Voyager from Alien Nation
Some character actors are familiar to audiences who recognize their faces from dozens of appearances, but don't know their names. Eric Pierpoint, however, is an actor known by name to many science fiction fans - but a lot of us don't recognize his face. Best known as George Francisco from the Alien Nation television series and several films, Pierpoint has appeared on all three latter-generation Star Trek series, in addition to Babylon 5, Sliders, Time Trax, and numerous other genre appearances...many in full prosthetic makeup.
"I think some people have prosthetics put on them and some people are a part of them - and the people whose prosthetics are a part of them will come across more effectively," said Pierpoint, a California native who grew up in Washington, D.C., where he eventually studied acting at Catholic University. "The prosthetics should not be just something you walk around in. You have to adjust the inside of you as you begin to see the outside take shape, and see how the character walks, moves and talks. I really think the externals help shape the internals and vice versa."
"I've worn the makeup in at least four different shows - I didn't wear it on Deep Space Nine, I was a human captain on that, but in the other ones I was slightly altered," continued Pierpoint, who has also had recurring roles on Hill Street Blues and Party of Five in addition to starring in several movies. "They have these foreheads and wig pieces; I think for Babylon 5 they gave me a funky forehead and kind of slicked my hair back. It's very inventive, this whole sci-fi thing, and it has a really strong heartbeat."
Becoming a Klingon
Pierpoint's most recent foray into the world of aliens was for the upcoming Star Trek Voyager episode "Barge of the Dead," in which he plays Kortar - the disgraced Klingon condemned for eternity to ferry lost souls across the river of blood to Grethor. "The initial script I got was very, very heavily into this Klingon folklore," explained the actor. "The writer [Ron Moore] quit, but he had written this great episode with this character who was the captain of the barge of the dead. I don't know all the mythology - I guess the point was that those who didn't go to Sto-Vo-Kor, the Klingon afterlife, ended up at Grethor."
Grethor was initially a fully-conceived Hell with Siren-like beings that would call lost souls into the river of blood, but the length of the script and the complex plot involving B'Elanna Torres and her long-lost mother became too complicated for the producers. In the early drafts, Kortar reportedly spent a great deal of time trying to convince Torres to stay with him and rule Grethor, ultimately falling Hades-style into the river of blood. But the mythology was cut to a few scenes in order to make room for appearances by the rest of the regular castmembers.
"The script was about B'Elanna Torres' attempts to get her mother to Sto-Vo-Kor by going into this sort of dream state, almost like another dimension, going into her own mind to the barge of the dead where she's trying to somehow patch up past misunderstandings with her mother so her mother can peacefully let go," revealed Pierpoint. "Kortar of course was trying to convince B'Elanna Torres to stay with him. It was unfortunate, because there was a big, big story, but they had to go a different way. But they let Kortar remain, so that you could go back to that place in the future for another episode; they didn't do away with the character."
Though he had to arrive on the set at 4 a.m. for makeup - something he hadn't done since the last Alien Nation film - Pierpoint said he had a lot of fun doing Voyager. "I watched Star Trek a lot when I was younger, and now I've done the sci-fi circuit - I'm running out of shows! I've met all those people over the years, the actors and the makeup people, I've been down there a lot over the years and seen people come and go as I've gone in."
Pierpoint revealed that he auditioned to play Star Trek regulars on more than one occasion. "It seems like every time they're creating and new show and they're looking for a captain, I get a call - that was true for Next Generation and Deep Space and Voyager. They went ethnic on Deep Space and female on Voyager, but they're always looking at backup plans."
On TNG, where Pierpoint played Ambassador Voval in the episode "Liaisons," the actor greatly enjoyed working with Patrick Stewart. "It was just fun to talk to him - he's a very humble guy, and so appreciative of what he had. Very gracious. As a guest star, I found him to be the most enjoyable to work with. I was also working with Barbara Williams, who played the female version of me in that show - I liked her a lot, so that made the week fun. I was only in a couple of days on each of the others, so I didn't get to bond with any of the castmembers. They're on a huge schedule, so you don't get to talk much. Things were kind of business as usual."
The actor believes that being on one series works as a calling card for others. "Science fiction is something I somehow have gotten so entangled in - once you do something that you're known for, as an actor, people like you on their show too," he observed. "Sliders came up recently - I played the President, a Clinton type of role where they manufacture and affair with Kari Wuhrer to cover up for the fact that he was invading Switzerland. And they stage her death and try to back out of it, and he has a press conference and says, 'I did not have homicidal relations with that woman!' Very funny stuff."
"Sliders is this little show on Sci-Fi that started out on network," he added thoughtfully. "They actually had a reasonably good budget on that show. The Sci-Fi Channel is getting more and more into this stuff. There were rumblings that maybe, since they rerun Alien Nation all the time, would go in and do movies or put it back as a series or something, but I guess they're off into their own thing - inventing their own programming."
Getting Into Character
Alien Nation has been a part of Pierpoint's life for more than ten years - since he saw Mandy Patinkin's performance in the original feature film, before anyone knew there was going to be a series. "I think he's a really talented guy, and when I saw what he was doing with George in the first half of the movie, I thought, he's a child - he's an innocent. He's just trying to fit in and do his best. He's noble."
When Pierpoint was cast in the series, "I looked at a few basic qualities that he had started with, and then I started inventing, going off in different directions on my own. You get time to experiment and see what works. It gave me a good platform to get a sense of the relationship between George and Sykes, based on the movie. But then we had a different take on it - we were going to introduce a lot more of the family stuff and see him in this domestic scene. And we had the flashbacks. I got to thinking, George could have a lot of different personalities because he's an alien. Who's going to know the difference? Sometimes he's going to be extremely intense, he's going to be violent, he's going to be quirky and cute and funny and dumb and smart and all these things."
Calling the Tenctonese George Francisco "my all-time favorite character," Pierpoint said that he had never had so much fun doing any other show. "It's like an actor's dream, because you're behind the mask with this head, but in a sense it's liberating rather than limiting. As yourself, you're always worried about how you're going to be perceived and accepted in this business. But you kind of dispense with the vanity, so that you can find other things and play with them. You should do that anyway, but you can especially do it with the mask."
Pierpoint began experimenting with techniques he learned as a classical stage actor; he had appeared in Macbeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Man For All Seasons, and The Hasty Heart (playing the role Ronald Reagan made famous on film). "I could bring in elements from Shakespeare or British comedy, you can power through the scenes using different techniques that you've learned over the years. It challenged me." Then, once he had gotten into character, "the character started inventing on his own. It spontaneously comes out of the character - you know the character so well that it's really organic. That's when it's really fun, because you don't have to sit down and think everything through. It just happens out of your body."
Some people wearing prosthetics just look like they have makeup on; Pierpoint is one who looks like he lives in alien skin. "People would come in on Alien Nation and just freak out. You have to give into wearing this stuff, which is not comfortable at all. I think makeup can sometimes be too dominant: then it looks like people just running around with a bunch of heads on. Classical actors are probably the best at adjusting to this makeup because they have done big shows, they've done Shakespeare, they've done things that are a little bit larger than life. They can take this makeup and work it into the psychological makeup of the character, and come up with a character that you really believe is from someplace else."
The actor described the set as a very comfortable, happy environment, for which he both credits and attributes the strong character relationships on the show. "The relationship between me and Gary Graham, we were just like brothers on the set."
"Because you're in the makeup, you have the physical thing right there working for you, and you fantasize being really alone in a world, in a sea of humanity when you're not a human," he continued. "It's an exercise in concentration: you never take anything for granted when you're an alien and you're on a new planet. Everything is new. If you go to places in Los Angeles or in the world where the color of your skin is at the minority, you get a sense of the physical difference. We did that, we would go to places and try to be aware of the environment."
The performers playing aliens had fun figuring out all the things their characters would not know or recognize right away. "The way people express themselves is not always understood by those not familiar with them. I remember there was one episode - I think it was "Real Men," the birth episode - where I had talked to this doctor in the hospital and he was describing all these things in Yiddish, and George had never heard it. He's listening to him say things like 'meshuggenah' and he says, 'Let me write that down.' It's like an adult child learning."
"His innocence and his willingness to learn, those are things as an actor that you have to constantly be aware of so that it looks like you're a man who's always waiting for the next thing. And when your partner who you ramble on with comes up with a simple idea, you have to stop and ask him about. You have a history, the treatment when you were on a slave ship - and never having been a slave, I have to fantasize about what that must have been like and store that in my body to shape my readings of the scenes."
Playing a man who could bear a child was not difficult for Pierpoint, who enjoyed the experience. "That's fun. It's pure alien biology - that part is taken for granted because it's normal for George to be able to have a baby. It would be like asking a woman what it's like to be aware of her ability to have a baby. We just have babies because that's our normal thing, it's what being Tenctonese is. It's no big deal - it's more like we have to be patient at the world's inability to grasp that this is possible, and they consider us freaks. We would turn social things on their heads in that way."
The goal, explained the actor, was "to present elements of human society through the eyes of an alien, so that we get viewers to really look at this world. That was the whole point of the show - it was an allegory. You use this fantasy to throw racism up in the air and say, isn't this ridiculous? It's like the episode in Star Trek with the characters where one was black on one side and the other was black on the other side. You know how stupid it is, and fear-based, so you point that out without really picking on anybody."
One of Pierpoint's most rewarding experiences connected with Alien Nation came through a meeting with a super-fan in England who runs a fan club there and prints The Tencton Planet, a newsletter. "I went over and visited his house while I was doing a sci-fi convention in England - his attic is an Alien Nation museum, so I drew my hand on his trap door and signed it," laughed the performer. Then he turns serious. "Pete was kind of an angry, bigoted kind of guy working on an assembly line in Coventry, and he started watching the show and he got hooked, and it changed his life. And I thought, what an enormous compliment that is to the show. Our purpose is to entertain, but our fans over the years have responded because it affected their lives. I think we hit it."
Of course, "hitting it" and being picked up by a network for a second season are two separate problems. "At the last minute, Barry Diller just cancelled the show. He cancelled most of the dramas that year, so he could produce all these sitcoms for the price of one Alien Nation. I don't think he particularly understood what we were doing with the show, in terms of how it fit in with FOX. We were all shocked about it, because we were convinced we'd go three or four years. We were on the way to do P.R. in New York and it was kind of like, 'All of you, get off the plane.'"
After Alien Nation
Despite the cancellation, the series persevered in the form of five movies, and Pierpoint revealed that two additional scripts were written for additional telefilms. However, the actor does not believe the films will be made by FOX. "They were probably going to let us gently go away," he noted wryly. "Where they put you on and when they show you often tips where you're headed - if they put you on opposite the number one college football game of the year, if someone buries your show, you don't have a chance. I've done a lot of shows that have gone less than a year and ride off into the sunset."
Still, Pierpoint is reconized by many fans - some who know him only by the sound of his voice. "I swear I could be wearing an eskimo suit with a mask on and the die-hard fans would know," he laughed. "I even changed my voice a little bit as George, but they somehow sense it. Those are people who are so into the show that they know more about the show than I do."
Though he was a bit apprehensive at first about doing conventions, fearing that the fans would want George and not himself, Pierpoint found that he enjoyed meeting other people who loved George. "George was a very accessible character, really different from me. At the first convention, I said, 'I'm sorry George could not make it.' But you realize that through you, the fans get to George, and you both love him together. You come to this sort of acknowledgement that he was a rare guy."
At the time of this interview, Pierpoint was preparing to audition for a play and working on a show which he describes as "a little like Alien Nation with no aliens in it." He is writing a series, "creating a neighborhood that is totally a mixed neighborhood, and I want to put it in its own time pocket, contemporary and urban, a little bit like an urban Northern Exposure. It will really test role reversals."
As an actor, he laments, all one can do is "try to find out where the good work is, something that you want to get up and do every day. You want something that you feel is challenging." The youth-oriented push of the networks concerns him a entertainment standpoint as well as a career standpoint.
"You have to realize this whole youth movement is huge in Hollywood's eyes - they want to capture the young audiences, and the older audiences are just left out in the cold. Someone told me they were actually going to consider producing a youth oriented Star Trek series. That woman with the sixteen-inch waist on Voyager! Those of us who watched the original show, or even the original Next Generation, they figure our buying patterns are established."
The stepson of a prominent CBS reporter who was delayed in learning about Robert Kennedy's assassination because the young Pierpoint was on the phone with his girlfriend, the actor is involved with the Big Brothers Association of Los Angeles and gives acting workshops on weekends. Happy in Los Angeles despite his east coast tenure, Pierpoint's ideal situation "would be to go from fabulous film role to fabulous film role. Stage is a once in awhile thing now, every few years. Directing, producing, and acting in a television series - or having more creative say as an actor in a television series - is where I want to go next." He would like to get his series on the air, "to put something out there that I can enjoy and kind of shape as well."