After spending four years as Dr. Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise, John Billingsley has kept active, appearing in dozens of television shows. He will next be seen in the second season of the Amazon Prime series Homecoming. TrekMovie checked in with the veteran character actor to talk about his time working on Enterprise and life after Star Trek.
WARNING: Interview contains adult language.
So often I am watching TV, some random show, and I go, “Hey, there’s John Billingsley!”
You have encapsulated my career brilliantly. Random! Random and arbitrary appearances on oddball shows of limited value.
You seem to be constantly working, and you had an active career as a character actor before Star Trek: Enterprise. Many actors who have starred in Star Trek have found it hard to get work afterward. Did you see your time on Trek as a help or a hindrance with casting agents and producers?
It’s funny, the public perception of an actor’s career so rarely lines up with what the actor himself perceives it to be like. From my point of view, I felt like I was in dry dock for about a year after Star Trek ended. My sense memory is there was some thumb twiddling after the show. It was not because of what can happen if you have been on a TV show, particularly a genre show, where you get typecast. Much of it was because we were on UPN and a low-rated show, so in the eyes of the community, I just disappeared for a number of years. It’s funny, because the casting community itself is kind of balkanized. There are casting directors that really keep their finger on the pulse of everything and there are some who are somewhat more narrow. And if you are not on a show on a particular network, or not on a prestige drama or not doing film, they aren’t really paying attention. So, I kind of fell between the cracks and I did have to work to reintroduce myself.
While you were on Star Trek, you did do some outside work, like a fun episode of Stargate. Did you keep doing outside work to stay in the eye of casting directors, and did doing outside work create any issues with Trek producers?
No, they were always very gracious to me. I didn’t pursue it as much after the first year or two, in part because they started to utilize me more and in part because I didn’t want to push the envelope past uncomfortability. But I did do it during the first couple of years, because when you are cast you never know how much of an ensemble show it is going to be. It became apparent fairly early on that the triangular relationship between the Captain, T’Pol, and Trip was really going to drive the show more. So, it seems there was more space for me to go away and do other things. I don’t think I was aggressive and sought them, because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t happy on the show. Things kind of came to me and asked if it was alright and they were gracious enough to say yes.
Your next stop on the television dial is on the Amazon show Homecoming. You’re in the season two premiere which drops on Friday. Can you tell us about that role?
I am only in the first episode, but it is a nice part. I did have a lot of time with Janelle Monae, who is this season’s lead. In terms of what I can tell you about it if you have seen the movie Out of Time, it is a part that is redolent of my Out of Time role. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it was fun. I probably had as much fun doing that single episode as I have had on a set in many years. One, because of the lovely people, and two, because every now and again you really click into what they want, and they know you have clicked in and they give you a lot of freedom. I felt I had a lot of freedom with that part to let it be what I wanted to be. And the writing was lovely.
You have done so many parts and I can only assume some from the CSIs and NCISs start to blend together. Are there any other recent roles you have clicked for you?
The life of an itinerant character actor frequently, and particularly on television, you are really asked to play to certain aspects of a formula. Especially if you are cast in a secondary or tertiary role. So, it is rare to have a part where you really feel like there is a wide range of color and certain ambiguity to the way it is written that allows you to shade it interesting fashions.
I don’t mean this to be a knock on network television, but as you say the CSIs, the NCISs, you are the red herring, in which case your role is to be vaguely guilty-looking, basically, but you are not the real killer. Or you are the real villain or murderer, in which case you are charming but slimy underneath. Or the corpse, in which case your role is to die pretty damn quick. Not a hell of a lot to do with that.
The moments when you feel like, “This is fun, this is juicy,” they can be few and far in between. It is a reason I spend so much of my time doing social work, to be honest with you. I really like to act, but the opportunities to do cool, great, fun stuff are somewhat fleeting.
Last week I interviewed Connor Trinneer and Dominic Keating and you joked with us on Twitter that they saw you as the paterfamilias of the show. But in all seriousness, you and Scott were the more experienced actors on the show, so did you find yourself sharing some of your Hollywood wisdom with some of the younger actors?
Well, Dominic is only a couple of years younger, and I don’t think anyone is going to share any wisdom with Dominic! [laughs] I love him to death, but that is not in his nature. I was friendly with everybody. I liked everybody very much. To the extent that my personality is maybe breezier than some others, I might have been inclined to say, “You know, calm down, relax, let it go.” Sometimes that is welcomed, sometimes that is not welcomed. Beyond that I don’t know if I can genuinely lay claim to playing the paterfamilias role. Scott is a different animal, because as one, the star of the show, and two, as a sort of quarterback figure, he has the capacity to embody and command respect in certain ways.
Speaking of telling people to calm down. Dominic is now able to talk about that time on set when he lost it wearing the EVA suit. As someone who had to spend hours every day putting on and wearing makeup under hot lights, did you have any sympathy for him?
Yes and no. Those spacesuits were fucking awful. When I had to wear one, I was in a spacesuit and in makeup and I am no athlete, so for me those were hellacious days. I loathed them. So I had sympathy. That director was sometimes inclined to say, “Let me just take one more shot, let’s put the camera down here, I think it would be cool if you looked up your nostrils.” In a spacesuit! I don’t think you need one more fucking shot! So I understood where Dominic was coming from. What I particularly loved is the sound department did capture that screed and I confess I would bring guests to the sound booth and would say, “Before you work with Dominic, I just want you to listen to this.” [laughs] That was mean of me. But I would always say I was kidding, and he was a sweetheart, but it just makes me laugh. I wish I bootlegged it to play at conventions. No one can swear like Dominic.
We learned a lot about Phlox and the Denobulans over the years, do you feel satisfied with the work, and the character arc?
I don’t know if I could say I had much of an arc. I really liked the character, because it is closer to my temperament and worldview and outlook than almost any other part I have played. I really appreciated what a gift it was to be able to play the guy. He is such a positive person. It is not like he is naïve. He is nobody’s fool. He had that rare ability to keep things in perspective even under the worst of circumstances. He had a sense of the cosmic significance of things. I thought that was lovely.
In terms of what actually happened to him over the arc of time, I don’t think he went through a tremendous amount of variation. There was no real sense of growth based on circumstance, as happens in some shows.
They did keep throwing new things that we learn about Denobulans and Phlox. Were you happy with taking those things on, like having multiple wives…
I did like that! I was trying very hard to suggest he had a polyamorous relationship with the boys as well as the girls. I do tell people I was the first gay character on Star Trek, whether you were aware of it or not. [laughs] The only one I took exception to with Phlox was the story that posited that they had a long race war with another culture and Dr. Phlox was in the Denobulan infantry. I could never really wrap my brain around that. That didn’t feel quite right.
It’s hard when you are asked to play an alien and there had never been a Denobulan before, you have no idea what a Denobulan is. I only had a couple of small scenes in the pilot script with the doctor, so it is not a lot to pin a characterization on out of the gate. I had envisioned that the Denobulans were the last of a monastic order and there were very few left because they had chosen to die off by not propagating. So, when it turned out they were the biggest fuck bunnies in Star Trek history and came from a planet of a gajillion, so where the fuck were they all these years?
You say you and Phlox share a lot. Do you feel that the writers picked up on your breezier vibe and worked that into the character?
You never really know, do you? The optimism and the guy’s general esprit was there on the page before they hired me. But I guess what you want to think as an actor is you ground it in certain ways that allow the writers to feel they can be more playful with you without it becoming silly. If there were anything I would look back on and feel by and large pretty good at, is that I carried a good amount of the comedy of the show without ever slipping into making him a less than human figure that you cared less about.
You were a big part of helping to keep the show lighthearted. As the show transformed in the post 9/11 era it went to some dark places…
I wasn’t crazy about that. I have such mixed feelings about season three. I think Manny Coto is a marvelous writer and I really appreciate a lot of what he had to say. I also think he wrote a couple of episodes that are—and I say this as a progressive—that I think were very astute and right on. He also had come from 24 and there were a number of episodes that I felt were essentially the moral posture that morality is a luxury in times of war and is a disposable property. There are times with that old cliché of a ticking time bomb if you have to throw the guy out of the airlock, by god that is what you are going to do because civilization, blah, blah, blah.
In the first season an arc began developing involving Phlox and Crewman Cutler. Sadly, Kelly Waymire passed away. First, what was it like working with Kelly, and do you know where that storyline might have been headed?
I know that they really liked her and am pretty sure they would have wanted to have her back. She was also on the cusp of taking off. She had a really nice arc on Six Feet Under at roughly the same time. So you don’t know if they would even have been able to bring her back. If they had her return, I have no idea if they would have played up the potential romantic angle between us. That would have been marvelous. That would have been great. I so liked working with her. When she passed away there were a lot of folks in my orbit that were devastated by it. Such a lovely person, it was very sad.
They did start pairing you up more with Linda Park’s Hoshi. That wasn’t romantic, but you developed a nice bond. Were there actors on the show where you worked to develop that kind of chemistry with?
I enjoyed working with everybody for different reasons. Each of those characters had their own interesting stories and Phlox’s relationships with each was different. Getting back to what we were talking about earlier, if I had a paterfamilias role to play on the show, it was in relation to Linda’s character. Hoshi early on was more scared and a fish out of water. And Phlox’s role with her was to say, “Chill babe, you got this.” And that was one of the things that marked our relationship over the arc of the seasons, even if they didn’t play that up a ton in later episodes.
I enjoyed working with everyone. There is one particular episode—“A Night in Sickbay”—and I understand why some didn’t like it because it might have tipped over a line and made that captain seem a little silly. But for me it was my favorite episode for being able to spend concentrated time with Scott, who I just love as a guy. And it was a fun episode because there was a lot of color in it, in terms of the different things we got to play. There was an Odd Couple kind of thing. There was the honest pathos of how painful it was for Scott to feel he was losing his beloved pet and my own incredulity that this can be such an issue to him. I really enjoyed that episode and I was sorry that Scott didn’t have the chance to work more together like that.
You recently had a chance to reunite with Brannon Braga. What can you tell us about that project?
[Laughs] Well, you will never see it on screen. It was a movie for Hulu called The Book of Blood, which is based on a Clive Barker work. I am not a huge horror fan and don’t usually want to do horror movies. But it was shot in Nova Scotia and I had never been and since it was around Thanksgiving, I could turn it into a vacation. And Brannon was directing. It was a guy who had crossed the mob and the vengeance they took was to have me tied up and eaten alive by rats. It was actually a really good five-page scene. Very tense and fraught. I gather that they had to do some significant rewrites and couldn’t figure out how to keep that, so they had to scrap it. But it was so much fun to work with Brannon as a director, which I never got to do on Star Trek, and hang out with him a little bit. It was a real treat. Brannon and Rick were around during the Enterprise years. There were episodes that I wasn’t in all that much, so I never really got to be as chummy with them as I think some of the other fellows did. Getting to know Brannon better has been quite meaningful to me. He is such a sweet man.
You did an episode of The Orville; did you have much time with him then?
No, he was off doing Cosmos when I was there. You know I was told that Seth MacFarlane does a killer Dr. Phlox impersonation. I asked him to do it for me, but he never would. I want to hear it! Nobody does a Dr. Phlox.
Another great thing about working on The Orville is I got to work with Molly Hagen, who is a wonderful actress, and Bob Picardo, who is such a love. One of the great joys of Star Trek is that it is one big family. Down the years I have got know a lot of the actors from the other shows. Bob and I got to be such good friends and it is always great fun to hang out with him.
Bob is famous hounding the writers with ideas. Did you do any of that?
No, not really. Well a little bit, in part because I had heard from Bob about that. And as the doctor, I felt I guess it was my job to go a little. I had a couple of friends of mine who were writers and we went in to pitch some ideas with them and they really elaborated on some ideas and I think we got through one or two sentences in for each pitch and Brannon would shake is head and say, “Nope, done it, nope, done it.” [Laughs] So I found that experience discouraging enough to not go back. I did have a hibernation idea and they did put Phlox into hibernation. I don’t think I pitched it directly, but maybe it got back to them through the office watercooler. The other idea was after I had lost some weight in season three and at the time, I was suddenly skinnier. I pitched the idea to have Dr. Phlox have a tapeworm that actually had to be pulled out of his ass and it was so long they put it out an airlock and then it wrapped itself around the ship and we were caught in Dr. Phlox’s tapeworm.
I can’t imagine why they didn’t do that!
I don’t know either! My other idea was they should pick up a Denobulan ship in distress and everyone on the ship look exactly like me. But they are all real slobs. They leave their empty dishes lying around. They scatter clothes everyone. So, the whole ship goes to shit, like a giant pigpen of Phlox lookalikes behaving badly. But they didn’t like that either. So, I said, “Fuck it!” Picardo was pitching opera and fancy pants stuff. I just went for gutter humor.
Do you have anything booked once the world goes back to normal?
Fingers crossed. I had just been cast in a pilot for a CBS sitcom called Jury Duty. It was a recurring role as a defense attorney and a fairly hapless defense attorney in a trial. The show is primarily about the people on the jury. It’s kind of like a workplace comedy. It is a very funny script. Right before we were about to go into production, we all got shut down. CBS couldn’t pick up the show without having a pilot, so everything has been pushed until 2021 when we will hopefully shoot the pilot and it gets picked up for a series.
If you got a call to do work this year when the lockdown ends, do you feel comfortable going to a set?
Let’s say come August, which from what I am hearing is the earliest anything is going to come back if we are where we are right now with no vaccine, and social distancing and masks are still the order of the day. If Hollywood starts calling on August 1 will I go back? I honestly don’t know. I wish I could say. Probably it would have a lot to do with how they explain what their policies are. I think that is what they are going to have to do before they can convince a lot of people to come back.
You talked about how social work has become such a big part of your life, as the president of the board of the Hollywood Food Coalition. How has the group responded to the COVID?
What this all has revealed is how fractured our social safety net is and how fractured our food delivery systems are. Oddly, because a lot of people are perceiving the ongoing threat, there has been a tremendous outpouring of charitable support. So, we have been able to hire. We have been able to increase the amount of food we can rescue. We are serving as many as 350 people a night. We are sharing the food we rescue with 20 other organizations. We are sitting down with a lot of other community organizations and non-profits and talking about how we can collectively help build better structures in our community to help people in need down the years. So, bizarrely, in a time of great crisis and bleakness, it is boom time for what I am doing in my life. I am working harder than I have ever worked. It is a little terrifying. I am an actor for god’s sake. How I got to be this, the president of the board of a social service organization is kind of a staggering story. And my wife is now the co-head of food procurement and logistics.
Go to hofoco.org to find out how you can support the organization with donations or volunteering in the Southern California area.
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