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Robert Picardo spent seven years as the holographic Doctor on Star Trek Voyager. The part, which grew to be a breakout role on the show, is just one of many memorable roles for the veteran actor who will soon be seen as a regular on Stargate Atlantis which premieres its 5th season this week. In an exclusive interview with TrekMovie, Picardo talks about his roles on Voyager, Atlantis and more.
TrekMovie.com: Your Stargate character Richard Woolsey has evolved over time and started as a heavy and foil to Richard Dean Anderson on SG-1. You have spoken about how The Doctor on Voyager grew on people over time and the same has happened with Woolsey. Did you work with the Stargate writers on that character arc and evolution?
Robert Picardo: Oh, no. The writers at Stargate have very much their own ideas and plans for the character. I think what ended up helping me is when I did the first guest star the writers and producers, specifically Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, just decided they kind of liked me and kind of wanted me to hang around. The luckiest aspect was they introduced me as a heavy and then they thought about how to bring me back and they made the decision to make me kind of an unwitting heavy for the evil senator played by Ronnie Cox. And once I realized I was being manipulated, the audience was shown I had the best intentions. And then after that in subsequent episodes, for example "The Scourge", you got to see that my character even had the beginnings of some humorous foibles too. He was really great in a conference room, but you put him in a real situation and he just wasn’t cut out for it. There is a funny moment in "The Scourge" when Woolsey is hightailing it from these insect creatures and he outruns everybody else to save his ass. I think there is a certain inherent fun with taking a bureaucrat and putting him in a real situation.
Picardo’s Woolsey out of his element in "The Scourge"
TrekMovie.com: A lot of your fellow Trek stars have appeared in the Stargate franchise over the years in, mostly one-off roles. What is about you or your character that got them calling you back so often?
Robert Picardo That is hard to answer. I think when they tweak the character in all sorts of directions–when you throw me the ball I will run with it. I also think that he is a great conflict character. It is a science expedition with a military support group. So the original primary leader was a civilian scientist, the secondary leader was the military guy. Now you got a guy who is coming in there and is not qualified in either area and he is telling both what to do. There is a lot of conflict there, there is certain humorous possibilities in it because he is not an easy guy to get along with but he has the self awareness that he rubs people the wrong way. And there is the overarching dramatic possibility that he has never been called upon to lead. He has only evaluated other people’s leadership and now he has to step up to the plate.
TrekMovie.com: When one looks back at your career you can see that you have played a lot of authority figures and a lot of stiff, or bureaucratic as you put it, characters. Is that something that you seek out? And how do you differentiate Woolsey from the rest of your bureaucrat past.
Robert Picardo: First of all, when you hair starts jumping off your head in your mid 20s you know that you have bureaucrats in your future. [laughs] I think that my stock in trade as an actor has been playing what is often called ‘the guy you love to hate.’ Which is the character that makes an initial bad impression. This goes back to the gym coach on The Wonder Years. You don’t like him because he can be gruff or authoritative or arrogant or overbearing or a windbag or whatever, but there are neuroses or foibles to the character that let the audience have a window into understanding what made him the way he is. And they start to develop an affection for that. You are holding a mirror up to weaknesses in people that motivate their unpleasant behavior and that strikes a chord with the audience. This guy means well, he just doesn’t know how to stop being a jerk. Like The Doctor on Star Trek with his huffy attitude, he had an exterior that alienated a lot of people. I think one secret to these characters is that they don’t feel they are appreciated enough. They are really trying to do the right thing. They have this expertise and because they don’t have the most gracious personality skills people judge them and don’t really appreciate what they don’t do.
Picardo as Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years
Robert Picardo: (continuing) Regarding Woolsey and what makes him different, well first of all he is not a hologram [laughs]. I think that Woolsey’s past that we know of, he has a very strong academic background and with government think tanks and also having his own passion and commitment being used and being burned, he would be pre-disposed to being cautious and careful of anything like that form happening again. So when he receives the counsel of the military higher ups and the science higher ups, everything is going to be called into question because he is the one responsible for the decision.
TrekMovie.com: Your role on Voyager went through one of the larger arcs of any Trek character, certainly on Voyager itself. Was that something you worked hard to make happen or did it happen naturally.
Robert Picardo: Once we got into the third or fourth episode writers who were pitching the show got a sense of The Doctor’s possibilities, and so they got a lot of stories pitched for me. But also I went frequently to the writer’s office – Brannon Braga does a great impersonation of me hiding in the bushes outside the writer’s office so when he came out for a smoke I would jump him and say ‘you know Brannon I was thinking, dot dot dot’. In retrospect the best suggestion I made was how The Doctor related to Seven of Nine. I was quite concerned when Kes left the show because her character was The Doctor’s confidant and he revealed himself in a way to her that he didn’t with anyone else. I was concerned that The Doctor would no longer have his sounding board. When I mentioned this to Brannon he asked that I come up with a way I could related to the new character, so I went off and thought about it and decided to turn the dynamic around. Because Kes had basically tutored The Doctor in his developing humanity, I thought wouldn’t be wonderful if The Doctor thought he was more suited than a human to teach Seven how to reclaim her humanity. So I proposed the whole thing of the role playing and the social appropriateness lessons. I didn’t know they would carry that arc for four years. And the logical conclusion of that became, of course, the ‘My Fair Lady’ episode ["Someone To Watch Over Me"] where the teacher falls in love with his pupil. Not only did I have great friendships as an actor on the show, but The Doctor developed ways to relate to all of the characters. So I agree with you that the writers gave me a great arc and it remained fun over the course of the seven years.
The Doctor teaches Seven to dance in "Someone To Watch Over M"
TrekMovie.com: I have seen survey data that showed that fans ranked The Doctor as the second favorite character on Voyager behind Janeway, even a bit a head of Seven of Nine…
Robert Picardo: Well I used to tell Jeri [Ryan] that I had the best butt on the show [laughs] so maybe it is that. I really think that what made the character have the potential to delight the fans was because he didn’t have to act stalwart, brave and true in the Starfleet straightjacket of courageous behavior. What was fun about The Doctor because he was designed for one specific purpose, whenever he was out of his element he didn’t have to act according to the Starfleet code of behavior. He could be cowardly, he could be reluctant, he could be just pissy and it was fun to play all those negative qualities and make the audience laugh and when the chips are down to rise to your better self. I guess what I am saying is that he had the capacity to be more surprising in his responses than some of the other characters and that is just by the design of the show. I think the other actor’s in the show envied, in a gracious way, that they could give me all these silly storylines or dramatic storylines.
TrekMovie.com: It has been 7 years since Voyager has returned from the Delta Quadrant and returned to Earth. Where do you see The Doctor seven years after his return?
Robert Picardo: I think of him lecturing at Starfleet Academy and traveling all over the galaxy for guest speakerships. He is a major proponent of hologram rights. He has written several treatises on Holopology, which of course is the study of hologram culture and art. I think he has been a guest soloist with the San Francisco Symphony singing some of his favorite arias. I would like to think he and Seven have gotten together for the occasional, um, warm reminiscence. Remember The Doctor doesn’t age, so I figure after ten or twelve years The Doctor is starting to look good.
Picardo as The Doctor in the Voyager finale "Endgame"
TrekMovie.com: If you had a chance to work with a Trek actor who has (or hasn’t yet) worked on Stargate before…if they came to you and said ‘what Trek actor would you love to play off of’, who would you pick?
Robert Picardo: That is a great question. Frankly, I am very close friends with Ethan Phillips and we have a great rapport. I have mentioned to the producers different actors that I like from other shows as well, like Greg Itzin who played the evil president on 24 to such acclaim. He and I are pals and I would love to see him appear on the show. Garret Wang would be fun. Robbie McNeill and Roxann Dawson are pretty much full time director producers now and Tim [Russ] has a steady gig, but it would be great to work with them again, and certainly with Kate [Mulgrew].
TrekMovie.com: Have you been keeping up with all the news with Trek and the new big movie?
Robert Picardo: I joke with my friends, now that I am jumping franchises, that I waited until Star Trek was hot again. I stuck with it during the lean years and now that it is hot again I have, of course, jumped ship to join Stargate. Now that JJ Abrams is going revive the franchise and give it a new lease on life it is a bad time to be moving down the block…. I am the first Star Trek actor, beyond those playing guest spots, to sort of move into the neighborhood full time. I wonder if that will affect how the die-hard Stargate fans, the fans that feel that one franchise is superior to the other. I wonder if they will feel that it is slumming taking a Star Trek actor in and giving him gainful employment. I hope not but you never know.
TrekMovie.com: Well they accepted Ben Browder and Claudia Black…
Robert Picardo: Oh yeah, and they came from Farscape. So they are willing to accept a franchise hopper if they work hard and keep their nose clean. That is what I am banking on.
Picardo leads the team for the fifth season of Stargate Atlantis
The fifth season of SGA kicks off Friday July 11th on the Sci-Fi Channel