The RanDoM Interview
This winter, the Flight Log had a chance to sit down with Robbie and talk about his experiences on Voyager, his new career as a director, and fandom:
The Flight Log: Were you happy with the way Voyager ended?
Robert Duncan McNeill: I was very happy. Starting with Neelix's last episode, going back to his own people, I thought it was a real great way of honoring that character. You know, there were nine of us on the show, so it's a lot to ask to give everyone real attention, and I thought they handled it very nicely, interweaving a lot of characters without getting too soap-opera-ish. I thought it was great.
FL: How did the evolution of Tom Paris on the show compare to the character you'd been pitched when you joined the show?
RDM: On the upside, I thought it was great that it seemed that every year he really changed dramatically. It wasn't like he was the same character that just kept playing the same kind of themes -- he really changed. He started out as a guy in prison and he ended up a real leader and a husband and a father. That really surprised me -- I never would have expected that.
But initially, when I came on the show, I thought that he was going to be the edgy rebel-without-a-cause guy, all the time. And that kind of never worked the way I imagined it.
FL: So you liked the changes in Tom Paris?
RDM: I definitely did. I liked the changes a lot. Especially with Tom and B'Elanna -- they spent a lot of time dancing around whether they were really going out or not. I think the writers didn't know what to do, should they really hook them up or should they keep them available. That was more frustrating -- I thought it was great when they decided to get them married. That was a shocking decision I thought. When they first told me that "you're going to get married this year, you're going to have a baby," I thought they were joking, you know? It just seemed so bold. I thought it was great. It really gave Roxann and I both something to play. I think I've said this before, but the thing I like most about my character was that he seemed to complement every character very well. Not that the other characters didn't do that, too, but I think that Tom, for some reason, I don't even know why, was a really nice complement to everyone. So if another character had a big story, I think that whenever they threw Tom in there, it just made it a little more interesting. The stories I got to play with Tuvok, for example, were some of Tuvok's best stories. With the Doctor, it was the same thing.
FL: Tom always seemed to have another perspective on everyone's situation.
RDM: Yes, and a perspective that I think the audience could relate to personally in a way that maybe, Seven of Nine's perspective on their story would not be something that the audience could personally relate to. It might be an interesting perspective, but it wasn't quite as human or as easy to relate to.
FL: Is there something you would have liked to see Tom Paris do that he didn't get to do on the show?
RDM: He's done a lot of different things, so I can't think of anything that I'd like to see him do that he didn't do, but I really enjoyed the times like in the episode, "Thirty Days," where he really went out on a limb for something he believed in, and accepted the consequences, and had an edge. I would have liked to have seen more of that kind of story where Tom used his independence in a way that people could relate to and was really dramatic.
One thing I'll say is that it seemed that he started following the rules after the first season or two very quickly. It was a change that happened very quickly and it was too extreme, I think. "Thirty Days" was a nice balance between following the rules yet doing what he felt was right even if it broke the rules. That seemed like the ideal kind of Tom Paris behavior to me -- he went against the grain and he did something that no one else really believed in and he accepted the consequences. I like that kind of behavior.
FL: If you'd been a producer from Day One, would you have changed anything about the way the show eventually evolved?
RDM: Hmm... I always thought that, when our series got started, it seemed like all the characters were very flawed people, they weren't perfect people, at least in concept. I would have liked to see them struggle a bit more. They all seemed to become very regal and perfect very quickly. Kind of like the quality they have in the new series, in Enterprise -- I would have liked to have seen that infect our show a little more, because we were -- from the get-go, we were encouraged to kind of carry the torch of this noble franchise, and be perfect superheroes --
FL: You wanted to be less like TNG?
RDM: Yeah, yeah -- exactly. I think there was a real impulse by the writers and the producers to make us as noble as TNG finally became, instead of allowing our characters to be imperfect people and real human people, flawed people, people that had quirks and charms and could actually be surprised by things. I think we took away some of the magic by taking everything for granted and being super-perfect characters.
FL: You've referred to Joseph Campbell in the past -- do you think Voyager told those kinds of mythic stories?
RDM: Yeah, I do. That's one thing I really loved about our show -- is that it really had this fairy-tale-like structure. There was always a great moral. I mean, it's classic Trek storytelling using some sci-fi analogy to tell some contemporary story. I felt we did that a lot and we did it very well. And I liked that -- I liked that the end of the shows had a moral that you could debate and talk about. It wasn't just an action show and wasn't just a thriller or a comedy, but there was a moral, a real lesson, and we weren't afraid to say "yes, we have a lesson, and here it is." (Laughs.)
FL: Now, to the frivolous stuff. Is there any truth to the rumor that Paris and Janeway were supposed to be romantically involved?
RDM: (laughs) I think that before Kate or I were ever cast, in their early drafts, their early discussions, Paris and Janeway were the ones who were possibly going to get hooked up, but then I think that once they got into casting, I don't think it made as much sense when Kate and I were cast. Not that in reality we're that far apart age-wise, but I think we played the characters from very different kinds of generations.
I think initially Chakotay and Torres were supposed to be together, way back when, in the pilot, that was their ideal, that Chakotay and Torres would be a couple and Paris and Janeway would be a couple. I think that once they got the show cast, and looked at just how people fit, it all changed.
FL: What's the most fun you ever had on the set?
RDM: The most fun I ever had on the set was when The Rock was on our show.
FL: You're kidding!
RDM: I had absolutely no lines, and I got to sit up in the crowd, with Robert [Beltran], Garrett [Wang], and Ethan [Phillips] and I think Tim Russ was up there, but I can't remember. We were in the stands and it was about two or three days of us in the stands, because we had to be there in case they saw us in the background, but we had nothing to say, and we laughed, and we goofed off, made the silliest stupidest jokes that were just so funny to us, and we had so much fun, because we really didn't have to work - we had nothing to do, there were no lines, we're sitting on the bench watching the fight, so there was really nothing to do but to goof off for three days.
FL: Were there ever any guest stars on Voyager that left you starstruck?
RDM: I was very impressed with Joel Grey when he came on our show. He's always been a real hero of mine. That was the first season, I think. Len Cariou is another actor I think a lot of. Both stage actors I really admired before I started acting professionally. Those are two people who really impressed me.
FL: Did directing Voyager open any doors for you as a director, or did you have to prove yourself outside of Star Trek before you got assignments on shows like Dawson's Creek?
RDM: Everybody's journey is different, and there's been a lot of different ways that people in Star Trek over the years have gone on to do different things. Jonathan Frakes had his journey, and certainly directing First Contact was a big part of Jonathan's success. For me, separating from Star Trek has been more helpful than staying connected. Doing my short films were, I think, more important to some of these people outside of Star Trek in hiring me -- the short films were more important than my Trek episodes, because people got to see my taste and they got to see me shooting things that were not taken care of by a studio, or a network, or writers and producers that fix all the problems.
FL: No one holding your hand.
RDM: Yes, no one holding your hand on the short films -- so the people outside of here look at those more than they look at the Trek work. Also, the other thing is in television is that it's just the luck of the draw. I was very lucky during Voyager. All of the episodes I got were good episodes. For one reason or another they all had their strengths and I didn't get a real bomb. You know, sometimes, I've seen directors come in and get a show, that, no matter who was directing them, they're just not going to be great episodes. And the director ends up getting the blame. Or, on the other hand, I've seen episodes that were great episodes, and it didn't matter who directed them, they still were going to be great episodes and I've seen really bad directors get all the credit for doing a good job.
FL: I read that you're involved with a project at Fox Searchlight. Can you tell us anything about that?
RDM: I've talked to the people over there. They have a program called the Fox Search Lab, which is a program very much like Sundance, a filmmakers' lab, where Fox will invite directors that they've seen and they like. You come in and shoot anything you want, really -- and Fox is hoping that you'll develop with them something that they can make money off of, but there's no requirement for that, they just want you to come in and shoot a short film that they'll finance. So, they've talked to me about doing that and I just haven't been able to work out the time yet to do that, but it's a great program. While you're there Fox sets you up with mentorships with their feature film directors like Baz Luhrmann, who was finishing up Moulin Rouge while I was over there speaking to them last year. You had the chance to observe Baz finishing his editing on the show, or finishing the post-production, talking with him and learning from him, so, it's a great opportunity, and I hope to fit that in to my schedule.
FL: Lots of folks were really excited to see that you were observing on the set of The West Wing.
RDM: I was just there yesterday!
FL: Wonderful -- everyone's kinda rooting for you to get an assignment there. Is there any possibility of that? And what's it like on the West Wing set?
RDM: I love the West Wing set and I think that the actors are all incredibly talented, deeply talented people. Aaron Sorkin, who writes the show is so smart, and he's just got a unique kind of writing voice. I think his writing style and the voice that you hear is really so much of Aaron.
It's great -- I love being over there. This year the directing slots are all booked up, so for me, this year, it's really about soaking up what I can learn there and seeing what they do that works really well and things that I'm not as familiar with. The shooting style, the way that they work, is very different, obviously, than Star Trek. In the way that Voyager was in a kind of way film school for me, early on, I'm looking at West Wing as a great film school, and I'd love to direct for them, possibly next year.
FL: What do you think of the new series, Enterprise?
RDM: I had a great time with the actors when I directed on Enterprise. I hope the show does really well. I think Scott Bakula is not only a very nice man, he is also a hard working man, and really cares about the show. He really, really leads that show in a very unique way, so I hope that they do really well. All the actors are very nice people, and very talented, I think the premise is great.
I had a good time directing there -- I may go back and do more. But honestly, right now, I'm more excited to move on from Star Trek than keep going back to do more Enterprise. As nice as it is, to me, it's time for me to do more things like Dawson's Creek or West Wing or Family Law or the other shows I'm getting a chance to observe on, and do things I couldn't do for seven years while I was committed to doing Star Trek: Voyager full time.
FL: Are you seeing yourself more as a director than an actor these days?
RDM: I just had that conversation with the executive producer of Family Law. We were talking about how you really do have to choose what you want to do, or people get confused. They're not smart enough to go, well, you can act and direct. So yeah, right now, I'm really not pursuing any acting work, at all. I'm really not. So far it's been good -- I've been working more as a director than an actor for last six months or so, so yeah, I'm more interested in getting that going. Once that's established, and if the right thing came along as an actor, I'd be happy to do it. It's a lot of fun when it's the right kind of part and the right kind of project -- I love acting then. But right now I'm much more interested in directing.
FL: Any news on the movie Infested?
RDM: I talked to the director of Infested [Josh Olsen] in October when I was doing Enterprise, and they had had some offers for distribution, but they weren't happy with the numbers and they were still shopping it around and taking it to some markets -- so I don't know. One of the actors who's in the movie with me, David Packer, saw a rough cut of the film and he thought it was really good, but the effects weren't done, so, I don't know. It's one of those little horror movies that will get seen somewhere some day, I don't know where. It'll be nice if it's in the movie theatres, but I'm not holding my breath. (Laughs) Could go straight to video. Could be on cable at midnight somewhere.
FL: In the seven years you spent on Voyager, did you observe any changes in the acting industry?
RDM: Yes, I did. It seems to me that actors who are much more well-known are doing television roles they never would have considered eight or ten years ago. And now they're doing guest star parts on all sorts of series, where before there just wasn't that kind of crossover back and forth. Now, it seems very common and a lot of working actors who aren't celebrities and huge stars -- who are friends of mine -- are getting squeezed out of these opportunities because Julia Roberts or someone will take the guest star role on Friends, instead of some aspiring actress who is very talented - or Sean Penn will do an episode of Friends, or Robert Downey Jr. will do Ally McBeal. So, the really interesting roles that could make actors into well-known celebrities or give them some public attention -- those kinds of roles are going to people who have already made it. It's hard for just working actors to break out of the "working actor" kind of roles -- that's definitely changed.
FL: Can you tell us anything about "Cold Front," the episode of Enterprise you directed last October?
RDM: "Cold Front" is the first Suliban episode since the pilot -- the Suliban are going to become what the Borg were for Voyager. Some questions are answered -- but it's one of these episodes that doesn't have a real moral at the end, which was interesting for me to direct. It's really more of a mystery and a thriller, and doesn't really resolve itself at the end. But there's a lot of mystery, and a lot of good effects. It certainly has some things visually that we've never seen before in a Star Trek television show -- there's going to be some really wonderful visual effects and a big action scene in the end. It was a lot of fun to direct, and Scott was great to work with. The cast was a lot a fun, but it was really a Scott show, a Captain show, kind of a suspenseful show. It was all on the ship, so we didn't go to any planets or anything like that.
FL: You've worked now on two shows that have had significant fan support -- All My Children and Star Trek. What are the pros and cons of working on a series where the fans are heavily involved?
RDM: I think the pros are that you step into something that's already established. So you don't feel like it's all riding on your shoulders to make it succeed or fail. You know it's got a foundation of support that is going to take care of the show and you, and what you're doing in it. But the downside is that you know -- because it's already established -- that you know you're coming into something that's not going to necessarily have that big break you often hope for as an actor -- that experience where the public and the industry is surprised and excited about the new show you're doing, or the role you're playing. It doesn't happen as often on shows like Star Trek, where the public and the industry have seen it for so long -- well, there's a certain element of the public that gets really excited, but it's not like the industry and the public haven't seen Star Trek before, so it tends to not get as much attention because of that. The same is true of All My Children -- the actors come and go from soaps without much fanfare. So, it's very rare that actors get a big break out of a soap opera. But you come onto something that's up and running and going and stable.
With the soap, I had a life -- I didn't work every single day. I got to take vacations for the first time in my life without worrying about, "Oh, God, am I going to miss an audition or something?" I had a job -- I could just take a week off when I put in for it, and take a vacation. Working on a series as an actor is a rare joy and pleasure -- and it was great to have seven years with Star Trek.
FL: Conventions. What was the most fun you've had at a convention?
RDM: (Laughs) I think the most fun I've had doing conventions has been doing the play readings with the Fab Four group [Roxann Dawson, Robert Picardo, and Ethan Phillips.] Not one particular performance, but the readings have been very memorable and a lot of fun because it gives me a chance to hang out with those guys in a way that we don't normally hang out. We get to go out and have dinner together, and believe it or not, we didn't do that really at Star Trek. We were working, and the days were long, and when it was over, we went home. So I didn't see Roxann or Bob or Ethan very often socially. I think those were the most fun, and I think we've got some more coming up, so they'll continue to be the most fun.
FL: Do you see a difference between fan-run cons like Shore Leave and for-profit cons?
RDM: It depends on where you are, the community, and the personality of the place you're at. Some places, the people are very polite and quiet and calm and they don't like to make a lot a noise, and so it's very quiet and very professional, whether it's fan-run or corporate-run. Other places that you go, people are a little louder, and a little more aggressive or a little wilder, so they really take on a personality of their own. The mix of people, and where you are, and everything.
FL: Are you planning to continue to do cons now that the show is over?
RDM: The first year or two of Voyager, I was asked to go to cons every weekend, and had to pick and choose, and didn't have as much time because of my work schedule. Lately, the last couple years of the series, I wasn't asked to go to that many, I was asked to go one a month or so, and that was plenty. If I only end up doing two or three a year that's fine. They're a great chance to travel -- that's mostly why I do them. I remember early on with a convention I played a little game that wherever I would go I would try to buy some piece of art or some craftwork -- I tried to make sure I would find a gallery or a craft place where local artists were making things, cause then I could have little pieces around from -- like, this was from Maine, and this was from Rhode Island, and this was from Louisiana, and Texas, and it was a lot of fun and it was a great way to see the country. That's the part I like the best. Although sometimes you get there and you're so busy you don't get a chance to see much of it, but it's fun. And you get to see people you've met at the conventions, and I'd think that for the fans that's the biggest thing. It becomes a social thing and you get to see friends and people that you have common interests with and you stay in touch maybe by email but that then the convention is a great excuse to get together. It's fun to see familar faces. I would definitely love to continue to do cons.
FL: Any final observations about fandom? Any last words for the fan club members?
RDM: I don't have anything profound to say, but it seems that over the seven years that I've seen other fan groups come and go, like X-Files conventions, or Xena, or Babylon 5 conventions would come and go, but it seems to me that the Star Trek fans are like no other. That's for sure - they don't come and go, you can see the same people at the cons. I love it when people come through the line and say, "Here's a picture of you holding our baby in the first season, and now look, she's seven years old." It's just amazing to me, that this becomes an ongoing part of people's lives, the stories keep continuing, and the franchise keeps continuing and it's really unlike anything else. There's a real community.
And as for the fan club -- seven years ago when I was asked to start a fan club -- I thought that yeah, this might be a fun little quickie thing, and probably won't last, and it might have ten members, and I never would have dreamed -- in my opinion, it was the best fan club on our show. And I have to admit, many of the other actors on my show were very impressed with the fan club and would often say that they thought it was the most active and the most involved fan club and they were very impressed by that.
FL: Thanks for everything!
photo at top © Deborah Stone