Spencer Garrett, who portrayed Simon Tarses in The Next Generation: The Drumhead episode, spoke to StarTrek.com about getting the role, what the episode meant to him, and his experience with Star Trek fandom.
Unlike some actors, Garrett wasn’t a Trek fan before landing the role on The Next Generation. “My only knowledge of it was that my godfather, an actor named Liam Sullivan, was on the original show,” he said. “On TOS, he was on an episode called Plato’s Stepchildren.
“When I was cast, he dug out an old VHS copy of his episode, and I put it in my VHS player and I watched it, and that was probably the first time that I had seen any episode of Star Trek since I was a little kid. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a cool show.'”
This mean, Garrett had no idea what the Romulan culture was like and he had to do a bit of research. “I was trying to do as much research as I [could],” he said. “I mean, what is a Romulan? What does a Romulan act like? I had no clue. There was no YouTube back then. I was trying to find reruns of TOS, and started watching Next Generation to try to get the vibe and the tone of the show. I was asking friends of mine, Martha Lee, my cousin, ‘What’s a Romulan? How is a Romulan different from a Vulcan?’
“I was all of the sudden in this completely foreign world. And I think it was the scene in the trial, where I’m being interrogated by Bruce French, the actor who was representing Jean Simmons‘ character, and I started crying, in the scene. And we ended up having to go back and re-shoot that scene because Rick Berman, the exec producer, said, ‘No, a Romulan would never cry. He would be emotionless.’ So we went back and re-shot that scene without me crying.”
The Drumhead is often seen as a reference to McCarthyism or the Salem Witch trials, but Garrett has a different take on the episode. “My interpretation of it at the time was ‘this is very much a metaphor for what’s going on with AIDS in the world right now.’ The writing was wonderfully subversive and slyly political in its way.
“When Picard came to my defense, essentially his defense of me was, ‘Let’s not denigrate this man. Let’s not convict him because he has tainted blood.’ That was my takeaway in terms of the AIDS crisis. I mean there’s definitely a McCarthy-ist vibe that flows underneath all of it. You can interpret it that way as well.
“To me, it was about me having tainted blood, and me being ‘the other’ and me being ostracized because I had this otherness about me. And you could see Jean Simmons as a McCarthy character. Or even a Reagan-like character, if you want to get that deep with it.
“I was very much involved with several AIDS relief projects back then, and I remember the script speaking strongly to me when I read it. I was aware of what the writers were trying to do.”
Garrett didn’t become involved with Star Trek fans until much later after his episode. What does he think of Star Trek fandom? “Years later, when I started to get some recognition for some work that I had been doing over the years, the first thing that people would say is, ‘You’re Simon Tarses, from The Drumhead.’ It was always shocking to me. I’d racked up a pretty good body of work at that point, and every time, to a person, everyone would say ‘Simon Tarses from The Drumhead.’ So that’s when I realized ‘Oh my god, this thing has a footprint.’
“And when I went to the first convention a couple years ago, the reaction to me being there was so lovely. People came to me and said, ‘We’ve always wondered when you were going to show up at one of these things, what took you so long?’ The fandom of Star Trek, the fact that it has endured this long and that it’s so strong…it’s such an extraordinary community. It’s a very cool thing to be a part of.”
What’s next for Garrett? “…I’m looking forward to [a] HBO series called Showtime. It’s about the early 1980s L.A. Lakers, with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Pat Riley and that whole gang. And I play Chick Hearn, he was the broadcaster for the Lakers for fifty years. We were supposed to start filming our ten episodes at the end of this month, and that’s been shut down. Whenever life gets back to normal, we’re going to go into production on that.”