‘Star Trek: TNG’ at 25: Michael Dorn remembers the joys of Worf
Posted in: TV
This is the 25th anniversary of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” so we caught up with Michael Dorn, who introduced the character Worf in the show’s September 1987 pilot. The ferocious Klingon became a signature figure in the Starfleet universe and an especially enduring one — Worf appeared in 175 episodes of “Next Generation” and then carried over to 102 episodes of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” making him the Frasier Crane of the Federation space. Dorn also played Worf in four feature films (and played an ancestor of the character in a fifth film). He recently played Duke Frederick in the “As You Like it” production by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
HC: You were a big “Star Trek” fan, unlike most of the ensemble who worked on the pilot. Did that give you a greater sense of the stakes and possibilities of a new Starfleet series?
MD: I didn’t realize what it was going to be myself. I knew I liked the show and that it had a good following because of the movies and [the history] but I didn’t understand the stakes until we started filming, and before the show even aired we got some not-positive feedback from the fans — we got “Who do you think you are?” “We love our original guys and now they’re going to have these kids coming in and taking over.” So we knew what we were going up against a bit. None of us thought it would become as big as it is, though. Not even close.
HC: There was a choice with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to go with a very different sort of captain, to steer away from a “Captain Kirk 2.0.” How essential was that choice to the show’s success?
MD: It was good decision, definitely. I was skeptical when I met Patrick [Stewart] and saw him. I thought, “Well, this isn’t Kirk. This isn’t even near Kirk.” But once I started acting with Patrick I knew immediately it was the perfect decision. With my character, bringing a Klingon on and making him part of the bridge, that was an afterthought. If you ask my buddies on the show, I wasn’t even there for the original cast photo and for the first filming and all of that stuff because Worf was an afterthought. It couldn’t have been more fun to do this, but when I was cast, nobody knew me on the stage — I wasn’t introduced to anybody, there was no “Hey, guys, this is going to be Worf.” I just showed up one day, in makeup, and started working.
HC: The makeup and your performance combined to create a truly memorable television character — but there are frustrations for actors that come with such a deep and prolonged disguise. Were you to able to take the role and the success for what it was, or did it present a nagging issue for you?
MD: It was an issue. I wasn’t evolved enough to take it for what it was at that point. I knew that it could go either way; it could be a wonderful thing or it could be a problem for my career. You just don’t know. On one hand, you’re in makeup, nobody knows who you are, and after a few years you come out and you have the prestige of being on a nationally produced television drama, and that can’t hurt — but at the same time you come off and people don’t recognize you. You come off the show and they’re like, “Where have you been?” It would be either one, but the one thing that I knew was that it was good to have a job. That kept me going. Being on a series, as an actor, you’re in the top 0.01 % of the Actors Guild, and that’s something you can’t sneeze at it.
HC: You had the previous experience of “CHiPs,” the NBC hit series. You appeared in more than 30 episodes…
MD: “CHiPs” was a Top 20 show but it taught me a lot about the business of the business. You may be on a hit series, but when it’s over, it’s really over. Some people get very lucky and they can go on to something very quickly. But the majority of people go back to square one. You can’t think, “OK, I’m on a hit series, I’m a star from now on.” The day I wasn’t on “CHiPs” anymore, the studio didn’t call, the producers didn’t call, publicity didn’t call. There were no more Tiffany gifts on my birthday and Christmas. It was over. That helped me realize the nature of the business and I was able to take those lessons with me. You can’t let your ego get the best of you and think, “Oh, this is going to be going on for the rest of my life. I can spend money and I don’t have to worry about being nice to people.”
HC: What about the makeup process of becoming a Klingon? Was that always an ordeal?
MD: It was always a pain. I don’t think I could have made it if I didn’t just really love my friends and the character and the work. It was never background — it was always intense — but when it would start to get to me, I would just think, “Well, I love what I’m doing and it couldn’t be a better gig so I’ll just keep my big yap shut.” As an acting experience, being in a mask is very exciting too for an actor. You can be anything without the constrictions of the way you look. Like anybody, I thought, “I would love to do a show with makeup.” That’s a wonderful thing, but you just have to be careful what you wish for. I forgot to say, “Only for like a day or two. Not 11 years.” When I went from “Next Generation” to “Deep Space,” then it really became easier, I have to admit. It wasn’t as trying.
HC: Why was that? Was it a function of the process?
MD: I think process, yes, and experience. I had done it so long that I knew what to expect and how to deal with it. I learned that if you’re not looking at what [the makeup team] is doing and you concentrate on something else. So what I would do is get the L.A. Times and read it from cover to cover and then do the crossword puzzle, and by the time I was done, they were done. One day I couldn’t find a paper and the makeup people were ready to buy me a subscription because I was interrupting them every five minutes. I was a pain.
HC: When it came to Klingon culture, what was your approach there? Did you feel a need to do deep research, or was it more like waiting for it to come to you in the scripts and individual stories?
MD: It was a process. The original character as presented didn’t have any background whatsoever. For the first few months they didn’t know what they were going to do with the guy. I’d like to think that my performance was one of the reasons that writers decided at that point that, “hey, this would be an interesting way to go.” They started writing more of the Worf mythology, which transformed into the Klingon mythology. That was the advent of of it all.
HC: One of the things that you brought to Worf was an endless but endearing exasperation. Was that there on the page, or did you add that as an actor’s choice?
MD: That was totally by my invention. I realized by looking at the people on the bridge that they’re all great friends and they’re out in space and they’re traveling, and it was all so pleasant. I decided that I wanted to be the opposite. I made my guy the guy that was pissed at everything. If someone looked at him sideways, he was mad. So that’s where they got all that. You know, I really gravitated a lot towards Worf. He was a good guy; he was honorable and brave; he evolved; he didn’t stay stagnant over the years. I liked that. The loyalty and honor were very appealing to me. The other thing too is that it’s not a blind loyalty to anyone or anything. And he’s right all of the time — all of the time — because he’s always true to himself.
HC: We saw him as a parent, too, which might be the time when his internal compass was most challenged.
MD: He was a terrible parent. The journey was a great one for him. The story line you would expect is “Oh, he’s a little off but he turns into this wonderful parent,” but he never did. He struggled mightily with it and it was never tidy, and I liked that. It wasn’t obvious. I was very fortunate with that and I got a lot of story lines that were great, ones I would have written myself for the character. I never had to push for more. What I would do is just add things to it it. Like on “Deep Space” when he was so uncomfortable and I said, “Why don’t we have him go an live in a little cubicle on this spartan ship? That’s what he would want to do.” I also had an idea about doing a Cyrano de Bergerac episode, and they did that. All the things that came my way, though, really came from the writers. They took it to so many places. I was tickled pink. It was a great ride. It worked out beautifully. Even Worf would have been happy.
— Geoff Boucher
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