When Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine was introduced in the fourth-season premiere of Star Trek: Voyager back in 1997, she could seem at first blush like a character positioned as eye candy above all else. But that perception underestimates the much-needed energy and deeper thematic considerations that Seven injected into Voyager. Seven stands as one of the most fascinating characters in Star Trek lore for how she nudges at the parameters of humanity and demonstrates the strange, exhilarating aspects of finding one’s own identity apart from the larger forces that control our lives. Ryan played Seven in a highly formalized way, with regimented speech that belied her own curiosity, and launched the character into the imagination of countless fans who still consider her one of the most cherished aspects of Voyager, long after the show ended in 2001.
But the state of modern Hollywood almost requires that no property or character ever really ends. Which brings us to CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Picard, a meditative and occasionally thrilling new entry in the famed franchise that brings back The Next Generation’s iconic Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), who is navigating a more dangerous universe where the image of Starfleet doesn’t inspire awe so much as doubt. The show has so far maintained a mix of new and old characters, reintroducing Seven of Nine at the end of episode four, after a righteous space battle in which her character handily expresses her skills. The subsequent episode, “Stardust City Rag,” proved to be a major step up for the series, in no small part because of the badass energy Seven brings.
This Seven is very different from the woman we last saw nearly 20 years ago, however — she’s more lived-in, more naturalistic, and hell-bent on vengeance. Ryan spoke to Vulture about the pressure of bringing such a beloved character back, and where Seven’s journey will go on Picard.
How were you approached to rejoin Star Trek on Picard?
I was probably approached in a very different way than most of the people [on the show], because I was at the Hollywood Bowl with friends, one of whom is James Duff, who’s one of the original creators of the show. And after several glasses of champagne, he thought that would be the perfect time to bring up that he had an idea to bring Seven of Nine back. To which I laughed. And he said, “No, I’m serious.” I sort of pooh-poohed the idea, and then he explained the basic idea of how she’s changed and who she is at this point, which was surprisingly appealing. Definitely I was very interested and intrigued, but didn’t think anything was going to happen because people pitch ideas all the time in Hollywood and nothing ever comes of it.
But then every time I saw him over the next year, year and a half, he would mention it again. And then about a year ago I was at the Creative Arts Emmys where they were presenting Star Trek with an award for the 50th anniversary and I was lined up backstage behind Alex Kurtzman waiting to go on stage and he said, “Oh, yeah I understand you’ve talked to James. We’ve been talking a lot about Seven in the writer’s room.” And I was like, “Wait, what? It’s actually happening?!” [Laughs.] Totally shocked. But it’s great. I love who she’s become.
I love who she’s become too. She’s more rough-hewn and very lived in, and she’s on an understandable quest for vengeance. Can you talk a little bit about who Seven is when we meet her in episode five and how she got to this point?
She’s been working for or with an organization called the Fenris Rangers, trying to bring a semblance of order to the mess the galaxy is in, for which she holds Starfleet and the Federation very much responsible, and sort of Picard as an extension of that.
She’s always going to be visibly former Borg. So, now not only is the Borg universally hated, which she did know, now they’re literally hunted for parts. So I don’t think she’s had a terribly warm welcome back to the Alpha Quadrant. And I don’t think that humanity has really lived up to her expectations, I think they’ve been a pretty big disappointment in a lot of ways. She’s had a tough way to go. She’s been through a lot of dark stuff, as you see in this episode, in flashbacks. She’s in a very dark place when we meet her and that’s a struggle you’ll see her address as the season continues.
I’m really excited to see where her storyline goes. I thought the exchange between Bjayzl and Seven was really fascinating at the end of the episode before Seven killed her. Bjayzl mentions that Seven has no hope. Do you agree with that?
I think that’s something we’re going to see her have to find as the season goes on. That’s part of her arc this year.
What was your favorite aspect of Seven’s arc in this episode?
I mean, the storyline is just gut-wrenching. What she goes through breaks my heart. But I love that it shows her resilience. She had to live through that horrific experience of having to put what is essentially her son out of his misery, watching him suffer. For all those 13 years that followed she’s been hunting this character she was really close to and trusted, Bjayzl, and finally gets to a point where she can seek her revenge. And I think as time goes on we find out if taking that life was really the closure she was seeking. It’s something she is going to struggle with coming to terms with [about] humanity — what it is and what it means.
That’s a fascinating aspect of her story, and obviously it’s something that connects her to Picard. They have a very intriguing exchange at the end of the episode in which she asks him if he regained all his humanity when he was reclaimed from the Borg. Can you talk a little bit about that moment and how it reflects on Seven’s own journey with her humanity?
It was a lovely scene. It was really fun to play with Patrick [Stewart], because he’s a wonderful actor. It was such an intimate moment and something that I think a lot of fans have hoped to hear from these two characters, because they share a very, very unique history, having been in the Borg and brought back to humanity. So that’s a very unique bond that they can’t really talk about with other people, because nobody else would get it. I think it’s very touching to show that just because you’re separated and now back around people, you don’t automatically feel complete or whole again. I think it speaks to people who have been through any sort of trauma or abuse.
This is obviously a character you know very well having played her for several seasons on Voyager, but how did you prepare to return to Seven after almost 20 years away?
A lot of abject panic. [Laughs] Because she’s so different. This is a very different Seven to play as scripted. The talks about doing this character and bringing her back had gone on for well over a year by the time it came down to really shooting it. By the time I read that first script — [episode five] is the first one, the episode four script came after, we shot episode five first — I panicked because she was so changed. The issue I had was finding her voice, because her voice was so different. Her voice on Voyager for four years was really, really specific. She changed, but her speech patterns didn’t change that much. She was still very stylized and formal and sort of regimented in her speaking. So I was really kinda freaking out. Not kinda, I was. [Laughs.] When I read the script she was so loose and slang-y and cussing. I just couldn’t hear her. I was really panicking about it and unsure how to find her.
I think I only got the script maybe four or five days before I shot the scene…
So, a dear friend of mine, Jonathan Del Arco, who plays Hugh, had just gone through this very similar thing the week before, bringing his character back. So he came over and I made lunch and we read through the scenes. He helped me out and talked me off the ledge. [Laughs.] He gave me the little key that I needed to find her as an actor — even though it should have been the first thing that occured to me, I think I was just so blinded by terror I couldn’t see it — he said after a couple hours, “What if she just makes a conscious choice to sound as human possible for survival?” Because as we’ve established, they’re literally hunted. And that was it. It was like a light bulb went off or a switch was flipped and I was like, that’s it. I just needed something specific as an actor to grab onto to make it make sense that it was the same character. She was a super-cool character, but I wanted to make sure it was the same character instead of just someone who looked the same.
We can definitely tell it’s the same person. I think you made a lot of great, small decisions that helped it make sense to me as someone who watched Voyager.
Thank you. Of course, you have to make physical choices as well, it’s not just about the voice. Costumes are hugely helpful for that, to find the physicality of the character. But I wanted to make sure there were some subtle things that Seven used to do physically that would tie her in, so you could still see, Oh, there she is.
Was there anything specific you had in mind? I know watching episode five I noticed how different Seven’s walk is.
The walk is definitely different. You have to put thought into all of that. It was like, How does she sit? How does she walk? Again, the clothes are incredibly helpful in that regard. She’s much freer and normal and natural and more comfortable in her skin for the most part, but I wanted to make sure there were nods to the Seven of old. Subtle things. I don’t want to point them all out because I think that’d be kind of weird to go, oh there! But I was very happy. I noticed on Twitter a lot of fans were commenting on it, with that first little scene when she beams into the bridge for the first time, and everyone was saying there’s the head tilt, that little nod, the Seven nod! That was a nice feeling to see people catch something subtle like that.
Yeah, us Star Trek fans will really comb through things!
Oh, you guys do not mess! It’s impressive.
Was part of your nervousness with returning to this role having to deal with fandom and how the character would be received?
Of course. I mean any character you bring back 20 years on it’s going to be intimidating. There’s a lot of pressure to be true to the character to begin with, but especially in a fandom like this, where they’re so passionate and so knowledgeable and so well-versed in every detail, not only because you’ll hear about it if you screw it up at conventions for the next 20 years. [Laughs.] You feel an obligation to the fans to not screw it up for them. It’s an enormous amount of pressure that I think all of us felt. To continue their stories in a way that’s right and to make sure it’s not a disappointment to the fans who have invested their passion and love and years into this franchise.