Can you imagine a Star Trek alien that squawks? John Billingsley did
Actor John Billingsley of "Star Trek: Enterprise" talks about creating a new alien race for the show, and why he doesn't have a Facebook account.
Ian SherrFormer Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I chatted with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to how to convincingly play an alien.
If John Billingsley had his way, you'd have heard him squawk like a bird in the middle of his lines.
He was auditioning for the part of Phlox, the ship's doctor on "Star Trek: Enterprise," which ran from 2001 to 2005. The character was part of a race of aliens called the Denobulans that hadn't been depicted on the Star Trek shows before.
When the actor read for the part, the producers requested a slight alien accent. Billingsley had no idea what that meant or what a Denobulan would sound like. So after unsuccessfully bouncing a few ideas off his wife, he decided to give his character "kind of an Indian lilt." And a squawk.
Since no one told him not to squawk, he continued to do it "in moments of rapture," even after he landed the part.
But the bird sounds were not to be. When he tried squawking during production for the pilot, they told him to stop screwing around.
"I figured, go for the job you would like to have," Billingsley remembers with a laugh. "At the time I was auditioning, I thought I'd like to be a bird -- and I was going to give him something to flap his wings about."
Though Billingsley played an alien, he appreciated the fact that he didn't have to learn the long and intricate history of the Vulcans or how to speak Klingon. "What were the Denobulans like? They were like me."
Billingsley spent two and a half hours in makeup each day becoming his character. That's about the same amount of time it took Michael Dorn, who played Worf on two other Star Trek shows, to morph into an Klingon. Billingsley routinely turned on classical music and squinted at The New York Times without his glasses while being transformed.
Like many Star Trek cast members, Billingsley, now 56, began his career as a stage actor. He moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at TV at the age of 35 and ended up as a "character actor." In Hollywood parlance, that means he played a specific type. He wasn't the crusading attorney or the gruff cop. Instead, producers cast him as a child predator. A lot.
He was up for the part of the tech whiz on the action show "Alias" once, but didn't get it.
So when the opportunity to join "Star Trek: Enterprise" came along, Billingsley was open to it. He'd watched the original "Star Trek" as a child, but he didn't, in his words, "grok" it. He preferred magazines and books, including the works of notable sci-fi authors Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. "I have been a big reader all my life," he said.
That's probably why he felt a connection to Phlox, whose Buddhist-like attitude he appreciated. He also liked that his character used holistic medicine and didn't rely on technology, at least not too much. "It was nice to play a good guy and someone whose value system and temperament is much closer to my own," he said.
Billingsley, you see, is a self-described Luddite, and found the technobabble Star Trek is so well known for the most challenging part of the job. Thankfully, most of it was medical babble, which was easier to manage.
During his downtime, Billingsley reads. He's also helping Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Here are edited excerpts of his answers to my round of questions, given at warp-factor five.
What piece of Star Trek tech do you wish you had? I'm a technophobe, something of a Luddite. I recognize the Renaissance was a good thing. The Industrial Revolution -- yeah, yeah, yeah. But oy gevalt with all this technology. I can barely turn the computer on. I can't hammer a nail.
There's a wonderful quote -- I can't remember who said it -- but it was something to the effect of "The test of technology is whether you thought you needed it until it was invented." You know, it's like, were you aware you had a problem that this was supposed to fix?
That's an interesting spin on Steve Jobs saying people don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's the nature of the world we live in. I'm extremely resistant to technology. Given what I do, I have to have a smarty-pants phone. I have to have a computer. I have to be reachable. But I do not tweet. I'm not on Facebook. I resent the fact that the world has stolen our privacy and we have been complicit in it.
I think a lot of what is pernicious in the world right now is due to the fact that the technological revolution has proceeded faster than our moral compass.
Isn't that a discussion point of Star Trek? Not to critique Star Trek, but I do sometimes think that in its whizbangery, it sometimes falls, perhaps unconsciously, on the side of "things are always solvable with better gizmos."
But any time I ever find myself going off on some rant about television or Star Trek, I always have to kind of remind myself the challenge is to tell a five-act story in under 40 minutes. And you used to have 54 minutes. That's one of the biggest problems as an actor interested in the world of entertainment. I think the networks are losing market share and will continue to do so because not only are there restrictions on content, but they're also not subscription channels. Those are the realities of having to gin up the ad load, making it harder and harder to tell dimensional stories in an ever-shrinking hour-long time slot.
So I imagine this question is lost on you: Do you have a favorite piece of real-world tech? I do not. I have a big book right now. I don't do Kindle.
Star Wars or Star Trek? I watched the first three [Star Wars] movies when they first came out. I enjoyed them. I thought they were terrific. But I'm not a real aficionado of any movies or TV.
It's funny that I do what I do, because I wanted to write. Early on in college I had the privilege and the curse of studying with some great writers. And when you study with the best, you realize you're never gonna hold a candle to them. It would have been like taking acting class from Olivier when you're 19.
So I kinda skedaddled to the drama department and it was social and fun. But my love is reading, and I'm much better suited to talking about books than I am about film and TV. I haven't seen any of the other movies. I haven't seen the much-derided ones or the most recent one.
What's it like being part of the Star Trek world? I would say that fairly early on, while our first season was still on, I started attending the conventions. I have done that relatively consistently. To that extent, I entered fully into the greater Star Trek universe. I've genuinely enjoyed my contacts and the relationships I've made with fans and friends I've made along the way.
I imagine you probably hear this all the time from people, that's the greatest perk. It's rare to be on a show that provides you not just with this peculiar annuity and the free travel, but that allows you to feel that 'till the end of your days, you have a welcoming circle of fans who genuinely appreciate your participation in the franchise's history.
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