The name Ron Surma may not ring bells amongst Star Trek fans, but check out the credits of pretty much any episode of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise, not to mention three TNG films and a batch of Star Trek videogames, and you’ll see Surma’s name again and again and again. Why? Simple, he – along with Junie Lowry-Johnson – helped cast Star Trek projects for the better part of 15 years. Here, in an extensive interview with the now-retired Surma, he looks back at his days finding the actors and actresses who breathed life into Star Trek’s main characters, recurring characters, guest stars – anyone, really, who ever uttered a word on any Trek adventure. Below is part one of our conversation, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two.
Surma: Actually, I was out of work. I wasn’t working right before coming onto TNG. But I had worked with Junie’s husband on a Stallone movie. I’d done a couple of Stallone movies. Junie was looking for a new person in the office and I got a call from her one day. I actually had no intention of going back to casting, but I went in and that was it. I was there at Star Trek for 15 years.
You came on board TNG in year three. What was your day-to-day job on TNG?
Surma: I helped cast everybody who spoke.
Take us through how it worked. All the regulars were in place, so you were casting guest stars and recurring actors…
Surma: Exactly. Anybody who said anything, we had to cast. We’d meet with them and we’d have the people we picked then meet with the producers and the director of that particular episode. And we had to move fast because we basically had about five days per episode.
Given the time constraints, how often did actors and actresses get through who you felt sufficed rather than were the absolute best for a role?
Surma: Rarely. Believe it or not, rarely. We just kept going until we found the person we wanted.
You cast a lot of people for TNG. Who were some of the actors/actresses you were most satisfied to have found?
Surma: We had a lot of great people, some who were already stars and some who became stars. It was fun to have Ashley Judd on the show. She was basically just starting her career at that time. What’s funny is I didn’t actually have the time to go home and watch every episode. So it’s hard for me to tell you who I thought was great. But let me think. Michelle Forbes was terrific and she did quite a few episodes. Dwight Schultz was terrific. Hallie Todd was fabulous. There were so many. James Cromwell. Paul Winfield. I always enjoyed Barbara (March) and Gwynyth (Walsh), who played the Klingon sisters. Also, you have to remember that a lot of the bigger names, they didn’t have to audition. They were asked by the producers to be on the show. In some cases, for certain roles, there’d be a wish list. “Oh, this person would be great.” Most of the time that didn’t work out because they weren’t available. But the one time it worked out, for example, was with Ray Walston, who was absolutely first choice (for Boothby).
How often did it happen that an actor came in, wasn’t right for a certain role, but made enough of an impression that he or she was called in later for something else?
Surma: It happened quite a bit. It happened with Max Grodenchik. It happened with Armin Shimerman. The interesting thing is, if I remember this right, they were both the final contenders for Quark (on DS9). But they were both on TNG well before DS9. I remember telling Max, after he didn’t get Quark, “We’re going to have something down the road for you.” And that worked out. I can tell you that kind of thing happened several times on DS9, where people who were the second contenders for series regular roles ended up having very good recurring roles. Andy Robinson was another one. He was up for Odo.
Since you’ve shifted the conversation to DS9, let’s stay with DS9. That was the first Trek show for which you were in on the ground floor. How different a situation is it to cast series regulars versus guest stars?
Surma: There’s a lot more to deal with. You not only have the creators/producers of the show, but you have the studio to deal with when you’re starting a show and cast series regulars. With series regular roles, you need to find the person who will expand the role during the – hopefully – seven years. You’re dealing with personalities. That’s in the background, but it’s there, because you want a cast that’s going to get along and work well with each other, and that’s going to be able to work with the producers and writers. Casting regulars, it’s a much, much longer process. When a show has been on and you’re casting guest stars, one show is shooting and you have those five to seven days to cast the next ones. With series regulars, you have a couple of months, if not a little longer.
How easily or not did the DS9 cast come together?
Surma: Except for Dax, it came together fairly quickly. The last role cast was Dax. At the beginning we really wanted Michelle Forbes for Nana Visitor’s role of Kira, because Michelle had done such a great job as Ensign Ro. But Michelle had just done a movie and really didn’t want to be tied down to a TV show. We were very interested in having Famke Janssen play Dax, but she also didn’t want to be tied down with a TV show. And you couldn’t blame her with her movie career. Famke had done a wonderful episode of TNG (“The First Duty”) with Patrick (Stewart). I know we’re talking about DS9 now, but I remember getting the description of that TNG character and it said, “The most beautiful woman in the universe.” I was like, “Oh, this is going to be easy” (laughs). And I think that was Famke’s first American TV job, though I could be wrong.
What do you recall of casting Sisko? Our understanding is the producers wanted an African-American for the role if the right actor could be found, but that it wasn’t a mandate…
Surma: The mandate was to find the best actor. We wanted a person of color, but it was to find the best actor. I remember that the last two auditions for the role of Sisko were Avery (Brooks) and Bruce Greenwood.
Really, Greenwood, who ended up in Star Trek (2009) as Captain Pike?
Surma: Bruce is a fine actor. I think there was a third actor, but I don’t remember who it was, actually.
We’ve heard over the years that James Earl Jones was on the radar to play Sisko…
Surma: He was on the wish list. Of course, who wouldn’t want James Earl Jones? That was a big wish. But was he going to tie himself down to a series for seven years? The ultimate answer was no. So that came and went quite quickly, although I tried talking to his representatives. “You sure?” Because you never give up on the wish list until it’s too late.
OK, so tell us about some people who are major stars now who never landed a role on DS9…
Surma: Boy, those notes are long gone. And it’s completely out of my mind. I don’t remember. When you work on casting a role, that’s the toughest thing at that moment, and as soon as that’s cast you move on to the next one.
DS9 had some amazing guest stars. We’ll throw names at you. Please tell us if there’s an interesting story about their casting…
Surma: OK, throw me names.
Wallace Shawn, who played the Grand Nagus…
Surma: (Laughs). We’d found out he was interested in doing an episode. Ira Behr was like, “Well, let’s find something that could possibly recur, and if he likes it…” Wally wanted to do one, he was available and that worked out brilliantly.
Louise Fletcher, who played Kai Winn…
Surma: Louise was great. And she was great even though they put her in that ridiculous hat the first episode. Remember that hat? It looked like the Sydney Opera House.
Tim Russ seemed to be in every iteration of Trek…
Surma: Well, Tim is a wonderful actor. He’d been in a TNG and he was somebody we all had our eye for different opportunities. He did TNG and then DS9 and he was in one of the films (Generations), and then he was on the list when Voyager came around. I didn’t cast the pilot of Voyager. I sort of consulted with Rick (Berman) about people we’d used and that he’d liked, and Tim was one. And I made sure he got in there to read for that role because he was a perfect Vulcan.
Chase Masterson took Leeta and ran with it…
Surma: Chase was fun. I read her first and she was a hoot.
Surma: Marc was excellent. He was excellent in that role. And he was very much his own person. We had a lot of strong actors with strong personalities playing strong roles – Marc and Robert O’Reilly, J.G. Hertzler, Casey Biggs. And you know what? They’re playing big characters, and that works.
Let’s toss one more DS9 name at you: Nicole de Boer. Terry Farrell was leaving and you needed a new Dax. What did you see in de Boer?
Surma: I knew Nicole from a movie of the week that Junie had cast. Finding that role was a long process. We went through, I’m sure, a couple of hundred actresses in the audition process, and she won out. She was very good. And, think about it: how hard is it to step into a show in its last year? Everybody’s been together for a long time. So I thought she did a great job.
Tomorrow, in the second half of our conversation, Surma talks about casting Voyager, Enterprise, the TNG feature films and Star Trek games.