Over its 40 plus year history Star Trek has shown an uncanny ability to attract some of Hollywood’s finest character actors. One such actor is Robert Picardo who even before his role on Star Trek: Voyager as its holographic Doctor, offered fans some really intriguing characters, perhaps one of the reasons why his online fan club has started a fundraising campaign in order to immortalise his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In a recent interview Robert Picardo shared some of his feelings about this among many other things with SciFi Pulse.
SciFi Pulse: You have a background in theatre, television and movies. Which is the most challenging and can you talk a little about the differences as in how you as an actor need to adapt.
Robert Picardo: Well… I began my career working in theatre. I started in high school. I did a lot of theatre when I was an undergraduate at Yale and eventually changed my major from Biology to theatre and graduated with a degree. I went off to New York and studied at a professional acting workshop called Circle and the Square and began to work professionally in the theatre during my second year.
I made my debut as a professional actor in 1976. Then in 1977 I made my Broadway debut in a play called Gemini. So I was quite fortunate working in the theatre, and that is my first love. The actor is in more control of his performance than when he works on film, because you don’t have that many people tinkering with your performance after you’ve done it in front of the camera. The director, the editor, and, of course, while your shooting it, the way it’s lit, where the camera is. All of that affects the impact of your performance on an audience.
On stage, you’re much more in control of shaping your performance and the whole emotional arc of the character is really in the actors hands — although the director of course gives the actor direction and advice during the rehearsal process.
When you finally get to perform, it’s really the actor who’s responsible for his performance, maintaining the basic shape of it that the director agreed too, but basically it’s the actor’s job to refill the vessel of the performance each evening.
I love that challenge. It takes real continued concentration and focus for long periods of time, and working in film and television is a parallel art form. When the cameras are rolling, you have to be in character and often the camera cuts five, six and eight seconds later and often you don’t roll again for as much as half an hour or an hour, or whatever time period later, you have to find yourself back inside the characters skin on that start stop basis which is very different from the discipline of performing, say, a 90 minute first act of a play where you are on stage all the time, constantly in character.
Having said that, there are challenges to both kinds of acting. My initial experience was with theatre and when I switched over and started to work on film in my mid -twenties, it was learning how the camera captured a different aspect of you in a different way that an audience could view them from a distance. So I would say one of the first lessons I learnt was that thought was very important in film as well as emotion, but thought can be very subtle and seen in a characters eyes in a way that the audience can’t see it unless the actor ‘physicalizes’ it more. So that was the first general kind of contrast I learnt — that emotion was very important on stage because it was bigger, so to speak, and that thought could be very important on film because the camera could get in to a close up of the actors eyes and the audience could perceive subtle nuances in a performance they simply wouldn’t see on stage.
I love working in both media. I love going back and forth. I think there are great challenges to both, and I still believe that a really good actor can work on both stage and screen, but there are really good screen actors who don’t come across on stage.
So I think that the true test of an actor is first and foremost theatre and I love to return as much as I can. I’ve done several shows since my stint on Voyager ended, including three or four musicals.
SciFi Pulse: I believe your Online Fan Club is raising money in order to have your name immortalised on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What were your initial feelings when you found out that the fans had put your name foreword for this honour?
Robert Picardo: My initial feelings were mixed. Obviously, I was flattered that a group of people felt strongly enough about my work to want to immortalise it in this way. Then, on the other hand, I felt that there are many, many wonderful well known actors who are not on the Hollywood walk of fame as well as many actors that you’ve never heard of who are on Hollywood walk of fame. So I guess I had mixed feelings.
I don’t think it makes you any better a performer to have that kind of honour, but on the other hand it shows that a certain critical mass of people have watched you and have had a positive opinion about you over the years. That’s very flattering and obviously, if it were to come about, I would be honoured and would be delighted to be at the dedication ceremony. And, of course, I would hope that my star on the walk of fame was not somewhere in an adjacent city, but actually in Hollywood…
SciFi Pulse: What do you think your reaction will be when you are picked?
Robert Picardo: I think I will be delighted, humbled and hopefully not too much poorer for having paid whatever bribes were necessary. [Laughs].
SciFi Pulse: Is there any actor or extraordinary person honoured on the walk of fame that you admire and if so what is it about that person that inspires you? And, in an ideal world would you like your star to be placed next to this person?
Robert Picardo: There are many, many actors on the Hollywood walk of fame that I admire and would be completely honoured to be in any proximity to them. However I know that is a absolute impossibility because the most famous actors on the walk of fame tend to be concentrated in a particular section that is heavily travelled, most specifically in front of the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where an actor I had the great pleasure of working with on Broadway when I was in my early twenties, Jack Lemmon is forever immortalised.
He’s the name that leaps to mind. I suppose not only because I greatly admire his work but also because I had the pleasure of working very closely with him over the course of a year in my life and he was a terrific role model for any young actor. Not only because of his talent, his graciousness, the sheer longevity of his career — he had been a major movie star for over 25 years when I met him in 1978 – but also because he was so sensitive and considerate to my being a young actor just starting out, who had such a major role and was working in so many scenes toe to toe with him in front of a Broadway audience.
There are many, many other actors, as I said, that I admire on the walk of fame, Fred Astaire who I had the pleasure of meeting through my working relationship with Jack Lemmon and countless others, but as I said, it’s not a realistic possibility that your star could be placed anywhere near these other stars that have been there for so many years.
SciFi Pulse: Over the years you have played many roles and quite a few villains. Do you purposely seek out roles, which illustrate the darker side of human nature and if so what is it about these roles that attract you?
Robert Picardo: Most actors would answer that it’s fun to play the villain, because often the hero roles are very two-dimensional and not terribly interesting and you have much more freedom on how you interpret a villainous character. Certain villains in both stage and movie history have become much more famous than the hero character in that particular movie or play.
As actors, we have the vicarious thrill of living other lives. Those lives might include special talents we don’t have and may also include darker feelings and impulses that hopefully we either don’t have or we manage to keep in check in our personal lives. So it’s a great way to exercise the darker side of your own personality by giving it expression creatively and you can use those thoughts or impulses, get them out and actually have a healthier psyche than people in other professions that may have these urges and haven’t an outlet for them. In extreme cases, that’s what leads to psychosis and to various kinds of anti social and even sociopathic behaviour.
So in short, it’s a great deal of fun. It’s a thrill to play a villain, if the villain is interesting and if you’re given enough freedom by the director to make interesting and unusual choices.
I would say that the villain character that I’m most remembered for on film would be Eddie Quist in ‘The Howling‘, an early Joe Dante movie. It’s sort of a classic B – Movie, a werewolf story where I play the tortured and quite sick werewolf protagonist. People remember that — they were impressed with that movie, especially if they saw it at a young age in their late teens or whatever and they’ve never forgotten it. So when I go to personal appearances around the world people of course are aware of my career on Star Trek and, more recently, Stargate and other television series like China Beach and The Wonder Years, but more often than not they remember The Howling because the character of Eddie put a scare in them.
SciFi Pulse: Of course, we can’t exactly speak to you without mentioning your contribution to the Star Trek Universe. If you were given the chance to reprise your role of the Emergency Hologram, where do you think you could take him? As, in what sort of things about him do you feel could still make for an interesting story?
Robert Picardo: I think that in the seven years of Voyager we pretty much told all the stories we had to tell, and although I miss the character of the Doctor very much I don’t know that there are more stories about him parse that are crying out to be told. I, for example, would be more interested in a story about whatever happened to his creator, his programmer Doctor Lewis Zimmerman, because that’s a character that like any human actor can continue to age and deal with various issues in later life that would make for interesting story telling.
Because the EMH was a computer program, he’s not supposed to age and I don’t think any actor, and I think Brent Spiner would feel the same way, wants to be in a position where he is trying to portray a character that supposedly hasn’t changed at all from the moment the audience first experienced him. After ten or fifteen years have elapsed and the illusion can no longer be maintained, then I think it’s time to say goodbye and just remember what a great experience it was and keep seeing the Doctor in re-runs.
SciFi Pulse: There is presently a lot of fuss surrounding the upcoming Star Trek XI movie and the fact that it has a whole new production team behind it. What are your thoughts on the new movie? Do you think that a prequel is a good idea, or do you feel that it could potentially alienate the fan base?
Robert Picardo: I think J.J. Abrams did a terrific job writing and directing Mission Impossible III and I think he’s a very good choice to re-invent the Star Trek franchise. With regard to it being a prequel, I’m not so certain that they shouldn’t reconsider that. Let’s face it, the only Star Trek series after the original series that hasn’t been successful was Enterprise, which was a prequel, and as we all know the fans objected to the fact that it seemed to violate the canon of Star Trek with great regularity. So perhaps they shouldn’t do a prequel on the big screen.
But J.J. Abrams is a very smart man and I’m sure that whatever they decide to do will be very well executed and anything that’s good for the Star Trek franchise is good for everyone else who is a part of it. So I wish them nothing but tremendous success with the movie.
SciFi Pulse: During your time with Star Trek: Voyager, you got to write and direct. When you look back at Lifeline, is there anything about the episode, which you would do a little differently from the creative standpoint, for example, perhaps something that a TV budget would not allow?
Robert Picardo: First of all, I didn’t write Lifeline. I co-authored the story idea with John Bruno. The script itself was written by Joe Menosky, but I was the first Star Trek series actor to get a writing credit and I’m very proud of the episode. It was a classic Father Son drama re-invented, with a computer program as the son and an engineer as the father, dealing with the same issues of how a parent and child have expectations for each other, how they disappoint each other and how they deal with the fact that there are disappointments and hurt and anger. How they face that and hopefully survive it and improve their relationship in the wake of it.
I don’t think that there was something specific that I would do differently if we did not have the constraints of a television budget, other than the fact, that you would get more takes for the very complicated motion controlled shots. When you do those kinds of shots on a television schedule there’s enormous set up time and one tiny little error makes the whole take unusable. For example, if you do a shot where you’re playing both characters, the first take sets the movement of the camera on its track and the panning, and rotation of the camera head that’s following the first actor’s performance. You must marry the second actor’s performance perfectly to the same camera move, and if you make one false step left or right the two images will infringe upon each other and destroy the image that they are actually two different characters.
So there’s a tremendous amount of care that goes into making those visual effects shots and it’s hard to get them on a TV budget. However, I think we did a pretty darn good job and when I watched the show, there were only a few things that I wish. You could have improved where some of the eye line between myself as the doctor and as Lewis Zimmerman are not completely convincing and what not. But I think that director Terry Windell did a heck of a job and am very proud of that episode.
SciFi Pulse: Last year Star Trek turned 40. How much more do you feel Star Trek can give its audience in terms of social and political commentary, and to your mind what social and political subjects should any aspiring science fiction show be looking to cover?
Robert Picardo: That’s a huge question and I could never answer it fully. One of the great things about Star Trek is that it gave its audience hope for the future, a future where different races could get along. A future where technology served man, rather than destroyed him. I know that we need that kind of hope more now than ever in a post 9/11 world.
I think that there are themes of coping with terrorism that are certainly being dealt with on other science fiction shows right now. Battlestar Galactica leaps to mind, and it was certainly dealt with on Voyager and Deep Space Nine episodes.
I can also say this. I would think it the responsibility of any good science fiction show that are being made in this moment should find time to comment on some of the choices that have been made by our current administration in the wake of 9/11. They should reflect on some of the choices they’ve made and the cost to our country’s image internationally, and some of the cost that we have paid at home with the erosion of our civil liberties. I think that there is excellent fodder there for a savvy science fiction writer to show us that there are consequences to every choice you make, and how in fighting a very difficult enemy. There’s tremendous potential to become the thing you are fighting to a certain extent and in certain ways. So if there were a new Star Trek to come along, I’d like to think that they would be dealing with some of those issues.
SciFi Pulse: As an actor how do you feel about reality television shows? Aside from taking potential work away, do you not feel that they are a little to diverting from more important political and social issues which could be addressed in a good television drama or Sci Fi show.
Robert Picardo: Yes, next question! [Ironic laugh]. I used to joke that the next Star Trek series should be Star Trek: Survivor, where a series of contestants are abandoned on an ‘M – Class’ planet and the first one to become warp capable and fly home would win. I still think it’s a great idea.idea.
SciFi Pulse: In recent years fans have become much more active in regards to continuing the legacy of Star Trek. How do you feel about fan produced webisode’s such as Star Trek: New Voyages and the more recent Star Trek: Of Gods and Men?
Robert Picardo: Well I can’t say too much about the New Voyages because haven’t really seen any of them, but I can say that I’ve heard a number of fans express very positive responses to them. So that makes me think that there is a passion out there and in many ways the fans know the canon of Star Trek better than anyone. So I would think a devoted fan with certain creative skills could really make some interesting new Star Trek stories.
Tim Russ directed Of Gods and Men and I think Tim is enormously talented as a director and of course as an actor. So I’ve heard terrific things about that and how good it looks and am looking forward to seeing that once it’s available.
SciFi Pulse:If you were approached would you be interested in taking part in some of these fan stories in some way?
Robert Picardo: Yes, I would be interested in taking part in some way, if the script and the character were interesting. I assume I wouldn’t continue to play the role I’m known for, but would be doing something different, but it would also interest me, as I said in an earlier question, to play the programmer Doctor Zimmerman in some new story.
SciFi Pulse: How was your relationship with Jeri Ryan? Is there any truth about the animosity between Jeri and Kate Mulgrew?
Robert Picardo: My relationship with Jeri Ryan was and is great. My relationship with Kate Mulgrew was and is great. I am very fond of both of them and had a terrific time working with both of them and beyond that I’d rather not comment.
SciFi Pulse: A few years back you wrote a book called The Holograms Hand Book. Have you had any thoughts about potentially writing another Star Trek adventure, specifically one that depicts how the EMH fits into Starfleet after Voyager returns home?
Robert Picardo: Yes, I did have a thought about writing a Star Trek novel. I pitched it to Simon And Schuster at a time when they were publishing fewer novels and they did not seem to be interested. I still think it’s a great story and were they to contact me in the future I would certainly revisit the idea.
With regard to how the EMH fits into Starfleet after Voyager returns home, Ethan Phillips and I have co-authored a play along with a fan, a Star Trek fan fiction writer named Ted Copulas called ‘House Call’ which has a great deal of fun with what happened to all of the Voyager characters once they returned home. It’s strictly for laughs and we have performed it at different personal appearances around the US and will probably do so in Britain and in Germany in the future. But although it’s been a tremendous crowd pleaser, I have no serious thoughts of coping with the EMH’s return in novel or in any other kind of book.
The Holograms Hand Book was just a lark. I wanted to do a satire of the self-help book. All of those pop psychology books that you see on a certain shelf in the bookstore. The theme of The Holograms Hand Book is basically, if you’re an advanced artificial intelligence, far more brilliant than any of your organic counterparts, how do you get along with all those stupid people? And I think the book clearly details for anyone who finds themselves in a personal situation or professional situation with some real dummies how you to can learn to cope with that.
SciFi Pulse: You’re presently doing some voice work for ‘Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey’. What can you tell us about this new project, what’s it all about and is their any substance and human interest in the story?
Robert Picardo: I did work on that project, but it’s actually some voice work I recorded about four years ago. How the producer manages to bump it up to the top of the database of my IMDB list of credits I’ll never know, but I remember John Travolta’s in it.
I remember that it’s science themed and it was interesting, but it was four years ago and probably a day of my life so I don’t recall all that much else about it. So I’m sorry, I can’t help you much further with that one.
SciFi Pulse would like to thank Robert Picardo for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us. Thanks also to Pat Arthur Webmaster of the official robertpicardo website for having made the interview possible. For more information on the actor and his forthcoming projects please visit the official website at www.robertpicardo.com.
If you are fan of the actor and would like to make a donation to help pay for his Hollywood star feel free to find out more by clicking here. You may also like to check out the actors myspace page which you can find here.
Written By Ian M. Cullen