Robert Picardo Branches Out

by Michelle Erica Green

Robert Picardo had to interrupt his brief winter vacation from Star Trek Voyager to film his big scene in Small Soldiers, but he didn't mind a bit. "I owe it all to Joe Dante; he was the first one who placed me on a Star Trek set," the actor explains. Dante's film Explorers features a film-within-a-film called Captain Starkiller - "a very bad cheeseball ripoff of like a Buck Rogers-kind of space serial, if you can imagine a cheeseball ripoff of something that's relatively cheesy to begin with." Picardo played Captain Starkiller, which was filmed in a Klingon torpedo bay from Star Trek II. "So Joe placed me on a Star Trek set some 18 years ago, which I think shows tremendous clairvoyance," Picardo laughs.

Small Soldiers represents the latest phase in Picardo and Dante's long-time working relationship. Picardo was fortunate that the film was shot on such a tight schedule, since most of it was filmed during Voyager's shooting season when the actor is unavailable for other work. Since Dante worked through Christmas, Picardo was able to squeeze in a cameo. The director originally asked Picardo to play a school principal - "and that would have been fun, and sort of up my alley" - but Picardo was interested in playing a bad guy for a change. "I am responsible for the carnage," he says gleefully. "I have designed a microchip, a smart chip that improves any military weapons system, and some ambitious toy manufacturer uses it elsewhere!"

Plot-wise, Picardo has a pivotal scene in which he explains what's happening to the toy soldiers in the movie. "In contrast to what I do on Voyager, which is strictly software, I'm the hardware guy in Small Soldiers. I'm obsessive as usual, and I do something - let's just say I have a minor mishap in a clean room suit." The actor went in with an idea for what he wanted to do with the part, "and I think the other actors, who'd been working on the movie for three months, their jaws kind of dropped, because they look and me and I come in for the day and sort of commandeer the scene!" Because he had to return to Voyager, the actor spent very little time on the set and was surprised to hear during this interview that Tommy Lee Jones provided the voice of Chip Hazard, the head commando. "I didn't even know that! During the shooting I knew what the cast was, but he would have done that in post-production," Picardo points out.

Dante discovered Picardo twenty years ago in the Broadway production of Tribute, in which the young Picardo played Jack Lemmon's tormented son. "For some bizarre reason, when he was casting The Howling and looking for his werewolf-psycho, he remembered my tormented young man in Tribute, who was anything but a psycho, but I had a couple of explosive scenes where I laid into Dad with tremendous anger. For whatever reason, Joe saw werewolf potential in me, which I suppose is a very back-handed compliment!" That role represented Picardo's first experience with prosthetic makeup, which of course he is very familiar with now on Voyager.

In addition to Captain Starkiller, Picardo also played the two aliens in that movie, a father and child - "the first time I ever played my own parent, which of course is something every actor longs for," he jokes. "I did get to yell at myself, and I got to wear bright blue lame and a blonde pompadour, which was also appealing." The experience did not, however, leave him enthusiastic about prosthetics, and when Voyager's producers asked him this season whether he wanted to be turned into a Borg during an episode where a transporter malfunction causes Seven of Nine's Borg implants to interface with the Doctor's holographic emitter, "I reacted with extreme lukewarm response - the expression 'Been There, Done That' leaps to my mind." Ironically, Picardo had originally auditioned to play not the Doctor but Neelix - the most makeup-heavy role on Voyager. "It does seem somewhat hypocritical, in retrospect, since I've done prosthetics a number of time for Joe, but I have no defense for hypocrisy!"

The co-star of China Beach is grateful to Dante for offering him such opportunities as letting him choose his part in Runaway Daughters: "He had me in mind for another character, but I said, 'Let me do this.' Often with Joe, when he hands me something, we'll sit down and have a meeting early on where I'll pitch a theme or a prop gag." Picardo is known as a prop actor, so he and Dante will have meetings with the prop department to devise his inventions.

"In Gremlins II I wanted to play a management personality who totally depersonalized the people who worked for him, so instead of having name tags for everyone in the giant corporate headquarters building, I gave all my employees a bar code badge, and I had a computer with a switchblade-opening scanner. I would scan everybody and never look at their faces - just the printout with their records and their names. So that involved the manufacture of hundreds of these bar code badges for the extras, and this cool switchblade bar code opener, and all this other stuff that they do at my whim!"

Picardo does grumble, however, that he could have played David Cross's role in Small Soldiers...ten years ago. "David Cross looks a little like me at age 27 - Joe finally cast a movie I could play a lead in, and I'm too old for it! There were people who saw the previews who think that I have David Cross's part. I say, that's very flattering but if you look closer you can see that he's a good dozen years younger than me!"

Of course, the man behind the Holographic Doctor was also a bit too busy to play a lead in Small Soldiers. Voyager has been undergoing some changes with the loss of Kes and the addition of Seven of Nine. "We had been aiming for more action, I think that will continue," the actor notes. "Last year was very much a transition year, since [executive producer] Jeri Taylor knew she was leaving the series, so Brannon Braga was assuming a lot of the helm. So it's been a very easy transition this season - the second half of last season in particular, Brannon was pretty much running the show as much as he is now that Jeri's gone. Brannon is an incredible workhorse who can rewrite so many scripts in a season, even ones which aren't necessarily his particular stories or his first drafts. He's kind of tireless - he can do a rewrite in two and a half, three days."

There are new writers on the show's staff as well, but "believe it or not, we've been back to work three weeks and I haven't even met them yet," laughs Picardo. "We can go a whole season without meeting a writer - we'll meet at the wrap party!" He does express pleasure with the material the unknown scripters are turning out. "We're in our third story, and the first two scripts have been really good. I've had fun supporting things to do, but I don't think I'll be featured until show five, which is very much the way it was last year." The slow start is fine with Picardo: "I like easing into the season, I never envy the actors who have the big role the first or second time out, because you've been off and you have to find your stride again before you go into the total immersion mold. "

Picardo does have a funny moment in the opening scene of the season, set on the holodeck in a 1930's-style black and white sci-fi movie serial. "Talk about Buck Rogers! It turns out to be a holodeck program that Tom Paris, who's always been kind of a 20th century hobbyist, is fooling around with - visions of what the future would be - so he's cast himself in this romantic retro program as Captain Proton. It's all in black and white until the doctor enters in full color, complaining that Tom is now three minutes into his scheduled time to practice a duet from Don Carlo!"

As for what's coming up on Voyager, "I know Brannon has a major surprise in store, I think, for late in the season. This is what I've heard, but I'm not even sure what it is." The long-anticipated return of Voyager to the Alpha Quadrant, perhaps? "I have my theories, but I honestly don't know!" laughs the actor. "My theory has always been, they will bring us home the moment Deep Space Nine is going off the air - I would think, if we go home, it won't be till May sweeps."

Any chance of a crossover between the Voyager and Deep Space Nine casts before the older series concludes? Picardo once appeared on Deep Space Nine as Dr. Louis Zimmerman, the Doctor's programmer, but isn't sure he'll be returning to the space station. "It's hard to do much crossover - it would be wonderful if Deep Space Nine was on a network for the sake of having a regular air time, and they could plan the kind of crossover things that have been done on Ally McBeal and The Practice, where they did a same-night airing. Of course that's impossible. We could have a little bit of crossing over - probably from them to us makes more sense than from us to them, though if you're having a show where you're kind of saying goodbye to the whole facility of Deep Space Nine, it would be fun to see at least one Voyager guy roam through, or have a scene with Neelix where he's getting advice or supplies from Quark for some reason. I think the fans would get a big hoot out of that."

Picardo doesn't expect to be making any appearances in the next Star Trek movie either, noting, "We've done that joke once and it worked surprisingly well, but to me the only rationale to have put me in the next film is that I think it would be very gratifying for the fans to see a scene between me and Data. I hope it happens, I think it would be great fun." He imagines that if Paramount ever goes ahead with the planned IMAX Star Trek film, maybe they could have a scene together, "but that's completely fantasy because I don't even know what the status of that project is." Next Generation's Jonathan Frakes, who is directing the next feature, was at one time rumored to be the chosen director for the IMAX film, but is now rumored to be planning Total Recall II after he completes Star Trek IX, assuming that Arnold Schwarzenegger can work the sequel into his own busy schedule.

Picardo, who played the voice of Johnnycab in the first Total Recall, is hopeful that that project will go forward. "I would think they would try to sign Johnnycab first, before Arnold - obviously I am going to be a significant part of the success of any Total Recall movie," he jokes "I would hope they would have the voice of Johnnycab back, and I'm sure they saved my rubber head somewhere - no more molding!" He reacts with mock-indignance to the suggestion that Johnnycab might have aged. "I don't think we're trying to encourage the fans to think of Johnnycab as the Doctor moonlighting."

In the meantime, his job on Voyager looks secure for the immediate future. "I would say that the fact that Deep Space Nine has come back for a seventh year bodes awfully well for us - we were a more robust child out of the gate," though he admits that with the addition of Michael Dorn and the exciting storylines on the other Trek series, "we're probably neck in neck in popularity." He expresses mystification at UPN's decision to hold the Voyager season premiere until October, after bringing the cast back from hiatus on June 1st to aim for a start date the first week in September. "When you go to Rick Berman and ask how we're doing, though, he says stuff like, 'Buy the better tiles for your bathroom.' I think UPN needs us for brand-name recognition."

As for all the hype about Seven of Nine, whose arrival on Voyager was considerably more publicized than Dorn's on Deep Space Nine, "I think it's all going to normalize this year. We're shooting a great Torres episode right now. I was glad at the end of last season that with the departure of Kes, they still gave me really good work, because I was afraid they had sort of cut the heart out of my character. 'Message in a Bottle' and 'Living Witness' were two of the three most popular shows last year as far as the online commentary."

In non-genre work, Picardo is hoping to do an Albert Brooks project, "probably five minutes of screen time in the movie which would shoot over the course of three days, it would be the kind of role that I could easily shoot during the shooting season. It's very hard to schedule any movie work when you're shooting a television series where they don't know what the next episode is, and whether you'll work seven days or two days."

He does laugh, however, when told that Corey Parker of The Love Boat suggested that the crews of the Sun Princess and Voyager should swap ships for an episode, and thinks it's a great idea when told that Kate Mulgrew and Robert Beltran won the online fan poll for the television couple viewers would most like to see together on The Love Boat. "Keep it all in the UPN family," he exclaims. "I said from the beginning that we should all guest star on that."

In the meantime, he hopes that Small Soldiers lives up to its impressive buzz. "I really hope it's a big success, because I adore Joe, and I'd love him to have a big hit and then be flooded with scripts. And ultimately it will be good for me, because there will be a part for me in that flood of scripts!"

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