1998 Cranky Critic Interview with Brent Spiner

Original link: http://www.crankycritic.com/qa/startrek9/spinerqa.html

Cranky Critic® Star Talk with Brent Spiner
On the release of Star Trek: Insurrection, courtesy Paramount Pictures.

He may have been skin deep in pancake makeup for most of the last eleven years, but Brent Spiner has also maintained a substantial career on the Broadway stage. His singing and dancing talent (not to mention that Trek director Jonathan Frakes rates Spiner's comedic talent on a level with Chaplin) are evident in Star Trek: Insurrection. In his conversation with the Cranky Critic, we talked showbiz, gave Adam Sandler the credit he deserves and discovered a wicked sense of Spiner humor. We also talked about Star Trek Number 9.

Cranky Critic: You were in that Out To Sea flick which was a great song and dance flick (and I really mean that).
Brent Spiner: Well thank you.

Cranky: so let's start with a non star Trek question since there is a song from Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore in this one. At heart, you really are a song and dance man, aren't you?
Spiner: Yeah, basically that is the deal.

Cranky: So what is it like, 15 years down, still doing Data?
Spiner: It's like 11. Feels like a hundred to me [laughs]

Cranky: Have you managed to keep Trek fame and your real life in balance?
Spiner: It's more in balance at this point than it's ever been. I've had good fortune to have other jobs in between these Star Trek movies, so it makes it even more appealing to come back and do them. I think if I hadn't been doing any other work I would be reluctant to come back and do another Star Trek.

Cranky: I know it's an old hoary little question that you've answered a hundred times but, when you took the role back in Season One you knew that Gene Roddenberry was trying to make another Spock character and you could be locked into this forever regardless of how things went. In retrospect, are you happy with it all?
Spiner: um, assuming I did know those things, 'cuz I'm not sure I really did, It proved to be something of a gift. Really. It wasn't just the fear of being locked into a role or to Star Trek or anything like that really. At the time, doing a television series was nothing I had in mind for that same reason -- the fear that if I did the same character for years and years that I wouldn't be able to do anything else. In this case, initially, I thought this was going to be a very limiting part and it proved to be kind of the opposite. I was able to do so many things. I must have played at least 20-30 other characters in the seven years we did the series. Given that Data's whole thrust was to explore the human condition I had the opportunity to kind of try out every aspect of humanity available. It made it kind of an interesting part to play and there are no regrets.

Cranky: Have you paid much attention to your press?
Spiner: Not really. More, I think, when I was just acting on stage in NY. When I was younger and naive and thought it would be helpful in someway to read a POV on what I was doing. But there are 50 to 100 reviews of everything you do, so what ultimately is the case is that everything gets mixed reviews. That's the facts. Even Schindler's List, which is a masterpiece got some bad reviews. Not many, but some. Even The Waterboy had some good reviews [laughs] so ultimately it's nothing but mixed reviews. But I've gotten to the point where I don't like to read them particularly at all. Years ago Richard Burton was quoted as saying "When they're bad they kill you. When they're good they're never good enough." And that's certainly the truth. Anything shy of "this is the finest actor of all time in the history of the theater. . ." [laughs] It just isn't good enough.

Cranky: I'll pen that into the review right now . . .
Spiner: I have to say that there was one review I got in my life, and it was for one of the first things I did for the theater here. There was a newspaper called The Trib, remember it?
Cranky: The Moonies did that.
Spiner: The Moonies didn't do The Trib, did they?
Cranky: Yes, they did
Spiner: Oh. Well, it was a fine paper nonetheless. [laughs]. I remember The Trib gave me a review in the first play I did here. It was just one line that said "Spiner was perfect" and I thought "say no more, that's the best review I'll ever get".

Cranky: There's a definite Western feel to Star Trek:9
Spiner: Sure. In truth, I saw it more as a Tarzan picture. Capt. Picard is Tarzan and I'm cheetah. [Laughs] That's the way I looked at it. In terms of the western, absolutely. Star Trek from the beginning; Gene's notion for Star Trek was "Wagon Train to the Stars" that was the whole concept. It is a western. I think all sci-fi is western. It's just a different format.

Cranky: "Saddle Up"
Spiner: That's Sands of Iwo Jima, actually, that reference.
Cranky: "Lock and Load"
Spiner: I'm not sure what that means frankly. I know the reference and at the time it was one of the things that I argued in our meeting, "Do I really have to say this?" and we batted it back and forth and I lost, obviously [laughs]. Yes, it's a cool line and yes I love John Wayne and to be able to utter a phrase from John Wayne; but how do you lock and load a Phaser? I really thought about it. Lock and load. Lock and load. Don't you load and then lock? what does lock and load mean? I don't get it.

Cranky: It looks great in the trailer
Spiner: Exactly. I have a 5 year old godson who's going "Lock and load. Lock and load. Lock and load." OK, good, it worked.

Cranky: Is there a lot of thinking along the lines of "We have to do 20th Century things so that the audience "gets" it even if they wouldn't do that in the 24th century"?
Spiner: Well, there's never "they wouldn't do that in the 24th century" because we don't know what they'd do. That's the beauty of Star Trek . We can do anything we want to because there's no prerequisite for it. Certainly Star Trek is about commenting on our time from a futuristic point of view. So it enables you to thread these little morality tales about our time without hitting you over the head with it. I don't think that's the primary thrust of Star Trek. Not for me. It's basically there as an entertainment. Our main objective is to do something entertaining.

Cranky: In this film you do a lot more location shooting than the past. How'd you like it?
Spiner: I didn't like it. I think a lot of people did, on the shoot and I usually like location work but when you're in that makeup 16 hours a day I'd prefer to be on an air-conditioned soundstage and be able to walk out into my trailer instead of being helicoptered up to the top of a mountain and you can't get down until the end of the day. There's snakes and ticks and they were all attracted to the gold guy [laughs].

Cranky: I actually scribbled the question in the dark of a screening: you do an underwater scene and, perfectly as Data, there are no air bubbles and no muscles twitching . . .
Spiner: [like a master thespian] It Was ACTING! [laughter] The worst part of that whole sequence was walking into the water. The close-up stuff was in a tank. The lake that I walked into was 40 degrees which I think was 3 or 4 degrees colder than the North Atlantic was on that fateful evening in 1912. Certainly it was colder than what Leonardo and Kate Winslet had to go through.

Cranky: There are references to all kinds of pictures here.
Spiner: That's what it is. It's an homage to the history of cinema [] basically. A stunt guy had done it before me, just to see how to do it. y'know you're buoyant and you can't keep walking straight into water. They built a ramp underwater with a railing n it so you get to a certain point where, if you start to come back up, you grab the railing to pull yourself back down so it looks like you're smoothly going in. He had to try it first and when he came out he said "When the water hits you in the chest, you're gonna panic." I thought "oh good..." [laughs] the difference for me was that I had something to think about. I was trying to stay in character and he wasn't. So I didn't really feel the cold as severely. In terms of holding my breath, that's just one of my great skills. I can hold it three, four hours and then I gotta get out.

Cranky: Has there ever come a point where you get a script and think they're screwing with Data too much? You've had your head ripped off. You've been shot up, sliced up, had chips pulled out...
Spiner: Actually, in the 180 plus hours we've done this, they've opened up just about every part of my body save one. I think they're saving that for the next film. [Laughs]

Cranky: Going for the NC-17 Rating?
Spiner: Exactly. Star Trek X [grins]. Rick Berman wanted to call this film STIX. S. T. I. X. I thought it was a great idea because you couldn't do it with eight and you couldn't do it with ten. You could only do it with the ninth film. You know what? I don't care what they do with him at this point as long as it's not completely ridiculous. I don't mean to suggest that I'm completely ambivalent about the work. I don't have a lot of objection to where they take the character because he has done just about everything you can do. In terms of the scripts, it's not just Star Trek. Any script I get I have the same approach to it. I hate it. I'm really not skilled at reading a script and seeing the value in it. To me it's just a page. I could've gotten, what's a great film...?

Cranky: There are no great films. . .
Spiner: I could've gotten The Waterboy and thought this can't be possible. [Laughs] Seriously, if I had gotten Big Night, which I think is a great film, I would've read it and thought this is preposterous. A couple of guys in an Italian restaurant. This isn't interesting at all. I'm that way with every script I read be it Star Trek or anything else. It's not until I start to work on it, and certainly once I get on the set with the other actors and director that we start to illuminate what's there that I realize the potential of it. I always argue about the scripts and say this is horrible.

Cranky: Then how do you pick what comes next?
Spiner: Well I don't really pick what I do. I wish I did. It's a wonderful illusion to think that one day I will pick what I get to do. I'm sort of a utility guy, that's what I've always been. Even on Star Trek, even though the utility guy sometimes had his own stuff. When I have my choice I try to do something that's a little different than what I did last. I don't get offered things. I still have to do office acting, which is my least favorite thing in show business. It feels so much like when my folks wanted me to perform for their friends. I've always kind of equated office acting and auditioning to Olympics gymnastics. When I watch that I see all these really qualified people, any one of whom could get the gold medal that day. They do these routines but the person who gets the medal is the person who sticks the landing. I feel like that's what happens in an office. If I'm the guy who sticks the landing that day I get the part, even if there are a lot of people who are as qualified if not more so than I am. And I've been lucky to stick the landing a few times and I've always had the point of view that I'll be able to stick the landing a few more times so it doesn't really concern me about "will I do anything else?"

Cranky: Even in Independence Day, which was a SF in-joke you had to office audition?
Spiner: Yeah. I met Dean Devlin on that movie only because he was a Star Trek fan and he wanted to meet me. He had no intention of casting me. Seriously. He was afraid it would take people out of the movie. Roland wasn't there that day and it happened that I had a spin on that character that he hadn't thought of. They taped me doing this bizarre Dr. Okun as just a straight doctor in Area 51 and I thought it would be interesting if it was a guy who maybe had had one too many hits of acid. Roland watched it. I did the first line on tape and he says "OK, hire him". That was it. Then we talked about making me look as different as possible so people don't jump out of the movie too quickly.

Cranky: How was it working with Frakes as a director?
Spiner:Jonathan's a great director. He really is. Y'know he did the last one and several of the episodes of the series. He really learned his business. He's good with actors. He's very good with the camera. He's as superb director. I would imagine he'll direct a lot of movies in his life.

Cranky: Do you want to direct movies?
Spiner: un-unh. I feel like the number one priority for a director is to have a lot of energy. I don't have it [laughs]. I have just enough to show up and do my part.

Cranky: So you will never be playing the Energizer Bunny in the live action version?
Spiner: I doubt it. I don't know, make an offer. (vbg)

Cranky: When you worked with Leonard Nimoy, did you talk about being locked into the role?
Spiner: I didn't. Again, I don't feel that I am trapped by it. I certainly am identified with it. At the end of the day, whenever that may come, some people are going to remember me as Data. My only hope is that I've just done enough other work to kind of balance it a little bit. I don't want to erase it, certainly, because I feel fine about the work.

Cranky: If you could pick your next Broadway show, who would you want to work with?
Spiner: Well if I had my choice of doing another Broadway show, it wouldn't be a musical as musicals are just too hard. You've got to be too good. I did 1776 last year for nine months, 250 performances, never missed one and the discipline is just overwhelming. When you're doing a musical it's not just you involved. There's you and there's your voice and they're two different people. The voice wins everything. It's like "I want to go out after the show with everybody and drink tonight" and The Voice is going "No. You're not. You're going home so you can do 8 of these a week. Drink some tea." It's really hard to do a musical. But if I was going to do a musical, realistically of people writing today, I can't think of anyone other than Sondheim. I had the opportunity once. I did Sunday in the Park with George. He is the only certified genius working in musical theater.

Cranky: Speaking of musicals, was the HMS Pinafore sequence a bone they threw you for doing "lock and load"?
Spiner: No, actually, that was in the script. We actually argued that point too. Patrick, Michael and I all argued [about it]. We loved the idea of the song happening at the same time this action sequence was going on. We objected to the song. We debated doing something familiar, like "Modern Major General," because it would be more accessible but they stuck to their guns.

Cranky: Would you ever work in TV again?
Spiner: I would never say never. [pause] I always like to think of that line, actually, because if there was one person who was attached to a role more significantly than anybody else, who kind of balanced it perfectly, it was Sean Connery. There was a time when people were saying that he wouldn't be known for anything other than Bond, and he's gone on to do a few films... [laughs] It's not on my wish list to do another series. I'm not saying I wouldn't do it. My basic thrust to do a series is again, not to play just one character; to play something that offers me a few different faces. Doing hour television is just killing. I did 7 years on a series and I'm just not eager to have those hours and no life again.

Cranky: What is on your wish list?
Spiner: I kind of like the way things are going. Y'know do a couple of movies. Do a Broadway show. Do a Star Trek movie. Do a couple of other movies. For my taste it's been working out great the last few years.