“The Kidding-On-The-Square Aspect Of Competition Between Actors Never Really Goes Away” Interview With Robert Picardo

It is perhaps a sign of the depth and range of Robert Picardo that when I tell my friends I’m going to be interviewing him it triggers a debate over which of his various different roles is the best. One friend enthuses that the cowboy in Inner Space is iconic and without a doubt her favourite; another opines that Richard Woolsey was easily the best thing about Stargate Atlantis; yet another friend mentions Picardo‘s voice work as Alan Binet in his favourite video game: Fallout 4.

Picardo has had a wealth of excellent roles which he has indeed made iconic, but arguably his most iconic role was that of The Doctor (or the Emergency Medical Hologram) in Star Trek: Voyager. Beginning in the mid-90s, Voyager was the fifth series in the Star Trek canon – coming on the heels of the cultural phenomenon that was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It ran for seven seasons and was widely acclaimed, although perhaps never hitting the same heights of its predecessor.

The most recent Star Trek series – Picard – has seen a return for many of the cast of both The Next Generation and Voyager. It led Brent Spiner – whose character Data from The Next Generation bears many similarities to Picardo‘s in Voyager – to create a music video celebrating, tongue-in-cheek, his return to the mainstream culture.

Shortly thereafter, Picardo released his own hilarious music video, Spent My Life An Actor, musing on his misfortune that he is not Brent Spiner. It highlighted a fact that many Trek fans were aware of: Spiner‘s Data and Picardo‘s Doctor share a DNA; could Spiner’s success in the recent Picard then have similar implications for Robert Picardo? While he won’t be drawn on his involvement with the new show (he hasn’t been approached to be on it, and has no news to speak of regarding it), Picardo proves to be an excellent interview subject when I meet with him. He is warm, funny and full of stories. Our discussion ranges from his work on Voyager and friendship with Spiner, to his musical background in theatre, to his thoughts on the recent Black Lives Matter movement.

Daryl MacDonald for Film Inquiry: So your music video was a response to Brent Spiner’s, wasn’t it? How did it come about?

Robert Picardo: A friend of mine called and said “I have a little film crew available on payroll” and nobody’s working because of the lockdown. I realised we could safely shoot with a very tiny crew, especially since it’s almost only me in the film. I just thought [Brent‘s] was hilarious, joyful, playful. I was delighted by it.

"The Kidding-On-The-Square Aspect Of Competition Between Actors Never Really Goes Away" Interview With Robert Picardo
source: Spent My Life An Actor

I noticed in the music video you wore a backpack with the Star Trek: The Cruise logo on it. 

Robert Picardo: [laughs] Yes! That was my idea. I happened to have the bag left from the Cruise, and I thought it was a very funny gag. I really wanted a Star Trek reference without actually saying it. I also bought that Walmart hat online, and the paper diner hats. I take credit for all of the props except for the magazine. That was Ben’s idea (the editor Benjamin Ho), to have Brent on the cover of a magazine, which ended up being a really great prop. The cameo appearance of the guy in the diner is played by my friend Ed Perotti, and it was his idea that the magazine be in colour which made a great dramatic impact because it showed that my life was so dreary that the only colourful element in it was Brent Spiner! [laughs] And I got my drone shot, which I desperately wanted. I told the director (James Marlowe) I wanted to look like a crumpled bug!

It sounds like it was a lot of fun.

Robert Picardo: It was great fun! We shot it all in about five and a half hours in a private house and yard of a friend of the director, so we were able to socially distance and wear masks. We were in and out and done very quickly.

It’s a very different style from Brent’s too, although you’re both clearly experienced musical performers.

I know Brent is a great musical performer, he’s done musicals on Broadway and elsewhere; I saw him do the lead in Man of La Mancha, so he’s a terrific musical performer. I’ve never done a Broadway musical, but I’ve done a number of musicals since Star Trek.

You have a musical background yourself, though. You were in an acapella group in Yale, right?

Robert Picardo: Yeah, I was in an acapella singing group there. I was [also] in a couple of musicals. One of them was Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass and that was really the experience that made me want to be a professional actor. Up to that point, I was a biology major and my goal was to go to medical school. Bernstein himself actually came to see the play. He made some cast changes and then took our production to Vienna. We were even on public television, a show called Theatre in America. It was sort of a predecessor to Great Performances. So it was a very exciting experience to get this quasi-professional exposure at age nineteen. Bernstein was very encouraging to me personally and so I decided to switch over to a theatre major. By twenty-three I had my first leading role on Broadway, so I had a fairly charmed young life in New York.

Interesting that you were Pre-Med and you ended up playing a doctor on TV.

Robert Picardo: Well, I’d played a lot of doctors before my seven years as an Emergency Medical Hologram. Before I was a doctor in the future, I was a doctor in the past on a Vietnam drama called China Beach which was set in 1967/68. But I do get asked whether having studied biology was helpful [on Star Trek] and I think insofar as you understand scientific reasoning and are used to the structure of scientific explanation, that was helpful. Star Trek is embedded in real science and simply extends real science so when I had those long explanations where The Doctor had a hypothesis or was going to perform some sort of test to gather the data and draw a conclusion, I was talking about things that didn’t quite exist yet in medicine, although most of it has come to pass in the intervening twenty years.

I’m personally holding out for a Holodeck or a replicator.

Robert Picardo: Yeah, well that would be good! It’s been said before but the thing everyone is scared of is who wants to take the test ride in the transporter? Especially after all the transporter jokes!

Coming back to Brent Spiner, I’ve always been interested in the correlation between Data and The Doctor. They both represent this sort of all-knowing, hyper-intelligent AI who want to be human. Was that something you were conscious of when you took the role as The Doctor? Did you consider the role as, basically, “Voyager’s Data”?

"The Kidding-On-The-Square Aspect Of Competition Between Actors Never Really Goes Away" Interview With Robert Picardo
source: Spent My Life An Actor

Robert Picardo: To be honest with you, I was not very knowledgeable about Star Trek. We get asked all the time if we were fans before, and I decided long ago that if I lied it would get me in trouble eventually, so I told the truth and said that I wasn’t a fan of Star Trek and didn’t know much about it. [The original] was on when I was thirteen, fourteen years old and I didn’t watch it during its first run when I would’ve been just the right age to enjoy it. I watched Lost in Space, though, probably because I thought Angela Cartwright was so darn cute! So even when I auditioned I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t understand how a hologram could handle real medical instruments. You know, if he was a projection of light how could he handle something that had actual density and mass?

Which is very different from the experience of Data.

Robert Picardo: I also realised I was a new piece of technology [from Data]. Some of the storylines were going to be similar to the ones Data had, but he famously had no emotions and was very childlike and open in his inquisitiveness and demeanour. My character was conceived as cranky and curmudgeonly, but he had these emotional subroutines so that he could hopefully develop a bedside manner. He could develop feelings and emotions, although he didn’t really start with any. I wanted to start with some of the artifices that Brent brought to his role because I thought it would serve me later; the slight super-posture, standing very upright, shoulders back and a certain kind of mannerism in my speech.

The Doctor had a certain attitude, and I think that was the essential joke of the character that he was a wilful piece of technology. Certainly, he had a very strong self-image, that he was not only the future of modern medicine, but he was also the embodiment of everything Starfleet knew about medicine at that point in time. So he had quite an ego that came from the fact he literally was a know-it-all. The underbelly of the character, though, was that he felt he was not being accorded the rights of a regular, organic, crew person.

The Doctor did take himself very seriously.

Robert Picardo: Well he was a windbag [laughs], and he was constantly setting himself up for humiliation! So even though The Doctor was very smart and thought very highly of himself, he was certainly brought down several pegs on many occasions.

So although they seemed similar, the characters were actually quite different.

Robert Picardo: I realised later – because I didn’t know that aspect of Data [at the time] – that we shared some similar storylines: Data had a creator, I had a programmer in Lewis Zimmerman. Fundamentally, though, the characters had such different behaviours that it became clear to me that even though we would have similar dramatic functions, being compared was not going to be as scary as I originally thought it was. I was very mindful that Brent‘s character was wildly popular, so my concern early on had been “Oh, I don’t wanna get negatively compared to him” because he was so popular and I’m the next incarnation, so to speak. But it really didn’t seem to be an issue during the shooting.

Your music video really represents that idea, that Brent was more popular.

Robert Picardo: Oh, it was completely tongue-in-cheek. Brent and I met twenty-five years ago on the set of Star Trek: Generations and he’s always been terrific to me. We’ve gotten to know each other well through many dinners together and events and he’s a very charming guy, extremely witty, fun to be around. The whole comparing myself to him was really dictated by his video which was so upbeat, joyful, colourful, and funny.  I decided to go the other direction which is downbeat, black and white, depressing (laughs).

Actors love to bitch about their careers. There’s an old show-business joke: “how do you make an actor complain? You give him a job”. So it really grew out of the fact that, because Next Generation came first and had a bigger viewership, I’ve always felt that Deep Space Nine and Voyager were sort of the step-children. The moment [The Next Generation] came along, they had the biggest viewership of any of the Star Trek shows, I believe more than the original series or any of the offspring. Their viewership really couldn’t be repeated now because of the difference in the television marketplace.

"The Kidding-On-The-Square Aspect Of Competition Between Actors Never Really Goes Away" Interview With Robert Picardo
source: Spent My Life An Actor

That’s very true.

Robert Picardo: So yeah, it was basically just me goofing off and saying “I wish I was the number one AI”, but it’s very tongue in cheek and intended to be silly. Although I did want to sucker-punch the audience. I wanted them to watch the beginning of the video and think it was going to be serious until the first time I utter the name “Brent Spiner“.

It does seem, at first, to be a real sort of rivalry between you two before it becomes obvious it’s all in good humour.

Robert Picardo: Well, when I was twenty-four years old – and I think Brent‘s five years older than me so he would have been around twenty-eight or twenty-nine – every actor in their twenties was auditioning to play Jack Lemmon‘s son in his much heralded return to Broadway for the first time since he’d become a movie star. Jack Lemmon did a play on Broadway in nineteen fifty-two, I think, a revival of the comedy Room Service, got a three-picture deal, went to Hollywood and for twenty-five years he hadn’t been back to Broadway.

So he was coming back to do a father/son comedy-drama. And I got that role! So cut to sixteen years later, I’m now age forty, forty-one, and I’m on the set of Star Trek: Generations; somebody says “hey Brent, have you met Bob Picardo?” and Brent turns to me, he doesn’t say hello, he doesn’t say “nice to meet you”, he said, “you got my part in Tribute” [laughs]. That was the first thing he said to me, and then he smiled. That just shows you the kidding-on-the-square aspect of competition between actors never really goes away.

Spiner’s video is sort of riffing off his new-found popularity with the Picard show and Penny Dreadful. What are you doing these days?

Robert Picardo: Recently I was on a show that ran two seasons with Hailey Steinfield called Dickinson, for Apple TV. It’s kind of a wild reinterpretation of America’s greatest female poet, Emily Dickinson. I play her father’s political consultant and campaign manager when her father runs for congress, which is a historical fact. So I play the friend and slightly toadying yes man to her dad.

I’m also playing a gangster character opposite Ernie Hudson in The Family Business. He’s a Meyer Lansky-like Jewish gangster, in a show where the cast is almost exclusively African-American, and the crew is as well, so I’m one of the only Caucasian performers on set. It’s been a wonderful experience, I’ve been so warmly received and beautifully treated on set and I was very mindful of that when, just a couple of months after we shut down the set for COVID-19, this terrible murder of George Floyd happened.

Yes, that was awful. It’s a very strange time in America right now. 

Robert Picardo: It’s a very righteous racial justice moment in America, that we’re very much embedded in right now. It won’t go away until systemic changes are made in our country. I felt in a way that it was a special gift in my personal life – I’ve never been in an environment where I’m the minority member, and I was treated with such graciousness that it made me realise what a bad example our country has set throughout history towards African-Americans. Especially from the police authority. So it really has shined a light on systemic racism and made me, along with the rest of the world, think about what, personally, we can do. Obviously the changes have to be made by government but what can you do yourself – other than lending vocal and financial support – to this movement? What else should someone who considers themselves a caring and just person, do?

Agreed. Shining a light on these issues is important. When is The Family Business out?

Robert Picardo: They’ve just uploaded half the first season and I’ll go back to work, as soon as it’s safe to work.

"The Kidding-On-The-Square Aspect Of Competition Between Actors Never Really Goes Away" Interview With Robert Picardo
source: Spent My Life An Actor

I wanted to say I love those skits you’re doing on your YouTube channel with “Alphonso”. Really funny!

Robert Picardo: Oh great! I have many more coming. My goal is to upload, at least, an original every week, sometimes more. I can only act with myself in lockdown, so I’m doing more where I interact with the Alphonso character, the self-styled “World’s Greatest Lover”. I shot a video where I’m having dinner with him, as myself. That one turned out really well. I’ve shot another one where we’re having duelling interviews and we both give an entirely different story. So yes, there will be more to come and, you know, the Brent video is a great way to get people to sample the YouTube channel so it served its purpose.

Anything else in the pipeline?

Robert Picardo: I’d love to make another musical and my friend has offered me his crew again so if I think of something fun to do I’ll do another musical one as well.

That’ll certainly give us all some much-needed cheer right now.

Robert Picardo: Yeah, that was the feeling I had when I watched Brent‘s; what a wonderful way to surprise and delight your fans by making something for them and just, you know, uploading it on Twitter. It was so great of him to do that and I wanted to, in my own way, take a page from his book and do something like it.

Film Inquiry thanks Robert Picardo for taking the time to speak with us.

Robert Picardo has had many famous roles throughout his career. Which are your favourites? Let us know in the comments below!

You can now watch Spent My Life An Actor as well as other videos, on Robert Picardo’s YouTube channel.

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