"Quark is the most human character on the show." An interview with Star Trek and Buffy icon Armin Shimerman
Last Friday, The Digital Fix was in attendance at the opening day of Destination Star Trek, the biggest Star Trek convention in Europe. While there, we were fortunate to grab an interview with one of the stars of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Armin Shimerman, best known as playing Ferengi bartender Quark across all seven years on the show.
Shimerman played one of the original five Ferengi in the season one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Last Outpost in 1987 and has been synonymous with the Ferengi race thanks to his leading role in the next spin-off show. But the actor also has a wide and varied career outside Star Trek, with recurring roles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Boston Legal and guest appearances in numerous big shows, from Ally McBeal to The West Wing and Seinfeld.
Joined by my assistant Gemma, we caught up with Armin to reflect on the character of Quark, the Star Trek franchise and his wider career...
Thank you for taking the time to chat to The Digital Fix. You played the very first Ferengi in The Next Generation [episode The Last Outpost] and were the only main Ferengi character in the franchise. Do you feel like you’ve had to carry the legacy of the Ferengi race within Star Trek?
There were five of us at the start. You mentioned my performance on [Star Trek:] The Next Generation, for which I hated, not from their point of view but mine. So at least the first three or four years of [Star Trek:] Deep Space Nine was me trying to make the Ferengi more three-dimensional, since I had started out on the wrong footing with something rather one dimensional. So I felt very responsible for the Ferengi race.
Max, who played Rom, has often told me that when he and the other Ferengi were cast they all got that performance of mine from [Star Trek:] The Next Generation as a template. And unfortunately for me, it's a horrible experience. The experience was fine, just my performance was so bad that I would rather forget it.
So we tend to think of Quark as having very different values and beliefs to Star Fleet characters...
I should hope so!
How did you find the balance of the authenticity of a Ferengi character that embodied misogynism and greed against the ideals of Starfleet on the show?
Starfleet is too idealised. Those are not real human beings! Suicide mission, everyone volunteers! The Ferengi in my mind, are much more human, so it wasn't that hard.
And was that why it was easy to make him a more likeable character perhaps?
I have no idea if he was likeable or not, but I will say this, in my humble opinion. Quark is the most human character on the show.
Now if you ask me about misogyny and greed, all of those are human characteristics and we should be getting better, that's what we're trying to do. The human race is trying to get to that place where Starfleet is, but in my opinion we haven't gotten there yet.
Absolutely. Another thing I wanted to talk about was the wonderful odd couple feel to the relationship between Odo and Quark. Were there any similarities or differences in your relationship with Rene Auberjonois off screen that fed into those roles onscreen?
Yes. The love affair that Quark and Odo had comes out of the love affair than Armin and Rene had. Originally the characters were written to be at each other's throats, which they continued to do. But it became quite obviously in the dailies that the two actors liked each other a great deal.
I had worked with Rene prior to the show. We did a play together. Rene is an enormously famous theatre actor on stage; I have a great respect for him and a great love for his abilities. So as we bonded - because they put us in the make-up trailer to be made up at the same time - our affection for each other grew and grew and that translated on screen. Many times things that happened off screen, the writers became aware of and they used that in the scripts as well.
Family was a big part of Deep Space Nine, more perhaps than some of the other shows. This was really apparent with member of the Ferengi characters; Rom and Nog had very obvious evolutions of character. Do you feel Quark had enough change over the course of the seven seasons?
That's a very good question. At the end of the seventh year I was concerned that there hadn't been. And then they wrote the penultimate episode The Dogs of War and they tried to take Quark back to where he was when the series started and I saw how far the character had matriculated from the first couple of episodes to the last couple of episodes.
So if you'd asked me this question 20 years ago I would have said no, there wasn't much of an expansion [of character]. But in hindsight now, because of Dogs of War, I will answer that by saying he goes through quite a bit.
Now some of the other characters had much richer evolutions and they needed to do that because they didn't the amount of screen time that I did. Mine was a very subtle, very minuscule, step by step change that as I said I became more aware of with hindsight, when I look at the entire seven years from the rear view mirror.
Deep Space Nine continues to gain much acclaim 25 years later. What do you think it is about the series that made it so special?
I think primarily what Star Trek has always been and has been some what afterwards, was about boldly going and solving other people's problems for 45 minutes. And [Star Trek:] Deep Space Nine was about exploring human relationships, interpersonal relationships between people. How could a group of people that didn't necessarily love each other get along? How did they live in a small space and learn to deal with each other's problems, to celebrate their joys, to plot against them when you weren't necessarily the best of friends? I think that's a much more human story than going to various planets and solving their problems for them, especially in 45 minutes.
I also think the format of our show was one of the first to expand plot lines over the course of four or five episodes, whereas many TV shows, including the earlier Star Trek shows, were episodic; everything was contained in one episode. And then there was a new episode and it would start from scratch. We continued storylines, we continued relationships more than perhaps the other shows had done.
As I've often said, we were blessed with an incredibly supporting cast, so that one of our supporting cast were to come on and take over the episode, show the plot, what was happening in the episode, our audience would accept that. If Rom did that or Gul Dukat or Garak, then the audience was not disappointed. I cannot to point of any other recurring characters like than in any of the other shows with that responsibility. I just think we had a richer tapestry of people.
So I suppose with that in mind, if you could have played any Star Trek character in any series other than Quark, who would it have been and why?
I would have played Quark.
[Laughs] Fair enough!
The other characters were all wonderful characters of course, but I loved the humanity in Quark. It may not always be pretty, it may not be what you think humanity is, but I believe he had more human potential than anybody else. He wasn't a role model, he was just a normal Joe.
I also want to talk about your character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, principal Snyder, a characters come across as myopic as Quark. Did you take anything of Quark’s character into your role as Snyder?
Very little. they were two different roles altogether. Snyder hated life, didn't like people , didn't like children, didn't like life. Quark adored life and loved experiencing it, talking to people, thought of himself as a people person. They were very, very different.
But they inspired each other. I would go off and do something totally different and that would make me want to go back and do something totally different on the other show. My batteries were always being regenerated because I was always going back and forth. And it wasn't just those two shows I was doing. I was allowed to do at least a dozen other TV shows, like Seinfeld. I did a lot of other shows that inspired me. They broke all the rules with me that allowed me to go off and do what I wanted to do. The batteries were always being rejuvenated.
Funnily enough, we were watching Stargate SG1 yesterday and you popped up in an episode.
All my contracts said I couldn't do any and Steve Oster and Rick Berman who were in charge of that decision were kind enough to say "let him go". The reason being, I think, is that I was not part of the group that made decisions. Starfleet is about a group of people, no matter what show you watch, who get together and they solve the problem together as a group. That's the mantra of Star Trek, But I was never part of the problem solving group. So they felt that, yes, I was necessary to the show, but there were many times where I was not needed because I was not part of the problem solving. So they allowed me to go off an make a living on other places.
And again, and I think I was more eager to do each episode, because I was going away to do shows.
Perhaps you've already answered this, but who was more fun to play, Quark or Snyder?
They're both my children. They were both fun. Again, Quark is a life loving character, so perhaps he was a bit more fun. Snyder is a pain in the arse and although that can be fun... The sets were also radically different so it was fun to act in both sets and to explore two different aspects of my personality.
If you could revisit Quark on screen, twenty years later, what do you think he would be doing and where would you like him to go?
I would like him still to be behind the bar. I would like for him to be working on a project that would make him happy; whether that's a scheme or whether that's something for his family, or the station. That would be what I would want him to be doing. I'm sure that's what you all want.
What was your favourite episode of Deep Space Nine?
Far Beyond The Stars. Why? Because what science fiction does best is deal with social issues. You look at current life, current events, through the prism of science fiction; you're not hit in the face, you're not being lectured - you should do this, you should do that. Far Beyond The Stars dealt with racism, dealt with prejudice, with several issues.
There was one perhaps that isn't overt but was there. We're at a Star Trek convention, There are a lot of people here who are here to see the actors that they fell in love with. But we didn't create those characters, the writers did. We interpret those characters. One of the things that Far Beyond The Stars did was pull back the curtain and talk about the writers; because it's their imagination that creates all this. So that's one of things I love about Far Beyond The Stars.
And a minor element; I didn't have to wear make-up!
Absolutely! I have to ask, how long did it take to get made up as Quark?
In the show, it took two hours. This weekend* I think it will take a little longer.
*During the convention, Armin Shimerman, Max Grodénchik and Aron Eisenberg were made up in full Ferengi costume to recreate Quark, Rom and Nog for the guests.
Finally, what was your fondest memory of being involved in Star Trek?
Lots of fond memories. I suppose the one that you would probably be most interested in?
Among the series regulars, I was the biggest fan of Star Trek and I was often the go to person for answering certain Star Trek questions that the other actors just didn't know. I believe somewhere during the fourth or fifth episode I had a scene on the bridge [of Deep Space Nine]. I walked into that set, which I had not been on before - mostly I was in Quark's bar - and I suddenly realised that, though it wasn't my bridge, Quark's bridge, it was the bridge for the TV show that I was on.
I knew I was on a Star Trek show, but that moment, being on that bridge, every fan boy element in me sparked alive and I said "this is my bridge." I still remember that as one of the most joyous moments of my life. It suddenly sunk in, "oh my God, I'm a series regular on Star Trek."
Although it had taken weeks, I think the fear of doing well was probably what preoccupied me for the first couple of episodes. But at that moment I knew they weren't going to fire me and I just realised that - bear in mind I started watching Star Trek as a teenager - every teenage dream I had came alive at that moment.
A huge thanks to Armin Shimerman for his time and the crew at Destination Star Trek for providing the opportunity. You can also read our thoughts on the opening day of the convention here and our interview with fellow Star Trek actor Walter Koenig here.