Robin Curtis made the most of a remarkably tough situation, stepping in to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and replacing Kirstie Alley as Saavik. Curtis delivered a powerful performance, creating a Saavik who was at once purely Vulcan yet not entirely devoid of emotion. You just knew it pained her when Kirk’ son, David, died at the hands of the Klingons. Curtis returned a couple of years later, albeit briefly, as Saavik in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and the actress was as shocked and disappointed as anyone to discover the seemingly inevitable pregnancy storyline had been dropped or, perhaps better stated, never picked up. She made one more Trek journey, guest starring as Tellara/T’Paal in the “Gambit Part I and II” episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. StarTrek.com caught up with Curtis recently, following her appearance at a Star Trek convention, for an extensive interview in which she recounted all of the above and also filled us in on what she’s doing these days. Part one of our conversation can be found below and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two.
While we were waiting to speak with you, we saw you interact with many of the fans on line to get your autograph. It was interesting to hear some of their comments, especially the ones who told you that, to them, you were their Saavik. What was it like for you to hear that?
Curtis: Wasn’t that remarkable? Some fans came into the franchise with Star Trek III, and so my Saavik was their first experience with the character. It was only two years between Star Trek II and Star Trek III, but some people didn’t see Star Trek II and didn’t see Kirstie Alley playing Saavik. They went into the movie theater and I was their Saavik. I love that. I also hear from younger fans, some of them who got into Star Trek because of the J.J. Abrams movie. They’ll tell me that they’re going back into Star Trek history and checking out all the old shows and movies, and they’re discovering me as Saavik from doing that. I felt that Star Trek as a franchise, with the release of Star Trek (2009), had finally redeemed itself as a franchise after all these years. It cannot be easy to constantly to carve a new and exciting franchise out of an already-established and well-loved story. But I felt that that film validated Star Trek as a current enterprise, as worthy storytelling. It was fresh, it was sexy, it was now, from the music to the casting to the storytelling. All of it was fresh and smacked of something new. So I compliment the creators of that film highly because I felt proud to be a part of Star Trek again. Not that I wasn’t proud. I am and I always have been. But the movie just reenergized everything about the franchise. Like I said, people are rediscovering the older shows and movies. I think more people, and younger people, are coming to the conventions again. That’s inspiring and exciting for everyone involved in the franchise.
Let’s go back to Star Trek III. How many times did you audition for the role of Saavik?
Curtis: I remember the process very, very, very clearly. I interviewed with the casting people. That really wasn’t an audition, because there was nothing to read. Almost a day to two days later I met Leonard Nimoy one on one. That was first time I read any sides, as it were, from the script. I did not audition again until the screen test. So it was the gentlest experience. I’d never experienced anything quite like that and I think Leonard had a lot to do with that. Here was an actor stepping out from in front of the character to behind the camera, and I think he had a special empathy with how crazy-making and how anxiety-making that process is for an actor. So he took all the craziness out of it. He videotaped my audition, so I didn’t have to go back and recreate that for Harve Bennett at the producers’ audition or for Gary Nardino at the executive vice-president of Paramount audition. New people always come into each subsequent audition when you go back for callbacks. That never happened on Star Trek III, and it was lovely.
Did Nimoy ever say why, specifically, he chose you?
Curtis: At the end of my first meeting with him he shook my hand. I’ll never forget it. He shook my hand at the door of the office and he said, “I have no doubt that you can do this role. Now it’s up to the powers that be.” Honestly, and I’m not being coy or insincerely modest, but I don’t know why he thought that. I didn’t feel like I was a slam dunk for the role at all. I was so unlike Saavik. I wasn’t self-contained or controlled. There are so many actresses who have that demeanor already, that stoic demeanor. That’s not me at all, then or now. I don’t know how I managed to contain myself, but I guess Leonard felt I succeeded enough to think I could do the role. I remember that one of the phrases that he used to give me a key into the character was “1000 years of wisdom behind the eyes.” Now, who deigns to presume they can exude 1000 years of wisdom behind their own eyes? But that was the term Leonard used to try to get across the depth of Saavik’s intelligence.
What fascinated you most about Saavik?
Curtis: It was her restraint and her ability to cope with stirring or upsetting issues. David’s betrayal was so a part of that story, and it’d be such an upsetting life event for anyone, especially a human. Saavik, being a Vulcan, withstood that knowledge and then also his demise right in front of her. She then had to guide Spock through his awkward transitions. All of those things are big life events and yet she was called upon to cope with them. And for me, Robin, it was hard for me to play a character that was coping with these things in such a repressed and restrained and stoic manner. It nearly killed me to say the words “David is dead.” But I had to say them, and I had to say them as Saavik, this Vulcan, would say them. I did that. I did it, but I almost choked on the words. And Nimoy was directing me under a microscope. He said, “I don’t want you to breathe.” He didn’t want me to breathe out of place on that particular line.
So, to me, the challenge of playing Saavik was making sure she made herself accessible in a situation, making sure she availed herself of the caring and intelligence that a situation required of her, and yet staying as focused and contained and as…
Vulcan as possible?
Curtis: Yes. And, at the end of the film, when Spock comes to her and she wonders, “Does he remember me? Does he know what occurred?” even Nimoy himself came up to me, just before we shot that moment on film, and he leaned in to my space, kind of crossing the line, in a way, and he whispered into my ear. He said, “How would you feel if you came upon someone on the streets of New York who you knew before, someone you loved or had had intimate relations with?” I remember having several feelings all at once in that moment. I thought, “Wow, he’s asking me such a personal question.” Then I thought, “Wow, he’s getting me to think about this particular scene.” I was a little embarrassed. I remember pulling my face away, my head from his head, and looking him in the eye. And he said, “That’s what I want.” He wanted that uncertainty and perhaps a little embarrassment and self-consciousness, yet also that hope that there might be some recognition. Hopefully that’s what we conveyed in that moment.
Be sure to visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow for part two of our exclusive interview with Robin Curtis.