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An Interview with Brent Spiner

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 18th Nov 2011 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

Creation Con Chicago 010.jpg
  Photo by Carolin Kopplin

Best known for his role as the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner is a versatile and multi-talented performer who started his career in the theatre. Born in Houston, Texas, Spiner first began pursuing his interest in acting while in high school, where his inspirational drama teacher, Cecil Pickett, started the careers of a group of young actors and directors including Spiner, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid, Thomas Schlamme, and Trey Wilson. When Pickett went on to teach at the University of Houston, Spiner followed, but he quit university before completing his degree and moved to New York. Brent then appeared in various Broadway and off-Broadway productions, such as A History of the American Film (1978), The Seagull (1980) at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), The Three Musketeers (1984),and Big River (1985). After starring in the play Little Shop of Horrors, he moved to Los Angeles, where he played a number of character parts in television films and series such as Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and the recurring guest role of Bob Wheeler (1985-1987) in the popular NBC sitcom Night Court. In 1987, Spiner landed the role of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.Following a seven-year run on television, he appeared in the Star Trek feature films Generations, First Contact, and Resurrection, and performed in and co-wrote the story for Star Trek: Nemesis. He also co-starred with Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), for which he was nominated for a Golden Satellite Award, and appeared in films like Independence DayOut to SeaPhenomenon, and The Aviator. On stage, he played Ivanov in the touring production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1992) and was nominated for a Drama Desk award as Best Actor in a Musical when he returned to Broadway playing the role of John Adams in the Roundabout revival of 1776 (1997).  A few years later, Spiner co-starred in Yasmina Reza’s play Life x 3 (2003) at the Circle in the Square Theater and played the title role in Man of La Mancha(2009) at the Freud Playhouse. In 2008, Spiner developed a new concept for a “musical of the mind” and released the intriguing CD Dreamland, an audio “film” beautifully performed by Spiner and Maude Maggart. Recently, Brent has done voice work on The Simpsons and Young Justice and has appeared in Alphas and The Big Bang Theory. He is currently filming ten new episodes of the web series Fresh Hell, which Spiner describes as a “sit-trag”—a comedy with elements of tragedy, highly comical but also touching on very serious issues: 

I talked to Brent Spiner at the Star Trek convention in Chicago in October 2011.

CK: First of all, I’d like to thank you for your time because I know you’re busy.

BS: Never too busy to do this.

CK: That’s very nice. Right. What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

BS: The most beautiful thing I’ve seen. (sings to the tune of “Maria,” West Side Story) The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…. (talks) It’s really hard. You know, it’s like “What’s your favourite food?” in a way.

CK: Let’s change it to “one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen”. That might be easier.

BS: Well, my son. He looks just like me. He’s incredibly beautiful. (Ponders the question.) I like Clare Danes a lot too, by the way.

CK: Ah! So let’s talk about something related to your career.

BS: All right.

CK: You’ve done so much, so many different things, on stage, on TV, films—Star Trek, Threshold, The Aviator, Independence Day; in the theatre, 1776. What was your best experience about doing 1776?

BS: It was actually being on Broadway again. There were many wonderful experiences doing that show. I worked with some amazing people. Everyone connected with the show was just great - Peter Stone, who wrote it, Pat Hingle and Tom Aldrich, and all these other wonderful people. Working at the Roundabout, which is a great organization. It was a magic experience. But I hadn’t been on Broadway at that point in twelve years.

CK: How did you cope with the fact that that you were being back on stage? You have to project on stage, it is a different medium.

BS: Right. Particularly that show, which requires a lot of volume because it’s all about arguing. You’re debating the entire show and it’s a long show, it’s three hours. My character, I played John Adams, had eight songs and lots of debate. There is a time in the show, forty-five minutes without a song because this debate is going on and I’m at the centre of it. So I was really worried about my voice. It got to a point in rehearsal where Paul Gemignani, who is the greatest conductor in the musical theatre now, he was doing the show, came up to me and said: “Be careful of your voice.” And I went: “What?” He said: “You could lose your voice, I can hear it.” And I thought: “Oh my God.” So I got really scared. It was at a point when we’re just going into the theatre, when we’d been given dressing room assignments. I was in the dressing room with two guys, Tom Aldrich, who just passed away, he was a fantastic actor, and Jerry Lanning. Jerry happened to be a voice teacher and I said to him, “Jerry, I am really worried I’m gonna lose my voice.” He said, “You’re not.” I said: “Really?” And he said: “Your vocal chords are really challenged right now because every day you wake up you’re stronger than you were the day before. Don’t worry, you’re getting stronger, you’re not getting weaker.” Everything turned for me at that moment. I knew I wasn’t going to lose my voice. I knew I was fine. He was dead right and I got stronger every night. I did the show for eight months and I never missed a performance. I did 250 performances. And I never came close to losing my voice. By the end I was stronger than I was in the beginning. It was just a psychological thing.

(A couple of teenagers approach Brent.)

Teenage Boy: We have a question.

BS: You know what, we’re really right in the middle of an interview. We’ve got a recorder going.

Teenage Boy: Sorry.

CK: You’re on it now. You’ll be online, you know.

Teenage Boy: Me and my friends were wondering. What would Data eat at McDonalds?

BS: This is the stupidest thing anyone has ever asked me. The single dumbest thing anyone’s ever said. Would Data eat at McDonalds? Data wouldn’t be so stupid to eat at McDonalds. Data would go, “I want something nutritious. I don’t wanna kill myself, I wanna live, right?”

Teenage Girl: What if you were starving?

BS: He would just starve.

Teenage Boy: Sorry to bother you.

BS: Don’t worry about it. See you in a bit.

(The teenagers leave.)

BS: There you go. It was interesting that you were taping and involved in that. If you say to somebody: “I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of an interview”, they barrelled right through that as if I hadn’t said anything. People have their own agendas. If they want something, they will go for it. It does not matter what you said.

CK: That’s really rude.

BS: Rudeness is just, you know, it’s part of the human condition, right?

CK: I think you enjoy doing new things and challenges. You are doing Fresh Hell, which is very different because it is an online series on YouTube.  

BS: Right.

CK: Why did you choose to do it online? To reach a new audience? Because more young people will watch things on YouTube?

BS: No, not really. I would love to have a television series, but nobody has offered me one and so the Internet allows you to do whatever you want.

CK: That’s true.

BS: If you’re creative.

CK: It’s an interesting idea to do it on YouTube.

BS: It’s not staying on YouTube. We’ve a got a new website that’s been designed for the next episodes.

CK: Oh yes, I saw that. But to do it online, in this format….

BS: There are people who say to me, why would you do that, and my answer would really be, why not do it? Everyone was saying, “Do a web series ,” years ago, “that’s the future.”

CK: Yes, that’s what I think. You think there’ll be TV forever?

BS: There will be TV but it will come off the Web.

CK: Fresh Hell, it’s about celebrity. What are your experiences when people meet you for the first time? Do they project ideas onto you because they don’t really know you?

BS: Right. Certainly.

CK: I expect many people think you’re like Data.

BS: That’s right. And of course I’m not. Because I’m an actual person from Texas. So obviously I’m nothing like Data except that I’m incredibly brilliant….

CK: That goes without saying.

BS: Exactly. I mean, we do have some similarities. I look a bit like him, too.

CK: Yes, you do.

BS: But I do have emotions.

CK: When you first met your fans and they approached you as if you were Data, how did you react?

BS: I tried to be nice about it, but….

CK: What did you feel?

BS: Well, it’s not like I’m not a fan of other people. I like a lot of actors, I like a lot of performances. When I met William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy for the first time, I didn’t talk to them like they were Spock and Kirk, I didn’t think they were. I kind of got the idea they were actors who were playing those parts. It is kind of peculiar. Even to this day, if I write something on Twitter that is so counter to what Data would have been, if it’s ironic or if it’s sarcastic, whatever, the things that I am, people think: “Oh man, I don’t really like you. You’re not like I thought you were.” And my reaction is: “That’s too bad! You know, you’re not like I thought you were either! I thought you were an adult.” (Laughs.) 

CK: Well, I think, just because you don’t know anything other than the character you play and some of the interviews you give, people have a certain image of you and….

BS: Right. But I’m not responsible for that. I’m responsible for being me. And being honest. And you know what? You can’t please all the people all the time.

CK: Of course not, who wants that?

BS: Exactly.

CK: But, let’s get back to the theatre. Would you like to do something in England?

BS: I’m dying to do something in England. I’ve wanted to forever. I’ve had a couple of opportunities. Didn’t work out at all. When I was 24 years old, 23 years old, I auditioned for a play in London and the producers wanted me for the part and British Equity wouldn’t let me do it. And then, years later, I was offered a play in London and I couldn’t go because I’d just bought a house. It was in the middle of being remodelled so I couldn’t leave. And so I’m waiting. I’m ready to go.

CK: Do you like London?

BS: Love London.

CK: What do you like about it?

BS: Well, I like that there is so much history. I’m a big history buff. I’m not too much into the future. My preference is not sci-fi or even fiction, for that matter. I like history, documentaries…I am reading David McCullough’s book about Paris in the 1830s right now. I love the book. I love the idea that people experienced in 1830 the same thing I do when I go to Paris, how beautiful it is. And London for me is the same. We did a convention in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, and I walked out on stage, and I thought about the people who had walked on that stage before me. Unbelievable! I love the theatre; I love just the whole feel of London. I love the way London smells. It smells different than most towns.

CK: Yeah.

BS: I like it.

CK: What kind of play would you like to do if you had the choice?

BS: I’m not that picky. I’d just like it to be good.

CK: Yes, that’s the first thing. Are you interested in doing modern plays? For example, this “in-yer-face” kind of theatre, like Sarah Kane, or Jez Butterworth, or Anthony Neilson?

BS: Do people enjoy those plays?

CK: It depends on the people. I like them.

BS: Well.

CK: But…I mean, you have the audience that goes to the West End and the audience that goes to the alternative kind….

BS: Yes, but there is the audience that goes to both. I think I like just interesting theatre. If you look at what I’ve done in my life, it’s all kinds of things. There are musicals, there are straight plays, there are old plays, there are new plays. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s interesting and involving.

CK: Do you go to the theatre often?

BS: I don’t go that often. I go occasionally in Los Angeles. Whenever I’m in New York I go to the theatre. Whenever I am in London I go to the theatre. Well, not whenever, but most of the time.

CK: You, as a member of the audience, what do you like best?

BS: I like it if it’s short. (Laughs)

CK: No four-hour plays….

BS: No, a nice hour and a half, no intermission.

CK: That’s rare.

BS: A play that I really enjoyed. Did you see Red? Red was John Logan’s play? It was at the Donmar Warehouse? Alfred Molina and Eddie (Redmayne)….

CK: The play about Rothko.

BS: Yes, about Rothko. Eddie was great. A two-character play, an hour and twenty minutes, but it did its job efficiently and it left you provoked by the whole thing, thought provoked, interested in art and the nature of art. It was fantastic!

CK: What is one of the biggest challenges as an actor?

BS: To get hired is the only challenge, really. You have to think, if you get hired, it’s because the people who hired you think you can do the job and that’s pretty reassuring.

CK: That’s true. But once you have the job what was….

BS: What was the challenge?

CK: For example. It’s always difficult….

BS: Yeah, it is always difficult, I think. It is a series of problems to solve and that’s how I approach things. How do I solve this and turn it into something that people can receive, understand and relate to?

CK: If you went to London to do a play, would you just do it in the West End or would you be interested in doing it in other venues?

BS: I would like to work at some place where people would come. My friend Saul Rubinek wrote a play that Scott Bakula is doing right now at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that’s a fine venue.

CK: Yes, they do a lot of musicals.

BS: This is not a musical they’re doing, though. I know they do musicals. They do a lot of Sondheim.

CK: You were in Sunday in the Park with George.

BS: I was.

CK: Is Sondheim one of your favourites?

BS: Sondheim is the only genius in the last forty years working in the theatre. There are some young guys coming up that are really good but in terms of Broadway and Broadway musicals, Sondheim is the only true genius. He is an amazing man and a once-in-a-life-time talent.

CK: How much influence do you think theatre has? Say, if you do a political play to make people aware of something? Do you think this is preaching to the converted or do you think it actually….

BS: Changes minds?

CK: Yes.

BS: I don’t think any minds change ever, by anything. I think occasionally somebody will change their mind. But I think it’s very rare that you can actually change somebody’s mind about something. How many times have you been in an argument with someone and they stopped and said, “You know what, I think you’re right. I’m wrong.” Almost never.

CK: It depends. If it’s politics….

BS: If it’s politics they never change their mind.

CK: There is going to be a fight.

BS: Yes.

CK: What about verbatim theatre? Do you think it’s a good thing? Because it can be dangerous if it’s selective. I saw a play called Lines about a verbatim play that led to the death of an actor because he was making fun of a real person. He didn’t have anything to work with so he tried that, the director was an idiot, so he ended up getting knifed. Because this person who he portrayed was not a public figure and he was made fun of on stage every day, every night.

BS: Well, I guess you have to be careful, but that’s kind of silly to kill somebody for any reason.

CK: Somebody who was disturbed already.

BS: Then you have to be really careful. I don’t know that theatre influences anything. Maybe young people go to the theatre and think: “Oh my God, that’s illuminating to me.” But that it changes everything that I ever thought….

CK: Maybe not to that extent but to a certain extent….

BS: Yes, I hope it changes minds and enlightens. But I’m really of the mind primarily to entertain and if it happens to enlighten, well, that’s nice, too. But like Star Trek, for example, there’s a—I wouldn’t call it cult, necessarily, but there is a large number of people who take it very, very seriously and build their lives around it. It’s a religion to them almost.

CK: I met a guy who told me that The Next Generation was the Bible to him.

BS: Well, there you are. To me, it’s basically a western set in space and we’re trying to entertain people. And, yes, there is a little bit of a kind of philosophy running through it that’s kind of tame.

CK: You’re accepting everybody, the way a person is, which I like.

BS: I do, too. I like that about it, too. But I think there is an illusion about it. You know, if you ask somebody, why has Star Trek lasted so long, they always say the same thing: because it has a positive vision of the future. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know what is so positive about it. We are still blowing people away. We carry guns. It’s a joke. It’s like that illusion that it is somehow all about peace. It’s really not. It is a western, it is a shoot’em up. But it does have elements that are nice, like the fact that all people are celebrated for who they are, their differences rather than their similarities, and I think that’s a very positive thing. The positive thing about it is just that it depicts a future, and that is somehow reassuring, that there is going to be a future. I don’t think it necessarily depicts a future that’s better or worse than where we live right now.

CK: But people think if you don’t have the blowing people away there probably isn’t any conflict.

BS: There is conflict. Again, that’s what they say, but there is conflict. How is it that we are always blowing people up and blasting our phasers?

CK: I don’t like that, either. That’s my least favourite part of the show.

BS: That’s the shoot’em up, that’s the western. They asked Gene Roddenberry, he said, “Well, it’s ‘Wagon Train to the stars’.”

CK: That’s why it’s called “Trek.”

BS: Right, that’s what he designed. He did not design something that he thought would become a religion of any sort.

CK: Thank you very much for your time.

BS: I’m delighted. Okay. This is Brent Spiner signing off.

The interview was conducted by Carolin Kopplin. 




  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 6 years ago
    Very jealous of your chance to talk to a Star Trek legend, Carolin! Did send you over there on expenses? :D Well done!
  • Carolin Kopplin
    by Carolin Kopplin 6 years ago
    No, I went on my own expenses but it was kind of a holiday too so that's all right. Yes, it was great talking to Brent Spiner. I really enjoyed doing the interview.
  • Douglas McFarlane
    by Douglas McFarlane 6 years ago
    Carolin congratulations. Your article has just become the most popular article this year on the site. It's already shot up to number two on this site with only the front page commanding more attention :-) Thanks largely to the article being linked and published on here:>
  • Carolin Kopplin
    by Carolin Kopplin 6 years ago
    Thank you. Brent Spiner is a brilliant actor and of course this interview would get a lot of attention due to him being so big in the Trek community. However, the important thing was that he was wonderful to talk to because he was so candid about everything. - Oh yes, will I get a raise? :-)
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