Flair Magazine - Summer 1999




STAR TRACK


Jeri Ryan wasn't a fan of sci-fi, so when she was first contacted about the audition for the role of  "Seven of Nine", the new borg aboard television's Star Trek: Voyager, she almost turned it down. The 5'8", German-born actress with the startling blue eyes and even more startling body, thought one of the scenes in the script-now a classic- a little light.

Unaware of the show's long reputation for quality writing, it was a particular line she was called upon to say, in a particular scene, "Take off your clothes!" that understandably gave Ryan pause. Still, Ryan's no naf: she's frankly acknowledged that, sure, the character was added to give the show some much needed sex appeal. Nor did she have any problem with Seven's overtly sexual appearance (i.e., the next-to-naked-looking silver Starfleet uniform she was asked to wear), as long as Seven was going to be intelligent and well-written. And it's there that Ryan got lucky.

Originally planned as something of a space ratings grabber in slut shoes, somewhere along the line, the character of Seven had evolved into a search for that far more complex creature: a babe with a brain. To their credit, the show's writers realized they needed more than just a comic-book cutie - and that a female role model with compassion and intelligence - albeit with an action figure's figure - could be equally if not more compelling. Enter Jeri Ryan, then 29, a honey-haired, pouty-mouthed beauty, and National Merit Scholar at Northwestern University, with a grade point average of 3.69 and a body that would stop an asteroid. Like the character of Seven, she's the personification of an old adage: "Don't judge a book by its cover."

An army brat who was born in Munich, Germany and lived in no less than 50 states before settling in Paducah, Kentucky, Jeri Lynn Zimmerman wanted to be an actress ever since winning the lead in her fourth grade school play, Grace at the Bat. Coincidentally, she has said she got the part because of one of her outstanding physical attributes - only then it was her long hair.

Ryan's upbringing sounds like that of an all-American, Midwestern teen: her mother was a housewife until Ryan entered her teens, her dad, a U.S. army sergeant who took his pretty daughter to fancy dinners and the ballet. Close to both parents (as well as to older brother Mark), she was the kid who did well in school (graduating 8th in her high school class), who acted, and who edited the high school yearbook. She even found time to volunteer at St. Jude's Children's Hospital working with terminally ill children - a cause she champions to this day.

While still a theater major at Northwestern University, Ryan landed a small part in the film Planes, Trains & Automobiles - which ended up on the cutting room floor. In 1991, shortly after college graduation and still a neophyte, she lucked out with a guest spot on the TV series Who's The Boss? staring Tony Danza. It was an experience she regards today with less than total fondness, to put it mildly. "This appalling piece of work was my first acting for a camera and I had no clue about any of it," Ryan has since explained. "Sitcoms are filmed in front of a live audience in sequence like theater. That's where all my background had been. I assumed you projected to the back row like you do in a theater. No one bothered to tell me there was a mike six inches from my mouth. When the show came out, I was basically screaming every line I uttered." Unfortunately, the show remains in reruns on both sides of the Atlantic. "It haunts me," she has lamented. "The show will not die."

But Ryan couldn't have been as bad as all that since appearances on Melrose Place, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and other popular series followed. When love and marriage intervened (to Jack Ryan, a charismatic Chicago investment banker on whom Tom Clancy is said to have based one of his more colorful characters), she began an arduous eight-year commute between Hollywood and their Chicago home. The couple's favorite co-production, son Alex, is now five-and-a-half.

At the time of her audition, Ryan was, of course, aware of the Star Trek phenomenon even though she hadn't seen any of the shows. "You can't be born in this century without knowing about it," she has been quoted as saying. Her interests ran to series like Mad About You and ER, and 1930s and 1940s movies ("I'm a sappy chick! I like sappy chick stores" she told People magazine). She likes to discuss the fine points of Impressionist art, and has admitted to craving McDonald's and Tao Bell. But a sci-fi addict? Not really.

And there's the irony of it: a down-top-earth, decidedly non Trekkie type as a designated sci-fi pinch hitter, brought on in the third season of Voyager to revitalize the game.

Ryan's character, officially Seven of Nine Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One, was born a human, but kidnapped by the Borg (sort of a combination of living being and super-computer) as a child. After being caught attempting to infiltrate the starship, she is forced to adapt to human life again.

Because Seven was raised as a Borg and has no memory of being human, everything is new to her, even such basic human emotions as fear, happiness or love. "She's been a tremendous treat to play because she's really well-written and well-developed, very strong and smart, but so child-like emotionally," Ryan once explained. To recreate this innocence, Ryan has said she thinks of her son Alex and how a child reacts when confronted with things for the first time. To summon up what she calls "the analytical, strictly efficient, no-nonsense, Borg thing" she thinks of her husband, Jack.

Before Ryan signed her three-year Voyager contract, she now admits she didn't fully realize the enormity - or intensity - of the Star Trek fan world. In fact, it was three months before Seven's debut on the show that the hoopla began. First, Seven's "birth" was listed on a new Web site dedicated to her. Then an action figure faithful to Ryan's show-stopping curves hit the market. When Star Trek fans saw the Seven action figure, as well as early photos of Seven's skin-tight cat suit, they assumed she would be dragging their beloved show into the gutter. There even was debate on the Internet. "We were called things like 'Melrose Space.' My breast size became a major topic of conversation," Ryan told one interviewer. An avalanche of hate male ensued. Fortunately, the positive quality of the character soon won them over.

For the first year-and-a-half of Ryan's Voyager flight, the actress made exhaustive, twice-weekly commutes from her home in Chicago to the set in Los Angeles where the series is filmed. Inevitably perhaps, her marriage suffered as the pressures of long days on the set combined with seemingly endless commutes took their toll.

In the end, though her career soared, the marriage broke down. The Ryans' recent divorce has been rough going, "especially with the tabloids printing every aspect," she has publicly admitted.

These days, Ryan and her son live in Los Angeles and are regulars at the local markets and restaurants. The little boy is coping with mom's fame. "The older he gets, the more it affects him," Ryan has said. "He used to be all right about my being recognized in public, but now when somebody wants an autograph, he says 'No, you're Mommy! You're Mommy!'" Since her own mother stayed home while Ryan was young, she feels torn - as many working mothers do. And she guards hi as best she can. When the little boy spots mommy's action heroine doll at Toys R Us, Ryan laughs - but she also steers him quickly away from the aisle. She refuses to do nude magazine layouts or film roles because she doesn't want to raise a 14-year-old whose teenaged friends are ogling his mom in Playboy.

On the issue of ogling, Ryan is aware that there's debate as to whether Seven should be wearing such a skin-tight outfit and skyscraper high heels. The bodysuit itself, which to be honest, does resemble body paint, is so tight that a specially designed corset, rather than conventional undergarments, is all that can be worn underneath. Too, literally every inch of Ryan's body needs to be carefully measured for the final product to resemble an extra layer of supersonic skin the way it does. Seams are stitched by hand to ensure that no threads show on camera. between takes, she covers up with a huge terry cloth robe, fuzzy slippers, and since she's "totally blind without her contact lenses," thick glasses.

Ryan knows that while viewers may have turned in at first to get a glimpse of her sci-fi cat suit, she strongly believes - and has said - that they have stuck around because of the way Seven is written - "beautifully, intelligently, courageously." Indeed, Seven has become even a highly positive role model for twenty something women. There even was a petition on the Internet to have Seven be the first regular lesbian character on Star Trek. "Then somebody issued a fake press release announcing it and many fans were disappointed when it didn't happen. I don't know that mainstream America is ready for it. but who knows?" she has commented. Ryan has pointed out that her character is about exploring all aspects of humanity - and sexuality is certainly one of those aspects. "It wouldn't surprise me if lesbianism is touched on. Seven would be the obvious character to explore it with," she recently told TV Guide. "Our show is about acceptance and shedding prejudice."