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INTERVIEW: J.G. Hertzler on ‘Star Trek: Axanar,’ Martok and William Shatner

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J.G. Hertzler counts himself incredibly lucky to be a part of the remarkably fan-funded film enterprise: Star Trek: Axanar. But it’s more than just luck: it’s experience and iconism combined into one actor who not only has the recognisability to lend to this project but also the faith in its success.

Right now, the funding effort of Star Trek: Axanar has reached approximately over $400,000. Not only will the filming for the first part of the project be started in 2016, but perhaps even a portion of the second segment. For more information on its funding status, visit www.savethefederation.com.

Pop Mythology was lucky to sit down with this veteran Star Trek actor, known for his commanding role as General Martok on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to talk about Axanar, his characters and to share with us some anecdotes about his cast mates and other Star Trek actors he’s been fortunate enough to work with in the past.


 

PM: I have to say, first of all, that you’re my favourite Klingon!

Hertzler: [Laughs] Mine too. Thanks, that’s very sweet.

PM: General Martok was such a great addition to Deep Space Nine.

Hertzler: You know, it was strange… the whole way that developed was very strange because one of my best friends, Ron Canada, also an actor – Ron and I had the same agent, Chris Wright, for a while 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!’

PM: That’s pretty cool.

Hertzler: 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.

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PM: But that’s one of the great things that leads you into Axanar, I think. Sam Travis and General Martok seem to be cut from the same cloth. Would that be a fair assessment?

Hertzler: Well, yeah, I guess you can’t get away from that. Yeah, I mean I’ve spent my life in the theatre 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. Well after the show [DS9], Ira Behr [executive producer of DS9] 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 that was buried under what turned out to be the Desert Inn! The movie included the demolition, the implosion of the Desert Inn with apparently, Anthony Zerbe and I were swordfighting in the basement when the implosion happened! But his children loved the character Black Dog and so 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.

PM: Perhaps it was the eye patch?

Hertzler: Exactly… why didn’t I have an eye patch? I should have had an eye patch!

PM: Tell us how you came to be involved with Axanar.

Hertzler: Well, let me think. I guess it was because Alec called Gary Graham… I think it was Gary… I actually don’t remember exactly how it came about. There was a connection between somebody and Alec just called me up and told me what they were doing. But you know, a lot of people were doing fan films, so I didn’t have great expectations, everything I’ve seen prior to this. But I think I can really speak for the rest of the actors, we were all stupefied when we got to the set – when we got to where we were shooting Prelude to Axanar – and it was filled with people that we all knew from the business as department heads. Real pros and the way it was run, 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 twenty, thirty 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.

PM: Yes, the quality is absolutely amazing. It completely blew me away.

Hertzler: 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 make-up; I saw him every day on the shooting of DS9. I saw people from the costume department, it was stunning.

PM: Would you characterize yourself as a fan?

Hertzler: Not really. 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.

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PM: Other than the quality, what was the selling point that drew you to Axanar?

Hertzler: 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! Then they have to prove me wrong by mistakes, by bad quality, but that didn’t happen while 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.

PM: Let’s get back to Sam Travis.

Hertzler: Regarding Sam Travis, I love the idea of a Sam Travis character… sort of a cross between Richard Widmark who I think played Colonel Travis, who was not a likeable fellow, in the John Wayne Alamo (I don’t know for sure if it was Richard Widmark – might have been), but a cross between him and George C. Scott. I like the idea of him being Scott and I used a little of Shakespeare’s Richard, 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.

PM: That’s really a really cool insight into both of those characters. That’s the type of thing people love to read about.

Hertzler: There are five things an actor needs to know before he takes on a role:

  1. Know why you’re talking.
  2. Know what you want.
  3. Know what’s standing in your way.
  4. What are the given circumstances, bio of the character?
  5. 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. 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.

PM: It sounds like good analogy for how we should be living our lives! Know what you want, what’s standing in your way and how are you going to get it?

Hertzler: Well, you hit that right! Absolutely! Then you can just isolate it to what do I want!

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PM: What’s it like working on Axanar?

Hertzler: Well, I haven’t done anything since the Prelude, obviously. I’ve had a lot of online conversations with Alec and he sends me scripts and re-writes. So that’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves. I just had a conversation with Kate the other day and it’s sort of odd. We see all this stuff happening, like the sets being built and getting the studio going. But, as far as us being there, working, we’re not. Richard is, he’s shooting some stuff but I’m especially isolated as I’m out here on the East Coast.

PM: So what do you anticipate?

Hertzler: Well, I anticipate that everything will be done as well as it was on Prelude. If not, then I have a problem! But, hopefully it will be and everything that’s been happening leads me to believe that it will be, but we don’t have Christian Gossett – do you know him?

PM: Yes! Not personally though. 

Hertzler: He is a phenomenal artist. I’ve never met a director, besides Ridley Scott, who can draw and capture a scene, who can do his own storyboards like Christian Gossett could. I paint and draw as well, so I have a particular appreciation of exactly what he’s accomplished. He showed me a script that had all the drawings in the margins.

PM: Didn’t he do some work with Lucasfilm?

Hertzler: I don’t know, but I know that he’s worked with Peter Jackson and James Cameron in the art departments of films that they did.

PM: Those are pretty big names!

Hertzler: Yes! Those are the biggest there are! And I know that Ridley Scott was a visual artist before he was a director so I have a great appreciation for people who can do that.

PM: That’s pretty high quality stuff.

Hertzler: I wish Christian were still there but we have Robert Burnett who has a tremendous resume as well. So Alec is able to keep attracting people with these terrific resumes to the project and you know, that’s very exciting. Tobias Richter! His work is tremendous! You know, it might as well be Paramount Studios!

PM: It’s astonishing stuff! You have veteran actors, industry veterans – amazing people to work with – that’s, like you said, this is a great role that’s been handed to you. What must it feel like to work with people like this?

Hertzler: Oh, we’re all like that; we all feel that way about it. That’s why it’s so exciting. 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, by the Kevin Bacon scale! [Laughs] The fact that we were all stupefied by so much professionalism, which you aren’t used to on an independent films of any nature, we were all very impressed and loved the fact that we were all there and having fun with each other. We went to a convention somewhere – all of us were there and that was magic. I have nothing but great things to say about those folks and I love their work.

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(via StarTrekAxanar.com)

PM: Any specific stories that come to mind?

Hertzler: 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!’ 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.’

PM: That’s hilarious. You actually said that?

Hertzler: I had no idea. I did not have the imagination to see ahead and see the reality of this green-screen activity because it just knocked me out! Christian got some honest acting out of all of us. I believed these people were… these people. Well, I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life. [Chuckles]

PM: That’s a great story. But with people like this, it sounds like you’re having fun and there have to be other stories.

Hertzler: Well, let me see … of course, I basically want to marry Kate! Unfortunately, that won’t happen. But there’s Tony Todd! I love Tony. He did a show called Fences up in Rochester … and I saw the later show. Outside there were a bunch of baseball cards with Tony Todd on it. They were made for the show. I went and grabbed about thirty of them. So I called him and told him about it and he asked if I could send them to him. So I have these cards with Tony Todd holding a bat!

PM: We really should talk with Tony. His portrayal as the older Jake Sisko in that episode of DS9 was incredibly moving. He’s an incredible talent.

Hertzler: He has an incredibly sensitive face. You almost really like the Candyman. Because it’s Tony. He’s so human and strong. Sensitive eyes… just a wonderful guy. And he’s got hands that can wrap around mine three times! Just a big, wonderful man.

PM: What about the support of fans? Can you talk a little about how important that is?

Hertzler: Well, an actor without an audience is really a useless individual. You know, the thing about… did Shatner write a book titled Get a Life?

PM: That’s the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch.

Hertzler: Shatner is a miracle of a human being. He’s 80-something and he looks and acts like he’s fifty 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.”

PM: I’ve had the fortune to meet him twice.

Hertzler: So you know what I’m saying then.

PM: Yes! He met my daughter as well and was incredibly generous with his time with her. I’m sure he would have made an awesome babysitter!

Hertzler: Oh, absolutely! Yeah, but 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.

PM: Perhaps it’s something he gets from his fans.

Hertzler: I adore fans. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I’ve met people all over the world and they like General 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.

PM: You have a degree of iconism – you created a memorable character that people can immediately relate to and I guess that’s a really fortunate thing for an actor, that you have this association with a role that people will always remember you for. You’ve got such a long career, but that’s the role that connects you with so many people.

Hertzler: It is. There’s nothing else that’s connected me like that… except for the thirty or forty people who saw my Richard Plantagenet at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival! [Laughs]

PM: You’re Michael Dorn’s adopted dad!

Hertzler: [Chuckles] Yeah, that’s right. That’s funny. 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 this idea that Martok might feel some way about something, but that’s not me.

PM:   Are you a political person?

Hertzler: I try to stay informed about as much as possible. 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 not a great source of information but I am a great source of opinion. That tends to piss some people off sometimes and delights others!

PM: That comes out in Sam Travis, when Garth presents his plan in Prelude and you say “Well, I thought it was a damn, stupid plan.”

Hertzler: Well, yeah. Absolutely. It was a bloodbath waiting to happen, is what I think I say. 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.

PM: That’s so cool to see that direct link between the character and the actor. Any upcoming Axanar-related plans in the near future?

Hertzler: Well, my problem is that I live on the East Coast. I’m out of the mix to be able to do things. But we’ve done a few conventions together. I’ll do anything they ask me to do. I just totally believe in the project. I’m supposed to do a convention over in England next spring. By that point we should be either filming or completing the production and I’d like to be able to take something over to England and promote over there.

PM: Is there anything you’d like to leave the fans with?

Hertzler: Everything that has happened with Axanar thus far, is a miracle to me. 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!


Enough people contributed almost half a million dollars to see this project succeed. That’s a pretty good estimation of their faith and of the level of quality demonstrated in order to convince those fans to support it. J.G. Hertzler is involved in it with it because he believes in it, like those fans. Someone of his character and experience supporting Axanar is not only exciting to those fans, in seeing that one of their favourite Star Trek characters is performing in it, but it also reinforces their faith in its success.

Axanar promises to be a completely exciting experience and it’s more than appropriate that Hertzler can be a part of that. Like he said, if someone is going to offer him a role that’s made for him, he’s going to take it. But it’s also a project he believes in, and that just makes it right for everyone.

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About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.