If someone ever fields a character actor all-star team, Kurtwood Smith would be a star among stars. Whatever role he plays, the actor makes it his own, and he’s done so for four decades. Cases in point: the hiss-worthy Clarence Boddicker in RoboCop, the forever-grumpy Red Forman on That ‘70s Show, the authoritarian Mr. Perry in Dead Poets Society, the baffled, sympathetic Henry Langston on Resurrected, and the manipulative Vernon Masters on Agent Carter. And, on the Star Trek front, the versatile Smith played the unnamed, targeted-for-assassination Federation President in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; Thrax, the Cardassian security officer, in the Deep Space Nine episode “Things Past,” and the Krenim temporal scientist Annorax in the Voyager two-parter, “Year of Hell.”
Smith’s latest project is Patriot, a drama that will drop Feb. 24 on Amazon. The show also features Michael Dorman, Trek guest star Terry O’Quinn, and Michael Chernus. Dorman stars as John Tavner, an intelligence officer working undercover at an industrial piping company, where he clashes on the regular with his boss, Mr. Claret, played by Smith. StarTrek.com caught up with Smith by phone last week for a wide-ranging interview in which he discussed his Trek appearances, Patriot and other upcoming projects. Here’s what he had to say…
Before you landed your role in Star Trek VI, how familiar were you with Star Trek in general?
I was familiar with The Original Series, of course, and somewhat familiar with the second series, The Next Generation, but primarily the first one. And I'd seen the previous films. I was a Star Trek fan. I wouldn't describe myself as a Trekkie, but I was definitely a fan of the genre, same with Star Wars. Nick Meyer, who directed Star Trek VI, I was in a film with him in 1990 that he directed, and after that film he said, "Hey, you want to do a Star Trek?" I said, "Yeah, sure." That's how that came about and I enjoyed doing it very much. Then that led to the TV series as well.
We'll talk about those in a moment, but before we do, let’s talk about the Fu Manchu look you had in Star Trek VI…
I loved it. I loved the way he looked, let's put it that way. The time you have to spend getting into all that business, it's a little wearing, and the fact that you're never really comfortable when you're wearing all that much prosthetic stuff is problematic. If you lay down, you have to be very, very careful that you don't mess up the appliance on your forehead or the wig on your head. And I had contact lenses on that irritated my eyes all the time, and kind of made everything kind of blue. I felt like I was sick all day, like I was coming down with a cold. I was dealing with that, and I wasn't able to lay down, so I was kind of irritable. That's when you're off camera. On camera was much easier because then you had stuff to do and you were active, and you weren't thinking about all the petty little things that were irritating. But, even with that, it was a great group of people to be connected with, to be working with. I had a lot of fun. I was sitting next to Michael Dorn in the makeup room and chatting with Rene Auberjonois and some of the other actors in the movie, too.
Years later you played Thrax on Deep Space Nine. Was that an audition or an offer?
That was an offer, yeah.
Every actor we talk to says how much -- makeup horror stories aside -- they loved playing Cardassians, and your character had the distinction of being a character within a character…
He was a character within a character, and he was also a mirror of Rene's character from a different time. I loved the depth of it. I always liked the size of the characters on Star Trek. It reminds me of when I used to do a lot of Shakespeare, back when I was first coming up. It has that feel about it, you know, because you've got all this stuff on and you're dealing with enhanced language. They’re just very fun, complicated characters.
If the makeup for Trek VI was a pain, your Cardassian must have been even doubly so...
Oh, worse, worse, because you had even less ability to lay down and rest.
Plus, you were on TV schedule rather a more leisurely film schedule…
That’s right. It makes me sound like I'm lazy or something. I am a little lazy, but the fact that you have to be there at four in the morning to start putting that makeup on, and then after you get it on, then you've got to wait a little bit to go to work and then you have to wait in between scenes or something, in between setups. By the second day you work on this kind of a schedule, you're getting pretty tired, and when you can't lay down and rest, it messes with your head a bit. That's probably why the Cardassians are always cranky; I don't know.
How did you enjoy catching up with Rene Auberjonois on that?
Oh, it was great. Rene's a great guy. I'm very familiar with him, ever since I started doing theater up in the Bay Area. I’d never worked with him then, but I would go and see him in shows at ACT, American Conservatory Theater. He was one of the lead actors there, and he's a wonderful actor, and so it was always a pleasure to work with him. We have many mutual friends, and there's a theater I belong to that Rene's daughter and son-in-law work at as well. Plus, we just cross paths here and there. We used to cross paths at auditions, too, but now I don't think either one of us audition much. We pretty much get straight offers.
Let’s move on to Voyager. We loved your character, this guy trying to restore the Krenim Imperium to power. What interested you most about him, because he was very 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-esque?
I was fascinated by the question, the Sophie's Choice that he's placed himself in, where, in order to try to get his life back, he's endangering so many other people, so many other lives and so many other worlds. How deep is that relationship to a single person in your life? There’s quite an ego involved to think, “My love is more important than this world or that world or this time.” Yet, that love was real and genuine, so there's something attractive about that as well.
How'd you enjoy working with Kate Mulgrew, Robert Duncan McNeill and the rest of the Voyager cast you interacted with on and off-camera?
I loved working with Robbie. He was a lot of fun. Kate I hardly saw. I met her quickly once. Our scene was filmed separately because we were talking to each other over a transmitter, and they didn't call me in to shoot opposite her when she recorded. And when I recorded, her side of it was already done. So, I just played off the transmission. That's too bad, because I've always been a big fan of her work and I think she's doing such great stuff on Orange is the New Black. She's always done such great stage work as well.
Star Trek just celebrated its 50th anniversary. What does it mean to you, via your visits to the Trek universe, to be a part of the phenomenon?
It means a lot. I enjoyed having been part of a few phenomena. I was connected with the Rambo series as well, and always got a kick out of that. Star Trek even more, because there are so many more films and shows that it's produced, and it is a world unto itself. I enjoy it very much. Some very good friends of mine, Jeff Combs and Armin Shimerman, are part of the Trek world far more so than I am. You know what it's like? It's like having been in a theater group, having been part of a repertory company or a Shakespeare festival that runs for a long time, and when you go back and you see people or when you connect separately from that, there's always a bond because of that. It’s a very special tie.
You've been acting for roughly 40 years. What do you know about acting now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I guess maybe that you shouldn't work so hard at it. I think that the older and more used to it you are, the more relaxed you are and the better your work is.
Your latest project is Patriot, for Amazon. What was it like to do a pilot and then wait to see if it went to series based on viewers giving it thumbs up or thumbs down?
It is crazy, but by the same token, I also have a feeling that Amazon is more willing to give things a chance than networks might with simple ratings. Also, the show, by the pilot being aired, people got to see it instead of network executives who may or may not care for that genre or have something against the people connected with the show. I feel there’s a better chance for your show going to series when the public views it. I also think it's a great thing as a viewer to be able to look at different pilots that are out there.
Introduce readers to the world of Patriot for those who have not seen the pilot...
Patriot is ... I guess you'd call it a political thriller, but it's full of suspense, it's got a lot of action, and yet it's very unique and darkly comic. It follows a young intelligence agent whose current assignment is to try to prevent Iran from going nuclear by getting money into the country to influence an election. The way that they want to do this is by getting hooked up with a corporation that also does business in a mutual country, in this case Luxembourg. I think that in the world of the show, anyway, that is the only country that is mutual, that does business with both countries. They place him in a piping company.
Now, it's important that the piping company know nothing about his work, but this is where I come in, because I am his boss at this piping company, and I don't know he's doing espionage work. I assume he's just there as a young executive in this company, and it turns out, of course, that he knows nothing about piping. So, he is a constant pain in my ass and, likewise, I am constantly an obstruction to him because I'm causing him problems.
What kind of a fellow is your character, Mr. Claret?
He expects this young man to be working in conjunction with him, and he's not very good at his job. Now, Leslie Claret is a hard-ass, and he's funny, too. He's very dedicated to what he does. We find out in the early episodes that he’s a legend in the piping world and ran his own company, but due to circumstances that I won't get into because it's more fun to discover it, he had a great fall from grace and ended up at this other company as the head of a division, instead of running companies, which is what he should be doing. Anyway, he spends a good deal of time infuriating this guy and being infuriated by this guy, but he’s not just mean on purpose. It all has to do with the circumstances. It’s funny. It seems that I've spent a good deal of my career berating young men, which has become my stock and trade. But with Claret, once you find out his back story, you’ll have a good deal of sympathy for him as well.
How did you enjoy working with Michael and Terry and the rest of this cast?
I loved working with Michael. He's a wonderful guy and a very talented actor. Terry O'Quinn, I've known for years, but not well. We were in a movie together, but we really haven't had scenes together. Doing Patriot, it didn't seem we were going to have much to do, either. Then, in the last two episodes of the season, we had a number of really good scenes together. He plays the head of the intelligence agency, and the father of the intelligence agent, so there's a whole other dynamic going on there that's quite fascinating.
When will you know about a second season for Patriot?
By April 1st, hopefully even sooner. The show drops on February 24th, so by a couple weeks after that. It’s nice not to have to wait very long.
IMDB lists as upcoming projects Amityville Awakening and Business Ethics. Please tell us a bit about each of those…
Amityville Horror, well, I don't know what the deal is with that movie. We shot it three years ago, and they keep saying, “It's going to come out, it's going to come out,” and “Now it's going to come out.” Then it’s “Oh, no, it's going to come out later” and then, “No, no, no, a little later.” So, I don't know, but it is in the Amityville line of films. It's not a remake. It's a new film that takes place in the house, and the new family that has moved in there. One of the children is in a coma and then becomes possessed by spirits from the house. I'm a doctor who comes and tries to help the situation. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the mother. She's wonderful.
Business Ethics is a film I did this past fall with a young Canadian filmmaker. It's a feature-length version of a short he had done that one of the actor/producers from Patriot, Gil Bellows, was in. He suggested me for a role. It's a very fun comedy take on the business world. It's a little bit more of a quirky, dark comedy. I play a billionaire in that.