1000 Years Of Wisdom Behind Her Eyes: A 2003 Conversation With Robin Curtis (Part 1)
Posted on February 2, 2003
This interview was conducted on 2-02-2003 and first published on Modamag.com.
I had the pleasure of meeting Robin twice after this interview, once at DragonCon in Atlanta and the second time at the MotorCity Comicon here in Novi. She’s absolutely delightful! I can also say that my conversation with her has stayed with me long since. My only regret is not staying in better touch with her. In any case, here is Part 1 for your enjoyment.
1000 Years Of Wisdom Behind Her Eyes (Part 1)
by Kristoffer Gair
During the filming of Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, director Leonard Nimoy explained to then fledgling actress Robin Curtis that a Vulcan has 1000 years of wisdom behind their eyes. While she denies having any such quality herself, what is wisdom if not the “ability to apply knowledge or experience or understanding or common sense and insight”? Looking at it in this light, it seems she may be selling herself short.
Robin’s career in Hollywood began with a role in the chiller Ghost Story, then continued as she landed a guest star spot on the television show Knight Rider as well as roles in a couple of made-for-TV movies before winning the audition for a Vulcan character named Saavik in Star Trek III. While her performance in and association with the Star Trek universe has earned her recognition the world over, it is by far not the end of her resume nor does it solely define her as a person. As you’ll read, Robin is someone who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and she does so with wit, intelligence and an infectious positive energy.
Kristoffer Gair: You’ve gone from films where you’re roaming the galaxy to running from mutant babies to semi-retirement. What happened?
Robin Curtis: I got married.
RC: Thank you. I moved away from Los Angeles and came to Cincinnati to marry a man who lived here and it seemed like a natural course of events at the time. However, what’s interesting, at the moment we’re in the process of dissolving the marriage and so I’m now contemplating another big change in my life. That was, if I can shift back in time to four years ago, very sweet in a way to contemplate leaving Los Angeles, a little bitter sweet actually. I’d made my life there for 18 years and a living as an actress during that time and for that I was enormously grateful. I had a cozy house in the hills and just the best group of friends that anyone could ask for and yet it did seem…I never felt like Los Angeles was my soul’s home, if you will, and I much prefer the weather of the East coast. I was born in New York State and, as I tell people since I moved to Cincinnati, I feel like I’m back in the right time zone again.
I had always been an Easterner at heart and it seemed like the right time. I had crested 40 and the business was not what it used to be and it wasn’t quite covering the monthly nut, not the way it used to. Then, coincidentally, I re-meet someone who I had known for many years. We grew up in the same village together, this was my younger brother’s best friend and realizing we each harbored feelings for the other, we began to contemplate a life together. It seemed, as I said earlier, the natural course of events for me was to leave Los Angeles. He was very happy with his work here in Cincinnati and it was time for me to get closer to home. It was also time to give the business a break, at least on that level, the level at which I left it. That’s not to say that I haven’t been contemplating a way to return to it that might be a more genuine reflection of what it is I want to do versus how the business can kind of get you into a position where you’re doing what it will let you do. By the end, you’re auditioning for anything that comes across your path because you’re just so grateful for the chance that you might get hired and when you do, it’s not necessarily something you desperately wanted to do or garnered a lot of gratification doing, but at that point it was a mortgage payment or it was a…you know, it was a matter of survival really.
I’m contemplating a whole bunch of different options and career choices now. If I were to step back in, it would be in a much more revealing and authentic way than how I had been interacting with the business when I left it. About a year before I got out of the business, I did a film (Ed. Note: Making Contact) with some great friends and it felt like a good swan song in terms of all that had transpired in LA. It also felt like I’d finally been used in a way that I hadn’t earlier. It’s funny too because I’ve found over the years that sometimes I’ve made the mistake of judging actors by their work. How foolish of me and how narrow when I think if someone had placed the same standards upon my career. How well would I have measured up? Because certainly a lot of the choices I made really had more to do with self-sufficiency rather than artistic heights. (loud laughter)
KG: One of the things you mentioned when we first started trying to set up time for the interview is that you went back to school.
RC: Yes. I went back to school this past fall to study Criminal Justice. I’ve always been hugely fascinated by the subject of murder, crime, law, forensics and now, of course, it’s become ever so popular in the media with shows like CSI, etc. Long before that became vogue, I’d always been drawn to the subject matter. I don’t know whether it was my exposure when I was a young girl to all the crime that hit the front pages of our papers back in that era, the famous cases like the Sharon Tate murders and/or Richard Speck and the eight nurses or those killings in In Cold Blood, the popular film. All that stuff had a huge impression upon me back then to the extent that I did murder drills when I was a little girl.
KG: Murder drills?
RC: I used to practice escaping my room to save my family just in case those, you know, horrible hoodlums I’d read about should break into our home and try to hurt my loved ones. I went through a phase of doing that and I compulsively never sat with my back to a door or a window. If a bullet was coming, I wanted to see it…like I could see something moving as quickly as a bullet. (laughing)
KG: You could have been the next Nancy Drew.
RC: There ya go! So I’ve always had an interest in anything investigative or along the lines of secret spies. Those kinds of characters have always intrigued me.
KG: You’re also a writer. Are you bringing anything about crime into your work?
RC: No. Interestingly enough, those two things don’t mix for me. I have no interest in fictional crime, just the real stuff, so it’s not necessarily something I would write about. The writing that I do is really more autobiographical. It’s very personal, so you can see where those two things wouldn’t cross over.
KG: Weren’t you working one time on a one-person performance piece? How’s that going?
RC: Yes, I still am and it’s going well. I’ve chosen very personal subject matter and the question is always “How much do you reveal?” I kind of hit a roadblock when I came upon a particular relationship that I think even now I’m still processing. I’m still trying to decipher for myself how to fit that into the whole fabric of my life, so I guess I did what any writer might after suffering from a block for a while; I just leapfrogged over it and wrote more in the current history. I let present experience be fodder for my thoughts in the last couple of years. I still need to go back and force myself to confront this other… (short pause) I won’t say it’s unresolved, but not resolved enough for me to be able articulate it to someone else. At least, I’ve been able to conversationally, but trying to grasp the breadth of it on paper has presented a huge challenge to me.
KG: It’s often said that writing is therapeutic, but in this case, it’ll come out only when it’s ready to and won’t be forced.
RC: Yes, I think so. I think you’re right about that. So, I continue to sort of till the more current soil and I’ll get to that old patch of garden in the back there one of these days.
KG: Then the question is going to be, of course, what are you going to do with it?
RC: Well, it’ll depend on where I land. I’m moving back to central New York State where I’ll be living near my family. It’s funny. Cincinnati is a conservative town and given the subject matter of my piece, I had always worried that this would not be the place for it to be revealed to the masses, but New York might be a different matter. I’ll figure that out once I get a sense of the lay of the land there and what sort of venues are available to me or could I make available to me, that kind of thing. The idea would be ultimately to perform it.
KG: I had read that when you’re not busy on camera or doing the convention circuit that one of your hobbies is women’s issues. I’m wondering if you could expand on that.
RC: I had a feminist mother, someone whose views were not necessarily those of the crowd. I think she was probably the lone ERA supporter amongst conservative Republicans and I so admire my mother for that and for instilling in me the awareness and the consciousness of my womanhood and how my gender would present certain challenges and limitations. Consequently, the seed was planted when I was very young and yes, I believe very passionately in women’s rights and have been a card carrying NOW (Ed. note: The National Organization for Women, www.Now.org) member for many years. When I first moved to Cincinnati, somebody made me aware of the need, if I were to reawaken my activist leanings, that this would be the place to do it. I decided to start volunteering at Planned Parenthood and got very involved in the local NOW chapter, ultimately taking the position of Treasurer. I was involved in two significant projects we did in the last couple of years and I feel very good about that.
I call Cincinnati an alcoholic that doesn’t want to go into recovery. It likes to think it’s this nice Midwestern town, but the truth is it does have qualities to be ashamed of. It’s pretty intolerant and somewhat beleaguered by fear and an unwillingness to change. You can get very apathetic about your beliefs if you live in cosmopolitan areas like Los Angeles and New York because that’s not where the battles need to be fought, but here in Cincinnati… Did you know Cincinnati is the only, I think I’m stating this correctly, it’s the only city in the country with an amendment to its city charter that excludes gays and only gays from protection against discrimination in housing and employment because the citizens didn’t want to give anyone with a particular sexual orientation special preference?
KG: That battle has been fought in Michigan as well.
RC: I think that kind of fear and ignorance is something to just be eradicated on all levels. It’s just plain ignorance and there’s a lot of it here, and so it was never a dull moment in terms of city politics. I was always putting my foot in it at parties, but one of the benefits of getting older is that you don’t really give a shit what people think of you.
KG: You don’t seem to be the type of person who could just sit there and be happy not saying anything or not pointing something out if you saw or heard something that you didn’t agree with.
RC: No, you’re right. I would have a hard time sitting still. You know, when I listen to people like Maya Angelou say that at the slightest suggestion of an insult towards any particular ethnic group or race, she will simply respond “Stop. Stop it!” and she’ll invite that person to leave her home. I think that’s wonderful and I think the world needs more like her. I’ve really admired Faye Wattleton over the years. For a while there she was a spokesperson for the woman’s movement and reproductive rights and I admired her grace, elegance and eloquence under pressure at the hands of people like Phyllis Schlafly and others of the opposite view who are somewhat histrionic when spouting out their rhetoric. She (Faye) always seemed to maintain calm and composure, in essence, making the other side look very foolish. She always made the more cogent argument and that, I think, is the challenge.
I tend to get a little too emotional. I feel so passionately about so many social ills and I don’t know that I help my argument if I ride roughshod over my opponent. I think the best grease is gently applied and the best persuasion comes softly and gently in order to get someone to see something from a new perspective.
KG: From what I understand, there’s a battle going on in Hollywood where many of the actresses are saying that parts aren’t there for them once they hit a certain age. I think that’s a shame because a great deal of their talent is being overlooked.
RC: Yeah, that did seem to be a common refrain at the Golden Globes. Nicole Kidman, I believe, said something to that effect, “We’re good, so keep writing for us. We are good.” She was so touched that they chose to honor “The Hours” so many times over. Yeah, but no, no, it still goes on. We always think that if the problem is exposed, the issue gets rectified. The exposure is one step and then the battle seems to be ongoing. It never stops.
KG: Turning the conversation to Star Trek for a little while, I have to tell you that the interview you did for the Star Trek III Special Edition DVD really caught my attention because you gave the piece a jolt of life that it was otherwise missing. Now, you’ve said that playing Saavik wasn’t necessarily an enjoyable experience because you emote so much in everyday life versus how controlled the character is. Was it any easier coming back for Star Trek IV?
RC: I think it was a little easier because I was a year and a half older and a little more relaxed with everyone and a little more practiced in that style of acting. I sometimes poke fun of it at conventions, that militaristic bearing and the evenly cadenced sound of language. People don’t speak in fits and starts in Star Trek. Everything is well pronounced and evenly distributed; there is no stutter. There is no variance, no up and down the way there is in real life, so the more you practice, hopefully the better you get at controlling that tendency. A straight line across the heart monitor would never be me. I have a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about the most ordinary things.
KG: I wish more people were like you in that respect.
RC: You know, I don’t know you can have it unless you’ve been given it. I had a mother and father who had an unbelievable exuberance and joie de vivre and I think I was handed all that on a silver platter. I’ve known people who did not come from any expression, so consequently their weakest attribute was their ability to express. Honestly, in this life, I can’t see the point of keeping much inside. I tend to air on the other end, which is to expiate too much. It’s like “Robin, we didn’t need to hear that. We didn’t need to know that much about you.”
Kristoffer Gair (who formerly wrote under the pseudonym Kage Alan) is the Detroit-based author of Honor Unbound, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Sexual Orientation, Andy Stevenson Vs. The Lord Of The Loins, Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell, several short stories featured in anthologies (to be combined in a forthcoming book), the recently re-published novella Falling Awake, its sequel, Falling Awake II: Revenant and Falling Awake III: Requiem.