Cynthia Gouw is a host, spokesperson, model, three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, wife, mother and former actress. Star Trek fans, however, most assuredly know her best for playing Caithlin Dar, the Romulan diplomat who, along with St. John Talbot and General Korrd, came under Sybok’s spell in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Last year, Gouw was one of our many special guests at Star Trek Las Vegas.
We spoke to her before the convention about her career, motherhood, and what it was like to work on such a storied franchise.
StarTrek.com: What are you up to these days?
Cynthia Gouw: Flying by the seat of my pants makes me strangely happy. Looking down the jaws of live TV or in front of an audience terrifies me, so I know I have to do it [laughs]. So, I host and emcee live events for nonprofits and do product launches for high-tech and global beauty organizations. Who knew I’d be doing this now when I was easily the shyest kid in 2nd grade? Plus, when people's attention starts to flag during the presentation, I just give the Romulan death stare, and that fixes everything.
My latest project is developing a podcast with my hipster friends. It’s called A-Frame Radio. It’ll be about politics, current events, arts and culture. You'll feel like you’re hanging out with your most-informed and funny friends. I get to moderate the discussion and put my best bossy pants on. My friends are even bossier than I am, so it'll be a fun and bumpy ride.
What would you pick as your proudest achievements so far in your life/career?
CG: Being a mom and step-mom have been perhaps the hardest yet most gratifying roles I've had. Professionally, I’m proud of the awards for my journalism. I think, however, my proudest achievement is the diversity of my portfolio of experiences. I mean, I don't know if there are many actresses out there who are also established journalists and have a law background. I think that makes me unique.
Do you miss acting? Would you give it a go if someone approached you with a juicy role?
CG: As long as my hairpiece was a little more subdued [laughs]. Absolutely. I love playing strong women characters and I’ve been lucky to be offered quite a few. I'll be moving from Philadelphia back to my hometown of San Francisco this year, and it's a tad bit closer to L.A., so who knows?
Go back to Star Trek V. What did you know about Trek at the time?
CG: I was a huge fan when I was a little girl. I’d race home to watch the show because we didn't have DVR's back then. I had a girl crush on Spock, just like I really love Snape [from Harry Potter]. Tall, dark, handsome, wounded inside and just plain nerdy. I got to sit next to Leonard for 6 weeks in the makeup chair as we got our eyebrows plucked and respective Romulan and Vulcan makeups done. It was the oddest sensation. I was quite tongue-tied and starstruck. I asked Leonard if he was part Asian because it was something I always thought he was, and he said everyone asked him that.
How did the project come your way?
CG: Bill Shepard, the casting director, told me I was one of 2,000 people they reviewed. They had 8 callbacks for the role, which is perhaps the most terrifying, annoying, and nail-biting experience you ever want to put yourself through. Your emotions swing from protecting yourself by feigning [that] you don't care and then swinging back to caring a great deal and then back again. When the 8th callback happened, they called in Tamlyn Tomita to audition. I also heard, going into that last audition, that I was in second place to Charlotte Lewis. Previously, I’d been in second place to Charlotte when she booked the movie The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy, so I felt I had to pull out all the stops.
That news actually alleviated the stress because, at that point, I felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The room was filled with people, including Harve Bennett, Ralph Winter, David Loughery. Bill [Shatner] was super-intense when he greeted me, which I found strangely reassuring. He read with me, and had the biggest grin on his face afterwards. In my insecurity, I thought he was just patronizing me, so I cried all the way home thinking what a waste this whole process had been. Two days later, I was sitting in my agent's office, and found out I’d booked a national Coca Cola commercial and, 5 minutes later, I found out I’d booked Star Trek. Wow, what a day.
What intrigued you most about Dar?
CG: Bill implied strongly that she’s bi-racial. As a director, he let me come up with my own interpretation. So, because Caithlin feels like such an Irish/Terran first name and Dar is quite Romulan sounding, she could easily be of mixed race. She’s caught between two worlds in many ways; as a half-Terran/half Romulan and also being a diplomat, albeit a very naive and idealistic one, and as a representative of a warrior nation. In the character write-up, Caithlin is described as idealistic, someone who believed galactic peace is possible. That’s something I really related to.
How did you enjoy working with David Warner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, etc?
CG: David kicked my butt regularly when we played Scrabble with Charles Cooper (Koord). George and I are kindred spirits. I saw him often when I lived in L.A., when we both emceed Asian American community events. Leonard... well, he's legendary, so it was the big time whenever I was in his presence.
Shatner picked you for the part and directed you. How did all of that go?
CG: Bill was a lovely director, and — because he’s an actor — he understood how to direct people so that they could make their own choices. He was encouraging, passionate and kind. I only read and discovered later how much pressure he was under from the studio and the shrinking budget — but you would never have guessed it by the way he treated his actors. A true gentleman.
Take us through achieving Dar's unique look in terms of the hair, makeup and costume, and did anyone explain to you why she didn't look particularly Romulan?
CG: At the time, we were given wide latitude with the look given that we thought Caithlin was bi-racial. The hairdresser and I started fooling around with my hairdo and it got bigger and taller as we went. We were feeling a bit naughty, so in the process, we cultivated Caithlin's very "interesting" look. It turned out to be a Rorschach test of sorts. When guys would look at it in disdain, we knew they were feeling a bit insecure about themselves, but when Bill saw it, he just looked at my hair and paused for a second and then gave it a big thumbs up. The earmuffs were crafted and created because I would’ve been in makeup for hours to get my hair and Romulan ears done. I thought the earmuffs were beautiful. Now I realize it was an ingenious way to save money too.
After the shoot was over, I went to wardrobe to return my costumes and the headmistress gave me a funny look but she accepted them back. I now realize I could’ve kept those costumes. Years later, Paramount auctioned off all my costumes without my knowledge and this guy in Seattle bought the whole set, including those awesome earmuffs. He put it in his game room basement. I've offered him thousands of dollars, but so far he hasn't gotten back to me. But hope springs eternal.
What else stands out about the experience?
CG: The whole experience was mind-blowing, especially since I've been a fan of Star Trek ever since I was little. An interesting note was there apparently was some trouble with my audio during filming, so I had to go into the sound studio and re-dub all my lines. Bill wanted to me lower my voice significantly. The dubbing didn't match as well to the film as I would have liked, so I think that detracted from my character a bit.
You’re the daughter of immigrants. What did it mean to you to play a character whose ethnicity didn't matter?
CG: It was an opportunity of a lifetime. I’ll never forget how Bill was really one of the earlier people to cast on a color-blind basis. Back then, it was a quite rare and so it’s notable that’s what he did. It was amusing because by the fifth callback, they had seven Caucasian blondes, seven African Americans, seven Asian Americans and seven Latinas. In the end, they decided to go with an Asian American. I'll always be grateful and proud of Bill for that choice.
So, were Dar and Talbot a couple by the movie’s end?
CG: David and I decided our relationship should evolve; it had nothing to do with the script writers. We thought it’d be a nice arc to the movie. Starting out with our mutual disdain, to partners in crime, to later, love interests. Plus, he was one sexy Terran.
The film is generally considered a disappointment. If you recall, was there a feeling it was or wasn't coming together? What did you think of the film?
CG: Due to major budget constraints, the special effects weren't as grand as previous films. But, I honestly felt the message was one of the most-profound in Trek's history. I really don't think this is an overstatement. One of my favorite lines is, "They’re the things that we carry with us. It's the things that make us who we are." Honestly, I've taken that line as a motto of sorts throughout my life. The way I interpret it [is that] challenges and hardship make us rise to the occasion and create the people we were meant to be. It's quite prescient considering Bill came up with this in the late 80's. But he’s a thinker and intensely curious person. Of course, now, we call this whole line of thought having "grit" and the ability to bounce back.
You’ll be at Star Trek Las Vegas. How eager are you to meet the fans, pose for pics, sign autographs?
It’ll be my first Trek convention ever. I can't wait to meet everyone. Please come by my booth and say hello. I am thrilled to see you and I am grateful that Caithlin Dar has so many friends. Just remember, if you appeal to the more humanistic and Terran side of Caithlin Dar, she can be friendly and sweet. But if you piss her off, however, her full-on Romulan kicks in. So, in that instance, be prepared to die. Your choice [laughs].
This interview originally ran in June 2018. It has been edited and condensed.