My Secret Life as a Klingon (Part One)

klingonJenkins.jpg Artist's Approximation created by Ivan Askwith

At long last, I can share with you, oh loyal reader, the utterly true, sometimes comical story of how I became a card-carrying Klingon in the new Star Trek film (well, almost). I've been itching to share this yarn for the past year and a half but had wanted to wait until the film was in the theaters and many of you would have had a chance to see it.

The adventure began with an unexpected e-mail: a Hollywood casting director wrote me to say that J.J. Abrams wanted to include me in the then upcoming Star Trek reboot. At first, to be honest, I thought it was a joke. I had no idea that J.J. Abrams knew who I was. We had not and still haven't ever had any direct contact with each other, though my mind starts to race trying to figure out the chain of events which might have led him to discover me. Might J.J. be a reader of this blog?

My loyal and trustworthy assistant, Amanda, did some followup and got on the phone with the Hollywood type to try to determine what would be involved in shooting "my" scene for the movie. Doing so would require me to take three trips to Los Angeles in a little under a month -- not a small demand given the number of long-standing commitments I had -- and I would need to do so on my own dime. What I was being offered was a chance to become an extra and in Hollywood, in some cases, as I would discover, extras are literally recruited off the streets, and all of them are paid only a minimal wage.

The idea of a full professor at MIT flying to Hollywood to appear as an extra was absurd, but given my life-long love of this particular media franchise, which had inspired two of my books and several more articles, not flying to LA to be an extra in a freaking Star Trek movie would have been equally absurd.

I had to do it, even though it meant postponing some significant meetings, ducking out early from academic conferences, and taking a series of red eye flights, not to mention spending several thousand dollars. I have often joked about boldly going where no humanities scholar has ever gone before and this was going to be a wild ride.

So, I flew out to Hollywood and made my way, straight from the airport, to the Paramount Studio backlots, dragging my suitcase behind me. I was greeted by the casting agent, and was then led along with an army of other people out to what literally amounted to a cattle call. I was lined up against the wall with about fifty or sixty other men as people with clipboards moved along the line, discarding some, shifting some to another wall, and otherwise sorting us out into smaller groups. I was trying to make sense of the patterns: along my wall were men who are for the most part bald and have ample facial hair. So far, I fit the category they were looking for.

But then I became acutely aware that I needed to strain my neck to see the tops of the other men's heads. Most of them looked like they were tall enough to play professional basketball and most of them were black. Indeed, by the time the sorting out process was done, I was the shortest, whitest guy left standing. They then took us one by one into a dressing room area to take our measurements and to get us to try on some costumes for size. I was fit with some heavy leather gloves, some pants which looked like they come from a military uniform, some tall black boots, and a helmet. I glanced down at a clipboard when the costumer wasn't looking and saw the notice, "Klingon Guard," and my heart beat a bit faster. It wasn't until the second trip out to Hollywood that the costumers confirmed that I was indeed going to be given a chance to play a Klingon part. (Indeed, some of the other extras only learned they were in a Star Trek movie when they arrived on the set for our actual shoot.)

Now, keep in mind that being a Klingon has been one of my life-long ambitions. When I was in high school, I went to the DeKalb County Honors Camp, where I majored in drama. I spent the summer in the company of some of the most wacky friends I ever had, doing skits and plays, and when we were not doing that, just cutting up in the hallways. One of the girls in our cohort was a hardcore Trek fan. At this point, I had watched the series as a casual viewer but I had not taken the plunge. But she decided she was going to adapt the script from David Gerrold's "Trouble with Tribbles" for the stage and we were all going to play parts. I met a guy, Edward McNalley (who is still one of my best friends) when he got pulled in from another group to play Spock. I was cast as the Klingon officer who sparks a bar fight with the Enterprise crew when he insults first its captain and then the ship itself. In getting ready to play the part, I started reading every book I could find on the series -- The Making of Star Trek, The World of Star Trek, Star Trek Lives, and of course, the James Blish novelizations of all of the episodes, even the photonovels and the viewmaster slides. That's how you kept up on a series back in the days before any of us had a VCR, though my wife still has audio tapes recorded through alligator clips attached to the television sound system, which she recorded when the series was first being aired. It was through all of this reading that I discovered not only Star Trek but also the fan culture around it.

Flash forward several decades to when I was doing research for Science Fiction Audiences, the book I wrote with John Tulloch. That's when I became a Klingon for a second time. I was trying to do research on Klingon fan culture as a contrast to the female fanzine writers, the GLBT actvists, and the MIT students who figured prominently in that study. In true participant observation fashion, I joined a Klingon role-playing group, seeking to better understand what it was like to walk that particular swagger. In many ways, this Klingon fandom was a branch of the men's movement which was taking shape around Robert Bly's Iron John. Most of those I met were working class men who were embracing a warrior mythology to work through anger and frustrations they had encountered in life. Both men and women involved struck me as experimenting with power and trying to reclaim aspects of masculinity which they saw as under threat elsewhere in the culture. In the end, my research on Klingons was a failed project which never found its way into the final book.

I never really could figure out how to perform Klingon masculinity in a convincing manner and I got lost in the role-play activity. I had been cast as a Klingon ambassador, which I took to be an oxymoron, and so I was proceeding by insulting and abusing the Federation ambassadors with whom I was interacting, much as my character in "Trouble with Tribbles" had intentionally picked a fight with the Enterprise crew. But the guy representing the Federation took it all too personally, could never grasp that I was playing a character, that we were operating in a magic circle, and eventually filed a protest against me, which led to the Klingon high council suggesting that I step down from my post. I guess I played too rough to be a Klingon, go figure.

Skip forward a few more years and I'm being profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The photographer is scoping out my living room when he stumbles on my Bat'leth, a Klingon battle sword, which I have propped up against my fireplace. And he asks if I would be willing to pose with it for a photograph. As a long-time fan, I smell a trap. After all, I've written critically about the ways news coverage depicts fans in costumes with program-related trinkets as people who can't separate fantasy from reality. Even with the release of the new film, I am reading lots of prose about "rubber Vulcan ears" and the like, despite two decades of trying to dismantle those hurtful cliches. But I also relished the absurdity of appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education showing off my Klingon cutlery and so, once again, in for a penny, in for a pound.

So, given that history, I can't tell you the excitement I felt when I called my wife, a fellow lifelong Trekker, to tell her that I was about to become an official Klingon. She was jealous, of course; what wife wouldn't be? But she also was really supportive of this fantasy-fulfilling opportunity.

Next Time: Going on Set, Shooting the Scene, and How the Klingons Ended Up on the Cutting Room Floor.