Star Trek: Deep Space Nine debuted on January 3, 1993, and when it did, fans and reviewers alike quickly dubbed it the “dark” Trek, the one that dared to examine such issues as politics, religion, terrorism and more. And, quite the opposite of TOS and The Next Generation, DS9 featured characters that butted heads often and loudly. No character on the show was darker or more likely to butt heads than Major Kira Nerys, the Bajoran freedom fighter who served as Commander Sisko’s second in command aboard the space station Deep Space Nine. Over the course of seven years, Nana Visitor transformed Major Kira into an unforgettable figure, at once smart, opinionated, loyal, quick-triggered, sexy, loving and formidable. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Visitor at home in New Mexico for an extended interview during which she reminisced about DS9 and Major Kira and talked candidly about life after Star Trek. Below is part one of the conversation, and be on the lookout tomorrow for part two.
Go back to the Deep Space Nine pilot. How much of an inkling did you have that Major Kira could be an unusual and special character?
Visitor: I absolutely had that sense right from the get-go, but I had no sense that she was a lead character. None. I thought that Kira was a one-off. I thought she was a guest star role. I don’t know why I wasn’t clear about that. Frankly, at the time, I was auditioning for three shows a day some days. So it was that time in TV when a lot of pilots were being made, and I was at a prime age and place in my life to be up for a lot of them. I absolutely knew, though, that the role was extraordinary and I wanted it. I actually didn’t know it was a woman. I wasn’t sure that it was a woman because it didn’t sound like a woman. It was like, “Wait a minute. Is this really the role I’m supposed to be reading?” It just resonated with me so deeply. It was like putting on an outfit and thinking, “Yeah, this is mine. I’ve worn it before. It fits me perfectly.” I think the warrior archetype has always been a part of me.
What would you say were the most jolting turns in Major Kira’s development during the show’s seven years on the air?
Visitor: There were a lot of fascinating turns for the character. And there were times, as an actor, where I didn’t agree with them. But it was my job to play the role, and I did. One thing that I did have to go with – and they were right, but at the time I didn’t want to let go of where I was heading with the character – was the softening of Major Kira. I loved that she was a major character and not necessarily so likable. On television, you’ve got to walk a thin line of being a hero and having faults. They were absolutely right about that. And the other thing was the feminizing of her that we did. I wasn’t crazy about that, either. In year two, suddenly the outfit got tighter and heels came out. I know that Ira Steven Behr always says that was me. They talked about the fact that I walked like John Wayne. I said, “Well, it’s my outfit. That’s how I feel in that outfit.” So, yes, I was responsible for the change in the costume, but it wasn’t really one that I wanted. It was one that I thought would get us where they wanted me to go.
The mirror universe episodes were some of the show’s best hours and gave us a unique – that is to say, sexy and evil -- take on Major Kira. How important were they to you, in terms of the challenge at hand playing the Intendant in a given episode and in terms of how what the Intendant said and did reflected on Major Kira?
Visitor: The idea to me of a mirror universe is that you begin with exactly the same archetypes in place, the same responses. It’s just that one took a left turn and one took a right turn. So it’s a real mirror image, and Kira’s warrior spirit and desire to fight for her people became skewed. It’s still there. It’s still a warrior spirit, and yet it’s with a complete selfishness with the Intendant. And it’s all about her, the Intendant. So everything was inward instead of outward. I felt like I got to know Kira better by playing the Intendant. One exercise when you’re an actor is to do a scene exactly the opposite of what’s on paper. Let’s say you’re supposed to be the victim. Instead, you play it like you’re the aggressor. When you go to that extreme, you see where you are in your original thought. It gives you perspective. And I felt like the Intendant gave me very interesting insight into Kira and made my mind work harder in playing her than I probably ever had.
Let’s talk about Major Kira’s ridged nose. You didn’t have to wear a lot of prosthetics or spend hours in the makeup chair every day like Rene Auberjonois or Armin Shimerman. But did the nose complete the character transformation for you, or was it just an extra doodad?
Visitor: It was very interesting and I’m not sure what this was about psychologically, still, but I was most comfortable in that makeup. I don’t like having pictures taken of me. I avoid it when I can. I don’t like cameras on me, weirdly. I like to act; I don’t like all the stuff around it. But when I had Kira’s makeup on, I was completely, physically comfortable, and I didn’t care if there were cameras or if people were taking pictures. It was such a comfortable, natural mask to me. I felt like I could allow everything I am to be.
If you’re flipping channels and come across DS9, do you stop and watch the show or click to the next channel?
Visitor: There are a lot of episodes that I will stop and watch. A good friend of mine, John Stark, who’s a writer in Los Angeles, used to make fun of me when I was in my 20’s. He’d say that in my old age I’d be in a darkened room watching myself in old episodes like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, like some tragic figure. It was a joke between us. So, when I see Deep Space Nine come on, if anyone else is around, I won’t watch it just because it’s like, “No, that’s my past and I’m not going to sit in a darkened room like Gloria Swanson.” But if no one is around, I will watch, and I find them all engaging. I remember Armin Shimerman saying, “In 10 years, everyone’s going to see the quality of the show, the quality of the work we were doing.” I think he’s absolutely right. It really does hold up. It’s lasting, what we did.
Some people loved DS9 and others hated it. Some people appreciated that it veered so far from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek and others considered that heresy. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie generated similar reactions. What did you think of it? And could you relate?
Visitor: Absolutely. It’s the same thing we heard doing Deep Space Nine. I loved the current film. I was so nervous about what Mr. Abrams was saying in the press that I thought, “Oh God, he’s going to try so hard to get away from it that he’s going to lose the Roddenberry in it.” I think he did just the opposite. I think he went to the heart of it, with humor and grace, and I loved the film. I think, with Deep Space Nine, we were the next step. It was like, with The Original Series, that was new and the ideas were new. We were the next step. We came along and said, “OK, you got that. Now let’s add the reality that we are all so different and that there will be a struggle.” I think that’s what science fiction is so brilliant at doing.
During the show’s run, you and Alexander Siddig (who was initially billed as Siddig el Fadil) fell in love. The two of you married, raised Buster (from Visitor’s previous marriage) and had Django together. How big a surprise was it to you as the relationship shifted from co-workers to friends to lovers?
Visitor: It was actually a shock. You can’t forget that I was married, with a baby, when I met him, and he was 24 years old. So I kind of always saw him as a very young man and off limits. There was no question. His girlfriends would come to me for advice. “How do I do this?” I just didn’t see him that way. The romance was very surprising, but then there was this feeling of inevitability that I’ve only had a few times in my life, like, “Yes, this is my road. This is what’s meant to be. This child is meant to be.” I still feel that. I still absolutely feel that way.