France Nuyen is astonished — not only by her successful Hollywood career, but also by her very survival.
Nuyen, who turned 80, last year, is beloved by Star Trek fans for her performance as Elaan, the obnoxious princess Captain Kirk attempts to tame in the episode “Elaan of Troyius.”
But her journey to the classic 60s sci-fi series and Hollywood almost never happened.
Born in France, she was abandoned by her father and still remembers the harrowing days growing up in her occupied homeland.
“There were times we only had beans or lentils to eat, which the merchants mixed with dirt so they would weigh more when we bought it,” she said, from her home in Beverly Hills. “At the end of the war, my mother weighed only 38 kilos [about 84 pounds], with eyes sunk into her face … She looked Jewish, so the Gestapo was always harassing her.”
Added Nuyen, “It’s an absolute miracle I’m alive, much less became an actor.”
As a teenager, Nuyen moved to New York with her mother. She was working for a modeling agency when she was discovered and given a small role in the 1958 musical film “South Pacific,” playing a barefoot island girl.
Joshua Logan, the film’s director, immediately went on to direct the Broadway production of “The World of Suzie Wong” and wanted Nuyen for the title role. That ran for more than 500 performances, from 1958 to 1960, and co-starred a young Canadian actor named William Shatner.
“He was very professional and eager to make a career for himself,” Nuyen said of Shatner. “I still only spoke French and just memorized my lines in English, so Shatner and I had very little
communication off-stage because his French was Canadian, which was really a foreign language to me.”
Although she never worked on Broadway again, Nuyen appeared in numerous films and TV shows, ultimately pairing with Shatner once again in Star Trek, a decade later. “Playing the spoiled alien princess was a role that had authority and rage – I was throwing knives around the set – quite different to other parts I had played, and opened up a new range of acting emotions for me,” Nuyen said. “I must have done a good job, because I’ve met people who think I’m really that kind of person!”
She says she especially admired the show’s costume designer, Bill Theiss. “He did miracles with a tiny budget, making clothes out of plastic table placemats,” she said. “He cut them into squares and put glitter on one side so when they were clipped together it looked like metal. But they looked beautiful and expensive.”
Later in life, Nuyen earned a degree in psychology and worked with prisoners, veterans, and abused children. “It was a tremendous enrichment of my mind and heart to help people who were neglected by society,” she said.
She credited her early hardships for creating the desire to help others and shape the person she became. “I was born the day France declared war on Germany, and that’s how I got my name,” Nuyen said. “The priest in my town baptized all the children born that day – boys and girls – ‘France.’ My name is my precious possession that symbolizes survival and the spirit of freedom.”