Catching Up with DS9's Melanie Smith
Most actors would kill to have one role for which they’re known, even beloved. Melanie Smith can claim several. She was the third actress to play Emily Stewart Snyder on the soap opera As the World Turns; guest starred as Jerry’s girlfriend Rachel in four episodes of Seinfeld, including the infamous “shrinkage” installment; and memorably appeared in one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry’s ex-girlfriend. And, to Star Trek fans, the former actress – more on that later – will forever be remembered for her six episodes as Tora Ziyal on Deep Space Nine. Smith was actually the third and final actress to play the character – Dukat’s artist daughter -- and appeared in the most episodes as the character. StarTrek.com sat down with Smith a few weeks ago during Star Trek Las Vegas for an extensive interview. Here’s what she had to say…
What are you up to these days?
Oh my goodness, so many things. I own my own company, and I work with people building a new life, really, for themselves. There's a lot of people I work with in transition, coming out of jobs, going into new jobs. Building companies. So, I’m a coach.
A life coach?
Yeah. I'm actually a transitional coach. I have a business called Well Lit Life. You can go to MelanieSmithWell.com. I work with entrepreneurs. I work with a lot of women entrepreneurs, through behavioral finance, entrepreneurship, health, wellness, even moving through aging differences and new identities and things like that. It's really great. And loss/grief recovery I work with as well.
Where are you based?
In New Hope, Pennsylvania, and in Manhattan.
We are here with you at Star Trek Las Vegas. How do you enjoy events like this?
Well, this is the first one I’ve ever done for Star Trek. When I was on As the World Turns, I used to do these every weekend. Fan fest type of things, and I would do appearances all around America. That was fun. It was different than this, though. This was a blast because I got to not only embrace a community that I haven't been in the middle of before, but it was so much fun to see that they loved Tora Ziyal as much as I loved Tora Ziyal, you know? That we were all sad to lose her. Even though it was a tough job with the makeup and whatnot, I loved that character so much.
Before you did that, how familiar or not were you with Star Trek?
Well, I watched The Original Series, and that was it.
So when this came along as an opportunity, did you go back and watch the previous actresses?
Never. Well, I’ll tell you something funny. When I went in, actually, they had called me and they said the producers wanted to meet me. They sent the script. I know that they were meeting a lot of different A-list actors. I went in and I had had my take on Tora Ziyal. When I walked in, everybody else was in combat boots and fatigues and muscle shirts, and I was wearing a sundress. Because I saw her as a real innocent, peace-loving kind of… child, POW, wants peace on earth.
Just based on the first script?
Yeah. That's how I felt her. I was the first one to go in and meet the producers. So I left, and my agents called me and said, "We don't know what you did, but you got the job. They just have to meet the other actors. But it's yours." So I was like, "Wow, that's pretty amazing." It was funny, because I thought I made a big mistake when I saw the way everybody else prepared. I think that they watched the storyline. I didn’t. I just read the script. I was like, "Wow, she's got so much love in her. I just can't wait to play that."
How tricky was it to play half-Bajoran, half-Cardassian?
She was that, but I didn’t play that. I played a young girl that wanted her father and this woman that was, for all intents and purposes, her inspiration and mentor… she just wanted them to love each other. It wasn’t really like, "I'm this," or, "I'm a half-breed. It was just, “Why can't we all love each other?” If more people have something they loved and believed in, that brought community and passion and compassion, I think we'd have a whole different world. That's how I feel Tora Ziyal lived her life. She was an artist, and she was a dreamer.
Now, it had to be Ira Behr who came up with the idea of making her an artist, which I always thought was a brilliant touch.
Here's this war-torn arc playing out on DS9, and the character was… an artist. There wasn’t a lot of that type of thing on the show, especially that season...
And I also think that's when you saw her goodness. What does somebody with that kind of tenderness do with their life? They're either an artist or an activist, or a helper. She was a helper who happened to be an artist.
On a scale of one to 10, how much did you hate the makeup? Or did it help get into the character? Or both?
Well, I loved that the makeup allowed me to disappear, but the makeup is why I left the show. I asked to be killed. So the makeup, that's why I couldn't stay with the character, and I loved the character. So, it was a love-hate, you know? So from one to 10, I loved it a 10 because it allowed me to disappear and become this sort of ethereal creature that never existed before. And I hated it a 10 because it gave me a headache. It made me feel terrible. And it was 4 1/2 hours on, 2 1/2 hours off.
Of your episodes, which do you think worked best?
I was happy with all of them. I really was. I loved the love story, because I was in the middle of two love stories. With Garak and with my Dad. So one was trying to build love. Right? With my Dad. And trying to forgive it, so I could love. The other one was this innocent falling in love with a man who kind of couldn't understand why. And in the midst of finally getting my Dad's love, and finally feeling at home for the first time in my life, and feeling like maybe I had a future with a man that I could love, boom! Bye-bye. Ain't life a you-know-what?
Let’s talk about your death scene. What was that like to do?
It was so much fun. Every actor wants a death scene. I'm sorry, anyone who says that they don't, they're just lying. One of the things I loved about the show in general, by the way, is we were allowed to be theatrical. You can't be theatrical on any other show. That ending was so much fun to play, this sort of classic, dramatic death scene, where I take a laser to my chest. Symbolic. She takes this laser to her heart. And my father, in the moment of reuniting with me in a deep, deep love, we finally decided, "Oh my God, we do love each other"… Boom, just put a hole in my heart. It was really a great scene to play. It felt so honest and natural. I can't speak for Mark, but I feel like both of us really got lost in the scene and it became a real tragedy.
The writers had also considered offing Rom and Dukat. But, really, who better to go than the villain's daughter?
It was a much more dramatic storyline to kill me than anybody else. It's funny, I think it was Max (Grodenchik) that came up to me during the convention. He was like, "By the way, thanks for volunteering, because it might have been one of us.” But I think when I spoke to the producers, I was like, "This is such a great storyline. This is such high drama. The innocent, the hope. Why not kill her? That's really going to be so much more heart-wrenching.”
Tell us about working with Marc Alaimo and Andrew Robinson. Two entirely different actors, right?
Well, two entirely different people. I don't know that they were two entirely different actors. I had done a movie with Andy before, Trancers III. I just loved how committed he was, and soulful, and kind and professional. He just has that way about him. Marc is a very serious, legitimate, intense, "Let's get this down." So I think that they were both really juicy actors, but it wasn’t like they were so completely different. They were both really juicy actors. I actually said something to one of the fans that came up. I said it was such an honor because I'd been on shows, a couple of series I had done, where a number of the people were not trained actors. They were just really beautiful, natural actors, which is a lovely thing. You had to mind your choices around them. You could be bold because you couldn’t bowl them over. It was really great to have that pushback from both Marc and Andrew, so I didn’t feel like I was making these big dramatic choices and they weren’t meeting me. It was like we made them together. So they were different people, but the work felt similar, because we were all looking to dig into something heartfelt and serious.
How well did you get to know Nana Visitor?
Oh, I loved Nana. She's such a nice woman. We worked together all the time, so we got to know each other pretty well. I also really got to know Chase Masterson, who I loved reuniting with here. She was just a little joyball, just a spirit, and so bright. And Nana was terrific. Again, an actor's actor. So we all got to really play this stuff. By the way, I have to say, I struggled very much with the makeup, and they were so helpful to me. They were like, "Look, if you get districted because you're uncomfortable, we all go through it. Just let us know, and we'll take it again." They were so great.
Star Trek is this 50-year-old phenomenon, and you have a nice little piece of the puzzle. It's got to feel great.
I have to say, I've been blessed throughout my whole career, because almost everything I’ve done has become a bit of a legacy. Right? So, from As the World Turns to Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I did four Aaron Spelling series. But this one, Star Trek, was different, because there is what I had said before about Tora Ziyal being a dreamer. I really believe that the imagination that this show was built on was about a dream for all of us. So, being a part of that and seeing how the lineage is growing, and now it's the 50th and there was just the new movie and there’s a new show on the way. This is one of those things that, because it's so creative and enormous and vast, it'll never end. I was in the elevator and I said to this one gentleman, "Oh, so you're a Trekkie." And he's like, "Yeah. My brother got me into it when I was eight." Then you walk around, and you see all these little kids here, and you're like, "It is something that is passed down." That's really cool. And everybody's so smart, by the way.
You're walking down the street and fans recognize you. What are the things they talk to you most about, in terms of your credits?
Well, I have three major fan bases. I was on As the World Turns for five years. The soap opera people are absolutely devoted. They love you. They remember everything about you. Deep Space Nine is a little different because, even coming to the convention, everybody came up to my table and went, "Seriously? That's what you look like in person?" But I do get people saying things to me like, "Were you Tora Ziyal?" And I'll say, "Well, yeah. How did you know?" And they say, "Your teeth." They'll recognize my teeth. Then, everywhere I go, I get Seinfeld, because that moment was named the funniest moment in television history by AOL and Barbara Walters. And it was Oprah's favorite moment.
Anything on DS9 we did not ask you, that's important to you that you want to talk about?
The fans asked a question that I thought was really cool. What would you want to have done differently if you'd have stayed on the show? What would you have had your character do? I said two things. One was I would have gotten my father into relationship counseling, because I think he really wanted to have deep, deep relationships, but he was so broken. More… globally, I wish she had the chance to close that gap between the Bajorans and Cardassians, because I think it was possible. I think she really, truly, in a pure and innocent way, represented that potential. And that got shot down. But it was a gift to be able to play her as long as I did, because it was also a place where I discovered a lot about myself, and how much I wanted to be a part of love in the world. It was one of my favorite experiences as an actor. If it went on longer, if I could have taken the makeup, I think it would have been amazing to see what she accomplished.