Star Trek Communicator
By Melissa Perenson
Six years ago, actress Roxann Dawson had barely even heard of Gene Roddenberry's legendary creation. "I knew absolutely nothing about Star Trek, to be honest with you," she confesses. "I finally decided to watch an episode the night before my screen test."
After seeing an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, she continues, "I saw Michael Dorn and I remember saying out loud to my husband, 'How awful. That poor man has to wear all that makeup'--meanwhile having no idea that I was actually going in [and auditioning] for Klingon myself and that's what my destiny was."
Now, however, there's no doubt that Dawson knows the difference between a Klingon and a warp core. Call it an occupational hazard: as B'Elanna Torres, the half-Klingon chief engineer on Star Trek: Voyager, Dawson had no choice but to come up to speed quickly.
Exploring her Klingon side was something that happened early on, in the 13th episode,"Faces." "'Faces' very candidly dealt with B'Elanna's two sides, her Klingon and her human side, because I ended up being split and able to play both fully Klingon and fully human. I actually had scenes with myself" she remembers. "That came very early on in my understanding of B'Elanna's character. At first it scared me quite a bit because I barely knew this character myself and now I was being asked to split her into two. It was a great learning experience for me, one that was completely challenging and frightening--and ultimately really rewarding."
"You get into these life-and-death situations almost every week when you're battling an alien. And every once in a while, when you can do a quiet episode that truly explores the depth of your character and can take you a step further in your understanding of your character, that's very exciting."
Another favorite episode Dawson points to is the third season's "Remember," which she remembers as being particularly well-written. "That show really challenged B'Elanna to take responsibility for certain actions and knowledge," she offers.
Voyager's fifth season, she notes, is one where "most of the shows have been quite good. I do feel there was a lot of character development this year.
"But I think the strength of our show is in our ensemble. In fact, that was the thing that was noted by the majority of reviews when we started, that [the critics] had never seen an ensemble like this that clicked so quickly. And I feel that in the end, the strength of the show lies in us as a group. We work very well together, and we bonded so quickly. I've been on other series that are 'ensembles,' but I've never seen actors gel like we did so quickly. Even with the introduction of Seven of Nine, I know that for this show to work, they needed to come back and revisit the characters as a group."
Dawson's favorite episode from this season--"Extreme Risk"--offered the actress the chance to delve deeper into her character. "I enjoyed being able to explore a side of B'Elanna that we haven't seen before, and I thought that it really accurately mirrored aspects of depression. I thought that it was a very well-written episode."
Indeed, over the years B'Elanna has proven to be one of the more multifaceted characters on Voyager B'Elanna's come a long way from where she was in the series premiere. She's no longer a former Starfleet Academy student-turned-rebel with an attitude big enough for two; now, she's a team player; striving for what's right for Voyager and its crew. Aside from exploring B'Elanna's Klingon heritage, Dawson has particularly enjoyed delving into the burgeoning relationship between Torres and Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill).
Ironically, though,just when things started taking off early in the fourth season, Dawson's real-life pregnancy interfered with further progression of that storyline. "That was...odd," she muses. "Even though we were developing our relationship, after a while it was very hard because they couldn't film me below the neck. And to negotiate around my belly whenever we had to kiss was very funny. But they still at least continued to try to develop it over most of last season.
"They actually haven't pursued it this season. And I wish they were pursuing it more," Dawson adds. "Not so much on a romantic level as on an intellectual level. I just would love to see the meeting of minds between these two characters, and I hope that at some point they explore it."
Her pregnancy, of course, did alter the course of her character's role in the fourth season. "I have to say, I work for amazing people--they were extraordinary in terms of giving me a light schedule and always accom-modating me," she says. "There was one point where I needed to be in some smoke, and they knew I couldn't breathe it being as pregnant as I was. And they actually did my close-up on another day, and added in the smoke in post-production, which cost them quite a bit of money to do. They also didn't make me disappear; they kept my character alive, they kept shooting, I got a lot of close-ups by the end of the year," she laughs.
In addition to close-ups, an engineering jacket was created in order to hide her pregnancy whenever she needed to make a quick turn around a corner while on camera. And creative camera angles were employed. "A lot of the times the things that were blocking me were other actors. We would just work the blockings so that when the camera moved in a certain way Janeway would cross at a perfect time, and we would choreograph it in a way where the other characters would block me when I needed not to be seen. Everybody pitched in to help me. It was a really great year."
It was so great, in fact, that Dawson was back at work just 10 days after giving birth to daughter Emma Rose in December 1997 [The Official Roxann Dawson Fan Club Web Page states January 16, 1998 at 7:52 a.m., 17 1/2 inches, 5lbs. 15 ozs.], ultimately missing only one episode (she worked up to three days prior to her daughter's birth). After finishing out the remaining couple of episodes for the season, "I had hiatus to be with my daughter and to become adjusted to being a mother--and also to get back into shape."
Being a working mom has worked out well for Dawson. "I think I'm just one of the luckiest people out there, because I found a wonderful nanny to help me, and she brings my daughter to me at work so I can spend time with her," she reveals. "It's a very good schedule when you're on a show with nine people and you do have days off, you're not the main focus all of the time."
Looking forward, Dawson would like to delve more deeply into her character's dueling Klingon and human perspectives. "I would like to see these conflicts surface more, because I think they are the things that make her character interesting. When she is too healthy, too complacent, too perfect, she's boring. I love when she's messy, I love when she thinks from her heart instead of from her mind all the time. I think these are the things that make this character different from the other characters on the show."
Of course, that's not all Dawson would like from the future. As with many of the actors on Voyager, she comes from a theatrical background. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dawson majored in Theater Arts at the University of California at Berkeley; after graduation, she appeared in Broadway and off-Broadway productions as well as regional theatre before crossing over into assorted episodic and movie-of-the-week television roles.
Now, after five years on television in Voyager, the urge to return to the stage is compelling. "I would return tomorrow if I had the time," she says. "I really miss it!"
The undeniable appeal of the stage, she adds, is the control. "When you are out there, it is you and the audience. Nobody is going to edit your bleeps out, nobody is going to take out your pause before you say this important line so that when you see it air you say, 'that is not how you played it.'" Put together with the audience interaction, the process is "exhilarating."
For Dawson, the joy of acting comes from "being able to affect people," she says. "And again that comes out of the material. When you are doing very good material that you connect with that hits you on that universal chord and you are able to bring that to life and sense that other people are being moved by your work--it's just a profound experience."
Being a part of Star Trek has proven profound as well--and having the opportunity to interact with the fans has turned into an unexpected benefit.
"I absolutely adore doing conventions, because it reminds of the theatre, says Dawson. "I miss doing theatre, I have never been away from the stage as long as I have since I've been on Star Trek. One of the things that I love about live theatre is having contact with your audience. And when you go to these conventions, you really do have contact with the audience and you hear from them what affected them--and what didn't affect them, believe me they also let you know that! But I just love being able to have that kind of contact, to see them, to hear their thoughts, to sense that there really is an audience behind that camera that becomes our audience on the set."
In spite of her initial, unwitting and wary comments regarding Michael Dorn's Klingon makeup, Dawson realizes that it does help define her character. That doesn't make it any easier to deal with, though. "The makeup actually has been the most difficult part of this job," she admits freely. "It takes two hours to put on, a half-hour to 45 minute[s] to remove, and it's really tough on the skin. As an actor, I think it's hard; you're used to using your whole face, and you only have half of it to use. I know a lot of people say that wearing masks can sometimes help in creating a character, a look for it, but with B'Elanna I found her so close to me in so many ways that I really understood the character from the get-go and I don't know that [the makeup] necessarily helped me.
Sometimes, the prosthetic makeup becomes more of a physical obstacle than anything. "I know that [face] is who the character is, but it is limiting as one of these things where you can't touch your face, you can't touch your hair, you're left without physical activities, no characteristics. You can't do the things that a normal person would do, when you've got rubber on your face, and your hair is a very delicate wig. You put the makeup on in the morning and you're aware of a little itch on your forehead, and you go, 'Great, I can scratch that in 15 hours'," she laughs. "I would love to be able to work without the mask for a while."
Although Voyager'sSeeing Through Walls. "That was a great opportunity for me to take the mask off and work," she says.
Another opportunity came with Dawson's participation in John de Lancie and Leonard Nimoy's Alien Voices, a performing company dedicated to the dramatization of classic sci-fi novels for radio.
"But, basically, between work and being a new mom, that's all I've heen able to handle at this point," she concludes, resonating satisfaction. Indeed, it's easy to see where having to deal with both Tom Paris and an inquisitive toddler would be enough for anyone--even Dawson and her Voyager alter-ego.