Monday, 22 June 2020

The Lockdown Interviews: Natalija Nogulich

Opening an interview with a discussion of the finer points of Leicester is not what you might expect when chatting to Starfleet's most straight-talking admiral.

Appearing in six episodes across the final two season of The Next Generation and seasons two and three of Deep Space Nine, Natalija Nogulich's Admiral Nechayev was a force to be reckoned with - even by one Jean-Luc Picard.

"It was a small convention but it was one of the most enjoyable because we were actually with the fans the entire time in the hotel." recalled Natalija in regards to the 2003 UK convention; "The fans came from far and wide so they were buying a lot of stuff because they had made the trip. In the evenings we all ate together, they had a band one night we all stayed up and danced. It was it an unusual and wonderful time!"

"I really enjoyed it...I'd love to come to the UK to Destination Star Trek - who knows now because of what's going on."

With hopes that 2021 might be a better year, we moved on to talk about her current turn towards writing. Personal commitments and current climate are meaning that Natalija isn't getting a chance to continue this line, started with One Woman's War, at the minute but they're definitely not scrapped; "I have the second and third one outlined, I just got to get my butt in the seat!"

While we as Star Trek fans are more than familiar with Natalija Nogulich's appearances in the sci-fi franchise, her acting resume goes back much further and is more diverse than you might expect.

"I was very fortunate to get involved with a theatre group in Chicago that was founded by David Mamet and William H Macy - who knew they would have such stellar careers! The Chicago group of that period of time (1970's) went their separate ways to New York, California and so on and I'm really grateful and very lucky to have had them as teachers."

With a solid foundation in the theatre, Natalija threw herself into dance as well which she had performed at a younger age. This experience was a big help when it came to a move to New York;  so I got into theatre in a roundabout way and my mother can attest to this that I would end up in drama.  "I did a lot of theatre and got further training at the great Stella Adler academy before getting roles in a few Broadway shows which I absolutely adored. This can be the pinnacle of an actor's career and I loved it. Having people waiting at your dressing room door to see you was incredible. Such a great experience all round."

"The second one (Broadway production) I did was with Jason Robards," continued Natalija,  "After Broadway we turned in Los Angeles for a six week run. I had not interest in moving to LA permanently at that point. I liked New York, I thought, I'm making a living here and I love it so, I'll just go do the tour of The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill and then come back to NYC. It's a great play but long, and we weren't sure the audience would want to sit through a four and a half hour production - but they did, and they lapped it up!"

The work kept coming in, and the actress was being seen by casting directors and producers and directors leading to continuous theatre work. "I thought, this is weird, being that LA is a movie town, but okay I'll do another play in LA, still keeping up my apartment in New York. I kept doing one play after another and so on."

But it wouldn't stop at the stage after a chance meeting one day; "At that time I met a director at the coffee stand at the theatre and I was doing this play written by Edna O'Brien called Virginia about Virginia Woolf.

"I'm at the coffee stand and the director who was directing in the big theatre (we were in the smaller one) was there and he goes; "Hey, I'm Sam - do you ever play Italian?"

"Well, I had black hair at the time and he explained that he was doing a pilot and had just lost the actor for the Italian mother lead. Would I consider auditioning for the role?

"Anyway, next day I auditioned for it, got it and earned more in one week on a TV sitcom than I made in 6 months in New York Theatre. Still I wasn't convinced I wanted to stay in LA." 

During the day Nogulich would film and by night be working on stage. "It was an actor's dream but it was the beginning of seeing the volume of work that there was to be had in LA." explained Natalija, "Even though I said my devotion to the theatre was not going to conflict with sitcoms or other TV shows, one thing led to another and I was getting more and more television work. I kept up my apartment in New York City, while in LA, with one foot on a plane heading back to NY, never thinking of staying in LA. It just didn't grab me at that time."

Back in New York in 1990, Natalija was onstage on Broadway again, with fellow Star Trek: Voyager guest actor Jason Alexander in Rupert Holmes play entitled Accomplice. Mr. Holmes was quite the toast of the town on Broadway having written long running hit, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the well known song Escape - the Pina Colada song. While there she again considered staying "home" in New York.

"I met with a number of people who asked if I was crazy because all the work was in LA and no-one does a Broadway show every year apart from Hugh Jackman! So I went back to LA and settled in but I was restless for theatre."

This led to Natalija establishing her own theatre company (The Grace Players) in the early 1990's and it was around that time that she was cast in Star Trek.

"In 92-93 I'd just completed Hoffa with Jack Nicholson where I played his (Hoffa's) wife, who was a bleached blonde, and Director Danny DeVito asked me, "Do you want to wear a wig or would you want to color your hair?" (I was a brunette by birthright!)".

"I'd always wondered what it would be like blonde so I bleached it and just left it that way which I think led to my keeping it for Admiral Nechayev."

Natalia had auditioned for Star Trek a couple of times but didn't get cast; "The feedback from my agent was that I was too strong a character for the roles and then a very short time after that they called me in specifically for the admiral."

Admiral Nechayev’s first appearance would be in the seminal sixth season episode, Chain of Command, Part I in which she would be responsible for stripping Picard of command and sending him on a top secret mission against the Cardassians.

"I kind of felt - and it might just be my gut - that they had me in mind for this because they had seen me a couple of times and knew I had Russian and Slavic background and most of the time I play strong roles."

Anyway I went in and at the time I didn't know it would be recurring. The first episode was so sick with dialogue - I mean it was heavy - especially when I fired Picard and I thought "Wow this is great!"

"It was meaty and it had meaning. There was a resonance to what was going on in the world at the time as there was a lot of trouble in the Balkans where my family comes from. The episodes that I did sort of reflected that without saying it. You could feel the writers were exceedingly aware of what was going on in the current world and it placed Patrick Stewart as the humanitarian with me as the federalist trying to hold it all together."

Nechayev’s initial appearance would be followed with a reminder to Picard of his decisions surrounding Hugh Borg in Descent before dropping by to hand him a mission concerning native American settlers in Journey's End and coming back again for Pre-Emptive Strike and more Maquis machinations. Then there would be two further appearances in Deep Space Nine - The Maquis and finally in The Search, Part II with the real tragedy being that this last instalment would only be a recreation of the admiral in a Dominion simulation.

Indeed, Nechayev’s presence in the Star Trek universe pervaded more than just those episodes with her inclusion in novels and with the admiral playing a key part in the removal of a Federation president. Some fans have even commented that the character of Admiral Clancy in Picard wasn't too dissimilar to the attitude that Necheyev would have taken with the former Enterprise captain!

But how close to Natalija Nogulich is Alynna Nechayev?

"I think there's a side of me that is exceedingly strong on my principles but I have more of a sense of humour!

"I grew up in an old fashioned household and was expected to be a good student, read Tolstoy, not date until I was 17. In the way I work I look to access that side of me and bring that to the character. I don't want to bring the character and drag her down to be me. 

I want to access a part of me that will accommodate that character. We have infinite resources within us and the way I do that is to write a very extensive autobiography of all my characters and I did it with Nechayev. I wanted to research what it meant to be military."

As part of that research, it brought Natalija back to her father's part in the Second World War; "He was part of the D-Day invasion and is my hero. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart - amazing man - one of that fine generation.

"But I didn't really grow up with a military feeling family, he was a lamb but when he tells some of the stories from the war it's like wow, who was that? I have a great deal of respect for him and felt it was actually my responsibility to do a little research about the hierarchy of military."

Back in the days before a good Google search would give you answers in seconds, Nogulich used libraries and movies to get the swagger, the posture and the physicality right for the role.

"When I taught acting, students would ask where I got that walk. I really didn't consciously do it but I do such a detailed autobiography of what their life must've been like before the story starts that it get inside your head and find a certain walk for a character.

"Certainly in playing Nechayev and in a movie called Dying to Dance where I was playing a Russian dance and ballet master I mean I was almost there as Nechayev again. I studied ballet and had a teacher like that. She worked with a stick and if your leg didn't go high enough she would just hit it so I've been exposed to a discipline to hold something you cherish together."

Founding the theatre company in 1994 was a big challenge "...because I didn't do it with enough Nechayev." recalled Natalija, "I did too much of the kind and compassionate Natalia in the beginning and I had it for 15 years but as time went on I realised that I had to be the tough one."

Active across five decades of TV and film. The character of Nechayev has influenced future roles for Nogulich who acknowledges it's her most recognisable role. "I was cast in a voiceover because the producer was in love withStar Trek. It had a lot of influences."

"The way they wrote Nechayev, she admitted that she didn't want to relocate the native Americans and I brought up the point they were relocating people to effectively become nomads but it had to be done to complete what we were effecting. I think every tough guy general has had a compassionate moment or they wouldn't progress.

"I was there to keep the Federation together and Picard was the humanitarian side so I had to build my case and we had an interesting adversarial relationship on screen."

Nogulich has pondered if there had been another season of The Next Generation could have developed something between Nechayev and Picard - certainly a shift in their relationship; "The first time we meet I fired him and then by the end he's serving me tea and my favourite canope!"

One of the questions I've never asked but got a chance to this time was around the iconic uniform; "It was tailored within an inch of my life." said Natalija, "Tailored really tight and crisp. I begged Paramount to have the uniform and would have paid but they said absolutely not. I had one made up and wore it last year at a convention."
"So many people coming for photo ops because a lot of actors can't get the costumes and it really changes you (in the role). You don't have to be in costume at rehearsal but it helps make the connection with the character. I do recommend wearing the right shoes to actors during rehearsal. You will feel differently in ballet slippers or combat boots. Never cheat yourself on preparation, I say."

Ok, so there was one other of Natalija's roles that's stuck in my memory for many years - her part in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation as Chevy Chase's boss' wife.
"The white fox coat I had in that movie was worth $50,000 and came with security guard all the time!"

"Getting the part however is something else. It was Jeremiah Chechik's first movie and the cast were vets of film. Anyway, I'd auditioned for a commercial for Pizza Hut and I was told by my agent that they wanted me to prepare a little something and then go in.
"I had a Shakespearean monologue from As You Like It as Rosalind which I did with a Brooklyn accent. ...what the heck I was doing. I thought it would be memorable and the casting director - Chechik - is taping it and looking outside the camera wondering what I'm doing.

I go out in the corridor and all the other potentials are preparing something to say about Pizza Hut. I called my agent when I got home and apparently I was supposed to prepare a testimony of Pizza Hut. The director called me back in and I had to do it again - I got the advert!

"Two years later Chechik gets his first feature which was Christmas Vacation. They added lines to the script for me and he wanted me to meet Chevy Chase as part of the process. So,  I go into his office and Chevy said that he wanted to meet the person who did Shakespeare for a Pizza Hut commercial. We laughed a lot and that was the audition and I got the part!"

So, finally, bringing us back to Admiral Alynna Nechayev, what are Natalija’s thoughts on how this character has endured the best part of 30 years?

"I have a couple of thoughts, the first being that I couldn't be more surprised. It's the gift that kept on giving and I didn't expect to do more than one episode. I was several years out of shooting when I heard about conventions and my manager said why aren't you doing them? OK, it sounds like fun! The first convention I went to people were coming up to me saying they were waiting for the admiral to come!

"I've found that fans have a great desire or attraction to have an adversary to their hero. Picard was their hero and we were worthy adversaries who went nose to nose; but we went at each other in a respectful way.
"The audience is hungry to see where principle falls and where it should be challenged. I feel that today. People are confounded and I see the question today of whether to stand for principle or follow your feelings. Sure we don't want to all be rules and regulations, but I believe we have to take a stand about certain things. I didn't expect to still be linked to Nechayev and Star Trek and it shocks the hell out of me. The ideas behind the episodes I did were universal issues. Maybe we've not even answered some of those ideas today. 

"I didn't want to create someone who was a bad guy but she was someone who wanted to save the Federation and make the hard choices."

We thank Natalija Nogulich once more for her time to chat to Some Kind of Star Trek for this interview!

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