“Everything that an actor could ask for …”
That’s J.G. Hertzler’s opinion on his role in the upcoming fan-funded feature, “Star Trek: Axanar.” It’s a pretty cool statement to make, and it shows both the motivation behind this enterprise as well as its level of sophistication.
“Axanar” has progressed fan projects to a level that veteran actors like Hertzler want to be a part of because of tailor-made roles, a chance to be part of a committed cast and staff, and the level of quality and shared vision this production offers.
A fan only has to look at the incredible special effects by Tobias Richter in “Prelude to Axanar” — which can be viewed here — to get a sense of this quality. The staggering degree of detail in the many production aspects and an ensemble of veteran actors like Richard Hatch, Kate Vernon, Gary Graham and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Hertzler all lend to the film’s promise of success.
Hertzler recently sat down with 1701News to give some of his thoughts on “Axanar,” “Deep Space Nine,” acting in Star Trek, his colleagues (past and present) and being a part of this new dynamic trend in extending the Star Trek franchise.
I began with "Deep Space Nine" … and the prerequisite gushing over how great Gen. Martok was; Hertzler laughed graciously and immediately. I felt like I was sharing a goblet of bloodwine with my favorite Klingon.
“You know, it was strange, because, as an actor, you do a job, you get cast as something, the whole um … way that developed was very strange," Hertzler said, "because one of my best friends, Ron Canada, also an actor — Ron and I had the same agent, Chris Wright, for awhile in New York — and Chris had called Ron and said to him, ‘Ron, you have the role of Martok, but they have to see one more person.’
"At that point, he didn’t know it was me. Somehow I got the role — I don’t know how — but Chris had to call Ron back and say: ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is you didn’t get Martok, but the good news is it’s your best friend!’
"Out of all the thousands of actors that could have been in competition for the same role, it’s very strange that both Ron and I were there. Anyway, so that was a strange thing, right off the bat, and then the fact that it worked was beyond me. It’s luck of the draw that you get to be cast as a character that somehow suits you and you suit it. I mean, the greatest example of that is Spock and Nimoy; they are inseparable and it’s very rare that an actor gets to play something, that for whatever reason, the personality is completely suited for and it’s hard to separate them."
Of course, that was one of the key features that led Hertzler into "Axanar" and his role of Capt. Sam Travis, who seems cut from the same cloth as Gen. Martok.
“Well, yeah, I guess you can’t get away from that," Hertzler said. "Yeah, I mean I’ve spent my life in the theater for the most part, playing kings, dukes — good kings, bad kings. Very few leading men, if they are, are really twisted by something, like Petrucchio, or Richard II.
"But here’s another aspect … but well after the show, Ira Behr said to me that his parents used to live in Las Vegas. And he would go visit his folks and he had a couple of kids at that point. They would stay at the Treasure Island, because the kids loved the pirates. At that point, I had done a film for Steve Wynn who opened 'Treasure Island.' I played a pirate named Black Dog; it was basically the 'Treasure Island' story. I was chasing Jim Hawkins for a map that he had for some sort of treasure. … But his children loved the character Black Dog and so I, from what Ira said, it had everything to do with why I was cast as Martok. But I don’t know how much of that is true.”
Hertzler went on to compare Travis and Martok, but he also gave great insight into the process of getting into the character as well as how he saw Travis develop.
“Regarding Sam Travis, I love the idea of a Sam Travis character; a crotchety old … sort of a cross between Richard Widmark … in the John Wayne 'Alamo’ … and George C. Scott,” he said. “I like the idea of him being Scott, and I used a little of Shakespeare’s … Duke of York, Richard Plantagenet. He gets to burn Joan of Arc at the stake and that was a bit of a thrill.
"But I was able to bring some of the aspects of Richard to Sam Travis, but with slightly less language flourish. (laughs) I wanted to make Sam basically a Texan who was educated, but lived a farming life before he got into flight training and whatnot. My dad was in the Air Force, so there’s also a little bit of my dad in there — and in Martok as well."
This is the type of insight that fans love to read about, but insight into Hertzler’s professionalism is just as fascinating. His experience as a teacher really lent itself to the conversation.
There are five things an actor needs to know before he takes on a role, according to Hertzler:
• Know why you’re talking.
• Know what you want.
• Know what’s standing in your way.
• What are the given circumstances, bio of the character?
• How do you get what you want?
"If you answer those five questions for every scene overall, you can create a character I think that is incredibly memorable," he explained. "It’s Stanislavski … he wrote three whole books on the subject and I just reduced it down a bit. I teach a Shakespeare class, so it’s fresh in my mind right now. Anybody can do this, but experienced actors do it automatically.”
Hertzler enthusiastically lent his talents to "Axanar," but he was initially hesitant after viewing past independent productions.
“A lot of people were doing fan films, so I didn’t have great expectations," he said. "But I think I can really speak for the rest of the actors, we were all stupefied by … shooting 'Prelude to Axanar' … and when we got to the set, it was filled with people that we all knew from the business as department heads — real pros and the way it was run. And Alec had everything to do with it, he and Christian Gossett.
"It was incredibly professional — green-screen work and then what we saw on the day of shooting, once we saw the CGI from Tobias Richter, it was phenomenal. Every department was spectacular and that never happens — ever on a fan film, in my opinion. They’re not in a position to get pros or people who have been doing it for 20, 30 years. Between us, we probably have 5,000 years. I don’t know how we got in touch, but all of us were just stunned by it all.
“There’s no difference between that and a day on the set of DS9. There were guys I knew from there: Brad Look was doing makeup; I saw him every day on the shooting of DS9. I saw people from the costume department. It was stunning.”
Travis is a role that seems customized for Hertzler. But what was his draw to this character?
“Well, I’m an actor — if somebody comes and offers me a role that I don’t have to audition for, I’m going to be interested," he said. "Then they have to prove me wrong by mistakes, by bad quality, but nothing proved me working on 'Prelude to Axanar.' I love working with these folks. I never got a chance to work with Kate Vernon before, and I love her. Gary Graham and Tony Todd — they’re good friends. Richard Hatch? All good friends and it was everything that an actor could ask for: well done and surrounded by your friends.
"I love sci-fi because I love the idea of introducing to people’s minds something that they haven’t thought of before. It’s not just a human drama — usually there’s an arresting image or idea that stops the viewer in their tracks and makes them say: Oh my Lord — look at that! That’s hard to do.”
In terms of the production team and support staff, Hertzler literally burst with pride in describing the quality of the people behind the camera. Working with these people is clearly a joy for this actor.
“We have Robert Burnett, who has a tremendous resume. … So Alec is able to keep attracting people with these terrific resumes to the project, and you know, that’s very exciting," he said. "I have never been in a closer cast; I mean, we have all either worked with each other in the past or are close to each other by one or two degrees of separation from each other. … I have nothing but great things to say about those folks, and I love their work.”
With such a spirited attitude toward his cohorts and colleagues, Hertzler was quick to offer a few good stories.
“One of the things I said when I read the script to 'Prelude to Axanar' was, ‘God, it’s all just a bunch of talking heads,’" he said, laughing. "I called up Alec and said: ‘Alec, you can’t do this. Nobody’s going to sit still for people remembering something that’s fictional anyway. I mean, what the hell is this?’ And I said that it can’t possibly work. Alec responded: ‘Well, Richard Hatch thinks it works.’ And I said: ‘Richard Hatch; what does Richard Hatch know?’ (laughs) I literally said that and then I thought about it overnight, and I called back and said: ‘You know what? I think Richard might be right.’"
In addition, Hertzler touched on the support of fans, and this generated some very insightful perspectives on William Shatner.
“Shatner is a miracle of a human being," he said. "He’s 80-something and he looks and acts like he’s 50 years old. He’s an amazement. You can sit there in a room with him and he will say things like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that — tell me more.'
"He has a curiosity that came out in Kirk about everything. You get old and you stop getting curious about stuff. And I think that’s what has kept him so young is that he has this immense curiosity about everything.”
Perhaps this is something that Shatner gets from his fans. The support of fans is the lifeblood of enterprises like "Axanar" and actors.
“I adore fans," Hertzler said. "I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I’ve met people all over the world and they like Gen. Martok. Bob O’Reilly and I have done so many shows and conventions together. It’s a remarkable and unexpected aspect of my career in performing because as an actor on stage — that doesn’t exist. You don’t go into people’s living rooms on stage, but you do on a television set. … I really enjoy the fans; I talk to them all the time online.”
Hertzler’s iconism in creating a memorable character that people can immediately relate to is a very fortunate thing for an actor to achieve. Hertzler is lucky to have created a role like Martok that people will always remember him for, as well as the status of being Michael Dorn’s adopted father. He brings this sense of iconism to Travis.
“There’s nothing else that’s connected me … except for the 30 or 40 people who saw my Richard Plantagenet at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival," he said, laughing. "You know, Michael is such an interesting fellow. I don’t know much about him, and I worked closely with him for six or seven years. I wish I knew more about him; so quiet … so private — more private than me.
"But I’ve never had a bad experience with a fan about anything. I may get into a political argument, but they respect me and I respect them and it never goes bad. They have an idea that Martok might feel some way about something, but that’s not me.”
Hertzler’s personal interests and values play an important role in his characterization of Travis. His sense of politics and opinion play very strongly in portraying the part.
“I try to stay informed about as much as possible," he explained. "I have three major things in my life: my daughter — the first and most important thing — then my art and then there’s politics. That’s about it. I’ve always been interested in current events and politics and try to stay informed about as much as I can. I’m a great source of information, but I'm a great source of opinion. That tends to piss some people off sometimes and delights others.
"Alec and Christian gave me a great deal of latitude. I said that they had him using too many words. Sam Travis is a man of few words, but when he does talk, they are clear opinions — simple and clear, usually pretty strong. ‘It wasn’t worth spit’ was one of my lines, and God bless 'em, they gave me enough latitude to reduce the amount of words. I didn’t want to be verbose — Sam’s not verbose at all.”
It’s a pretty good estimation of this project’s quality if people like Hertzler are involved in it. Someone of his character and experience supporting "Axanar" not only gives fans a thrill in seeing one of their favorite Star Trek actors performing in it, but it also instils a degree of faith in its success.
Hertzler’s relationships with his colleagues, cast, fans and the role he plays in this ground-breaking phenomenon all demonstrate a sense of personal attachment that has grown up around this project. The level of detail and process he brings to Capt. Travis are truly professional, and his personal insights are indicative of a sentiment shared by the fans of "Axanar," who are supportive and motivated to see this film completed and “in the can.”
The level of personal attachment the fans have for “Axanar” is extremely significant. The donations continue to pour in, demonstrating the shared vision experienced among fans, actors and production staff. People believe in this project, and Hertzler’s deep personal connection to Star Trek and his faith in the production team and his fellow cast mates serves to reinforce the attachment the fans have for the film.
If “Axanar” is everything an actor could ask for, then what will it be for fans? The answer is a revolutionary new Star Trek experience that has the support and shared faith of thousands of devoted Star Trek fans and industry professionals … like Hertzler.
“Everything that has happened with 'Axanar' thus far, is a miracle to me," Hertzler concluded. "So the fans need to keep the miracles happening until we get this thing in the can and edited for people to enjoy. I can’t wait for the day. If I had my druthers, I’d love for Roddenberry Productions to get involved in this. Let’s get Star Trek back on the screen.”