In this interview Robinson discusses the experience portraying such a complex character as well as the differences he saw between Deep Space Nine and the other Star Trek series. He also discusses his Star Trek experiences off-camera, including directing episodes of DS9 and Voyager and writing the Garak-focused novel A Stitch In Time.
By Marcello Rossi
May 18, 2011
Let’s talk about your multi-dimensional character, from simple tailor to secret agent. What was it like from an acting point of view? Which were the challenges?
Was there something that you put in this character… your acting experience?
Robinson: It was deceptively complicated playing Garak. Obviously, one of the complications was all the makeup and the costume, which was very uncomfortable, very confining, and the makeup, which I had a bit of a claustrophobic reaction to it at the beginning. But I got over that. That was fine, and as a matter of fact, the look of the character is what was enormously helpful because he looked so unique. It was kind of wonderful for an actor to have a character that looks like that. It’s a gift! I think more challenging was that the character… whatever the character said is not what he meant. We have an expression: subtext. That much of the truth of Garak was like a glacier: you saw only the tip of the glacier, but then, underneath the tip, was the very complicated truth of his life. So, playing that subtext, living with that subtext, presenting that subtext behind a mask of affability, of friendliness, of congeniality, I think that was both the challenge and the pleasure of the character.
The relationship with the other cast members? Did you become friends with someone?
Robinson: I knew some of the cast members even before we started the show. René Auberjonois; I’ve known him for many, many years, Armin Shimerman is someone that I became good friend with, and of course Alexander Siddig, or at the beginning, when he was Siddig El Fadil. He and I became very close friends, and he’s doing wonderful work now in various films. It was a very strong acting company, with very strong personalities and I think probably the strength of the show was the ensemble of these actors. To have a really great ensemble is not necessary that people like each other as long as they respect each other, and there was an enormous amount of respect for the actors on that show.
According to you, what are the differences between Deep Space Nine and the other Star Trek series?
Robinson: I think the biggest difference between DS9 and the other Star Trek series is that Deep Space Nine was more nuanced, had more ambiguity. Rather than being black and white, there are more grays. I was surprised; even the new Star Trek movie, I guess they had to… it adheres to the old format of the evil villain who’s angry at everyone and wants to destroy a world, even though they don’t understand quite why he wants to destroy it. And I think that people who really liked Deep Space Nine are people who like ambiguity, and like when the characters are not either good or evil, where they are like most of us: they are complicated people with a little bit of each in each of those characters. Plus, obviously, it didn’t take place on a spaceship going to one planet after another; it took place on a space station, which I also found much more interesting as well. In that sense it was kind of like the last frontier, at the edge of the unknown, and with all these very interesting types of characters that would appear, and these dramas that would play out.
I also feel that Deep Space Nine had more theme, and by that I mean they dealt with very difficult issues. Like there is an episode, it’s one of my favorites; it’s called “The Wire,” where Garak is addicted to this drug. And it was basically about drug addiction. There was another episode where Avery Brooks and I, where Captain Sisko comes to Garak for help with the Romulans and basically it exposes the American innocence, that we want to do these things in the world, but we’re not really willing to take the consequences of our actions, and sometimes we have to do very dirty things, and we have to hurt people, and we pretend that that doesn’t exist, that Americans would never do that. We dealt with issues like that and I don’t think… you know… the other shows really went as far as we did.
“In the Pale Moonlight” is a very good episode…
Robinson: It’s a wonderful episode!
Can you tell us something about your directorial experience on DS9, and also on some episodes of Voyager? What was it like?
Robinson: At first it was very difficult, because there is so much technical work that has to be done on these shows. Blue screen, green screen. At the beginning I was very intimidated by the technical requirements of directing. It’s not just directing actors; it’s a little more complicated than that. But then, in the end, it came down to it: it was directing actors. Sometimes, directing your friends is… maybe I’d rather direct people I don’t know, but they were great. But they were all very kind to me, especially when I first started, because that’s when I first started directing films, on Star Trek. It was a gift! I’m grateful to the producers allowing me to direct episodes.
You wrote a novel about Garak, about your character. Why? And what was it like to be a writer?
Robinson: I started writing about Garak because, coming to the Star Trek franchise and being cast as an alien, a Cardassian, I had no idea what that was. I barely know about human beings. But then suddenly to be cast as an alien… it was a challenge. So I decided to write about the character and create the world of the character and I did this in the form of a diary that Garak kept: every day he would write about his experiences and so forth. And then I started going to conventions, like this one, and I started reading from the diary and the fans, the audiences loved it. So I started writing more, and I started crafting it more and, like a lot of people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel! That’s when I started working into a novel. Then the people at Simon and Schuster, the publisher, agreed to let me do it, and it was a bit of a big deal because I was the first actor to write a novel without what they call a ghost writer, or with someone else writing it for me. Because I wanted to write it by myself, I didn’t want anybody else writing it.
A generic question about science fiction: what are the advantages and what the disadvantages of working in a science fiction show?
Robinson: If the science fiction is really good, if it comes from the imagination. If we are imagining a world that’s an extension of this world and an extension of our behavior and an extension of the choices that we’ve made, I think that’s the most interesting science fiction. It’s much more difficult if the science fiction is more fantasy, where it really doesn’t have basis in the reality of our lives and the reality of our world. I think that’s why I liked very much working on Deep Space Nine, because I think that the station was a metaphor for our world, but obviously projected into the future. I think that has a power and people are attracted to that, because if they can see something that’s honestly projected into the future, not something that’s sort of airy-fairy… it turns them around a little, it re-orients the way they think about this world.