In today’s interview with John Billingsley, the actor talks about playing sci-fi characters, his other non-Trek projects, and what he does with his free time.
TrekBBS: “Why do most of sci-fi actors /actresses almost exclusively play sci-fi or horror films or only villains at Hollywood? Is it something about attraction/beauty criteria of US/ Hollywood culture or it is kind of old school studio attitude to categorize the actors/actresses? At European cinema we have great actors/actresses like Gérard Depardieu or Rossy de Palma who can play believable every kind of roles even object of desire with their non-standard faces and bodies.”
Billingsley: “Short answer: yes. You nailed it. This is an industry that bends towards a younger audience. Advertisers, frankly, consider that young people are the people who buy new shit, and unnecessary expensive shit, especially; who will bop between brands [because] they haven’t been using Crest for forty years; who are more prone to sexy messaging generally, who can be swayed into buying something [because] it’ll make ’em look cool. Advertisers consequently drive the creation of product – i.e. films, movies, etc. in Hollywood; i.e. product is created to appeal to young people and young people, the feeling goes, want to watch attractive young people doing the kinds of things that attractive young people do.)
“Longer answer might have something to do with a kind of ghettoization that exists here – if you have a ‘TV resume’ you’re less likely to get film work, still, unless you’re an established cross-over star. If you have a sci-fi or genre TV resume you’re less likely to get prestigious or arty TV work, much less film work. I freely confess that one of the reasons I don’t act as much as I used to is [because] I don’t particularly like most of the parts I’m asked to read for – ageism, ‘fat guy’-ism, people who ain’t pretty have to be dopes or villains, they are ‘failures’, in many respects. All kinds of ‘isms’ drive our sick fucked up culture. Europe kicks our ass in a lot of ways, its own dysfunctions and ethnic/cultural blindnesses notwithstanding, and I think you’re right that this is one of the ways in which we fall short of a more sophisticated culture’s understanding of the range of human possibility, the range of sexual and sensual possibility, the absurdity of letting ‘genre’ typecasting affect the way art is created.”
TrekBBS: “I was really interested in Egan’s storyline in The Nine, and it was fun to see your wife play your wife. Since the storytelling was basically in flashbacks, did you have an overall view of where the story was going to go, to inform how you played Egan, or were you kept in the dark from script to script like the viewers?”
Billingsley: “I don’t think anybody knew what was going to happen next, but a number of people knew more about what ‘had happened in the bank.’ If you saw all the episodes, which most people didn’t because ABC only burned off the last six episodes after a lengthy two-month off-air hiatus,’ you know that Chi McBride‘s character was the mastermind behind the robbery. He hadn’t counted on ‘fucked up but likable criminal #1’ bringing ‘uber fucked up and hateful brother,’ i.e. ‘criminal #2,’ along for the ride. Anyway, those three actors knew more than the rest of us. I heard, after the fact, after we were cancelled, that they were gonna give Bonnie more to do [and] that they were gonna show how liberated she was by the end of our marriage. Her inner hottie was going to emerge, which Bonnie scoffs at, but I think would have been brilliant.
“I’m glad somebody brought The Nine up, [because] it was my [favorite] TV project ever, and I was crushed, as were we all, when it didn’t catch on with vox populi. I might have wished that the writers had sidled away from some of the more obvious gags that attach to ‘the dweeb finds himself’ motif, but that’s kind of a quibble when you consider how few shows really attempt to ask questions about how regular Joe Schlabotnicks reinvent themselves after life throws curveballs.
“Our creators needed a strong dramatic hook to motivate everybody to throw their life cards up in the air, as it were, hence the bank robbery/abduction/aftermath. But what’s always struck me as kind [of] sad and perverse is that the ‘shoot ’em up’ hook might have had the odd effect of splitting our audience asunder. Some folks wanted an action adventure show, with mystery and suspense and whuhdafuck!! Others wanted a relationship-centric story about people whose lives are suddenly upended. [I’m] not sure the parts fit. The audience certainly didn’t seem to feel they did, alas, but it was a great joy to be on that show. I’m not sure I’ve ever really recovered from its cancellation (professionally, at the least; personally I’m fine. No need to send flowers or chocolates. Really.
“Dark not milk chocolates if you absolutely must.”
TrekBBS: “The Man from Earth was a great film. What was it like making a movie like that?”
Billingsley: “Fun, [because] the folks were fun, and a lot of them were pals of mine (Dick Riehle, for instance, who ironically played my pen pal on Enterprise!). But it was arduous insofar as it was a very, very (hell, I’m throwing in a third VERY) low-budget film and we had to shoot it in a very tight time frame – eight to ten days, maybe; I don’t recall, but it was a bear. There were days when we shot more than twelve pages, which is a lot. We consequently didn’t get a ton of takes, whacks at the pinata. I took the part even though I had reservations about some of the musty/fusty aspects of the character relationships, dialogue (written in the ’60’s, for the most part, by the great Jerome Bixby, but dated in a lot of respects, and more than a smidge sexist, I felt) [because] on balance, I thought what it had to say about the distinction between religiosity and true spiritualism was a great distinction for a movie to want to make, one rarely essayed and I thought Bixby’s script did it in a lovely, intelligent, and movingly elegiac way.”
TrekBBS: “What was it like filming The Orville and working with Seth MacFarlane? Do you like the show?”
Billingsley: “Seth was a gem, such a nice fella. I can’t believe how hard he works. [He is] there every day, and weighing in on every shot, in addition to playing the lead – yikes! And of course I love Bob, and Molly (his wife) is a dear pal, and I loved getting to know the actress who played my missus as well. I do like the show, although I don’t really watch a ton of TV, to be honest.
“My first love is reading and so I really only have a passing familiarity with The Orville, ditto pretty much everything on TV, or in the movie houses. I’d intended to be a writer, but for reasons I won’t go into here I kinda got sidetracked by the biz. I enjoy my work, and I think there’s a lot of great stuff on TV, don’t get me wrong. But I have a library of fifteen thousand books and they yell at me [quite loudly] to read them because they know I ain’t gonna live forever. Who am I to deny the demands of fifteen thousand pissed off tomes?”
TrekBBS: “Your character on The Orville was pretty evil. Assuming that you are not evil, how do you play a part like that? Where does the ‘evil’ come from?”
Billingsley: “Your assumption is incorrect. I am evil. I have raided your bank account, assumed your identity, and I will now begin to do heinous things in the world for which you will be held accountable. Mwah hah hah! PS: Is that your kitten in the microwave?
“Or perhaps you’ll prefer this answer. We’re all evil. And good. Kind and cruel. Generous and selfish. Everybody has dark, dark thoughts, in addition to wonderful and kind impulses. Think about the way we respond to what is going on in the world politically – regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, your blood boils when you read about so-and-so doing such-and-such, and you engage in the darkest kinds of fantasias about what you’d do if you could only get that son of a bitch alone.
“Those fantasias, rooted in a desire for vengeance, animate us all to certain extent. Sadly, these fantasias have been weaponized, by many political leaders, to get people to vote against their own economic interests, but I digress. For actors, getting to act our dark fantasias out safely, on camera, is really no different than it is for civilians to give their daydreams full play in private. Whether it’s a healthy release or not, I wouldn’t proffer, but it’s un-abandonable, our darkness, [because] humanity ain’t ‘purty’; our impulse towards violence, or cruelty, or darkness is as much a part of what we are as our hunger for love and lightness is. When I used to teach acting I always said to my students that there was one verboten expression: “I would never do something like that”. Or alternatively: ‘My character would never do something like that.’
“[Because] you would be capable of anything if the circumstances dictated. And a lot of evil things are done, perversely, in the name of love.
TrekBBS: “What do you like to do when you’re not acting?”
Billingsley: “I read a lot. A lot a lot.
“I like to travel, although as I get older I’m a little less interested in ass-kicking journeys (how’s the bed, where’s the nearest French restaurant, etc). I am blessed with marvelous, funny, kind pals who I enjoy spending time with, and we do all sorts of stuff together, from going to ballgames, the racetrack, out to dinner, to hanging at small dinner-parties. [I] don’t really have a family, so my pals are my family.
“I spend a fair amount of time helping to support ‘Not For Profit’ work in my community, most particularly (of late) via work I do with a terrific organization called The Hollywood Food Coalition, [which is] an all-volunteer group that feeds people who are hungry (seven days a week: a five-course meal, every night) and also helps them navigate the world in other respects. We provide clothing, access to medical care, info about other community service providers; yada, yada, yada. I’m a political progressive and I try to stay on top of what’s happening in the world, so I read a lot of newspapers, and I participate in the political life of my community as best I can via different methodologies (worked on a Congressional Campaign in off-year election, for instance).
“And of course there is the requisite three hours a day I am contractually obliged to fawn on and worship my lovely wife, Bonita.”
To learn more about The Hollywood Food Coalition, head to the link located here.
Thanks to Mr. Billingsley and 1001001 for this interview.