Interview With Jonathan Frakes At Toronto Comic ConMarch 23, 2016
Starting out as an actor and becoming known worldwide for his character William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jonathan Frakes has also branched out into directing, producing and voice acting. Recently, we had the chance to talk to Jonathan during a round table interview session at Toronto Comic Con.
The GCE: You started out your career as an actor. When did the interest in directing start for you?
Jonathan: While I was doing the first couple seasons of Star Trek, I found there was a lot of standing around and I watched and I looked around the set and thought, that guy has the best job, he’s involved in every shot. So I shadowed most of the directors for a couple of years and I knew about staging from doing so much theater so what I was missing was editing so our producer Rick Berman sent me and the editors were very generous, I spent about three hundred hours in the editing room and then finally I persevered and the finally, reluctantly, gave me an episode to direct and I haven’t looked back. I’m very thankful for being able to learn another craft.
Media: I wanted to ask you about voice acting. Obviously you have a very distinct voice but what exactly got you into that field of work?
Johnathan: I wish there was more, I love it. It’s a very small, limited amount of people, about a hundred people do pretty much all the voice acting so it’s a whole different type of acting. I go to the sessions and they’re like, oh you’re the guy from, and you, I recognize that voice and that voice so it’s been really fun for me. I just started another little kids show called Miles From Tomorrowland, a six year old type of audience and we do work for Seth, for Family Guy occasionally and that’s nice but that’s usually our characters. Also you can do it from anywhere, so if I’m working in another city I can go into a sound studio and knock out my part but it’s really more fun to do it when you’re with the other actors.
Media: Is there any additional appeal for you working in geek media, because you get to interact with fans in a completely different way than a lot of other actors, liking getting to come to comic conventions for example?
Johnathan: Yeah, I was talking about this yesterday. The most emotionally rewarding part of doing conventions is that invariably, not a day goes by where someone comes up to your table and says, I became a doctor because of your show, I became an engineer because of your show, a teacher or, the only time my family was ever together was in front of your show, the only time my father was ever nice to me was when we were watching your show. Or even more dramatically, when I was a teacher in Afghanistan watching your show helped me get through and not want to kill myself, so you hear these incredible stories about this gift, and we just happen to be actors on the show, but the show has had an effect on people’s lives and to say it with such candor and wide eyed honesty, it’s humbling and it’s been thirty years and it’s still having an effect and now, they’re bringing their own kids, the ones who grew up and decided to be doctors and astronauts and I think what’s happened to also help that is J.J. Abrams has done a great job and the reboot has been great.
The GCE: Speaking of Star Trek, what was your first day like on set and when did you personally realize that there was something special going on with The Next Generation?
Johnathan: That’s a great question. The first day I met Patrick we debated the merits of baseball versus cricket and I’m proud to say that Patrick Stewart is now a very big Dodger fan, so he’s come over to understand the subtleties of our national pastime. As far as the show itself, I initially didn’t think about the show being something special, not right away that’s for sure. It was a bumpy start because the audience was so skeptical and we were still finding the characters and finding the relationships. Luckily the actors all got along and we all kind of enjoyed each other’s company but it took a couple of years. I don’t think we realized it until it became a hit because it really was a big hit for a cable show. I don’t know if you know this, it was the first scripted show that was made directly for syndication, meaning it was built by Paramount and sold to two hundred and thirty seven different stations, with the commercials attached. Paramount knew for its one and a half million per episode they were going to get six and half million back and then knew because they made it for syndication and they only had to pay our unions forty percent. They had figured out financially how to make this thing something that nobody had done before and make it financially viable if it didn’t work. So it took till the third season, that’s the short answer, where we felt we got our legs and the audience, the trekkers, started to accept us.
Media: Was there anything in the script that you kind of adlibbed, something you were exceptionally proud of that made it in, something maybe you regret not getting in?
Jonathan: Ad libs were discouraged on our sh ow. I’ve worked on shows where they embrace a good ad lib but the writers on that franchise were so controlling. We had to call the office to change from ‘did not’ to ‘didn’t’, to change a simple contraction and I’m not kidding, it was really done to a fault I think because there got to a point I think that we knew the characters well enough that we could ad lib, not even ad lib but change certain things so it really wasn’t that kind of environment and I like that kind of environment. I just did an episode of a very funny show called Angie Tribeca, have you seen this show, with Rashida Jones from Parks and Recreation? All the regulars throw in well what about this, what about that and then the writer in the back will say try this, try that so when you’re working off each other you get some real opportunities to mess around with stuff but it seemed to have worked.
I want to thank Jonathan Frakes for taking the time to speak with us