Spiner's Sense of Show - Interview with Brent Spiner, Intro (JPG File)

We talked to him after his stage appearance at the Wolf 359 "Mission" convention in Blackpool, England. The blue room divider behind us was a fine background for Spiner, whose self professed speciality is acting in front of a blue screen. To fans of the "Next Generation" series it is better known as "Spining". However, this time he is not acting. He is revealing some of the principles behind his acting technique and general guidelines he uses.

Even though Spiner is still suffering a little from the jet lag, he is relaxed and in a good mood. The fans gave him a hearty and loud reception which would have been worthy of Frank Sinatra. This is his second big appearance in England - the first was at the premiere of "Generations" in 1994 at the Royal Albert Hall. An experience which impressed Brent Spiner deeply, as he pointed out.

Brent Spiner Picture # 1 (JPG)"This has been your real first British Convention, is that right?"

"Wrong. I did the Albert Hall. That was a real British Convention. I mean, there were 6000 people there, so it was pretty real. So this is my second British Convention."

"What was your reason to come back again to Britain to do a convention?"

"I was invited."

"I don't know if you know about the problems with Stargazer..."

"Yes..."

"This didn't put you off?"

"Well, no, because, I mean, it put me off of doing Wembley stadion which I wouldn't do, which Stargazer wanted to do in December, and there was never a point in time when I said yes to them - I said no from the beginning. A lot of the people that I am friends with who were on the other series like Voyager hadn't been paid when they had done one before. So it seemed to me a bad idea."

"Do you think there is a difference between European and US fans?"

"No. Not at all. The fans are all motivated by the same thing, and that's their affection for Science Fiction and the series and Star Trek - anything Science Fiction, and so at the core they are very similar."

"You have been in these two big science fiction movies, ID4 and FC, but you are doing something different with Out to Sea now. Are you saying goodbye to SF now?"

"No. I don't think so. I'm pretty sure we're going to do another ST movie, and I may be in the sequel to ID4. I don't think about the genres particularly at all. Acting is acting. It's about solving problems. It doesn't matter what the genre is, whether it is science fiction or western or comedy or whatever - it's acting. And whatever I get offered, if I think it's an interesting project, I do it."

"So what is an interesting project? Do you have some guidelines which parts to accept and which not?"

"Really very, very slim guidelines. Basically - if I think it's interesting, I'll do it, and if I don't think it's interesting I won't do it."

"How do you define 'interesting'? What is challenging for you?"

"Challenging? It's always challenging! Acting is something that you can never be sure about. If you get a part, there is always the risk that you are not going to be able to figure it out, so it's always a challenge. But in terms of being interesting - I've passed on projects, not offers, but projects, films that have been sent my way, scripts that I have read, and I've passed on, and they've turned out to be wonderful movies. So it's just a matter of if I read it and it speaks to me, then I'm interested in doing it."

"But you can't tell from a script all the time what kind of movie it will be?"

"No. But, generally, if it's a good script, it's going to be a good movie."

"But, if you think about 'First Contact', they have changed the script a lot - from the first impression you couldn't tell what would come out afterwards..."

"Right. But the process of work on Star Trek movies is different than most other films. We have more input as actors, so we see a script, and then we have meetings, and give our notes on them and say "This works" or "This doesn't work", "there's not enough character", "it's just plot, where's the character", and... but you never know whether the movie is going to be good or not."

"Is there any part you would never play, from the beginning, no matter how well it is paid, no matter how good the director is?"

Brent Spiner Picture # 2 (JPG)"I think there are a lot of parts I wouldn't play! Mainly things that I just think they are - dull. My sort of rule of thumb on reading a script is: If it's a part I think I can score, that I can do something with it, then I'm interested in doing it. If I read a script that's been sent to me to look at a particular role and it's a part that I think anybody can do, then I don't want to do it, because I can't understand why me. I don't see myself in it, I see other people in it, I don't want to do it."

"So what do you think makes you special? Because you must have an idea of what is suitable for you, what you are best in, so what is it?"

"Generally, if it's a role that the director and the producers don't know what to do with. Those are the parts that I tend to get, the ones that aren't clear."

"So you have the freedom to develop the part?"

"Sometimes."

"So that's important for you?"

"Yeah. If I can't find an angle, then I don't want to do it, and, again, if it's a regular person, then there are so many other actors who can do it, why me? I need to see something that seems like they can't think of anybody for the part, so they give it to me and assume I can do something with it."

"You are a passionate actor from what you are saying..."

"Yes."

"So, if you couldn't have worked as an actor, what would be the next best thing to do for you?"

"Oh, maybe diplomacy? I'd like to be in the diplomatic corps, maybe, negotiate problems..."

"That's a kind of acting as well, isn't it?"

"Well, it's listening, and that's what acting is, too. You have to be able to listen to both sides and not make judgments too quickly, and that appeals to me, but fortunately I haven't had to do that."

"What about politics? You once said you wanted to stand for Congress..."

"Yes, that I was going to run for the Congress for the State of Texas. I think I consent it now. People tend to vote for whom they have heard of, and so I figured that if I ran for the State of Texas, more people would have heard about me than about anybody else, so I had a really good chance of winning - not that I'm interested in doing it."

"Do you think politics is just another kind of acting?"

"Yeah! It's a different form of theater."

"But you have to be able to bear a lot if you are a politician. People are mean, they aren't saying what they are doing and vice versa... do you think you could stand the strain?"

"Well, acting is not that different The public is mean. They are mean, and they are fickle, and judgmental... Showbusiness is an area like politics in which everybody has an opinion. Everybody goes to a movie and everybody has got their own opinion if it's good or bad, and they are more than happy to say so, more than happy to say so even to you, to your face: 'I didn't like you in that. I didn't think you were very good in that. I thought you were great in that.' Like everybody is an expert, where politics are concerned and where theater and film is concerned! So, you do take a lot of knocks as an actor, it's one of the only professions you can do that is openly criticized by everybody, and, you're criticized in print, in the newspapers! In every newspaper somebody has an opinion, a critic has an opinion of your job and your work. Very view fields like that - you don't find that happening in your job, do you? I mean, your boss, your employer may have an opinion, but that's kind of the extent of it. Physicians, doctors, they go and do an operation, it's not in the paper how well they did."

"But, does it hurt you, or did it hurt you?"

"It was uncomfortable for me at one time. It's not so much anymore, because I don't read it anymore."

"So you don't want to see it?"

Brent Spiner Picture # 3 (JPG)"It's not because it hurts me that I don't want to see it, it's because I'm not interested. Ultimately there are only mixed reviews. There is no such thing as all good reviews and all bad reviews. I was looking through the TV section of one of the newspapers here, and they had certain films that are going to be on this week, little capsule reviews of them, and some of them were films that in America were destroyed, they were hated, and there'll be a little review that says what a wonderful, charming little film this is. And finally you come to understand - it's pointless. It doesn't mean anything. It's like some people like it, some don't like it, so why bother to look at it? It's just an opinion, it's one person's opinion. There's no school for critics. Noone has to have credentials to be a critic. Everybody's a critic, and all you have to do is to get a job, to get hired to be a critic, and then suddenly you have credentials, but I just don't think it's interesting. I think, people's personal opinions don't really affect what you do as an actor."

"But you must get some kind of feedback as an actor - so where do you get it? From the audience? From how successful you are, how many directors want you?"

"The bottom line is whether you get hired again, and that's really all that's important. The only concern you really can have as an actor is whether someone is willing to hire you for a job. Otherwise, what difference does it make? Because you know someone is going to like it and someone is not going to like it."

"But the critics are influencing this, aren't they? If you get good critics, maybe the audience thinks, this is a good movie, I have to see it?"

"I don't think so. See, that's a misconception that critics influence anything. Critics are meaningless, they really are. They are entertainment. They are like us, the columnists. They are writing entertainers. If you read the Times review, and it says the show is terrible, and then you read the Evening Standard, and it says the show was great, how does that influence anything? They are completely opposing opinions, so you finally have to go with your own opinion and say 'That looks interesting to me, I'm going to see it' - or not."

"You are successful now, but in the beginning, when you wanted to become an actor, what did your family say? Were they happy about it, or..."

"They weren't thrilled about it. They were realistic. I think, it's an obligation of every family to try to discourage their children from being in showbusiness. Because, if the child has to do it, no matter what anybody says, they are going to do it. But it's in common upon the parents to try to discourage them, to get some sense into their head, but it's not worth it. If they have to do it, they have to do it."

"So, how long did they try to discourage you?"

"I think until I was successful, and then it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened."

"How important was their support for you?"

"There was support in the sense that they never expressed any judgement on my ability, there was always positive reinforcement of my ability, but I just think they wanted to make sure I didn't wind up without a living."

"Did you have really tough time in your life? If you wouldn't have gotten an acting job, they would have helped you, wouldn't they?"

"If they could..."

"Because... if you don't get a job, you have to do something else to stay alive, and you have to be to the ground, really to the ground, to be a good actor. I don't know. Is this important? If somebody has had a good time all his life, he can't be a good actor?"

"No, I don't think that's really true. Talent is talent. It's like one of those things you don't have any control over, initially. You can hone that talent, just as if you're born beautiful: You don't really do anything to make that happen. You can enhance it, you can dress nicely, you can make up nicely, you can do your hair nicely, enhance your good fortune, but I don't think you need necessarily to have come from difficulty in order to be an actor. There are a lot of good actors who had very normal, middle class upbringings, and they just happened to be born with talent."

"So, if you get a part offered, for example, about a really poor, miserable guy, what do you do to get into character?"

"It depends on the role. Some demand reasearch, and some don't. Some demand imagination. Data on Star Trek - there's no research you can do. Who knows what an android is? It requires imagination. But if you‘re playing a historical character, and I'm about to do this play where I play a historical character, I've been reading about it. Not that it helps, but you might find one tiny nugget to use. But it's not a documentary, so basically you just try to find the truth in the piece and project that. You research just so you know."

"So you aren't exactly into method acting?"

"Not exactly, but I think all acting is method acting, really."

"But if you get a part, let's say a tramp, some actors would live like a tramp for weeks to get into the feeling."

"Right."

"You wouldn't do that?"

"Oh, I might. It depends on the role, again. If it requires it, if it's helpful, then certainly I would do that. But what would a method actor do with Star Trek? Where would he go to do a research? There is no place. But I think, method acting is really about tapping into your own feelings. I studied at the Strasberg Institute in New York, and you can't get any more method than there, and the method was really just about exploring your own feelings and accessing them."

"Did it help you personally to learn all these things about acting, because that sounds a bit like psychological items as well?"

"Yes, it is. I found it really uncomfortable, frankly. Because, I'd rather be going to a psychiatrist than to an acting class where the teacher pretends to be a psychiatrist."

"So you have to pull everything out?"

"You hope to."

"But you are also exposing yourself?"

"Yes. It's the job of an actor to at some point humiliate himself publicly - it requires you to do that, to be a fool, to be a clown. I went to see "King Lear" last night at the National Theater, Ian Holm was playing King Lear. Such a brilliant actor. It was a very small theater, seats very few people, the Cottesloe theater at the National, and in Lear's madness in a certain point of the play, suddenly all his clothes came off, and in this tiny little theater, and I was on the third row, so, really close to you, there's Ian Holm standing there, completely naked, and I thought 'What a brave man. What a brave man. I'm not sure I could do that..."

"Didn't you do it once in your past? Only rehearsals?"

"I was going to have to, but we never got to, because the play closed before. It was a 4-part-play, and it was in the 4th part, and we hadn't rehearsed it yet, so I didn't have to do it. But I don't think I would be comfortable with it. Both, Ian Holm and Paul Rhys who played Edgar were fully exposed to this very intimate house, and I thought 'These guys are incredibly brave'. But it's not necessarily necessary that they do that, but it's an extension of what they do anyway. And I had the feeling Ian Holm had no problem with it, that he has exposed himself in so many ways for so many years, that actually taking his clothes off is nothing compared to how naked he's been emotionally in front of audiences."

"But the audience doesn't know. For the audience it's a play."

"Right."

"So you never know what the actor really is."

"M-m."

"You talked about Shakespeare. Would that be something you would be interested in as well?"

"Yeah."

"Have you been offered any Shakespeare parts so far?"

"Not in my adult life. In College I did Shakespeare, but I'd like to play Shylock one day."

"Are you working on it, maybe to get to London one day to be on stage?"

Brent Spiner Picture # 4 (JPG)"I don't know if I'd attempt to do Shakespeare in London on stage, although I think England is very kind to Americans doing Shakespeare, for some reason. In America, nobody's really that interested in Americans doing Shakespeare. They love the British doing Shakespeare. And there's a reason for it: They speak it beautifully. We have this sort of love for British accents in America. I don't think you can be a British actor in America, and if you stay with it, not finally be successful, because America loves the British accent, and, maybe, controversally, England is more appreciative of an American doing Shakespeare. They do say that in Elisabethian times the accent was really closer to what an american sound is - I don't know about that, but that's what I have heard. But, yeah, I'd love to do it. There's nothing I can do to make it happen except going back to the theater which might stimulate someone's imagination and let me play Shylock."

"Is that a new way you want to go, back to Broadway, back to stage?"

"It wasn't my idea, because I was really enjoying doing films. I love being in films, I love the film set, I love the whole process, I love the fact that you do something different every day. Stage can get really tedious, unless you're really diligent, you work on the part every night, and then it creates an interest for you, but I think my main reason for going back to stage is just that I would like my obituary to read "Stage, Screen and Television", and it won't unless I continue to do the stage."

"So does it have a different fascination for you to have a direct contact to the audience, to have to pull the whole thing through one evening?"

"I spent ten years in New York doing theater, I did 25 plays, although it's been 12 years since I've been on stage in New York, I figured it was time to get back. And you're right, you do have to do the entire piece without stopping, but it's a really short day compared to a film day, three hours is the top."

"But it's much more intense?"

"It is, it's a more intense concentration that can't stop. Once the curtain goes up, the focus has to be there to the very end."

"Is it more exciting for you?"

"Not more exciting. It's exciting, it's something I always wanted to do, I mean, I trained to be in the theater, but I was always in love with the movies. As an actor, if you're fortunate enough to work, period. Whether it's on stage, or on television or in features, you should thank your lucky stars because there are so many people who want to do it who are as talented, if not more talented than you are. There is that ingredient of luck which is most important for any actor."

"Do you think you could do a one-man-show, like Christmas Carol?"

"I think I could. It would have to be the right material. I have a couple of ideas about things I'd like to do, but I haven't had time to write them yet."

"By the way, writing... You mentioned in a recent chat that you are writing. What are you writing? Scripts?"

"No, I'm writing a novel."

"Oh, really! What is it about?"

"It's about an actor in 1938 in Hollywood who starred in a B serial. The serial ended, and he couldn't get another job, so he becomes a detective who works for the stars."

"Is there any real person you have in mind, or does it come from your imagination?"

"It's just imagination. It's me. That's who I would have been like."

"You would like to be the detective?"

"Well, yeah, the idea started when I ended Star Trek and I thought 'Will I work anymore or has that ruined my career, or finished my career?' It didn't ruin it, obviously, but has it finished it? For me, fortunately, I found out it hasn't, but the possibility was always there. There are a lot of other actors who have done roles that they've become so identified with that nobody was brave enough to let them do something else. And as soon as the series ended, I must have gotten that question more than any other: 'Do you think you'll ever do anything else or is this the only character you'll ever do?' They pointed to many people and said 'Look what happened to him, what happened to him'. For me, I kept saying 'Look what happened to Sean Connery'. Sean Connery played James Bond and everybody said 'That's all he'll ever do, he is James Bond, he'll never be anything else.' He's done pretty well."

"Do you already have a publisher for this novel?"

"I have a publisher, yes."

"You have a lot more public recognition now than you had before. Is this influencing your goals as an actor? Can you live with it? That you can't go to the supermarket without being recognized?"

"That still hasn't happened really. I get recognized occasionally, not that often. I was all over London yesterday, and one person recognized me in all my travels yesterday. For me it happens often enough that it's pleasant and not often enough that it's intrusive, so I don't have a problem with that. I can imagine that there are people who it's very difficult for. I think Patrick has it much worse than I do in terms of recognition, because nobody on Earth looks like him, and he looks like that all the time, and the most I get recognized is if I'm standing with Patrick, and then people recognize me."

"Regarding 'Out to Sea' which is coming to Germany on 30th October. You got to work with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau - did you have the feeling that you had to prove yourself as an actor?"

Brent Spiner Picture # 5 (JPG)"It wasn't so much I had to prove myself, I just didn't want them after I was first rehearsing the first scene with them, I was just hoping they wouldn't look at each other and say 'What is he doing? Who is this?' They were incredibly generous. One of the greatest moments I've ever had in my career was: I was doing a moment with Jack Lemmon whom I regard one of the great actors on screen ever, and I was nervous to be there with Jack, and he said to me 'Do you mind if I try something?'. It was a little comic bit he wanted to do. I said 'Please!' So he did it, and we were filming, and we did the shot two or three times, and then the director came up and said 'It's not working, Jack'. He said 'Yeah, I just wanted to try, you're right, it's not working.' She said 'Let's cut it.', and he said 'OK', and she started to turn around, and I said 'You know, I think I know why this didn't work', and he said 'Why', and I said, 'Well, I think if you do it like this...', and he said 'Aah, that's it, thanks, that's exactly right', and we did it again, and it worked like a charm, and we did it two or three times, and that's the way it's going to be in the film. It was a thrilling moment actually to be able to tell Jack Lemmon how to make a comedy bit work. It was ironic and wonderful to me."

"You get to sing and to dance in that movie, so did you have to take lessons?"

"I had to rehearse a lot, but not take lessons. I have been in Musicals before, I knew how to sing and dance a little bit. It was just a matter of learning the routines."

"So will they make a record from the musical?"

"I don't know. I kept trying to convince them, but I don't know if they will."

"There was always the word about a second CD. Were you only joking about it, or are there real plans?"

"There aren't real plans to do it. I did it just for fun and because I could. I don't really want to become a recording artist. I don't think I'm a real singer, not like Frank Sinatra. I'm a Broadway singer, I can do that, but I'm not a recording artist."

"You have been training an English accent for this movie. Could you handle an French or German or Italian accent as well? Have you tried it?"

"I think I could."

"So could you say something for the German audience, in German maybe?"

"Entschuldigen Sie bitte, haben Sie ein Zimmer? (laughs) Do you have a room, whatever that means?"

"That was very convincing."

"You know, I worked with a German director on "Independence Day", and certainly I was doing his accent all the time, and actually studied with somebody to do the accent in "Out to Sea", and I'm sure if I actually were going to play an Italian or German, I would work on it."

"So can you just say 'goodbye' to the German listeners, 'Auf Wiedersehen'?"

"Auf Wiedersehen, German listeners."

"You could say 'I love you'..."

"Ich liebe dich - was that right?" (smiling)

"Almost, yes."

"Well, what would be right?"

"Ich liebe euch."

"Euch?"

"Euch."

"Ich liebe euch."

Audio snippet of the "German lesson":


Text and Layout © Olivia Adler 1997. All rights reserved.
Photos © Wendy Warwick-White 1997. All rights reserved.

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