Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois).
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 Rene Auberjonois, who talks about his first four seasons playing Constable Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Enjoy, and keep coming back for more familiar faces and shows!
"When I started working on the series my character was a total mystery," explains actor Rene Auberjonois, who has spent the last four years upholding law and order as the shape-shifting Constable Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. "Odo's an orphan. He has no idea where he's from, if he has any family or even what he is. It was this that actually fascinated me about the part.
"For the first couple of seasons people would ask me, 'When are we going to find out?' I used to jokingly say, 'Well, the day we find out where Odo is from is the day that they're writing me out of the series.' When we were getting ready to start the third season I had lunch with the producers and writers and they said, 'We wanted you to know that we're going to find out where Odo is from, but we don't want you to think we're writing you out of the series,' because they'd heard me make that joke.
"The initial mystery surrounding my character was, of course, the driving force and the viewers found that very interesting. For the sake of people just now beginning to see the show I don't want to give anything away, but we do find out more about Odo and learn something about his antecedents and where he's from.
"I've been pleased that the answer to where Odo is from is as complex and rich in dramatic possibilities as the question," continues the actor. "Sometimes the question is more interesting than the answer and that's something that's always concerned me, but in this case I think they've been very smart. The answer is sort of like a Rubik's Cube. It just continues to make for an intriguing and complex situation and gives the character other interesting things to struggle with.
"The character walks a fine line. If he steps in one direction he can become almost a fascist and, yet, he's tremendously passionate and caring and a character whose interest in justice is very admirable to me, so, he's always challenging and changing. He's a changer, a shape-shifter, a changeling and that makes it a lot easier to be in the fourth season of the show and not start to feel kind of bored with yourself. That's one of the dangers of doing a show for a long time - you start to get bored - and that hasn't happened in Deep Space Nine."
The actor's passion for his profession stretches back to when he was only six years old. Although he was not a child actor, Auberjonois spent his early years performing in various school productions along with local acting groups and community theatres. After completing his high school education in England where his father is a foreign correspondent, he returned to the United States and began studying drama at the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University.
"When I was sixteen I was offered an apprenticeship at Stratford, Connecticut. Actor John Houseman was an old friend of the family and he very generously gave me a break as an apprentice - just carrying spears and things - but even before that I was acting and have always wanted to act.
"I come from a very artistic family," he continues. "My grandfather, after whom I'm named, was a very fine and highly regarded painter in Switzerland where his work is in almost every museum. My dad is a writer and also a wonderful artist himself. I'm not a writer but I do a lot of drawing, sketching and photography. If I weren't a performing artist I would be some kind of artist. It's in my blood."
A distinguished theatrical actor (his performance in the Broadway production of CoCo which starred the legendary Katharine Hepburn, earned him a Tony Award) Auberjonois's face is familiar to audiences which have enjoyed his work in films such as Brewster McCloud, The Eyes of Laura Mars and The Lost Language of the Cranes. He has also appeared in countless television series including a seven-year stint opposite Star Trek: Voyager's Ethan Phillips (Neelix) in the hit American comedy series Benson. Despite this long and varied list of credentials Auberjonois sat in the hallway alongside other hopefuls when he went to audition for the part of Odo in Star Trek:Deep Space Nine.
"That actually surprises some people. Not that I'm some megastar, but I have had an extensive career and have been around a long time, so, people tend to assume, 'Oh, well, they just offer you things,' but, in fact, there was a tremendous amount of competition to get onto DS9. It was, of course, a plum assignment which any actor would recognize as sort of a sure bet [that the series would triumph].
"In some ways I was a victim of my own success in other areas," he says. "I think it was hard for them to imagine me as Odo. If they knew my work they knew me as that sort of uptight twit Clayton from Benson and because of this I feel they needed some convincing that I would be able to make the character an acceptable, truthful interpretation of what they had in mind, although they didn't really have all that much in mind. Odo was quite amorphous and they could have gone in a lot of different directions with the character, which was another reason it was hard, because they didn't have a specific image in mind."
Auberjonois returned home from his fourth audition on a Friday afternoon only to receive a telephone call from his agent telling him the studio executives wanted the actor to come back and audition one more time. "I offered to go back right then and there and he said, 'No, they want you to come back on Monday.' I said, 'You know, I think I've done it enough times.' I told him I'd have to give it some thought. Of course, if I didn't go back it would have meant forfeiting the role.
"As soon as I hung up the phone rang again. This time it was my daughter, who's a young actress. She knew I was supposed to be going in that day for my last audition and wanted to know how it went. I said, 'They want me to come back one more time,' and she said, 'Oh, that's great!' It was this positive, hopeful, joyous, youthful attitude that made me pause and think for a second. I said, 'You're right. It's great.' I called up my agent and said, 'OK, I'll go back in,' and, of course, that was the one that clinched it."
Once a new alien culture has been created on paper for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it is up to costume designers, hairstylists and makeup artists to bring the character to life. The process is time-consuming and sometimes grueling one for the individual designing the look as well as for the actor or actress who must be transformed. For Auberjonois the creation of Odo's unique look began in the program's pilot episode "Emissary" and continued throughout the show's first season.
"From the beginning makeup artist Mike Westmore said to me, 'This is going to be a very difficult makeup process. It's probably the hardest makeup I've ever attempted to do because it doesn't have a lot of nooks, crannies, wrinkles, bumps and things to hide in. We're trying to get a very special kind of undefined, amorphous, almost polished look - like a pebble on the beach that's been sandwashed - and that's a very, very difficult thing to do with makeup.'
"They were reticent to make it all in one piece and, so, it was all made up in several little pieces," explains Auberjonois. "It would change radically from hour-to-hour, scene-to-scene and show-to-show. Of course, the rationalization is that I'm a shape-shifter and we could get away with that, but it really was a problem. It was a very uncomfortable, difficult and long process and the hours on the pilot were incredibly long. I remember one time coming into makeup at 7:30 in the morning and not getting out of it until 4:30 the next morning, so that's around twenty-odd hours of wearing the makeup.
"Out of a fourteen or fifteen hour day, which is our usual sort of workday, if I actually end up acting for twenty minutes out of those fifteen hours that's a long time, so, what I remember about the pilot is a lot of sitting around and feeling very out of control because I couldn't control how my face was going to end up. I would sit in the chair for three to four hours, then look in the mirror and the makeup wouldn't be acceptable, so, we had to start again. It went through a lot of changes during the first season and partially through the second season but now it's pretty close to perfected as it ever will be."
Along with a mysterious background and his unique face, Odo also has the ability to shape-shift or morph into a wide variety of lifeforms and inanimate objects. This often comes in handy in his character's capacity as chief of security aboard Deep Space Nine, but, as Auberjonois points out, it has not become a crutch for the series.
"Frankly, the aspect of morphing has always been the least interesting thing about the character for me, partly because it's done on a computer. I have nothing to do with it. I love to see it but it's also, candidly, a bit of a gimmick and anytime a television series depends on a gimmick you know it has a very finite existence. Fortunately, they're very clever and knew this up front. We go many, many episodes without my morphing, so, the audience is waiting for it and, as a result, it keeps the concept very fresh and interesting."
Auberjonois admits that it is difficult for him to pick out a favorite episode. Like most actors in a long-running series, the episodes tend to meld into one big adventure, especially when the cast sometimes complete one story, break for lunch and then come back to start work on the next one.
"One of my favorite shows is one that I had very little to do with but is a wonderful episode from the first season called Captive Pursuit. To me it's a classic Star Trek kind of story, almost a fox hunt in space with this alien creature being chased by a high order of hunters.
"I also enjoy the episode The Forsaken with Majel Barrett Roddenberry as Lwaxana Troi. In fact, I was talking to my dad and his wife yesterday and they had just seen it the night before. It is just a very personal and sweet story."
Another of the actor's personal favorite is the second-season story Necessary Evil. This unusually dark and gritty episode takes viewers back to the time the Cardassians controlled Deep Space Nine and also explores the relationship between Odo and Major Kira (Nana Visitor). "That whole relationship has evolved into a kind of unrequited love story for Odo in relationship to Kira," Auberjonois explains. "She is totally unaware of his deep feelings for her. She considers him, if not her dearest, one of her dearest friends, but she's completely unaware of how he feels about her. For Odo his feelings are very conflicted and confused. There's so much that's unanswered about him and a lot of his background has not prepared him in any way to deal with emotions.
"A lot of the fans find their relationship very touching and really hope that Kira and Odo will get together someday. I've always said that would never happen - it's just out of the question - but I don't have the answers to what is going to happen. We just shot an episode [Crossfire] which, I think, resolves the relationship. It's a very touching and sweet story in which she remains totally oblivious to his feelings and it's Quark [Armin Shimerman] who, in the wonderful sort of symbiotic love/hate relationship he has with Odo, helps him to come to terms with his feelings."
While the feelings Odo has for Quark are much less congenial than those he expresses toward Major Kira, the actors portraying Deep Space Nine's oddest couple are much closer in real life. "Armin is my closest friend," he says. "I'm always happy when I open the script and there's a scene between Odo and Quark. I love working with Armin and I think the writers bring out some wonderful aspects of our characters on the show.
"People always say they love the relationship between the two characters which surprises both Armin and me because we actually have very little to do with each other on the show. We're sort of like a seasoning to the stew but we've never been the stew. Perhaps that's for the best. Maybe it means there really isn't anywhere to go with those characters except to have occasional scenes in which they sort of lock horns or jibe at one another."
When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made its American television debut four years ago some critics were quick to attack the program, comparing it to its immensely popular older sibling Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show, which finished filming its fourth season at the end of April 1996, has survived some early growing pains and warped ahead to become America's top syndicated dramatic series.
"When you begin a show the writers have a concept and it's the actor's job to come in as the instrument and interpret the music conceived by the writers. As time goes on you become part of the music. You're not only interpreting the music but you begin to influence it. They see what your instrument is and what is does and they respond to it. The whole thing becomes a more collaborative effort in the sense that your input as an actor begins to influence what is written about your character and how it is used.
"Looking back over the seasons and seeing how the show has evolved is fascinating to me, not only for myself, which, of course is fascinating," laughs the actor, "but to see how other members of our cast have evolved, shifted, changed and grown. That's one of the joys of being part of an ensemble.
"When people first questioned whether or not DS9 was as good as The Next Generation or if it would ever really find its audience I would say, 'You know, we're all lucky that this show is probably going to run for a number of years. In that time we'll find our way and the audience will find us.' The fourth season is the proof of the pudding. It's the best season we've ever had and the audience is the most positive.
"It took a long time for people to get to know us and for us to know ourselves,' says Auberjonois thoughtfully. "That was true of The Next Generation and now it's true of us. We've found ourselves and it's going to take Voyager that long too, that's the way it is. It takes time to get it so you're all hearing the same music."