Robert Duncan McNeill Talks About Voyager's Direction
Interview by Steve Eramo
© Visual Imagination, Ltd.
Life has not been the same for Lieutenant Tom Paris (Tom) since he and the rest of the USS Voyager crew were marooned in the Delta Quadrant. The former member of the Maquis, who came aboard the ship with a chip on his shoulder, has matured into a first-class officer as well as a valued and respected crewmate. Beneath this clean-cut persona, however, beats a heart filled with passion belonging to a man in search of an old-fashioned romance. Talented actor/director Robert Duncan McNeill recently took a break from work on Voyager to talk about his trek through the stars and Tom's pursuit of love in outer space.
Cult Times: In what ways has Voyager changed since the first episode Caretaker?
Robert Duncan McNeill: When the series first began, a tone was sort of established that we were lost, unhappy, brooding and not getting along well. There was this sense of us not being happy with our situation. The only thing we seemed concerned about was trying to get home. I think within the last season or so there has been a big change in the attitudes of our characters. We've begun to embrace the adventure of being lost. Everyone is enjoying each other's company a little bit more and accepting the fact that we may never get home.
CT: How has being aboard Voyager affected the character of Tom Paris?
RDM: Early on, I think there was a tendency to dwell on my character's rebellious past. Tom was painted as an outsider or a lone wolf and there was a bitter edge to the writing for him. Then for a while there he got a little bit too straight and clean-cut, which was not right for the character. They were afraid of his past and playing up those things that just did not seem to be working well. They straightened him up so much that he became dull and flat. What's been really consistent this season and what I've really enjoyed is that they've allowed him to be an individual and independent, yet be the hero. He's the one who'll say, "Look, let me go out and risk my life in a shuttle to save the ship. Let me be the one to take the risk here and bend the rules a little to try and fix things." There's a real sort of heroic quality to the character now, that I think was lacking in the first season or two.
CT: What aspects of your character would you like the show's writers to explore and develop?
RDM: I think the direction in which they've been going with him - bringing out his heroic qualities as well as his sense of independence and adventure - has really been good. I think they brought him on, though to be a romantic hero and they've not really fully explored his character's heart. They've had him make some very superficial jokes about women. He's always got some funny little line about women, or a cute comment here and there, but he's never been put in a serious situation with a woman. He hasn't had the chance to expose himself as well as his fears and desires in a real, human way. I feel strongly that a lot could be explored with the character if he's given an honest and heartfelt love story. They've fixed the problems of his heroic side but not his romantic side. There are ways to explore this side of his character whether it's with another regular on the show or with a guest star.
CT: How did you get started on the road to becoming a director for the series?
RDM: I actually began learning about directing five years ago. I was on a series called Going To Extremes which was produced by Josh Brand and John Falsey. They are the same talented people who porduced such popular television shows as Northern Exposure, Saint Elsewhere, and I'll Fly Away. I approached Josh and told him that I wanted to learn directing. So I started studying on that show, which had a very different style to Star Trek, and made some very good friendships with directors whom I had really admired. I kept in touch with them over the years and have continued to observe and talk with them. When I began working on Voyager, I told Rick Berman right from the start that I'd been observing [directing] before Star Trek, and I really wanted to make this happen now.
I know it might be kind of hip and trendy for actors to direct the television shows that they're on, but I am very sure that my desires are a little deeper than just an ego thing. I really don't want just to experiment with it. I enjoy the whole process of directing and creating the story, with the writers and production team, from the very beginning and seeing it right through to the editing process. So Star Trek has been great. It's like the ultimate film school for me, with all the wonderful and talented people who are here and who are willing to talk and share their knowledge. I've enjoyed the times I've directed so far and I hope to direct a lot more.
CT: What was the first thing that went through your mind when you got the call asking you to direct the episode Sacred Ground?
RDM: I was out of town at a museum opening in Cincinnati, Ohio. My wife called me at the hotel on Saturday morning and said, "Rick Berman called late last night and he wants you to call him at home this weekend." Just a couple of weeks before that I had been in Rick's office. I had sat down at home at my computer and typed out a list of things that I had done to show him and say, "Here's the work I've done. I'm ready to direct. I want to get a slot." Unfortunately, all the director slots for the season had been filled, so I figured that I probably wouldn't get my shot at it until the beginning of our third season.
When Jonathan Frakes was given the job to direct Star Trek: First Contact, he had to back out of directing an episode of Voyager. Rick called me on the weekend and said, "Jonathan's going to direct the the Next Generation feature, so now we have a slot available. I've talked to everyone and it seems as if you've done your homework. I want to give you a shot at it." So I was a little shocked when Rick told me. The episode began shooting two weeks after that phone call, so I had to do a lot of cramming.
I probably worked twice as hard as I needed to because of adrenaline and nerves, but I think we came up with a really good show. Kate was very happy and I think the fans appreciated it. It was a very different kind of episode for us. It was much more character-oriented and it allowed me to really work with the actors as opposed to dealing with opticals and phaser fights. It was the perfect first episode for me. Then to turn around this season and get to do the Borg episode (Unity) was just as exciting for me. It showed that they obviously thought a lot of my work on Sacred Ground or they would not have given me probably the most important episode we've had so far this season.
CT: If you were given the choice between acting and directing, which would you choose?
RDM: Right now it would be hard for me to pick. Directing has really started to take off for me. I'm going to be directing a film in March which I'm very excited about, as well as helping to develop some other projects. I've also been observing on the set of NYPD Blue with the possibility of directing for them in the future. If I had to choose, I'd probably pick directing because it's something new and exciting. I haven't been experiencing that for a long time, where as an actor I've had this experience for 10 or 15 years. I know the ups and downs of acting, but I haven't seen the downs of directing yet. It's just been going up for me and right now it's nice to have both jobs.
CT: What is your favourite episode so far this season?
RDM: One is The Chute, where Harry Kim and Tom Paris are in a prison camp. I really like that one because it has a very gritty feel to it and a no-holds-barred attitude. Sometimes I think there is a sterile quality to Star Trek that doesn't allow you to have a deep kind of experience as an actor. You can occasionally do a story where you stay very intellectual and you don't get emotionally charged. In this story I get to have some extremely strong and bold moments as an actor as well as some very scared, frightened and vulnerable moments. It was emotionally charged for me as an actor to do that.
I also enjoy the episode Blood Fever, in which B'Elanna Torres gets a case of the Vulcan pon farr after she goes through a mind meld with Vorik [a Vulcan crewmember played by Alexander Enberg.] She and Tom end up trapped together for most of the story and she tries to satisfy her pon farr desires with me. It's a very sexy, funny and heartfelt episode, and one with which I'm very pleased.
CT: Do you think the relationship between Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres will eventually become more serious?
RDM: In Blood Fever, both Tom and B'Elanna are as honest as they've ever been about their feelings towards one another. It gets as close as it ever has before to them consummating that relationship. It's tricky when you're dealing with regular characters. Sexual tension is always interesting but once you consummate it, there is no tension. So I think they're really careful as to how they allow us to hook up together. They've tried to establish over the long run a mutual interest and attraction and then wait for the right opportunities to let that expose itself in the stories. I think that attraction will be there for a long time but just how and when it might be consummated I'm not sure.
CT: What is the most difficult or challenging part of working on a series such as Voyager?
RDM: It's hard to keep your energy level up to make sure that you're delivering the goods, but that's true of working on any television series. Sometimes it takes a lot of discipline and work to keep that energy going and to keep your focus episode after episode, especially when you don't always have the main storyline. You still work a lot of hours and when things are not focused on your character, you end up feeling like a peripheral part of the whole thing. Of course, the following week your character could suddenly be the focus of the entire episode. You really have to pace yourself for the slow times as well as the hard times in order to keep focused.
CT: What do you enjoy most about doing the show?
RDM: In a business when you make friends quickly and move on and sometimes very easily forget them, it's been nice to have the sense of security and family that we do on Voyager. It's a great lesson that, even in this line of work where most of the time you're moving from one job to the next, you can actually find a group of people with whom you connect on a spiritual level. It's been very rewarding to meet the people here. We've got a great group and all of us really support each other like one big family.
CT: What would you say if the writers and producers on Voyager came to you and asked, "Robert, what would you like to see happen on Voyager this season?"
RDM: I want a love story [he laughs]. I want an all-out, let loose, go-for-it kind of love story. I think that's what Tom Paris needs and it's something that I'd like to see happen for myself and my character. I'd also love to see more of the Borg. Directing Unity really made me appreciate their power. I don't think we can underestimate the value of having them as part of the show, because they're the ultimate villains. In that episode we expose many more sides of the Borg and there are still other facets of the species to be explored.
CT: What would you like to see come next with your career after Voyager?
RDM: I think when Voyager comes to its natural end, I would like to do something outside of a television series where the focus is on one story or project at a time. There's something about the rewards you get when you have time to explore the detail of a story. Most of the time on a series, stories will fly by and you don't have the opportunity to immerse yourself in what's going on with the characters and the plot. So I'd like to have the time to spend on one thing and fully explore it's meaning. That's what I'd love to do.