David Warner is one of those classic character actors who can turn up in anything, anywhere. And, over the course of his long career, the British actor has lent his talents to Star Trek on three (of four, depending on how you look at it) occasions. He played Ambassador St. John Talbot in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the Klingon chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and the Cardassian Gul Madred in The Next Generation episodes "Chain of Command, Part I and II." StarTrek.com sat down with Warner a couple of weeks back, just after he'd appeared on stage in front of thousands of fans at Creation Entertainment's Official 45th Anniversary Star Trek convention. As he'd been on stage, Warner was blunt, irascible and thoroughly entertaining.
What's it like for you at an event like this?
Warner: I've done some conventions in England. They weren't Star Trek conventions, but I've done other conventions because of the stuff I've done, a lot of sci-fi and horror and whatever it is. And people dress up for those, as well. The ones I've gone to were not quite so big as this particular Star Trek convention is and most of the ones I've done were just signing and chatting to people. Here, I did a Q&A. But it's not too strange for me. What's interesting is people are bringing up things that I did 20, 25 years ago, so it's not always easy to remember everything. I also make a practice of not seeing a lot of what I've done. That's just one of those superstitions I have. I do a job and I don't necessarily watch it, so sometimes it's very hard to talk about it. Some things I may have just seen once. It's not that I don't like the work; I just don't enjoy watching myself. So I talk about my memories of working on them.
How did your role in Star Trek V come about?
Warner: Someone said "Would you like to meet William Shatner." I said, "I'd be delighted." I went into an office and there he was. As far as I know they wanted me for it, instead of having me audition and screen test. The part itself was not all that huge. Actually, it was bigger than it turned out in the film, because they'd cut quite a bit out of it. So I was actually just standing around on the Enterprise bridge for the most of it. So that's it, I was just offered the part. I'd just arrived and was living in Los Angeles, and I've been offered a job in Star Trek. "Thank you."
How was your experience with Shatner, the director?
Warner: My part was not very big, so I'd come to work and... The word direction, to me, means "Go in that direction," rather than "This is how I want you to play the part," rather than coaxing the performance out of me. I'm not talking about Bill Shatner as a director; I'm talking about directors (in general). That's how I find it. I was cast to play the part because they knew I could play the part.
We're assuming you didn't audition for Star Trek VI, either...
Warner: I didn't, no. I don't know why I turned up in VI when I'd been in V, but I'd been a human in V and they had me be a Klingon. I read somewhere that everybody had forgotten that I was in V. So I was sort of invisible in V and they could cover me in makeup for VI. Plus, I'd done Time After Time with Nick Meyer.
Was the makeup a help or hindrance in terms of finding Gorkon as a character?
Warner: It was neither. It was a three-hour job before I started acting to have the makeup put on. You see what you see as a member of the audience, but I don't say, "Now, I'm the character." I'm not that kind of actor.
What did you enjoy about playing Gorkon?
Warner: Bear in mind that the culture of Star Trek was not necessarily on my radar, particularly. I was aware of it and I'd seen some of it, but all I knew about Klingons was that they weren't very nice. What the attraction of this was was that he was the bridge between Klingons. He wasn't the evil master Klingon; he was actually trying to make peace. Just his name, Gorkon, and the beard; he was a cross between Gorbachev and Lincoln. That's what I think Nick wanted. So he was a good Klingon, I suppose. And, of course, he suffered because of that.
Let's move on to "Chain of Command." What did they tell you about the Cardassians before you started to play one?
Warner: Nothing. I took over on three days' notice. It was another makeup job. It was with Pat Stewart, who's an old colleague. It was great to be a part of that. I thought, "Oh, I've done two of the others, the old classic ones, and here I am in The Next Generation. I'll go for it." So I wasn't aware of it, of the Cardassians. I didn't know there history at all, except of course, that they weren't very nice.
Those two episodes are considered among TNG's finest hours...
Warner: That is what I'm told.
Could you tell you were making a piece of quality television at the time, in the moment?
Warner: I couldn't. I was not surprised that it became so well regarded. As I said, I took over the role on three days' notice. I couldn't learn the show in that time. There was too much technobabble and dialogue that doesn't come naturally to me. So they wrote everything up for me. I don't mind people knowing this. Every line I said, I actually was reading it over Patrick's shoulder or they put it down there for me to do it.
Warner: Cue cards, yes. So, after I finished it, I thought it worked, which obviously it did. But, no, I didn't think "I'm in the middle of making a classic episode." I got the makeup on, read the lines and hoped for the best. And it turned out to be a classic episode. Isn't that nice?
You have done so much memorable work over so many years, including Tom Jones, Holocaust, Titanic, a couple of the Horatio Hornblower telemovies and Wallander. You also have a extensive list of sci-fi and horror credits like The Omen, Time After Time, Time Bandits, Waxwork, TRON, Cast a Deadly Spell, Tales from the Crypt, Babylon 5, Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who: Dreamland, not to mention loads of voiceover work and, of course, Star Trek. You even reprised Gorkon for the video game Star Trek: Klingon Academy. Do you like genre pieces? Is it a matter of a job is a job? Maybe a little of both?
Warner: Well, I'm a recovering workaholic. I used to do anything. But you mention some rather interesting pictures. Shall we start with The Omen? Work with Gregory Peck? Yes, please. What was so good about that picture was that there was no blood in it, really. It's not a gorefest. Strange things happen, but it's got the mood and the music and everything. So, of its type, of its kind, I think it's quite a superior film. But, either way, you don't say no if you're asked to work with Gregory Peck. And he was wonderful, by the way. Time Bandits is one of Terry Gilliam's brilliant visual feasts, of bringing to the screen what you could only dream about. When they talk about "vision" and all that, he's the only person I know of who could put his crazy dreams onto the screen. He's truly a conjurer. Just an extraordinary mind. We could talk more about many of these pictures.
What are you working on these days?
Warner: I'm doing a British television program. It's called Mad Dogs. It's about a bunch of guys who go on holiday and get in all sorts of trouble. And then I turn up in the series. It's British, so I don't know if the U.S. will ever get it.
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