John Billingsley talks his time on Star Trek: Enterprise, what he learned playing Phlox and more ahead of the Trek Talks 2 charity event this weekend
This weekend, dozens of Star Trek alumni coming together for Trek Talks 2 — a live-streamed telethon to help raise money and awareness for the Hollywood Food Coalition (HFC). The HFC is an organization based in Los Angeles County that takes great pride in the fact that, since 1987, they have served meals every night to those in need. The organization works to rescue food that would otherwise be wasted, and it also distributes necessities like clothes, shoes, and blankets to those who need them.
Ahead of the event, TrekNews.net had the pleasure of chatting with John Billingsley, the actor who played Dr. Phlox in all four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. John holds his work with the Hollywood Food Coalition close to his heart, and we were able to talk to him about the upcoming Trek Talks event and, of course, his time on Enterprise.
TrekNews.net: Let’s start off by you talking a little bit about what your experience was like last year doing Trek Talks.
John: We did it on a wing and a prayer last year. We had no idea whether it was going to work, and we were elated that every celebrity and personality who we asked to participate said yes. So, we went in not entirely sure whether we were going to have two, four, six, or eight hours of content when we started asking folks, and it turned out we got eight hours. So, this year, again, we’re doing an eight-hour show.
We listened to a lot of folks who had feedback, and I think the response was universally enthusiastic. It was a tremendous variety of folks, but I think people wanted maybe some more one-on-one conversations as opposed to panels. So, this year we are having more short one-on-one interviews, along with four large panels. Based on feedback, we’ve got this year three musical interludes with some tremendous musical performers, including the absolutely fabulous Bonnie Gordon [who voices the ship’s computer in Star Trek: Prodigy], who’s going to be my co-host.
Last year we raised approximately $80,000. Our goal this year is to try and see if we can raise $100,000+. Fingers crossed! An amazing team has come together to make this happen.
TrekNews.net: Putting on a virtual production like this must be quite the project.
John: Yeah, exactly. A huge shout-out to Earl Green, an absolutely unflappable producer. He worked in TV news for years. He’s based in Arkansas. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anybody as cool and composed and utterly unflusterable. Last year doing it for the first time, we thought, “how many train wrecks are we going to have?” We didn’t have any train wrecks!
TrekNews.net: The HFC still hasn’t missed providing a meal for its guests for 40 years, right?
John: Exactly, and we are also now supplying over 2 million pounds of food a year to about 130 other small not-for-profits. I think the food sharing is the thing that possibly people have the, you know, least appreciation for when we’re talking about some small to medium-sized not-for-profits that do amazing work. An organization that works with women who’ve escaped from abusive households, for instance. The one thing that sometimes doesn’t get addressed is if the meal program is any good? If you’re working with people who are trying to go through some form of rehabilitation, the idea that they’re not getting three good squares a day means that they may be a little less likely to focus on the work that’s required to get them out and off.
One of the things we’re trying to do is ask these organizations if they can get really specific about what their food needs are so we can provide them with exactly what they want. Can you cook? Can you not cook? Do you need pre-prepared food? Is there any way – and this is where I think the evolution of the program can go – is there any way we could help you learn how to use some of the food we’re giving you to better serve your people? I’m very happy that we’ve kind of moved into this realm of service over the last few years.
TrekNews.net: Yeah, the numbers you are throwing out are really impressive. It sounds like quite the well-oiled machine to be able to make a service like that happen.
John: Exactly. And I’m excited about TREK*Talks2 because one of the things that are really important to me is to talk about good things that are happening in communities. We are so inundated with all these shit show stories from around the world and it seems like we’re surrounded by dysfunctionality. I’m in awe of how many organizations we work with, and that I’ve gotten to know people who are doing amazing stuff and amazing things in their community.
In the Star Trek community, I want to keep talking about ways you can get involved in organizations you believe in. There are great organizations in your hood that you would be blown away by what they’re achieving. It interests me to work with people who are hungry and who are in need, but other people could be drawn to other things, like environmental activism, helping to teach kids to read, or going into prisons to work with prisoners. I can guarantee you, wherever you are, there’s something cool going on that will resonate with you.
That kind of work speaks to the Star Trek ethos. How did we get to this world in which we’re all working together without our, you know, stupid racial, ethnic, religious, and political differences separating us to agree to serve common goals?
TrekNews.net: Is there a particularly powerful memory from the event last year that sticks in your mind as you now prepare to do this again?
John: Well, probably the moment when Rod Roddenberry surprised us by donating $30,000. Which was fabulous. And that was the single contribution that helped us reach $80,000. We didn’t go in with the goal last year because we’d never done it before, and I had no idea how many people would be listening, and how many people would be willing to contribute. So, it succeeded beyond my expectation. Now that we have a little bit of a benchmark, the challenge is to see if that was anomalous or if it’s something we can grow from.
TrekNews.net: How exactly do you decide who to approach to see if they can do an event like this? Is there an Enterprise or Star Trek group text chat you reach out to and say, “Hey, who wants to do this with me?”
John: Well, amongst the 10 of us now who sit at the table [to help plan TREK*Talks2], we theoretically know how to reach out to almost everybody. So, it kind of becomes a little bit of a question of who we feel we’ve got the best shot at getting. For example, Brent Spiner got in touch with me last year after the event and said, “how come I wasn’t invited?” And I said, “I emailed you. You didn’t answer me back.” And he said, “well, next year I wanna do it.” So, he was number one on the guest list this year.
TrekNews.net: Let’s get to some questions about Enterprise if you don’t mind. What’s the first thing that comes to mind if we were to ask you what you miss about the show?
John: Oh, the consistency and regularity of having a gig. You know, you’re an actor and so nine days out of 10, you’re not working. I mean, I’m older now. I’m happy to be semi-retired. I like volunteering. I’ve always had other things in other interests, but I do like to act and so to have a place to go to every day with a group of people that I like was great. Some episodes you’re less fond of, you know, that’s just the nature of it. But I liked the character and I liked the challenge, particularly in those episodes or those scenes where there was meat that you knew you were gonna have the stuff to work on a consistent basis.
TrekNews.net: How do you think Enterprise allowed you to grow as an actor?
John: Well there is a certain technique, I suppose, for lack of a better word, that you grow into as an on-camera actor as opposed to a stage actor, which I did a lot of before Star Trek, that simply comes from getting to go to work every day. Dumbass things like being able to hit your mark without obviously looking down at the floor or knowing the difference between camera sizes, or understanding when you have to worry about doing the same thing in a closeup that you did on the master. So some of the technical apparatus, I suppose, that comes with time on camera, that’s valuable.
Dr. Phlox was possibly the nicest person I’ve ever played on television. The combination of nice, smart, funny, empathetic, and dubious was a lovely combination and possibly comes closer to my own personal sensibility than anybody I’ve ever played. But I didn’t like wearing the rubber head. That was a pain in the ass.
TrekNews.net: It’s funny, you were just talking about doing stage work before Star Trek. You’re certainly not alone. Quite a few Star Trek actors, especially leading actors and actresses, have done stage work before their Trek series. Do you think there’s any kind of intersection with that kind of passion for stage work and then being able to go into a Star Trek leading role naturally or gradually? Do you have any thoughts about that?
John: I think almost anybody who has a long and successful acting career probably has spent a fair amount of time on stage and has gotten some chops. You learn how to take a scene apart, you learn how to analyze a script pretty quickly. You learn how to make strong acting choices. All of that translates over into film and TV. It makes you a better actor, no matter what the show is when you have a stage background. Stage experience can also help quite possibly in Star Trek because there is this additional obligation for many of us to act through prosthetics, which justifies a little bit more size in our performances. We also have to handle more unusual material and try to find a way to consequently not have it seem utterly silly. You know, like bringing some gravitas towards the technobabble.
TrekNews.net: If Phlox were given another season, is there anything you would’ve particularly liked to see done with the character?
John: I wanted him to get laid. You know, it’s always coitus interruptus with the doctor! I mean, he even gets his wife on board, and then what did she do? She makes a pass at Trip!
Seriously though, one of the things that were interesting about the show is that they were trying to figure out where they could get throughline. They landed largely with Connor [Trinneer] and Jolene [Blalock] in their relationship. I don’t think they really figured out a way to get a throughline with any of the rest of us. And by throughline, I mean episode-to-episode progression in the storyline of the characters and the relationships. I think it probably would’ve been desirable for all of us to have more throughlines in our story. I don’t know how they could have done that for all of us.
It’s also the nature of the way television was shifting. I mean, nowadays, you know, there are still shows where it’s basically you could watch them in any order and it’s not going to hurt. But more and more, and certainly, with the advent of streaming, most television now is serialized by nature. You kind of need to watch them sequentially to understand the story. I haven’t been watching a lot of the new Star Trek, but it seems as if Discovery builds each episode on the previous one.
TrekNews.net: Our last question to you is what advice would you give to someone who is just diving into Enterprise now and they’re able to watch all of them back-to-back? What would you say to that new viewer?
John: Hmm, no one has really asked me that before. I’m not sure what I’d say.
Treknews.net: How about “where were you 20 years ago?”
John: Yeah, there you go. To be honest with you, I haven’t seen a lot of the show in a long time. But my sense back in the day when we were doing it was that season two has some dip to it. So, I suppose I would say if you like the people and if you like the characters, maybe stick through some of the episodes in season two that don’t work as well. It gets better as it goes along. But to be honest with you, I would probably just say “pass the popcorn!”
TrekNews.net: Thanks so much for sitting down with us, John.
John: No problem. I’m really looking forward to Trek Talks 2!
Details on Trek Talks 2
Trek Talks 2 kicks off on Saturday, January 14 at 12:45 pm ET/9:45 am PT. It will feature interviews, roundtable discussions, and performances from the likes of Anson Mount, Scott Bakula, Terry Ferrell, John Billingsley, David Livingston, Doug Drexler, Cirroc Lofton, John de Lancie, Dan Curry, and many more cast and crew from the Star Trek franchise.
For more information and a full lineup of guests, visit trektalks.net.
Stay tuned to TrekNews.net for all the latest news related to Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Lower Decks, Star Trek: Prodigy, and more.