For November, Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Jonathan Frakes is doing what he can to bring attention to Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month as well as World Pancreatic Cancer Day on November 17. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to the actor and director about how personal this cause is to him and why he is working as a “PanCAN Ambassador” for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. And of course, we talk a little about Star Trek too, which includes his work directing the upcoming Strange New Worlds/Lower Decks crossover episode.
You are now more involved with PanCAN, can you talk about the work they are doing?
My brother Daniel and I were thick as thieves. We had an apartment together in New York, and when I decided to move to L.A. we bought a 1967 Chevy Sportvan that we drove across the country in a couple of weeks. It was a piece of s—t but we had a ball. And so 25 years ago, Daniel had jaundice and turned yellow and we took him to the hospital. They opened him up and then they closed him up. And they came to me and my mom and my dad and said, “We’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do, his pancreatic cancer is too far along.” Five months later Daniel was dead at just 41 years old. Around the same Kitty Swink—who is an actor who was with us on Deep Space Nine and is married to Armin Shimerman and part of the reason that I’m involved with this charity—she is now an 18-year pancreatic cancer survivor, which is unheard of. When Daniel died, there was a 4% survival rate. Last year after all the research that we’ve raised money for, there’s an 11% survival rate, which still sucks.
As an 18-year survivor, Kitty is not only sort of infamous in the pancreatic cancer fundraising community, but in our household for many years. When I’d be talking to my mom on the phone she would say, “How is your friend Kitty doing?” And you could see a smile come over my mom’s face. The idea and the hope that Kitty represented as a survivor in light of having lost her son. So Kitty is kind of a big deal to us. A couple of years ago, Kitty asked us to get involved with PanCAN and I said I would be more than happy to because I’ve never had a charity that I was so connected to. And when you’re connected to working for someone, it increases your compassion and your interest and your empathy and your involvement. And it feels good. The oldest thing in the book is it actually feels good to help others.
So, pancan.org is the website that all of your readers need to check out. We’re raising money to research early detection to avoid the kind of s—t that Daniel went through and that thousands and thousands of other people went through and hopefully find better treatment options. This disease has struck down so many people, like Alex Trebek. And more people with who I had a personal connection like Patrick Swayze—who was in North and South with myself and my wife Genie Francis. And I was on Highway to Heaven directed by Michael Landon, from whom I stole a lot of ideas about directing and how you approach the crew, and Michael Landon died from pancreatic cancer. So there’s a web that I identify with and it just feels to me that all the money and all the research that’s gone into other cancers has increased the awareness and increased the survivability—certainly with breast cancer and prostate cancer. So, I’m all in on early detection for pancreatic cancer.
Are there misconceptions about this disease or things you really wish you knew back then?
Oh, that’s a great question. About Daniel, yes. The fact that we didn’t get him to the hospital until he was jaundiced certainly suggests that he was not taking care of himself, or he hadn’t been to the doctor. That’s too far along. So I think the annual checkup is a big deal. Everybody out there when they go for their annual checkup needs to tell their doctors if they either have someone in their family who’s had pancreatic cancer or any connection, genetically. That helps with early detection, which is the key to this whole shebang.
And there is a special event happening on Thursday the 17th.
Yes, and again on pancan.org, which is a user-friendly website. There will be a Worldwide Forum. Essentially it is a worldwide Zoom event of survivors, doctors, entertainers, families, and support groups. It’s a day-long event that you can plug in and out of and participate in and obviously contribute.
You and Kitty and Armin have been involved with PanCAN for a few years; have they found Star Trek fans to be a particularly supportive group?
Yes. Star Trek fans are more amenable to helping others. I think that’s the nature of the fandom. It is inclusive, and it is certainly inclusive of people who have issues of any kind—psychological, physical, and look different. I think all the things that Star Trek stands for influences fans to be sympathetic, empathetic and, and supportive of an organization like PanCAN.
When we last spoke, you were excited about getting your first chance to direct Strange New Worlds. As it turns out, they picked a very special episode for you.
Yes. It’s the crossover episode with Lower Decks in which Boimler played by Jack Quaid and Mariner by Tawny Newsome cross over into the ship on Strange New Worlds as their real selves. So they go from animated to three-dimensional and it is hysterical. It’s such a great idea.
Anson said the crossover goes both ways, with Pike also getting animated.
Yes, which is a very smart way to bookend the show with animation.
Any specific reason you got picked for this one?
I think I was assigned this episode because I had done a couple of Lower Decks as Riker and because I’m a big fan of [Lower Decks showrunner] Mike McMahan, who was kind of a co-writer with [Strange New Worlds co-showrunner] Henry Alonso Myers. So I believe whoever made the decision realized that they’re stretching the limits of the comedy of Riker on Lower Decks and knowing me personally, this would be a good fit. And as you can imagine, it was a blast.
We previously talked about how Strange New Worlds offered the opportunity for directors to do different genres, so is this a comedy episode?
It is a flat-out comedy. I got to say, it’s a big swing. But they’re not afraid of big swings. I think that’s one of the reasons this show is so successful, don’t you?
Yes, the show is a throwback to standalone episodic storytelling, but with highly serialized character arcs which is an interesting hybrid.
Yeah, and the inevitable character relationships develop over the season inside, in addition to those standalone episodes that they all go through together like Spock is having a thing with Nurse Chapel. And by the way, Boimler and Spock in this episode I did—let’s call them “Spoimler—are spectacular. And Anson [Mount] is a natural comedian. Anson is very funny. And so does Rebecca [Romijn], who I have worked with a lot. She’s got great comedy chops.
Did you get a chance to use the new AR Wall for Strange New Worlds?
Yes. It’s an absolute game-changer. I’m actually going back up to shoot one last day on episode 509 [of Discovery]. We have one more day on the AR wall and it has completely changed the business, without hyperbole, in terms of what you can shoot in a warehouse without a green screen and create an environment. But there are a couple of limitations. Like you can’t shoot at speed, you can’t do 48 frames, you can’t do slow motion, you can’t piggyback the cameras in a way that you used to where you shoot them in an over and a single at the same time. There are things that are traditional filmmaking shortcuts that you can’t do on the AR wall yet.
The other thing is the lead time, you need months to build the assets. They now have to do that post-production type of effects as pre-production. But the actors have the advantage of really seeing the environment that used to be just green screen. On our show, we used to talk to f—ing X on a green screen that was a bunch of Cardassians or Klingons or whatever. I don’t want to give too much away about Discovery, but I had a spectacular asset, two actually on season five.
How you can help
In the past two decades, PanCAN has invested $174 million in groundbreaking research. This past year alone, PanCAN awarded more than $10.5 million in research grants as part of the largest-ever, single year total research investment of $25 million. People can support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network by visiting pancan.org. They can also participate in a free, virtual event on World Pancreatic Cancer Day (Nov. 17), when survivors, caregivers, and researchers will bring to life some of the incredible stories about the impact pancreatic cancer research and PanCAN has made on their lives. To register for free, go to pancan.org/WPCD2022.
More to come from Frakes
Check back later this week for more from our interview with Jonathan Frakes, talking about Star Trek: Picard season 3 and his hopes for the future.
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