As part of the lead-up to the massive TREK*Talks charity event happening on Saturday, January 15th to benefit the Hollywood Food Coalition (HFC), John Billingsley, the actor who portrayed Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise and the HFC board president, was kind enough to sit down with us at TrekNews.net for a wide-ranging discussion.
You can read about his HFC work in the first part of our interview, but for part two we wanted to pick the actor’s brain a bit about Enterprise… and John, being the whirlwind tour de force that he is, made us stumble onto plenty of other topics during our hour-long conversation.
Please note: This interview contains some strong language.
Hailing Frequencies Open
TrekNews.net: Does it really feel like 21 years now since Enterprise premiered?
JB: No, nothing feels like 21 years when you’re 61 years old. Everything feels recent — like I just got married yesterday! It’s wild to think it has been so long. Your career goes by so fast. I moved to Hollywood in 1995, and I was pretty lucky to get a franchise show three years into being here. And even though our show didn’t last seven years, I’ve been a part of the Star Trek universe now for a good portion of my life. It’s incredible.
TrekNews.net: Even though Enterprise wasn’t on for as long as some of the other Star Trek series, it seems to be pretty popular nowadays with people finding a new appreciation for that show.
JB: Yeah, and that’s the benefit of streaming services, isn’t it? Without it, I’m not sure if we would have gotten a second life, considering we didn’t meet the requisite number of episodes to go into syndication. There are a variety of reasons why I think the show didn’t quite get off the ground like it could have. Some of it I think was flat-out Star Trek fatigue. No break had been taken between The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and then our show. To a certain extent, I think Enterprise was rushed into production. The studio didn’t really give Rick [Berman] and Brannon [Braga] a lot of time to fully cogitate what they wanted to achieve.
TrekNews.net: Well, Enterprise continues to live on, so that’s good.
JB: And it’s the only show where I got to have a nude scene!
TrekNews.net: Well, we should have just gotten seven seasons of that.
JB: That’s my pitch to the studio: Old, Fat Phlox!
TrekNews.net: Everybody’s getting a sequel nowadays. Why not? But here’s a question: if they asked you to come back and voice Phlox in an animated series like Prodigy or Lower Decks, or play him live-action again, would you do it? It wouldn’t be impossible for Phlox to show up in the upcoming Strange New Worlds series either.
JB: Oh, now here’s the thing that got me! I was asked to audition for a small supporting part on Strange New Worlds. And I said to my agent, ‘could you just let them know that I was on Star Trek!?’ I turned it down.
I think there’s a strange disconnect between the folks making the new shows and Enterprise. I think we were seen at the time, fairly or unfairly, to be the red-headed stepchild of the franchise, the show that, briefly, crippled the franchise. So, I’m not sure if there’s any great appreciation or even cognizance for the Enterprise cast, with maybe the exception of the captain, as characters to be resurrected. I could be wrong.
But yes, I would happily come back, especially to voice Phlox. Coming back as old, fat Phlox would require me to get into two-and-a-half hours of makeup.
TrekNews.net: Now that you’ve had a few years to reflect on your performance as Phlox, is there anything you would change? Anything you regret doing that you would do differently today?
JB: No, not really. You know, for reasons that elude me, because I’m a very sweet guy, I’ve played a lot of sociopaths and serial killers. So for me, playing Dr. Phlox was a real treat. He’s probably closer to my temperament and personality than any character I’ve ever played. He had a sunny disposition, and in his own way, he was a terrific smartass. He liked to kind of fuck with people in such a way where people really didn’t know if they were being fucked with. I loved that character. But I wasn’t crazy about putting a rubber head on every morning.
I think if Enterprise wasn’t conceived as a triangular show, where they were trying to replicate the energy of Bones, Kirk, and Spock so that it became a Trip, T’Pol, Captain Archer show, I might have had more to do. Like all actors, I wished I had a little bit more to do sometimes. But thank God I didn’t have to be on the fucking bridge!
TrekNews.net: You didn’t like being on the bridge?
JB: No, it’s all oners! If you’re not on the bridge, everybody can be huddled together for a three-shot. But on the bridge it’s like, ‘eh, that guy is over there, that guy’s over there, and that guy is way over there.’ The setups are interminable. Those scenes are the ones where you always have to pretend you’ve seen a horrible alien or have somebody yell “shake!” at you. I hated that stuff.
TrekNews.net: We were talking with Doug Jones recently, and we were impressed with how much knowledge he retains about his character and his species’ culture. So, our question to you: how much lore did you retain, if any, about Denobulans and Star Trek in general.
JB: Well, Doug Jones is a real actor! I’m a hack. To answer your question, very little. It’s funny because when I got the show, there had never been a Denobulan before, so I had nothing to go on. So, I created this whole backstory, you know, that I came from this monastic race, there’s only seven of us left, we never spoke to each other… but it turns out we’re like the fuck bunnies of space! It’s like we all had many kids, multiple wives, I think we had three dicks! It goes to show it’s not your job as the actor to write the show, it’s your job to say the lines and don’t bump into the furniture. As an actor, my feeling is what I’m trying to achieve in a scene, what’s your goal, what’s your action, what are you trying to get and trust that the sparks are there between you and the other players.
Our conversation moved along to if John has caught any of the newer Star Trek, but he admits that his main hobby is reading (which you could probably tell based on the library of books behind him). He watched a couple of episodes of Discovery and Lower Decks, and even some of The Orville — which is good, considering he had a guest spot on the latter show in the episode “Home,” along with fellow Star Trek doctor Robert Picardo.
JB: “You know they made me audition for that role?! Picardo got an offer, but I had to audition! Even though [creator and lead actor] Seth MacFarlane does a really good Dr. Phlox impersonation. I had to beg him to hear it, but he wouldn’t do it.”
TrekNews.net: Ah that’s too bad we’ve never seen that impersonation. He certainly does quite a few. Do you think Seth could do the Phlox smile?
JB: Well, I can’t even do the Phlox smile for $10,000! Or the Phlox puffer fish face. Or… I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it because it never made the final cut… but the Phlox erection scene where I knock the better part of the laboratory down.
TrekNews.net: Well, that sounds like one thing you were able to make up about Denobulans yourself. Maybe we can catch that on a deleted scene somewhere. Anyway, do you have any advice for the folks in the new Star Trek shows as they are now beginning their journey?
JB: I used to joke with my wife and I would say, “you know, the cool thing is that I could go to any bar in the world and say loudly enough ‘back when I was on Star Trek…’ and I’d get a free drink. If someone told you at 19 years old that you’d get a drink ticket to travel the world, that’s a huge deal. But then actors grow up and they’re like “ah [fans] are pestering me,” and it’s like, hello?? You get to meet the world. I mean, what a cool thing. Man, revel in it. You got invited to a party that one in a bajillion people are invited to.
In light of 90-year-old William Shatner going to space recently on a Blue Origin rocket, we asked John if he would take an offer to go to space… and in the process, we got into the time he almost went to lunch with Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
TrekNews.net: So, John, Jeff Bezos calls you and invites you to go to space. Do you do it?
JB: [laughs] No, not without a significant contribution to the Hollywood Food Coalition. It’s like, ‘Jeff, let’s talk. How big of a check do you have for charity?’ But in terms of do, I have any dreams to go to space? No. This is my goal: to die without ever breaking any bones. I don’t ski, I don’t mountain climb, I don’t jet ski. It’s hard to break bones while reading Middlemarch.
I did sit on Bill’s lap in a small car once. But it’s not a dirty story! I was going to a convention in Seattle and we were on the same plane. So, we got off the plane and we were waiting in the pick-up area, and clearly, he’s impatient because the car isn’t there yet. So, I walk over to Bill Shatner and tell him the car will probably be here soon. The Honda Civic arrives, and in the car goes me, my wife, Bill, and his traveling companion.
So, we shove ourselves into this Civic with our luggage, and I’m basically on Bill’s lap. And apparently, Leonard Nimoy is going to meet him downtown, and Bill asks me where should they meet for lunch? And I suggest a market downtown. So, Bill was clearly doing the polite thing to do and ask me if I wanted to come along. I didn’t want to crash their lunch, so I said no. I realize I’m probably one of only a few people to ever spur a chance to sit down with Kirk and Spock, but it’s not like I’m going to crash your lunch!
TrekNews.net: Well, we’re not saying we would turn down lunch with Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but…
JB: Well, I’m not really a “fan” of people. I don’t really get starstruck, except for one person: Dick Van Dyke. Cause I grew up watching him. I did Diagnosis: Murder once and Dick Van Dyke comes onto the stage and does his little Dick Van Dyke tap-dance, and it was mind-blowing! All my lines flew out of my head.
TrekNews.net: Is there anybody today you’d be starstruck to see?
JB: I was starstruck when I met [U.S. Representative] Adam Schiff. He’s someone I deeply admire. [U.S. Representative] Katy Porter came one time to volunteer at our kitchen. I was deeply touched to meet her. Sheila Kuehl is another one… she was a pioneering California legislator, and she was a child actor and famously got out of the business as a teenager when she was outed as gay. So, she did pioneering work for performers and helped find ways to protect child performers and LGBQ performers. I met her and she asked me for my autograph. That was a moment! And I got her autograph.
John, along with dozens of other Star Trek personalities, will be part of the TREK*Talks telethon on January 15th. Panels will include one dedicated to Deep Space Nine, one exploring the creative minds behind the shows, one that’s a chat with directors (including Jonathan Frakes), one with writers from various Star Trek shows, and one talking with some of the familiar voices from recent animated Star Trek shows, among others.
Stay up-to-date with all the latest news on Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Prodigy, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and more with TrekNews.net.