Interview: Jeffrey Combs On The Serendipity Of Playing Multiple Characters In ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’

(Photo: Shout! Studios)

On Monday May 13th, the documentary What We Left Behind about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will hit US and Canadian theaters in a one-night event. TrekMovie has spoken to members of the cast and producers about what we can expect from the documentary and about their time on DS9.

Today we present our interview with Jeffrey Combs, who appeared in 31 episodes of Deep Space Nine playing a number of characters, including the recurring charaters Brunt (a Ferengi) and the Weyoun, a Vorta who was the primary representative of the Dominion, the main antagonist of the series. Combs went on to appear in Voyager as well as the fan-favorite Shran the Andorian, a recurring character on Star Trek: Enterprise. He is one of a small handful of actors who have appeared as eight or more characters in the franchise.

One of the themes of What We Left Behind is how DS9 was a different kind of show. You had the opportunity to work on Voyager and especially Enterprise. How would you say your experience was different on Deep Space Nine?

Good question. To answer, I will use a metaphor. Let’s say I work on the line at Ford making cars and a new model comes along. Well, the assembly line is modified and there are different people, but the same basic assembly concepts and apparatus and infrastructure are in place, even philosophy. So, even though they were quite different in tone and in personnel, it was also very comfortable to me. I knew that each show had more similarities than differences, in terms of the daily schedule, what to expect, and the level of quality of every department, including many of the same people. Like for instance, for all of the shows, Robert Blackman was the costume designer. So, that is a consistency that was comforting. So, the basic running philosophy was the same, it wasn’t an Earth-shattering difference for me at all. And that is good because most of the time actors like myself that recur it is a bit like going to a new school. You walk and things are humming along and you just don’t know the ins and outs of everything. So, any kind of reassurance you have around yourself that things are familiar, that really helps you. Actors deal with a lot of anxiety and trepidation when they walk onto a set they aren’t familiar with.

Jeffrey Combs as Tiron in “Meridian,” his first appearance on DS9

As a recurring actor, you appeared on DS9 over 30 times, playing a number of different characters. Why do you think they kept calling you back so many times, especially for different roles?

That is a really good one. It all happened in a really unorthodox way. It started out fairly benign. I had auditioned for a couple of episodes of Deep Space Nine and not gotten the gig. So when I went in for “Meridian”—which was my very first—it was an alien who only showed up once. It was a “oner.” I auditioned and was in the batter’s box again and I got that job, and I never imaged it would be any more than a guest star for one episode of Star Trek, a show that as a kid I absolutely adored. I love the original series, so just getting on a Star Trek series was a bit of a milestone for me. And Jonathan Frakes was the director of that episode, so he got me on the dance floor and I appreciate that.

As I was on set, I reconnected with my dear friend Rene Auberjonois. I had done theater with Rene, and it just so happened that Rene was prepping to direct a Ferengi episode [“Family Business”] and he suggested me for Brunt. There was a little bit of natural resistance for that because “wait, he is on an episode, why would we double dip like that?” But Rene went to bat for me and said: “who is going to know? He is a Ferengi.” And they said yes, and that turned into a recurring role. So, I thought that was it. The lovely thing was I didn’t have to audition for Brunt, in fact, I didn’t have to audition for Star Trek ever again after that. I am forever grateful for that as I am a dreadful auditioner.

So, I started doing Brunt and [showrunner] Ira Steven Behr walked up to me on set one moment and said: “We really like your work and we want to bring you back in something people will recognize your face in.” And little did I know that Weyoun would blossom into surpassing Brunt in recurring and become more and more integral to the storyline of Deep Space Nine. I still pinch myself every single day at my great good fortune. And of course, Enterprise called and asked if I would play Shran, which I was very grateful for because I loved that character and enjoyed every moment with that and Scott [Bakula] and the crew.

Jeffrey Combs as Brunt in DS9’s “Family Business”

Were there ever episodes that you had to turn down? Could there have been even more of you in Deep Space Nine?

That’s a really good question because I had other things going on besides Star Trek. I have a sort of foot in the horror world – Re-Animator, Frighteners, From Beyond – the list goes on and on. You would think there would be some sort of collision at some point. I do remember Frighteners interfering with Deep Space Nine, but it all worked out. Deep Space Nine was very accommodating with dates. They could be somewhat flexible, if you couldn’t make it this time you could make it another. Remarkably, there was never a collision like that in all those years I did Star Trek. I probably turned some things down that weren’t quite as interesting to me as Deep Space Nine.

Through the process of being interviewed for the documentary – or maybe by watching it – did you learn anything new about Deep Space Nine, or about you or your characters?

The thing is when you are shooting these things, they don’t really tell actors very much, at least recurring roles. You are always kind of on the bubble. You never know how many episodes you are going to do because the writers don’t know. I even knew at the time that they might have a general idea of an arc for a season or a group of episodes or kernels of ideas to explore, but a lot of the time the writers were much like you see in the documentary fleshing out an imaginary first episode of an eight season. They are winging it. They are riffing in a lovely way. And that is one of the reasons why I was lucky enough do as many episodes is that what they would do is watch dailies and watch performances and this would spark some inspiration or a story that they hadn’t thought of before and off to the races. That was sort of an eye-opener. It is not a bible with: now we do this and now we do that. They are literally – to a big degree – just dealing with what is right in front of them.

One of the themes I love about the documentary is everybody’s memory of the same event is very – as I think Armin [Shimerman] said – is very Rashomon-ic. Everyone has a different memory of things, and that is very human. I love the specificity and the ambiguity that the documentary brings to everybody.

For Weyoun, how did the character evolve for you, and did you approach the different Weyouns differently? It started also as another oner but became this major character, which is a bit of a weird process.

It was a weird process. Like I said before with them finding inspiration with what they are looking at, okay. They never dreamed of Weyoun being a recurring role, and I didn’t. All I knew is that they came through with how they wanted to see my face in a new character and the character dies at the end of the episode. When a character dies, that’s it. It’s a oner, not to return. It is just serendipitous.

It is a bit of a collaboration, but not necessarily in the way you would think where we’re all sitting around riffing about it. They put something down on paper. I walk in at 4:00 a.m. not knowing how I am going to look. I would have an idea of what I am going to be wearing because I had a wardrobe fitting, but I don’t know what I am going to look like when they are done with my makeup. And I have about fifteen to twenty minutes once I am in my getup to look in the mirror and make some very quick and definitive, a gut, instinctual decision about who this guy is based on the words on the page but also on what I am wearing and how I look. And when I was done and the episode was done and I was killed, it was the writers who were looking at dailies and saying, “Why did we kill this very interesting character?” And they had the flexibility to say they don’t have to kill him, he can be cloned. And I am forever grateful to whoever came up with that suggestion, as I so relish playing Weyoun.

In answer to the second question, I did not try to play each Weyoun any differently. I viewed it as a clone that comes back completely intact, not a beat missed. Now, maybe the situation is different and the tension is rising or something. But I never tried to play the character differently with each iteration. What I may be facing is different and therefore my reactions would be different. But I never thought, “How do I make this guy different?” Other than the one that was supposedly defective. 

Jeffrey Combs as Weyoun 8 in the series finale of DS9 “What You Leave Behind”

Have you been watching the new show Star Trek: Discovery?

I wish I could say I have seen more of it, but I am not a CBS All Access subscriber. I did watch the shows that they had gratis at the very beginning and I really enjoyed it. In the spirit of Star Trek, I like that they are choosing to go where no one has gone before and go another way and not try to imitate any other series.

I don’t suppose there were any characters you spotted and thought to yourself that was a role you could do? As an actor can you resist watching anything without that?

Every movie I see, I go: “why didn’t I go up on that?” I think: “I could have done that.” Are you kidding? Not just Star Trek. But, Discovery is shot in Canada, and that is a fact affects decisions. So, it’s just the nature of the beast.

Actor Jeffrey Combs remembers his varied performances across Star Trek in the documentary “What We Left Behind’ (Shout! Studios)

What We Left Behind in theaters Monday

As previously announcedWhat We Left Behind makes its one-day-only theatrical debut on May 13 in the US and Canada. Tickets are still available through Fathom Events.

What We Left Behind theatrical event poster


Keep up with all the updates and news on the DS9 documentary in our What We Left Behind category here at TrekMovie.com.

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Just Another Salt Vampire

One of the sad things about Enterprise shutting down early was that Shran was not able to become a regular character as was planned for season 5 according to the show runner Manny Coto. Jeffrey Combs was a great asset to Star Trek. The new Trek powers that be would be wise to put him back on the field in one of the new series (or more than one, as was the previous case).

Darfyn

Would have loved to have seen an expansion of his Andorian role in Star Trek Enterprise Season 5 !

TG47

Shran was one of a very few Enterprise characters that riveted me.

I was so very grateful that Enterprise seriously took on the Andorians, and Jeffrey Combs sold the character and the culture right out of the gate.

I hope they can find a guest starring role for him in the Picard show…

And if Pike’s Enterprise ever happens, I’d love to see him play another Andorian.

Marja

SECOND!
And as Andorians live a pretty long time [per Memory Alpha], perhaps he could even play Shran, or son of Shran in a Pike series ….

Cygnus-X1

I really miss not having a Season 5 of ENT. I enjoyed how they were developing the Andorians, and I always enjoyed Combs as Shran.

Marja

He was such a great character. I’ve always liked Andorian characters, going back to Journey to Babel, and Commander Shran was absolutely the greatest!

Dr Zaius

Loved him as Shran.

kmart

I’m not big on live performance and theater, but he did a one-man show as Edgar Allan Poe that Harlan Ellison raved about. REally wish I had seen that, as I’ve always enjoyed the guy’s work (especially as elfman clone), even in the cheesy 80s movies.

Darfyn

Great Actor whose abilities go way beyond just the Star Trek Franchise . Would hope to see him in Marc Zicree’s coming Space Command Series or Bruce Boxleitner’s new Lantern City Series !

For my latinum, Jeffrey Combs and Andy Robinson are unquestionably the co-MVPs of Deep Space Nine guest stars, and with the broad and deep recurring cast of DS9 that’s saying something.

God I miss that show.

Darfyn

Yes , two good actors who could project their characters very well !

Legate Damar

I love Weyoun and Shran. Brunt was cool too.

Marja

Combs brought a lot to what could have been a one-note, subservient character. Somehow he infused Weyoun with a dignity and duplicity one would not expect from seeing the character’s words on a page of script.

AJinMoscow

I feel in love with Combs’s acting style when he played Dr. West in Re-Animator. He brought that wacky, just-short-of-psychopath thing he has to his Trek roles as well. Would love it if they could hire him for something Trek-related in the near future.

alphantrion

They need to get him and some of the older character actors on Discovery. I would so love to see J.G Hertzler, Marc Alaimo and him in the show or perhaps in one of the other developing shows.

DIGINON

Discovery being shot in Canada seems to have an impact on casting. They have a lot more local acting talent in the smaller roles. Could be that it is mainly to get some Canadian tax incentives but could also be that California-based actors are less eager to travel up north for a guest spot.

alphantrion

Yeah, I think they might be less eager to travel there. Wasn’t that a big problem for Anson Mount as well? I heard that was one of the reasons he didn’t want to commit to a full time show if it was shot in Canada.

Marja

GOD they had such good “guest” actors on DS9! Marc Alaimo, Louise Fletcher, Andrew Robinson, JG Hertzler …. the list could go on, but these, with Jeffrey Combs, are the tops!

Cygnus-X1

Marja

They really did. The character actors on DS9 carry the show, IMO. The actors who played Odo, Quark, Rom and Nog, also, in addition to those you listed. In that respect (and others), DS9 is different from the other 4 Trek TV series.

Cygnus-X1

Surprising that he was only in 31 episodes. I think of him as almost a regular cast member. Kind of amazing that he developed the Weyoon character from intuition in 15 minutes while looking at himself in dress for the first time. That’s a pro.

Another great Trek character actor that I’d like to see get more attention is Randy Oglesby, best known as “Degra” in ENT, but he also played 6 other Trek characters. One of his most memorable is the man with half of his face burned, inspired by Red Dragon‘s Francis Dollarhyde, in DS9’s “The Darkness and the Light.” I didn’t recognize him in that role even after being familiar with him from watching ENT several times through. Degra is my favorite, though. I really like that character a lot. Oglesby’s performance makes “Stratagem” in particular a very compelling episode.

Houseofquark

Enterprise got a bad wrap. I really enjoyed the exploratory vibe it captured so well. Without a doubt, Shran was a bright spot and it is a shame we didn’t get to see where that character would go with more time. I’m a big fan of his brilliant deep space nine work too!

Vulcan Soul

The Deities of Disco should hire Combs for a regular guest role in season 3 (distant Andorian descendant of Shran?) So he can show the kiddos how mature acting in a drama series is done! Then again, Mount & Peck did exactly that in season two but they couldn’t stay, nor have their own series apparently (thanks to “beloved” Space Hitler taking up slot #3) . The differential to the old guard would be too obvious. Can’t have adults in the room for too long ;)

Tiger2

I’m on a DS9 rewatch in honor of the documentary and now in season 6. And Weyoun is one of the characters you just smile every time he shows up because you know its going to be a really fun and engrossing scene. The character is so appealing to watch and I love how quirky he comes off in one moment but then dead serious in the next. Combs acting ability is just on another level the way he perfects these characters. Weyoun and Shran are some of the most popular characters in the franchise and set the bar on memorable side characters. We need more characters like this in future Star Trek shows.

Vulcan Soul

“We need more characters like this in future Star Trek shows.”

Hell, we need more ACTORS like this in future Star Trek shows! :)

Allan Graham

Jeffrey Combs as Shran was probably the best thing about Enterprise. Wonderful character in a fairly tedious series

Cygnus-X1

ENT is unique as a Trek TV show in that it got cancelled after it had turned the corner and substantially improved. So, revisiting ENT with fresh eyes, one wouldn’t know why it got cancelled. I’m one of the viewers who gave up on ENT somewhere in Season 2. There have been several popular reasons given for why ENT failed, and I think that topic would make for a good TrekMovie podcast or article. For my part, I believe it was a combination of the oft-cited causes that ultimately led to ENT’s cancellation. Looking back on ENT now, I appreciate the exploratory vibe, too.

But, by the end of ENT Season 4, Berman-produced Trek had been on TV for 13 straight years, with two series airing simultaneously for nine years straight. When you have that much supply of a certain type of entertainment, the audience’s standards and expectations tend to increase, in accordance with the economic laws of supply and demand. Whereas when that type of entertainment is in more limited supply, people are more happy with whatever they can get, as can be seen with the rise of Trek fan films in the years following ENT’s cancellation, when there was no TV-format Trek for over a decade. So, Trek fatigue, I believe, was real, and it was one cause of ENT’s downfall, but not the only cause.

Another cause, I believe, was ENT’s traditionally (for Trek) slow start. The two seasons that ENT took to get good is normal in retrospect, but by 2003, with a glut of Trek on TV for nine years, viewers wanted quicker progress. ENT’s normal rate of progress was just too slow by that time. Another cause is that Berman — and he has admitted as much, himself — had become fatigued as an executive producer of five Trek TV shows over the course of 11 years. Berman’s showrunners were all promoted from within his organization. And by the time of ENT, the writing and creative vision for Trek TV had likewise become fatigued and stale. (continued below)

Cygnus-X1

(continued from above)
Yet another cause, which I haven’t seen mentioned much, if at all, is that Scott Bakula, as the star of ENT, was playing more of a cowboy-type captain than any of his Berman-Trek predecessors had. It was the G.W. Bush years and, at the time, I got the distinct impression that ENT was trying to appeal to more of a red-state sensibility than Trek had done since TOS. Captain Archer was introduced as a guy who lost his temper quickly, used coarse, aggressive language, spent his down time on spectator sports, and didn’t have time for overly cerebral bureaucrats. Archer, to pinch a term from Capt. Ramius in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, was more of a buckaroo protagonist than Trek fans were used to. And with as much resentment and animosity as there was toward G.W. Bush, who had lost the popular vote and only won the election by suing for it in court, I suspect that Archer’s buckaroo temperament and personality put some fans off the show. At least I can say that it bothered me at the time.

Darfyn

I liked Archer , and his buddy Trip . I thought he was a more old world /human type of Captain with flaws and a good heart .

Cygnus-X1

Darfyn

I like them now, too. I find them refreshingly different from other Trek characters. Bakula’s portrayal of Archer changed a bit over the course of the series. I’d say he’s markedly less buckaroo by Season 4. And I really like and appreciate how he plays the excruciating decisions to torture, murder and steal as the Season 3 Xindi War arc progresses. Those episodes hold up well on repeat viewings. I can really feel how difficult it is for him to deal with his moral conundrums, as he slowly loses his innocence, one decision at a time. That’s part of what it means to be human — having to choose between two unacceptable options.

Darfyn

Well said , Cygnus ! Like all humans who would get excited about exploring space , but then must face the realities and dangers of space travel , this is the character he represented along with his space cowboy buddy , Trip . Both became extremely disillusioned by the dangers and hardships they were confronted with . Probably the reason , the producers decided to finish by the end of Season 4 . But there is a series of post-Enterprise novels that enlighten us to their future , which I found to be an exciting continuation of the tv show .

Tiger2

Yeah count me as an Archer fan too! I never had a single issue with him like a lot of fans did. I just loved how laid back and patient he could be in one moment but then become stern and hot tempered in the next. I love the fact he wasn’t as ‘enlighted’ as the other captains and had an ax to grind with the Vulcans. I loved him and T’pol’s relationship. It felt a bit like Sisko and Kira’s at the beginning, a little confrontational that evolved into a real friendship and trust by the time the show ended.

And I liked his turn in the Xindi war arc as well. The good nature and wholesomeness was basically gone by then but it reflected a reality he was no longer just going planet to planet to make friends but now saw upfront the dangers of what it meant to be in a universe teeming with life and consequences that could bring when start to be part of that community. By the time Kirk and the others showed up, the Federation had been through many wars and conflicts so they had a more balanced view of space travel. With Archer’s crew, until the Xindi, Starfleet didn’t have any real conflicts with aliens with the exception of the Suliban and that was never major like the others.

I still think they should’ve focused third season on the Romulan war. Its what fans really wanted to see and probably could’ve turned the ratings around faster.

Cygnus-X1

Tiger2

It would be interesting to see how the Xindi War themes work with the enemy changed to the Romulans. I think many of them could translate well. The biggest problem, however, would be that the Romulans don’t live in a strange and mysterious expanse of space. The adventure of the Enterprise setting out alone to traverse the mysterious Delphic Expanse is a major part of Season 3’s appeal, for me. The strange people that Archer & co. meet along the way… the aliens who steal from the Enterprise, presenting Archer with his first lesson in the Delphic Expanse… the captured alien prophetically telling Archer that he won’t make it in the expanse unless he loses his morality, the morality that prevents him from torturing the alien. I don’t see how that could apply to a war with the Romulans, who live much closer to the Federation and other known civilizations. On the other hand, the downside was that it didn’t make sense for an enemy as important as the Xindi (they nearly blew up the Earth!) to have never before been mentioned in any of the Trek series prior to ENT, whcih made the Xindi seem somewhat contrived.

Vulcan Soul

“And with as much resentment and animosity as there was toward G.W. Bush, who had lost the popular vote and only won the election by suing for it in court, I suspect that Archer’s buckaroo temperament and personality put some fans off the show”

And you are damn right about that! Archer (and his misportrayal/miscasting by Scott Bakula) is everything that is wrong with Enterprise in a microcosm.

He and some other pathfinder characters on the show foreshadowed the hostility towards the portrayal of scientific and military professionalism on the screen that became a public gripe with Prometheus and reached its sad zenith (or should I say, nadir) with Discovery: It’s as if we are supposed to buy that 150 years hence the descendants of NASA, Earth’s best and brightest, are a bunch of whiny, bigoted amateurs who forgot why we have rules, hierarchy and a supposed meritocracy (Archer being where he was as an act of nepotism was, of course, another perfect match for Bush).

The crass racism and sexism of crybaby Archer against Vulcans in general and TPol in general which made the show reactionary even by then-contemporary standards (and extremist in the opposite way of Discobery, where political sensitivities are concerned) always seemed inexplicable to me, but finally I understood Archer’s and the others’ behaviour was a mere function of the plot of “Vulcans having held us back and being a PITA for 100 years”, a vague and abstract background concept the show never viscerally sold to us, and which I never bought. On the contrary, as portrayed the Vulcans and TPol seemed to be the only reasonable and rational adults in the room, victims of the overemotional and self-centered teenaged human bullies who claimed to know better at any instance without knowing anything about outer space community standards (again, the lack of professionalism), and being proven right by Enterprise away times mucking things up really badly time and time again.

Had the show actually bothered to SHOW how exactly Vulcans held back humans and what were the dire consequences, the disasters and strife of humanity as a visible result of it (rather than a petty millennial feeling of not being the parents’ favorite child and not being allowed to freeload on alimony anymore but having to work hard themselves for all the good stuff) , then maybe Archers cowboyisms and hostility, not to forget his permanent grumpiness, would have been a TAD more believable!

Darfyn

I think your critique is too harsh on the characters , Vulcan Soul , since the show is mainly made for general viewing . But I agree , given an ideal series , there would be more time spent in explanation of circumstances in the show .

Vulcan Soul

Darfyn, to my mind the portrayal of Archer was way too extremist to fly for “general viewing” (and apparently, it didn’t, given the show was cancelled due to low ratings). That line from the pilot “You don’t know how much I’m restraining myself from knocking you on your a$$” alone was so bizarre in its crudeness it is strange how it could survive rewritings even in 2001. My impression is that people are viewing Enterprise and its characters through the rose-colored glasses of their hazy memories and forget how much society (and themselves) have shifted since that time.

There is something comical about the hypocrisy of people who now can’t even have a male character even look at a female one in a queer way without crying scandal would defend the obviously chauvinist and racist ways of Archer (is it because even as a Vulcan, T’Pol is not “of color”?) But I get it, humans are not self-consistent rational creatures…

Tillsy

The Andorian Mining Consortium runs from NOBODY!

Sebi

Wouldn’t that more aesthetically pleasing in blue?

GraniteTrek

He was also a great choice as the voice of The Question – the character that inspired Watchmen’s Rorschach – on the Justice League Unlimited animated series. That character has a blank face – not even spots like Rorschach – so all of the acting comes through Jeffrey’s voice. He did a great job.