Friday, September 16, 2005

A couple of Groovy Interviews

Exclusive Interview : John Billingsley
Actor John Billingsley’s far from bitter, but he is understandably disappointed that his series "Star Trek: Enterprise" was hastily cancelled earlier this year. Like a gumboot standing flat on a newly planted strawberry patch, the series hardly got time to grow before it was put to rest, and everyone involved in the show is justifiably one glove short of a boxing match with the decision makers.

Fear not though Aussies – Billingsley says the best season is still to come.

CLINT MORRIS talks one-on-one with a veteran actor whose played everything from Shakespeare to an attorney, even a killer, but may be for the interim known best as the incessantly-likeable one-of-a-kind Denobulan doctor, Dr Phlox, on the short-lived sci-fi series.

“For my money, I think the final season is the best of them”, says the amiable actor. “It unfortunately got cancelled when I thought it was really beginning to hit its stride, but such are the vagaries of Television”.

"Enterprise" – it was retitled "Star Trek Enterprise" for it’s third season – got off to a wobbly start, says Billingsley, with critics ravaging it from its conception.

The critical reaction was pretty negative”, he says, “Yet, amongst the fans, and those that stuck with it, they thought it improved as it went along. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression [though]”.

Season 3 saw the biggest changes – pre-existing storylines were abandoned in favour of newer, more exciting, stories, the title of the show was tweaked, even the theme song was jazzed up. EDITOR’S NOTE: THEY JAZZED UP THE THEME SONG? I HAVE NO RECOLLECTION OF THIS.

The network was very strongly in favour of finding a more action-adventure oriented storyline. They thought Season 2 had become more slow and static, and that there wasn’t enough of a compelling storyline to keep viewers tuning in every week – and I would tend to agree. I think the initial storyline, the temporal cold-war, was never developed very well and I don’t think there was ever a strong enough grasp of where they wanted to go with that storyline and I think it became too attenuated over time. So the idea of telling a story that would actually have a beginning, middle and end that would keep people coming back week in – week out, was a good idea. EDITOR’S NOTE: THE TREK FOLKS NOT KNOW WHERE THEY WANTED TO GO WITH A STORYLINE? NOT DEVELOP A STORYLINE? ABANDON PLOTS MIDSTREAM? (NOOOOOOOO…..SMIRK).

The popularity of shows like 24 or Lost or Desperate Housewives suggest that people are eager to watch a serialised story, and I think that’s what allows the storyline to get more interesting and complex in the last two years”. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND TREK FANS ARE DWEEBS. PERHAPS THE ULTIMATE DWEEBS. WE HAVE LONG MEMORIES AND ARE UNUSUALLY DEVOTED TO OUR PASSIONS. WHAT MAKES A UNIVERSE REALLY RICH ARE THOSE CONTINUING STORIES. SOMETHING THE TREK BOSSES HAVE NEVER FULLY GRASPED. SIGH…..

Though responses were favourable for the third season – and the show did attract a few more peeps – it was “too little late” for the show, says Billingsley. The show was on its last legs.

“You can’t re-invent something two years in. They’ve (the audience) already sampled the show and they’ve made their decision. People that were staying with it were probably going to stay with it regardless. So yes, it helped us creatively, but it didn’t make a difference to our ratings”.

One gimmick that the show’s producers tried to make happen was to have William Shatner, reprising his role as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, pop up in the fourth season – but it didn’t come off. It was proposed that Shatner’s Kirk would pop up sometime, serving as a sort-of valentine to fans of the original series, and that might have helped ratings, says the actor. “

We did an episode in the fourth season, set in a parallel universe, that reflected back to a couple of parallel universe episodes that were done in the original series. One of the ideas was to have Kirk appear in that particular episode. [But] Bill Shatner has his own series now, so wasn’t that available, and I imagine he would have required a hell of a lot more money for a show that they knew was going to be going off the air [soon anyway]”, he says. “They bought Brent Spiner (Data from TV’s Next Generation) in [instead for] the fourth season, they were popular episodes, and had some other interesting guest-stars”, but Shatner didn’t work out.

"Enterprise" was one of a handful of pilots that Billingsley auditioned for in 2001, but as he was let down about not getting another recent role, he wasn’t counting his chickens on this one either.

You never know, even if you get one [a series], whether it’s going to get made or picked up or if it’s going to succeed after it gets picked up. The Star Trek Enterprise pilot was the last audition I had in a long pilot season, I had thought the pilot season was over, I’d actually gotten close to a part on Alias which I didn’t get and got disappointed, and then Star Trek came through”.

Billingsley said he was rather surprised with how easy it was to get the role. Usually, he says, you have to keep going back to meet different members of the series, meet the network, audition another four or five times, and so on – but this, he says, “was relatively painless. I went in, Brannon (Braga) and Rick (Berman) liked what I did, they indicated through my representation that I was their only choice. I essentially got the thumbs up – quick and painless”.

Surprisingly, the actor admits not being a fan of science fiction and notably, "Star Trek", before winning the role.

I watched some of the original series when I was a kid, and watched some of the Next Generation shows and I’ve seen some of the movies, not all of them, but I wasn’t any great aficionado. In all candour, I suspect my own aesthetic and what interests me about the medium of television – does not lean towards Star Trek”.

The actor says he has his own theories about why the show “failed, and why the franchise has taken what I suspect is a necessary hiatus” but personally, believes the show wasn’t gritty enough.

I wish it had gone a little farther in it’s few seasons – been a little grittier, and a little rawer, a little dirtier – say, weapons exploded in our faces, the transporter really didn’t work, and we got our arses kicked by the aliens. Space exploration’s a mother fucker!” he laughs. EDITOR’S NOTE: YEAH. GOOD IDEAS. BUT NO ONE IN CHARGE THERE HAS THE MOXIE TO DO THAT. (NO ONE IN TREK LAND HAS TRASH, OR GOES TO THE BATHROOM, OR MESSES UP THEIR OUTFITS. UNLESS IT’S A HUNK WHO HAS HIS SHIRT TORN TO REVEAL HIS PECS)

Though he got on well with the cast, Billingsley says he’d be lying if he said they were all still good mates and regularly caught up.

Though we liked each other and we certainly bump into each other at conventions or parties, or what have you, I can’t say there’s a ton of socialising that takes place. We liked each other but we all ran in very different circles and had very different interests and led different lives…. it always makes me laugh when I hear others talk about ‘the family’ and ‘Oh, we’re so close’ and ninety percent of the time it’s like ‘Uh-huh, Sure’”, he explains.

One cast member’s movements that Billingsley is aware of is Scott Bakula, who played ship captain, Jonathan Archer. Bakula was actually rumoured to be returning to do a new series – and possible telemovie kick-start – based on his 80’s hit "Quantum Leap", but Billingsley says his co-star is exhausted after "Enterprise", and has no plans to return as time-travelling Sam Beckett in the future.

No. My speculation is that Scott’s going to lay low for a while. He’s got a big family, and certainly doesn’t have any financial need [to do Quantum Leap] and it’s exhausting doing series television, particularly if it’s an action/adventure show”.

Some of Billingsley’s co-stars – that include Jolene Blalock, Scott Bakula and Linda Park – have been pretty vocal about their discontent over the handling of the series, but where do his feelings lie? Were there tears on that last day of shooting?

I have mixed feelings about it. It didn’t come as any great surprise; I can’t say that there wasn’t any deep emotional response, because most of us, frankly, saw the show getting cancelled after the third season. We were fortunate to get a fourth season, but frankly, the only reason we did is because from Paramount’s point of view they make a lot more money if they can make a certain number of episodes – approximately 100 - because that’s the number, at which point, it’s possible to sell into syndication nationally. Paramount essentially made a deal with UPN, the network that showed Enterprise, that they would sell the show to them for half of what we were selling it to them at before – just to keep us on one more year. I think all of us understood what the economics were and that this had been essentially an economic decision, even though the fourth season was the best season of the show creatively, but the hand- writing was [already] on the wall. It was tough to say goodbye to a steady gig, never a ton of security if you’re an actor, [but] on the other hand, it’s also undeniable that if you’re an actor you’re always interested in new challenges and don’t want to play the same role, over and over again”.

The character of Dr Phlox never got to do a lot on the show, says Billingsley. For instance, he never got to “throw the punches or sleep with the alien babes”. But that had more with the fact that he was essentially a ‘character actor’ and not because of the writing, he adds.

The final episode of "Star Trek Enterprise" – which recently aired in the states – bought back a couple of familiar faces from the Trek legacy, "Next Generation" regulars Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirits. Some of the cast of Enterprise, however, weren’t so hot about others crashing their party – and neither were the fans.

Billingsley wasn’t happy either. “I did not care for the last episode very much, though I didn’t respond with as much emotion or vitriol as some fans did, or candidly, with as much negativity as some of the other actors. [Because] It’s not my job to review or critique the individual episodes. I personally didn’t think it was a very strong episode and I thought we could’ve ended the show on a more interesting note”.

Billingsley, who’s just shot an episode of "Nip/Tuck" (playing a man who wants to have his leg amputated and has a condition called body integrity identity disorder) and hopes to film a small role in a new Virginia Madsen/Forest Whitaker movie called "The Ripple Effect", believes "Trek" will return – but with a change of guard.

At some point, under new management. The landscape of television and the world’s culture has changed that much that I think Star Trek needs a bit of a re-tooling”. EDITOR’S NOTE: A YEP. AGREED.

Billingsley says there was never any talk of bringing the cast of "Enterprise" to the big screen.

I don’t think anybody could have projected that far forward. Certainly the idea of keeping the movie franchise alive was, and still is, I suspect in Paramount’s head, but I don’t know that when we got our show that there was any particular speculation that we would be the next movie franchise. Obviously, the first step was to find out whether our show was going to be popular - popular enough for movies to get made. Realistically, Deep Space Nine and Voyager did not enjoy that kind of success either. Next Generation did, but I think that was only because it was the first Trek show after a long hiatus, and you can’t replicate those conditions”, he says.

I suspect the movie franchise will continue – if I was a betting man I’d say in two or three years there’ll be a new movie. It’ll be a brand-new cast, it’ll be a brand-new chapter of Star Trek and if that’s successful then that cast would spin-off into a TV show”. EDITOR’S NOTE: SOUNDS LIKE A SMART FELLOW.


Interview : Johnny Depp
Sporting a tanned hat and thin beard, Johnny Depp was in the thick of Toronto's annual film festival happy to talk about his participation in yet another Tim Burton film, "Corpse Bride".

Making his initial foray into the world of animation as a cowardly groom-to-be who inadvertently finds himself betrothed to a corpse bride in the stop motion romantic fantasy, Depp says that doing an animated film " was something I kind of always wanted to do, especially since having my first child," Depp explains smilingly. "I’ve been watching nothing but animated films now, so I’ve really developed a respect and love for them. But more than anything, what drew me to this was Tim. We were just commencing "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this other thing, "Corpse Bride", maybe take a look at it.’ So I read it and loved it, but it somehow didn’t occur to me that we were going to be doing it at the same time. I thought it was going to be like months down the road so I would have some time later to prepare for the character."

You could imagine the surprise of this normally prepared actor when, as he was very focused on Wonka, "Tim arrives on set and says, ‘Hey, you know, maybe tonight we’ll go and record some of Corpse Bride.’ I was like sure, ‘course we can. I have no character. I didn’t know what the guy was going to sound like or anything, but good fun though."

With two children, a six year old daughter and a three year old boy, the actor isn't quite sure whether they prefer their dad as an animated character or pirate.

"My daughter is quite calm, ladylike and princessy, so she can sit there and watch a movie and not get real antsy. While my boy will watch for about three and a half seconds, then sprint as fast as he can across the room to go and break something. With THIS film, we watched Corpse Bride together and my boy sat on my lap and watched the entire film, just didn’t move, was riveted and just loved it. Now that says a lot. I think this movie pretty full."

While Depp is one of the few movie stars in Hollywood that passes as both a major leading man and character actor, he clearly ignores the notion of celebrity, taking his job of actor more seriously than most. Even on a film such as "Corpse Bride", Depp had to literally set about finding the character, as he explains.

"I think with any character, it all comes from some place of truth within you and then I don't know, which is weird. When I read a script, I get these sort of images and ideas come to me. Then sometimes the image of people come to me, like with Sleepy Hollow I kept seeing a Roddy McDowell/Angela Lansbury kind of thing so that became the inspiration. Captain Jack, Keith became the inspiration because I started thinking of pirates as rock stars of the time, the idea that their legend arrived months, maybe years before they did. So you just start taking little titbits of things and storing them up to use later."

Depp adds that for better or worse, he's a keen observer of human behaviour.

"One of the primary responsibilities and luxuries of an actor is to is the art of observation, being able to watch people and watch their behaviour. Now that is fascinating, because people are really nuts," says Depp laughingly.

"Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed just stealing little bits from people, incorporating them into characters."

It seems that Depp is at his most creative when working with pal Tim Burton. the two have evolved since their first pairing on Edward Scissorhands and it's clearly a relationship the actor cherishes.

"I just think he’s a genius and that’s not a word that you can throw around very easily. I think Tim is so special and unique and our working relationship is, as you can imagine, weird, because there is a sort of emotional shorthand there and some kind of connection that I don't know how to explain. But most of the time, at least for me, all I’m trying to do is make him laugh. Even in the scene, you can have all these motivations and objectives as an actor but hen when I get in the ring, it basically all goes out the window and I’m just trying to make Tim laugh. I just want to see in my peripheral vision his sort of hunched over giggle where he’s trying not to make noise."

Asked if the actor might be someone’s inspiration someday, Depp pauses and smiles.

"That’s dangerous territory. I don't know that I’m in a position to inspire anyone."

Depp is now back at work on both Pirates movies and is philosophical about the process of bringing his Captain Jack back not once but twice.

"It occurs to me that Jack Sparrow can be funny, so I’m going to try that this time and I’m just going to try and be funny. EDITOR’S NOTE: DON’T PUSH. DON’T TRY TOO HARD. HE WAS FUNNY BEFORE, WITHOUT BEING OVERLY SELF-AWARE. KEEP IT CLEAN AND SIMPLE, YES? Selfishly, the whole idea of sequels and stuff like that, are a very odd notion because I never quite understood the idea of doing sequels until as an actor you think: I’ve played this character for months and months and I really got to know and love the guy, Then the clock starts ticking and you know the end is coming and you go: Jesus, I’ll never see him again. I’ll never see him, I’ll never feel this again. So you start to get depressed and with Jack Sparrow, I had the sneaking suspicion that I might see him again. So I’m saying selfishly, I was so excited to come back and do two and three because I just wanted to meet up with him again."

And Depp also hopes to return to the ill fated "Don Quixote" project abandoned by Terry Gilliam.

"I’d love to. If there’s any way to avoid the curse, that would be better. Every time I see Terry he threatens to. I’d love to do the film if at all possible and I stress that if at all possible, because it was going to be good. That was the thing we all felt and was really sad. It was going to be really good. It was like the best of Terry Gilliam and I felt really good about my character. The good news is, if he wants to go back and do that, I know the character so I have less to do".

Depp is that unique Hollywood animal: a bona fide movie star and an acclaimed actor.

And now he's as much a blockbuster star these days the happy-go-lucky and pragmatic actor seems to take the added responsibility seriously.

"Here’s an oxymoron for you: it hasn’t changed my work ethic or my approach to the work. I’ve been very, very lucky in my life that I have worn many hats, literally and I’d love to show them all to you. I’ve done everything from selling ink pens over the telephone to screen printed T-shirts, worked construction, was a musician for a number of years and a busboy. I’ve done a lot of different things and I’ve had a great deal of luck in this business, so I’m somewhat together enough to know that if the ride is going smooth, fun and well and everything is peachy keen this week, then all that could evaporate next week and then I’m once again that weird guy that does art films, which is okay. So I've always said I’ve never had any allergy to the idea of commercial success. It was just how you got there that was important." EDITOR’S NOTE: AMEN. (SOUNDS LIKE A SHARP GUY. AND LEVEL-HEADED AND DOWN-TO-EARTH).



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