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Robin Curtis Looks Back at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock For Its 40th Anniversary

Curtis on portraying Saavik, being directed by Leonard Nimoy, and more!

Stylized and filtered collage of stills of Robin Curtis' Saavik from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Forty years ago this weekend, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock inherited the monumental task of picking up the tale of Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the U.S.S. Enterprise crew following Spock's tragic death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Written by Harve Bennett and directed by Leonard Nimoy himself, the film dealt with the aftermath of the battle with Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), the evolution of the newly-created Genesis Planet, and Kirk's unsanctioned jaunt to bring Spock's body and katra — a Vulcan’s living spirit — to be reunited on Mount Seleya.

Standing in a row, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, Chekov, Saavik, and Kirk, all look ahead of them with curiosity and intensity in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Complete with Christopher Lloyd's portrayal of a ruthless Klingon commander named Kruge, the original Star Trek series' cast's signature camaraderie, and an adventurous spirit, the third Star Trek film welcomed Robin Curtis to the role of Lieutenant Saavik, the Vulcan officer who accompanied Kirk's son Doctor David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) during his expedition to the Genesis Planet. Curtis was kind enough to speak to and help us celebrate The Search for Spock's 40th anniversary by reflecting on her time as Saavik and the rare experience of playing a Vulcan while being directed by Leonard Nimoy.

Four decades later, and Robin Curtis recollects that her respect for Nimoy as a director and collaborator was established the instant they met. "Right out of the gate, I could express nothing but praise for working with him, and it's only gotten better over time. Like good wine, my experience with him has aged well," remarks Curtis. "I look back with such fondness at his sensitivity, his respect for other actors, his ability to orchestrate the existing cast — his fellow coworkers for so many years — and newcomers like myself and Christopher Lloyd."

Saavik gazes up at David Marcus while a young Spock stands between them in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

During her audition for the role of Saavik, Curtis had the unique distinction of hearing Nimoy's insight into what an actor can do to truly become a Vulcan. "Mr. Nimoy took such a lovely, intuitive approach to directing. He said, 'Vulcans have 1,000 years of wisdom behind the eyes,'" says Curtis of Nimoy's early advice regarding the Vulcan nature. "When I was given the role, he told me I should look in the mirror [and practice] talking without using my face to express what I was saying. Being so still and so contained near about did me in, and I thought I was failing so miserably at it that I was going to be fired. I didn't feel the innate knack or confidence that I was nailing it."

The challenge of assuming a Vulcan disposition weighed even more heavily on Curtis' shoulders when placed in context with her desire to deliver an excellent performance. "I was as serious as a heart attack on the set! I didn't speak until I was spoken to, which is totally unlike my normally sociable self. I was very earnest, wanting to show and demonstrate that I was grateful for this part. I wanted to do a good job and hit it out of the park," adds Curtis, who sensed that Nimoy appreciated her devotion to the film and her role as Saavik, as well as her overall work ethic and approach to acting.

A Klingon lifts his dagger above him facing Saavik who reflects his intense gaze as David Marcus and a young Spock look at their foe in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

In spite of her doubts, Curtis had her morale boosted by a pact she made with the director. "I shook his hand on my very first day of filming, and I said, 'Mr. Nimoy, you seem to think I know what I'm doing. And I need to tell you I do not.' And he said, 'Robin, I will take you every step of the way. I will never take you out on the end of a limb and leave you there.' I said, 'Deal.' And we shook hands on it, and he fulfilled that promise in each and every scene," declares Curtis.

A close-up of Saavik's expression as a Klingon holds a communicator to her as a younger Spock looks towards her in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Curtis also attests that there were certain scenes which were easier to approach and more straightforward than others. Those involving Saavik and weighty emotions demanded more scrutiny and attention. For example, while holding Saavik, Kirk's son David Marcus, and a reborn Spock hostage on the Genesis Planet, Kruge ordered one of his soldiers to kill a prisoner in order to demonstrate his conviction toward acquiring the Genesis Device. The sentence was inflicted upon David, and Saavik was forced to report the death to the man's father. "That [moment] filled me with anxiety and dread. How could I possibly say that with the Vulcan demeanor?"

Saavik lifts up two fingers, a Vulcan gesture, as she stares directly into the eyes of a younger Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Those complexities also rang true on the other end of the emotional spectrum. With a rapidly aging Spock overwhelmed by the urges of the pon farr, or the Vulcan time of mating, Saavik guided him through the intimate process. This scene, with its close contact and affectionate hand gesture, represented another significant Vulcan hurdle to overcome. "The reverence and enormity and profundity of pon farr, and going into this cave with Spock," begins Curtis. "We came to the set with no sense of what that would look like. [Young Spock actor] Stephen Manley and I were both a little trepidatious about what Lenoard was going to have us do. What would a Vulcan love scene or Vulcan foreplay look like? In fact, I've only just learned recently that the simple gesture that Leonard introduced us to that day, the notion of [the characters] joining their fingers, was originally introduced by Spock's mother and Sarek in the television series."

Leonard Nimoy directs Robin Curtis in her role as Saavik pointing in the distance ahead of him while on set of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Behind-the-scenes of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Of course, having pioneered the Vulcan temperament for nearly 20 years by the time The Search for Spock entered production, Nimoy was singularly suited to answer questions about such delicate matters. Whether dealing with Saavik's reaction to David's death, the intimacy of pon farr, or any of Curtis' other scenes, Curtis recalls Nimoy's valuable input. "He would take me aside before every scene, and we'd sit down at the edge of the set on the platform, and I'd say the lines. He would moderate me no differently than we do with our cars with the radio volume. I was so grateful for that," shares Curtis.

Shifting her focus to her overall impression of their professional association, Curtis conveys her appreciation for Nimoy's leadership on the film before admitting she does have one slight regret. "I absolutely love the man. Loved him as a person, loved him as a director, and I'm sorry that I was too shy to even hint or suggest that we would have a friendship outside the realm of the shoots themselves."

While their friendship was largely limited to the production itself, the director did leave an indelible impact on Curtis' personal life. "Leonard Nimoy was aware that my father was battling cancer at the time, and it wasn't looking good," notes Curtis. "The best thing I remember about Star Trek is that it was a colossally beautiful distraction from the agony we were feeling as a family. Leonard Nimoy reminds me of my dad, and they were the same age. And [Nimoy] was so sensitive and kind about the idea that Star Trek was such a gift and a bright light for my family in a time of suffering. Ultimately, my dad lived long enough to see the movie. I went home to be at the Riverside Mall in Utica, New York, with my neighbors and family, and my dad made it to the movie theatre. I will always be grateful for that."

Hovering over a younger Spock, Saavik lifts her communicator to her face in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Curtis' thankfulness extends to the many fans who regularly compliment her for her tenure as Saavik in The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. "I'm flabbergasted at the multitude of ways that [Star Trek] has enriched my life. My heart explodes over the tenacity of the fans and how the franchise only gets better and richer. People are very generous and sentimental about [The Search for Spock]. They understood it was part of a triumvirate [of films]," observes Curtis. Referring to her final on-screen moments in The Voyage Home, in which Saavik and Amanda Grayson remain behind on Vulcan, Curtis jokes, "What did she and [Amanda Grayson actor] Jane Wyatt get up to? [laughs] What happened with the pon farr? Did she end up being pregnant? I think the fans were just as curious as I was."

Perceiving her connection with the fans as a gift, Curtis contemplates an unexpected phone call she received from a medical facility in Cleveland, Ohio. A young man who she had once met at a convention had been taken off of dialysis and given only two weeks to live. The staff member contacting Curtis informed her that the man's last wish was to share a meal with her. "I had shown him some kindness at a convention in Ohio in the '90s, and he remembered," reveals Curtis, who didn't hesitate to make the five-hour drive to Cleveland that very same day. Before leaving, Curtis advised the caller, "You tell him I'll be there for dinner, and I wouldn't miss it for the world." Arriving Friday evening, Curtis spent every waking hour of that weekend with the fan. After departing on Sunday, they talked each day until he passed the following week. "That was a gift to me, and I like to think maybe a small gift to him," explains Curtis, noting that their connection has endured via her ongoing friendship with the fan's aunt.

Close-up of Saavik facing Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The Search for Spock clearly meant a lot to those who watched it repeatedly, but Curtis' own perception of the movie has evolved since its release. "I saw the film at the time and then never saw it again for so many years. My memory of it was that it was depressing [laughs]," confesses Curtis. "The fact of the matter is, everything dies. Genesis dies, the ship dies, Kirk's son dies. Spock comes back to life, but he starts out dead [laughs]." As was the case for many of us, the pandemic changed everything for Curtis. "We were all in our houses and seeking connection. I felt like I needed to go back, so I rewatched [The Next Generation two-parter] 'Gambit,' and I rewatched the movie. And I thought, 'This is funny!' There's a lot of good parts in this film that aren't depressing. I don't know why I had that impression stuck in my brain, but maybe it's because my involvement was very serious. Everything I had to do dealt with great disappointment and loss and tragedy."

Looking back, Curtis cites Sarek's mind meld with Admiral Kirk as her favorite scene, describing the sentiment behind the characters' interaction, the cinematography, and the close up of the actors' faces as "gorgeous." Though she felt the mood on the set of The Voyage Home was more joyful and playful — after all, she still has Polaroids of herself making funny faces with Walter Koenig, George Takei, Kirk Thatcher, and other cast and crew, Curtis maintains fond memories of working on The Search for Spock. "The cast were so generous and classy with me, and they understood the weight upon my shoulders as the newcomer. They were reassuring. I remember Walter Koenig told me to keep a journal. And of course, like a jackass, I didn't listen. [laughs]," jests Curtis. "Now, I wish I had kept one."

The Enterprise crew (Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, Saavik, and Kirk) are joyful with the return of Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The Search for Spock's conclusion exuded hope and wonder, as Spock's body and katra were reunited in a ceremony on Mount Seleya. Following his resurrection, Spock passes by each crew member in attendance, eventually finding himself embraced by the group. Although a glance between Spock and Saavik was fleeting, much preparation went into that moment. "[Nimoy] approached me before the scene and asked, 'How would you feel if you were to suddenly come upon somebody that you loved or were intimate with on a New York City street? How would you imagine that?' In the matter of a split second, so many thoughts went through my mind," says Curtis. "First, what a personal question to ask. Then I felt tenderness, embarrassment, sentimentality, nostalgia, and vulnerability all at once. I looked up at him, then looked down. He said, 'That’s it!' And I thought, 'Oh, okay, I love you!' It is so lovely and simple when a director does that. No arm wrestling had to happen, he just asked me a simple question and I got [the scene]."

As for The Search for Spock's ending, when Spock's friends crowd around him on Vulcan, Curtis recollects that she and the other cast members were given a general direction to "be encouraged by that moment and confident that his katra had been restored. Sometimes we don't work those moments out, and it's all on the fly. It was very much off-the-cuff." Whether meticulously planned or inspired by the moment, these scenes combined to create a film that has stood the test of time and established itself as a crucial installment in the pantheon of Star Trek stories.