This Saturday brings us a TREKtalks2 fundraiser livestream event featuring hours of panels with Star Trek celebrities from in front and behind the camera. Participants include Anson Mount, Scott Bakula, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Terry Farrell, Nana Visitor, Brannon Braga, John de Lancie, Doug Drexler, Dan Curry, Mike and Denise Okuda, Dave Blass, Cirroc Lofton, Dr. Erin Macdonald, Robert Picardo, Naren Shankar, Armin Shimerman, Anthony Montgomery, Kitty Swink, Wil Wheaton, Rod Roddenberry, Dr. Mohamed Noor, and Andre Bormanis, all there to help raise money for the Hollywood Food Coalition
TrekMovie sat down with Star Trek: Enterprise‘s John Billingsley, who serves as cohost and spearheader of the event and is on the board of the HFC. He briefed us on what to expect on Saturday and why the cause is such a worthy one. He also weighed in on the possibility of seeing his character, Dr. Phlox, appear on one of the Trek shows currently in production.
This conversation with John Billingsley—which was a delight!—has been edited for length and clarity.
Star Trek philosophy and giving back
Let’s start with the cause behind the event, the Hollywood Food Coalition.
The Hollywood Food Coalition is very dear to my heart. I’ve been associated with it for the past six years. It started by providing food and additional services to people experiencing homelessness on the street. As we have elaborated that part of our program, serving a better meal, more options, and more services. We now collaborate with UCLA which brings a dental van, vision van and general health van to our campus. We also help connect people to housing programs, mental health programs, etc.
But the other thing we started doing a few years back is rescuing more and more food. My wife and I began to kick that off a little bit more aggressively by creating something called the pickup artists; it was actors, largely but not entirely, and directors who would go to various sets all over town and take the food from craft service tables and after meals. And we overwhelmed our kitchen with this amazing food… and we thought we still we cannot let this food go to waste, so we started sharing it with other organizations. And out of that emerged what we now call the exchange program. So we now rescue about 2 million pounds of food a year, and we share it with other not-for-profits that have their own missions rooted in helping people on the ground.
Lastly, we sit at a lot of community tables, where we collectively, with other nonprofits, attempt to say, ‘what is it that we can only do together’… plant more gardens, put more vehicles on the street to pick up more food, refrigerate more food, store it, mulch it more effectively get it out to more communities, it’s a collaborative effort. And all of those things make up the Hollywood Food Coalition. So I always like to talk about the work we do as elaborately as I can, because we are trying to do a whole bunch of stuff in the community. And what we’re hoping to achieve is that it can serve as a bit of a model as a goad other communities to be more aggressive in the way they think about food and how it can be shared.
What’s great about the Hollywood Food Coalition is that it’s boots on the ground: People are hungry, here’s food, without 70 layers of nonsense in the middle.
And I always like trying to do a little thought experiment: Imagine you’re not eating tonight. Just think about the fact that you’re not going to eat today, think how much that’s going to occupy your brain. Try going without food for a day. And tomorrow, try to do your work, whatever your work is, without eating. Nothing happens. You can’t effectively complete a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program or consider applying for a job or summon up the energy to go get your documents cleared up so you can apply to a program to get off the street. Nothing happens until you get that step one on the rung of Maslow’s pyramid of growth. You have to eat and you have to have a nice, good, healthy meal every day, at least one.
I’m also really interested in the nature of how the Star Trek community at large can kind of gather together to talk about what it means to give back to the community. Obviously, the hook has to be the fun aspect of coming to a digital convention, hang in your pajamas, eat popcorn, meet all sorts of cool people. But we do want to keep weaving into the conversation every time we get together bits and bobs about why Star Trek is what it is and what its mission is and what its challenges are. How do you get from here to this perfectible universe that Roddenberry envisioned? What is required of all of us to make that happen?
Those are great questions. Last year’s event had so many highlights, I ended up donating multiple times because I was enjoying it so much and believe in the cause. I loved getting the writers together, the directors together, the production designers, etc. What kinds of groupings and panels do you have planned for this year?
We have four panels. We’ll talk to people who’ve got the scientific background to actually talk about Star Trek grounding in the sciences, we’ll have a panel that is hosted and created by the SyFy Sistas, which will be an appreciation of Nichelle [Nichols]’s work and legacy. We’ll have a panel called Trektivism, which is essentially about the nature of how some people in the Trek community are giving back and what it is that impelled them to give back. But we will also have a lot of one-on-one interviews, which is something we didn’t do as much last year. And to a certain extent, that’s also because there were certain people that we could get only as part of a one-on-one experience. Anson Mount is coming, Scott Bakula is coming, just like last year we had Jeri Ryan.
And Dan Curry will be there, the Okudas will be there, David Blass [Picard], that will be about the making of Star Trek. The Hagemans [Prodigy] will be here this year, Mike McMahan [Lower Decks]. We have a couple of people in reserve, including David Livingston. He’s also a member of the board of the Hollywood Food Coalition and one of the co-producers of this event, he’ll step in for an interview if we need him. But we had perfect attendance last year. That’s the train that runs because of a gentleman named Earl Green, who I really want to make special reference to. If it wasn’t for him, the trains wouldn’t run.
We had Subrina from the Syfy Sistas on our podcast this past week and she did a great plug for the event.
The SyFy Sistas are great. They do our pre-show, to warm up the audience, which is fabulous. And Bonnie Gordon, who I believe is going to be a great star one day, and she’ll pass me by in the street and avert her eyes because she doesn’t want to be reminded of her days with the little people, she is going to be our cohost. She’s been a huge addition to the team.
Would he return to Star Trek as Phlox?
With all of these legacy actors returning to the Star Trek franchise, would you consider doing a live-action show, getting back into makeup again?
I don’t know if I’d want to be a regular again. But I’d certainly go back as a guest or recurring. I mean, to be really honest, the makeup is tiring, but the thing that really is tough was the eyeballs. They put these gargantuan contact lenses in your eyes. And, they can’t account for astigmatism, because they cover the entire eye. So you’re more or less blind all day. I mean, you can see, but you can’t read… So I’d have to feel like it was interesting. I don’t know that I could do the series regular route again, but if it was a smaller arc? Sure, of course.
We’ve heard a rumor, I’m hoping you can clarify. Were you asked to audition for one of the live-action shows?
I think that was probably about how I was asked to audition for a small, potentially recurring character. And I think it was for Prodigy… and I didn’t, because candidly, if you’re getting scale for voiceover work, and you’re not a name, it’s not a lot of money. And I didn’t pin this on the show, this is how this industry works: A casting director who doesn’t necessarily know your whole biography, who doubtless didn’t realize I was on a Star Trek show, just knows me as an actor and goes “maybe John Billingsley will audition for this part.” I said to my people, “Hey, maybe just let that casting office know, I was on one of the Star Trek shows, I was a series regular. If they’re ever interested in either having me reprise my character or do something more substantive, happy to be asked. But I don’t think I want to audition for a small part.” And that kind of became the story of how I turned this thing down on what I think might have been Strange New Worlds … probably I misspoke because I can’t remember all the names of the shows. I probably meant Prodigy, and then I possibly said Strange New Worlds.
There are a lot of ways they could get you onto Lower Decks or Prodigy, Mike McMahan has talked about wanting Enterprise characters on Lower Decks.
I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts primarily to promote TREKtalks, or as my wife would say, “You go to the opening of a f-ing envelope.” [laughs] But I have frequently pitched Old Fat Phlox, which is an hour. This is how it begins: Old fat Phlox is sitting on a box: [in old geezer voice] “Back when I was on Enterprise… here’s a story to tell…” And you see all these young people running around in their blue underpants. At the very end it’s back to me: [in old geezer voice] “Well, that’s it! Stay tuned next week for another episode of Old Fat Phlox.” And I’d be #1 on the call sheet, I get well paid. I don’t have to wear the rubber head.
You’ll be shocked to hear that no one has expressed interest in making that program.
The other thing that I’ve tried to introduce into the franchise is that he was called Phil Phlox. I know. I’ve been calling myself Phil Phlox now for 25 years. And I’m hoping that it eventually sneaks into canon through the back door.
Is there anything else you want to say about TREKtalks and the Hollywood Food Coalition?
I think volunteerism itself is so critical to our well-being as a civilization. The idea that we figure out ways as human beings to generously give of our time is something that has to be encouraged in its own right. That Hebraic principle that virtue is its own reward rests at the heart of everything that I care about, and that I think Star Trek ultimately is advocating, I keep coming back to how Star Trek imagines a universe in which we put aside all of our stupid doctrine differences of religion and race and ethnicity and yada, yada, yada, and we’ve come to a conclusion that there are core values—progressive values—in my opinion, that are about how we improve our mutual lot by coming together and building coalitions. And I love that message. It’s what I love about Star Trek, and I think that’s a lot of the work that the Hollywood Food Coalition does.
Where to watch TREKtalks2
TREKtalks2 takes place on Saturday, January 14, 2023. The pre-show begins at 9:45 AM PT and the whole event can be watched on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Twitch. You can donate to the Hollywood Food Coalition directly or through the TREKtalks2 page.
Coming soon: John Billingsley talks all things Enterprise
Come back for part 2 of our interview with John Billingsley, in which he talks about his time on Enterprise, ways in which the show would be different if it were made today, the decontamination chamber, nudity, and more.
Find more articles about Star Trek celebrities.