Straight Talk with Voyager’s Garrett Wang, Part I
Some things never change. Back in the day, during Star Trek: Voyager’s seven years on the air, Garrett Wang always told it like it was. If a storyline clicked, if he was having fun, if something struck his fancy, he’d say so, loud and clear. Likewise, if something frustrated him, say a lack of development for his character, Ensign Harry Kim, Wang spoke out. All these years later, it’s the same way. At conventions, fans love and appreciate Wang’s candor when he talks about his Trek experience and his energy when he emcees various events. And it was no different when StarTrek.com caught up with him for a comprehensive two-part interview in which he reflected upon his Voyager journeys. Below is part one of our conversation, and check back tomorrow for part two.
Does Voyager feel like it ended yesterday, 10 years ago, or both depending on the day?
Wang: There are definitely days where it is difficult to fathom how long it has been since the end of Voyager, but on other days I can remember being on the set as if it was yesterday. Whenever I stop and think about the 10 years that have gone by, I shake my head in disbelief. Oh where, oh where has the time gone? It has passed by at the speed of light. I mean, if you think of it, that's longer than the statute of limitations. Longer than the time span between Tuvok's (Tim Russ) Pon Farr episodes! Longer than it took for Voyager to return from the Delta quadrant!
When you look back on the experience, what stands out most and why?
Wang: When I look back upon the experience, what stands out most are the times we Voyager actors shared on the set when the camera wasn't rolling. I've always said that if we kept the cameras rolling between takes, and broadcast that footage as a half-hour reality show, it would be the highest rated show on television! Each and every Voyager principal actor had a unique sense of comedy, whether it was Bob Picardo's dry one-liners, Tim Russ's premeditated practical jokes, or Kate Mulgrew's random survey questions, the set of Voyager was definitely, at times, like being at a comedy club. In my opinion, to be funny, one must first be intelligent. Thus, I believe my fellow Voyager actors to be some of the most intelligent people I've ever worked with. Not trying to blow smoke up anybody's hoo-ha, just sticking to the truth.
Give us your take on Harry Kim. Who was he when we met him and who was he by the time the series ended?
Wang: When we first meet Harry Kim, he is an Ensign, the most junior officer, assigned to two jobs: operations and communications. My standard convention story about who Kim is goes something like this: in the original series the communications officer was Lt. Uhura, but there was no operations officer. In Next Generation, Commander Data served as the operations officer, but there was no communications officer. Therefore, Ensign Kim is the love child of Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Data (Brent Spiner). OK, back to the real story. He is fresh out of Starfleet, having graduated from Starfleet Academy with honors. Young, gullible, brimming with new knowledge and ready to serve Starfleet to the upmost of his ability, Harry was the Everyman of Voyager. Being new to Starfleet, he was instantly the most relatable character to the audience at the start of the series. By the end of the series we find a wiser and definitely more street-savvy Harry Kim. Despite his lack of promotion over seven years, Kim accumulated enough on-the-job experience to have been able to command his own starship.
What were the most surprising turns the character took, that you didn't see coming or that maybe you had a hand in helping make happen?
Wang: I don't feel as if my character took many surprising turns. I guess one surprising turn would be the fact that Kim sort of inadvertently took on Paris's (Robert Duncan McNeill) early persona of being the Casanova of the crew. Kim was different from early Paris in that he was always falling in love but tragically unable to sustain a relationship, whereas early Paris romanced the ladies in a no-strings-attached Captain Kirk kind of way. Another odd turn, in my opinion, was the non-promotion of Ensign Kim. I mean, come on people! Kim was probed, beaten, tortured and held the distinction of being the first Voyager crew member to die and come back to life. What more does a guy have to do to get promoted to Lieutenant for frak’s sake? To add further insult to injury, other crew members such as Tuvok (Russ) and Paris were being promoted, demoted and then re-promoted throughout the seven-year run of Voyager.
I'm not trying to be negative here; just saying it like it is. During the fourth season, I called writer/producer Brannon Braga and asked him why my character hadn't received a promotion yet. His response? “Well, somebody's gotta be the ensign.” Geez, thanks. Thanks for nothing. At some point, I even approached Kate Mulgrew and frustratedly asked her why I wasn't promoted yet. In hindsight, this action on my part was hilarious because Kate Mulgrew had no more influence in promoting my character than a random person on the street. I would like to take the time to say that I had no influence on these Kim developments.
OK, so what were the missed opportunities? What did we not learn about Harry that you as the actor portraying him felt should have been explored?
Wang: Where do I begin when it comes to answering what I thought were the missed opportunities on Voyager? I think it would be best if we go back to the beginning. When casting ended on Voyager, all the actors were invited by executive producer Rick Berman to attend a congratulatory luncheon. It was during this lunch that Berman informed us that he expected all actors portraying human roles to follow his decree. He told us that we were to underplay our human characters. He wanted our line delivery to be as military -- and subsequently devoid of emotion -- as possible, since this, in his opinion, was the only way to make the aliens look real.
My first thought was, “That's not right! What the heck was Berman talking about? Was he pulling our legs? The human characters shouldn't be forced to muffle their emotions. We were human, not androids!” But, being the newbie in Hollywood, I did not make any objections... yet. During the entire first year filming Voyager, actors were required to re-shoot certain scenes because of excessive emotion. I personally had to re-shoot only a couple of scenes, since I learned my lesson early that crossing the writer/producers was an unwise decision. Kate Mulgrew held the record for the most re-shoots, numbering in the double digits. It is a little-known fact that during the first season, Mulgrew's Janeway had a teary eye on more than one occasion, only to be vetoed by the producers and covered up with a re-shoot. If you can allow Captain Picard to bawl his eyes out for 10 minutes over the death of his relatives in the opening of the film Generations, then how on earth can you not allow Captain Janeway the chance to show some genuine emotion?
The only possible reason for why Berman did this lies in the various death and bomb threats that were sent to the Voyager production offices at Paramount Studios over the decision to have a woman in command of a starship. Maybe he was afraid of the backlash of a male-dominated America and molded Janeway into a tough-as-nails Captain devoid of human emotions. Not only were there no tears for the human characters, there were no laughs, either. Only the holographic doctor (Picardo) and the alien Neelix (Ethan Phillips) were allowed to be funny. I seem to recall that some of the most endearing and memorable moments from the original series were the light joking banter between Kirk (William Shatner), Bones (DeForest Kelley) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Alas, if only the human characters were allowed to be funny. As I said in my response to an earlier question, all the actors were adept at comedy. It was a waste of talent to not allow the human characters to act human. This missed opportunity was indirectly related to another tragic missed opportunity.
Take us through that.
Wang: Years after the initial lunch meeting, I made a comment off record to a TV Guide reporter on how upset I was over (executive producer Rick) Berman's ridiculous mandate of less emotion for the human characters. My wording to him at the time was, "I think the producers of Voyager did not take the risks to make the show as good as it could be." Even though I wasn't really specific about what the issue was, that printed comment alone sealed the death of my ambitions to direct an episode of Star Trek. Robbie McNeill was the first to direct an episode during season two. After Robbie, there was a mad rush by Robert Picardo, Tim Russ and Roxann Dawson to be the next in line to direct for season four. I felt, “Let them go ahead of me.” I was in no rush. After they all had their chance to direct during season four, I asked to direct for season five, but unfortunately the TV Guide article had just gone to print and I was turned down.
I was the first actor in Star Trek history to be denied the chance to direct. The irony of the situation was that, unlike my predecessors, who only wanted to direct for the sake of directing and acquiring their DGA cards, I was the only one who wanted to direct Trek and make it the best it could be, drawing upon my knowledge and experiences as a lifelong fan of science fiction. I truly believe that if I was given the chance, it would have been the best freshman effort by a Trek actor because of my passion for sci-fi. This missed opportunity has haunted me ever since.
Check out the second half of our exclusive interview with Garrett Wang tomorrow on StarTrek.com. And for news and information about Wang, visit his official site at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Garrett-Wang-Fan-Page/162595097087050