On Thursday The Orville returns from a brief hiatus to kick off the final three episodes of its second season with “Sanctuary.” The episode was directed by Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Jonathan Frakes so TrekMovie thought it was a good time to check in with the beloved actor/director. This first part of our extended exclusive interview focuses on his work on The Orville. Check back later in the week for what he has to say about his work on the various Star Trek shows.
Jonathan Frakes returns to The Orville
Seth MacFarlane is hyping your episode Thursday as “epic.” Can you elaborate on what makes it epic?
The action is epic. We spent a lot of time on another planet I can say. The casting is epic with Ted Danson, Victor Garber, Tony Todd and somebody named Marina Sirtis is in it. It is a big ambitious episode. But The Orville has done that this season. They have expanded their approach. It used to be – not a ship-based show, but a more traditional episodic event. But now I don’t know if it is influenced by [Star Trek:] Discovery or if it is just audience appetite, but the episodes compared to what I did last season is more fun when it is a bigger event.
To me, one of the differences this season of The Orville feels a bit like The Next Generation after Michael Piller took over as showrunner, with a new focus on character. Are you feeling that vibe?
That’s very astute. I think the fans of Seth expected the show to be much more Family Guy than he ever intended it. In that, part of what he did by hiring [Star Trek veteran] Brannon [Braga] and others is to tell Star Trek stories that happen to have moments of absurdity, and that humor we have come to know. But it was never underlined and never expanded and if you blink sometimes you missed the humor and I think that approach worked in season one. Now for season two, we have these character studies. Like how he has gone all in on Bortus and his partner and that family. We know more about that character than we know about Ed even. I like it. I think it is smart. When we used to do Data stories on Next Gen – Data was my favorite character – and whenever we explored his world and being an android he explained human behavior better than any of us did. The depth of character, I think it helps the show and I think it helps the audience relate to the show and the audience then are invested in the details they found out about the character. And the same thing is true on Discovery. We took Owosekun with us on the away team [“New Eden”] and we killed Airiam [“Project Daedalus”] – two of the episodes that I directed that had these character studies.
You mentioned Marina is in your episode. Can you talk through how that happened?
Seth and I had looked at casting tapes for this character and I said, “I like so and so,” and he said “I kind of did too,” but we weren’t blown away. And he asked, “Isn’t there somebody from your show?” And I said, “obviously Marina could do this part.” He said he was thinking he should hold off until he found another part for her but asked what I thought, and I said Marina would LOVE to do this part. So were in video village – we were already shooting – and both texted her at the same time. She was thrilled and we called her, found a date, made a deal for her. And she was to come in for a costume fitting, but the schedule got shuffled and so the day after we texted her she came in for the fitting and was told not only was she doing the fitting but she was going to make up because she was working that day. It was like like a 24- or 36-hour turnaround from “isn’t there somebody on your show?” to having Marina on set, and it was such a good call.
She is so under-used and so talented and so good for our universe, on either show. She is a quintessential member of this family and Seth has been so loyal to all of us and has such a great affection for The Next Gen that it made perfect sense. And also, he has set the precedent of using people from our world, including [Robert] Picardo, and [John] Billingsly and [Tim] Russ was on the last one that aired. He is putting his money where his mouth is.
Have you ever considered putting yourself in a cameo in The Orville – or even Discovery?
Every day! First of all, I am the most vain person in the world. I was always able to do it on The Librarian. I was always able to sneak myself in somewhere. It is a little more complicated on those shows, for obvious reasons. I think I have a better shot at it on The Orville because of the tone with Seth’s approach. That kind of wink or Hitchcock-ian thing, even a walk-by or the guy brushing his teeth. I tried to do the same thing on Big Bang Theory. I pitched that I’m the guy that sprayed the bowling shoes for Wil Wheaton. There are certain iconic things you want to just say you did. On Big Bang, LeVar [Burton] has been on, Brent [Spiner] has been on, [William] Shatner has been on and they refer to Next Gen a lot. And Wil Wheaton plays himself and Sheldon’s nemesis on the show. So I am pitching to [Big Bang Theory executive producer] Bill Prady that I am happy to come on and not have any dialog, just make that kind of appearance, which I would be thrilled to do on The Orville as well. Even just walking across in the hallway or the bartender or Penny’s assistant in sickbay. There is an opportunity there.
You mentioned how Seth has hired people who worked on Star Trek, one of whom is director of photography Marvin Rush. What is like to be back on the set of a starship with you directing and Marvin as your DP?
Obviously, it is surreal. And I got to say that Marvin and I found ourselves during breaks at the crafts services table reminiscing. He is a very sweet and emotional man who spent a lot of his formative years – not only on our show but in the Star Trek world. He created a lot of the look for a lot of the stuff everyone has come to know and love about Star Trek. I think Seth wisely went after him because it is one thing to have Brannon [as writer/executive producer] and another to have Robbie [Duncan MacNeill], Jim Conway and myself [as directors], but in terms of the look of the show, the idea of hiring Marvin has paid off. In Orville the cutting style and shooting style are much more like Next Gen and Voyager, that sort of ’90s television era which didn’t have wildly moving camera moves. Whereas on Discovery we are encouraged to do the sort of J.J. Abrams cinematic version of Star Trek. And Seth – because he comes from an animation background and he has written all the shows – in his incredible renaissance mind of his he has a picture and a sound of how everything he has written should look, and the rhythm. So, with the framing, if I try to do something different than what he has envisioned, he’ll whisper “that’s not what I am looking for.” So, Marvin and I shoot the show the way Seth envisions the show.
Also returning to Marvin and reminiscing, he wanted to know how everybody was because he knows we all still see each other. We had so much time together and we have so many Marvin stories. There is one with Marina I will share with you. She was shorter than the rest of us. She wore these big heels and sometimes even the big heels weren’t enough to get into a shot with Worf or Riker. And we were on the bridge and Marina had to walk up around the back of the “horseshoe” and get into the doorway of the turbolift. And as she got into the turbolift she was in a scene with both me and Worf, so she was short. So Marvin Rush followed the camera with either a quarter apple or a pancake – a little riser – and as she landed, he slid it under her feet and in rehearsal got his hand out and magically she was two inches taller and the shot was pleasing. On the take, he follows her up the ramp stealthily with the pancake in his hand and he slides it under as she steps down on it with both feet and he has got both of his hands and fingers underneath this pancake, splotched into the floor of the bridge. He is on the ground, on his knees, with an actress and a box splayed onto eight of his fingers. It was a classic moment. And that was the best take. That was so Marvin, that is Marvin giving blood for the shot. It was wonderful. It was a quintessentially Marvin moment where he found a way to solve the problem and he did it himself.
Is he still that hands-on?
Less so, but [executive producer/director Jon] Cassar is. He is also a cameraman and likes to grab the camera. There are a lot of cameramen around there. I used to occasionally shoot a close-up that I knew I couldn’t screw up because I knew the camera would be locked on. It allows the wonderful intimacy of looking through the eyepiece. But, there is a lot of lighting going on, so Marvin has his hands full over there.
We have talked about some of the differences between Discovery and The Orville, but what are some of the key similarities you see having directed for both?
I think the similarities on both shows is that the writing is the most important element. Everyone on the show from the top to the bottom understands that. If the story isn’t there and the script isn’t tight and the logic interested addressed, and canon on both shows as well. Orville doesn’t have Star Trek’s canon, but it has its own canon and its own set of rules and those rules are part of what the audience, the producers, the directors, and the actors count on. So, on both shows the world is essential. This sounds like a cliché, but it is about the family on both shows. That’s what made Next Gen successful. That’s what makes TOS successful. What we always dreamed of and aspired to on our show, was to find some version of that magical triangle that was Kirk, Spock and Bones and that relationship – that kidding, ball-busting, supportive, loyal. We tried to find it in different combinations: with Picard, Riker and Data, with Worf and Geordi and Riker and Data and Troi. We always sought after that magic. And I believe that in both The Orville and Discovery we’re finding our combinations that work.
Obviously, Ed and Kelly have magic based on their history. Scott Grimes I think is the great secret weapon on that show. He makes all the scenes he is in work. I love what they did with Isaac and Penny. And the same on Discovery with Saru and Burnham, Tilly and Stamets, that relationship is delicious. There are so many things that used to happen on our show when we have relationships in the family that didn’t drive the story but drove what we felt when you finished watching the show. I think those elements are true of both shows and those are among the reasons why both shows are successful and we anticipate each episode. And why with one of the things they are doing on Discovery this season – and Orville as well – is we are examining their characters on the bridge. We are finding more about them, including characters that felt like supporting players, specifically Airiam, and Owo, and Detmer, and now Nhan on that show. Orville has a bit less of this because it has a smaller regular cast.
Wrapping up on The Orville by returning to Seth’s tweet I mentioned at the start, he also said that you are “really fun to get drunk with.” So, is there a story there, or is he just making a joke?
Both. That is all I am going to say on that subject. That is an area where I could really get into trouble with. [laughs] But, wouldn’t you take that as a compliment, coming from Seth?
The Orville returns Thursday
“Sanctuary” – Jonatha Frakes’ episode of The Orville – airs Thursday, April 11 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. Check out the trailer below.
Keep up with all the The Orville news, reviews and interviews at TrekMovie.com.