Interview by Peter Fraser
In a wide-ranging interview to mark Star Trek’s Fortieth Anniversary, Brent Spiner talks to Close-Up Film about playing the android Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and films, his relations with the Star Trek cast, his least favourite Star Trek film, the future of Star Trek, how J. J. Abrams may direct the next Star Trek movie and the problems facing the world today. Also, the formative and perennial influence of one Robbie the Robot.
Looking youthful for his years and with a slyly satirical, yet charming, sense of humour that recalls his puckish portrayal of Data’s mischievous, if not downright evil, ‘brother’ Lore in Star Trek:The Next Generation (henceforth ST: TNG), Brent Spiner is an entertaining presence. It’s extraordinary to think that for seven seasons of the TV series from 1987 to 1994 and then in four feature films from 1994 to 2002, such an expressive personality played an impassive and emotionless android. Nonetheless it’s the role for which he will always be famed and arguably among the most demanding and memorable persona in the entire history of Star Trek (henceforth ST). With the Fortieth Anniversary of the series this month, it’s a great time to reflect on the legacy of ST, and its future, with an actor whose character is as emblematic of the ST universe as Captain Kirk or Mr Spock in a surprising and revealing conversation, in which the Hotel Honesty Bar next to our interview room plays an incidental part…
Brent, given that ST is no longer appearing on television or in cinemas, and that ST: TNG, in which you played Data, is certainly finished…
…I may be finished completely?
Not at all, I assume that you’re going to continue…
…my illustrious career.
Yes, indeed, but what is your involvement with ST now?
This moment is my involvement. I have a lot of friends, the actors and producers, who I know from the show and I still see them. I attend occasional Star Trek conventions as well but otherwise, I’m not being consulted regularly about the next incarnation.
Presumably it’s a legacy that you’re happy to carry?
You know what? I don’t even think about whether I’m happy or I’m not happy. But if I had to choose between the two then I would certainly say I’m happy.
Were you a fan of ST when you were growing up?
Well, [Laughs] let me answer you facetiously. What exactly makes one a fan? Did I watch it? I did see it. I didn’t make a date every week but I did see many of them. I think that there were some seventy-nine episodes or something like that. I probably saw thirty. So I consider myself to have been a fan of sorts. I enjoyed it.
Were you interested in science fiction?
Not in the least. I’m still not. I don’t dislike it but it’s not my favourite thing. I’d put science fiction right about even with westerns. Maybe I like westerns a little more. But it’s a genre and I like all the genres. I like comedy, I like musicals…you name it.
You’ve played a few comic roles and you’re clearly a very talented comic actor, do you think that your comedy skills helped you to portray Data?
Oh yeah, totally. I mean, he didn’t try to be funny but he was funny. It gave me a point of view. It gave me a jumping off point. The fact that I could approach this character in a comic way made it easier. [Mr Spiner pauses and peers enquiringly at the golden coke bottle standing next to my glass of coke].What kind of coke is that?
Actually I don’t know, I’ve never seen it before…
In fact, I think that it’s ‘World Cup Coke.’
You know what? I would keep that bottle if I were you. That could be a collector’s item. [Lifts up the bottle and examines it] ‘World Cup Germany.’ I’ve never seen one of these. Let me pause just for one second. [Motions to my tape recorder] Don’t turn this off because I’m just going to look in this room to see if they have any more of those… [Glances slightly incredulously at the title on the door] The Honesty Bar?
For the tape recorder, Mr Spiner has just gone into ‘The Honesty Bar.’
Exactly. [Echoing laughter from beyond the door] I’ll be honest with you…I don’t even see a coke in here. Did you get that bottle from in here?
Well, it was given to me. The lady in question came through the door of the Honesty Bar but she may have got the coke bottle from somewhere else…
[Comes back in] …And she didn’t say a word about it. [Settles himself] Ok, go on…
Ok, given that you had no particular interest in sci-fi, how did you come to play Data? I’m sure that you’ve been asked this question before.
[With emphasis] Never been asked this before. Every question you’ve asked so far has been uniquely original.
Ahem, you’re being heavily ironic…
Indeed. [Laughs] You obviously spent hours coming up with these questions.
Ok, let me just say something on the side. I do remember that when I was quite young my favourite sci-fi film, the one that really meant a lot to me growing up, was Forbidden Planet. You know that film with Walter Pigeon and of course the great Leslie Nielsen? Because Leslie Nielsen…when he’s playing it straight is even funnier than when he’s playing it funny. So I think that Robbie the Robot was my role model for Data. I would say to myself, ‘how would Robbie the Robot approach this?’ and I played Data like that. At that point my whole association with sci-fi was based on Forbidden Planet and I thought ‘Do I play this like Leslie Nielsen or Robbie the Robot and you know what? [Laughs] Robbie is who really spoke to me.’
I did this show, it was a children’s show, when I was a kid in Houston, Texas, called Kitterick. Kitterick was this woman who dressed in a cat outfit. She had a children’s show every afternoon and she was hot. I mean, there are guys I know from Houston who are around my age and if I say to them today, ‘what about Kitterick?’ then we both get a glazed-over look thinking about her. Anyway, I went on Kitterick’s show when I was young and I was picked out from the audience to do some little contest and I don’t remember what first prize was but I won second prize. Second prize was my very own Robbie the Robot and I think, ironically, that may have been the key moment when my life changed…sort of like my rosebud. And what happens? I end up playing an android on ST. It all goes back to Robbie the Robot. [With a mischievous twinkle] Everything goes back to Robbie the Robot with me.
Robbie the Robot, I can see that. So you didn’t seek any scientific advice about how to play an android? I guess that there was none available.
Well exactly. There was none available. Although, I subsequently met Stephen Hawking, who did an episode of the show, and a guy named Marvin Minsky who was the head of the robotics department at MIT University. If I’d met Minsky before I’d decided how to play the role then I would have asked him. But the beauty of playing an android was that aside from Robbie there really wasn’t much to base it on. There’s not much you can do wrong. There are not many people who can say to you, ‘you’re not really playing an android correctly here. This is the way that an android should be played.’ So in that sense it was very liberating, you know?
Although you can’t do a lot wrong I would say that you can still do a lot right. I’m sure that when many people, who don’t necessarily follow science or science fiction, imagine an android, or even the possibility of one, they’ll think of Data.
And that’s kind of fulfilling.
It must be quite a thought. I saw a TV programme recently with William Shatner about scientists who had been influenced by ST. There must now be a generation who were influenced by ST: TNG when they were growing up.
Yes. I think it’s already here. I mean how old were you when it was on TV?
I was in my teens.
Well there you go.
Not many actors can claim a similar impact. It must be satisfying to imagine that scientists could take robotics in a certain direction based on something that you did intuitively or even simply on a whim when you were playing Data…
Yes, well you would think so, but to be honest I don’t think about it. I really don’t. [Laughs] I don’t really care. You know, existentially, of course I’m delighted if people were inspired in some way to do something, anything, by anything that I’ve ever done, but really only existentially. On a purely realistic basis I don’t care. I’m not here to further mankind! I just try to amuse myself and get through the day.
Well, Data was probably the most popular character of ST: TNG.
It’s kind of you to say so but I think if it were true then I would have made a lot more money. I think that we were all pretty much equal. I think that there were people who were Data fans and there were people who were Worf fans [Worf – the Klingon in ST: TNG] and there were people who…well, nobody was a Riker fan…. [Laughs] I’m only kidding. I’m just saying that because Jonathan [Frakes] might read this.
What were the politics like on set?
The politics were simple. In terms of the cast, Patrick [Stewart, who played Jean-Luc Picard] ruled although not just because he was the captain. You know [with a knowing glance at his PR person] Paramount has created this nonsensical thing about ‘the captains’ as though they’re actually captains! But Patrick was essentially a captain in a way because he’s a born leader. He has that gravitas that people tend to listen to and he has a way of looking at you. He can bend you to his will with a stare. I just tried to hide if possible, you know! Just to stay out of the whole political thing.
Presumably you spent a few hours in make-up every day…
I did. More than a few. I spent more hours of the day in make-up than out of make-up.
In a way it’s kind of a form of method acting…
Well in a way it is. You know for seven years I was Data more than I was myself. So much so, that sometimes when I would watch the show and see the ship go by I would think that I was in it! That’s a measure of how disturbed I became while I was doing it.
A lot of people with less reason probably thought they were in the ship as well.
Well that’s true, that’s true.
As an android, a machine, Data seems inherently incapable of change or progression, and with no emotional life, so how do you keep the audience’s interest and plot any kind of character trajectory, if ‘character’ is the right word?
Well I didn’t, the writers did. They did plot a trajectory. I mean Roddenberry from day one - I call him Roddenberry but his name was actually Mister Roddenberry – had this idea. He said, ‘Data, as the series progresses, will become more and more like a human as he begins to assimilate all the humanity around him until at the very end of the show he will be so much like a human and still not.’ That was the idea and that’s the way that the writers took it. He was a classical clown, he really was. He was Chaplinesque in a way. Not to compare anything that I did to what Charlie Chaplin did but I mean Chaplinesque just as an adjective for the sad, tragic clown.
You must have been pleased to play Lore, Data’s ‘brother’ android with an emotion chip that enabled him to behave in a more human, if malign, way…
Lore was easier to play. Lore was more like me.
Just sitting here, I can see that…
Lore was evil, which was a simple thing to play for me! It was fun.
And how did you feel about the subsequent films? There were three….
There were four.
Of course, I forgot about the third one.
I wish I could forget about the third one.
There was Generations, and then there was First Contact, then Insurrection and then Nemesis, which you were involved in writing. How do you feel about them?
Generations, I thought was rushed. There were things that I liked about it but we started shooting about two weeks after we wrapped the series and the same writers that were writing the series wrote the film. It had some nice things about it but oddly what I think worked the least in Generations was the coming together of the two captains, which should have been the best part of it. Although they really became friends, they worked well together and they liked being around each other, something about that story just didn’t blend correctly. Generations was OK. It wasn’t horrible.
First Contact was probably our best film just because we had a better script. It was a great idea. You could hardly beat the Borg who were always good even in the series but the creation of the Borg Queen was what really brought it together. Plus we had a great cast with James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard and Alice Krige, who was fantastic as the Borg Queen. We were all at the top of our game by then because we’d had some time off and we’d come back with a sense of reunion that really made it work.
The third one was Insurrection. What can you say about Insurrection? Some people like it. It got some good reviews but I think that it was our weakest film because it was just too light. The stakes were too small and I didn’t understand it quite frankly. We went to this planet to save these people who ultimately when you analyse the story were not really particularly worth saving. [Laughs] They were just these really banal people and their world was like a Renaissance festival. They made bread and that’s all that you could tell that they did. They had the secret of life but did they offer to share it with anyone? We risked everything for them. We broke the prime directive for them and they never said to us, ‘look, you must have some people who are old and sick, why don’t you bring them here?’ Never. It was just, ‘thanks a lot, we’ll see you later.’ We left and I would have liked to have stayed with those people after we left and have them look at each other and say, ‘what shall we do now? I know, let’s bake some bread’ because that’s all they did. I think that the story was misguided.
And then there was Nemesis, which could have been our best film. I actually think Nemesis is pretty good. I think it’s perhaps our second best film. There were some problems with it – I’m not sure where exactly – but I don’t think they were in the story. I thought the story was good. There was an interesting examination of what the nature of family is, what friendship is and what sacrifice is. I liked it. [Laughs] I mean I don’t want to see it again. It’s not The Searchers for God’s sake.
Data and the Borg Queen in First Contact had an interesting relationship. That was Data discovering sex wasn’t it? Can an android discover sex?
I think that he actually discovered it long before.
Yeah, like episode one of the series!
Tasha Yar and Data…
You’re absolutely right. I remember now.
Maybe he was remembering it with the Borg Queen, going ‘Oh yeah…! This isn’t a bad thing…’
Moving on, when you’ve been on the Star Trek convention circuit has there ever been any kind of rivalry between the crews?
Yes, there’s a lot of mud wrestling we like to do but really there are certain people who like to do it more than others! No names! Seriously, is there a rivalry? I’m sure there must be a rivalry of some sort but I feel like that we’re all part of the same great epic that is ST, that we all belong to this club that has gone on for hundreds of years now and will continue to go on, whoever’s winds up in the next film.
In fact J. J. Abrams [creator of the TV series Lost and director of Mission Impossible 3] is supposed to be directing the next film and they’re saying that Matt Damon’s going to be in it. That’s probably not going to happen but that’s what they’ve said. J. J. has been quoted as saying that he’d like to bridge the ST fans with the general public. You know what, whether he’s able to do that or not, whoever’s involved in that film will also be part of this whole epic tapestry that is ST.
And that film is in development at the moment?
Yes and I like that. I’ve felt more comfortable with Star Trek with each new incarnation. When it was just ST: TNG and the original series it was sort of an exclusive club that I didn’t particularly know whether I liked being a part of. Since it’s expanded more and more, and at this point when I see the people who’ve been involved in the ST club, I feel much better about the whole thing.
And how do you find the fans?
I find them perfectly fine. You know, they’re nice to me and it’s hard to be negative about people who have great affection for you.
Do you think that perhaps ST has particularly prospered during times when the USA has felt particularly good about itself, when there is a sense of optimism or ‘enterprise’, that it reflects the USA’s changing attitudes towards its own values?
[Laughs] I think, as a matter of fact, that question you worked on and on that one I’m not sure! Does that mean that Star Trek should be really exploding when the Bush administration is gone? I think that there’s something to be said for that. I’m not sure. If we’re looking for US confidence and Star Trek being synonymous then I’m not sure that they will ever be another Star Trek because I’m not certain that US confidence is ever going to survive what the current administration is doing.
Do you think this idea of the Enterprise ‘boldly going’ represents the liberal values that aren’t unique to the USA but which it particularly embodies?
It would be nice to think so. I would love to think that was the case and I would love to think that the USA is going to boldly go where no one has gone before but right now the US administration isn’t going where no one’s gone before. Rather, they’re going exactly where everyone’s gone before for far too many centuries. Oil in a way is just a metaphor for ‘that which everyone wants’, that which makes one rich. I would like to see the USA go into other areas, like creating one world really.
A Federation as in ST?
A Federation, exactly. You know it’s interesting that in ST Roddenberry often said that he’d projected a world in which people’s differences are celebrated rather than them being something that separated people. I think that there’s value in that - I think that his heart was in the right place - but for my taste I would prefer to see a world in which there are no differences. I don’t have a problem with everyone being the same. I think that we should be one people. In my opinion there are three big problems in the world today: religion, oil and the environment. The environment is the biggest problem and as long as we’re interested in the first two problems, oil and religion, we’re never going to solve the third one. We spend too much time, too much money and too much brain-power fighting people because of the mumbo-jumbo we’ve created and what we really need to focus on is how we’re going to save the species.
Given you doubts about the future of the species, what is the future of Star Trek?
After all at the moment there is no new Star Trek series on TV…
[Laughs] That’s because the USA isn’t confident right? You can’t kill ST. Even when there’s nothing being produced it’s on the air everyday somewhere and for forty years there’s never been a day when ST wasn’t on the air somewhere. I don’t think that’s going to end and I think that they’ll produce more TV series’ and more films.
Ok, before we end, I’ll ask you some quick questions. What has been your most memorable Star Trek moment?
Certainly my most memorable moment was sitting opposite Stephen Hawking and acting with him in the TV series. That was just unbelievable.
Who was your favourite character apart from Data?
[Deadpan] Data was the only character that I had any interest in whatsoever.
And which was your favourite storyline?
There were a lot of them that I thought were good. Just in terms of pure fun, we did a western that I really enjoyed.
Ok, thank you very much!