Before going full Cardassian spy on Deep Space Nine, Andy Robinson already had something of a cult following. His long career stretches back far beyond the role of Elim Garak, and has seen him share the screen with greats like Clint Eastwood, Roy Rogers, Cher, and Sidney Poitier. Alongside acting, Robinson's also taken up the pen since leaving DS9, writing a novel about his character with the hopes of expanding his story. In the process, he actually became the first Trek actor write a novel for the franchise without the use of a ghost writer.
At a convention in Italy, Star Trek Magazine's Marcello Rossi sat down with the acclaimed actor to talk about constructing the character of Garak, what made Deep Space Nine special, and why he loved working within the world of science-fiction.
Let’s talk about Garak, your multi-dimensional character. What was it like from an acting point of view? What were the challenges?
Andy Robinson: It was deceptively complicated playing Garak. Obviously, one of the complications was all the makeup and the costume, which was very uncomfortable, very confining. I had a bit of a claustrophobic reaction to [the makeup] at the beginning. But I got over that. [A]nd as a matter of fact, the look of the character is what was enormously helpful because he looked so unique. It was kind of wonderful for an actor to have a character that looks like that. It’s a gift!
I think more challenging was that whatever the character said is not what he meant. [M]uch of the truth of Garak was like a glacier: you saw only the tip of the glacier, but then, underneath the tip, was the very complicated truth of his life. So, playing that subtext, living with that subtext, presenting that subtext behind a mask of affability, of friendliness, of congeniality, I think that was both the challenge and the pleasure of the character.
What was your relationship with the other cast members?
AR: I knew some of the cast members even before we started the show. René Auberjonois; I’ve known him for many, many years, Armin Shimerman is someone that I became good friends with, and of course Alexander Siddig. He and I became very close friends, and he’s doing wonderful work now in various films. It was a very strong acting company, with very strong personalities and I think probably the strength of the show was the ensemble. It's not necessary that people like each other as long as they respect each other, and there was an enormous amount of respect for the actors on that show.
What do you feel are the differences between Deep Space Nine and the other Star Trek series?
AR: I think the biggest difference between DS9 and the other Star Trek series is that Deep Space Nine was more nuanced, and had more ambiguity. Rather than being black and white, there are more grays. I was surprised that even the new Star Trek movie adheres to the old format of the evil villain who’s angry at everyone and wants to destroy a world. I think that people who really liked Deep Space Nine are people who like ambiguity, and like when the characters are not either good or evil.
Plus, obviously, [DS9] didn’t take place on a spaceship going to one planet after another; it took place on a space station, which I also found much more interesting as well. In that sense it was kind of like the last frontier, at the edge of the unknown, and with all these very interesting types of characters that would appear, and these dramas that would play out.
I also feel that Deep Space Nine dealt with very difficult issues. [O]ne of my favorite [episodes is] called “The Wire,” where Garak is addicted to this drug. And it was basically about drug addiction. There was another episode where Captain Sisko comes to Garak for help with the Romulans and basically it exposes the American innocence, that we want to do these things in the world, but we’re not really willing to take the consequences of our actions. [It shows us that] sometimes we have to do very dirty things, and we have to hurt people, and we pretend that that doesn’t exist, that Americans would never do that. We dealt with issues like that and I don’t think the other shows really went as far as we did.
Can you tell us something about your directorial experience on DS9, and also on some episodes of Voyager? What was it like?
AR: At first it was very difficult, because there is so much technical work that has to be done on these shows. At the beginning I was very intimidated by the technical requirements of directing. It’s not just directing actors; it’s a little more complicated than that. Sometimes, directing your friends is — maybe I’d rather direct people I don’t know, but they were great.
They were all very kind to me, especially when I first started, because that’s when I first started directing films. It was a gift! I’m grateful to the producers allowing me to direct episodes.
You wrote a novel about Garak, about your character. Why? And what was it like to be a writer?
AR: I started writing about Garak because, coming to the Star Trek franchise and being cast as an alien, a Cardassian, I had no idea what that was. I barely know about human beings. But then suddenly to be cast as an alien... it was a challenge. So I decided to write about the character and create the world for the character. I did this in the form of a diary that Garak kept — every day he would write about his experiences and so forth. And then I started going to conventions, like this one, and I started reading from the diary, and the fans loved it! So I started writing more, and I started crafting it more. Like a lot of people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel! That’s when I started working [my diaries] into a book. Then the people at Simon and Schuster, the publisher, agreed to let me [write it officially], and it was a bit of a big deal because I was the first actor to write a novel without what they call a ghost writer — someone else writing it for me. I wanted to write it by myself; I didn’t want anybody else writing it.
A generic question about science fiction: what are the advantages and what the disadvantages of working in a science-fiction show?
AR: If the science fiction is really good, if it comes from the imagination. If we are imagining a world that’s an extension of this world and an extension of our behavior, and an extension of the choices that we’ve made, I think that’s the most interesting science fiction. It’s much more difficult if the science fiction is more fantasy, where it really doesn’t have basis in the reality of our lives and the reality of our world. I think that’s why I liked very much working on Deep Space Nine, because I think that the station was a metaphor for our world, but obviously projected into the future. I think that has a power and people are attracted to that, because if they can see something that’s honestly projected into the future, not something that’s sort of airy-fairy... it turns them around a little, it re-orients the way they think about this world.
This interview originally ran in Star Trek Magazine. It has been translated from Italian, edited, and condensed.