Robert Duncan McNeill Likes Being In Space
Despite rumors that this will be the season when Voyager finally gets home, Robert Duncan McNeill isn't in any rush for the starship his character pilots to get back to Earth. "I don't want to get home! If we go back, I don't have a job, I have to go back to jail and I lose the paycheck. It's a lose-lose situation," he groans.
McNeill has just started shooting his fifth season on Star Trek Voyager, where he plays the cocky, heroic Lieutenant Tom Paris. A recent guest at the annual Shore Leave convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, McNeill assures fans that "we're not going back to the Alpha Quadrant yet, which I think is a good thing." Known to Next Generation fans as Nick Locarno, the Academy classmate who convinced Wesley Crusher to lie to a board of inquiry; McNeill was an obvious choice for the role of Tom Paris on Voyager, though he had to convince the producers that instead of looking for "a Robert Duncan McNeill type," they should risk comparisons by casting him. It paid off: Paris has been one of the consistently popular characters on the series.
"Tom is a man who has made mistakes, but hasn't allowed those mistakes to ruin his life," says the actor, who likes the balance of Starfleet idealism and Maquis rebelliousness in his character. In addition to his piloting skills, Paris is known for his knowledge of 20th century culture and his skill at holodeck programming, which will be featured in an early episode next season when Tom plays a superhero in a holographic B-movie. Over the course of the past few seasons, Paris has progressed from the bad boy whose dalliance with the wife of an alien nearly got him executed to the captain's confidant in a scheme to smoke out a traitor.
The transformation from troublemaker to model citizen has happened a little too quickly for McNeill, who says that he prefers to see a little more of Paris's dark side. This past season, Paris became romantically involved with B'Elanna Torres, another development about which he has somewhat mixed feelings. "She's rough, isn't she," he jokes dreamily of B'Elanna, but grumbles when asked whether the characters will commit to one another on the series, lamenting the loss of potential storylines with other characters. Next season with Brannon Braga at the helm, the show will reportedly become darker but wittier, meaning that the less-than-perfect Tom Paris of earlier seasons could return.
Jeri Ryan's character Seven of Nine was brought on last season to shake up the series, which she did with great success, but there has been considerable fan criticism about the emphasis on her character to the detriment of others. Asked whether Ryan's presence caused problems among the cast, McNeill jokes, Yeah, we're all fighting over her," but admits that there was tension about the media hype and ongoing promotion of her image. "Jeri is a really wonderful, professional actress and fits in beautifully into our cast - she's got a great sense of humor, she's a trouper like the rest of us," he says, adding with a wicked grin that "she works long hours while they have to paint that suit on her body."
But there was certainly a feeling among the cast that her character seemed to be getting more than its fair share of attention. The actor explains, "Because there was a new character and UPN in its desperate attempt for ratings somehow felt like they could publicize something very easily because it was visually...unique...and because it was a new thing, an easy sell publicity-wise because of Jeri Ryan's very stunning physical attributes, eighteen of the twenty-six shows were about Seven of Nine. She was the superhero savior of the ship. And we all felt like there were eight other characters that had very strong contributions to make. If we're creating a show about nine heroic Starfleet people, then we all need to contribute in our unique way."
McNeill is confident that this season, the writers will redistribute contributions more equally among the cast. He does a hilarious parody onstage of a typical fourth-season scene between Seven of Nine and Captain Janeway: "'Seven, I don't want you to do that.' 'Captain, I'm going to do it anyway.' 'No you won't.' 'Yes, I will.' 'Go to the brig.' 'No!' It was the same scene. To play that for eighteen episodes...we've seen it!"
"Now we need to see something else," he continues. "Nothing against Jeri Ryan, but it's an insult to the rest of the cast. I think hopefully the network will realize that the ratings didn't improve. This is their only hit, it's the only show that seems to be bringing in reasonable numbers. If it wasn't for Star Trek, there wouldn't be a UPN." Next season the series returns to an 8 p.m. time slot, though its first episode, "Night," will not air until mid-October. This time slot could put it into direct competition with Babylon 5 in some markets, but McNeill, who thinks Voyager is more successful appealing to young people than developing R-rated themes, thinks the earlier time works better for the show.
One issue which has come up again and again is Tom's relationship with his father, a Starfleet admiral who was Captain Janeway's mentor. Viewers learned in the pilot that his son's courtmartial and expulsion from Starfleet caused an irrevocable rift in an already strained relationship. In last season's episode "Hunters," in which the crew received letters from the Alpha Quadrant, Paris waited in fearful anticipation for a letter from his father which never came. "[Former executive producer] Jeri Taylor has written this new book, Pathways. She said to me last year that she was going to really try to define Paris's background and what he did to get in jail, and define his relationship with his father, which we seem to refer to a lot - I'll read the book and I'll tell you," McNeill promises.
Tom's transformation from ladies' man to B'Elanna's steady has left the actor with mixed feelings - he was a big fan of the relationship in its early development, but now laughs that he can't ever date the alien babes which the ship encounters. He admits that it's not setting a good example for younger audience members for the series to focus on short flings rather than long-term relationships, but insists that the show has a greater responsibility to entertain than to promote a given set of values.
"My hesitation to get tied down to B'Elanna on the show is that because it's a series and each week you're doing a new story, sometimes a new relationship can create a very interesting story, whereas the same relationship can become a little boring as a story," says the father of three. "I think there is a responsibility for television to set a good example, but the most important responsibility is to tell a good story. Sometimes with alien-of-the-week stories, you get a relationship that you can explore in a really focused way, and you can tell a story in that experience - it's more difficult to sustain characters episode after episode, and keep that interesting."
The plan this year for Tom and B'Elanna is not to focus on the relationship as such unless it's part of a bigger story. "Last year when they explored the relationship it was a lot of therapy-speak," the actor admits. "It became not very dramatic - that kind of conversation might be really healthy and great for my real relationship, but it's kind of boring to watch people on TV talk that way. Their intention for the relationship this year is to find really interesting stories for the characters, and if there's an opportunity to let the relationship enhance the story, then we'll deal with it. We just filmed an episode where B'Elanna is dealing with some self-destructive behavior, and we had a great scene where it was really about that. It's more interesting to see the dance that people do in relationships where they don't talk about exactly how they're feeling."
The relationship also suffered a bit last season because actress Roxann Dawson was hugely pregnant...as was McNeill's wife Carol, who gave birth to their son Carter within a few weeks of the birth of Dawson's daughter Emma. "It was kind of funny playing love scenes while she was pregnant - at home I'd get hormones, at work I'd get hormones! I was used to it. But they'd always have to compromise the shot and do a closeup, they couldn't do a big wide master," he recalls.
A motorcycle aficionado who's known for having so many videotapes in his trailer that the other actors use it as a rental outlet of sorts, the former heartthrob of All My Children has a substantial resume of theater credits, but is trying to move into directing. His first efforts, the Voyager episodes "Sacred Ground" and "Unity," were extremely well-received; "Unity," which featured a colony of ex-Borg, was one of the highest-rated episodes of the third season. He will be directing a Voyager episode late this season, but he's particularly excited about the work he's been doing for Nickelodeon's Alan Strange.
"What happened is that my daughter watched Alex Mack, a big hit on Nickelodeon, so I started watching with her. It had special effects like Star Trek, it had a lot of the same elements of a fantasy show, but it was really well made." So he set up a meeting with the production company, and learned that Alex Mack had wrapped. "And I was so disappointed, because I really wanted to direct that show!" The producers told McNeill that they had a new show coming up, Alan Strange, which is very similar "but a little more sci-fi oriented." McNeill started observing, "checking out what the show's about, and now I will be directing."
The young director is excited about working for Nickelodeon because they permit a wide range of styles. "The Nickelodeon shows tend to have sort of that MTV hip-ness, they like sort of edgy things, so that's one reason I approached them: it's a way to be creative as a director. Visually, they like things that would never go over even on Star Trek." Citing the difficulty of making a living as an independent filmmaker and the frequent tedium of being a network episodic director, "I like to live in a house and have food to eat, but I don't want to go do something that is just cookie-cutter, the same shots, the same scenes," he's interested in commercial work, which "can be really creative, especially visually - it's really like a work of art how they tell the story in thirty seconds."
"I like to be creative, but it's hard sometimes - you're torn between being creative and trying to be responsible and make a living, and trying to be smart in the business," the Juilliard-trained performer continues. During his hiatus this summer, McNeill went to New York for a workshop of a new play by Peter Schaffer of Amadeus and Equus fame. "It was me and Juliette Stevenson and William Hurt, it was a really classy, very nice company, Scott Ellis who got nominated for a Tony this year was the director and it was very creative. But aafterwards everybody said, "Well, would you be interested in doing this on Broadway? And I'd love to do a Broadway play, but the risk, the idea of coming to New York and being a stage actor, is kind of scary, so sometimes you try to figure out what the best business move is. It's still really nice to be asked. I'd like to, but it's like starting over...is that where I want to invest my time? I don't know."
McNeill has frequently invested his time in charity work, particularly with children; his fan club, RanDoM Flight (email@example.com) raises money for pediatric AIDS research. While they lived in New York, he and his wife (a professional dancer and choreographer) founded Real Play Productions, an organization which used creative outlets to help inner-city children express and deal with the problems they faced. "It was so powerful to see how open and how expressive they would become about these issues when it was in a creative environment. Sometimes when you sit down and say, 'How do you feel about drugs?' it's too much, they can't handle that, but when you say, let's do a dance about peer pressure, and you start being creative, they become more expressive." With the help of friends from Juilliard and All My Children, the company worked with the Fresh Air Fund and with homeless shelters. "I think it's a really powerful tool with kids to use the arts to express issues that are on their minds, divorce or drugs or sex."
Robert Duncan McNeill is frequently asked about his lengthy name, and the fact that he worked in soaps and on The Twilight Zone as Duncan McNeill. "It's a boring union thing," he explains. "I was just Robert McNeill in Actors' Equity. Then I got into AFTRA, which is the soap opera union, and there was already a Robert McNeill, so they said, you have to change your name. So I used my middle name, I became Duncan McNeill for a brief while. But I felt like I ought to be talking in an accent, it was a little too ethnic. Then I got into SAG [the Screen Actors' Guild], and I just decided to have three names."
Genuinely fond of his co-stars, the actor tells stories on the convention floor about them, including Tim Russ's legendary nude stunts, Robert Beltran's flubbing lines, and Garrett Wang's affetion for Las Vegas. "I haven't been to the Star Trek Experience - the opening was a couple of weeks before my son was supposed to be born - but Garrett lives in Las Vegas. Actually he wins a lot of money, he'll probably be producing our show soon. I think we're going to go this summer, we're going to take the kids." The creator of the Star Trek Experience, Gary Goddard of Landmark Entertainment, directed McNeill in Masters of the Universe, as he points out: "It's nice to run into the same people in this business."
A devoted reader, McNeill brings books onto the set with him: "Very often if we're on the bridge, I'll have a book up there and literally at the last minute I'll throw it underneath." Though he doesn't read much science fiction, he likes Jonathan Lethem's futuristic noir and "a lot of contemporary fiction, character-driven fiction, quirky, offbeat kinds of stories." He also reads a lot of plays: "I was reading this 17th-century comedy of manners last week and everyone was going, 'What are you reading?' I do have a little library at work: we have these kitchens in the corners of our trailers, at work and the stove is covered with books."
McNeill did have to sacrifice some down time this year to working out to lose the 25 pounds he says he gained during his wife's pregnancy. "I actually got up to 217 pounds, which is a lot for me. This year I went back to a Star Trek outfit from two years ago when I was a lot thinner, so I was very happy about that. I hate working out, sometimes that shows, but the roles I play, a lot of times they want guys who are really buff. This hiatus I discovered spinning, it's basically a bicycle class where you go in like an aerobics studio where they have the old-fashioned stationary bikes with the big heavy flywheel, and they put music on really loud and talk you through as if you're going on a road race. You end up sprinting and racing and climbing hills. For the first time in my life, I want to go."
The reality in his line of work is that the actors must be "at least acceptably fit, and they'd like you more than acceptably fit." He jokes that the B'Elanna and Tom storyline is restricted when she's pregnant and he's overweight - "she and I both feel like we have to get in shape so they have the option to do those kinds of scenes if they want, rather than feeling like they have to hide us."
And if Voyager does get home this season, assuming Tom Paris doesn't end up in jail, McNeill thinks there might be some exciting options. "I think the obvious thinking is that if we get back to the Alpha Quadrant, then next year they'll have a show that's got Klingons and Romulans and Cardassians and all those favorite bad guys. Which would be fun - then we could have guest stars and crossover actors."