After participating in last week’s GalaxyCon virtual Deep Space Nine event, TrekMovie had a chance to speak with Andrew Robinson about shaping the enigmatic character Garak over the course of seven seasons, and even in his own DS9 novel.
During your GalaxyCon panel you talked about how DS9 was a different kind of Star Trek show. Did you know much about Star Trek and how DS9 would be different before your involvement?
No, not at all. I had no idea. DS9 wasn’t even on the air yet, so there was nothing I could watch. The only thing I could watch about Cardassians was a couple of episodes of Next Generation, in which Marc Alaimo and David Warner played Cardassians, and that was somewhat helpful, but not really. It was kind of puzzling to me and, and a bit of a challenge, to walk into that show and that character.
Now we think of how well-developed Cardassians are in Star Trek, but that is mostly due to DS9. In addition to the writers, you and Marc were a driving force for defining the Cardassians. Did you have an entry point or a real-world historical allegory that you used as a template?
Yeah. Good question. Yes, there was. When speaking to [Deep Space Nine showrunner] Ira Behr and judging from the behavior that came off of Warner and Marc, and the storyline in which Cardassia had been the cruel occupiers of Terok Nor. The historical parallel that I glommed on to was the Germans in World War II and the Nazi occupation of a place like Paris. And they did appear to be a militant and aggressive race that did some very cruel things.
But what was nice, since it would have been boring for me to just to play a badass Nazi dressed as a Cardassian, was I was allowed to play Garak as a character with layers, in terms of his position. Was he a spy? Was he a tailor? And so forth. I often likened Garak being left behind or remaining on Deep Space Nine after the Cardassians had left as if there was this there was a German Wehrmacht officer in Jerusalem. What is this guy doing here where he is universally hated?
You have spoken in the past about one of your first roles, playing The Killer in Dirty Harry, and how it typecast and defined you in film.
Star Trek has also been known to typecast actors. Were you at all concerned with playing this Space Nazi in Star Trek typecasting you again, 20 years later?
No, I actually wasn’t because the way the character was written, even in that first episode. I didn’t expect my participation to go beyond that one episode. I had no idea that they were trying to find a storyline for Dr. Bashir and that if the chemistry worked out between [Alexander] Siddig and myself, that there would be more episodes. So as far as I was concerned, that was the only episode. And the way the episode and the way the character was written took me away from, as you say, the psychopath killer role that I was kind of sick of doing.
Garak, and his relationship with Bashir, evolved a lot on the show over the years. Obviously, the writers were picking up on something because they kept bringing you back for a reason. What are some of the things that you were injecting into your performance that you feel the writers started layering into your character?
I’ve often thought of that too. Because besides the fact that that they were looking for a relationship for Dr. Bashir—and that worked out great, because Sid and I really got on and are still friends to this day. I think that was the main thing, that Sid and I got on. But then there was the ambiguity about Garak that they had written in. Who is this guy, he is a mystery and so forth. What I added to that in that first episode was a sexual ambiguity about Garak. In that very first scene when he meets Dr. Bashir it’s clear as a bell— and this was my choice—that he was sexually attracted to this good-looking young Starfleet doctor. And although they didn’t follow that up with an explicitly gay character, that ambiguity about Garak remained. And it was appropriate for what they had written about his ambiguity, is he a tailor, a spy, what is he?
At that time, they were still decades away from having an openly gay character in the franchise. Did any writer or director or producer ever talk to you about how you were playing it? Fans were picking up on your performance choice back in the 90s and asking the question on is Garak gay?
[Laughs] Oh yeah. I broadcast it as strongly as I could. But you know, they never really followed up on it, we never even had a discussion about it. Deep Space Nine was already at right angles to the Star Trek franchise. It was a different kind of Star Trek show. And I think that suddenly to bring on an openly gay alien, who, who was having this relationship with Dr. Bashir. I think that was maybe a bridge too far. I’m guessing at this, but I, but I think that may be it.
But nor did they ever tell you to stop or tone it down, did they?
No, they didn’t. I think they liked it. I think Ira and the writers loved that it just added to the mystery of the guy. What is he? Who is he? Is he this or is he that? I think it just reinforced what they were already trying to do with the character.
As I understand you wrote a diary at the time in the voice of Garak, to help inform your performance. And that eventually led to your book, A Stitch in Time. Did you ever share some of these writings with the producers or writers to pitch stories?
[Laughs] No. I wouldn’t dare. As a theater actor, you do understand the difference between shit and Shinola. You know what is a good script and what is good writing and you is know what is not. And the thing about that show, which blew me away from the beginning, was that the writing was superior. And that surprised me because I was a bit of a snob along with the rest of this business thinking, ‘Science fiction and outer space stuff, how good can it be?’ And I got educated that science fiction can be REALLY good. It can be incredibly literate and challenging. When the writing is good, I butt out. I just thank my theatrical gods and get on with the job.
In the beginning that that diary of mine was just for me. It was only because I started going to conventions and I got so tired of people asking me how long it took to put on my makeup and answering questions, which was okay but not terribly interesting or edifying for the fans. It was only then that I started reading excerpts from the diary and people dug it. Then it just grew as I got did more and more of a character, I fell in love with this character. I really did, I fell in love with the idea of Garak.
It was a tool for actors to do a biography. You know where your character came from what his education was and know what happened to him, so that you have that as a subtext. But I also fell in love with the idea of creating Garak’s world and the world of Cardassians. Because at the time, there was nothing about Cardassia on the show. So I had, I had free rein.
Only four episodes in for you and the writers came up with “The Wire.” That was such an intense episode with a serious subject matter and really asked a lot of you as an actor. Were you surprised after only appearing in three episodes?
Blown away! I’ll never forget when I read that episode, I thought, ‘Holy shit! This is major.’ And it scared me. You had you to be so totally on your game to do this. It’s a tricky thing. While the guy is lying, and while the guy is telling several stories, which, you know, all of which, or some of which at least are not true, the emotions are real. The passion is real. Because it’s coming from this, the suffering that’s being caused by his addiction
A lot of my family suffered from the addiction of alcoholism. Like what happens to a lot of families with addiction, it really puts a dent in our family life. So to come to grips with that addiction. All I can say about that episode is two things. One is, I was eternally grateful to Robert Hewitt Wolfe who wrote that episode and I thanked him many times. The second thing I want to say about that episode is that I have never done better acting in my life. There are times when I tried to use that as a sample when you when you’re up for a job and they want to see film on you. I’ve tried to send that out and this goddamn business is so biased against science fiction. They say, “Well, yeah, that’s interesting, but you can, but can you show us something that’s real.” I’m thinking, ‘What a dolt.’ There’s nothing more real than I’ve ever done in my life than that performance.
And that was back when they were cranking out 26 episodes for each series every year and shooting them in a week. How much time did they give you to prepare?
Not a lot. There were times when they’d start to shoot a scene, and I’d be in the middle of it, and the emotions just started carrying me, where I had no idea what I was saying. No idea! I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to kill me because I’m just ad-libbing here.’ There was a certain amount of what I was saying that was not in the original text. But for the most part, somehow I stayed on point with the text. The other thing that was really a challenge with something like that is the technical stuff. It’s hard enough learning lines for an emotional scene. But when there is a whole technical world that suddenly is inserted into that, it’s kind of sadistic. [laughs]
You say you grew to fall in love with Garak and even though you thought it might be just one, you appeared in almost 40 episodes. It sounds like you were satisfied with the arc from season one to season seven. You didn’t feel they missed out on any opportunities?
Oh, no. I couldn’t believe what they were doing with Garak, especially in those last two seasons and that whole arc of the Dominion war. It was extraordinary. Bringing in Garak’s past, bringing in Enabran Tain, bringing in Mila, and all of those. There was no way I could have said, “This is great, but could you add this or that?” There is NO WAY. It was fabulous. I’m not saying anybody was jealous about the amount of material I was getting, but some of the regulars would laugh and say, “Jesus, you’re getting a good bite out of this.” And it’s true. If I fell in love with Garak, I think it’s because the writers fell in love with Garak. As a matter of fact, I know they did.
Thanks to your winning of a couple of Drama Critics Awards, you were able to convince Rick Berman let you step behind the camera to direct a few episodes of both DS9 and Voyager. What was that transition like to go from being a guest actor to a director?
The first episode [“Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places”] was a nightmare because obviously, I’d only directed theater. And even though Rick and Ira were very good about making sure that I trailed other directors and I was basically sent to school, because I had never directed film before. Still that first episode featuring the love story between Worf and Dax, it was rugged.
They agreed to give me three episodes, that one for DS9 and two on Voyager and I have a feeling if they hadn’t agreed to give me three, I think they after the first one, they just would have pulled the plug on me. Thankfully, I was able to do the two on Voyager which, having gotten that first episode under my belt, the next two were fine. I had a great time. And the actors on Voyager were really very generous and very kind with me, and so was [Voyager executive producer] Jeri [Taylor].
Also, Star Trek had these fabulous DPs, like Jonathan West and Marvin Rush. They were really smart and creative. That one episode I did of Voyager where a lot of it takes place on the underground tunnels and I had the idea of doing handheld camera and Marvin was excited. And he picked up the camera himself. He’s as strong as a bull and for hours he would march around with that goddamn camera on his shoulder.
During your panel you talked about how it was serious on the DS9 set; were things lighter over with Voyager?
Much lighter. Much lighter. They had more fun than we did. [Laughs] We were a very serious crew. I have often wondered about that. I think it’s because our show was written as a gray world. It wasn’t black and white. We weren’t a bunch of heroes marching on to defeat the bad alien of the week and going from planet to planet solving problems. It all took place on this in this in this one place. I think Garak is emblematic of how gray the world was and how complicated. And there were real issues. Not just “The Wire,” but I also spoke about “Duet,” which is essentially based on a Nazi who is remorseful over when they did in the concentration camps. There was light stuff too but they were not afraid to deal with issues.
The one issue that Ira said he wished he had dealt with, and he only told me this after it was all over, he wished he got more into the gay themes and the bias against LGBTQ people. But you can’t do everything, and we were a show of our time.
Speaking of darker, serialized shows, with LGBTQ characters, have you had a chance to see the new Star Trek shows, Discovery and Picard?
Yeah. It’s funny because there it is. We are moving along, which I think is really healthy for the franchise. When we have to move forward. And considering what’s going on right now with Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus and this perfect storm that’s assailing all of us. I am eager to see how this is all going to affect the Star Trek narrative as it moves forward.
Recently, you reunited with your old friend Alexander Siddig and you are doing remote readings together with something called Alone Together: A DS9 Companion through his website Sid City. What can you tell us about this new project?
It takes place 25 years beyond the show and the book that I wrote. I don’t want to give away the story. Garak and Bashir have had very little contact over the years. But Garak has contacted Bashir because he needs his help with the problem that he’s having. It’s really a script reading thing. It’s on the Zoom thing. I need to get more used to working in this format.
Going back to Star Trek: Picard, they have so far included a number of what they call “legacy” characters on the show. If the call ever came, would you be willing to put all that makeup on again?
In a New York minute! I would be more than happy to get back into the saddle as that guy again.
Andy Robinson the Virtual Fan Experience
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