Jeri Ryan Is a ‘Star Trek’ Icon—and One of the Most Important Political Figures of Our Time
The “Star Trek: Picard” actress—aka Seven of Nine—sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning, the enduring beauty of “Star Trek,” and much more.
Jeri Ryan is still haunted by those five little words. “It’s the scene that I’ve always hated,” she says with a sigh. “The notorious Then you wish to copulate? scene. Hated everything about it. It was so on the nose, so gratuitous. I haven’t gone back to watch any of it.”
It occurred in “Revulsion,” the fifth episode of Star Trek: Voyager’s fourth season. Ryan’s Seven of Nine, a statuesque Borg in a silver, form-fitting catsuit, attempts to seduce Harry Kim, the Operations Officer of Starfleet’s USS Voyager. After an extended monologue on the nature of human sexuality, she asks that he remove his clothes; he panics, stammering awkwardly. They remain friends.
“That scene annoys me so much, because it stands against what this character was. She was completely asexual and innocent, and had no clue,’ offers Ryan. “I remember saying, We’ve really got to slow this down. So we pulled it back after that.”
She adds, “Plus the catsuit was a pain in the ass. I had to have someone dress me and undress me all the time, and it was a 20-minute production shutdown to go to the bathroom.”
When Ryan joined the cast of Voyager in Season 4, the show’s ratings reportedly jumped 60 percent. “I’ve heard that,” says a chuckling Ryan. “When they added the character, UPN made no bones about how this was their chance to break Star Trek into the mainstream, and so they put the publicity machine into overdrive.”
The New York Times compared her Seven of Nine, an alien of few words with a commanding presence, to John Wayne, while fans delighted in her prickly on-screen relationship with Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway—so much so that LGBTQ fans of Star Trek devoted message boards (it was the ‘90s, after all) to their supposed lesbian relationship.
As for whether Seven of Nine is interested in women, Ryan gamely remarks, “Why not? Obviously in Voyager they had her fall in love with Chakotay, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be bisexual—or I suppose pansexual is the word. There’s no preconceptions with her. Now, she was not having an affair with Janeway, which is what a lot of the fandom thought. That was mother-daughter tension not sexual tension. Nice try, but no.”
After nearly two decades away from Starfleet, Ryan reprised her role as Seven of Nine in the inaugural season of Star Trek: Picard, whose season finale airs March 26th on CBS All-Access. And like much of Star Trek, it’s an overtly political show filled with pro-refugee and anti-Trump messaging.
“I’ve heard people say, don’t make it political. Well, this is what the show was set up to be,” Ryan explains. “Gene Roddenberry made a political show in a non-threatening way, and that’s the beauty of what this show is. There was a Japanese man after World War II, a Russian on the bridge during the Cold War, a Black woman around the time of the civil rights movement. The show is about embracing our differences, and those who don’t get that are missing its entire message.”
And believe it or not, Ryan is one of the most consequential political figures of the last half-century, because without Jeri Ryan, there may never have been a President Obama.
Back in 2003, Jack Ryan, a young, handsome Republican (and former Goldman Sachs partner) from Illinois, was running to succeed fellow Republican Peter Fitzgerald in the Senate. He was trailing a young upstart by the name of Barack Obama by just eight percentage points when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider, in a shock decision that went against the wishes of both parents, chose to unseal the records from the child custody case between Ryan and his ex-wife, Jeri Ryan.
In the unsealed court depositions, Ryan allegedly “took his wife to sex clubs in New York, New Orleans and Paris in the late 1990s. The documents suggest that Mr. Ryan insisted that they have public sex but that Ms. Ryan angrily refused, and the issue led to the breakup of their marriage,” reported The New York Times.
It may seem tame by Trumpian standards, but the revelations led to loud calls by fellow Republican lawmakers for Ryan to drop out of the race—which he did, less than a week later. The GOP instead nominated Alan Keyes, a former Reagan official and MSNBC host, to run in his place; Obama walloped him 70% to 27%, ascending to the Senate in 2004 and thus setting the stage for his history-making 2008 presidential run.
When I ask Ryan about the distinct place she holds in the history of U.S. politics she says she’d rather not discuss it—a position she’s held since the news broke 16 years ago.
She is happy, however, to discuss the ways Hollywood has changed since her Voyager days, back when stunning actresses like her were strong-armed by their publicists and minders into posing semi-nude in the Maxims and Stuffs of the world to get ahead.
“Thank god—society is different, the industry is different, the expectations are different. And that wasn’t that long ago, we’re just talking about twenty years,” she says. “It was entirely male-run, and I could count the number of women executives I’d worked with on one hand until very recently in my career. That was just what you did. But I would love for that not to be the way things were.”
She pauses. “The #MeToo movement has been huge. Huge. That’s a groundbreaking shift,” she continues. “The respect that I’m seeing on sets is night-and-day—not just to me, but the way people treat everyone. And on this particular show, I have never worked with as many women on a crew ever in my entire career. I stopped one day and went, Holy crap! This is a set full of women! Our director was a woman, our first AD was a woman, our camera operator was a woman. I’d never worked with a woman camera operator before. It’s so exciting to see that.”
Ryan’s also happy to not have to deal with so many creepy, sexually-harassing producers anymore. “No one in this business didn’t have to deal with that crap,” she says. “That was just the way it was. The industry was founded that way, with the old studio system. It’s gross. No young woman of that period in the industry didn’t have to deal with that. We’ve all had to, to differing degrees. It’s gross. But a lot of these ‘big’ men who are falling now were not surprises to me—on any level.”
The idea to have Ryan return to the world of Star Trek on Picard—opposite Sir Patrick Stewart—was hatched over plenty of bubbly. It was two summers ago at the Hollywood Bowl, and Ryan was kicking back with her pal Jonathan Del Arco, who plays Hugh, and creator James Duff, who’s also a close friend. After quite a few glasses of champagne, Duff told her, “I’ve got this idea. Here’s what I’ve been thinking…”
Less than a year later, Ryan was on set shooting Picard—and forced to don a “cloak of secrecy” while going from trailer to set in order to keep her appearance under wraps.
“All of us thought we had said goodbye to these characters, that this was in the past. After a year-long buildup, to be sitting in the chair and having my eye-piece put in again, it was insane,” she says. “This character was a gift, and I’m very lucky.”