Robert Duncan McNeill:
As a child, Robert Duncan McNeill sat in front of the television fascinated by Lost in Space. Each week his mind took flight as he imagined himself exploring uncharted regions of the galaxy. Now, as Lieutenant Tom Paris, the actor pilots the USS Voyager through the unexplored and often hazardous Delta Quadrant in Star Trek:Voyager.
"One of the things that I like about him is that through all of his actions, sometimes there's a real honesty," explains McNeill when talking about his character of Paris. "He's somebody who isn't interested in polite games, doesn't play politics and isn't trying to impress anybody. I think he's really somebody whose nature is to be honest. 'This is the way I am, this is what I think and this is how I see the situation. In plain English, this is the way it is.' That's the kind of guy Tom is.
"I think that's really unique for Star Trek. In the past some of their characters have been very modern, New Age and sophisticated. Tom Paris is almost a throwback to the good old red-blooded American male, the old-fashioned kind of American guy who, I think, isn't seen that much in Star Trek.
"I feel that a lot of Star Trek fans are young men who sort of see themselves through Tom Paris's character and that's really exciting for me. It makes me want to sustain a very high quality of work for that character and for myself. I think it's a character who's important to the fans and I'm very happy to be playing him."
Born on the 9th of November, 1964 in North Carolina, McNeill moved around a lot as a young child, ending up in Atlanta, Georgia when he was twelve. "My younger sister started taking ballet lessons right away at this little dance studio," he recalls. "The studio also had a children's theatre company there, so, my mother asked me if I would be interested in joining.
"They were doing The Wizard of Oz and needed Munchkins. My mother said that maybe I could meet a lot of kids and I thought, 'Yeah, why not?' I was more interested in the idea of meeting kids rather than acting, so I got involved and ended up doing plays with the theatre for the next six years until I graduated high school."
When he was in his late teens the actor became involved in a theatre programme for gifted students taught by high school drama teacher Linda Wise. "Linda really turned me around in my thinking about what theatre is, what acting is all about, what literature is, the whole literate and intellectual side of the theatre and acting, most of which I had never thought about before. Although I was young I was really excited about a lot of her ideas, so, I'd have to say that Linda Wise was the one who really influenced me to pursue an acting career."
After graduating the actor moved to New York City and began working on the stage in musicals. After two years he realized he needed some formal training and enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School to study classical theatre. It was during his first summer off from classes that he got his first big television break.
"I was hired to play the lead in an episode of the New Twilight Zone called A Message from Charity. Usually, their pieces lasted 15 or 20 minutes but this one lasted almost 45 minutes and ended up being a very popular episode. I play a boy named Peter, who makes telepathic contact with a Puritan girl from the past named Charity [Kerry Noonan]. We spend the whole time just talking to each other and learning about the time and place in which each other was living.
"I remember feeling like ignorance is bliss when I got this part," he continues. "They flew me out to Los Angeles from New York. I was unfamiliar with the city as well as the whole game of television. I was making money, but, because I didn't know any better, I wasn't intimidated. That sort of ignorance was very freeing and I just tried to have fun with the part.
Sometimes the more you do and the more you know makes it harder to do things freely because you carry all this baggage around with you. Doing The New Twilight Zone felt really creative. They threw me a big part, kind of at the last minute, so, I just dived in and enjoyed it. There was nothing at stake for me in that one. I was just going to do the best job I could and have a good time doing it."
The Next Generation
McNeill returned to Juilliard to complete his studies and at the end of his second year was offered a lucrative contract for the popular soap opera All My Children. Work in other television programmes followed: Going to Extremes, Homefront and Second Chances, as well as commercials and even a guest-spot in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The First Duty.
"I played Nicholas Locarno, a character whom they thought about bringing onto their new series which at that time was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. They didn't talk to me about it but I had heard rumours that they felt there was a lot of good stuff in that character and they might want to put him on DS9. Nick was someone who looked nice on the outside but was rotten on the inside. Tom Paris is somebody who on the outside looks kind of rotten but who on the inside is a really good guy."
When nothing else was said to the actor about working on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, McNeill went on to do some other television work on the West coast before returning to the New York stage. While appearing in a play in 1994 the actor got a call from his agent about a part in Star Trek.
"I knew there was a feature-length film of Star Trek: The Next Generation planned and I thought that was what they were talking about. I got part of a script faxed to me and the pages said "Tom" but when I read the scenes it sounded just like Nick Locarno. I thought the character was somehow being put into the film and figured they wanted me to recreate the role.
"I went to the first audition really confused," says McNeill, "because I thought I was auditioning for the same character. When I got there the casting director asked me how I felt about making a television commitment that might possibly last six or seven years. I said, 'What are you talking about? I thought this was for the Star Trek feature film,' and she said. 'No. this is a whole new series. They wrote this new character based on your work on The Next Generation and they really want you to play it.'
"I looked at the casting director and said, 'You know what, I didn't prepare for this well enough. I see there's a lot at stake here. Let me go home and really study for this.' So, I studied over the weekend and came back much more prepared. It all worked out and I got the part."
In The Caretaker, the opening episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Tom Paris is offered an early release from a detention camp in exchange for his help in tracking down a rebel Maquis ship. Paris doesn't realize what awaits him when he accepts Captain Janeway's (Kate Mulgrew) proposal.
"My biggest memory of working on that first episode, even with all the drama going on about finding a captain and getting started late, was the sort of magical quality it had. In The Caretaker there was a certain chemistry that our cast had that I'd never felt before in a series. A lot of people say, 'When you're on a hit series you can feel it right away,' and I really sensed that with this cast.
"I think a lot of it has to do with what Star Trek itself just brings to the table but I think a lot of it also has to do with who they found. I think they put together a really good group of people who just spark together. We like each other, work well together and really compliment each other. Working on the pilot was almost too good to be true. Everybody kept waiting for something to go wrong but even with all the drama going on behind the scenes it ended up being wonderful."
Since being cast adrift with his fellow crew-members in the Delta Quadrant, Tom Paris has travelled backwards in time on a distant planet, played mother to a new lifeform, and been implicated in the murder of an alien scientist. To McNeill, each episode has proven to be an adventure as well as a chance to further stretch his acting abilities.
"My favourite episode so far has got to be the one I recently finished working on called Threshold. It's about what happens to Tom Paris when he tries to break warp 10. I got to wear lots of prosthetic appliances and sort of lose my mind here and there and really do all kinds of crazy things. This episode allows me to express a wide range of emotions and really gives me the chance to break all the rules and not be stuck doing the usual sorts of things.
"Another episode I enjoyed doing was Parturition, a show with Neelix [Ethan Phillips] and Paris. To me, it comes very close to showing the chemistry that I have with Ethan Phillips in real life. He and I get along so well and I think the audience can sense that. The fun we have together really comes through. It isn't a big action/adventure episode-those are always fun, too, but it had a lot of heart."
While the crew of the USS Voyager fight a battle to get home week-after-week, McNeill admits that he and his fellow actors often fight a similar battle to keep a straight face when the camera zooms in for those dramatic close-up shots. "We're constantly harassing each other," he laughs. "Sometimes, it's really difficult to get through a take because we've been goofing off so much but we have a great time." The positive chemistry among the cast is evident when McNeill talks about each of his co-workers.
"Kate and I have trailers that are kind of separate from everyone else and her trailer door is right across from mine. I remember meeting her the first day and just knowing that we'd found the captain, and, because our trailers were set off from everyone else's, she and I shared a lot of our own sorts of neuroses and paranoias during the filming of that first episode. We got the chance to bond in a really nice way.
"Garrett's [Wang, who plays Ensign Harry Kim] my buddy. We were the first two who walked out there and I did the first day's work; we did the tomato soup scene together," laughs McNeill, so we've always felt like veterans, he and I, and we're like brothers.
"Robert Beltran's [Chakotay] my baseball buddy; he and I play whiffleball in the parking lot while they're setting up the scenes. Roxann Biggs-Dawson [B'Ellana Torresl and I are motorcycle buddies because she and her husband ride motorcycles as I do, so we've been out riding together.
"Ethan has this habit of constantly writing in these little notebooks all day long and I have him to thank for that habit because I now carry around notebooks that I write in as well. I have Tim Russ [Tuvok] to thank for the most memorable mindmeld of the century when he broke into a James Brown impression and caught me completely offguard in the middle of a scene in the episode Ex Post Facto.
"Sometimes, when I'm feeling kind of frazzled and strung out, Jennifer Lien LKes] is whom I like to talk to. She's a real strong person, very grounded and sort of disconnected from all the hustle and bustle of life. Bob Picardo [The Doctor] and I have children who play together, so, he's my parent buddy. Whenever I have to talk about kid things I go to Bob because our children are around the same age."
Finding the Way
As with all television programmes, it takes a bit of time for actors to really focus in on their characters and develop them as best as they are allowed. For McNeill, it was a bit of a struggle during Star Trek: Voyager's first season but it is a hurdle he is managing to overcome in the show's second season.
"Tom Paris got a little lost during the first season," he admits, and I feel that was a fault of mine as well as of the writers and producers and I think we all realized that by the end of the first year. I really hadn't had the opportunity to do a lot but I also wasn't very aggressive about asking and pushing for things and being specific about my input and contribution.
"I am trying to do this in the second season," he continues. "I talk with them and share my thoughts and some very specific ideas. I want to commend them, first, tor their openness to listen and, second, for responding very positively. I think it's really helping my character. We're putting together some shows in the second season which. I feel, are really going to deepen people's understanding of who Tom Paris is as well as give me, as an actor, an opportunity to do lots of new and exciting things."