Starlog Magazine # 214 May 1995 (pp 27-30)
Cover: 'VOYAGER B'Elanna's heritage - Roxann Biggs-Dawson speaks!'
*Courtesy Alexandra Brown
Wild at Heart
On a fantastic voyage across the galaxy, Roxann Biggs-Dawson struggles to cope with her turbulent heritage.
By Ian Spelling
It's a whole other world when you're working on a show that takes place in the future, because you're so used to doing research if, say, you are going to play a historical role. And if you are playing something that is a modern role, at least you have some current experiences to help you figure it out. But when you're playing a character who's not even human, it is so different," explains Roxann Biggs-Dawson, who's spending a lot of time these days as B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager. "It's so exciting. It's all up to the imagination and it's all so...fantastical."
Torres, of course, is the emotionally conflicted half-human/half-Klingon Chief Engineer aboard the starship Voyager. A former Maquis, who served aboard the renegade Maquis ship commanded by Chakotay (Robert Beltran), Torres is slowly, reluctantly and sometimes quite awkwardly learning to blend in with the Voyager's integrated Starfleet/Maquis crew, which also includes Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), First Officer [sic] Tuvok (Tim Russ), Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill), Lt. [sic] Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), handyman and cook Neelix (Ethan Phillips) and his girlfriend/assistant Kes (Jennifer Lien), as well ad the holographic ship's physician, Doc Zimmerman [sic] (Robert Picardo).
Biggs-Dawson explains that Torres attended Starfleet Academy, where she excelled at the sciences, but that she quit abuptly because she felt that she couldn't succeed there. Torres was extremely aggressive and outspoken and believed that no one liked or cared for her. Whatever her problems were, however, Torres always found a convenient way to explain them away: she blamed them on the influence of her Klingon side.
"Her mother was a full Klingon and her father was a human Starfleer officer, and I think she always wanted to live up to this image she had of him. He's like a knight in shining armour to her," the actress suggests. "Her greatest dream was to be a Starfleet officer, to make him proud, but she sabotaged it herself because of this other side, her Klingon side that she so despises.
"I've created all these reasons in my head about why she hates her Klingon half so much. I think it has a lot to do with her relationship with her mother, who I don't think she got along with too well. Also, B'Elanna was trying to fit into a human world, and being different automatically made that difficult to do. The one thing that really made her different was her being half-Klingon. She just wanted to conform, to belong, and she thought she couldn't because of her Klingon side. She loves her father so much, though he was never around because her parents were separated. So, he bacame this perfect person in her mind, and she always wanted to be human and perfect like he was. Her mother, being a full Klingon, represented the side of B'Elanna that kept her from belonging, that was alwaysher obstacle to her being what she always wanted to be.
"She wound up with the Maquis because they were probably the only group that would accept her for what she was. he aggressive side had a very good outlet there. They listened to her. They respected her differences and her ideas, which were maybe a little off-center, that didn't quite fit into the the Starfleet mode. She always thought in different ways, and the Maquis respected that."
While growing up in Los Angeles, Biggs-Dawson admittedly wasn't that much of a fan of the original Star Trek series. It wasn't that she didn't like the show, or that she couldn't relate to it, or that she disliked sci-fi in general. No, the reason was because her family lived behind William Shatner's home, and that caused problems. "I would play with his kids, Melanie and Leslie. I always wanted to play basketball, and they always wanted to watch their dad on TV," she complains, laughing. "I grew up never being able to watch it because of this childhood experience. The first time I ever saw The Next Generation was right before my audition for Voyager. I sat there watching and I said, "This show is really amazing," I've been hooked on it ever since. I watch The Next Generation repeats whenever I'm home, usually on my days off."
The actress says only half-kiddingly that it took "auditioning, auditioning, auditioning" to win the role of Torres, and ackowledges that she has "abolutely no idea" what made her right for the part in the eyes of Voyager co-creators and co-executive producers Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor. But she does know exactly what it was about Torres that attracted her to the part. "I was attracted to and fascinated by the duality of B'Elanna's personality, her constant struggle to reconcile the two parts of herself, which, I think, is a fascinating thing to explore. Playing her is a great workout, physically and emotionally. It's fun for an actress to play ping-pong with emotions, allowing them to sort of fly."
Once she landed the part, Biggs-Dawson, who resides in LA with her casting agent husband and their two dogs, made certain to watch any episodes of Star Trek, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine that prominently featured Klingons. The two portrayals that most caught her attention were, not surprisingly, those of Michael Dorn as Worf and Suzie Plakson as K'Ehleyr, Worf's one-time love interest and the mother of his child, Alexander. "I've never had a chance to talk with Michael, but I hope I will soon, maybe at a convention. I watched a lot of the episodes that dealt with Klingon things, and learned about them by watching," she recalls. I learnt a lot about the character's animal, aggressive side, which I think is very much in all of us, and may be why the Klingons are so popular with Star Trek fans. I love trying to tap into that part of myself and then trying to suppress it.
"I also saw Suzie Plakson's two episodes. They were actually of great help to me. It was wonderful for me to be able to see a character in a similat situation to B'Elanna's. I think she's the only other half-human, half-Klingon character to be on Star Trek. In K'Ehleyr's case, I believe it was her father who was Klingon and her mother who was human. So the characters have entirely different backgrounds and personalities, but watching those episodes was a great help. What Suzie did with the part was wonderful."
Becoming Torres each day on the soundstage takes more than just Biggs-Dawson understanding her character. It also takes Michael Westmore's makeup magic to make the transformation complete. During the show's first few weeks, it took about four weeks to apply Torres' face, though the process is down to about two hours. Initially, sporting the makeup drove Biggs-Dawson crazy, and just thinking about an itch in the middle of her forehead sent shivers up her spine. More importantly, the actress was concernaed about assimilating the elaborate makeup into her performance. "Now, I'm pretty much learning how to work with it. As I progressed from the pilot to the first few episodes, I saw myself working more easily in it. At first, you're very self-conscious about even the smallest expressions, because you feel the mask at work with every expression you make. It's slowly becoming part of me. I'm feeling much more natural in it now, and I think that will read more on camera as the show progresses."
Speaking of progressing, Torres' relationships with other characters aboard the Voyager are just now beginning to come into focus. The Chief Engineer spent a great deal of time, under less than comfortable circumstances, getting to know Ensign Kim in the show's pilot, "Caretaker", and was shown learning to trust and respect and trust Captain Janeway in several subsequent episodes, among them "Time and Again" and "Parallax". Torres also remains close to Chakotay, her commander aboard the Maquis ship, who lobbied Janeway to appoint Torres as Chief Engineer of the Voyager after the crew joined forces.
Future episodes will find Torres developing relationships with the other Voyager officers. One bond that should be of particular interest will be the one with Tuvok, whose calm demeanor Torres genuinely appreciates. Torres relies on the Vulcan for counsel and hopes to learn from him how to control the Klingon rage running through her veins.
As for her small army of real-life co-stars, Torres couldn't sound any happier. "It's a great group of people. I feel our producers must have hand-picked everybody incredibly carefully, because everyone seems so right for their roles and everybody gets along so well," she enthuses. "It's already a family, and we've really only been doing this for a few weeks. It's one of the best casts I've ever worked with."
Biggs-Dawson has worked with a number of casts over the years, since attending the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied theatre arts. She first tasted success while playing Diana Morales in the San Francisco production of A Chorus Line, then made the move to New York to tacke the same role in the long-running Broadway version. Several other stage shows came her way before she joined the cast of Another World. "For a year, I was Adrienne Morrow on the soap," she explains. "I was the wife of a gangster and wasn't so nice myself, but I ended up becoming pretty nice."
Guest spots on such TV series as Jack's Place, The Untouchables and Matlock followed, as did regular roles on Nightingales and The Round Table. Her made-for-TV movies include Mortal Sins and Dirty Work. On the big screen, Biggs-Dawson has been seen in Guilty By Suspicion and Bound By Honor.
"I loved doing A Chorus Line. It was a highlight eight times a week. That was a live show that worked so well for so long. We had an excellent company and Michael Bennett, who was at the helm, was a genius," she notes. "I felt as if I was part of something extremely special. Plus, it was a show I had seen while I was in high school, so it was like stepping into a dream for me to do it. I love a lot of the other theatre work I did in New York. I enjoyed, even though it was a smaller role, working with Robert De Niro in Guilty By Suspicion, which was about the 1950's blacklisting situation and how it affected Hollywood. It was such a learning experience. In almost everything I do, I find these little highlights. Voyager has already been a highlight.
"I wouldn't recommend this profession to everyone, however, because it's a very difficult one. It's was the right profession for me, I've always loved it. I feel very passionate about the work and I love doing it. There are ups and downs to it, but I can't remember a time when I didn't feel that way, didn't love it. From the time I was a little girl, I was always play-acting. I was in school plays. I would write these little plays. I would do them at home and invite the neighborhood kids over and cast them in things. I was ridiculously manic about it, and I still am."
Not long before enlisting with Voyager, Biggs-Dawson completed filming a direct-to-video Darkman sequel, opposite Arnold Vosloo as the new Darkman and Jeff (Lawnmover Man) Fahey as her bad-guy husband. "I have a daughter, but Jeff plots to kill me," she reports. "Arnold, being able to change masks as Darkman can, tries to find out more about my husband's business, which is a direct threat to him. Then, he, as my husband, falls in love with me and I I actually fall in love with him. So, it's a great, almost Cyrano de Bergerac kind of thing. At the very end it, of course, good wins out over evil and I still care for him. It's really a beautiful story."
Returning to Voyager, Biggs-Dawson says she's fully aware that the experience will forever change her life, and in ways she never imagined. That very prospect has her extraordinarily intrigued. "It's completely and unknown to me, completely uncharted territory. >From the minute I got the role, people have been coming up to me, telling me what a special thing this is. So, concludes Roxann Biggs-Dawson, "I've only sensed the tip of the iceberg so far. I've already received mail from some of the Star Trek fans. It's different from anything I've ever received before. The fans are all welcoming me into their family, which is amazing. Star Trek fans are a different breed of fan. They're intelligent, well-spoken and up-to-date on what's happening on the shows. It'll be interesting to develop a relationship with them, which I'm sure I will.
"I also feel so lucky to be able to have a character that's so three-dimensional. There is something new that I'm learning every time I come to work. B'Elanna is a character that you can look forward to watching as she grows and progresses. The more conflict, the better, as far as I'm concerned, as she tries to reconciled the two sides of herself. There's so much potential here, and I can see this being a very satisfying experience for the next several years. I'm vey excited about that."
IAN SPELLING, veteran STAR TREK correspondent, writes the "Inside Trek" column for the New York Times Syndicate.
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