Kes's Nine-Year Mission...
A Starburst interview by Joe Nazzaro
This issue we interview Jennifer Lien as she explores the furthest reaches of the Star Trek universe in Voyager.
Jennifer Lien plays Kes, one of the alien crew members on Star Trek: Voyager. "I don't think it's going to be business as usual this season," she promises. "Everything keeps changing, so you never really know what's going to happen. The writers and producers and the team have really expanded and developed my character in quite wonderful ways, so the viewers and the entire creative team will be seeing some of those developments this season. Every time I get a script, the character has something different to offer, which is wonderful, so I don't know what the status quo for my character would be. It's always interesting."
According to Lien, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series is the open door policy that allows the cast members to bring their comments and criticisms directly to the producers, and more importantly, have them listened to. "I could, and I do know that some of the cast go to the writers and producers and discuss their thoughts and ideas, and the writers are incredibly open to suggestions. They really make the actors feel welcome."
"I haven't done it yet, but it's nice to know that if I decide to, the door is open. I think that creates a pretty open atmosphere that's necessary for an hour-long episodic environment, being able to communicate with the writers and producers about an actor's concerns, and I know that I could go to them. They don't send out a memo saying, 'We would like all opinions', but we know we can go to them when we want."
"I've really had a lot of fun doing this show. I've discovered a lot of different aspects to the character, and I think they have too. I've encountered situations that I know if I wasn't on Star Trek that I probably wouldn't have encountered. I'm very happy, because I've had a wonderful time doing it, and I think that everybody involved has done a great job."
As a cast member in the latest successful Star Trek spin-off, Lien says being part of the biggest SF franchise of all time has changed her career in a major way. "It's definitely had an effect, because this is such an important part of my life. As far as my personal development with what I do for a living, it's really a wonderful place to go. It's been very supportive and welcoming, and challenging as well. I don't think there are any negatives as far as that's concerned. In the beginning, it was a very different feeling, because it's kind of odd to have somewhere to go all the time for nine to ten months out of the year. Once that sets in, it's an unusual feeling for an actor, having that opportunity and being lucky like that. It creates a wonderful balance in one's life, I think; at least it has in my life."
One of the most intriguing members of the Voyager crew, Kes is part of a short-lived alien species called the Ocampa, Originally brought on board as the girl friend of Neelix, the ship's Talaxian cook and handyman, the character has continued to develop in new and interesting ways. Recent episodes have seen the continuing development of her rudimentary telepathic powers, as well as a growing relationship with the ship's holographic doctor, for whom Kes now works as an assistant.
As Lien recalls, she wasn't aware of many elements of Kes's personality when she first auditioned for the part a little over a year ago. "There's a conversation that usually takes place between the actor and casting director, and a lot of them usually ask if you have any questions. If you do, you ask them, so that's a pretty typical process."
"I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the character when I went in for that first audition. It was just a general feeling that I had, and for most of the first season right up to the end, I really wasn't able to put it into words. Now, I just describe some of her characteristics, because that's something that you discover as you create the character. Once you become a little more knowledgeable of how you do your job, and how you react in certain situations that the writers give you and what you bring to it, you become more aware of what you're going to feel."
"I feel that I had a certain understanding of what the situation called for, in regards to Kes and how she interacted with the other characters in the pilot episode. Along the way, you also acquire other characteristics and not necessarily eliminate others, but maybe not place as much importance on them."
Like many of her fellow cast members, Lien said she was virtually unaware of the media institution she was becoming a part of; in retrospect, maybe happily so. "I have to say that I didn't understand the magnitude; I wasn't aware of it, but in this case, I'm all in favour of ignorance bliss. In this particular situation, not knowing what I was getting into really helped me out. I was familiar with Star Trek, but I'm still learning how big this is. The magnitude of everything involved with it is pretty amazing, and I wasn't aware of how expansive it really was."
As one of the show's resident aliens, Lien had to undergo the complicated process of costume fittings, hair and make-up tests as Voyager's team of behind-the-scenes people tries to created a distinctive look for the character. "It was fun, seeing these people who are so creative, doing what they do, and I just happened to have some of the things they were using to do what they were doing, and it was a lot of fun, and continues to be fun whenever I have to go through a makeup or hair test. The make-up and costume people, the hair artists; they're all very talented, and it's fun to watch them do their work."
One area that went through a number of tests was Lien's alien make-up, as the show's award-winning make-up designer Michael Westmore tried different combinations of alien prosthetics. Ultimately, the producers decided to go with a human-looking character, whose alien heritage is immediately evident by a pair of elaborately sculpted ears.
"They originally tried a forehead piece which went through the middle of my forehead past my hairline to the top of my head, but decided they didn't want to use it. Then they tried a few other things, that really didn't do very much with the prosthetics, except the ears. They also tried different ears and different wigs and makeup, so it was a pretty extensive process."
The other alien on Voyager is Neelix, the love of Kes's life, played by veteran character actor Ethan Phillips. Although Lien says they only met just before the pilot started shooting, the two actors managed to click fairly quickly. "I met him in the wardrobe fitting I think, and then we had lunches with the cast and the producers and directors. It was interesting, and we all got to meet each other."
"I really like [Ethan] a lot. He's such a sweet, wonderful, funny man and very talented. I just appreciate him in a great way. I thought, 'My God, this man is really something!' so to be able to work with him, it's like a gift when you get to work with somebody like that. I liked him immediately."
Time to Die
One aspect of her character that Lien chooses not to dwell on is the Ocampa's all-too-brief life-span. While Kes's shortlivedness may be of some concern to the other members of the crew, particularly Neelix, the actress says it's not something one would actually worry about if it was a fact of their own life. "It's been presented that my species only lives for eight or nine years, so why would I think about anything else? That's just the way it is, but who knows? If there's a chance for a longer life, my concerns might change."
Quizzed about some of her personal highlights from the first season of the show, Lien says it's not easy to come up with a list of favourite moments or memorable episodes. "I try not to think about it after it's done," she explains politely. "I don't like to reflect back on things, but I know that when I go home, I feel okay, and there's none of that funny stuff going on inside about anxiety or beating up on myself over something that happened. There's very little of that, if any. That's what I feel, but I try not to look back over what I've done unless it's brought to my attention by somebody who wants to change it or comment on it. Then I try to reflect back upon it, but I try not to do it afterwards. I still have to do my homework, but that's focusing on what will be. I guess after it's done and on film, I really don't think about it."
Being an important part of the Star Trek institution means having to participate in the various viewer-related activities that go with it, such as conventions and the obvious mountain of fan mail. "It's continuously overwhelming," says Lien. "I'm an actress, that's what I do; that's my job, but to have all this other stuff that goes with it feels a bit strange. It is part of my job and I'm flattered by it as far as I can be flattered in a very healthy way, but I just have to understand that Star Trek is a pretty amazing thing. Just by the nature of what it is and the entertainment factor and the social factor, it's pretty incredible."
"The way I see myself benefiting it and doing what I can for it is by doing what I do in the best way I can. That's acting, I'm playing my role and helping create a character. I concentrate and do what I can with the other stuff like conventions and the fan mail and interviews, because I think that it's important to let the viewers and the fans and the people who are interested in the world know that this is where we're coming from, and this is the way you see things. Sometimes people care about those things, and if they care, they should know. I do what I can as far as that's concerned, but it's still sort of weird that people want to know all about me. I really can't think about it, because I'd be stumped for days!"
Lien also attended her first Star Trek convention recently, an experience that turned out to be a pleasant surprise. "I wasn't really scared, I was just curious about what it would be like, and then I got out there and enjoyed it. You can say, 'Look, these people enjoy the show,' and if someone is interested in asking me questions, then that's okay, I can do that."
"I didn't feel like I had to get out there and perform or tell jokes and make them laugh. I just thought they wanted to find out who's watching the show and their likes and dislikes, as well as their ideas and suggestions, and that's very important. These people care, and I'm very happy I want."
With the second season of Voyager well underway, Jennifer Lien is still reluctant to think of her work in terms of the number of years she might be sticking around. After all, the Ocampa only live for nine years! Nonetheless, she's having a lot of fun in the here and now. "I think the mere fact that I'm able to do what I do makes me feel a certain amount of comfort, but as far as the time is concerned, be it two weeks or five years, I can't really associate time and comfort with each other. I just know that I'm having a wonderful time, and the whole idea is very exciting, and the experiences I've had have been extremely rewarding and wonderful. Time is not an issue with me, so I'm definitely not worried about it."
Text from Starburst - Issue #211 - March 1996 - Pages 21-24
Article used without permission.