Most Star Trek fans will surely agree: France Nuyen, who played Elaan in The Original Series episode “Elaan of Troyius,” was one of the most strikingly beautiful women ever to appear on the show. As the arrogant, spoiled character, she romanced William Shatner, rocked a Cleopatra-like wig, wore a variety of eye-popping costumes and cried tears that bent the wills of men. It was one of many strong performances Nuyen gave in her career – which also included a turn on Broadway in The World of Suzie Wong, the films South Pacific, Diamond Head and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, TV guest shots on Hawaii Five-O, The Six Million Dollar Man, Knots Landing, etc., a series regular role on St. Elsewhere, and more – but it remains the one with which she’s most associated.
Nuyen no longer acts, but she remains super-busy. She’ll appear this weekend at The Hollywood Show in Los Angeles, where she’ll sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. In advance of The Hollywood Show, StarTrek.com snagged a rare interview with Nuyen, who filled us in on her life today and talked about Elaan in extensive detail. Here’s what she had to say…
First, we know July 31 is your birthday. So, happy birthday to you…
NUYEN: Oh, thank you so much.
NUYEN: I feel like I volunteer full-time at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences because I am the student committee and documentary committee and whatever comes in between. I’m enjoying accumulating knowledge that I never had before about filmmaking.
You’ll be at the Hollywood Show. How do you enjoy meeting the fans, signing autographs and posing for photos?
NUYEN: I think that each actor has a particular group of fans who are dedicated to a film or a show they’ve done, or to their whole career. Or they're dedicated to silent films or to Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. It is interesting to see the vast differences between each group of fans or even between individual fans. What do they collect and why do they collect it? How much do they know about what they collect? You get some who know everything about you or about a show or a movie and they want to add your photo, your autograph to their collection. Then you get some who just want to re-sell what they get, who want to make a buck, and they have no idea, really, who you are. So, it’s a very interesting study. And here and there you find truly dedicated movie and TV fans, who know you, who know your role, who can recite dialogue that you don’t even remember. So I enjoy it.
NUYEN: I think my biggest fans are fans of South Pacific. Hawaii Five-O is very popular. So is The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Often, it’s films and shows I wouldn’t expect, which is always nice. They’ll ask, “How was this experience or that experience.” “Are you still friends with so and so?” I’m often surprised by what they ask about. One time, in Italy, I met a fan who came to my table dressed as Elaan of Troyius. She wanted to have a picture taken with me. I loved that.
How did you land your role on Star Trek?
NUYEN: I think it was kind of an offer. They had me come, but I think they’d made up their minds and had me come in just in case I had green hair or something. I went in. I didn’t read. They asked me if I wanted to do the show. I said, “Yes, I’m interested.” They said, “Well, can you start Monday?” I think they handed me the script and I went straight from their office to have my fittings.
NUYEN: The costume designer (William Theiss) had the most extraordinary imagination. He was working with shoestrings, with no money whatsoever. There was no time to do anything. So whatever he did, he dreamed it up. The armors were made out of plastic, of placemats. He just cut them up and put them together, and those armors photographed like a million dollars. The hair was just a wig. And the costumes, when I got there, they weren’t all finished, so they kept sewing them on me right before I went on camera. Some of it was actually glued to my skin.
Isn’t there a funny wig story?
NUYEN: Yes. If I turned my head too fast, the wig wouldn’t turn wouldn’t turn at the same rate as my head. So I’d end up with half of my head on the wrong side of the wig. It was hysterically funny. That wig was heavy. They didn’t have the wonderful fake hair they have today. It was just so heavy.
NUYEN: The more someone you’re working with is confident, the more confident you feel. Bill is a professional actor. We’d done stage together for two years, more than 100 performances. And after Star Trek, we did Kung Fu, where I played his wife, and also The Horror at 37,000 Feet. So I know the man is capable of producing whatever is needed for a scene. That allows an actor or actress to relax, knowing that the tree in the corner is not going to collapse, that the person you’re acting with is holding up his end of the scene.
The episode holds up well and so do the performances, but for many years now people have been saying elements of it are sexist and even racist. What are your thoughts on that?
NUYEN: Dialogue and words and appearances of characters, that’s all changed tremendously in the last 40 or 50 years. It’s evolved as the consciousness and conscience of the country have evolved, as the audiences for television and film have evolved. That’s always been the case. There were things that were OK to show or say in the 1920s and 1930s that were not OK in the 1940s and 1950s -- or to show or say today. That’s part of it. Today, there’s a lot of wanting to please when it comes to a point of view. I think they were far more courageous in the 30s and 40 and 50s. They told stories because they believed in that story, and they told it as accurately as they could possibly tell it. Now, you can’t touch certain subjects because they’re going to offend someone. There are things people don’t want to see. All that stuff affects the storytelling. It has crept into that mush we’ve been in where everything is meant to try to please a certain group of people. Star Trek was an exception. I think the genius of Roddenberry was that he had an extraordinary vision within himself of what he felt was important, what he felt had meaning and he put it out there. These are things I learned. I never met the man, unfortunately.