by Agent Amanda Grefski (a.k.a. Madame Helleveeg)
For such an accomplished man, Tim Russ is shockingly modest and humble about his long and prosperous career, both on screen and behind the scenes. Although, he originally screen-tested for the role of Geordi La Forge on “Next Gen” (which for all of you non trekkies out there refers to Star Trek: The Next Generation) before he gained the role he’s best known for: Tuvok, the Vulcan Chief of Security and Chief Tactical Officer of Star Trek Voyager. Russ is known for his intelligence and immense scope of knowledge of the roles he plays, and in true form, he came to the role of Tuvok as both a fan and with a comprehensive knowledge of Vulcans themselves.
But this was not his first trek into Gene Roddenberry’s universe. “I had read for and guest-starred in a dozen Star Trek series before I got the part of Tuvok, “ Russ recounts. And that is only a modest account, he was a mercenary in the “Starship Mine” episode of Next Gen, a Klingon in the Deep Space Nine episode, “Invasive Procedures,” a Lieutenant in the Star Trek Generations film, and Tuvok’s “mirror self” in the Deep Space Nine episode “Through the Looking Glass.” He was a director of the fan series, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, and directed and co-stared in the fan-financed Star Trek: Renegades. And these are just a few of the many projects Russ has been involved in; he is truly dynamic, both on screen and off.
He talked about working on the fan-funded project, Star Trek: Renegades, with an immense amount of pride. “Renegades should be done by June. We were trying to get it done by May, but it’s probably going to be done by June 20th. So many people helped make that thing what it is today. And when you watch that, compared to all of the other departments, know that my contribution is marginal. Special effects, ITP, the cameraman — the woman who created the costumes/wardrobe is very dear to me, because she made 62 costumes from scratch, and it was a heck of a project. I’m very proud of it. It’s a Star Trek story, and it’s designed as a pilot presentation. If it gets picked up, great. If not you’ll still see it.”
One of Russ’ smallest, but strangely most iconic non-Trek roles was in the Mel Brooks classic, Spaceballs. He was the trooper who, while combing the desert, shouts, “We ain’t found shit!” After discovering how refined and reserved Russ is in person, this line is particularly humorous and ironic, but nonetheless memorable to fans. “It was very brief, like a day or two on the set. It was in Arizona, so it was like 112 degrees. I wore a black hood over my head, so it was like putting my brain in a microwave. Mel Brooks is a very gracious, very friendly, considerate, wonderful guy to work for, and it was very, very quick … and the legacy of that? They’re still talking about those four words. That’s showbiz, as they say!”
Russ went on to talk about his favorite parts of working on Voyager and portraying Tuvok, “What I loved about Voyager is … well, if you look at CSI, they’re all the same, and that’s fine, they’re very satisfying that way, but what we do is different. We’re able to explore the origins, the histories of these characters in ways that was not formulaic to television, and even though it was in the Gene Rodenberry universe, Voyager was, in a lot of ways, completely different from the original series, so we were able to invent a lot of it, which I think made this part of the Star Trek universe interesting and new to viewers.”
When asked about his favorite Voyager episode, he referred to the episode “Nemesis,” from season four, and the complexities it brought up in its rich and intricate story line: “We dealt with complex ideas like where does an alien soul go, [and] how is history portrayed, because often the aggressors record history and it’s skewed from what actually happened, especially to the victims. There were stories about origins, about where races evolved from. My favorite episode was when Chakotay’s character was captured by these humanoid creatures, it was an alien culture, but they were humanoid, who seemed very peaceful, sensible, and practical, and they were in many ways just like us … and they were being threatened by these seemingly horrible, predator-like-looking aliens — just really hideous — they tried to indoctrinate Chakotay because he had amnesia, into fighting against these ‘horrible’ alien terrors that were marauding their territory; they were the bad guys. But, it turns out, it was the humanoids who were the aggressors, but it wasn’t discovered until later in the story. We, as watchers, are going to see ourselves and relate to the humanoid character, because the other creatures don’t look like us, so they must be bad. So, it really explored how we perceive others who may not look like us. It’s an important lesson to learn.”
And, for those who either are late millennials or early Gen Z kids, or their parents, you may also remember Russ as Principle Ted Franklin on the hit Nickelodeon show, iCarly. This role was, in some ways, a departure from his Star Trek roles, and in some ways, very much the same. Like Tuvok, Principal Franklin was stoic, but fair, and showed glimpses of good humor in the most surprising of situations. Russ said of working on such a dynamic set, “Working on iCarly was wonderful. It was a lot of work, but it was really wonderful. The producer on that show was really good; he is an excellent writer and a meticulous producer. He’s actually there on the set when we’re taping. Dan Snider, he’s very hands on, he writes the scripts, and after each take, he would have us try new lines, then we would shoot it and he would say, ‘Now, try this line,’ or ‘Try that.’ We’d actually change stuff as we were shooting … there were many, many changes to get those sequences down and get them right, because he wanted them just perfect. Not only was it well written and it took up a lot of time, but those kids worked their tails off. Because when they were not on set, when they were not blocking or shooting, when they were not rehearsing, they were going to school right there on location at the studio. So they were going to class in between learning their lines and their blocking. They were disciplined, they didn’t hold things up, they didn’t act crazy, they were there, they performed their lines, they were absolutely remarkable: every single one of them. They were very professional and a great talent. They were wonderful.”
Russ both heralded and lamented the new Star Trek movies: “They are this generation’s only reference point to this universe, and they’re trying to get as wide an audience as they can. That’s not to say that they don’t pay homage to the original characters, and J.J. Abrams is incredibly talented, but the mega millionaires … let me repeat that: mega millionaires who are in charge of producing these films are not interested in the nuances of the original TV shows and movies. They’re interested in making money. This is why you probably won’t see another Star Trek series in America, at least. Because it’s not about good storytelling any more … Do you ever wonder why an excellent show — they even win Emmys and other prestigious awards — gets taken off of the air? It’s all about money, and not about quality programs. But you, the younger generation, you have the ability to change all of that.” However, this willingness to sacrifice quality for cash is certainly not the case for Tim Russ, whose involvement ranges from fan movies to TV, teleplays to comics, and, of course, to big screen. Everything he works on all has one element in common: the love, pride, and quality which Russ holds dear.
But Vulcan lore and iconic roles aren’t the only talents Tim Russ has to offer. He speaks about his experience as a director on Star Trek Voyager, “I directed the Voyager episode ‘Living Witness.’ As a director … it’s like when you’re taking a picture, you basically have the entire tapestry to be overseen, in terms of how it looks and the words on the page, you’re trying to visualize them on camera. Whereas as an actor, you’re a small-but-important color or item on that tapestry, and all you have to worry about is that part. As a director you’re looking at the entire piece. The trick is to take the script and visualize it as if it were on the screen, and that’s a bit of a [large, extensive] process. I enjoy doing it because it’s a challenge, as opposed to acting, which is a different kind of challenge. But I truly enjoy doing it.”
And like his metaphor for directing, Russ weaves a tapestry of utterly brilliant roles in this often-ruthless business. He acts in, directs, and produces programming that is infused with his talent and the talent of those he works with, as well as the love he has for his craft. After hearing this panel, there’s only one word that accurately describes Tim Russ, and that word is “uncompromising.” Uncompromising of his vision and the quality he prides his work on.
May you and your immense tapestry of work live long and prosper, sir.