The "Star Trek: Voyager" star reveals how playing a character rediscovering her humanity after being kidnapped and traumatized by the Borg helped pave her professional path. Also, she's more of a Star Wars fan.
As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to how it feels to be a sex symbol to nerds.
Jeri Ryan didn't want the role at first.
The then up-and-comer was trying to kickstart her career after earning a theater degree and winning the Miss Illinois beauty pageant (she later competed in Miss America, coming in fourth place).
"I wasn't remotely interested in science fiction," Ryan said of her pre-Star Trek days. Sure, she'd watched some episodes of the original series. But she'd also heard the shows had a history of stymieing some actor's careers.
Then Ryan read about her character, Seven of Nine, a human kidnapped as a young girl by a cybernetic race known as the Borg. She then spends decades participating in the atrocious "assimilation" of other species before she's snatched back by the Voyager crew. Aboard the ship, she begins to rediscover her humanity.
One audition scene involved her sharing with her eventual love interest memories of laughing during her pre-Borg childhood.
"It showed so much potential for the character," said Ryan, now 48. "It was beautifully written."
After she joined "Star Trek: Voyager" in the middle of its 1995-2001 run, ratings shot up more than 60 percent. It may have been her compelling storyline, but it might also have had something to do with her skin-tight uniform. She wasn't bothered.
"The character herself was the complete opposite of a sexual character," she said. "It was the antithesis of what this character was aware of."
Anyone who's followed Ryan knows she wasn't pigeonholed. Within a month of "Voyager" ending, she had a part as a lawyer-turned-teacher on "Boston Public," a drama about inner-city schools. She's since become a prolific TV actor, with roles in "Bosch," "Body of Proof," "Leverage," "Major Crimes" and "Helix." (Some of her co-stars are having quite a good run as well.)
"It gave me a career," Ryan said of Star Trek. And that's why she attends Trek conventions, to thank fans for making it all possible.
Here are excerpts of of my conversation with Ryan, edited with Borg-like efficiency.
If you could have played any other character, which would it be?
Captain Kirk was probably a lot of fun to play for many reasons. But I loved the character I got to play. I feel like I was given a gift. She was completely rediscovering humanity, and I loved that she was sort of a way to look at humanity objectively from the outside. One of my favorite things was they weren't afraid to show the gray area. It wasn't Starfleet is riding around on their white horse.
What's your favorite episode?
My favorite episodes were always the ones where Seven got to explore her humanity. I don't remember all of them, but one of them was, "Someone to Watch Over Me," where Seven was learning how to date. The Doctor was teaching her. I thought that one was really sweet.
Who's your favorite Star Trek captain?
I gotta go with Kirk. Even though he was just kind of -- and I know all this, of course, in hindsight since I never watched the show before -- he's a bit of a womanizing scoundrel. For some reason, you like that about him. I don't know, I just get a kick out of it. It seems so sort of unapologetic because he was such a character from that age, you know what I mean?
As much as they're trying to portray the future, and it was very groundbreaking in so many ways, he was still sort of that '60s kind of guy. I just kind of find that pretty amusing.
Who would you choose to go on an away mission with?
Well am I Seven or am I me?
I don't know. You choose.
If I am me, I would go with Seven. She has all the knowledge from all the species that the Borg assimilated. She also has some pretty damn good technology.
Did you watch Star Trek as a kid?
I wasn't remotely interested in science fiction until after my daughter was born and the show had ended. My son, who was always a big fan, decided to share some of the shows and movies that he loved with his little sister.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
I gotta be honest, I am more of a Star Wars girl. The original one. Not the prequels.
What got you into sci-fi?
Well, I had seen all of this when my son was little, but I just kind of didn't really pay attention and poo-pooed it. I had seen Star Wars when it first came out when I was a kid. But It wasn't my thing; my brother was into it, I wasn't.
So when my daughter watched it, I watched it differently. And seeing it through her eyes and seeing her eyes light up when she was watching and seeing how excited my son got to be sharing this with his sister, it was really fun.
My son watched "Voyager" because he grew up while I was doing it, but it was a different way to watch it when you're on the set.
"Next Gen"-- he just watched that on the VCR at the time. He was a big fan of "Next Gen," and so he tried to show us a couple of early episodes. I honestly couldn't get past the silly-looking spandex they were all wearing. The costumes...I'm sorry. Darth Vader was much cooler looking.
And Star Wars didn't take itself too seriously. Star Trek took itself extremely seriously. I think that's why I had a little bit harder time with Star Trek. And also because I can't distance myself from the show because I had just been on it for four years. You know what I mean?
What Star Trek technology do you wish you had?
God, I want a transporter. If I never had to sit in Los Angeles traffic again, I would be a happy, happy person. I want a transporter. Now. I really need someone to get on that.