Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Nana Visitor recently announced that she’s working on a book for Hero Collector called A Woman’s Trek. The book is scheduled to come out next year, and Visitor is filming all of her interviews for a potential documentary to accompany it, working with David Zappone and Joe Kornbrodt at 455 Films (the team behind the DS9 documentary What We Left Behind and the upcoming Voyager doc).
My interview with her—the first she’s done about this new project—started out as a straightforward Q&A, but what happened instead was a fascinating conversation that lasted well beyond the allotted 20 minutes as we talked about Star Trek, Kira Nerys (prime and mirror), and the experience of women not just in Star Trek or on TV shows, but in the world. Nana is so engaging, it was hard to let her go.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Readers should be aware the following is a frank adult conversation that includes discussion of sexual violence.
Laurie: Where did the idea come from—what was the genesis of this whole thing?
Nana: Ben [Robinson of Hero Collector] approached me about writing a book. And it was really just ‘write a little bit about each woman’ and it was going to be more based in an art idea. It was going to be artwork of the women and we’d talk a bit. But as these things do, it developed into something much different.
As soon as I started to interview the women writers, some of the original guest stars from Star Trek, like BarBara Luna, France Nuyen, Sandra Gimpel, Tania George, Irene Tsu—although Irene was actually in Voyager—I had them all to lunch in my house. And we filmed it, which was completely fascinating. The perspective they gave, of what the business was like at the time, how they lived in it, was so compelling. And it brought up so many questions for myself that the book started to take on a life of its own.
You know how they used to say that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels? Well, I started to go, ‘Wait a minute, what? All these women over five-plus decades… what were the heels? Did they change in height? What was working against the women who gave such clear visions of the future, and were people that a whole disparate group of humans watching could find themselves in?’ And that is the key, that people can look at stories and find themselves in the characters and say, ‘Ah. I’m there in the future.’ Or I’m important enough to be represented. It doesn’t have to look exactly like them. But just something in that character that lets them feel they count.
Laurie: That’s such a prevailing theme in Star Trek. Which writers have you spoken to?
Nana: The only male that I have spoken to—because he entered the business because of my character—was Bryan Fuller. But I’ve spoken to Hannah Louise Shearer, Melinda Snodgrass, Lisa Klink, Phyllis Strong, Judy Reeves-Stevens. I’m about to speak to Jeri Taylor. I’ve spoken to people in NASA, and I’m planning to speak to more. Michelle Thaller was a fascinating interview. Not only the women that were in Star Trek or contributed to Star Trek, but the people that were inspired by it to actually go out and journey into space.
Laurie: Have you found a theme emerging that is more specific than “women in Trek”?
Nana: Well, it’s called A Woman’s Trek. I didn’t know what I was going to discover, I really didn’t. I had definite ideas of ‘Okay, so it was really bad in the 60s, and it’s gotten better.’ Well, that’s true and not true, and there’s always more of a story.
This is the way I look at it: It’s like the ocean, there’s so many waves at the surface. But then when you go deeper, there are currents running through. It’s those currents I’m interested in. We had cultural expectations, cultural norms, and those are starting to shift. But I wanted to see what happened to the women when they were caught in those currents. What were their actual lives like? And what kept them going—not an easy thing to be a woman writer in Hollywood in the ‘70s/’80s, not an easy thing to be a woman actor ever, probably. So those themes are starting to emerge.
But a documentary is very interesting. It’s not like, ‘Okay, I have this idea and I’m going to prove my thesis.’ It’s more of ‘Well, here’s a block of rock.’ And every time I interview someone, a little chip is taken out, and it takes its own form. It’s going to tell its own story.
Laurie: Jeri Taylor was at the Vegas con, and I recently spoke to Lisa Klink, and both of them very clearly emphasized that they felt that when they were on Star Trek, they had no particular struggles because they were women.
Nana: Some did say that. Sometimes it’s what you say because that makes it easier. And what I found is that if you give it a minute, it’s [that] people didn’t find the struggle because they knew what the currents were against them and accepted them and just went, ‘You know what? I’ve just got to be a stronger swimmer.’
Laurie: That’s interesting. It surprised me when they said that, so that’s a really smart take on it.
Nana: That’s what I saw starting to emerge. I asked all of them [TOS guest stars]: If I gave you a Star Trek right now, and you could be anything, do anything, what would it be? And one of them said, “I’d star in it as Mrs. Spock.” I found that intriguing because there wasn’t even a thought of ‘I will not be connected to a man. I will be this other thing with agency.’
I interviewed this wonderful writer called Jess Zimmerman. She has a book I highly recommend, called Women and Other Monsters. I’m just so impressed with young women in particular right now. But she said women are often on a diet of the body, but always on a diet of the heart.
Laurie: That really resonates.
Nana: Doesn’t it? Our expectations are formed by the culture we’re in, by what we know we can have, and how we can have it.
Laurie: [After a silence] Sorry, I had to take a minute to take that in.
Nana: I know, me too. I had to read it many times and go. Yep, it’s true for me! I mean, when I go, ‘If I wasn’t on a diet of my heart, what would I want? What could I have wanted during my years at Star Trek?’ And I think, my God, if somehow it had been made possible for me to be a mother—and I was a mother, I had a three-month-old when I started, and then I had another child during those years—if I could have not felt so divided, and worried… worried when I wasn’t thinking about Star Trek, worried when I wasn’t with my child, if I could have been more comfortable there. Well, the answer back then was always “Well, you wanted to be an actor. So what do you expect?”
Laurie: The people that you’ve spoken to so far, do you find that you’re talking more about digging into the struggles or looking at how they transcended them? Or some combination of both?
Nana: I’m asking questions, like “Who were you at 12?” so I know how the culture of becoming a woman affected them. What were they before they went on a diet, in every sense of the word? What made them have the musculature to fight against the current? And some say, “No, I didn’t struggle at all,” and that’s interesting too.
I talked to Joe D’Agosta, who was the original [TOS] casting director. He told me a story of someone that he worked with, this casting director who always had a page that he would insert into scripts, and the page said “and then she takes her top off” so that he could say, “Well, I’m going to have to see you because if this is called for”—whether it was or not. In every industry they take advantage, but it almost calcified in my business as a ‘yeah, that that may be a requirement.’ Whatever they want you to do if you want to get ahead, and if you don’t, ten others behind you.
Here’s another thing that’s interesting to me, and I don’t know what I think about it yet. But when I’ve said I got into a bad situation with a director—now nothing happened because I left, but it was a bad situation—other women will say, “Well, why did you let that happen to yourself?” It’s almost like a talisman. But I kind of understand it. And I experienced it. I had a traumatic event while I was doing Star Trek. I was kidnapped by two men and raped. And that was very definitely not something I could have avoided, not with a nine millimeter at my head. However, because it couldn’t be talked about that way with my friends, because they couldn’t say, “Well, you didn’t take care of yourself”—this is a complicated idea and I’m not sure I can get it across, but it’s almost like a talisman for other women, where they can state, “I would do something different.” And I understand that they want to have a feeling of safety in a very unsafe world. So they go, “No, I would do it different, it just wouldn’t happen” so that they are able to walk and feel safe.
When that happened to me, some of my friends left me, and one was very honest, and said: “I actually can’t handle a world where that exists.” So she couldn’t be around me. And I found that honest and understood. I also understood that it was something that I needed to stay quiet about. And that shame that other women make women feel of ‘well, you were stupid, well, you didn’t… ‘ That that’s a shame that I’m very interested in, that maybe we can lift off ourselves. Not interested in shaming men, I’m interested in taking the shame away from women.
Laurie: I have to tell you, I listened to Gates’ podcast that you were on. And I wept as I listened and had to sit for quite some time afterward, just sit in silence to take it in, and take in your incredible strength and fortitude. I mean, someone else had the luxury of saying that’s too much for me, you did not have that luxury. And my heart just went out to you.
Nana: Thank you so much. And that’s why I talk about it. Not to shock people. And I’m sorry if they get triggered by it. I asked for there to be a warning on it, because if it’s happened to other women, they don’t need to bring it back in themselves. But I’m very interested in getting rid of the personal shame that these things happen. And, in fact, a woman that I am not sure I’m going to talk about, certainly not in the documentary, she came back around because she was with a group of women. And they were all saying, “Oh no, you just had to be tough.” She came back and wrote to me “Yes, it happened to me,” but she couldn’t talk about it in front of other women. And that makes me sad.
Laurie: It makes me sad too. And then part of the result of that is that men who are good men don’t realize how much this stuff happens. I remember telling my brothers how many women I know personally who have been raped, and they were floored.
Nana: I think that’s such an important part of it, that we start, and across the board, just because it’s not in your world, just listen. Just listen, and try to not react by going ‘no, then it’s your fault.’ Just take it in, and that can be painful. But I think it’s an important part of our process. I mean talk about a current against you. That is a current working against you to have that kind of shame.
Laurie: And to feel that you have to push it down, what that must do to a person—I’ve seen what it does to people.
Nana: I’ll tell you what it does: You push one emotion or one feeling down, they all get pushed down. So you are living more of a Stepford existence than you even know you’re doing. If you can’t allow the pain out, you’re not going to get the joy either.
Laurie: I also have found sometimes if you have that moment of joy, your guard gets down, and then the pain comes out at the same time.
Nana: Yes. And sometimes they do exist absolutely together. Looking at your child will do that. We almost get joy averse. We get the joy of looking at your sleeping child. And then here comes the fear of what would happen.
Laurie: Yeah. God. That is it exactly.
Nana: But if we can let it all exist together and not push down the pain, because fear is other shit that we’ve just pushed down… If we can just let it all exist, we’ll get joy. It’ll be something we’re more fluent in, we can feel it more and not feel like oh, here comes the other shoe dropping.
Laurie: So all this that you’re talking with me about, is that that going to be a big part of the book? Because that’s very compelling.
Nana: Yes. I’m putting it all down: my feelings, what I’m learning, what I see. Then it’ll get edited into something, you know, not 10,000 pages. But that’s certainly I think the block of stone I’m working with.
Laurie: I don’t think anybody’s done that, in terms of the Star Trek universe of books and documentaries.
Nana: Well, I’ll tell you something, it’s very, very hard to get people to not give their Star Trek sound bites that they know.
Laurie: Oh, I know.
Nana: [laughs] Yeah, who am I telling? You know, they go into their thing, the stories that have been told, the things that are approved, the things that get laughs at conventions. And all that, to me, is the waves on the surface of the ocean. I want to go deeper than that. And some people will, some people won’t.
Laurie: Have you been watching any of the new shows?
Nana: I just started watching Picard last night, so I’m just catching up with all of it.
Laurie: What did you think of it?
Nana: I’ve watched the first two. And it is not the Star Trek I know. But I find it beautifully done. And interesting storytelling.
Laurie: Yeah, it is very different tonally.
Nana: I love MY Star Trek. We fought the monsters and stuff, and to have any kind of conflict, have any kind of storytelling going on, the aliens have to be the bad guys. And I felt like that clear-cut easy, imperialistic, paternalistic way of looking at the world started to break down in our show where it’s actually here we all are, and if you have diversity, you are going to have differences of opinions. Everyone isn’t going to fall in line. And that is what we have to deal with in the world today and certainly what we dealt with on our show. I [Kira Nerys] had different religious beliefs, there were so many things about my character alone that were different. And yet there we were figuring it out, having common goals. And that’s the storytelling I feel needs to happen.
I certainly saw in the first two episodes of Picard, them dealing with Afghanistan. There it was. And that may be the stories that we need to tell now. That’s what I’m really interested in. What stories do we need to tell, what stories do we need to tell young women now? We’ve told them they can be in the world, they can take their place among men, we told them that with the first series, and then we started allowing people from very disparate cultures and worlds. ‘Okay, here you are in the future, and there’s a way to work through this pain, there’s a way to work through our differences.’ What do we need to say now? That’s what I want to know.
Jess Zimmerman’s whole book is based on the idea that—and I got to interview her for this book, which I’m so thrilled about—culture has this place, right in the middle of the spectrum that is normal, that is culturally acceptable. And if you are outside of that, it’s almost like you’re a monster, you’re too much, you’re too big, you’re too little, you’re too loud. You want too much, your appetite’s too big, and we become monsters. But what her whole thing is, we have a certain freedom in being a monster, because now we’re allowed to be all the things we actually are without trying to shut ourselves down.
So my character was meaningful to Bryan Fuller, it was meaningful to young lesbians. I have a rabbi that I’m in communication with who found himself in my character and my struggles. There are so many different kinds of people who saw themselves, and it doesn’t matter what my gender was. What matters is that there were human emotions and feelings, and I had the agency to have goals that people can recognize in themselves, just living this full-ass life. [laughs]
Laurie: And your character was allowed to express all of those, the toughness and the emotions, in a way that we weren’t seeing on TV at the time.
Nana: She was Michael Piller’s creation, but he told me when he was leaving—because I was desperate that he was leaving. I thought ‘there goes my character’—he said, “No, I’ll tell you who the heart of Kira is. It’s Ira Steven Behr.” And I found that to be true, and I just want to say, when I talk to ANY of the writers, I asked them who mentored you? Ira. Who mentored you? Ira, over and over again. Who made you feel you could do this? Ira. He is on this side of everyone. He’s on the side of storytellers.
Laurie: Who else are you going to be talking to? Who else is on your wish list that you haven’t spoken to yet?
Nana: I just spoke last week to Kate [Mulgrew], which was huge on my wish list. Stacey Abrams. I’m hoping to talk to the astronauts. If COVID allows, I’m going to be going to the European Space Agency, and I want to talk to them at NASA. I want to talk to the astronauts. All the women, all the actors, I want to talk to all of them.
Laurie: Have you spoken to Marina Sirtis yet?
Nana: So far, she has said no, that she said all she can say about being a woman in Star Trek.
Laurie: She has so much to say. And she often gets characterized as someone who just says crazy things. But I find every time she starts talking, I’m fascinated.
Nana: Well, the thing is, she’s given herself allowance to be who she is. And she’s said living up to other people’s expectations, or what they want from us, can be very limiting. And to go up against a culture that’s going, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re stepping outside the boundaries that we allow you,’ it’s a certain kind of strength and bravery to do that. So yeah, I think she’s got a lot to say. And who knows, she may change her mind, I’m hoping she does.
Laurie: Yeah, I hope so too. She’s one of those voices I always want to hear more from.
Nana: I think people don’t understand what this book is. I think they may think this is just another sound bite book. And it’s not.
Laurie: Right. Well, sometimes people think when you when you get on this topic, they think it’s also a man-bashing thing, which it is also not.
Nana: Yeah, it is not about that. Maybe someday someone will do that. I’m not really interested, unless I come across something that has to be talked about, because I’m not going to lie. But so far, what I’ve asked and what I’ve received is just “How was it for you?”
Laurie: In terms of your character on Deep Space Nine, Kira had a huge arc, with tremendous growth and change. Did you feel that there was anything left out, or did you feel like ‘Well, we’ve really explored it all’?
Nana: At that time, in the ‘90s, I couldn’t believe the opportunity. I didn’t have the words to describe why she was so important to me until now. But it was the first time I was playing someone who wasn’t an adjective. She had goals, and agency, and dreams. And it was like being taken out of a straitjacket.
Laurie: I felt like both of the main female characters on Deep Space Nine were like that for me, as a viewer.
Nana: And we’re avatars for so many different people who said ‘that was me’ and found comfort in that. And, you know, you drop a thought in your brain, and you live with that thought, it changes the actual synapses in your brain. Our brains are plastic, and keep growing. You know that old saying, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? It isn’t true and it’s only in the past 30 years that we know that, ever since MRIs have been out there. So having something like ‘I’m allowed to be angry’ can shift someone so hugely in their lives. Just that thought. And like we talked about, you take away having to spend all that energy shoving something down and you start to live who you are. You give yourself permission to be whatever you are. All kinds of amazing things can come out of that.
Laurie: Would you ever see a place for your character in any of the current series?
Nana: Well, I don’t see why not. Let’s face it, in the first Star Trek—and I got this from Joe [D’Agosta]—in the future, women were in great shape, didn’t have weight issues… and I added: “and seemed to die when they were 35.” So it was ideal, right? [laughs] And I think one of the things I would love to mirror for the world is the idea of people with experience mentoring and at the same time learning from young people. When I asked in the ‘60s, did they have mentors, they did, but not women most of the time. Women didn’t work that way. It was competition, there was one place for a woman in a writing room, so you fought for it. You didn’t invite others in. And I certainly want to open, and that’s what I do on Instagram. I try to open the door and go, this is my experience of being human. It’s acceptable, it’s what it is. And you can stop fighting yourself so much like I used to in my 30s and 20s.
Laurie: So they have Star Trek: Picard… if they had Star Trek: Kira Nerys, where do you think she would be?
Nana: I don’t know. All I know is that that’s what the character could do. I just know goals and dreams, where she would be. I could be one of the orbs for all I care. I’m right next to Sisko.
That part doesn’t interest me so much as the message. I love how we can help through storytelling. I look at the world and I go, we need to be talking more. I learned from these young women because I used to say, ‘What does the word female mean to you?’ And it doesn’t have a good connotation. And I’ve said ‘female writers.’ Now I know now, now it’s been communicated to me that well, that’s just talking about our sex. If you say a woman writer, then you’re talking about the whole being.
I didn’t think of it that way, I’d never heard that before. But those kinds of communications from the young women how they feel now, that’s what I want to know. And I want to educate them about how flexible and creative and adapting to life can take so much of the suffering out because that’s what I’ve learned. So if we can share this information, oh my god, we can have clear channels.
Laurie: Do you think it’s getting easier now for women in the industry, whether they’re on the writing side of the acting side?
Nana: I don’t know. This is a strange time in history, right? Everyone’s fighting for things. I think there are things that they aren’t aware of that used to be de rigueur, and I’m glad, but I don’t think it’s clear sailing. And by the way, the most important thing about a woman being able to feel like she can be all over the spectrum in terms of her personality, in every sense all over the spectrum, you know, differences in neurology, differences in bodies, all those differences. If she can feel like she’s okay there, then men can too, because men have been culturally herded into this central place too.
Laurie: When I was talking to Lisa Klink, we talked about Jeri Ryan’s outfit as Seven of Nine. And not just the catsuit and how annoying that was, but also that the actress was in intense physical discomfort because of that costume, and I was wondering, would someone stand up for her today? Would it still happen? Lisa seemed to think it would.
Nana: I don’t know. What I do know is what gives me so much hope, things like intimacy coordinators, where the agency comes back to the actor. I’ll tell you why MY costume changed, because I haven’t talked to Jeri [Ryan] yet. I haven’t gotten her feelings about it. But I do know, for me looking at the costume, and knowing if she was a fully-realized sexual being who got pleasure from it, I go, well, that’s who she is. But the fact that she didn’t seem to be sexual, made her objectified. Yeah?
Nana: So that certainly concerns me. And maybe that’s the difference that would happen. Now, she would still wear the costume. But what would be included is that she chose it, she meant it, and she had sex with everyone she wanted to. And then it’s in a very different world.
For my costume… I was scared I was getting fired, because I knew that people weren’t liking what I was doing. I was too angry, too much this, too much that. I got called to the office second season, and they said, “Okay, we need to soften you.” And to me, because I come from being a chorus girl, you can get fired at a moment’s notice and you have to be ready for it, and when all of a sudden the show closes with two weeks’ notice, boom, you’re out of a job. And I wanted this job, I wanted Kira so badly. And when they said we have to soften her, I got told that I walked like John Wayne. And here’s the thing: I got told by other women, “That’s not how to be a woman. That’s not how women are strong.” But that’s who I was. That’s how I walk. That’s who I am. I just wanted the freedom, even though it didn’t look like even what other women thought I should look like, I wanted the ability to do that.
So I went, ‘Okay, the way I walk is a problem: Put me in heels, then I can’t walk that way.’ And I felt like I was telling them, ‘Make me an antelope, make me have hooves, and then the lion can feel like he can catch me.’ That’s what it meant to me. And then I had to struggle with ‘Okay, I made myself an antelope here. Now how do I keep doing this character?’ And that’s when I thought about Ginger Rogers. Put me in heels, put me in anything you want, I will still be this woman.
Laurie: Which you did. I mean, I was so happy that that character was out there. I also have conspiracy theories about high heels, so this is now tying into them very nicely.
Nana: [laughs] I still wear high heels. But it’s my choice. And it’s me going ‘Yes, tonight I am an antelope.’ You may have a fantasy… although at 64 I don’t expect anyone to do that. So I think maybe more when I do it now, it’s more like, you may not be expecting this since I’m 64. But I’m still sexual. I still am this woman and I’m going to dress the way I want. I think that’s what bothered me with Seven of Nine. Did she want to dress that way? No.
Laurie: And for the actress it was such a painful, ridiculous outfit that they had to stop everything for 20 minutes every time she had to go to the bathroom, which meant that everybody on set knew every time she had to pee and how long she was gone, which is so invasive. I can’t imagine being brand-new on a show and that’s what you’re dealing with.
Nana: Agreed. I mean, when I was the Intendant, I dealt with that as well. I couldn’t get out of the costume myself. Every time I had to go to the bathroom, it was an ordeal. But being a dancer, you hold it ‘til the end of the show!
Laurie: That was also true to that character, not only that she would wear something like that, but that she would have an outfit that other people had to help her with.
Nana: She was absolutely… she was such a predator. And that costume? She designed it for sure.
Laurie: I was just listening to a podcast about The Office with a woman who was an editor on it. She loved her experience, felt nothing but empowered and happy. She’s now a full-time director. So her experience was all positive. But she did say to [showrunner] Greg Daniels at one point, “Your whole writers’ room is guys who went to Harvard and worked on Lampoon.”
And it made me think about the Deep Space Nine writers’ room, which was filled with absolute brilliance. These guys are legendary writers, they’re like writer heroes to me. But do you think that room would have benefited from some more women? And people of color?
Nana: I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t benefit from everyone having a say. Would there be more friction? Yep. But if you have friction, and if you know how to resolve—if you know how to communicate, and make that work, boy, that is some interesting stuff. I don’t mean friction like fights, I mean, differences of opinions, new ideas. It’s like bringing fresh water, having a stream feed a lake as opposed to a lake that’s got no other source of water. It’s gonna make a big difference to what grows there.
Laurie: Yeah, it’s something I noticed so strongly in that Deep Space Nine documentary because they brought the writers back together for the writers’ room, which was such a great segment, but it was also ‘look at all those white guys.’
Nana: And it’s not ‘get rid of the white guys.’ Let’s just bring in some other people. And it’s going to be a struggle, and no one wants to give up their place at the table. And the fact is, those white guys are needed too, they’ve got the most experience, they need to mentor, they need to give a hand the way I heard over and over again, the way Ira did, and make an environment that feels safe for everybody. We need everybody’s voice.
A Woman’s Trek
A Woman’s Trek comes out in 2022.
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