Tim Russ spent seven years in the Delta Quadrant as Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager and has kept busy as an actor and director since the show wrapped up almost two decades ago. With the release of the new sci-fi dramedy series Personal Space (on Amazon now), TrekMovie decided to catch up with the actor to talk about his time with Trek on (and before) Voyager, the new show Personal Space and his other projects.
Happy with Tuvok’s journey on Star Trek: Voyager
Your connection with Star Trek goes back to 1987 when you auditioned for the role of Geordi La Forge for The Next Generation. Can you talk about that audition?
I went in to read for it once or twice and I subsequently went in to read for the doctor’s role in Deep Space Nine and then eventually Voyager. At the time I wasn’t aware that LeVar Burton was also up for it. That might have been a straight offer [without audition]. He was the only well-known name from the States that was in that series, that is one of reasons they brought him in.
They did end up hiring you a few times before Voyager. You had guest roles on both TNG and DS9, and then again for Generations. Did you know you were being considered for the Voyager role when you did Generations?
No. At the time the producer [Rick Berman] told me they were developing a series that was going to be called Voyager. But, they didn’t have all the characters in place yet and he did mention the series was coming and said if there was a role in there for me, he would love for me to come in and read for it.
But yeah, I did audition for all of those shows. Over the course of a year or two, off and on, and finally just booked a few of them. So, I had already been in their wheelhouse prior to Voyager, which was an advantage in my case.
Looking back, have you ever wondered “what if?” Have you ever thought about how you might have handled the role of Geordi, or are you happier you ended up cast as Tuvok?
Yeah, I am actually glad I got the role as Tuvok over that one, because the role that I had was somewhat more organic and much easier in terms of dialog. [laughs] I am glad I didn’t get stuck with all that engineering tech talk. I would have not have been as impressed or enjoyed it as much. That kind of dialog doesn’t do anything for me. So, I am glad it ended up the way it did.
Were you satisfied the way the writers handled Tuvok’s story and arc over the seven years of Voyager?
Yeah. I thought they did a very good job. They explored any number of scenarios for him, which I thought was pretty cool. The character was a father, he had a wife and children. We explored all those kinds of things, as we should to flesh out the character. I was very happy with it. We even explored things that we had to make up as we went along, because there was no precedent for them. I enjoyed that as well. It was very cool.
Can you give an example?
Well, the pon farr stuff didn’t really have a large knowledge-base, so we had to make up a lot of things for that. We had to extrapolate a lot on that.
I have spoken to some of your costars and I know that some, like Robert Picardo, would pitch ideas to the writers for his character. Did you do much of that?
I didn’t that much. I might have put a bug in their ear at the beginning of a season about something here and there. I might have an idea about a concept or something for the character to go through. I know that there were a couple of episodes in that vein to what I was talking about. But, really I trusted them to come up with stuff and sure enough they did.
As a creator yourself, and now looking back at Voyager, how do you feel it fits in the 90s TV landscape? What are your overall views of how the show worked out?
It was a very good premise. The concept was open to a good seven years of story lines. We could do anything we wanted. We were not locked into already established characters or circumstances or environments. That is what I think made the show almost like the original Star Trek. We were continually moving and exploring, even if our goal was to get home.
You got your start directing on Voyager, can you talk about that?
It was great to have the opportunity by the producers. They allowed you to do an internship while being on the show and get a shot at shooting an episode. It was wonderful to have that opportunity. I can’t say that enough. You may not get that on all the television shows, although it is more common than it used to be. Even though it was just the one episode, that got my feet wet. I loved the episode. I thought it was good story and it turned out very, very good. So, I can only say I was fortunate to have the opportunity.
Back in space in ‘Personal Space’
Let’s talk about the new show Personal Space. How would you describe the premise of the show?
The premise, which I thought was very clever, is about a deep space mission with these intrepid crewmen and crewwomen on a mission financed by NASA which then runs out of money, so they have to go to a secondary source of funding. So, to keep the mission going, there are some compromises that have to take place involving the crew, unbeknownst to them. It is a unique story and I loved it.
The show is described as a sci-fi comedy drama, so do you see your role as Jeff Lipschitz more on the comedy side or the drama side?
It is kind of dark, sort of a dark dramedy. I don’t have that much humor in what I am doing. It is part of how the characters react to the circumstance that makes it interesting. It is more of an introspective for each crewman and what their thoughts and feelings are as they communicate. The main thing about long-term deep space missions – more than the tech – is the psychological condition of the crew and how they get along.
Is it a commentary on reality television and maybe social media?
It’s more reflective of reality television and how the story line unfolds. The way that it comes off to the people back on Earth comes off as a reality show. So, there are a lot interpersonal stories between the characters and there is also their relationship to the mission and their duties on the ship.
This is another project that grew out of crowdfunding. You have been involved in a few projects like that. Do you feel it is still a viable way to get projects going, especially these sci-fi projects?
They are only viable as long as the fans who want to donate are excited about the cast members who might be in them. I do think it had its heyday for a minute and started to wane, because there are so many projects looking for funds. After a while, people are just going to get burnt out on it.
When it was available to take advantage of, it was certainly very good. It tends to only really work when the subject matter is something the fans are already familiar with and they are excited about and want to see more.
You were involved in some of the Star Trek fan films, such as Star Trek: Renegades which de-Trekked and became Renegades after CBS issued their new guidelines for fan films. Do you think CBS was being too strict or was it the right thing to do?
Look, you are technically raising money and people are technically getting paid for professional work on a project that is owned by another entity. So, you can’t do that. I knew from day one that this wasn’t going to last. You either have a license or their permission in order to persue these kinds of things. Even if they are not being sold to the public, which is a clear violation of copyright, people are being paid to work on the project and you are raising money to pay them, and you are raising money to pay yourself. As I said before, the fans will donate lots of money for a project they are already familiar with and they are familiar with it because someone else broadcast it. They have every right and that is what they did.
What’s next for Tim Russ
You are also currently developing your own new sci-fi film called Proxima 7, can you talk about that?
Yeah, that is one of the projects I have in development. It is with John Mott, who has been around for many, many years. He has independent financing and wants to put this thing together and get it going. He asked me to direct and we are co-writing the story, with Alexx Van Dyne who is writing the script. It is about a mining operation in space and what is going on between the miners and the CEO of the company.
I am also developing something with Herman Wilkins called Flight of the Sparrow which is being written right now. I was also supposed to be directing a project called Gift of the Heart in late spring or early summer. There is also a project of mine called Myth, which is a creature-thriller based in contemporary times with an ancient civilization running under it, so it is pretty cool.
Marina Sirtis and Ethan Phillips are attached to that last one, right? Is this one of those Syfy-kind of monster movies?
Yeah, they are. And yes, it is a creature flick. Not so much like Alien. This is more to do with ancient history on this planet, but it is in that vein. I think some of that genre is coming back.
And, you are also continuing to work as an actor.
Yes, I am working all the time as an actor. I just finished working on Superior Donuts and I got another episode of that to do in a week or two. I worked on NCIS: New Orleans recently. I worked on a Hallmark film not long ago. I also recently worked on 9-1-1. So yeah, keeping busy.
Season 1 of Personal Space available now
Personal Space tells the story of astronauts aboard a generation ship who have no idea their therapy sessions are being broadcast on Earth as a reality show. It stars Nicki Clyne (Battlestar Galactica). In addition to Tim Russ, the cast also features the late Richard Hatch (Battlestar Galactica), Kurt Yaeger (Sons of Anarchy), and Cliff Simon (Stargate: SG-1).
The first season consists of 28 short episodes, each around 5 minutes. Russ is featured in 2 episodes. Tim plays first shift flight engineer Jeff Lipschitz, who is the best friend of the captain, who has been put into cryo sleep. The first season is available now on Amazon. More info at personalspace.tv.