Published Oct 2, 2014
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: DS9'S Rom, Max Grodenchik, Part 1
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: DS9'S Rom, Max Grodenchik, Part 1
No Star Trek series made greater use of its supporting cast than Deep Space Nine. One character after another contributed to the show’s rich ensemble. We can all rattle them off: Rom, Nog, Garak, Leeta, Dukat, Morn, Winn, Gowron, Zek, Weyoun, Keiko and Martok, etc. StarTrek.com has spoken to most of the actors who brought to life those memorable figures, but not all, and today (and tomorrow) we’ll knock one more off the list. StarTrek.com finally caught up with Max Grodenchik, who portrayed Rom across 37 episodes of DS9. The actor lives in Austria these days, but will fly in to the U.K. this weekend to appear at Destination Star Trek 3 in London. In advance of that appearance, StarTrek.com picked Grodenchik’s brain for an extensive interview that we’ll run in two parts starting today. Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow for part two.
Let's start with the present. Where are you living these days, and what compelled you to make the move?
GRODENCHIK: My wife and baby daughter and I live in Upper Austria, about 35 miles south of Linz, the provincial capital. There are farms on three sides of us, so we’re really in the countryside. We decided to have and raise our baby over here; my wife was born and raised here, her family’s here. It was a tough decision, because my wife was getting more and more work as a stage manager in Los Angeles and, of course, my agents are there, and we have so many connections and ties to L.A. But I think our main question was, “What’s best for the baby?” And over here we’ve had tremendous support from my wife’s family. It’s a rather idyllic place to raise kids, and the baby’s doing great, so in that sense we know we made the right decision. Whether we’ll move to some big city with a theater/film/TV scene is a question for the future. It might happen down the road, but for the time being, we’re good here.
What are you working on?
GRODENCHIK: As to working as an actor again, well, I do have offers to play roles over here in Austria: two films, one web series. The catch is the producers keep saying “We’re trying to get the money.” One of these projects has been in the works for years now, so I’m not exactly holding my breath. But I understand, that’s the nature of show biz, no matter where you are. And it’s very nice of them to think of me. That they even know of me over here is kind of mind-blowing, and quite flattering.
I’m working on getting my German better. It’s a little tough here in the countryside, where the accent’s thick as Scottish brogue. I taught English at the local Berlitz school last spring, and I’m hoping to do that again. Part of me always wanted to teach, so, now I have my chance. And most importantly, of course, I’m working on raising a child.
I also do spend time trying to come up with new songs for Creation’s “Rat Pack” show, featuring Armin Shimerman, Jeff Combs, Casey Biggs, Vaughn Armstrong and myself. We’ve performed it many times in a number of cities, and we’ve been the last act at the annual Las Vegas convention the past two years, and are already contracted for next year. We actually close the show, which is quite an honor. And this past August, James Darren sang with us, which was pretty cool!
You'll be in London for Destination Star Trek 3. How eager are you to talk on stage, greet fans, sign autographs, etc.?GRODENCHIK: My very first convention ever was in Leicester, England, back in 1993. It was an incredible event, a great group of people, and ever since I’ve had a fondness for cons in the U.K. This’ll be my first time at a Destination event. I’m pretty curious about it and very much looking forward to it. Seems like a jam-packed schedule, a lot for Aron and I to do there, but I’m sure there’ll be enough time to meet people. I’ve been contacted on Facebook by a guy who I met at a convention in Northern Ireland like 17 years ago. He will be at DST and hopefully we can raise a glass together.
You and Aron Eisenberg will be posing for photos in costume. How deja vu is it for you to put a Rom head on again and to interact with Aron as you did going back 25 years?
GRODENCHIK: Oh, yeah, right, makeup again – thanks for reminding me. Aron and I have been sort of “touring” around as our Nog and Rom characters, in full makeup and original costumes, with the makeup by John Paladin and costumes on loan from Francis Scofield. We’ve been to Seattle, Nashville, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Cherry Hill, NJ, as well as Fedcon in Duesseldorf and even Australia. And yes, we are scheduled to pose for photos in makeup with anyone who wants to take a picture with Nog – or Rom – or Nog and Rom together.
Regarding us, the relationship with Aron hasn’t changed, I still love him yet at the same time find him most frustrating. I think that’s love in general, though: you love the heck outta someone but they can drive you crazy. But mostly I love him. He’s a real stand-up guy. “Mensch” is the word that comes to mind. But I think the dynamics of our real-life relationship come out in our father-son relationship; I think that may be what’s been coming out onstage, what the fans who’ve seen us have been responding to.
The makeup’s tough, no doubt about it, but I’m amazed at how easily one can slip back into character. Maybe because Rom is so close to a real part of me, and that part’s always there. And also because of the makeup and the wardrobe, it does something to your body to be in the mask and clothes. They feel a certain way and you just go with it and pretty much the character you played is back again. But it’s a real kick for me to try to re-inhabit the Rom character, and because we’re in front of a live audience we get instant feedback from the audience, as opposed to filming it for TV.
GRODENCHIK: Well, it is an old story that I’ve told many times, and if there’s some out there that haven’t heard it… here goes. It all began with a call from my agent, that I had an audition for TNG. She told me I was reading for the role of a Ferengi. I said, “What’s a Ferengi?” She said, “Go pick up the material and it’ll all become clear to you.” In those days material was not sent via Internet, so I went down to Paramount and picked up the sides (audition pages). But my agent was wrong… Nothing was any clearer to me. My roommate at the time was one of two sci-fi fans I knew. I asked him, “Do you happen to know what a Ferengi is?” And he took the pages and started reading the role, imitating his idea of the Ferengi from “The Last Outpost,” the very first Ferengi episode.
I thought it was quite a bit over the top, what he did. I called my brother, the only other sci-fi fan I knew, and told him what my roommate had demonstrated and how I thought I would look like a bad actor if I went into the audition doing that. My brother reassured me that the Ferengi were indeed exaggerated characters and not to worry about being “over-the-top.” So I went into the audition and said, “I don’t know what a Ferengi is, but this is what my roommate and my brother say a Ferengi is.” And when I was done reading the role, the director, Chip Chalmers, said, “Tell your brother and roommate we may have jobs for them,” meaning they really liked what I did. And by the time I got home I had a message that I was cast. And that was that. It was January 1990.
What did you do in that episode that clearly captured the attention of Rick Berman or Junie Lowry-Johnson, who went on to bring you back for much, much more? Did they ever tell you what they saw/what they liked?
GRODENCHIK: Maybe I should’ve asked that, but I never did. Probably I was afraid to ask, thinking, “What if that question prompts them to question why the heck they cast Max Grodenchik, and they can’t remember why, or they just can’t come up with a good reason, and then they decide they don’t really need me and next time go with someone better and less expensive!” OK, maybe sounds paranoid, but I don’t think I’m the only actor who’s ever thought that way. It’s like I feel I got away with something in getting the job, that I fooled them, tricked them into casting me, and I’m trying not to be found out. So no, I never asked.
I can tell you this, though: my agent once told me she had submitted me to play another alien. I think it may have been for a guest role on Voyager, and the response from casting was something like, “Max can only be a Ferengi.” So that leads me to think that there’s just something alien-like, specifically Ferengi-like, about my face, and that may be what had them keep bringing me back… they think I look like a Ferengi, or maybe my face makes a kind of a good base for the Ferengi mask. You know, it’s a little bit of me, a lot of rubber, and that’s what a Ferengi looks like. Well, whatever the reason was for them casting me, thank God for it!
One more thought: the “Captain’s Holiday” screenplay was written by Ira Steven Behr. Could be that he liked my work in it, and remembered me as he became executive producer of DS9… Could be.
What do you remember of "Captain's Holiday" as an experience?
GRODENCHIK: Once I got the call and accepted the role, there were calls pretty quickly to come for a wardrobe fitting and a makeup/teeth fitting. I was guided around the lot by one of the PA’s. We were passing Stage 16, where the day’s filming was being done. It was a warm day, a pretty day, and some of the cast and crew were spending their downtime outside the sound stage. The PA. said, “You’re gonna be working closely with Patrick (Stewart), I think you should meet him, he’s right over there.” And we walked up to him and she introduced me. One of my great memories is how welcoming he was, how gracious, how he went out of his way to welcome me to the show. He suggested to me that I might find the makeup difficult and it could be a tough week for me and so if there was anything he could do to help, if I should need anything, he said “Have the request come through me, [because] I seem to have some clout around here.” And I thought it was extraordinary for the star of a TV series to go out of his way for just a guest actor like that. I never forgot it. I know that as a recurring character on DS9 I always tried to make our guest actors feel welcome and taken care of, and I know that Armin and Aron did the same.
Next, you played Par Lenor in "The Perfect Mate." Interesting character, and very different from Sovak, wouldn't you agree?
GRODENCHIK: I don’t know what to say about Par Lenor. I don’t feel I added anything of interest to the character. The Ferengi were there to release the “perfect mate” character Kamala from stasis, so she could interact with the male crew, and especially with Picard. I simply did not know how to make it interesting, our wanting to buy this perfect female. My portrayal felt a little silly to me, and totally my fault. There’s certainly enough to play there: the incredibleness of finding this woman, the immense profit to be made from selling her, and the awesome possibility of bonding with her myself. I wasn’t thinking like a Ferengi. I don’t think I began to really think like a Ferengi, to really get their philosophy in my bones, until DS9.
Sovak was easier because his focus is more laser-like from the get-go: Tox Uthat Tox Uthat Tox Uthat! – that’s his one and only objective. In fact, he’s still digging for it when we last see him. Yes, Par Lenor certainly wanted his “treasure” as well, this perfect female, but with Sovak it was like a lifelong dream of his, like he’d been after his treasure for years; with Par Lenor it was like he stumbled on to something and it would’ve been just a really great day’s work had he made the sale, so to speak. Sovak was obsessed, Par Lenor wasn’t, that’s the difference between the two of them as I see it. I wish you’d’ve asked this question way back when before shooting that episode. I think I could’ve used this information, and maybe done a little better.
Not long after that, DS9 became a reality. What do you remember of auditioning for Quark? How close did you come? Had you met Armin during the audition process? Maybe even in the hallway
GRODENCHK: Well, it was during the filming of “Perfect Mate” that our makeup supervisor, Mike Westmore, the head of the TNG makeup department and the guy who would become the DS9, Voyager and Enterprise makeup supervisor, told me about a new Star Trek series in the works, that it would include a Ferengi as a series regular, that auditions were a few months away and to tell my agent to be on the lookout for the casting call. A few months later I did get a call to read… for the role of Quark. I did the audition, left there feeling terrible about what I did and went home. There were a lot of actors there that day, the place was pretty crowded. Anyway, thought I’d never hear from them again and after a few days I forgot about it.
Three weeks later I got called in again. I really worked on trying to be good. I think I was even worse than the first time. And now this time there’s not many actors there. There was quiet and tension, like they’re whittling it down to semi-final or final choices. I was pretty upset, but what could I do about it? I felt they gave me a real fair shot. You leave Paramount auditions through the Gower Street gate, and there are a few steps outside there that I sat down on just to sulk for a couple minutes about the great opportunity I’d just blown. It wouldn’t be the only sulking I would do, but I figure, sulk early and often.
You were there sulking when...
GRODENCHIK: A few minutes passed and Armin Shimerman came out and started talking to me. He asked how I was doing and I don’t think I remembered him from among the auditioning actors, but I figured he must be an actor and so I told him. I said that I felt like I’d just blown a series regular role and it was such a good opportunity, it was for a new Star Trek series. So by this time Armin’s sitting on the steps, too, sitting next to me, and he says, “I know, I saw you in there,” meaning he’d read for the series as well. He said that he felt he’d read pretty badly, too. Then he said, “But here’s the good news: it’s between only you and me for the role.”
That made me think, “Who does he know? Who told him that?” He must know a producer or someone in casting which makes it more likely for him to get the role anyway. And I asked him, “How do you know that, that it’s between you and me for the role?” And he said, “Well, we were the only two short people there.” And the simple logic of his answer floored me. And, as I’ve said many times before, that was my introduction to the wisdom of Armin Shimerman.
We had a really nice conversation, talked about 40 minutes, maybe. About the Ferengi I had played and the ones that he had played. He talked about “The Last Outpost,” the first-ever Ferengi episode, which he was in, and a little about “Peak Performance,” another episode he did. “Peak Performance” was one of the episodes that was sent to me – just before “Captain’s Holiday” – to help me study how to be a Ferengi, to learn what they were about. Anyway, I thought he was a pretty cool guy. We talked about this DS9 pilot episode script, that the character of Quark had a nephew (Nog), that the nephew probably has a father, and it would be enough maybe just to come on as the dad, to appear as the dad. I think he sort of managed to talk me out of my sulk without me even realizing it. That was the first of countless times where Armin helped change my attitude for the better. Still does, to this day.