I Drew on Every Role I’ve Ever Played: A Conversation with Armin Shimerman




IT’S NOT THAT Armin Shimerman hasn’t written before: “While shooting Star Trek,” he told me, “I was offered the opportunity to collaborate on a sci-fi trilogy, and found I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch someone else put words together.” But that was decades ago, on assignment, whereas his new novel, Betrayal of Angels, was different in scope and ambition from the start. Then, as if the stakes weren’t already high, as if the concept itself — not just to imagine relationships between historical characters but to land them in the middle of a fiction (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) — weren’t enough of a challenge, “about a third of the way through,” the author recalled, he discovered Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. 

“I was gob-smacked by its excellence in language, storytelling, and psychology,” he wrote in an email. “So much so that I gave up on my novel for three years because I couldn’t see myself competing with her.” 

Moreover, he punished himself. For trying. What makes you think you’re a writer? Stick to acting. You’re no Hilary Mantel. Finally, he confided, “My very wise wife came to the book’s rescue. She suggested that I didn’t have to compete with the two-time Booker Prize winner; I should write the story that was in me, in a way that was uniquely mine.” And the story that was in him? A history, a hard-boiled mystery, a political thriller, all set on a fantasy island. 

Full transparency here, I’ve played opposite Shimerman, Gertrude to his Claudius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He’s even directed me in the role of Lady Macbeth. It was Armin who showed me how Shakespeare, the plays and the language, might not just move and delight, but transform the actor I was — the person, too. 

Armin, himself, fell in love with Shakespeare as an undergrad at UCLA. After graduation, he apprenticed at San Diego’s Old Globe — from there, of course, countless roles followed on stage and screen. And yet. Though perhaps best known as Quark in the long-running Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Armin, a member of Los Angeles’s renowned Antaeus Theater Company, is a stage actor first: having performed Shakespeare all over the country, I suppose it makes sense that he’s writing novels in fluent Elizabethan. Still, I had to ask right away about the nature and business of switching hats.

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DINAH LENNEY: What’s scarier (or harder or easier or more exciting or whatever): acting or writing?

ARMIN SHIMERMAN: Apples and oranges. As an actor, you’re the secondary artist who must convey the intention of the writer. Given the structure, it’s up to you to furnish the rooms. But on camera, with as many takes as there are, this is relatively non-scary. More frightening is a theatrical performance. Not so much because of fleshing out the character, but with the on-set of white hair and lost gray matter, there’s the fear of going up in performance (“corpsing” the Brits call it) in front of an audience. Deep breaths every night before the first entrance.

Writing is not so much scary as daunting. Fresh snow. No path. Only your imagination and (in my case) history to guide you. Every paragraph, every turn your characters take has to be dredged from your imagination and then clothed in meaningful language. But it’s not so much courage required as perseverance — like climbing Everest.

But you get to play all the parts, right? Plus, you get to direct — 

Well, obviously, as an actor, one is confined to one’s role. You take your life in your hands should you offer unsolicited suggestions to another actor about their character. And it’s true though I’ve directed many plays, it’s as a writer that I get to do every job involved with a production: I’m the designer, the focus puller, the prop master — and I get to play every role. 

So, as an actor, is it frustrating not to be able to play certain parts? And not to have more control? Is this one of the reasons writing appeals? 

Aside from the actor’s single-minded focus on only one character’s intentions and needs, I find the matter of control to be about the same for each craft. The homework and investigation required are comparable — no outside authority figure can set limits on that exploration.

But not to be able to perform certain parts, that is frustrating, yes. All performers have lost out on roles because of looks, sex, age, temperament, regional accents, and any number of other pejorative pigeon-holes. Obviously, there are no such barriers on a writer’s imagination — we can delve into the minds of all our various children to find out what makes them tick. On the flip side, though, a writer experiences none of the joys of ensemble work: mutual exploration, outside direction, the benefits of narrow focus — when I’m writing, I’m marooned on an island and very much miss the company of others.

Have you ever thought about writing a play? 

No. Compared to writing a novel, it seems too easy — or not easy per se, but easier in comparison, like playing a chess player who doesn’t challenge you enough.

Playwriting seems easy? Really? But, but (she stammered in disbelief) … Shakespeare!

All right, playwriting is not easy. (No need to namedrop.) But even Shakespeare didn’t have to describe every jot and title of the world he was creating. Playwrights have the invaluable help of good actors, directors, and designers to make their two to three hours of traffic onstage memorable. A novel has to grab readers in a lover’s grasp and hold them enthralled through hundreds of pages and thousands of words, when the lights are not dimmed, and there are numerous reasons to look away. A good novel keeps you returning to a story because you just can’t put it down.

Speaking of plays, though — why Twelfth Night? 

When I first considered the idea of a Sherlock Holmes situation, casting Dr. John Dee as Holmes and a young Shakespeare as Watson — 

Wait, I meant to ask: Are you as obsessed with Doyle as with Shakespeare? Do you know his characters and stories as well?

As a kid, I devoured the series and successes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous detective.

And what about John Dee?

Are you asking what led me to Doctor John Dee and a lifetime of fascination and research?

I am.

The easy answer goes all back to my collaboration with Michael Scott, a prolific fantasy writer living in Dublin. Michael and I were brought together to collaborate on my first novel, The Merchant Prince. At our initial meeting, Michael asked if, in my Elizabethan studies, I had ever come across the good Doctor, who owned the most extensive library in England at the time. He went on to deliver an hour-long lecture on the spiritualist, antiquarian, cryptologist, mathematician, natural philosopher, astronomer, college professor, chaplain, spy, and infamous astrologer to Queen Elizabeth herself. Dr. Dee was a Renaissance Jack-of-all-trades. And also a master. I readily accepted the idea of making him the protagonist in our sci-fi trilogy, and thus began my quarter-century investigation into one of Elizabeth’s most curious and under-valued royal counselors.

Ah ha — so now tell me, please, how you chose Twelfth Night as a backdrop?

Starting with the characters, I wondered which of the plays might best lend themselves to the religious conflict and potential for humor that I wanted to explore. Malvolio, the Puritan, seemed like a great place to start. And there are so many unanswered questions in Twelfth Night: Who is the dead brother that Olivia mourns? What was their relationship? Why isn’t Orsino married? And we know Orsino’s a lover, but what kind of ruler/administrator is he? What is the backstory for Curio, Fabian, and Feste?

Then there’s the island of Illyria, wonderfully exotic and easily transformed into a setting of intrigue. 

Finally, I figured if I wanted to know more about the people and the place, so would others. But I was always aware that not everyone is acquainted with Twelfth Night — inside jokes aside, I worked hard to make sure the book stands on its own.

Say a bit about your research: how much did you have to do?

Well, having the temerity (as an American) to write about English history and culture, I was driven to make sure all details about the period were dead-on accurate. Happily, the Illyria of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is an illusionary place, so I was freed from some of the usual constraints of writing a historical novel. Even so, every action and intention of both the historical and the fictional characters had to be plausible and justifiable. And every table, tree, historical event, Catholic artifact, or morsel of food had to be diligently investigated and verified.

As a teacher of Shakespeare, I’ve always stressed that a performer must know each word and phrase’s meaning and connotations. You’d be surprised at how much clearer Shakespeare can be if the actors have done their homework. Similarly, my intention was to not only write a page-turner of a tale, but to educate my readers in all things Elizabethan. However, another great writer of the time, Sir Philip Sidney, said that good literature has to educate and entertain. Talk about a challenge: too much education and the reader is bogged down in minutiae; too much entertainment, and the work isn’t serious.

Did any of the characters surprise you as you got to know them? Via the writing, I mean? 

When I started writing, I assumed I would focus on Dee, Shakespeare, Dian, and Orsino, and, of course, I did. But surprisingly, I became good friends with Walsingham and Toby Belch. I suppose the Machiavelli in me was fascinated by what Sir Francis accomplished and how deftly he protected his queen. And I was eager to depict Toby Belch in a way that is leagues apart from his traditional image as an irredeemable drunk and a comic pot-stirrer. My Toby is a minor official, abused, conscious of his failures — a charming wheeler-dealer. I suppose Quark fans may find him familiar — but both these characters tapped into different parts of my psyche, and I gave them more space than I originally planned.

Which character or scene or relationship gave you the most trouble? 

Oh, what a slippery slope that question is. Really? What makes you think that any of the chapters were easier than others? I drew on every role I’ve ever played, all the textual analysis that I have spent my life examining. But if I’m honest, I was maybe a tad more tested by the women’s scenes. The female psyche is not my bailiwick, and I can be slightly left-footed when writing either about them or for them. Conversely, Shakespeare created such sublime female roles, especially the comic ones; it was intimidating to follow in his footsteps.

I know two more volumes are forthcoming — is that what you’re working on now? Will you be introducing a new cast of characters?

I do foresee my days in 2021 as partly focused on rewrites and polishing — but the other two books are already written, so I think I can safely say that the main characters are already established. One important supporting historical person from Will’s childhood will be introduced in the second book. And two others will precede him in the building up of the era’s ecclesiastical conflict.

And what will you read while you’re writing? What sorts of voices do you want in your head? I guess I’m asking about how you sustain your fluency in Elizabethan English — if you speak it at home, with your wife, after hours … 

I’ve studied Shakespeare’s world continually — there are countless books, plays, commentaries, and movies that whisper in my ears. Also, having performed in a third of the canon, coached hundreds of actors in scenes in class, and repeatedly immersed myself in the complete works, the words of Shakespeare’s plays are as familiar to me as the national anthem. But, speaking of my wife, at the end of a hard writing day, it is Kitty’s support that inspires me to go on. More than anything, that’s the voice I want to hear.

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Dinah Lenney serves as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).

 

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