On Thursday, Tim Russ will join two of his Star Trek: Voyager co-stars for a virtual GalaxyCon Live event. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to the actor and director about his time in the Delta Quadrant, current events, as well as the other projects keeping him busy these days.
This week you will be doing a Voyager panel online. While we miss in-person cons, do you see advantages to these virtual ones?
I haven’t had a chance to do one like this until this Thursday. Logistically, there are some advantages. Yeah, you can just roll out of bed, get dressed, and sit down in your living room and be able to do a Q&A and a panel and all that good stuff. For people who cannot afford to get to the conventions and all the expenditure that’s involved in flying, hotels, and stuff, it definitely is advantageous for them to do it online.
But it’s a double-edged sword. It is a give and take. I don’t think that those are going to permanently replace in-person conventions, which I think I would probably prefer. Just the scale is generally pretty big. And sometimes I get a chance to perform at those musically with my band, so that is much easier to do in person.
You and your co-stars were set to do a Voyager reunion at Star Trek Las Vegas in August. That event has now moved to December. Will you be there and will the cast have that 25th anniversary reunion in Vegas?
Absolutely, it is on my calendar, starting on December the 10th. I have not spoken to everybody. I know they were all coming for the original date, but I don’t know if they are all rescheduled. I would say there’s a very good chance that they will, simply because we’re far out.
Being the 25th anniversary year of Voyager, how has the legacy of that show impacted you?
Being part of the franchise, which is as we speak ongoing, being on board that train that seems to be never-ending. Anything I do now, or anywhere I go, the majority of people out there relate me to [Voyager]. I’m going to be tied to it. It’s not ever going to go away. From a career standpoint, the legacy has been quite positive. I’ve been able to do a lot more things and stretch my wings creatively because of the opportunities that came about as a result of being on that show. I think that has been a big plus for me.
It has, not a huge following, but they’re very much a group of enthusiastic fans. They are over-the-top enthusiastic about it. And thus, we’re still doing conventions and that that adds up to roughly 27 years, 28 years of doing conventions without stopping. So it’s pretty remarkable being involved in a project for that long.
In recent years you seem to always be on TV, from Sharknado to Supergirl, to Swamp Thing, to PEN15, and much more. How has being on Voyager impacted your acting career? When I recently talked to John Billingsley, he said he experienced a bit of a lull after Enterprise, before returning to regular work.
There was in fact a lull after I got off the show after working on it for seven years. I’d say that it lasted roughly three or four years. But during that time, I was able to go do other things. I was working as a director with a production company on the east coast shooting a lot of reenactment stuff for their docu-drama series. Now and then I did film and TV work. It didn’t pick up until after four or five years and I went back to doing more television. I worked on a series with Christina Applegate [Samantha Who?] and I had a recurring role on iCarly for a while. It took a while for it to kind of ramp back up again, which is fine. At the time I got out I wanted to take a break and do other things which I did.
I’ve been able to be attached to certain projects and to work in front of and behind the camera—again, because of the legacy of Star Trek and having worked on the show and having the fan base from that show. That is something that people who are interested in having me on board because of that and or they are fans themselves. It’s remarkable.
I assume one of those instances was being cast in The Orville because all of those guys are Star Trek nerds.
Absolutely. One hundred percent!
What was that experience like? Did it almost feel like working on a Star Trek set?
As far as Orville went, Seth MacFarlane is a huge fan. And there have been other [Voyager] actors that have been on the show. And they love the show and it was really fun to work on it. It was really cool because they’re very meticulous and they’re very detail-oriented about getting everything just right and the writing’s really tight. I was very happy to have the dialogue written in the way it was. The humor was just very lightly woven into the lines here and there. It’s really, really nice and very poignant in the episode that I worked on.
It was cool to be back on a spaceship set which is really elaborate. They’ve done a wonderful job on that set. It’s incredible. Very, very big and very detailed and, and very realistic. And I loved playing that kind of character on there as well. It’s right down my alley as far as being a historically-based character. I dug it, it was a blast. A great cast to work with as well.
You were a fan of Star Trek yourself and had worked in the franchise before being cast in Voyager. You took it pretty seriously. What did you do to prepare for the role, especially playing a Vulcan?
Growing up with this show, we watched Star Trek back in the day when I was in high school and college because there were only three channels and they only played reruns from everything from Gilligan’s Island, I Love Lucy, to The Andy Griffith Show. I can quote lines and sayings from all those shows just as well as I could for Star Trek. They ran it 24/7; that’s what we watched. And The Twilight Zone too, let’s not forget that. I could honestly say I was a fan of every one of those shows, including Trek.
In terms of my career, there was serendipity as it happened to be a show that I ended up playing a character based on that Original Series. You couldn’t write this stuff, and you couldn’t predict it was going to happen. You can only look back in hindsight, and it’s crazy to look back and see how that path came about. I could have ended up on Baywatch just as easily as Voyager. But it turns out that I get to read for the producers, they like me, they bring me back again and again and again to read. And then finally something pops.
As they often do, they brought back a lot of actors that worked on the show in one series, or another of the Trek franchise. Luckily enough, I was able to land one as a regular character. And for that character, all I had to do was give the character foundation based on what’s already been out there. Of the Vulcan characters I could figure, ‘Well, this is what the walk and talk is going to be for this character to start out with,’ until they can write stories for me to give me more of a background and a backstory and things like that. And the framework was different than the original character of Spock in terms of his life and in terms of his being married and having children. So his mindset is going to be different that way. I was able to use his character and other Vulcan characters that had been portrayed as an amalgam for Tuvok.
On a recent episode of the Inglorious Treksperts podcast, Bryan Fuller said, “Tim Russ is a secret weapon who was rarely deployed to maximum efficacy.” He also talked about how well you understood your character. He is kind of implying that the writers underutilized you. Do you feel they could have used you more or missed out on some opportunities with Tuvok?
It could have been different. We introduced other characters, like Seven of Nine, later on in the series, which I think changed the dynamic of how many storylines were going to be allotted to everyone. Plus, we had nine people in the cast. So that’s nine characters to all have backstories and storylines. And then some of them are ensemble storylines. It doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of room for everybody to get that many storylines that are interesting or different, and we don’t know how many stories they might have broken that were not used. They might have had something that they were going to use and they didn’t, or something that could have worked, but they weren’t as crazy about it and they chose another one instead. I don’t know all those things because I wasn’t in the room, as it were.
But with the late coming of Jeri Ryan’s character, they had to get her established and get the backstory on her character up to speed so that she was along with the rest of us. And they focused on her to do that. And it would have taken a few storylines from everybody just getting that that process done. That was a decision they made. We didn’t go with that the regular cast the whole entire time through. It happens, that’s the way it works. I have no problem. I got at least three, four, or five storylines out of there that I was very happy with.
In that same podcast, Fuller talks about some of the tension between the writers’ room and management, like how they wanted to do a full season arc for “Year of Hell” instead of just a two-parter. Were you guys aware that the writers wanted to be more ambitious and take more risks with the characters and the show?
Not really, unless it involved your character specifically. If it didn’t specifically involve my character then I’m just in the story as a supporting player for that storyline. If I’m just contributing to the ensemble, or I’m supporting somebody’s storyline in that episode, I’m not going to feel the impact of that as much. And the stories they gave me were not that crazy and radical. They were pretty focused and pretty grounded. And a couple of them were really cool.
But I wasn’t aware of “Year of Hell” just being a two-episode arc rather than an entire season arc. I had no idea that that was the plan. You know, the only time I had communication with the writers generally was when it had to do with my character, specifically for an episode or for a scene or whatever it might come out to.
There is one episode where I assume you did have more interaction, which was “Living Witness,” your first time behind the camera. That episode had a lot of interesting choices and went to some pretty dark places. How much creative control did you have as a first-time director?
You have somewhat limited control over what you could do as a director on a Star Trek episode. I knew what the executive producers wanted and what they didn’t want. So there are places I could not go as far as shooting that episode, although there wasn’t really a huge call for me to go in places that were that unusual in terms of what I could get away with and what I couldn’t.
The episode I directed was a standout because I was behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. In that episode the other actors had to play the dark versions of themselves, which we hadn’t done up until that point. I remember the first day of shooting when they had to appear on camera as their evil versions. And they just laid it out. I didn’t have to think or do anything. They just brought it, and all I had to do was film it.
Voyager never did a Mirror Universe episode, but as you say this episode allowed for actors playing evil versions of themselves. Do you know if the idea started as a Mirror episode and writers chose to do it in a different way?
No, I don’t know how they got that going. I think they were trying to go for something similar, but they didn’t want to do the same thing because they’d done it on DS9, twice or more.
You were there!
Yeah, I know. I was in it! [playing Mirror Tuvok in DS9’s “Through the Looking Glass“] And they so they didn’t want to do something that was exactly the same. I loved the format. I love the alternative history theme in this thing. History is a hobby of mine. You don’t pick those shows, they give you the show that you’re going to shoot and I was so lucky to get an episode like that. And it’s such a great point about the legacy of cultures and how they interact and treat each other.
I mean, MY GOD, we’re going through this stuff now almost. People are looking back at history and history affecting the results of the current times. And that’s EXACTLY what that show was. It’s exactly the same thing. You know, the interpretation of what happened before affects how the two cultures interact with each other and deal with each other in the present day. And then when that news is found out to be falsified, how do you break that news? And what kind of reaction are people going to have? And they wove that story so elegantly. And of course, Bob Picardo as the central character played it wonderfully and carried it off. So it was spectacular.
You brought up recent events, and I know you were out on the streets for Black Lives Matter. Did you encounter anyone going, “Hey Tuvok is here!”
[Laughs] I did not get that reaction. I wasn’t in a huge crowd. That was going to be a little too risky for me. I was in the protests when people were more spread out and I always kept on the move as well. So it was very unlikely that was going to happen, plus I had the mask on. I did an interview with [LAist] during the thing, and that’s the only time that information came out. Otherwise, it was just people on the street and nobody said anything. They were very focused on what they were there for, which is great.
So much has been written about the importance of diversity in Star Trek, going back to The Original Series. There were of course a number of Black actors in The Next Generation era before you were on Voyager, but was there any discussion of the significance of being a Black actor and a Vulcan?
For me, it didn’t factor into it because they already everybody from Nichelle Nichols to Avery Brooks on DS9, the commander of that station. And then a female captain on our show, and the second in command was Native American. At the end of the day, I’m just part of that mix, by the time we get to me. That was the way that [Gene] Roddenberry did things from the beginning. That was the way Star Trek has done things from the beginning, across the board. Of course, it is in the future. It is science fiction. It would be an obvious makeup of multiple ethnicities involved in any storyline in the future, as long as they’re still humans running around, that would make total sense.
Even if someone asks you, “Well, how could there be a black Vulcan?” Well, they have two suns. So I would imagine it’d be twice as hot as it was on planet Earth. [laughs] And look at the diversity of human beings that we have based on evolution on this planet. Do we all look the same? No. To use a phrase I used often with the character, logically, that would make sense for there to be dark-skinned Vulcans.
Have you encountered feedback from those who saw it as significant? For some fans, isn’t it important to see something of themselves on screen?
Yeah, it is very important. As a role model character, it’s absolutely important. And I have had feedback from people about them being inspired by my being on the show and inspired by my character being an officer on the bridge and being African-American and also in being in a position of rank and status. And also, as a positive role model, I have had positive feedback about that often.
From my standpoint, I enjoy being able to do that. When I first started out working as an actor at that time, I was playing roles that were quite the opposite. A lot of street toughs and drug dealers and things like that. To be able to go from those types of roles all the way up to working as an officer on the bridge of the starship in a science fiction series, yeah, that’s something I can look back on with some pride in knowing that it’s portraying a positive role model. And also, one that is more or less Zen and in control of things and not flying off the handle. I mean the guy’s a very centered character.
Recently, Garrett and Robbie started a podcast rewatching every episode of Voyager. Is that something you could imagine doing?
Not really. I didn’t watch a lot of them when I was working on the show. I have the DVD collections here at the house and I saw some recently when I was at a convention and some of them are actually quite interesting and quite good. Eventually, I will see the majority of them but I haven’t really watched. You know, we shot quite a few episodes.
Generally what I would prefer, if I was to do a podcast, I would rather be dealing with sociopolitical topics and/or science in general. I’m an amateur astronomer, so I enjoy science. I’d rather be talking about hard science, history, or sociopolitical topics. That’s where my interests mostly lie. And it could be pop culture, in some cases, I don’t mind talking about that as well. But serious stuff is what I would typically want to surround myself in terms of topic matters, rather than necessarily Voyager.
Are there any other current film or television projects you want to let fans know about?
There is this feature film I directed that we released just at the end of 2019 called Junkie. It’s a drama with a strong female character lead role. It is about a young woman who is addicted to heroin and her brother goes missing. As he’s trying to get her off this stuff, he confronts the drug dealers and he ends up going missing and she has to kick the habit really fast in order to try to help find him and rescue him and she ends up going head-to-head with the people who are selling the stuff in this very small town in anywhere USA. That’s out on Amazon and a few other places.
There is also 5th Passenger, which is also out on streaming on Amazon and a whole bunch of other places. It’s science fiction. I was an actor in that and it’s a very unusual role. Again, it’s sort of a commentary on what’s happening right now. But in reverse. It’s very cool. It’s a lifeboat type space drama with a number of people who are on an escape pod from a ship that’s just exploded, and how they’re going to survive. And it’s a very cool story with a couple of twists in it.
I am working on a couple of projects right now with co-writers. One is a sci-fi project that is contemporary but has science fiction elements. I cannot give away anything about that one because it hasn’t been done yet. And there is another science fiction adventure called Proxima 7 which I’m working on with John Macht, who is the producer. We are just now in development.
Finally, you mentioned your band [“Tim Russ Crew”]. Any plans on when you will be able to get back out and do some gigs?
We don’t have any booked gigs because clubs aren’t open yet. But we will be doing a performance this Saturday afternoon at five o’clock at my house, right in my front yard. We’re going to perform live and we’re going to put it on Facebook in a stream. It’ll be us playing in my front yard here in West Hollywood, which I have not done before. So we’ll see how that works.
[More info on “LIVE FROM TIM’s YARD” event: CLICK HERE]
GalaxyCon Virtual Voyager virtual event with Tim Russ on Thursday
GalaxyCon Live is holding a Star Trek: Voyager virtual event on Thursday, June 25th. Tim will be joined by Robert Picardo and Garrett Wang. There will be a free streaming live panel, along with the opportunity to buy group or one-on-one chats with the celebrities. They are also offering signed autographs and personalized video recordings. More info and tickets can be found at galaxycon.com.
Celebrate Voyager’s 25th anniversary with TrekMovie
We have more recent Voyager coverage to take you back to the Delta Quadrant.
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