He'll Always Have Paris
Robert Duncan McNeill's first Trek role was in The Next Generation's "The First Duty" as Cadet First Class Nicholas Locarno, leader of Wesley Crusher and Sito Jaxa's Nova Squadron. While Locarno was subsequently expelled from Starfleet Academy, McNeill wasn't dismissed from the producers' thoughts. When the time came to populate Voyager, McNeill soon found himself cast as the ship's wayward pilot.
Son of a Starfleet Admiral, Thomas Eugene Paris did his best to live up to his family name but was dishonorably discharged after admitting his involvement in the careless deaths of fellow crew members. His brief career as a member of the Maquis went equally awry: he go captured during his first mission.
After Captain Kathryn Janeway liberated him from a New Zealand labor camp as a special observer (and later field-promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant), Paris once again has the chance to prove his worthiness -- both to himself and to others -- to don a Starfleet uniform.
Despite his hectic schedule during the filming of Star Trek: Voyager's second season, Robert Duncan McNeill spoke with John S. Hall on 12 September about his character's own voyage....
DreamWatch: What was your first Trek experience on The Next Generation's "The First Duty" like?
Robert Duncan McNeill: It's one of those experiences I have a lot of really different memories about -- all good! The director Paul Lynch was the director of the very first television job that I ever had; an episode of The New Twilight Zone called "A Message from Charity." He cast me as a last minute replacement for Robert McNaughton (the older brother in ET before pulling out at the last minute for some reason. I lived in New York at that time and they flew me out to California, so it was just a great experience. It was about two kids who have telepathy but live in different times; a kind of love story and mystery.
I had a great time on "The First Duty." I used to play the really sweet, innocent, naive, enthusiastic kid next door, really boring, and "The First Duty" help turn my work around and showed people that I could play characters with a little more texture and edge to them.
Weren't you also in Masters of the Universe?
Yes, that was my very first feature movie so I was awe-struck by the size of it all. It was a huge production; they wanted the heartfelt, universal experience of ET with the action of Star Wars. I was playing Charlie Brent in All My Children at the time but the soap opera producers and the film producers worked it out so that I could do both, which meat flying back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. Some days I would shoot the soap early in the morning, get on a plane in New York, fly to LA and shoot the movie in the afternoon and --- I ended up getting lots of frequent flyer miles! It was horrible. I remember one day in particular; I had worked on All My Children, taken an evening flight, stayed up all night working on a night shoot on the film. We were doing this sunrise scene at the end of the movie and I had not slept for over 24 hours. I look at that now and I can see the accumulated effect of working both jobs, but the whole cast was great.
Did you get the role of Tom Paris based solely upon your performance as Nick Locarno in "The First Duty"?
As a matter of fact, the producers flat-out said to me that they created Tom Paris based on Nick Locarno in a lot of ways. But I think they were inspired to have that sort of character -- a rogue, very independent, kind of adventurous pilot. The difference between them is that Locarno, on the outside, probably appeared a nicer guy than Tom Paris does, but on the inside was a schmuck. Tom Paris is almost the opposite of Nick: on the outside he can be rude and sarcastic and pessimistic and cocky, but deep down he's a good guy. That's the way I look at it: they're very similar, but they're not the same person by any means.
What aspects of your character would you like to see explored in future episodes of Voyager?
I've gotten an idea of the direction we're going in. It may sound cliched and kind of chauvinistic, but I would love to see Tom Paris meet more beautiful aliens. I'd love to see him go down to these planets, find these beautiful women that he falls in love with and they turn out to be evil spies. It's a classic storyline that people always love to see, and being in the Delta Quadrant with all these new alien species, hopefully some of them will be beautiful. I don't think that kind of story has been done enough on our show and I'd like to worked in a little more.
Do you think as Voyager's first season went on, Paris began to lose that "edge" he initially had?
Last season, the producers and I had a little disagreement with this. They were nervous that if Paris had too much of an edge, he would be unsympathetic to the audience and that he wouldn't be likeable -- which is a word I hate. You try to be likeable and you become really boring.
I think that every character has very unique and specific things that are part of his or her makeup and point of view of the world. I think they created a really interesting character in Tom Paris with a very specific point of view, and underneath it I think there's an Achilles heel. There's always things you can explore that have been covered up -- such as a sensitive or more empathetic side -- but I think they've built this character with certain, very specific traits that they need to maintain, even if sometimes that may not be the most likeable or attractive thing. It's what makes him interesting. When he does let down his guard, and he becomes more sensitive to people, it will make those times more important and powerful.
I'd also like to see Paris get off the bridge more and be out there diving into the most dangerous missions, going undercover and really risking more. Of all the people on the ship, I think he's the one that has the least to lose and he's the one that 's most attracted to that kind of danger.
A rather obligatory question here -- what's your favorite episode so far?
[Chuckles.] I would say "Faces," B'Elanna's episode, was one of my favorites. We're starting to get enough episodes that now I forget ... [pauses] I thought our pilot, "Caretaker," was really great and wonderful. For me, I really enjoyed doing the episode that LeVar Burton directed, "Ex Post Facto" -- with the one beautiful alien that I did get to meet last season! I thought it was a really interesting premise of crime and punishment, and the black and white footage they shot gave it a different style. I enjoyed that, and LeVar was great.
Any episodes you feel didn't work out as well as you thought they might?
I think everything has the potential not to be perfect. As hard as people try putting scripts together, sometimes they read great on paper and end up not shooting well, and vice versa. For instance, when I read "Projections" -- where the Doctor thinks he's real and everyone else is fake -- I thought it was ok but not one of my favorites, but watching it, it just played so beautifully. I loved it. It goes to show that you never know what's going to work.
What's it like working with the Voyager crew?
They've been great! I'm sure people have said this before, but I'll say it again: I've never worked on a set anywhere on television or movies where a cast has gotten along so well from the first moment and just clicked. It's as if we've done this for years already. Everybody's got a great sense of humor; no big egos in this company at all. It's a real team spirit. Everyone's very supportive of each other. There's enough similarity that we can all understand each other, but everybody's got their own unique assets and differences that they bring, and it keeps things very interesting. We have a great time together.
What do you think the future holds for Robert Duncan McNeill?
Well, since March last year I've been spending a lot of time find out about directing on Voyager because I'm really anxious to do it. I've never seen a place where I think it would be easier and more supportive than here, so I'm all excited about it. There's a chance I may get a shot at it this season, which would be amazing. I know I was the first one to approach the producers about directing and begin the process. Bob Picardo's begun observing this season and I know he's anxious to direct as well. The producers have learned in the past that they can get a lot of mileage out of this; the actors have a good understanding and rapport with one another, and as long as I learn the technical and camera side of things, I think I can offer a lot to the process.
Lastly, any teasers for the upcoming season?
We seem to be seeing a lot of Kazon this season. I think they want to establish that the Kazon have a lot of different sects all around the Delta Quadrant and they all don't behave the same; like different gang divisions. Oh, Neelix and I have a baby, and that's true, but I can't give you any more details...
Robert Duncan McNeill, thank you very much.