‘Star Trek’s’ Robert Picardo talks about his Brent Spiner video

robert picardo video not born brent spiner interview

I write most often about my favorite show for the last fifteen years, “Supernatural.” But before “Supernatural” took over my life, I was a lifelong “Star Trek” fan, literally since I was a child. I’ve watched most of Trek’s incarnations, and loved both “The Next Generation” and “Voyager.” So, I was delighted to run across a hilarious little video by Robert Picardo (who played the iconic role of the holographic Doctor on Voyager) – that was inspired by an equally hilarious video by TNG’s Brent Spiner (Data).

The pandemic and being in isolation has changed the entertainment landscape in every way possible, mostly not for the better (other than delaying the ending of “Supernatural” perhaps, but that’s another story), but one thing it has brought fans is some unique social media offerings of all kinds from their favorite creative people – including these two videos. Both Brent Spiner and Robert Picardo have current projects going on that are exciting, but I’m they took the time to share a few minutes of poking fun at their profession, the idea of celebrity, and themselves! 

We discovered that we’re both from Philly before we actually started the interview.

Check out the ‘Director’s Cut’ of his video and then dive on in the interview!

Robert Picardo: James Darren from Deep Space 9, who’s a great guy, is also a Philly guy – and proud of it!

Lynn: Rightly so. I loved your video, it was hilarious! It’s also very catchy. I knew you could sing, since you sang on Voyager, which I think helped it be very aesthetically pleasing, and the lyrics are also very witty. How did it come about? Did you write and conceive of it yourself?

RP: Yes I did. My friend and colleague from “Star Trek” TNG, Brent Spiner, who played the character Data {who was an android and probably the most famous and popular AI character in Star Trek, simply because their show was the first of the reboots and I think had the biggest audience when they were on of all of the subsequent series). Brent, about 6 weeks ago on twitter, uploaded a hilarious 2 min or so singing parody that I highly recommend you watch…

Lynn: Oh, I did! When I saw yours and it mentioned Brent’s, I immediately went looking for his – it’s a hilarious spoof of himself and of celebrity and it’s awesome.

RP: And really he did that as a gift to his social media fans. It was just something he decided to do – it was shot during the lockdown with appropriate precautions. He thought it would be fun to give something humorous like that to his fans. I was very impressed.

Lynn: Me too!

RP: Meanwhile, a mutual friend of both Brent’s and mine named James Marlowe – his main business is to produce big corporate events for large tech companies like Apple and Facebook. He has a whole staff of people he had on salary and none of them were working because these events were all being cancelled.  I had shot before with his little crew of five or six people to do videos for these events, so that’s how I know James and Brent also knows him. He called and asked if I’d seen Brent’s video. I said I watched it and it’s hilarious and he said, would you like to answer it? I said, what do you mean? And he said well I have a crew that’s at your disposal. I’m paying them and they’ve got nothing to do. I said, I can’t think of a single thing, but thanks for the offer.

Lynn: (laughing)

RP: So I hung up the phone and I thought about it. I thought that Brent’s was so colorful and fun and joyous, I thought wouldn’t it be amusing if I did something entirely different that looked sort of like a lament, like film noir in black and white, a joke lament, like an actor bitching about his career. 

Lynn: Yes, exactly.

RP: I loved the song that I recorded it to, obviously a classic from the Great Depression, ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’.  I wrote the lyrics almost immediately. I think I was happy with the verses, but there’s only so many words you can rhyme with Spiner, when you think about it…

Lynn: I know, when you sang “I wasn’t a whiner” I immediately burst into laughter already because it was so perfect.

RP:  I wasn’t happy with my bridge. I think I went to bed that night and woke up in the middle of the night and re-wrote the bridge.  I told our friend James that I had an idea for the video and he said,  how do you want to shoot it? I said well, ideally I’d be ambling along a beach and then we’ll need a scene in a diner. He made a few phone calls and said we’re in lockdown, it’s just not possible to shoot outside in a public space and all restaurants were closed. Then he mentioned a friend with a very large beautiful old house and a big lawn, on nine acres, about a three hour drive from where I am. I had shot there years before with James and remembered it, and he said my friend is willing to let us use his place. So I said that’s great, his yard is so big we can fake me walking through a park.

Lynn: It worked!

RP: I said, here’s what I need. I need a trash can because I want to rummage through trash, and a few other things I needed, and then I got the Walmart hat and the paper diner hat. We wanted it to look very 1950s.

Lynn: It does, it has that look to it.

RP: We did it on a shoestring, we shot it in about five hours. I even got the drone shot that I begged for! James and I had a long talk on the phone, shot by shot what I was picturing in my head, and he’s a very fast director. His crew was great and we just knocked it out. To record the song, I bought a USB microphone and recorded the song in my closet.

Lynn: (laughing) But you know what? It sounded great!  Do you have directing and filmmaking experience, because it seems like you really knew what shots you wanted and you set it up really well, with the drone shot and everything.

RP: I do. I’m in the Director’s Guild, I directed on the “Star Trek” series a few times. I wasn’t really interested in pursuing a career in television directing, though, it’s pretty high stress. You don’t have a lot of creative freedom because normally directors are guests on shows unless you’re part of the creative team that creates the show. So it didn’t appeal to me to continue, but yes, I have directed and that was helpful. Once I decided that the video was basically going to be me sleeping on a couch like I was — what do you call it? Like squatting at a friend’s house…

Lynn: Like couch surfing…

RP: Yes, and then I’ll wake up and sing the first verse there and then be in the bathroom or in front of the mirror getting ready to go, then I’ll be outside and rummage through a trash can — and I really want to show the back of the “Star Trek” backpack and make the joke that I’ve got like a swag bag (laughing).

Lynn: Yes, like from a con! It was those little touches – the backpack, the Walmart hat – that really made it hilarious. There are all these little touches that are just priceless.

RP: Thank you. And one of James’ staff, the editor, came up with the idea of making the magazine. That was not part of my original vision, and that was a terrific add. It became a three part joke in the video. So yeah, I’m very happy with how it turned out and we had great fun doing it. Brent Spiner is a terrific guy and was one of the first people to like it when he saw it online. He took it in good humor

Lynn: What has fan reaction been?

RP: They’ve loved it, we got about 40K views in 4.5 days. I started a YouTube channel two weeks ago with this in mind and wanting to make other original videos, so it was a good time to start it. I have other videos I’ve been making, in addition to clips from some of the different performances in my career. Years ago I created a character with a comedy troupe in LA, the Acme Comedy Theatre, called Alphonso. I said I wanted to do every woman’s nightmare of the guy who sits next to her in a bar and won’t leave her alone, that’s what I want to create.  Someone completely self-absorbed who thinks he’s God’s gift to women, no matter how old or how ridiculous he is. So I do a series of videos called ‘your future in love with Alphonso’.

Lynn: (laughing)

RP: I’m going to upload once a week. If Hugh Hefner and Robert Guccione had a love child in the 70s, that’s who Alphonso would be. His view of the male/female relationship is at least 40 years stale. It’s fun.

Lynn: One of the best things to come out of quarantine is that so many creative people are doing all kinds of different original content and putting it out there for people who are also quarantined to enjoy. None of us are living our normal lives, so I love that all this unusual content is being put out there by such creative people.

RP: Well, if you love to perform and there’s no outlet to perform, then you can only do so many zoom cocktail parties with your friends where you’re telling them jokes!

Lynn: So true.

RP: So, you want to do something a little bigger. I have a couple of Alphonsos in the pipeline. My daughter is a professional editor, so it’s kind of a family affair. The titles for the videos are created by my older daughter, who works in visual effects and specializes in digital correction.

Lynn: Digital correction?

RP: She calls it making impossibly beautiful actors and actresses more beautiful.

Lynn: Ohhhh yes. [Thinks about the impossibly beautiful “Supernatural” cast…]

RP: So motion graphics is not her thing, but as a favor to Dad for Father’s Day, she designed some titles for me that move, and my younger daughter has been editing the videos.  Next week’s video I’ll have a sit down dinner where me, Robert, has made dinner for his Italian cousin, Alphonso. So it’s me playing both parts at either end of the table, and I’m excited about those.  It’s just for fun.

Lynn:  I found the video you just posted really funny, like I said, but it was also interesting to me as a psychologist who writes about celebrity and fandom. I’ve talked to so many actors about the profession and it really is a tough profession in a lot of ways. In most jobs, if you work hard, you can keep working your way up pretty consistently. But even if you work really hard, in acting it’s often not like that – it’s constant ups and downs, and over time it’s not necessarily up up up unless you’re Tom Hanks or something. So the video also struck me as reflecting some of the difficulty of that – it’s tongue and cheek and I laughed all through it, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to it.

RP: Absolutely. Actors love to bitch about their careers, no matter how successful they are. There’s an old joke which I first heard in my early 20s – how do you make an actor complain? Give him a job. So actors complain all the time, no matter what. I quote my friend Ethan Phillips, my good friend from the “Star Trek” cast, who’s one of the most hilarious people when he bitches about his career. I remember calling him years ago on the phone and he said, “I apologize for the echo, I’m speaking to you from inside my career.”

(both laughing)

RP: So yes, complaining about your career. The day that I first met Brent Spiner face to face, they said Brent, have you met Bob Picardo? And he turned to me and said, you got my part in Tribute. That was a play I did with Jack Lemmon when I was 24 years old. I was meeting Brent more than 16 years later, at age 41, and he remembered that he had auditioned for that part and wished that he had gotten it because he was a big Jack Lemmon fan, as I was. It was Jack Lemmon’s return to Broadway after he’d been a movie star, in the late 70s, and it was a plum part. But Brent was basically kidding on the square, meaning he knew that he was joking but he knew I was the actor who got the part that time. So there’s an element of truth in complaining about your career no matter how it’s going. The video is really like a dream, sort of like a bad dream

Lynn: Like a nightmare, but a funny nightmare.

RP: Yeah, I mean, right now I am working. I’m playing a recurring character, a bad guy, for a series on BET starring Ernie Hudson called The Family Business.

Lynn (silently): Good title (momentarily stuck thinking about “Supernatural”)

RP: It sort of bills itself as the Black Sopranos. Ernie plays the father in a multi-generational crime family. They have a legitimate business selling cars, but they’re really drug dealers. So it’s a very glossy kind of sexy pulp violent kind of show — they call it the Black Sopranos for a reason. It’s great because it’s the first time I’ve worked on a show where I believe I’m the only white actor in the series regularly, and off camera as well, the crew is almost exclusively African American and Latino. It’s been a really warm and wonderful experience to be so graciously welcomed into this production and I’m having a great time doing it. I’m a Roman Catholic Italian but of course I’m playing a Jewish gangster.

Lynn: I feel like you can pull that off.

RP: Ever since I played a rabbi in the Coen Brothers movie, “Hail Caesar,” I’ve had a run on playing either rabbis or something like that. You’re always rediscovered every fifteen minutes in show business. I’ve gone from playing a holographic projection to a rabbi.

Lynn: That’s wonderful, for a creative person to be able to keep reinventing yourself all the time.

RP: Mm hmm. It’s definitely better than the opposite! (laughing)

Lynn: For sure. I have a lot of empathy for actors. When my son was acting, he was a kid and didn’t really care, but every time he didn’t get a role I worried about his feelings being hurt. It takes a lot of ego strength to be an actor.

RP: No argument there. Also, in retrospect, I was just a very lucky young man.  I graduated my third year at Yale after having been pre-med for half the time I was there and decided to be an actor, and I went to New York at twenty and waited tables for maybe two years, but by 23 I had booked my first leading role on Broadway. And then the second was that play with Jack Lemmon. And a lot of that is just plain luck, being at the right place at the right time. And if I hadn’t been that lucky, you never know if you would have stuck it out.

Lynn: It’s true. Certainly many people don’t.

RP: I had a lot of good breaks early on and then I made the most of them, I was very committed and worked hard so that I didn’t mishandle any of those opportunities. As I said, there is a great deal of luck involved in any actor’s career, certainly getting started.

Lynn: I think that perspective you just articulated, how much you’ve thought about this, is why you could make this video, which is actually very complex with both the humor and the underlying messages.

RP: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. One of my favorite things is the Fiddler On the Roof moment at the end (laughing), quoting Tevye at the end, in If I Was A Rich Man.

Lynn: Priceless moment. Can I ask one question about your character in Voyager before we end?

RP: Absolutely.

Lynn: I asked my son earlier today, who grew up with “Star Trek” and is a big fan too, what stood out for you about the character of the Doctor? He said that the Doctor was the first character in Voyager to embody the long tradition in “Star Trek” of considering the question of what makes a human human, and exploring how a non-human would approach that question. Spock, Data – it’s one of the fundamental themes that “Star Trek” explores in every series. But unlike Spock and Data, where the humor was often derived by the viewer, the Doctor was humorous. He had this dry somewhat cynical sense of humor, and that was a significant change and an important aspect of the character.

RP: That’s very astute. I think your son is very astute. Certainly when I got the role, because I wasn’t knowledgeable about Star Trek, I thought I’d gotten the dullest role. I had no idea I’d lucked into what would be the best role. He started with no affect whatsoever and then grew a personality over seven years.

Lynn: He really did.

RP: So, I was very fortunate. I think what was very unique about my character, even over Data in a way, is that he did not have to obey any of the rules that Star Fleet officers do. They have to be strong and brave and true. My character, because he was designed for one application only, if you took him outside of his area of expertise, he didn’t have to be brave. He could be cowardly, he could be disinterested, he could be rude. I could have all these negative qualities that you don’t normally see in a character in a Star Fleet outfit.

Lynn: Oh, that’s true.

RP: And that made him, I think, fun for the audience. And I could overplay and underplay on a dime, I could do something that was very broad and silly, and then play a moment that was very dramatic, and the audience could accept that. I got to be the most facially expressive, I think, in that role, and there were all sorts of freedoms that I had that the other cast didn’t have. Then when Seven of Nine came aboard, I made the suggestion to the producers that wouldn’t it be great fun if the Doctor decided that he would be the best one to teach Seven how to be human again. That he was a better teacher of being human than any actual human! It appealed to his arrogance and self importance, to his ego, but also I said we could have role playing exercises where I could teach her appropriate behavior for different circumstances. And they took that idea and turned it into a four-year arc with the Doctor and Seven that gave me some of the best comedy scenes, but even some romantic ones. When we did our My Fair Lady episode, for example.

Lynn: Yes!

RP: Where the Doctor falls in love with his own pupil. So there was a lot of really nice outgrowth from that one suggested premise. It paid off for many years and it was a lot of fun.

Lynn: It sounds like they were very open to creative input. And because the character was who – and what – he was, they had the freedom to go in all sorts of directions.

RP: Yes. And I didn’t even audition for that part! I asked to audition for Neelix and was turned down.

Lynn: You’re kidding!

RP: I tested for Neelix and thank God I didn’t get it because I could never have handled that makeup for seven years! But then they came back to me after auditioning and testing me for a part I was more interested in, and they asked, would you look at the role that we originally asked for? I literally said to my agent, I don’t get the joke, but I’ll try. And I got the part and then discovered the joke very quickly (laughing). So it was very lucky. Any time an actor can get a seven year job when they turn forty, it’s a gift from God!

Lynn: Obviously those casting directors had some good instincts. Looking back now, I can’t imagine anyone else in that part.

RP: Well, according to my children, part of it is I also have resting bitch face.

Lynn: (laughing)

RP: When my face is at rest, I look unhappy, so I think that helps me.

And on that note, he had to run to his next interview.

RP: It’s been a pleasure, Lynn.  Enjoy Philadelphia for me!

I am. And I’m still enjoying his video too – stay tuned for more on his YouTube channel!