As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, we talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to how actors show emotion when their character has none.
Tim Russ may be among the most-cast actors in Star Trek shows and movies, but don't call him a Trekkie.
In fact, the 60-year-old actor, who appeared on "Star Trek: Voyager" from 1995 to 2001, for many years saw Star Trek as just another job. Sure, he'd seen reruns of the original series, mostly since there weren't many TV channels when he was growing up. But before he began his Star Trek career, he knew about as much about the franchise as he did about "Gilligan's Island."
"It was my job," he said. "It could have just as well been 'Baywatch.'"
Russ is a sci-fi nut, though, and when he was cast, he took the part because he remembered how interesting and edgy the original Star Trek show's stories were.
"They had social commentary," he said. And to a black kid growing up in the turmoil of the '60s, the issues the show tackled hit close to home. Gene Roddenberry, the creator, "dealt with the conditions of what was happening," Russ said. "I was very much aware obviously of what was going on with the turmoil of civil rights and Vietnam, and that was all brought out in his stories."
Russ was first cast on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as a terrorist named Devor, not the character he'd ultimately play. Russ held two other roles -- one as an unnamed "Lieutenant," the other as a Klingon mercenary called T'Kar on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" -- before being cast as Tuvok, the Vulcan head of security for "Star Trek: Voyager." He called it a seven-year audition process.
Russ likes to think about big-picture issues, which is probably why he appreciates sci-fi so much. "It allows you to challenge the human condition," he said. He particularly enjoys self-contained stories, like H.G. Wells' novel "The War of the Worlds" and the TV show "The X-Files."
The actor is still involved in Star Trek, though not in an official sense. He's directed and acted in fan projects like "Star Trek: Renegades." Some of his most recent work outside the Star Trek universe includes "Junkie," a gritty film he directed about a small town riddled with a heroin epidemic.
Here are edited excerpts of Russ' answers during our mind meld.
Which piece of Star Trek tech do you wish we had?
In Los Angeles, it's a transporter, hands down. It's getting from one place to another without having to sit.
If you could have played a character other than your own, who would it have been?
The only character I would find interesting to play would be an alien character of some type. I never had a chance to do that, play a standalone part of a civilization that was unique. It's wide open at that point.
Who's your favorite Star Trek captain?
The main character when I was growing up was Kirk. If that character was created today, he would be different than he was back then.
It was still more of a male-centric society at that time. And that has changed, not only in real time in our society, but even from "Voyager." That's why a blend of Kirk and Janeway might be the model for a captain you might see coming up nowadays.
Ultimately, there was an overriding sense in the original series that things could be worked out diplomatically. The whole concept of Trek is that you try to work things out without blowing each other to bits all the time. But there was a little bit more of a cowboy aspect in Kirk's character than I think you might see in the newer shows.
You gotta be cautious, you gotta be careful, you gotta protect your crew and you come down on the side of your crew in protecting your ship to the end. So yeah, all the captains have different elements that I like.
What's your favorite episode?
There's one called "Nemesis." (Co-star Robert) Beltran's character, Chakotay, was captured by an alien race of humanoids. He had amnesia, so he didn't know who he was or where he was coming from and what was going on.
They were just like regular people on this planet. They were constantly in conflict with this group of aliens who look more like a predator. And he was indoctrinated into their group to become one of their fighters against this alien race he was told was horribly abusive, horribly vicious. Turns out it's the humans who are the oppressors. They were the ones who were trying to destroy the alien race. So it was actually reversed.
The alien race looked like the predator. They looked horrifying. They didn't look like us. And so it was easy to fall into that. Because the rebels looked like the humans, we as viewers would view them as being the ones who were right.
I always love that about Star Trek. A lot of stories get you into a set of assumptions and then turn it on you at the end. That's exactly what Roddenberry set out to do, turn the world upside down and inside out and look at it from a different perspective. That's what science fiction can do.
Who do you want on an away mission?
I wouldn't mind having an android along with me. If we got into a scrape, we'd have the advantage. It also would be more analytical, and it would have more gadgets and gizmos that help me out along the way.
The other choice would be someone who I really got along with. Because if you're gonna be on something like that, you could be under a tremendous amount of stress. It would be very good to have somebody if you got in a scrape or a situation that you could actually lean on.
How has Star Trek impacted you?
It influenced me a great deal. It influenced me to adopt science as a hobby. I'm an amateur astronomer, and I practice that hobby a lot. And I'm fascinated by hard science. Hard science is something for me that's absolutely limitless in terms of how much can be learned and how much can be achieved. It's a pure field of study.
The scientists are not the billionaires who live on top of the hill. They're not driving around in expensive cars and riding jet planes everywhere. They are standing in the middle of the Antarctic with freezing, howling winds at 60 below zero, studying the eating habits of penguins for 20 years. Then they release all the knowledge they have gathered, examining, questioning, trying to understand how things work. They give that knowledge for absolutely no price whatsoever, completely free.
Now you tell me what's more pure than anything else in the world than that? That's it right there, man. They open the doors to everything. They discover and then they share that information with all of us for nothing.
Do you wish you had studied science in college?
I don't regret not going into a scientific field. I take advantage of and enjoy keeping up with all the scientific discoveries. Now, as an adult, I can appreciate what that means in terms of our lives in the present and immediate future and distant future. I can appreciate how that changes our view on how things occur. It changes our view of history. It changes our view of the real world and how it operates. It helps us examine and explore our place in the universe.
Prior to this, it's only been answered, or addressed by religion and spirituality as opposed to hard science. As to how did we get here, what happened, what was the process?
Star Trek or Star Wars?
I have to say Star Trek.
I had a feeling. Because of the science, right?
It's the story. I mean Star Wars is long, man. Get a bag of popcorn and have some fun. With Star Trek, you have to have a story that's thought-provoking. That's the difference.