Recently, TrekBBS member/moderator 1001001 encouraged TrekBBS posters to send questions to John Billingsley, best-known to Trek fans as Dr. Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise.
Today and tomorrow, TrekToday is posting those questions, and Mr. Billingsley’s answers. Today’s segment features Billingsley’s Star Trek: Enterprise work.
TrekBBS: “What made you want to become an actor?”
Billingsley: “I was cast as Scrooge in my 5th grade class production of A Christmas Carol. While I was a frail lil’ boy with a noticeable lisp, I could read words off the page with fluidity and some degree of emotional investment. To find myself plucked from the relative obscurity of the back row (well, actually, I sat in the front row, but go with the trope here), and to be turned, albeit ever so briefly, into a star, mega-wattage-y, [with] the elementary school world at my feet, [and] Sylvia Racenis involuntarily fluttering her eyelashes when I strode by…well, needless to say the bug had done bit. P.S Sylvia Racenis, if you’re reading this; yeah, yeah I know…”
TrekBBS: “What was your first real acting job?”
Billingsley: “My first paying gig was on a syndicated show called Christopher Closeup, which aired on PBS throughout the NY Metropolitan area in the 60’s and 70’s. [The show was] about teens and their issues. They’d stage dramatizations of things that might happen to teens, or have teens talking about teen stuff. I played a teenage alcoholic. (As the child is father to the man…)”
TrekBBS: “I adore Phlox. I am the moderator of the Enterprise forum at TrekBBS, and I call myself a Phloxist moderator, because he is such a good role model. He met all challenges with good cheer, was pragmatic as well as compassionate, and as he said, he hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. As you played the character over four years, did you keep an overall mindset of ‘Phloxist’ values or attributes that wouldn’t necessarily make it into dialogue, but helped inform you as the character and kept you grounded week in and week out?”
Billingsley: “Ah, ain’t you sweet! Phlox adores you right back. Indeed, for all of the fact that the rubber head was a pain, I loved playing Phlox. I thought his values, and his sense of humor, were so admirable (dare I say so close to my own?) Given how many creeps and crumb-bums I’ve played in my life, getting to portray a guy who was so buoyant, and balanced, was a real treat. That said, every character has to experience conflict, and sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to get under the skin of a guy who is preternaturally composed. In looking for ways to give Phlox something to struggle with, there were occasions when I thought the writers pushed the envelope: ‘nah, that ain’t Phlox’, ‘those aren’t his values’ – but that said, I can’t remember ever knocking on Rick or Brannon’s door to argue the point.
“Generally speaking, with occasional exceptions granted, it’s the actor’s job to figure out how to make things that he/she might feel are objectionable ‘work’ – in the love it/hate it episode A Night In Sickbay, or in the episode where Phlox’s wife wants to sleep with Trip; I thought that the writers nailed it, and found a great balance between Phlox’s sense of humor and his absolute befuddlement that humans are hidebound, moral plow-horses, if you will.
“At other times, I thought they kinda were off on Phlox (most notably, for me, the episode in which his racial animus is revealed, or the episode in which T’Pol goes through Pon Farr. Now come on guys, I would have said, Phlox would surely have just done the nasty with her, wouldn’t he?”
TrekBBS: “A lot of the time a script leaves room for the actor to add nuance and layers to his character. What are your favorite traits or bits of business for Phlox that were not in the scripts, but [that] you came up with yourself?”
Billingsley: “That’s very, very hard to say [because] so much of what you are doing in the moment, gesturally and vocally, is kind of unconscious; acting through a rubber mask, I should say, requires (required) a certain plasticity of expression, so I was probably more animated and ‘bigger’, behaviorally-speaking, than I might otherwise have been.
“I can say that I did try to elbow out moments where Phlox’s exuberance could be made manifest; walking around the ship naked when everybody was in deep freeze might’ve had something to do with suggestions of mine, ditto the fact that Phlox ate with relish, and would eat anything and everything that could be accounted ‘edible.’ I looked for opportunities where the robust and excitable aspects of his nature could be accentuated, [and] for opportunities to relish his delight.
“I never really pitched ideas, but one of the ones I kinda wanted to pitch was this: we pick up a Denobulan ship in distress and take in the crew; hundreds of ’em, like Tribbles. They eat all the food. They’re messy as shit. They sing and skip and dance. They’re fucking merry and just generally exuberant. They’re hyper-curious and ask tons of questions and they’re pleasure-seeking (i.e. you can hear them having sex all over the ship, at all hours, sometimes in public locations). They are inadvertently insulting in their hyper-amused contempt for human modesty and human dopiness, and they basically make the entire crew so incredibly embarrassed, and irritated, that Archer can’t wait to shift ’em off onto the nearest inhabitable planet (only there ain’t one nearby). [It’s] like The Man Who Came To Dinner, for those of you who know that old chestnut of a play, only Monty Woolley‘s character is every single Denobulan that comes aboard.”
TrekBBS: “You’ve defended Enterprise before and stated it was lucky to have lasted as long as it did because of the crappy network it was on. I wholeheartedly agree. If things had been different, what direction would you have liked the series go and what do you think about adding a human doctor addition? I always thought Crewman Cutler would have fit nicely in Sickbay.”
Billingsley: “I’ve defended it and I’ve abused it in equal measures, I suspect! One of the problems was the fact that we were on a moribund network (indeed, a doomed network); one of the additional problems was that Paramount didn’t allow Rick and Brannon to take any time off between wrapping Voyager and premiering Enterprise, and so they didn’t have time to really create a ‘bible’ for the show, [or] to think deeply about the kind of stories they wanted to tell.
“I thought that we were rather quickly wrenched out of telling stories about how scary and potentially fucked up it is to ‘explore new worlds’ when you ‘ain’t never done ‘dat before.’ [For] example: an early episode’s first draft has a crew person returning via transporter with his ass where his head should be (metaphor alert, I don’t mean that literally – horribly disfigured, let’s say). Jesus! We don’t trust the transporter! Scary, what does that mean? [But] in eventual draft, as filmed, guy has a twig sticking out of his ear and I clip it with hedges, no biggee, no ramifications, no terror.
“Wish we’d stayed with the sense of ‘making it up as we go along = terror’ for [the] first couple of seasons. [It] might not have made a difference, but I thought too many episodes were wan, [and] indistinguishable in many ways from the iterations of Trek that had come before. I would have liked more overlapping dialogue, for instance, more of a sense of cacophony, which would have echoed (literally) the kind of claustrophobic aspects of our ship and its more cramped quarters, its more ‘submarine-y’ feel. I dunno.
“Who knows whether the fans wouldn’t have thought, ‘boo-shit, this ain’t Star Trek.’ I didn’t come at it from the perspective of a long-time Trek fan, [because] I’m not a long time Trek fan. So [I] freely admit that my taste is a personal taste, and not representative, at all, of what I think a lot of the fans love about the show and I appreciate the irony here, insofar as I was the optimistic and sunny character, talking about my own personal wish that the show itself had more of a sense of threat and danger.
“Manny Coto, when he took the show over, basically, in season #4, knew that it wasn’t going to get another season so a lot of his episodes were kinda Trek valentines – how the Klingon look changed, Data playing the ‘father’ of Ricardo Montalban, Mirror Universe Trek, etc. He thought, ‘WTF, I can do anything, nobody cares now. I want to write the kind of show that I, as a fan, would like to watch – and ironically I think he was kinda right on. Maybe it was too little too late but I think his aesthetic actually had a lot of resonance with our fan base. I’m sure more of that kinda stuff would have been forthcoming, if we’d survived. I do think Manny brought a lot of frisson and energy to the show that helped make much (not all) of the third and fourth seasons better – Similitude, i.e. the episode where Trip gets cloned, and the episode (whose name escapes me) where the Captain has Alzheimer’s (in a future in which we failed to stop the destruction of Earth), were, I thought, tense, taut shows. I think he would have continued to goose us in ways that would have been very valuable.
“Yer other questions: – the actress, alas, who played Crewman Cutler passed away during our first season, which is why you didn’t see her again. I know they would have loved to use her a lot more, and I would have been delighted if they had, because she was wonderful. I don’t know if they would have wanted to add another Doc, ever, [because] I don’t think they knew how to get that much out of Sickbay as it was. I would have liked, on a personal level, to have seen them back away from the whole Trip/T’Pol romance, which I don’t think either one of the actors were too keen on, either. We’d have seen Romulans, no doubt, [and] we’d probably have seen a lot more of the Andorians. I think Jeff might have become a series regular. I used to whisper into the writer’s ears that they should give Malcolm some horrible disfigurement, but mostly that’s [because] I wanted Dominic to suffer alongside me in the makeup chair, because I’m a cruel person.”
TrekBBS: “When you auditioned for Enterprise, did you have any idea what you were getting into, in terms of the fan base, conventions, and so forth?”
Billingsley: “Yeah, in theory, although you audition for so many things that you don’t get that it wasn’t something I gave any consideration to until the offer was made; at which point, yeah, I knew I’d crossed a kind of Rubicon.”
TrekBBS: “What is your favorite story from your years making Enterprise?”
Billingsley: “Winning first prize in the annual Halloween contest, 2001. [I] didn’t show up intending to enter the contest, not my bag, but the focus puller (camera op. position: pulls the camera along for guy shooting) was dressed as a whip-cracking dominatrix and the crew member who was supposed to be her submissive chickened out. I was wearing my Phlox head that day so I asked the costume department to raid the racks, and they found me a leather codpiece, a red rubber ball, a harness, the whole nine yards. The dominatrix (Michelle, I think?) led me onto the bridge, all harnessed up, on a leash. I hopped in the Captain’s chair until she beat me off of it with her cat-o’nine tails. [There was] much mirthful appreciation, and we won first prize. I believe the studio passed some rules about ‘proper and improper choices’ re: production costume contests and the parameters that had to be observed in future years.”
TrekBBS: “What has been your worst convention experience?”
Billingsley: “At Vegas a couple of years back there was a big miscommunication between the hosts and myself. I thought I was attending a late night cocktail party as a guest and they thought I was being brought in as the entertainment. I was handed a mike and told to ‘begin my set’, basically. Not being a stand-up comic, although I’m [a] smart-ass on stage, I had to apologize, tell the assembled, pie-eyed throng, that I didn’t have a set; [very] embarrassing.
“There was also a misbegotten event in Texas that was cancelled halfway through [because] the promoter (half dip-shit and half con-man) didn’t have the scratch to pay the hotel’s fees. [The] promoter wasn’t present to pull [the] plug himself, [and instead] sent a poor, ‘flop-sweat-y’ minion out to do it for him. I confess, it pissed the hell out of me. I wouldn’t give up the mike (the event was scuttled in the middle of my dog-and-pony show.) I reamed them a bit and demanded that the minion give people the skinny re: how they’d get reimbursed; blah, blah, blah. [The] only reason that I can’t say that was [the] worst experience is because I stuck around for a long time after to hang with fans and had a lot of fun, plus I got to feel all righteous ripping con-man/minion new assholes. Never try to take a mike out of an actor’s hand when they’re in high dudgeon”
Tomorrow, come back for part two of the Billingsley interview, where the actors talks about other projects, including his favorite one.