Fueled By Death Cast Ep. 67 - TIM RUSS

Tim Russ


"It's the nature of the challenges. I look forward to this career of mine evolving." - Tim Russ, musician, and actor, Star Trek: Voyager, Spaceballs




This week on Science hear how the origins of early humans have been pushed back, thanks to new discoveries in Kenya and China. Foods that are too spicy are on The Roast, and a look at our new coffee truck is on The Update, plus birthdays, shoutouts and so much more!


Tim Russ is an incredible actor with an extensive career, who has also been a musician for even longer. From his big screen debut in the movie Crossroads to his iconic portrayal of the Vulcan, Tuvok, on Star Trek Voyager, Tim's acting has spanned decades in film, TV, and voice-overs in animation and video games. He also talks about his famous line in Spaceballs and his recent role in the Amazon Video series, Personal Space.


Jeff: You have such an extensive career and have touched so many different areas of movie, television, voice acting, music, the whole nine. I'm always curious talking to someone like you, where did it all come from? Where were you inspired maybe as a kid or a young adult to actually start looking into becoming an actor?

Tim Russ: Well, the music stuff started first. I was around 16 or so, 15/16 when I picked up guitar and starting taking lessons. Shortly thereafter playing in bands and things. So I was still in high school. My brother was a drummer and he still is. He and I played in the same bands throughout most of the high school years. Then subsequently took off after high school to go study theater. So I did that for four years, four and a half. Then came back to California. So the music was first. The acting and such came up second. Then after moving to LA, I pursued both sort of on a parallel track, but mostly the acting work because there was a lot more of that going on and much more potential to book those kinds of gigs back then than there was musically beyond a certain point. Like I did play in a band for a couple years. I did live gigs in town at one particular club for almost two years at the time, which helped me support myself in terms of rent and things like that. It was great because I only had to work a few hours a night and I could make the rent every month and still pursue acting work in the day time. So that was very cool.
Then eventually the acting work took off. So like I said, musically I've been involved in music for 40 years, over 40 years now because I started when I was 16. Then the acting sort of kicked in mostly after high school and then subsequently after moving to LA and just starting to pursue it. I think it was '81 when I moved here.

Jeff: Wow.

Dustin: What inspired you musically? What kind of music did you play? What kind were you looking at as far as idols at the time you started playing music as to where you are musically now?

Tim Russ: Well, it was pretty wide variety of stuff. I mean, obviously I grew up in the '60s. I mean, the Beatles were an influence on all of us. The super groups behind that. Everybody from Santana to Led Zeppelin, Chicago. Eventually got into some early Genesis, and then I got into even folk rock at the time. As well Chapman, Cat Stevens, all those guys. Then eventually R&B, Cool In The Gang, a bunch of other top R&B artists at the time all the way through the '70s and early '80s and things. Then later on people like Bruce Hornsby, Kev Lowe, Johnny Lang. There's Steve Winwood. There's a lot of artists that sort of ... That I sort of gravitated to after that in that period of time. Now it's just a matter of hearing certain tracks here and there that I might find that I hear and listen to and I'll click them up and say, "Hey, this is pretty cool. I like this." Or I might want to cover that song over there because it kind of fits in to what I'm doing.
So it was a variety of people over the time. A variety of artists and bands over the time that really influenced me.

Jeff: It's great that you continue to do both. So many people strike out in this world and I've got one track mind. I'm going to be a musician or I'm going to be the actor or I'm going to be the rocket scientist or whatever it's going to be. Like you said, music came first but you really attacked them both. To this day, you still are playing and you're still acting. Have you ever found that to be tough. Has it ever been a tough for you to juggle both?

Tim Russ: No. No. Not at all. As a matter of fact, one of the more recent gigs I did was an appearance on NCIS New Orleans, and I had an opportunity to actually play.

Jeff: Awesome.

Dustin: That's cool.

Tim Russ: Guitar live on the show because they filmed everything live. We were in New Orleans shooting. When I interviewed the role, they asked me, "Do you play guitar?" I said, "Yeah. I do play guitar." They wanted to hear how well I could play. So I had to send them a videotape of be playing guitar, Blue's guitar. They cast me as a result of that. I was able to go down there, meet some musicians from there who were local, work out in the studio for seven or eight hours, and then start filming the next week and recording and playing these songs live on film, which is usually not how it's down. Usually it's all recorded prior and you just sync sound to it when we shoot, but they wanted us to play it and do it live. It was absolutely amazing. It was fantastic. It was very fun, fun experience because I got to do both. I got to play the role and then also play music. So that combination doesn't come by very often, but here I was ready to go ahead and do it.
If I had laid the guitar down 12, 15, 20 years ago, then I would not have been able to do that. It's not difficult. I manage my band so I just book them whenever I feel like booking them. It's fairly easy. We're not doing tours. I'm not trying to go out and promote CD sales. I have them, and I have them on iTunes and all those other places, but I don't ... I'm not doing that as a full-time thing by a long shot. It's just part-time. Just enough to keep my chops up and enjoy doing it.

Dustin: Yeah. That makes sense so speaking on musicians in film, one of the cool things that we found out is your first movie role was on Crossroads. How cool was that as a musician to be in that movie with Steve Vai?

Tim Russ: It was cool because I got a chance to work with Ry Cooder on some slide guitar because I hadn't done much slide before them. So I sat down with him, we had a session. We went over the track. It's Crossroads, the original cut of Crossroads by Robert Johnson and it's a very different piece than for example Clapton's version. Very, very different. It's totally fluid and improvised and it's just him and the guitar. It's the timing, there's no set time to it. So it's a real tricky piece to learn. So we did the tuning on the guitar. We did the slide. When we recorded, when we filmed it, I played the song right alongside the track. I just sang it live and played it live right alongside the track. That's what they filmed. So it was very cool. Yeah.

Jeff: So, so cool. Can you speak a little bit some of your first roles like Crossroads and also in TV you did Hill Street Blues and early stuff with Twilight Zone. Can you speak a little bit about what it was like working in the industry then as opposed to now. Are there changes for the better or worse? I'm always curious, especially with actors who've been in the industry for a number of years, to get a perspective on that.

Tim Russ: Yeah. It's different. It's very different. When I started out, there were still only three major sessions, actually four major stations on television. They did not have the cable networks they do now. They did not have Netflix. None of that existed. So it was primarily for networks. Most of them shot right here in LA. The feature films a lot of those shot here. There were a lot more guest star roles available as a result of all of those series shooting here. Hour long dramas, that's a lot of programming per week, per night. All those shows had guest spots on them and under fives. If you're starting out as an actor, you generally start out doing small bit roles, walk-ons. He went that away. Whatever. That's how you get your credits built up, and then eventually you get into bigger and bigger roles. That's what I did.
The environment, the landscape is very, very different then. The money was different as well. Now, you have because of technology, you have people, anybody and everybody that can raise a few bucks and get a couple cameras and a laptop together can shoot a movie. So you have a ton of low budget stuff that's out there that you cannot make a living doing. You cannot survive doing that stuff. It becomes more of a hobby for people in many cases rather than a career. The number of shows and television and movie projects are now shooting out of state. They're not shooting here anymore. So a lot of those roles are cast in other places. That cuts down on the number of parts available. The money is not the same it used to be unless you're on, very literally on the top three networks still or the top cable stations that have series.
So as far as working goes, it's very different than when I was here. I think it's a hell of a lot tougher to try to make a living out of it. That being said, there's more opportunities for people to actually produce their own content or their own material or their own projects because, again, of the technology and how cheap it is. Well, not cheap but how much less it is to be able to do that on your own rather than waiting for a studio opportunity to come up to go get it. So there's a plus and a minus side. It's a very ... It is definitely a different landscape. It is a whole new world, which doesn't really have a plateau. It just seems to keep changing and changing and evolving.
But compared to what it used to be when I started out, I tell people who ask me about it, I tell them the first thing you got to do is look at the environment you got to work in and what's going on and what it's going to be like to try to make a living out of doing this as opposed to, like I said, doing it as a hobby. If you want to do it as a hobby, fantastic, but if you want to try to make a living at it, you are going to have a hell of a tough time just based on the fact that the production, the way the production is, where it goes on, most of it is run away and not here. The opportunities are fewer and their competition is just as fierce if not more than it was before. So it's that much tougher to book these things and get stuff going.

Jeff: Yeah.

Dustin: I feel like it's almost the same landscape, parallel with the music industry.

Tim Russ: Totally.

Dustin: Technology has driven a totally different environment that everybody can do it but it waters everything do.

Tim Russ: Exactly.

Dustin: It's very tricky. It seems ...

Tim Russ: Yeah, you don't have the outlets. I mean, record stations used to get 700 CDs a week. This is before there was any kind of internet, digital downloading. You can imagine, that's probably double what that was now for people to get ... A lot of folks don't listen to the radio anyway. They listen to Pandora or whatever. They don't really listen to radio like they did when I was growing up. So the promotion of things for these songs and stuff, the avenue is very, very narrow and you have to get into the record company still in order to get your stuff out there and get heard and get considered for a Grammy or whatever it might be you're going to have to be with a major record label and get major air play and/or video play and/or whatever play as a songwriter because ... That costs $300,000, $400,000 a month for the record companies to pay out to get the promotion that you need. Everybody else throws their stuff into the ring, man, by the mile. Anybody can make a CD. You can make the artwork for the CD. You can burn the CD. You can distribute the CD. You can upload it digitally. You don't even need to make a CD. There you have your stuff. So how many songs per day are uploaded on everything from YouTube to CD Baby to iTunes to whatever that people are just putting out there.
It's madness, man. It is totally different than it used to be. This literally has changed everything in both of these industries simply because of the tech.

Dustin: Yeah.

Tim Russ: Which doesn't have a plateau. There's no plateau to this tech. It just keeps going up and it keeps changing and evolving but with no leveling off.

Dustin: I think we're going to see it keep on changing and the rules and environment will keep on changing with it as well. We're not going to be stuck to one platform to one way of listening to it, but obviously now we're in the streaming days. We have Spotify and Pandora and Netflix and Hulu and now the thing to do is to stream everything. It's not a consumable good that you can buy in a store. It's just straight to you. But I think that will only be for a limited time. I think 10 years later it's going to be something different that we don't even see coming.

Tim Russ: Yeah. What would that be though? Because, again, the thing about it is, like you said, right now it's the shape of a giant pyramid with a huge base and a very tiny top. That's all of everybody throwing all of their stuff into the mix, putting it all out there at the same time. It leaves only a sliver of an audience for everyone. Whether it's the individual or whether it's the producer or the TV show or web series or whatever. It's just a tiny sliver of an audience unless there's some kind of buzz of that project. That's one out of 10 million opportunities that you're going to have to get a buzz or your song to hit and become really popular. It's one out of 10 million. All the stuff, it's just like a viral upload on YouTube. There's only a handful that that happens with and they're gone 10 minutes later. So where that is going to evolve ... What is going to evolve [inaudible 00:15:41]. As long as they stream it or whatever the venue is getting the music out, I don't think that's going to change at all. I think the web is just going to become bigger and stronger and hopefully not regulated to the point where we can't possibly use it right.
Ultimately, it's going to be ... It's just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Kids that are being born today are going to be doing the same thing if not times 100. How long does it go before anything anybody does nobody ever hears because there's so much of it out there.

Jeff: Yeah. It is crazy. We're experiencing a little bit of difficulty. I think we're speaking too much about the technology and it's starting to revolt on us right here. But I think your back.

Tim Russ: Yeah.

Jeff: I guess the way to segway this would be speaking on technology, you are most widely known for a show that ushered in a lot of this technology. Of course, I'm talking about Star Trek. I kind of wanted to bring that up a little because you talked about how the industry was when you started, and you kind of had to ... Like anything, you kind of got to work for it to keep going and get those bigger parts. Eventually, you find yourself a part of this world, which is the Star Trek universe. When we were looking you up, we found out, and I wanted you to talk a little bit on this, before you became Tuvok, the role that you played on Star Trek Voyager, we heard on the internet that before you auditioned for this, you were actually fluent in Vulcan before that. Is that true?

Tim Russ: No. I didn't anything about the role.

Jeff: Good. I love finding out that the internet is false because people believe everything there is supposed to be on the internet. But that leads me to my next question. You have found yourself a part of this larger Star Trek universe. Were you fan of it before auditioning for the role?

Tim Russ: Well, the story that I have always told in that regard and I know that was even sort of misinterpreted because, again, my perspective on the current world and history before it goes back a ways. It goes back before a lot of people. At the time I was going to school and college, there was only three channels. Three channels. There was no internet. There was no cable. There was no nothing. It was movie theaters and three channels. There was not even a tape machine to tape the show. So if you didn't see it, you had to wait til it was repeated. Well, when Syndication came in, they just kept playing the same television shows over and over. I know as much about Trek as I know about Gilligan's Island. I saw both of them for hours a week because that's all they played. So they were on. You turn the channel, and there it is. You knew all the episodes and you knew everything about ... It was just repeated over and over and over again. Again, Andy of Mayberry. The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, and a couple others. That's all they did. Every month, every year, all the time.
So I was familiar with it, very familiar with it because I had seen them. The stories were always good stories. That's been the history and tradition of that series is always to have a thought provoking stories. That's what Rod and Barry wanted to do. But as far as going to conventions and dressing up in costume, no. I wasn't doing any of that.

Jeff: Kind of also on the tech side, a question I like to ask actors who've had roles like you. You've been able to play just the normal guy, like you said. He went that a way. Those types of characters. But in the Star Trek universe, especially playing the character of Tuvok that you did, you had a lot of heady dialogue. Was that shift in your career having to kind of embody a character like that for so long? Did it start to become second nature to be able to speak like that because, again, a lot of your dialogue, it seems like it would take me a year just to be able to learn what you were saying.

Tim Russ: Well, the type of dialogue that they used for Trek was written in a sort of a classical style because Rod and Barry was concerned about the fact that when you're trying to tell a serious story but you're looking at a character with this bizarre makeup on their face, the point of what the character is making has to come through and has to be serious. You have to believe that this person is real. So the dialogue had to be written very strictly and very specifically and in a classical type style. I was lucky not to be the science officer or the medical officer because they had a lot of the tough stuff, man. They knew the engineer, the medical officer that did all that stuff with the science, they're the ones that had the heaviest of. I was lucky. I was tactical. So I didn't have to go through as many changes as for example Geordi La Forge. So it wasn't so bad for me. There was a lot of it, and it changed all the time. There was that headache. But ultimately and that's typical with hour long drama. But ultimately, it wasn't so tough for me at the time.
Once I started doing it, it's like going to the gym. When you start memorizing stuff, eventually you're going to memorize it faster and faster and easier and easier. That's generally how it works. So for me at the time it wasn't that difficult at all.

Jeff: That's so interesting. I can't not ask this question either because ...

Dustin: Yeah. You got to bring up Spaceballs, right?

Jeff: I got to bring it up. Because we talked about working in the industry and getting to a point where you're starting to get the bigger roles. But another thing that you're known for which is one of those adages there are no small parts is a very small part in the movie Spaceballs.

Tim Russ: Right.

Jeff: I wanted to just ask you was that a day shoot? Were you on the set for a single day for that or was it longer than that?

Tim Russ: No, just a day.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim Russ: It was a day of work. It was just a gig for me at the time.

Jeff: It's incredible because just a gig, just a day of work. You show up, you say your line. It becomes one of the most iconic lines of the movie, and that's what I think is great is that really puts truth behind there really are no small parts in that industry.

Tim Russ: Yeah.

Dustin: Did you know that movie was going to ... Did you have any idea that movie was going to be that big when you were there shooting that?

Tim Russ: Absolutely not. No. When it came out, everybody liked it. It was a comedy. It was very funny. Everybody loved it because Star Wars had been out. All three of them had been out before then. It was fine. Then it kind of went to sleep after that. It wasn't until only in the last maybe five years, six, eight years that all of a sudden there was a resurgence in the popularity of it or there was an awakening to me of the popularity of it. I didn't know it had become a cult classic. I mean, I literally forgot about most of those roles back then. But all of a sudden I was working on some gig and people were talking about it. They were raving about it. At the time, I said, "Well, the role about ... I did that part." They fucking fell on the floor. Came back the next day with videotapes or whatever it was of the movie, DVDs and wanted me to sign all of them. I was like, "Wow, man. I didn't realize that was such a big deal." But for some reason it became a really big deal.
It's ironic, as this business is, I got friends of mine who work three weeks on a movie doing all this dialogue and scenes that none of it ends up in the movie. I gave four words and nobody seems to have forgot them. When I say that, i mean literally I think everyone I've ever spoken to knows that movie and knows those lines. They know the scene. It's just unbelievable, man, that I can work seven years on a series and more people know me from four words than they do from a series. That's true.

Dustin: Wow.

Tim Russ: I can tell you right now more people would know me from Spaceballs or have seen Spaceballs than have watched Voyager. It's that simple.

Jeff: Wow. Yeah, again, it's just the nature of this industry. But it's so amazing that you can have a career that can span both areas where you have, and you can say that more people know you maybe from Spaceballs than Voyager, but Voyager was huge at the time. Star Trek is incredible community of fans and all that stuff. So to be able to be part of that is such a huge thing, and then also to be part of something that where you uttered four lines and it'll be remembered forever. Like you have both of those adages. I think that's so wonderful. On top of that too, I wanted to bring this up, you also do a lot of voice acting.

Tim Russ: Yeah.

Jeff: Which obviously for various Star Trek properties like video games and stuff like that. I also know you, one of my favorite games Marvel Ultimate Alliance Two, you voiced the Black Panther, which is a movie that's coming up very soon. But you were first. So congrats on that. I wanted to talk a little do you enjoy doing the voice acting? Because I know a lot of actors sometimes who are screen actors kind of have to get in a different head space to do a voice acting. Is it something that you enjoy?

Tim Russ: Yeah. Voice acting is very much a challenge. More so than acting because you don't have the camera to work with. You don't have expression from your face to work with. Everything has to be done through your voice. So that means the emotional nuances and other things have to also come through in the dialogue. That's the tricky part about doing that stuff. You don't realize it until you get in there and you're working with the director on it. What he wants or what she wants you have to try to achieve it and it's another notch or two above what you normally do. Your normal dialogue. It's easier to transition and do the dialogue if you're reading for a role to be able to use the voice over techniques to influence the dialogue for an on camera role. It's much harder to go the opposite direction and try to read something, a character with a certain emotional pattern or certain emotional beat. You have to convey that beat in the tone of your voice and the nuance of your voice, maybe even the pattern in which you speak. All that stuff has to be conveyed in just dialogue. That is really some tricky stuff. Everything from narration to doing character stuff to doing audio books to doing video games to doing straight narration. It is a very tricky, tricky bit.
I do enjoy so much doing the animated projects and doing the voices for characters on animation. That process is nothing but a kick in the pants as far as getting in there and doing it. The actual work. That is something I would love to ... I've done it a little bit before on Cartoon Network. I'd like to do another extended series project on that. I'm always trying out for those things. They're very hard to get. Really hard to get.

Jeff: Well, I hope you do because I mean, in all honesty, I love your voice. Every time I get to hear your voice in some random thing like that it's just like, "Ah. There's Tim. I love it." I hope you land one of those roles soon.

Tim Russ: Looking forward to it.

Jeff: One of the questions that we ask everybody on this show and someone with your caliber of career I think I'm really interested in your answer is what fuels you? Someone who has music in their background, acting, voice acting, television, movies, the whole nine ...

Dustin: And for such a long period of time.

Jeff: For such a long period of time. What fuels you to keep going out there, going for the roles and giving it your all.

Tim Russ: Typically it's the nature of the challenges. Number one, it's what I do. It's how I've made my living so if I want to continue making a living, I have to keep going out for the roles and do the interviews and create the projects that might get picked up or direct a film or something else that comes along. If it's a gig and it's paying, I have to consider that it's just work. All it is is just work. The way in which I'm working now is very different than when I started. It's a much more broad field between behind the camera voice over work, etc., etc., but the acting is sort of on autopilot. It happens when it happens. I go up for it when I go up for it, and I take on the challenge as it comes in. It's just work. It literally is what I've been doing for 35 years. So for me I get up, get the emails, get the phone calls, make the appointments, do the interviews, book the gig, do the gig, and then on to the next one.
Evolving is developing my own feature projects with other people. That's something that I'm looking forward to doing as the back half of my career because this is part b. After Voyager, [inaudible 00:29:56]. I'd like to get more projects of my own up and running. Whether they're series or feature, and working with some very talented people with some connections and things to make those things happen. Along with, again, many, many, many other people who are trying to do the same thing. But that's something that I look forward to now in terms of this career of mine evolving because what keeps me going today is the fact that it's different than it was when I started. It is very different.

Jeff: Awesome.

Dustin: Well, speaking on taking on projects, the big reason why we're here talking today is because the up and coming series Personal Space.

Tim Russ: Yeah.

Dustin: What can you tell us about Personal Space? I mean, we know a little bit about it. We know it's a ...

Jeff: Such an interesting project.

Dustin: Yeah. Like a reality series idea but it's astronauts in space. I don't know.

Jeff: It's done on such a low budget. I mean, it's such a refreshing thing I feel in the industry. What was it like working on this?

Tim Russ: Well, it was ... My role on there is not that big. I just have a couple of scenes on there, but when I was approached by the producer/writer about it, he talked about the concept he gave me. It was just really smart. It's also well written. The nature of the concept and the way he was going to shoot it and what happens in the story, I thought was absolutely fascinating. I mean, that's a really good twist that hasn't been done. It literally hasn't been done. The elements are borrowed from what we, our everyday television and web life. But it takes place on this space mission, and he's melded the two together. So when he talked to me about it, I was like, "Ah, man. That's pretty cool. I may have to look into that and see what I can do on it." It's great. I thought it was wonderful. Again, just because of the concept.
With independent projects, the most interesting roles that I have done and the most varied roles that I have done, the biggest variety of those parts have all been on independent projects. Television, cookie cutter, it's the same stuff all the time. Independent films are the ones that you get a chance to do things you would never have a chance to do on television. Just wouldn't happen. So what I enjoy when these things come down [inaudible 00:32:33]. By getting to do them. Again, those roles [inaudible 00:32:38]. The stuff on my demo roll that I'm never going to take off because it looks different from what I typically end up doing. It's day and night different. It's so unique and so standalone that I have to leave it on there because it doesn't look like everything else. Doesn't have the same walk and talk and that's really important.
So when they approached me about these projects and, "Oh, yeah. We got 20 cents to shoot it with and we can only pay you this and that, whatever." I said, "Well, if we're still doing it stag or whatever, I'll go ahead and see what it looks like and see if we can make something happen." Because it'll be something. Guarantee it'll be something that haven't done. It'll be a role that's different, that's unique. It might be a concept that's very different and unique. So I love that, man. I'll take a shot at that more often than not.

Jeff: Awesome. That is awesome. Finally, for our fans of this show and fans of you, where is the best way to follow Tim Russ. Do you use social media at all or do you have a website? Where's the best way people can follow you?

Tim Russ: I'm on Facebook under Tim Russ. Look me up there. I've got my photo. Myself and my daughter on there as well. I post stuff on Facebook that I'm usually working on and also have my own website TimRussWebpage.com. So I mean if you Google my name Tim Russ, the first thing that comes up is my website. So you can go on there. I keep the projects posted on there. I keep my appearances posted on there. Where I'm going to be performing, where I'm going to be doing a convention or whatever. All of that is posted on there, and I keep it up to date. Otherwise, yeah, Facebook. I post stuff on there that I'm doing all the time, and usually will leave those public so people can see them.

Jeff: Awesome. Well, I can't thank you enough for taking time to talk with us today, man. It was absolute honor to talk with you.

Dustin: Absolutely. Yeah.

Tim Russ: You got it. Oh, the Twitter handle is Tim Russ too.

Dustin: Perfect.

Tim Russ: I'm on Twitter as well under Tim Russ. You can look me up there. I post stuff on Twitter as well. I don't live on those sites, but I do update them. I do let people know here's what's happening, here's what I just worked on, here's what's going on. Yeah. Definitely can find out what's happening there.

Jeff: Awesome. Awesome.

Dustin: Great. Thank you so much, man. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, and talking to all our fans and all your fans. This was really great. We're both really big fans. So this was really a treat for us, man.

Tim Russ: My pleasure, man. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.