Star Trek: Voyager's Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).
Once again, I have decided to open up the interview vault and revisit some of the many interviews I have had the pleasure of writing over the years and that just appeared in-print and not on-line. Today's interview is with Jeri Ryan, who talks about joining the crew of The U.S.S. Voyager as Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
The slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” was once used not only to advertise a popular brand of cigarette but also to promote the women’s movement. This phrase could just as easily refer to the growth of women’s roles over the years in television science fiction. Back in the sixties Lost in Space’s Doctor Maureen Robinson and Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura stood for equality in outer space. In the seventies Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith and Leela brought women’s liberation to Doctor Who’s TARDIS. The arrival of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the eighties featured several strong female characters and in 1995 Captain Kathryn Janeway took command of her own starship in Star Trek: Voyager.
With the coming of the next millennium a new female character has emerged to shake things up in the Delta Quadrant. The bold and beautiful Borg Seven of Nine is the newest addition to Captain Janeway’s crew on The U.S.S. Voyager. Separated from the collective during a battle with Species 8472, Seven has managed to shed some of her Borg persona and is slowly trying to find her human self. Since coming aboard Voyager she has been treated with a mixture of confusion, contempt and compassion by the ship’s crew. Seven’s continuing struggle to fit in and gain the trust of those around her is just part of what makes playing the character enjoyable for Jeri Ryan.
“Seven is terrific and she is really a great deal of fun to play and a wonderful challenge as an actor, which is sort of a rare treat,” enthuses Ryan. “She’s an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, she is so wise and intelligent and strong and retains all the knowledge assimilated by the Borg, but on the other hand she’s emotionally very childlike. All of these things, like emotions and coping with being an individual and dealing with interpersonal relationships, Seven is facing for the first time in her memory. So she’s very immature from that perspective and she’s constantly learning and evolving, which I think is great.
“One of my fears early on, especially given Seven’s overtly sexual and physical appearance, was that this would be a really easy character for them to just say, ‘OK, bam! She’s a human. Now let’s get her into bed with this one and that one.’ So I was a little nervous about that at the beginning but I have to say that the writers and producers have shown remarkable restraint with this character. I think they’ve done a tremendous job, better than I expected and every bit as good as I’d hoped, at retaining some of the mystery surrounding her. They’ve also kept that Borg edge which is what I think is the interesting part about the character, and not rushed her into humanity, which I think would have been a mistake.
“So what I think Seven brings to Voyager, apart from the fact that she’s a fresh character so there are new relationships for all of the other characters to explore, is conflict,” adds Ryan. “Voyager was a pretty cozy place before Seven came along,” she laughs. “So I think it’s great to have somebody come in and rock the boat and go nose-to-nose with the captain and say, ‘No, I think you’re wrong. I think this is an illogical decision.’ ”
Prior to beginning work on Voyager, Ryan was only slightly familiar with the series but she had absolutely no idea who or what a Borg is. When her agent received the character breakdown for Seven of Nine he passed it on to the actress for her to read. Her initial reaction to the role was, to say the least, lukewarm.
“Nothing in the breakdown sort of leapt out and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this. It’s a great role,’ so I passed on it. I know the casting people for Voyager very well and they’re very sweet. They called my agent back and said, ‘Look, we really think this is a good role for Jeri. She really needs to look at this.’ So they sent the two audition pieces to me, the first of which was one of the most beautifully written audition pieces I’d ever read. It was a scene between Seven and Chakotay [Robert Beltran] where Seven remembers laughter for the first time. Unfortunately, it never ended up being used in the show but it was just so touching.
“The other scene was one with Seven and Harry Kim [Garrett Wang] from the episode Revulsion where Seven tells him to take off his clothes, which was not one of my favorites. I personally found it terribly predictable and a bit cheesy,” notes Ryan. “If it had been that scene alone there wouldn’t have been a question in my mind; I would have never done the audition. That scene with Chakotay, though, really piqued my interest.”
Ryan went in to read for the producers and then again for Voyager cocreator and co-executive producer Rick Berman, who was out of town for her audition. She accepted their offer of the part on a Wednesday and arrangements were made for her to read for the executives at Paramount Studios on Friday. “Well, that night I began to panic,” she recalls. “All I kept thinking was that this was going to be the end of my career and that I would be pigeonholed as this sort of alien babe forever, so I cancelled the test. The next morning Rick Berman phoned me at my apartment and said, ‘Look, I understand that you have some reservations. Why don’t you come in and meet with me and the other producers? I promise we’ll answer all of your questions and see if we can figure out a solution.’
“I was half expecting an ambush,” she jokes. “It would have been three against one at that point, but they were just great. Rick, Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga sat down with me in Rick’s office for well over an hour. They really did answer all my questions and allay my fears. They also gave me a history of Star Trek and the Borg in a nutshell so I’d have some idea as to what I was doing. Rick actually gave me the best piece of advice I’ve gotten so far. It wasn’t really advice but more of a clue as to what to expect. He said, ‘You’re getting on a freight train and you have no idea how fast you’re moving until you’re on it,’ and it was completely accurate, but it’s been wonderful. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way this has turned out from just a pure enjoyment perspective and also from a career standpoint. It’s been tremendous and far exceeded my best expectations, which is really nice,” she laughs.
In Voyager’s fourth-season opener Scorpion, Part II Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) surprises her crew when she forges an alliance with the Borg in order to devise a way to defeat Species 8472. Unfortunately, the Borg are unaccustomed to interacting with anyone outside their own collective, so they attempt to establish a temporary link with Janeway and Tuvok (Tim Russ). The captain objects, however, and instead she suggests that they appoint a single Borg drone to act as an intermediary between their two species. All agree and assign Seven of Nine to the task. Although Seven easily assumes her new duties, Ryan initially had some difficulty assimilating herself into the part.
“I was petrified on that first day,” she says. “When I auditioned it was for Seven of Nine as she was midway into the season where she has already been on Voyager for a while and is well on her way to becoming human. In my initial meeting with Rick and everyone else I was told that for the first couple of episodes I was going to be Borg. They gave me a copy of the Star Trek film First Contact to watch so I could learn about the Borg. I was told to disregard the Borg Queen because she’s a total anomaly, so all I had to base my performance on were the drones. I thought, ‘OK, Seven is one of the drones. She’ll wander around in the background silently, as a Borg drone does, and then at some point they’ll separate me and I’ll start to talk and act.’
“When the first script came out I found out I’m all over this thing talking as a Borg and I was panic-stricken,” chuckles Ryan. “I had no idea even where to begin, so I went immediately to Rick Berman’s office and again they were just wonderful. They were very clear with the fact that they wanted a completely new Borg. What they were looking for was almost a happy medium between the freedom of the Borg Queen and the robotics of the drones.”
Most early publicity photos of Seven of Nine show Ryan wearing the silvery formfitting bodysuit the character changes into at the end of the episode The Gift. This outfit is hardly standard Starfleet issue but it is far more comfortable and easier to get around in than the Borg costume the actress wore when she debuted as Seven. “Breathing was pretty much kept to a minimum in that first outfit,” she jokes.
“I had my left eye completely covered by a laser, so my depth perception was completely gone, which is something I hadn’t counted on. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to see on one side but I didn’t think I’d have that much of a problem getting around, which is kind of funny. I had never been on the bridge set until I was there filming in full Borg costume and didn’t realize that there were steps and a couple of different levels. I couldn’t tell the difference between the two, so I was tripping and making a total idiot of myself walking around that first day. I was hardly a graceful Borg.”
She may be separated from the Borg collective, but if Seven of Nine stops and thinks for a moment she will realize that she is the seventh of Voyager’s nine regular characters. Ryan was brought in to replace the departing Jennifer Lien who played Kes. In the episode The Gift Kes gives up her corporeal form in order to evolve into a higher state of being, while Seven must decide between life as a Borg drone or a human.
“I loved The Gift, not because it was Seven’s big transition episode but just because I thought it was a beautifully written story,” says Ryan. “I felt the writers took a great deal of care with the scenes involving Janeway and Kes and Janeway and Seven. The director of that episode, Anson Williams, was a dream to work with as well. There’s a scene in the brig that is my favorite of anything we’ve done. It’s the one in which Janeway tells Seven that she has no choice; she is going to become human. The captain has made the decision for her and that’s the way it is, and Seven tells her, ‘Well, then you’re no different from the Borg.’ I just love that. I applauded the fact that the writers had the guts to make it a gray issue as opposed to a black-and-white one. They didn’t make Janeway completely right sitting on her white horse and the Borg completely evil, because they’re not. They had a lot of courage to do something like that and I thought it was terrific.
“I also enjoyed The Raven, which, again, is another sort of big transition episode for Seven. You finally get a glimpse into her past and her memories as a young child. It was a pleasure to be directed by LeVar Burton [Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge in The Next Generation]. This episode also gave me the chance to finally appear with Ethan Phillips [Neelix]. He is such a delight to work with, although I can’t keep a straight face with him, so it takes forever to get through a scene,” laughs the actress.
One of the most difficult aspects for Seven of becoming human has been having to learn how to function in a society where everyone does not think alike. As part of the Borg collective she and her fellow drones would be given a task and solve it in unison using their joint consciousness. On Voyager Seven has had to adjust to working as part of a team, each member of which has his or her own opinion on the best way to attack a problem. More often than not Seven feels her decision is the right one and has no hesitation in expressing this to those around her, even Captain Janeway.
“Seven’s relationship with Janeway has developed from sort of a mentor/student thing into almost a mother/daughter rapport which was, to be honest with you, making both Kate and myself a little nervous,” explains Ryan. “It was getting, again, too cozy too quickly. We wanted to keep that conflict and I think the writers recognized this because they’ve really made a concerted effort to bring that edge back in recent episodes. Now it’s sort of turned into a battle between mom and the unruly teenager, which is a bit more interesting to play.”
Surprisingly, one of the few people on Voyager with whom Seven is most comfortable is Vulcan Lieutenant Commander Tuvok. The Borg respects the logical way in which his mind operates and has even asked his opinion regarding her behavior in certain situations. Ryan is pleased that the professional relationship between these two characters has been allowed to develop. “I really thought that watching these two sort of monotone, logic-driven characters interact would end up being one of the most boring things ever shown on television. It’s developed, however, into Seven’s first friendship. She’s the only one who really understands the logical side of Tuvok’s personality. He stands on the edge of humanity and comments on its foibles and the various human neuroses and looks at it all with the same sort of perspective as Seven does. So I think she learns a lot from him and at the same time she also respects him.
“Tuvok and Janeway, and for a different reason the Doctor [Robert Picardo], are, I think, the only crewmembers for whom Seven does have a great deal of respect,” muses Ryan. “Not that she doesn’t respect the others, but those three are the only ones she views as almost superior beings like the Borg and more on her level. Not quite,” she adds, “but almost.”
“Her relationship with the Doctor is also developing into something quite interesting. Seven respects him because he’s another technological being like herself. All the other crewmembers are completely organic and so they’re flawed, but his existence depends on technology and she really admires that. As for the Doctor, he’s taken her under his wing as well and is sort of acting as an unofficial teacher in the ways of humanity and social mores.”
One Voyager crewmember who has been infatuated with Seven right from the start is Ensign Harry Kim. The lovestruck ensign has a difficult time expressing his feelings, which is cause for great amusement among his fellow crewmates. “Part of Seven’s appeal is the fact that she has absolutely no clue as to the effect her physical appearance has on, say, Harry Kim. None! She doesn’t understand how he would feel if she stood six inches from his face, and I love that. I think Seven is sort of amused by Harry, as much as a Borg can be at this point, and intrigued by his occasional outbursts of prepubescent behavior.”
A Borg drone has very little time to enjoy itself when it is busy trying to assimilate unwilling species. Despite becoming more and more human, Seven still has a difficult time understanding why those around her would choose to waste time engaging in joviality. Ryan, on the other hand, says that she and her Voyager costars always manage to fit a laugh or two into their hectic working day.
“Anyone who has seen me on the show knows I don’t use my own voice for Seven. I speak very differently than she does. In one of my first scenes with Bob Picardo I had to make this rather long-winded speech. I was sort of in mid-monologue and I lapsed back into my normal voice about halfway through. When we cut Bob looked at me and slowly nodded his head. He said, ‘I like it. I like it. Sort of eighty-three percent Borg and seventeen percent white trash,’ which I thought was just hysterical.
“There are very few scenes when you get the entire cast together and I almost pity any director who has such a scene because chaos reigns supreme. We completely lose control and nothing gets done. A moment like this came when we opened the astrometrics lab at the beginning of Year of Hell, Part I. Everyone was there late and we were all a bit punchy. All I can remember is, oh, God, Robert Beltran, Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips hopping around the set doing their impressions of Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dance guy. They were totally out of control. I was laughing so hard that I had tears running down my face. I keep telling everyone that everybody here is a psychopath,” she laughs. “They’re either all going to become stand-up comics or they’re going to open an asylum and commit us all. Well, at least we’d have a good time.”
It did not take long for the news to circulate when it was first announced that the actress was joining the cast of Voyager. Ryan’s face has appeared in the pages of countless magazines and newspapers and in a recent search of the Internet there were over one hundred sites dedicated to her. In a November issue of America’s TV Guide magazine Ryan was voted one of television’s top twenty sexy stars. How does the actress feel about being caught in the middle of all this media attention?
“It’s pretty surreal, I mean, it really is,” she says. “That’s the one word I keep coming back to, but that really sums up this whole experience. To be quite honest, the press attention has been a delightful surprise. I knew that it would be big news in the Star Trek world but I had no idea how vast that world is and how many demographics it really cuts across. I also didn’t realize how much interest it would generate in just the mainstream entertainment medium alone. The character really has received a lot of attention, which is a nice surprise, and all positive attention for the most part, which is even nicer.”
Before starting work on Voyager, Ryan costarred as Juliet, a no-nonsense Russian agent battling extraterrestrials in the short-lived NBC television series Dark Skies. Juliet arrived with a bang at Majestic-12’s top secret headquarters and certainly rocked the boat in the limited time she was on the program. “Like Seven she was a very strong and intelligent female,” says Ryan in describing Juliet. “It’s very sad but there aren’t many roles like that right now for women, especially if you’re of a certain physical type. So from that perspective it was a rare treat to play Juliet. She was a tough cookie. You didn’t want to mess with her,” laughs the actress. “She really took charge of her life and several other peoples’ as well.
“Dark Skies was a great experience,” she continues. “I enjoyed everything about it. I don’t have a bad thing to say about the program. Granted, it was my first series, so I’m sure I looked at things through rose-colored glasses, but I loved it. It was another situation where I got along very well with everyone who worked on the show. The producers [Bryce Zabel and Brad Markowitz] were great. I loved Eric Close and Megan Ward, and as for J.T. Walsh, well, he’s one of my favorite people on the planet [N.B. - he died 27th February, 1998]. Everyone - Tim Kelleher, Conor O’Farrell - I had a ball working with them all. Unfortunately, our time together was brief. That wasn’t unexpected, but it was disappointing for all of us.
“I would have loved for the show to have gone on for another season. I think in some ways Dark Skies was sort of just finding its feet when it was cancelled, which is too bad. I think NBC gave it a huge send-off at the start of the season and pretty much said, ‘OK, you’re on your own.’ We also had the time slot of death, Saturday nights at eight o’clock, and that didn’t help. Of course, when it ended there was the standard actor’s panic of, ‘Oh, no. I’ll never work again,’ but I was quite fortunate. We wrapped Dark Skies around the end of March  and I started Voyager in May, so I had very little downtime, which was good. Well, it was good in some ways because I didn’t have time to freak out about it. It would have been nice, though, to have caught up on some rest before starting this whirlwind trip through space.”
The actress also recently completed work on an independent film called The Last Man. The actress plays Sarah, one of three people left living after a disaster on Earth. “She has a bit of a darker past, so she has a lot going on in her mind, which made her fun to play. Filming it, however, was pretty much hell because it was an extremely low-budget feature. We shot it in the desert in the middle of nowhere and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It was brutal, but we still had a good time - most of the time,” she laughs.
Ryan is considering working on a feature film during the Voyager hiatus but if she does not she is then looking forward to spending all of her time with her husband Jack and their son Alex. For the moment, however, Seven of Nine is keeping her busy and happy. “I get to hang out with my friends and goof off and pretend that I’m flying in space, which is what my three-year-old son does, and they pay me for this. I’m a lucky gal.”