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Marina Sirtis on whipping Faye Dunaway and almost being fired from Star Trek

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Marina Sirtis defied her parents to study drama as a teen, and emigrated to the United States from England alone at 31. But even after landing her “dream role” as Counselor (later Commander) Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sirtis never felt success was assured. (She even stayed home on the night Crash won the Best Picture Oscar.) Sirtis has appeared in everything from multiple sci-fi series, including The Outer Limits, to pulpier fare like The Wicked Lady, and even a failed procedural or two. She’s also sought out powerful female roles like NCIS’ Orli Elbaz, or the steely Demona of the animated series Gargoyles. Now TV’s most famous empath is gearing up for the holidays as a snooty royal official in the new Lifetime holiday movie My Christmas Prince.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)/Star Trek: Voyager (1999-2000)/Star Trek: Enterprise (2005)—“Deanna Troi”

The A.V. Club: You originally auditioned for Tasha Yar, a role that ultimately went to Denise Crosby. What drew you to that particular part? 

Marina Sirtis: I wasn’t exactly starting out in the business, because I had been acting for 11 years before I came to America. But let’s just say, when you’re in the position that I was back then in 1987, it’s not about which roles you’re attracted to. It’s about which casting directors you can persuade to bring you into the room to audition for any part. So I didn’t care. They said to me, “Okay, you’re auditioning for Tasha,” and then three auditions in, I was on my way out of the building, and they called me back and they said, “Oh, by the way, we think you’d actually be more right for this other part,” And I went, “Okay!” I mean, if they had said to me, “We want you to do craft service,” I probably would have said yes. I was just so desperate for a job. I was like, “I need to earn some money, otherwise I’m going to have to go back to England and lose my dream.”

So no, I wish I was at that level where I got to choose. I wasn’t. I’m still, on a certain level, I’m not. I’m a bit like Michael Caine. I say yes to everything, because you never know where it may lead. You never know who you might meet. Especially because, as a middle-aged actress in Hollywood, they’re not exactly flinging scripts at me anymore. It’s really funny, because Carrie Fisher, god rest her soul, said the exact same thing. She was being interviewed on the Today show when [The Force Awakens] was coming out. The interviewer said to her, “What made you want to reprise your role in Star Wars?” She went, “Honey, oh honey, I’m an actress in her sixties in Hollywood. Trust me, I’m not exactly being inundated with scripts.”

AVC: We recently spoke to Patrick Stewart, who said he initially had no idea TNG would really take off. Was there a moment for you early on, where you knew you guys had something?

MS: I myself was hanging on by my fingernails, especially after the first season. I pretty much have only spoken about it recently because it was kind of awkward. I was never asked the question. When I was finally asked, I was like, “Well, actually, the reason why I wasn’t in a lot of those episodes in the first season was because I was going to get fired.”

AVC: What was going on behind the scenes to make you feel that way?

MS: Well, Gene felt that there was one too many women on the show. And you need a doctor [Gates McFadden as Beverly Crusher] and a security chief [Crosby as Tasha Yar], but you really don’t need a psychologist. It was as simple as that. Security chief is viable, a doctor is viable—a psychologist, not so much. So I was getting fired. I asked Majel Barrett-Roddenberry straight out, because we were very close, and I asked her a few years ago, before she passed away, and I said, “I was going to get fired that first season, wasn’t I?” And she went, “Yep!” The irony of the whole situation is that at the end of the first season, I was the only one left out of the three.

AVC: What effect did that have on your role in the show?

MS: I had way more to do. The biggest thing for me was—there was a long hiatus, because that’s when there was a writers’ strike, so we had a long time off. Despite everything that was going on behind the scenes, I was kind of adopted into the Roddenberry family because Majel played [Deanna Troi’s] mom, and I got invited to all the holiday dinners. They always made sure that if I didn’t have somewhere to go that I had a family to go to. Any holiday, they were amazing like that.

From “Face Of The Enemy,” Sirtis’ favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation

So at Jonathan Frakes’ wedding, [Gene Roddenberry] took me aside, and he goes, “You know what, I just wanted to tell you that whenever it is that we go back to work after the strike, the first episode of the second season is a Troi episode.” And I just burst into tears. Because basically, I’ve been hanging on by my fingernails for that whole first season—not just professionally, but emotionally. I had landed the best job ever, and I was going to lose it. I was so up and down. One minute, I was so happy to be working. The next minute, I was just in the depths of despair. So when he said that to me, it meant the world. Not only did I have a job, but the first episode after a six-month break was going to be a Troi episode. That’s how much they thought of me.

It just freed me up. I was able to finally relax. I was able to go, “Oof, okay. Now I can just do my job.” And when I was just able to do my job, they wrote more and more for me. So there was a good part of it, because I got way more to do, but the tiny little downside is that I got all the love and sex stuff.

AVC: And how did you feel about all the romantic storylines? Because in the past, you’ve talked about how when the “cleavage arrived, Troi’s brains left.” Were you at all frustrated?

MS: No, it wasn’t frustrating, because of the nature of my character, being this empath and having that ability, the stuff I got to do was like an actress’ dream. I got to do some really amazing stuff. I got to lose my powers, be transformed into a Romulan, be an amphibian. There were so many issues my character had to deal with. It was like a smorgasbord for me of acting. Yes, I had a lot of love interests. But if you’re not going to have them when you’re young, when are you going to have them?

Someone asked me recently, what would you tell your 21-year-old self? Which I thought was a great question. We have some really smart fans. I said, “You know what I would tell myself? Not to be in a long relationship at 21.” I got into a nine-year relationship at the age of 21. Worst thing I ever did. You think at 21 you know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re doing. I would tell my 21-year-old self, not only should you not spent nine years with this man, you shouldn’t spend nine minutes with this man. Go out. Have fun. Be young. Do the stuff that young people are supposed to do. And then find someone to settle down with.

AVC: Have you watched Discovery at all?

MS: I have to, because Jason Isaacs is a friend. [Laughs] It’s compulsory viewing for me. I like it! I love the fact you see how far we’ve moved on from my show. We have the women in such important roles now. I think what they’re doing and what they’re trying to do and kind of succeeding—you know, you have to be honest. Look back at the first season of TNG; how many episodes did we hold our nose? We held our noses and went, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is on the air, it’s so bad.” They haven’t had that, it’s not bad. They’re starting off way more advanced than we started off.

But I do like the fact that they are trying to maintain what the germ was of Star Trek, what the initial philosophy of Gene Roddenberry was. I think that got lost a bit in some of the incarnations, especially DS9. Listen, there are people who will punch me in the face if I say a bad thing about DS9, but it kind of lost… Star Trek was about space exploration. It was about going out into the universes, about going out and human discovery. It wasn’t about a hotel in space that people came to. So I think that’s where they got it slightly wrong on DS9. But Voyager and Enterprise, they tried to maintain Gene’s philosophy. I think they’re doing it on Discovery, too. I don’t know how they’re doing, numbers-wise, because I don’t know, because they’re a streaming thing, if they can figure that out. But it says a lot about the Star Trek franchise that CBS launches a streaming service with it.

Gargoyles (1994-1996)—“Demona; Margot; Ms. Destine”

AVC: In this case, you were the first pick for your character, Demona.

MS: I was! I was the only person I think [Greg Weisman and Jamie Thomas] read for it. That’s how evil I am. “No one could be as evil as her. Okay, there’s no point in auditioning anybody else. She’s just about as evil as they come.” [Laughs] Some of my friends would probably agree with them. But you know, I have people come to me who don’t even know Star Trek, who are Gargoyles fans. They’re like, “Oh my god, you’re Demona.” Dressing up to be Deanna Troi is complicated, but dressing up as a Demona… I mean, I’ve had people come up to me at conventions as Demona, with the wings and the claws and the feet and everything. That’s dedication. That is like, boy, have you got too much time on your hands if you’ve got the time to do this. It’s unbelievable. It really is. I actually feel quite honored that I’m in two franchises that meant a lot to a lot of people.

AVC: How do the fans compare at conventions?

MS: It’s interesting, because the people who pretty much are not necessarily Deanna Troi fans sometimes are Demona fans. They liked her. I said she was evil; she was misunderstood. Her anger came from a real place. It wasn’t manufactured. It came from a real place of pain and betrayal. The fact that she was mad all the time, it made sense. But I think people who thought Deanna Troi was a little bit too passive and a little bit too girly girl, they really liked Demona. So I find that kind of interesting.

AVC: In a way, it’s a more active role. Demona was originally intended to be the leader of one of the groups, and then the creators decided to make her more of an antagonist, right?

MS: Right, exactly. She was kind of the only one of the gargoyles who hung on to what the humans had done to the gargoyles. She was the one that was like the walking history of pain and betrayal. On a certain level, I think she represented, and I might be getting too esoteric here, but I think she represented someone like Native Americans or the First Nations peoples up in Canada or aborigines in Australia, whose lives and lands and everything was destroyed by the others who came in, as there were still people in those communities who were fighting for their equality and their rights. So she just chose really not the smartest way to do it, but like I said, it came from a place of truth for her.

The Outer Limits (1999)—Olivia “Liv” Kohler

AVC: Similarly, this Outer Limits episode, “The Grell,” uses the future to address the past. There’s even a little Trek tie-in; Jorge Montesi, who worked with Gene Roddenberry on Andromeda, directed you in it. Did you start seeing out these kinds of roles after TNG?

MS: Well, you know, sometimes you don’t see what it stands for until after, and that’s purely because TV’s so fast. You don’t have time. Gone are the days where you would get a script. When I was doing TV in England, we’d have a rehearsal period. The BBC had rehearsal rooms. If you worked for one of the other companies, you’d be in a church hall somewhere, or a community center somewhere, rehearsing for two or three weeks ahead of time. You could find everything. you could find every little detail and every little subtext and every little thing in there. Now, when I got cast on NCIS, I got a call in the morning, and that afternoon, I went in for my costume fitting, and I started work the next day. That’s how it happens on TV. You’re lucky if you get a day or two before you start filming, as a guest star. I mean, anybody.

So sometimes, you discover this stuff in hindsight. It doesn’t always happen, but I do like to try and say something in the roles that I take. Even if that’s not there, sometimes I try to put it in there anyway, because you just never know. But that to me was the beauty of being on Star Trek. Now when we meet our fans and they come and say to us, “by the way, you saved my life” or “you changed my life.” “You were the only thing that gave me hope when I was ready to commit suicide.” How privileged are we? Not in just one show, but in a few things that I’ve done that speaks to people in that way. I’m just an actress. I’ve never even wanted to be a director. I just wanted to be in front of the camera or on a stage. My method is really easy. I learn my lines, I hit my marks, and I try not to bump into the furniture. To hear people say stuff like that to you, it’s kind of mind-blowing, in the literal sense of the word. Your head blows up.

NCIS (2013-2016): Orli Elbaz

MS: So NCIS, I got a call, it was an offer, I didn’t have to audition, I didn’t have to read, I didn’t have to go in and meet with them. It was literally, “We want you to play this. Would you do it?” And then you’ll have some independent movie that is really just someone starting out in their career, and they want you to audition for them. And yet for the number one show in the world, it’s an offer. Sometimes you kind of go, “Okay, Hollywood is a mirror universe of the real world.” It’s kind of a weird place.

First of all, I love to play strong women. I love it. Because that’s who I am. And man, Orli Elbaz can kick anyone’s ass. If she had to fight Mark Harmon, she could probably kick his butt. I love that about her. Mossad, they don’t mess about. To me, that was an amazing, amazing character to play. She’s a spy. Everything has to be subterfuge. I think she’s an awesome character.

Young Justice (2012-2013): “Queen Bee”

MS: I have to be honest, voice work is my least favorite of all the incarnations of acting, because I don’t really do voices. I do accents, but I pretty much have one voice. I don’t do those tricks that real voice actors can do. Real voice actors are a breed unto themselves. They are so gifted. I can’t do what they do. I remember when we were doing Gargoyles, there was one line in the script and because we would shoot it like a radio play, and we’d all be in the room together, the director Jamie would say, “Okay, I need for this line, an old Scottish guy that sounds like a dog when he talks,” and three people put their hand up. I’m like, “Really? That’s in your repertoire? You have it at the tip of your fingers that you can do old Scottish guy that sounds like a dog?” And they went, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Oh my god, you guys are amazing.” So I don’t do that. I basically go in and speak into a microphone. I like to work with actual people. Because to me, acting is reacting. Acting is listening. When you’re not hearing the other person say the lines back to you, I find it quite difficult and to me, it’s not as satisfying. I’m not getting the emotional connection that I like to get when I’m acting.

Adventure Time (2013)—“Samantha”

AVC: You’ve still done a fair amount of voicework, including Gargoyles, Young Justice, Family Guy, and this role in Adventure Time.

MS: I did! Sam the dog, who thinks she’s a goddess. I forgot everything about it apart from the name of the character, which I thought was pretty fantastic. But I don’t really remember anything about that at all. Don’t ask me. [Laughs] I’m post-menopausal. Listen, the menopause does terrible things to your brain. It’s actually become one of my motivations in life to spread the word about menopause. Because I knew nothing about it when it hit me, and I did human biology for four years in school, and I still didn’t know about menopause. So it’s become like my crusade to educate about menopause. Because when it hits you, if it hits you young like it hit me, you think you’re getting early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s that bad. Mine was that bad. They vary from people to people, from nothing to you’re going to jump off a building, and everything in between. But no one knows anything about it. They don’t teach you about it. And it’s shocking that no one knows about it.

See, you’ve got me all wound up now. This is my crusade. No really, it is. I’ve said, in the middle of a Star Trek convention, in the middle of anything, I start talking about menopause, and people are like, “Oh my god, here she goes again! Talking about menopause.” I put a “the” in front it. I call it The Menopause.

AVC: Well, if we’re going to be inundated with those erectile dysfunction commercials, then why not?

MS: Exactly. So I’m the counterbalance to that. I’m the counterbalance to Viagara. I talk about the menopause.

Crash (2004)—“Shereen”

MS: Oh my god, again. I hadn’t even met the director. I got cast off a videotape. I was actually the only person in the movie who wasn’t the right nationality. Because Paul Haggis wanted everyone to be authentic. He wanted everyone to be real. For some reason, they couldn’t find an Iranian woman. I was like, “Okay, Shohreh [Aghdashloo] must be busy.” She was in the House Of Sand And Fog with Ben Kingsley, and she’s Iranian and amazing.

But I thought, “Oh, she must be busy,” because they cast me as Iranian, and I’m Greek. So anyway, I went in and I did it. I think they shot the whole thing in three weeks. It was a low, low, low-budget movie. Low-budget movie. I think the big stars made their money at the back end, because I know for a fact that no one got any money upfront. We all went in and we did it because the script was so amazing. I mean, it was on the page. It was absolutely all on the page. When it’s on the page, as an actor, oh my gosh. Your life is made so much easier. It was interesting, because it was the first time in my career, I mean, it’s happened a few times since, but it was the first time in my career I had acted with no makeup on.

The interesting part about that whole shoot was when I was in character and wearing the head scarf and being Iranian, I was invisible. I had never been invisible on the set before, ever. When I went and put my own clothes on, then went back to say goodbye to Paul Haggis, it was like a new person had just shown up who wasn’t invisible. That movie for me was a learning experience on so many levels. Personally, emotionally, professionally. It kind of changed everything for me. I remember it won everything that year. Everyone in Hollywood said Brokeback Mountain was going to win everything. This is the first year I didn’t go to an Oscar party. The one year I’m in a movie that’s nominated. And I bought into the hype that Brokeback Mountain was going to win, so I’m sitting at home in my robe, in my pajamas, watching the Oscars like everybody else, and Crash won. I’m like, “Oh my god, I don’t believe it! I should be at an Oscar party somewhere celebrating my victory!” So that’s the way it always happens. But anyway. So I saw Paul at the Producer’s Guild Awards that year, I went with my girlfriend, and I went up to say hello and congratulate him on the success of the movie. And he looked at me and he goes, “I’m sorry, have we met?” And I said “Yes, I was Shereen in your movie.” And he nearly fell off his chair.

AVC: Well, that just goes to show how you disappear into a role!

MS: Well, that’s what I like to do, disappear in a role. I find myself funny, but not particularly interesting. So I don’t want to play me. If you want to really screw me up, you get me on a film set and say, “Just play yourself,” and I’ll be like, “what? No. No. How do I do that? I don’t how to do that.” I’ve always wanted to be an actress so that I could be somebody else, not so that I could be me on a show.

The Wicked Lady (1983)—Jackson’s Girl

MS: That was my second movie. This was the first movie I had lines in. My first movie, I had no lines. But in The Wicked Lady, I had lines. I think I was about 26 years old, so I had been acting for about five years. They said, “Do you want to be in a movie with Faye Dunaway, Alan Bates, Sir John Gielgud, Oliver Tobias, Glynis Barber…” I was like, “Uh, yeah. I want to be in that movie.” Then: “Oh, by the way, Faye Dunaway rips your clothes off.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine, because it’s Faye Dunaway.”

I’m British, and we don’t really have an issue with nudity in Europe. When people say to me, “You took your clothes off a lot when you started!,” my response to that is, “If it was good enough for Helen Mirren, it’s good enough for me.” We both took our clothes off a lot in the beginning. Because guess what? Everyone has a body. When I’m in Europe, when I was young, we’d go to the topless beaches, we took our clothes off at the beach. [Nudity] is not a thing. It’s only in America that it’s a thing. It’s a thing here. It’s not a thing in the rest of the Western world.

AVC: You have this kind of whip fight or duel with Faye Dunaway at one point. How do you prepare for something like that?

MS: You don’t. [Laughs] You can’t. You can’t prepare for it. I had never been naked in a movie before. It was kind of quite funny on the day, because we had all these special effects going. We shot it in a field in the north of England, and the extras were real people. They weren’t professional extras, they were real locals. The director put an ad in the newspaper and said, “Do you want to be in a movie? Come to such-and-such a place and bring your own lunch.” So there were these regular, normal people standing around, and all the special effects guys were there with their protractors and compasses and they were like, “Okay, we’re going to sew your costume up, we’re going to cut your costume, we’re going to rip it, and when she whips you, pull the string, and then it will fall apart.” This is going to take a year to do, right? The director went, “No, no, we’re not doing any of that.” And he literally just cut my top off, and said, “Okay, start filming.”

It was a little terrifying, because when you’re lying on the beach, it’s kind of under control. But when you’re in a whipping fight, the girls are kind going all over the place, you don’t know how it’s going to look. Fortunately, I was only 26. Trust me, I would not do that now. No one would want to see them now. That’s the other part of it. But anyway, so we just got down to it, and we had this big whipping fight. And it was pretty much the scene that sold the movie. I didn’t realize that in my ignorance of the business at the time. I didn’t realize that this was such a big deal, that this was going to be the selling point of the movie. There it goes. But I got to work with Faye Dunaway. It doesn’t get much better than that. She’s a bona fide star. She is like, A+ list.

My Christmas Prince (2017)—“Felicia”

MS: This is very family-oriented, compared to some of my other works. People are always saying to me, “Marina, you’re so political, you should run for office.” I’m like, “Eh, can’t. There’s too many naked pictures of me out there.” Yeah, can’t do that. Kind of screwed myself in that respect from going into politics. But this, yes. These are some of my favorite people to work with. The production company that made this movie, which is Meyer Entertainment, this is the third or fourth time they’ve hired me. They make family-friendly movies.

Basically, what I found out about these what they call “family-friendly” movies is that everyone watches them. It’s amazing. Even men. I remember when I did the movie for Hallmark, and people say to me,” what have you done recently?” I say, “I just finished a movie for Hallmark.” And they go, “Ooh, I love Hallmark movies. They’re my secret pleasure, I watch them with my wife.” And this is the reaction I was getting from everybody.

I love doing these films. They’re a joy to work on. The atmosphere is fantastic. You almost get like an early Christmas, because there’s snow everywhere. You know it’s fake, but it looks so beautiful. It looks like a Christmas card. Everywhere you look, there’s a Christmas tree. There’s something about being in that Christmas-y atmosphere that puts everyone in a good mood. It’s just so much fun.

AVC: Aside from the holiday, the movie’s also timely because a prince—I’m sorry, the Christmas prince—wants to marry someone who’s a quote-unquote commoner.

MS: Not only a commoner, but an American commoner. Obviously, we couldn’t have planned it better, because the week that the movie’s coming out, Prince Harry gets engaged to an American commoner. I’m doing a little dance. I personally love the royal family with all my heart. Because I’m first generation. My parents were immigrants to England. So I’m first-generation English, and like a lot of first-generation people, I’m way more patriotic than my English friends are, who have always been English. So I love the royal family. I was actually Prince Charles’ official escort for our movie, First Contact, in London. That was a big highlight. I got to be his official escort for the night. I have never been so nervous in all my life. That was one of the gifts that Star Trek gave me.