Kaitlin Hopkins is currently head of the Musical Theater BFA program at Texas State University, but to the general public she’s best known as an actress whose credits include Another World, Wings, The Practice, Spin City, Recue Me, several Law & Order episodes, The Nanny Diaries and Confessions of a Shopaholic, as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager. She played Kilani, the powerful, seductive Vorta in “The Ship,” the 100th episode of DS9, and later portrayed Dala in Voyager installment, “Live Fast and Prosper,” which aired 17 years ago today. StarTrek.com caught up with Hopkins for an extensive interview, and here’s what she had to say…
How aware of Star Trek were you before your Deep Space Nine episode came along?
My stepfather and I used to watch the original Star Trek together, and he was a huge fan. I remember when I booked Deep Space Nine; I thought he was going cry, he was so excited. He was an extremely successful film and television writer, so it always tickled me that Star Trek, and also the Star Wars films, made him a bit star struck. This is a guy who wrote Thunderball for Sean Connery and worked with Judi Dench and many other famous actors, but he was a massive fan of anything Star Trek. I actually think it was largely because I watched all the episodes of all the Star Trek shows that I had such a strong sense of how to play the role in the audition. I was on an international tour for a year with an opera, and the only English-speaking program on TV when we played Hamburg Germany for a month was Voyager, and when we played Helsinki, Finland, it was Murder, She Wrote. I booked both those shows when I returned. I’d watched a lot of episodes.
How did you land your role as Kilana in “The Ship”?
I auditioned for it. I had a wonderful agent at the time at the Gersh Agency who submitted me and was able to get me an appointment. Also, the casting director had seen my work in the theater in Los Angeles. I think that helped.
What intrigued you most about the storyline, and how Kilana played such a major role in pushing the story forward?
I just loved that the writers were willing to take a risk and trust that basically two people just standing still for the large majority of the episode, negotiating, was going to be compelling enough to sustain the audience. I have to say, and not because I was in it, but I thought the writing on DS9 was incredible, but most especially I thought the structure of the storytelling and writing on that episode was both unique and brilliant.
How did you enjoy working with Avery Brooks?
Wow, well, I was young actress who had been raised in the theater, and there was this great actor who I knew his work in the theater outside of his success in television. It was incredible to work opposite him in those scenes. He has such incredible focus and plays strong intentions with high stakes. Nothing is ever causal in his work. I knew that going in and really took the time to study a few of the more-recent episodes in terms of style and tone, so I could match whatever he gave me in the scenes. I knew to hold my own with him, I was going to have to work hard on this character and be very specific with every word I said. I have to say, it was also a little intimidating to be (one of) the first female Vorta. I knew the network executives and creative team on the show, were extremely invested in everything being perfect when introducing a new character, so there was a pressure there to do it well. Even though I was a small part of the Star Trek legacy, I felt a responsibility to make sure I really fit into the world, if that makes sense. The acting style on the shows was so specific and you see that reflected in the number of actors who came from classical Shakespearean backgrounds. Anyway, it was an honor to work with Avery. He is a consummate professional, a gentleman and a great, great actor.
You delivered one of the episode’s best lines in one of the episode’s most memorable exchanges: “Duty? Starfleet, the Federation? You must be pleased with yourself. You have the ship to take back to them. I hope it was worth it.” How tricky was it to get that line, and the whole scene, just right?
Ha-ha, well, what I remember was thinking, “Holy cow, I have some great dialogue as this character,” and frankly, when a character is that well defined in the text, it isn’t that hard. Your job becomes not to screw it up, and let the text do its job. Seriously, I still have that script. I kept it because if you’re a nerd like I am — raised by a writer, and married to one too — you look at the structure of the words on the page and it is so clear how to deliver the lines. The rhythm of how she spoke, versus how the Captain spoke, and how carefully she chose her words… She would think about everything before she spoke, never revealing anything, trying to read the Captain first before she made her next move. That was what I loved about playing that scene so much. There wasn’t a lot on the page, but they allowed for the scene to be played in behavior and reactions. It was like a beautifully structured tennis match. Often television, especially now, the scripts are written to do at a fast pace. Look at something like Scandal, as an example, which goes back to Aaron Sorkin and shows like The West Wing, and a fast-paced banter and characters who think on their feet.
And yes, Star Trek certainly had a lot of action, too, but there was something really unique in all the Star Trek shows, that they had in common, and that was the negotiations, and taking the time to try to understand and read their opponent as the Enterprise and its crew determined their best move. It’s like a great chess game, and the tension of “The Ship” episode was incredible, watching and waiting for the next move on the board. Check, mate. I don’t feel like I can take a lot of credit for that; it was the writers. I guess the part I did well was being good at text and character analysis and being able to take what was on the page and play it. It was one of the best-written television scripts I even did.
What other anecdotes can you share about the episode? The makeup transformation into a Vorta?
I remember I had to get up at 2 a.m. to arrive for a 4 a.m. call time. It took about three and half hours for them to get me into hair and makeup. Actually, after I was cast they had me come to the studio lot, and they spent an afternoon trying different wigs, and costume options and took tons of photos so the executives could decide which hairstyle and costume they felt would best define the first time we saw Kilana. Actually, if you go on my website, there are two photos taken while we were shooting, but if you look in my album called “Behind the Scenes,” there is a photo from that “test” day on the studio lot, and you can see the wig is very different than what ended up on the air. They ultimately decided that one was too severe and they wanted a softer, sexier look for her. It felt more… right, too. It allowed me to play a more-calculated character who was using her softness and vulnerability as a weapon to manipulate her prey. The “test” wig was so strong, more of a warrior look, and I don’t think I could have played those qualities as effectively. I just don’t think the Captain would have fallen for it if she was that steely-looking, if that makes sense. I would have played those scenes differently, more outwardly combative, not using her looks in as manipulative a way. I love the adjustments they made the wig that finally made it into the episode.
A few years go went by and you appeared in the Voyager episode “Live Fast and Prosper.” Was that the result of an offer or an audition? Either way, as far as you know, what impact did your previously being on DS9 have on you being cast for Voyager?
It was an audition. And honestly, I’m not sure if having done DS9 was a factor in my being cast. I just remember I did a kickass Janeway impersonation from watching every episode. I was a big fan, as I said, and I think that more than likely was what booked it for me. This is probably not known, but there was an amazing scene in that episode where I also impersonated Seven of Nine. It was so fun playing her, and I loved that scene, but the episode was too long and ultimately, they cut it. Looking back, I wish it had been possible to get a copy of it. I think the fans would have loved it. I know I loved doing it, especially since they made my boobs huge in the costume. It was fun to pretend for a day I remotely had her figure!
What did Kate Mulgrew say to you about your impersonation?
She was very nice to me. I really liked her. She wasn’t on set when I shot the scene where I impersonated her, so I’m not sure how she felt about it. But I hope she would have enjoyed it. She struck me as someone with a good sense of humor.
What else do you recall from shooting the episode?
So glad you asked that. We shot in the middle of the desert and it was, I think, close to 113 degrees that day. The ship that we were standing on was metal. I can’t even imagine what the temperature was with the sun beating down onto that metal and these waves of heat would waft up and smack us in the face. I remember every time they yelled cut, they would bring water, trying to keep us hydrated and had shammy cloths soaked in ice water to put on our necks and wrists during breaks. So, the poor actors who were the Jem’Hadar standing behind me, their head pieces covered their heads almost completely in rubber, and we were in the middle of a scene and all of a sudden I hear a big “clunk” behind me, and the director yells “Cut!” One of them had fainted from the heat. I have to say it was one of the funniest things I have every watched, the playbacks, and all of sudden one of my Jem’ Hadar just falls out of frame. He was fine, just overheated, but that was one of those moment you were like “Oh, the things I do for love of acting!”
I also remember they had special contacts made that made my eyes lavender. They were beautiful. The only other thing I remember that was really cool in terms of a “fan girl” moment I had was when I was on the studio lot and going through all the wardrobe and hair tests, I got to go into a huge costume storage area. It seemed like it was an entire sound stage in terms of size, and thousands of costumes were on electric racks, like at the dry cleaners, where you could press a button and racks of officer uniforms would fly by until they found what they wanted. It was really cool.
If you could play any character from Trek other than the ones you played, who would you want to portray — and why?
That is such a hard question… I honestly don’t know, but I guess one that was a series regular, how about that? Actually, to be honest, I would have loved to have explored Kilana more. I wish it had been a character that could come back. I would have loved to have played her for a longer period of time, there was so much to work with, and I felt like I really understood what made her tick.
Trek fans know you from your two episodes, but if people run into you on the street, what of your other performances are they most eager to talk about with you?
Usually originating the role of Meredith in Bat Boy – The Musical, which was a huge cult hit off-Broadway. I was nominated for a Drama Desk Award and was very proud to be part of that production. Oh, and of course, soap opera fans of Another World. I played Dr. Kelsey Harrison for three years. That show was a blast.
Let’s talk about the present. How long have you been the Head of Musical Theater at Texas State University? And what does it mean to you to both work so closely with your husband, Jim, and to help shape the next generation of actors?
We have been here since fall of 2009. We came here right after I closed the Dirty Dancing national tour in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre. I was actually supposed to go back to New York and do the Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie, but this opportunity came along, and I am so glad I had the good sense to take it. I’m not sure I can express what an incredible thing it is to work with some of the best young talent in the country and have the opportunity to help them find their voices as artists. I also feel like the luckiest person in the world that I get to work with my husband every day. It has kind of been a theme since we met 15 years ago doing a musical called Bat Boy. We kept getting hired to do shows together and we loved working together, so we just kind of kept looking for those opportunities.
Another example is a show we did called Bare: A Pop Opera. When Jim started writing plays and transitioning out of performing, I became his dramaturge and director, and when we started teaching, we taught master classes together in musical theater performance, auditioning, and acting. We still do. When I was asked to come to Texas State and design a new musical theater program, we just naturally did that together too. In addition to being the head of the MFA Dramatic Writing Program here, Jim also serves on the musical theater faculty. It’s pretty awesome to be able to have our work and personal life together. The only time it is hard is when we teach classes together on Fridays because there isn’t anyone home to walk our dogs. Thank goodness for our students; they are also excellent dog walkers. We have two corgis, Lilydale and Barkley. They are everything, they are spoiled and we are hopelessly devoted to them.
IMDB lists Dutchman Revisited as an upcoming documentary, with you as one of its producers. This year is the 50th anniversary of Dutchman, so what can you tell us about the project? And about your involvement?
I can’t believe you found that. My late father, Gene Persson, was the producer of both the film and original play, and my mother starred in the film, the great Shirley Knight, arguably one of the finest actresses of our time. And I’m not saying that because she is my mom. She is pretty incredible. It is a trip to be teaching at a university and realize both your parents are in textbooks, in theater history classes, film classes, African American Studies classes or all of the above. I’m extremely proud of their legacy and the impact this play had on the Civil Rights Movement. My stepmother, and my brother, Lukas, who is a film editor and screen writer, and myself, have been collecting interview footage of the creative team from Dutchman that are still with us, including my mother, of course. I’m happy to say my brother and I were able to get an incredible interview with the playwright, the incomparable Amir Baraka, before he died. Anyway, we are using those interviews as part of a documentary to include on the new DVD release. I guess I take after my father; producing is genetic.
Are you still acting – or at least open to it?
Yes, absolutely. I just tend to be more selective. I did a production of Present Laughter, a Noel Coward play, a few summers ago at the Two Rivers Theatre in New Jersey. It was directed by David Lee, who created and directed many episodes of Frasier. Amazing comedy director. Anyway, the cast was incredible and I couldn’t say no. I have always wanted to work with two of the actors who were also in it, Veanne Cox and Michael Cumpsty. I have watched Veanne in the film Erin Brockovich about 100 times; she is so brilliant. Fortunately, the play happened in the summer, so I didn’t have to miss teaching any classes. I have left a few other times for short gigs, like doing a reunion concert at 54 Below in New York of Bare, and also for a few play readings. Just kind of depends on what it is. I would love to do TV and film work again; it’s been a while. The last two films and shows I did were a year or so before I came to Texas State. I did The Nanny Diaries and Confessions of a Shopaholic, and also all three of the Law & Order shows. My favorite was SVU, but they were all great characters.
Last question: Star Trek has been celebrating its 50th anniversary year. What does it mean to you to be a part of the franchise on this huge occasion?
I’m actually so excited I’m not sure I can put it into words. I feel lucky, first of all, that I had one, let alone two experiences with Star Trek. I feel honored to be a small part of such a massive legacy. I remember at the time feeling so proud that I had been cast as a Vorta on the series, and I feel that way about being part of this anniversary. Proud. Proud to be part of the huge ensemble of actors who brought these characters and story to life on the screen. I mean, it’s Star Trek! I don’t know how it gets better than that. I remember the first time I saw one of the trading cards with my characters on them, it was amazing. Not to mention the experience on both sets was professional, and welcoming, and you know how hard those regulars worked. Every person made an effort to make me feel part of something, and they were so generous. I was fortunate enough for 30 years to consider myself a working actor. If you are lucky over the years, you get one or two opportunities to play roles you are really proud of. Kilana certainly falls into that category for me.