Star Trek film Of Gods and Men?
TR: People call it a fan film but it is not. Fan Films are made by fans that volunteer to help out. This was a SAG operated project and all done by the book. People were paid for their jobs and time. We had professional people working on it. It was conceived by Sky Conway and he had the backing to go ahead and do it. He called me and said, “Do you want to work on this project?” I said, “Sure, who do you got directing it?” He said, “We don’t have anyone yet,” and I said, “Well, I would like to direct it.” I had already worked with him on Roddenberry On Patrol. I said, “Well, where’s the script?” And he said, “We don’t have one.” So we had to put one together and got a couple of writers who put together the story. We had a teleconference and each one of us had certain ideas that we wanted to have in the story. I wanted to have a story that had lead characters all playing in roles that were not their typical roles. Somehow, they are in a role that is totally different from what they were doing. We had no idea how they got there but, in some kind of way, they end up finding their way back to where they were. That’s what I wanted as an element. I wanted to see our characters playing something different from what we had seen them doing before. I also wanted to involve storylines that had current affairs built in – terrorism, freedom, and security – that sort of thing. We discussed what we each wanted and finally put together the story. That’s what came out. We went through the process of casting and getting the people who were available and wanted to work on it. It turned out, apart from the difficult shooting circumstance we had in Port Henry for that first eight days, everything came out quite nicely.
M: Did you have any concerns with Paramount since this wasn’t an official studio production?
TR: There were no concerns with Paramount unless we were trying to make a profit with it. Sky Conway is still considering getting a license to sell it on DVD but I don’t know if they are going to give it to him. But I think he would like to do that. It was the hard work of a lot of people who volunteered a lot of time. It is a composite and, quite honestly, I think if they make another feature film they should make a composite feature. They need to have a feature that has all the different characters from all over the Star Trek world coming in and out of the story. That’s how I would do it rather than just focusing on one particular series. You just make a Star Trek feature and you include any of the characters you can get your hands on – whether it is Michael Dorn or Marina Sirtis or Patrick Stewart or Kate Mulgrew – whoever you can get that will come onboard to do a cameo.
Maybe get one character to do kind of an arc – or hire an established actor to carry the thing. There are a lot of celebrities out there who would love to do Star Trek who are fans. You get your big feature length film and you make a good story and, at the end of the day, all anyone cares about is a good story. That’s all that matters. In the new JJ Abrams film, although it is a prequel specifically, it certainly excludes everyone else so all your characters are going to be new faces except for Leonard Nimoy. Ultimately, everybody is new, it is a new story, etc. but it is still Star Trek. So if you develop a good story, a good arc, a good plot, a good mystery to follow, it will work. I prefer the good sci-fi twisty sort of mystery shows that are pure science fiction. A concept that you are dealing with that we’ve never seen before, a twist on a concept, something they have to figure out that is a mystery while at the same time throwing in some politics and drama, etc. A good story that really keeps the pace up and you can have characters coming and going – especially if it’s a parallel timeline. You can have some fun with it. It is no easy task to do that, though.
M: There have been so many hours of Star Trek made as of 2009 that it is hard to come up with a new storyline that hasn’t been explored already in one of the series.
TR: You’re right. If you’ve got a good plot and a good story it can be adapted to Star Trek. I think it would be interesting to see how the various characters from the Star Trek series would interact with each other. My character would interact with anyone at any point and time if he knew who they were. He would know their accomplishment and their ranks and their jobs and positions.
M: Did you get to do everything you would have liked to do with the character of Tuvok?
TR: Yeah, for the most part. I did a lot of stuff I wasn’t even thinking of playing that they wrote for me. I think, for the most part, we tapped upon a lot of things that were interesting. The most fun stuff with that character was challenges to his logic. Anytime there is a challenge to the logic or the logic may not work and he has to go to plan B, that is the story that was most interesting for his character. Since he is based in that and it is his strongpoint, you’ve got to go for his Achilles heel. When it doesn’t work, what do you do then? They did that in the original series and those were the most intriguing stories with Spock. They did that with Tuvok in terms of relationships. They gave me two relationship stories in which I could not return the affection. That’s the way that goes! They were really Achilles heels for him and, in one episode, for the ship, too. But, ultimately, as far as a situation where he is in charge or in command and has to make a decision about something that is not logical because there is no logical decision. You have to flip a coin. You have to use some other tool. If you are not adept at doing that, what are you going to use as a model if all of your focus is always on making decisions based on logic? That’s a tough gig to make that type of decision. At that point, he would have to defer to a human to help guide him. That would be an interesting scene or moment. If you play against your strength that’s what makes the stories interesting. It gives you an obstacle to overcome.
M: What are your most missed memories of working on “Star Trek: Voyager?”
TR: What I miss most is the joking around with my cast mates and some of the crew. I really do miss seeing the security guard that was there everyday when I went to work. He and his partner would stand guard by the stage door. We used to crack up every day! It was so fun to see that guy. Every day I would go there and for seven years it was fun. I miss the hell out of that. The cast and I would often have a good laugh,too.
M: Do you stay in touch with any of them?
TR: Yes, I am still in touch with several of them. We all have each other’s emails. We run into each other occasionally at conventions and certain events. I get together with Ethan Phillips once and while and go see a movie. I used to work with Robert Duncan McNeill on “Samantha Who?” I’ve seen Bob Picardo at a few conventions. So I see these guys on the road often. We occasionally will plan to get together and have dinner. I went to see Jeri Ryan at a restaurant she has here. I do run into them from time to time. I haven’t seen Roxanna Dawson for a long time. I spoke to her on the phone briefly. Once you are done working on a project, it is usually “goodbye” to your cast mates. You might work with each other or run into each other again at some point but, generally, it is over.
We didn’t hang out that much on the show socially so there is going to be less chance of that happening after the show is over. Everybody simply goes his or her own way. That’s typically what happens in this business. You can work very closely with somebody for long hours of the day and night for many years in intensely emotional stuff and then be gone.
M: The public watches those of you on TV and thinks you are all the same off-screen.
TR: Yes, in fact, we didn’t do a lot of socializing on the show. Generally, when we would leave the set, we were gone home. We got our own families and friends and other projects, etc. You are there with your cast mates all day. When you leave the studio, you are going home! It is the same way when the show is over. There are exceptions to that. I do get together with Johnny once in a while and he and I go see a movie occasionally.
Johnny and I have a little connection that was established on the show. It is a moment I won’t forget. When I first came on the show, it was the first day of orientation. We showed up and we were going to meet with the producers and see the sets and all that good stuff. I pulled into the parking lot at Paramount in my car and Johnny was pulling up and we got out and spoke to each other because we were going to the same place. We walked down this alley, which was next to the soundstage and talked about what we were about to embark upon. I said, “You realize this is probably going to go for seven years.
This is a pretty big gig. There are a lot of things that are attached to this franchise.” He said, “Yeah, it is going to be an amazing journey.” We talked about it as we walked to the sound stage. As circumstance would have it, at the very end of the shooting, when the series was over, we had to come back to the lot to get our trailers cleaned out. That would be the last time we would be on the lot and on those soundstages. Johnny and I came back and decided we would clean out our trailers at the same time and that we would walk back down that same alley. So it was a bonding experience. We started the show and ended the show the same way. It was seven years but it was almost like a blink!
M: What is your proudest moment associated with Star Trek?
TR: My proudest moment would have to be getting the part at the very beginning. If there is one thing you don’t do in this business is count your chickens before their hatched! You don’t allow yourself the freedom to really go crazy until after you’ve done the work and by that time it has already been tempered. It was a proud moment for me knowing I got the role. I had not done the pilot yet or any episodes. We had not shot anything. I wasn’t going to rest easy until the producers had seen my work on the screen and they checked off on it. Nowadays, when you do a role in a series they test your character with an audience and if your character doesn’t test well, you may not be on that series. You can shoot the pilot and then it can get shelved and not go forward. The studio or network may decide they don’t want to go ahead with the project. Talk about disappointment! The bottom line is: when the check clears, that’s when you celebrate! That’s obviously after you’ve done the work. Until I was on the stage shooting and the check was clearing and the producers had signed off on my performance, I didn’t feel celebratory. We have to create the character and make it believable on the screen. If you remember, we had three or four other women as the captain of Voyager before they settled on Kate. Genevieve Bujold and several other actresses were considered.
M: I remember they were considering Lindsay Wagner, too.
TR: Yes, that would have been interesting. I think she could have pulled that off. I think she would have been good for that role. She would have been ideal. She looks great right now. She would’ve looked perfect, she was in shape, and she had a great voice and a recognizable face. It would have been a nice transformation for her to really wipe out the Bionic Woman. She might not have wanted to bother with it because it was sci-fi but she should have. But we went through a number of people. That tells you right there that nothing is in stone until you get the character that is going to come in there and do the job. It was well into August before we started shooting because they couldn’t find the captain.
M: That must have been nerve-wracking!
TR: It was definitely nerve-wracking! I was thinking, “Dammit, is this thing going to go?! Are we actually going to do it?” We couldn’t do the show without a captain! So, there we were, trying to get it together. I tell all the actors that are struggling and trying to make it, “As long as the check clears, that’s all you’ve got to worry about. That’s it! Everything else is gravy!” Beyond getting the role, everything else was just part of the ride. I knew that the potential for the role of Tuvok was enormous. I knew that was one of the goals that my agent and I were trying to achieve. Secondarily, my other proudest moment was directing Of Gods and Men and getting it to look like it did and received as it was. The bookend moments of the whole journey were those two.
M: You realize, of course, that as long as you live, Star Trek will always follow you?
TR: That is true and I have already realized that for better or for worse. There is no question that I will be associated with Tuvok forever. As it stands right now, fortunately, I have been able to come back and work on other shows and do other things like Samantha Who?
M: Are you looking to direct again?
TR: Yes, I am. I like directing. I am looking at trying to get a feature off the ground. I have done a series of my own short films, which are on a DVD collection called Frame of Mind. It is a series of short stories and collections and some of my cast mates are in them. They are sort of like “Twilight Zone” stories. I am keeping busy with all of that on my own.
M: Do you ever get to play your blues/rock?
TR: Hell, yeah! All the time! I have two bands I play with. I’ve been working two or three days a month for the last four or five years. It is only for my enjoyment now. I used to make a living playing music and it is a grind! You cannot get beyond a certain level unless you are a recording artist and making dozens of records. If you are not doing that, you are playing in smaller gigs on a circuit or at a particular place in town and you are only going to make so much money forever. It is hard to get above that.
M: Tim, thank you for the time.
TR: I appreciate it!
Series: Star Trek