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The Trek Nation - Scott Bakula at the National Press Club

Scott Bakula at the National Press Club

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at April 22, 2006 - 6:01 PM GMT

In Washington, DC playing the role of Charlie Anderson in Ford's Theatre's revival of Shenandoah, Scott Bakula spoke at a luncheon at the National Press Club about the relevance of the war-themed musical at the current time and about his career, including Star Trek: Enterprise and Quantum Leap. With both Shenandoah and Star Trek, Bakula emphasized, his major concern was in living up to those who had preceded him in the roles of the family patriarch and starship captain respectively.

During the speech, which can be downloaded for a limited time from C-SPAN, Bakula explained that this musical represented coming full-circle for him as a performer since he had his first major theatre role as a cast member of an earlier production. He played the role of Sam, "the name of a character who came back to me a few years later", he joked. But when an old friend, director Jeff Calhoun, asked him to do the show at Ford's Theatre, Bakula said that his first thought was, "This is never going to happen."

However, "many things happened in the past year, including Enterprise being cancelled and UPN being cancelled..." After laughing ruefully, Bakula noted that "it just seemed for me to be a great finish to one chapter of my journey of thirty years now in this business. The opportunity to do this piece at the Ford's Theatre during this time in our country's history...I just got more and more excited about doing it. It felt right, it felt important without being pretentious, and it had literally been 18 years since I had been in a long-running musical or theatre production of any time."

Shenandoah, which is set in the Civil War, was produced during the Vietnam War and critics then noted the obvious parallels between the storyline and the situation in the US. Now during the conflict in Iraq, said Bakula, "When you're doing a piece and your opening song has lyrics such as, 'Someone writes a slogan, someone raises a flag, someone finds and enemy to blame,' it's hard not to be...overwhelmed isn't really the right word, but consumed by that thought and its relevance. And at the end of the piece, when I'm singing again, the lyrics are 'North or South, they're all our children, born of flesh and joy and pain.'"

Philosophically, revealed the actor, "the way I live my life, and as the world gets smaller and smaller, I truly do believe on the planet we are all brothers and sisters and they are all our sons and daughters regardless of race, background, where they live on the planet." He said he thought everyone involved in the show is aware of the relevance for modern life and "very much bent on this mission of presenting an idea, an image, notions and philosophies that people in an audience can take with them and talk about outside." It isn't preachy, he added: "It's not, if you're against the war and you're a Democrat, then you're going to love this show." His character is flawed and the musical is not preachy. When he hears people crying during the second act, he admitted, he "sort of want[s] to reach out and hug them."

Asked how close his own views are to Charlie's when it comes to war, Bakula said, "Charlie's views about war are complicated more so than mine. I'm not a fan of war in any form." In Shenandoah, Charlie says war is open season on strangers...but he then is provoked, later in the play, to pick up a gun and shoot a stranger who has accidentally shot his own son. "I would like to think that I would not do something like that," Bakula said, reminiscing about having played a New York City policeman who was against the death penalty, a role he accepted "because I believed likewise." Still, he agreed to do the Broadway ending of Shenandoah in which Charlie kills the stranger, rather than the movie version, where he does not. "I feel that this character's humanity and his response are valuable to look at as a community. It has helped me to have more room in my heart for all of the challenges that we face in our country right now," Bakula said.

When he performed in Shenandoah as a young man, explained Bakula, "I played a couple of the brothers, I played Sam, I played every part in the ensemble almost. Now I'm a father, and how that resonates in me -- I have a daughter of marrying age, as does Charlie, and he has to deal with that, again a very emotionally interesting journey to take as an actor." This has made the story personal to Bakula, who said that in addition, "sadly, a year ago, we all felt reasonably sure that we were going to be in a war, still, and it felt like this was the place to remount this piece - this town at this time - and look at war and its effects from a different perspective but parallel." His biggest challenge in preparation was "to unprepare", because he had worked with four other actors who had played Charlie. Part of his process was developing the look (he appeared at the luncheon unshaven and with long scruffy hair), and working with dialogue and singing coaches.

One questioner said that both her husband and son had served in military, but neither see the current Iraq war as an ethical conflict, and she asked about Bakula's perspective. "I think there is a great passion to serve this country for all of us," he said. "I support every person - every man, woman and child - who are involved in our armed forces wherever they are...it is a job they do for us." However, he added, "I think it is possible to support them and care for them and give them every ounce of our appreciation when we see them and when we read about them...at the same time, you can disagree with a policy or a decision that's made above all of that, here in this town, in the rooms in this town where those decisions are made." He said he believes that it is both possible and important to support US troops and appreciate their devotion while wishing them a speedy journey home, an end to this conflict "and an end to this kind of choice on this planet. We don't have that many years left, with our environment the way it is, to keep messing around. There are so many things that we need to get to and this is one that is best put behind us."

Despite the political resonances, it was Charlie the family man who resonated most with him, said Bakula. "One of my biggest challenges is, you know, allowing your children to grow up, making choices about how much of the world comes into your home." Charlie, if he could have, would have built a wall around his land and kept everybody out. "That notion of how much can you protect your family...obviously he tried and tried, and the world came in anyway," reflected the actor. "How much can we protect our kids today is something I am constantly dealing with." He mentioned the role that television and the internet play, things that kids are bombarded with that he was not as a child. "Unfortunately, I feel that we are sadly off course in terms of what these kids get," he said. "The good and the bad and the beauty of this country" is that you can put anything you want on the bumper of your car and not go to jail, said Bakula, but his own children have been confused by some of the political protests they have witnessed while in DC with him. "That's the biggest similarity that I see that [Charlie] and I wrestle with: how much do you expose your kids to, when do you let them go on your own."

In the immediate future, Bakula noted that he was looking forward to coaching his son's sports teams and looking for more theatre work. "It's a more pampered existence" in television, he noted; "Your lifestyle on the set, the way you're treated is different" in Hollywood. Asked whether current programming appeals to the lowest common denominator, he pointed out, "The networks are selling commercials. They're trying to make money, and they answer to a board of directors...they are concerned with the bottom line." From a business standpoint, he added, "Les Moonves is trying to make money for CBS and Viacom and all those things, and he's doing an unbelievable job at that. Who has he let down?" Bakula declined to criticize Moonves for his role in Enterprise's cancellation, saying that his shareholders are happy, and no matter how much reality TV is produced, "What sticks ultimately is determined by what we watch." Quantum Leap, he added, would never have made it past the first six episodes in the current market. (On the question of whether there would be a Quantum Leap movie, he laughed, "Never heard that question before," and added that there were no plans at this time.)

And what about Star Trek? Bakula admitted that he watched the show in college in reruns five nights a week instead of doing his homework without ever dreaming that he might be a part of the franchise. "The good news is, I got to do the prequel, so I got to be in front of everybody. I wasn't following everybody." He had been happy to receive a postcard from England: "It was a picture of me and it said...'Captain Kirk's Childhood Hero.' And I loved that! I just thought that was so cool." He called his four years on Enterprise "a blast" and said he was never worried about typecasting from the role, though he did want to please the long-time franchise viewers. "I was mostly worried about living up to and not letting millions of fans around the planet down, because you definitely feel that pressure as a performer," he confessed. "You want to continue in that tradition and yet be your own captain, create your own environment and relationships with your crew." He also wasn't worried, he joked, that Kirk had tried to follow in his footsteps. "Unfortunately, Mr. Shatner hasn't gone on to anything else since then. If anyone wants me to do any promos for any internet companies, I'll be happy to!"

Bakula considers it a sad commentary on our times that Viacom president Sumner Redstone "passed down a little edict a year and a half ago that any division of Paramount that wasn't making money by such-and-such a date would get closed." One of the victims of this decision was the costume department that had costumes "from every Paramount movie from forever, that's a museum, and it's gone. Wiped out, the prop department at Paramount...now they have to go out, when they're getting a prop at Paramount, and go somewhere else, go to Universal to get their costumes, go to Warner Bros to get their props."

But he is also troubled by the culture of fame and entertainment that his children are exposed to from every billboard and advertisement. "I think TV does play not a good role in our world today...we are creating, at times, this desire for a lot of people to want to be celebrities," he said. "Let's forget about people like me who do this for a living. Let's honor the schoolteachers, let's honor the firemen, let's honor the people in the political landscape in your local community. Let's make those things that we can present to our kids and say, look how important it is - this is what's important. The nurses in the hospitals, the people doing volunteer work. Those are the people that I try and honor and respect and show to my children how important they are, because we're losing sight of the fabric of what makes this country, and conversely this world, wonderful and special...what makes us great as human beings."

I attended the National Press Club luncheon as a guest of Project Quantum Leap's webmaster Donna Dickenson, and I would like to thank her and the National Press Club itself for this opportunity.

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Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.