Catching Up With Ethan Phillips, Part 1
"Voyager..." Ethan Phillips says. "It seems so far away. We started in 1994. So, God, it's going to be two decades since we started the thing. It's hard to believe. Time is just flying by too fast, way too fast." Phillips isn't kidding; it's already 11 years since Voyager concluded its seven-year run, since he last played Neelix. Life goes on, however, and Phillips has kept active since departing the Delta Quadrant, turning up in films big and small, on television (including a guest spot on Enterprise) and on stage. In fact, when StarTrek.com caught up with Phillips for an interview a few days ago, he was in the midst of a spurt of projects that includes a half-dozen films, among them a Coen brothers movie and a Syfy epic, Arachnoquake, airing tomorrow, and a production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid in which he plays the title character opposite Peter Dinklage. Below is part one of our exclusive conversation, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two.
Let's talk about Neelix. When you started, what were you expecting, hoping for, in terms of the character's evolution?
Phillips: He seemed to be kind of a scalawag in the pilot, a junk dealer and somebody who was an opportunist and finagled his way on board so that he could find a home. I think he'd gotten sick of scouring the Delta Quadrant for a living. Also, he wanted to protect his friend Kes. That was kind of laid out in the pilot, but I had no idea where he was going to go. I just kind of went from show to show. I had no expectations. To tell you the honest-to-God truth, the first few seasons I made some suggestions and gave some ideas, but they knew what they wanted to do and they had their agenda, and that was fine with me. My job was to show up and to bring to life the words they wrote, and that's what I did. But I was very pleased, though, with where Neelix ended up. That was a wonderful place to put him, because he was a very emotional guy and a person who really loved people and socializing. To have him find a family at the end and have a child and be back with his own race, it gave him some really sweet closure, I think. I didn't see him back down on Earth. I don't know what he'd do there, being the only Talaxian on a planet filled with humans. He'd have been a freak. So it was much better that he ended up where he ended up. I was very glad about that.
While he ended up in the perfect place, it took a while. For much of the show, one day he was the cook, the next the morale officer, and so on. That had to get a little frustrating...
Phillips: First of all, the makeup was extremely tedious because I was in the chair for five hours a day, sometimes two or three days in a row. I was tired a lot, because I couldn't sleep in the makeup. So I was always awake for 18 hours. When I had a big show, it was pretty exhausting for me. But I've made a living playing the sixth banana. That's fine with me. I'll take what I get, you know? What am I going to do, promote the character? I couldn't go across the Paramount lot over the writers' building and go, "Hey you guys, what the f--- is going on? You're making him too tertiary." That's not how I operate. I'm an actor that gets the job and does it. I didn't think going to bat for different storylines for Neelix would have any impact, nor do I even think that way (in general, as an actor). This was a TV show and it was my job to come in and do it.
Was I frustrated? No, I wasn't frustrated. I was glad he got to do what he got to do. I did want a few shows to myself, but when I got them I realized how exhausting they were because I'd have to get there three or four hours early, before everybody else and, all through the day, I'd have to be back in the chair for touch-ups, because of the sweat. Then, at the end of the day, there was another hour and a half to get the crap off. So if it was a 12-hour day, you had to add five hours to it, and if you did five days in a row... I mean, I never complained, but it's encapsulating, it's claustrophobic, it's hot, it itches. You can't do anything in it. I had contact lenses, so I couldn't read. I couldn't sleep because I'd crush the wig. I couldn't even talk on the friggin' phone because it would stick to the face. So I was just totally there all day. The only thing I could do without any problem was eat, and when I finished the show I was 207 pounds. I'm 175 right now, which is my normal weight. So, by the second year, I'd learned that, "Well, this is good that he's kind of light."
Of the Neelix-heavy episodes, which ranks as the best in your book?
Phillips: "Mortal Coil." That was the deepest episode for Neelix, without a doubt. It was there he threw away some of the crap he'd been hanging on to. It showed that all that really matters is now and how we treat other people. I think that and "Jetrel" were the best episodes for Neelix in terms of being deep and dramatic and showing the core of the character, where the mask dropped off and we got to see who he was. "Jetrel" showed that he was able to forgive even the most heinous of acts, because he knows that only be forgiving can he move on.
All these years later, people still debate the pros and cons of the Neelix-Kes relationship. What were your thoughts on it? Was it romantic? Should it have been?
Phillips: I was never entirely sure whether it was meant as a romantic or platonic relationship. There was a definite joy, though, in working with Jennifer Lien, an extraordinarily unedited and present actor. The bond between the two certainly merited some closure, and that was indeed filmed. (We shot) a scene in the ship's science lab in which Neelix and Kes acknowledge the end of their relationship and decide to always be friends. But this scene was never aired. That led me to believe the writers didn't really put a premium on that particular arc.
Do you have nightmares about the Neelix makeup?
Phillips: No, no. Nothing. I don't even think about it anymore, even though I'm still real close to makeup man, Scott Wheeler. We got to be good buddies over that time.
Who do you still see from the old days?
Phillips: I see a lot of the Voyager people, actually. When I was in L.A., all the guys, we'd go out to dinner once every five or six months. And we've all kept up on each other. So that's been good. I'll see Kate (Mulgrew) occasionally, though it's been a while. I haven't seen Roxann (Dawson) in forever. Jeri Ryan's husband had a restaurant and we all went there and saw her. I'm pretty close to Tim (Russ) and to Bob (Picardo) and to Robbie (McNeill). I see them more than I see Garrett (Wang) or (Robert) Beltran, but we all try to get together for those dinners when we can. And then there are the conventions. I still do a few of them and I'll see some of the Voyager people at those if we're there at the same time.
How excited are you to get to Las Vegas for Creation Entertainment's big convention out there in August? We hear that a Benson reunion is in the works...
Phillips: That should be a lot of fun. It's unlike any other convention because it's just so huge and there are so many people. I like seeing the fans and seeing some of my old friends. This one will be interesting, actually, because Rene (Auberjonois) and I are going to do a show together on stage. I don't want to say too much, but it'll be a little bit of Benson and a little bit of Star Trek, a little of our characters from both shows. I'm really looking forward to it.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read the second half of our interview with Ethan Phillips. In it, he discusses his current projects, including Arachnoquake, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Imaginary Invalid.