Catching Up With Robert Beltran, Part 1
Robert Beltran tells it like it is; always has, still does and always will, even if, on occasion doing so has landed him in hot water or made him seem unappreciative. Fans of Star Trek: Voyager know of what we speak. Beltran spent seven seasons portraying Chakotay on the series, but the character never quite gelled and its potential went only partially unrealized. Beltran very publicly aired his complaints and, at times, fans and industry observers thought he just might get himself booted from the show. Beltran – and Chakotay – stuck around, however, until the very end, right down the out-of-nowhere relationship between Chakotay and Seven of Nine. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Beltran for a typically honest and informative interview in which he discussed what went right and wrong with Chakotay and chatted about current events, which include new fatherhood, upcoming film and stage opportunities, and an appearance at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention next month in Las Vegas. Below is part one of our interview, and tune in to StarTrek.com again tomorrow for part two.
Back when you landed the role of Chakotay, what were you expecting? What were you hoping for in terms of the character and his evolution?
Chakotay: I didn’t know. My agent asked me if I was interested in going in to audition for the role. I read the “Caretaker” script, although I had no idea of Star Trek. I didn’t know Star Trek from anything. But I liked “The Caretaker” script and the role of Chakotay. So I said, “Yes, I will be happy to go in and audition.” I did, and I got the role. When I was telling friends and family what my new gig was going to be, I was amazed by the response that I got. “You’re going to be on Star Trek! You’re the commander! You’re going to be on the bridge! You’re going to run into this! There’s the Borg! You’re going to die and they’re going to bring you back!’ Everyone knew a lot more than I did. I had no idea what I was getting into. All I knew was that I was going to do this pilot, this two-hour pilot. I had no idea if it was going to go to series. Of course, when you do a pilot you’re obligated to sign up for five years in case it goes to series. And, blah, blah, blah. We did the pilot, we got picked up, and we did seven years. I was pleasantly surprised at what it was all about. Some things, I didn’t like, but there are things I don’t like in every gig that I’ve ever done.
Let’s break some of that down. For you, what worked best about the character? Then, let’s talk about what didn’t work…
Beltran: I think what worked is any time you see some kind of interpersonal relationship, it was interesting. For example, you had Chakotay and the captain, Chakotay and Seska, and, the relationship that was thrown together quickly at the end with Seven of Nine. Other than those relationships, Chakotay was kind of a solitary character, at least from season four to seven. I think the first three seasons there were a lot of interesting storylines, and then I think a shift happened in the series after Jeri Taylor left. I think any time that a character has an interpersonal relationship that shows growth, and you could say that clearly about Chakotay and the captain. But after Seska left, it was only that relationship with the captain that had depth to it. Chakotay and Tuvok didn’t have much. Chakotay and Paris didn’t have much. Chakotay and the other characters, there wasn’t much of a relationship there. I always regretted that because there was a lot to explore.
You were always honest and open at the time about your displeasure with how Chakotay was utilized on the show. When you raised your concerns, did the powers that be listen?
Beltran: No. No. During the Michael Piller-Jeri Taylor years, they listened intently. It was after that… I guess when Brannon Braga took over, when the Seven of Nine character made her entrance, the focus changed. That was fine with me. That was fine with me, but I think writers have an obligation to fill out all the characters if they’re regular characters on a series. I think several of the characters were diminished – Chakotay and Tuvok and Kim and Neelix. I think it was just easier for these new writers that came on to write stories about the captain and about characters that weren’t really human, like Seven of Nine and the Doctor. Those three characters were kind of all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipotent, and I think a lot of the tension and drama that was available was lost because you have to really dig hard to find tension in all-knowing, all-seeing characters. They know everything, right? They have all the answers. Or else you have a redundancy of the same scene written over and over and over again, with slight variations.
How did you being so vocal affect you and your work? How did it impact your interactions with your fellow actors and the crew?
Beltran: I don’t know what the effect was. I’m just kind of a blunt person and, because I have brain, I can see problems and so I’m vocal about them. I think a lot of the actors were feeling the same way, but for me it was like, “OK, you can fire me if you want to. Go ahead, and I’ll leave.” That gave me a certain amount of freedom. I was single at the time. I didn’t have to worry about a family like everybody else on the show, except maybe Garrett. I felt like I was telling the truth, and if people can’t take the truth, that’s fine with me, but I’m not going to be stifled by the prospect of being fired.
The odd thing is we remember seeing you on the set and off the set, joking around with your co-stars, riding in the golf car with Jeri Ryan…
Beltran: See, I never pissed off anybody on the set. None of the actors ever got mad at me and said, “Hey, you should shut it.” It was always kind of an inside joke. So it didn’t affect my relationship with anybody, not even Rick Berman or Brannon Braga, and they were quite aware of what I was saying. It was one of things that I didn’t understand, either. I was being blunt. I was being honest and truthful, as far as I could see the truth, and I think they understood that. I think the series was safe. It was going to go seven years with or without me, and they decided to stay with me because, in the long run, I don’t think what I said made very much difference, except to a very, very small percentage of fans who maybe didn’t like what I said. There’s a small percentage of fans who hold Star Trek and the Star Trek franchise sacrosanct, like it’s their god. It’s a very small minority, but what I said didn’t make any difference to the vast majority of the audience.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two of our exclusive interview with Robert Beltran.