A few months ago I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Robert Picardo and it has taken more than 5 months to pull it all together as Mr. Picardo’s schedule and mine have been very full. Mr. Picardo eventually decided that it would be easier for him to actually record the answers to questions that I send him so he could do it between appearances or stage calls or whatever and that turned out to work perfectly. It would a pleasure to speak to Mr. Picardo live and hopefully something can be arranged in the future.
I would like to thank Robert Picardo’s assistant / webmaster Pat for being so patient and helpful helping me pull of this interview and getting my initial request to Mr. Picardo. “The Doctor” on Star Trek Voyager has always been a character that was dear to me as he was always putting his foot in it. He reminds me of myself in that way!
I would like to thank Mr. Picardo for graciously answering all of my questions and actually working through them, it was a true treat to have worked on this project with him.
I hope everyone enjoys the interview. I know it has been a long time in the coming. As a taster treat my interview with Michael Westmore went very well and I am still in the process of transcribing that one! Look for more big actors coming soon, and branching beyond Star Trek. Think CSI… think.. Boston Legal
You have had quite an impressive career as an actor and as well as releasing musical albums and working with the Planetary Society. What remains the most fulfilling thing in your life?
I would have to say being a father and a husband..they remain the most fulfilling things. Next to that I would point to very challenging work on stage. Those have been the times that I remember feeling most gratified as an artist as they are the most technical demanding.
Do you prefer to act on stage or on a TV soundstage?
I love working in all media. I love working in theater, movies and television. I also like to appear on stage at personal experiences and just try to make people laugh and tell them stories as myself. I just think that the most demanding situation for an actor is to play a leading role on a stage especially if the role is very challenging. For example last fall I played the leading character in an Arthur miller play called “broken Glass” – It was a late career Miller play and not his greatest but it was a very demanding role and extremely dramatic. It is a great feeling as an actor to feel like you are riding a great wave of emotion and technique that helps to carry you through a performance.
-Having said that it is also very challenging to have to shoot 12 pages of a television script with reams of dialogue especially if you are playing a computer programme that speaks in paragraphs rather than individual sentences. There are all sorts of challenges an actor faces and they each have their particular demands. I began acting working on stage and that is still more gratifying when I have the opportunity to do it.
What is your take on the “Roddenberry Vision” of the future?
I am proud to have been part of the Star Trek saga and I think it presents a very positive view of the future where man kind and other alien races work in harmony. It is also a time where technology serves man rather than serves to destroy it. I think it gives us hope that we seem to need more desperately now than ever. In the wake of 9-11 in a world where terrorism threatens everyone’s daily life and also threatens the personal liberties of Westerners because it is such a difficult thing to protect all of us from. I think that we need more than ever to focus on the kind of hope and positive vision that Star Trek represents.
Have you had any thoughts about the upcoming Star Trek feature that supposedly will involve a “reboot” back to The Original Series?
I am happy that the franchise will be re-vitalised in 2008 which will be directed by JJ Abrams who did a marvelous job on Mission Impossible III and I think he’s a great talent and a really good choice to reboot the franchise. I do understand that it is supposed to be Kirk and Spock as younger men just completing their Starfleet training and I think it is a very good notion to do with the franchise. It certainly worked with Batman Begins and even though they will be using a completely different cast of actors if it revitalises the franchise all of the Star Trek family will benefit from it.
Did you have the foreknowledge that the character would grow or did you think the EMH would never leave the sickbay set?
I had no idea that the doctor would become such an integral character. In fact when I took the role I told all of my friends that I just got a good job on the new Star Trek show and it will probably run seven years and would put my daughters through college…but I had the worst character on the show. When you accept a role that is described as “colourless, humouless, a computer programme of a doctor” you don’t necessarily have great expectations for how the character will develop. What I didn’t realize, because I wasn’t familiar with Star Trek at the time was that the artificial intelligence characters kind of replaced Spock as the outsider character who is not human but aspires to be human. In the same sense that Data became a breakout character on Star Trek TNG I think the Doctor captured the audience’s imagination and the writers responded by giving me (The Doctor) wonderful things to do.
I remember when they first proposed liberating me from sickbay with the mobile emitter, I thought it wasn’t a good idea. I thought the character’s popularity was linked to his limitations and the challenge it was to try and exceed them. I thought that if he had the mobile emitter he would become just like the other characters and I have said it before and will again [Executive Producer / Writer] Brannon Braga was right and I was wrong.
We share a favourite episode of Voyager, “Nothing Human.” It is an excellent drama piece that involves the EMH working with another holographic doctor whose work just happens to be grounded in medical impropriety. I also understand that the guest star David Clennon is a longtime, personal friend of yours. Can you describe what it was like doing such a heavy, responsible character piece?
He is a longtime friend of mine, in fact he just called me two hours ago and I owe him a call back!
Nothing Human in my estimation is Star Trek at its best. It enables the viewer to examine an important moral question without the contemporary trappings of the question. You can really examine the core issue that was in this case: Is an advancement in medicine tainted by the manner in which it was accomplished?
Do you have a responsibility not to use those discoveries in respect to those who might have suffered or died as a result?
I think it is a very dramatic piece and I have shown clips from it at a medical ethics panel at the Yale School of Medicine a little over a year ago. I believe it was the 40th anniversary of NASA in a panel discussion that I showed two clips from Star Trek Voyager. I showed clips from “Message in a Bottle” – the Andy Dick episode and clips from the episode in question, “Nothing Human” for drama.
There are some wonderful questions that are raised in my arguments with the Krel Moset (Clennon) such as the hyposcay of medical experiments on lower animals yet we are shocked by someone experimenting on people (in this case Bajorans.)
Another related episode, “Critical Care”, this race of people assigns medical treatment according to the perceived worth to their society of the ailing individual.
What did you consider the worst “The Doctor” episode of Voyager?
My personal least favourite was called “Warhead” in which a sentient bomb commandeers the Doctor’s holographic programme. The Doctor becomes a walking bomb. I remember this episode least fondly because I had to do a lot of yelling and screaming and looking nasty which gets quite tiresome after a while. Originally the bomb was supposed to be a gueststar and I think the producers decided to just turn it into the Doctor because they saved a gueststar’s salary. That is my personal theory, I could be wrong, but knowing Paramount I am probably not.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Andre Bormanis who mentioned you while discussing his involvement in the Planetary Society. How long have you been involved with the society and what do you do with them?
The first time I was asked to participate in a fundraiser for the Planetary Society was a reading of a selection from Ray Bradbury to honour him. I believe it was in 1998, there were a number of readers and it was a wonderful evening. Two of the three founding members called me and asked me to become a member of the advisory board of the Planetary society. From their point of view, they liked that I had access to a science fiction audience and was recognisable to that audience and that I could help bring their message, their mission statement of encouraging the exploration of space and the various governments to strengthen their mandates in both manned and robotic exploration of space.
So I have been involved with the advisory board for about 8 years now. I have been involved in promoting “Red Rover Goes to Mars” which was designed to stimulate young people and their interest in space exploration. I encourage anyone reading this interview to type in” www.planetarysociety.org and see what is happening in space!
When you are not learning lines for your next show, acting or singing how do you spend your time?
I love to spend time with my children. I have two teenage daughters one 15 and half and one eighteen. I love to do stuff with them. My wife, Linda is also great company. I love to cook, I have been cooking my whole life so cooking is a hobby. I also enjoy working out, smoking cigars, reading and hanging out with friends.
What was it like to work with Andy Dick? How did you two get any work done around the laughter?
It was a hoot to work with Andy Dick! I remember the first thing he said to me was “So you name…Bob Picardo it’s kind of funny..do you get teased by Star Trek fans because it is so close to Captain Picard?” And I said, wait a minute your name is Andy Dick and you’re making fun of my name? He laughed at that and from that point on we had a lot of laughs together. I think it was one of the two funniest Voyager episodes I had a significant involvement in, the other being Tinkor Tenor [Doctor Spy]. Also it is the episode I remember having the most lines I suggested make it to screen. I proposed six jokes to Brannon Braga during the shooting – my favourite one being an exchange between the Doctor and the EMH Mark II (Andy Dick) where the Doctor says: “Stop breathing down my neck!” and the EMH Mark II replies, “my breathing is merely a simulation” and the Doctor retorts, “so is my neck, stop it anyway!” I thought this was pretty funny “hologram to hologram” type humor.
What is the difference between the science fiction productions of Stargate Vs. Star Trek? I have always thought the production standards of Star Trek were so high. What is your take as an actor / director?
The thing I have noticed the most about working on Stargate is their set seems to be a little more relaxed than ours. Their producers come down to the set more often and they are not off in an ivory tower the way the producers on Voyager were. We didn’t see them as often as they were on the other side of the lot from the soundstage. I think there is a kind of a mellower, more relaxed feeling working on Stargate. This is not to say I didn’t have a wonderful time working on Star Trek but I just wouldn’t call it a mellow experience!
I love my guest appearances on Stargate and I think they have taken a character that started out as a bad guy, Richard Woolsey and have humanised him somewhat. He is still a stick in the mud and annoys people but at least he means well. He is truly committed to civilian oversight of secret military operations. He believes in that and is committed to it. Now that they have given him as a director of the IOC, they have given me a lot of latitude for appearances in the show.
There was one day when we were shooting the episode “The Scurge” – my character is yelling at Carter, and in the middle of reaming her out the line was: “I’m going to report you to Stargate Command!” and of course I said “I’m going to report you to Star Trek Command” Then all 120 people on the soundstage burst into laughter as I turned beat red. I suppose that was an error that had to be made at least once, and it struck me as odd that I didn’t say Starfleet Command I said Star Trek which was obviously a phrase we weren’t supposed to be uttered on screen. Well that was a mistake and it was a funny one and I hope I don’t make it again!
As far as what the difference between the shows: I don’t feel like I can generalise in that respect. The shows have different styles. I think there is much more tounge-in-cheek in a regular Stargate episode than there was in an average Voyager episode. I think they handle the humor quite well but they do go out on a limb in that direction more than we did in Trek.
What is the key to good television directing?
Gee! If I knew that I probably would have directed more! I only directed two Voyager episodes and had a terrific time doing it, particularly the second one I did. It was “One Small Step” which was a tribute to the early years of Space Exploration. It dove tailed well with my passionate involvement with the Planetary Socety. We had a great guest star, Phil Morris who was a wonderful actor he did a great job.
I think the key is preparation, to stay on schedule because if you fall behind it will hurt you at the end. I think preparation, pace and of course having a good relationship with your actors.
What kind of character do you most enjoy playing?
I love variety. I like playing the character with the best sense of humor in a drama show. Rather than do an out and out comedy, I enjoy doing a show that is a drama but having a character that has a good sense of humor, and has the potential for humor. I think that describes my characters from both China Beach and Star Trek Voyager.
The Doctor in Voyager could be in a script that was very dramatic and the audience would believe and follow his journey but he could also be the heart of a very comic episode. There was a great deal of potential in his illusions about himself as a character. His arrogance and his puffed up nature as a character. When the chips were down he could drop a lot of his self-image problems and really deliver the goods.
If I had to choose a character as an actor it is playing a character that the audience at first doesn’t like yet they grow to like as the show progresses. Even characters like “Coach Cutler” on the “Wonder Years” even though he is much stupider than most of the characters I have played, he’s very obnoxious but so obviously insecure the audience starts to like him in spite of his first impression.
The episode of Star Trek that you share story credit with John Bruno, “Life Line” was a tremendous technical achievement with the motion control. What made you collaborate on an episode for Star Trek? Do you have other literary aspirations?
I am very proud of that story idea. It really was taking one of my favourite plays “I never sang for my father” and adapting it to the computer programme and the engineer who designed him. In other words, why not do a father / son drama where the father is the designer of a piece of technology and the technological offspring has somehow disappointed his creator by not being what he thought he was creating. There are the same issues of dissapointment from each side, why aren’t you proud of me for what I have accomplished? What can’t you accept me as I am? The father’s point of view: Why aren’t you what I designed you to be? What aren’t you what you what I hoped you would be? – after working so hard, why didn’t you turn out the way I hoped you would.
I think those issued worked very well in the Star Trek setting. There was quite a bit of motion control for a TV show of that era. It made it very difficult to shoot. I was constantly acting with an actor that I have always admired and always wanted to work with……me. 😉
It did get a little boring to do both sides of the scene as you are only imagining the performance on the other side. You are making eye-contact with nothing and it is very very technical. But I am proud of how it turned out.
Did you consider getting involved with Tim Russ’s (Tuvok) “Star Trek of Gods and Men?” As we speak they are trying to acquire rights to make it an official CBS Star Trek production!
I love Tim Russ and I think he is enormously talented. I was not asked to take part in that particular project although I have worked with him on others and I hope to work with him in the future. I have not seen it but I have heard it looks good. I hope they manage to get as wider audience as possible. As I said earlier any Star Trek helps all Star Trek! That’s my honest opinion.
Do you consider yourself politically active? For instance do you publicly back any particular party?
I am a from the cradle liberal democrat. I find this to be a very exciting time as we have a lot of potential candidates for the next election. I have not, at this point, become active in this campaign. I am really looking forward to recapturing the white house and trying to fix as many of the disastrous problems that have been created over the last 8 years.
What’s next for Robert Picardo?
I am working on a movie for the cartoon network called “Ben Ten and the Hand of Armageddon.” Ben Ten is a popular animated series which I have appeared in voice only but this is a live action version. Lee Majors is starring in the production and I am playing Ben’s Middle School principal who starts out as a jerk and turns out to be a really nice guy. There is a perfect example of a character you don’t like and then learn to like.
If you have any questions about this interview or its contents please email firstname.lastname@example.org – Mr. Picardo has plans to read this interview so any comments you make on the interview may be read by Mr. Picardo himself, although this is not guaranteed. No part of this interview may be reproduced without my permission and it is copyright Sebastian Prooth 2007.