The Cook, The Chief, Their Doc
The following excerpt is from a much longer article that also includes interviews with Robert Beltran, Robert Picardo, and Ethan Phillips. The interviews were done during the events at Robert Beltran's October, 1999 Galaxy Ball.
Earlier that day we caught up with Robert Duncan McNeill, aka ruffled-haired Tom Paris, ex-terrorist revolutionary jailbird turned cheeky pilot. He isn't about for long - the man has family responsibilities. Namely three kids at the tender ages of nine, five and two. And they want their Daddy. Bless.
"I work all week and so I don't like to take my Saturdays away from the kids," he states, rather understandably.
So what the kids of world famous genre franchise stars do on a Saturday afternoon then?
"Today we had a soccer game, the kids are swimming now, and then I was going to take my daughter out on a little date before the dinner tonight," says the surprisingly pie-friendly McNeill. "This week was very long. I was leaving at five or six in the morning and getting home at nine or ten at night, so I didn't see them," he says, explaining the punishing round of dad duties for the day. Despite the pressures, McNeill, whose longest stint on a show before Voyager was three years on American thesp-spawning ground All My Children, maintains that he's still enjoying the series.
"It's a good group of people," he says. "I think it's interesting being in our sixth season. We have been through the initial excitement about getting the show, then trying figure out exactly what kind of Star Trek show it was going to be. Then those sort of middle years, three, four and five, people were really wanting to do things different, try to push the envelope. They brought in Jeri Ryan and Jennifer Lien was..." He stops in his tracks. "She left the show. I think those middle years were tougher, it was trying to find its way. But this year, because we see the light at the end the tunnel, we appreciate it more. We always imagined from the first day that this was going to go seven years," he clarifies, inadvertently letting it slip that Voyager will only run for one more season.
With the demise of Deep Space Nine, there's also a much, much larger share of the Paramount money pot fo the show...
"Yeah," agrees McNeill. "I think when Brannon Braga took over last year he wanted to push the special effects a little further. To create aliens that were not just someone with some rubber on their face. We had CGI aliens, and Brannon tends to push things further in terms of the whole science fiction angle. He was a little bolder about those things than Jeri Taylor was or even Michael Piller. Jeri and Michael were very intellectual kinds of producers, but they didn't push those big set-pieces and production values."
Filming of the sixth season is now more than half way through. Has Paris had any memorable adventures?
"This has been a strange season. Usually I can think of a couple of episodes that were very particular. But they've all been enjoyable this year, I can't think of one that was especially satisfying," He sits, head tilted at a thoughtful angle. "There was one episode that just aired here called "Alice." That was kind of like the Stephen King story, Christine, with the car that starts possessing this guy who's renovating it. I did a spin where Paris finds this alien shuttlecraft and is redoing it and it starts to control him. At first I was a little nervous as I thought well, this could come off really silly, I could look really stupid, talking to a shuttle.
"But there were some scenes where they really let Paris get passionate about things and frustrated and angry. The trick in our episode is the shuttlecraft has a mind interface, you become one with it. Once this thing connects to me it starts implanting these hallucinations and it takes on the form of a beautiful woman." He smiles a lascivious smile. "Of course, it doesn't become an affair with this woman but it's very seductive. I don't know if it's one of our better episodes or not, but sometimes they keep the emotional boundaries of Paris very narrow, so for me as an actor it was really satisfying to be able to play some long, very dramatic scenes."
One satisfying episode out of half a season can't be that great for an actor, and though Voyager has vastly improved as a show there has been some criticism about the overuse of Seven of Nine. Does this tax his patience?
"It certainly is focused on Seven and the Captain," he says, "and that's sometimes frustrating, but there's other times where I get to spend time with my kids and I think: 'Kate and Jeri are working 14 hours today and I'm sitting at home.' But ultimately I'd like to be working. I like to be challenged. I think one thing we've discovered over the years is that I tend to be able to play a very good second banana to almost anyone. I actually end up playing in a lot of different stories, more than other people might. I play a lot of stories with the Doctor, I play a lot with Harry, I play a lot with Tuvok - we're the odd couple kind of thing - and B'Elanna, obviously. When she has a story I usually have some nice scenes. I end up kind of having a nice medium of work. It's not too much or too little," he grins. "I wouldn't mind an extra story or two, but it's fine with me!"
He's starting to exhibit some cheeky Paris-like tendencies here...
"I think he's become very much like who I am. That happens with any character on a long-running TV show." What, do you become the character (one is put in mind of mad soap stars who can't tell where the job ends and life begins) or do they begin to write for you? "Hmm, I have done a lot of theatre in New York and I've done some plays where the work is so intense that you sort of become the character. But on a series like this that goes for so long you have to be more of yourself and let the character become you as opposed to you becoming the character. You couldn't live like that."
Is that why he's gone from being a failed terrorist to a smirking bon vivant?
"I think initially they brought the character on to be a very edgy, very angry, very rebellious character..." And now he's just cheeky? "Maybe it was just in the dailies when they would see me goofing off before we started to do a shot, but they started to make Paris this real sarcastic, ironic character which I love, because that's my kind of burnout. And I'm glad they included that because they don't always. When they first started doing that I really supported it because I thought it fits that rebellious nature, to be someone who makes jokes about serious things, sometimes inappropriately. It also gives him a more likeable side, which is something they struggled with earlier on. But they don't always get it right.
"I think they struggle with the balance - sometimes they write these scenes with B'Elanna where he's so sensitive and understanding. I go - this is not the character you brought on! You brought on the ladies man, a guy who dated a lot of different people and now he doesn't know how to deal with this woman! Sometimes I find that unbelievable."