Jonathan Frakes started directing while still playing William Riker on Star Trek The Next Generation, going on to direct multiple Trek episodes, two TNG films, as well as many non-Trek films and TV shows. Next week TNT will air an episode of their heist show Leverage directed by Frakes and featuring guest spots for Trek actors Brent Spiner and Armin Shimerman, so we thought now would be a good time to check in with the bearded one.
Frakes Interview (Part 1)
In recent years Jonathan Frakes has often collaborated with producer Dean Devlin and his Electric Entertainment production company. Devlin produces the "Librarian" series of TV movies, the last two of which were directed by Frakes, as well as the new TNT heist-drama TV series Leverage, for which Frakes has directed two of the first season episodes. Frakes’ second Leverage episode "The Juror #6 Job" airs next Tuesday. As the title hints, the episode is courtroom-focused and it features Brent Spiner (TNG: Data) playing a corrupt inventor being sued, and Armin Shimerman (DS9: Quark) playing a corrupt expert witness.
TrekMovie.com: You just finished directing your second episode of Leverage, is this now a regular gig for you?
Jonathan Frakes: I certainly hope so. We are waiting for a pick-up for a second season. Dean [Devlin] and I have worked together quite a bit.
TM: You have done a lot of directing in sci-fi and genre, but this is your first time working in the ‘heist movie’ style, are you a fan heist movies and did you do a lot of research on those kinds of films before working on Leverage?
Frakes: I love heist movies. Leverage is influenced by Oceans Eleven and [Steven] Soderbergh. Dean established that in the pilot and that is something that we have all maintained as the template, it doesn’t hurt that we have a great cast to work with. The characters are very well defined thanks to [writers] Chris Downey and John Rogers. I think it is a great show.
Cast of Leverage
TM: Do you find directing Leverage similar to directing Next Gen, as it is an ensemble led by a strong actor, in this case Timothy Hutton instead of Patrick Stewart?
Frakes: Yes I would say it has a very similar feeling. It is a tight group and the stories move from character to character and the relationships are what the whole show is based on. Timothy Hutton is a great number one. He is a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. He is a movie star who has come over to work with us on television. I have to say that whenever I say I work on this show, people love Timothy Hutton, particularly women.
TM: For the episode coming up, "The Juror #6 Job", whose idea was to cast two Star Trek regulars in an episode you were directing?
Frakes: That was my idea. I asked Dean if I could offer it to Brent [Spiner], and he was already big fan of Brent’s because he used him in Independence Day. And I suggested to the casting director to offer [the corrupt doctor] to Armin [Shimerman] and why don’t we give [Armin’s wife] Kitty [Swink] the judge, she also had a recurring role on DS9. Everyone signed off on it. These are wonderful actors who just happened to be on Star Trek. And this interview is a perfect example of what happens, the bloodlines from Star Trek to Leverage are connected and I think that is interesting for people. It will be great for Data fans and fans of Brent to see him play a slime-ball sleazy character.
TM: Brent has complained in the past about how, because of ID4, he is always offered crazy scientist roles and in a sense this character falls into that category. Did he balk?
Frakes: He balked, but I twisted his arm.
TM: I noticed in the pilot for Leverage there was an overt Star Trek reference related to Klingons. Did you guys slip anything like that into your episode?
Frakes: I did perform Oo-mox on Armin’s ears, but I am not sure it made the cut.
TM: You did appear in a cameo in a recent episode of Leverage…
Frakes: I was prepping my first episode, "The Wedding Job," when Dean ran into the office and said "I need you, come on stage now." I said sure and they put a bandage on my neck sat me down next to Tim and we played a little get-together. That is the kind of company that Electric is.
TM: Is acting something you are not as interested in anymore now that you are directing?
Frakes: Just the opposite. Acting is something I am very interested in.
Frakes cameo w/ Hutton on Leverage
TM: Are there any acting projects you have coming up?
Frakes: One would ask that very same question. I am looking for a job. It has been good to direct, but — you know Star Trek, as you know from talking to all the people from all the shows, is a double-edged sword.
TM: You mean in that it makes you famous but also has the risk of type-casting?
Frakes: Yeah. It makes you famous and you run the risk of type-casting, but as Leonard (Nimoy) says "it is better to be type-cast, than non cast at all." But it depends on the show. For instance I directed a new show for Fox called Persons Unknown, that is not on yet. They said "here is a part you can play" but the show runner and producer Remi Aubuchon said I couldn’t do the part because it would take the audience out of the story as ‘the Star Trek guy’ and it is a very real kind of show. A show like Leverage can use Brent because he is a star and a wonderful actor and we believe he can play these characters. Leverage has a sense of humor and it therefore opens up casting opportunities wider. Shows that are very very very serious and count on the reality of the acting, can’t risk having someone like Bill Shatner play the character because people will say "it’s Kirk" or it’s Denny Crane."
TM: I know that the set at TNG was a very light set, with everyone very familiar and joking around, was that kind of atmosphere back during your latest Leverage shoot with Brent and Armin?
Frakes: Well Leverage was already — when I work I try to maintain that kind of set anyway. To add Brent to the mix, all it did was enhance that. Armin is a little more serious.
Frakes with Shimerman and Spiner on the set of Leverage
TM: Switching gears to the other Electric production. There has been talk of the next The Librarian morphing into a feature film. Do you have info on that?
Frakes: Just what you said, that rumor is going around. Dean has always entertained the idea that the franchise could expand and become a feature. We have done three of the TV movies. That is something that is being discussed. Whether it will happen is something altogether.
TM: I have enjoyed the Librarian movies. They are adventure stories, but with Bob Newhart and the stuff with the sword, etc..they are also funny. Is it hard maintaining that balance without it turning into an Indiana Jones parody?
Frakes: I think one of the reasons Dean and I clicked on these, is because of what you just described, the tone of a quote ‘action-adventure comedy’ appeals to both of us. And the one who really deserves credit is Noah [Wyle] who has owned that part and everything else sort of falls into place behind him. It is really about the tone. If you can have Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin, but also Olympia Dukakis, but you are also telling action adventure stories — but there is a wonderful glint in Noah’s eyes as he plays that character that sets the tone.
TM: So it is just a question of if or where the next Librarian movie ends up? TV or feature?
Frakes: I think it is a question of where.
Frakes with Noah Wyle filming "Librarian 2"
TM: You are one of the many, but possibly the most successful, Star Trek actors turned directors…
Frakes: What about Robbie McNeill? Give Robbie his props.
TM: Certainly, and of course Leonard Nimoy. But during the Next Generation era there are Robbie, Roxann Dawson, LeVar Burton, and others. I haven’t added up total directing credits, but I think you have done more feature work. My question is, was there something about the atmosphere during the Rick Berman era at Star Trek, that lent itself to a sort of DGA school?
Frakes: I say with great pride that I was the first of the Next Gen crowd, and Rick didn’t give a show out easily, or at least to me. I was trailing directors for years — trailing directors in the editing room before he ever gave me an episode to direct. So there was a real advantage, and my wife Genie would tell me ‘you got to go down there and show them you are interested and persevere’ and it paid off. Obviously I was pretty comfortable on the set from having done so much television and having followed so many directors. What you really need to direct television effectively and efficiently, and a big part of what you are hired for, is to make the show in a given number of days or hours. And to do that you need to know what pieces the editor needs. You can’t be willy nilly, you have to have a plan. I have to give Rick credit for not letting me go until I was prepared. God knows I was over-prepared by the time I started.
Frakes directing an episode of Next Generation
More from Frakes in Part 2
Keep an eye out for the second part of the TrekMovie interview with Jonathan Frakes where we talk more about his time with Trek, his thoughts on JJ Abrams, the new Star Trek, Nemesis and more. That should be coming in the next couple of days.
Trek reunion episode of Leverage airs Tuesday
"The Juror #6 Job", directed by Jonathan Frakes and featuring Brent Spiner and Armin Shimerman, premieres Tuesday February 10 at 10/9c on TNT. More info at tnt.tv/series/leverage. Check out a sneak peek at “The Juror #6 Job” below.