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