Interview with Jonathan Frakes
Jonathan Frakes is still Number One in the hearts and minds of Star Trek fans – and probably will be for life. Frakes made his mark on the franchise in many ways over the years. He, of course, played Commander William Riker through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as in the TNG features Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis. He also guest starred as Riker on Voyager and Enterprise, and as William Riker’s “twin,” Thomas, on DS9. Frakes also directed numerous episodes of TNG, DS9 and Voyager, as well as First Contact and Insurrection. Since his long run on Star Trek ended, Frakes has kept busy, acting only very occasionally and instead concentrating on directing. Just in the past year or two he’s helmed episodes of Dollhouse, NCIS: Los Angeles, V, Castle, The Good Guys, The Glades, Persons Unknown and Leverage. StarTrek.com caught up with Frakes in Dallas, Texas, as he headed to the set of The Good Guys to direct his second episode of that show. Frakes – amiable as always – talked Trek and updated us on his current projects.
You last played Riker six years ago, in the Enterprise series finale. How long ago does it feel for you?
It feels like a long time. It feels like a long, long time. And yet it feels like only yesterday. I was just at Dragon Con last weekend with Marina (Sirtis), Brent (Spiner), LeVar (Burton), Denise (Crosby), Armin (Shimerman), Rene (Auberjonois) and (John) de Lancie, and we were all so sentimental and connected. It was just spectacular. And that was because of the years together and the years apart.
Let’s talk about that last appearance, because it was pretty controversial in Trek circles. A lot of fans felt it diminished Enterprise to fold not just the series finale, but pretty much the entire series, into a TNG holodeck sequence. What were your thoughts about it then, and how about now?
I’ve said this publicly, but I thought everyone on Enterprise, especially Scott (Bakula), was so gracious about having actors from another show come in and put his show to rest. It was sold to me by Rick (Berman) as a “valentine to the fans,” and it was anything but. It was, I think, one of his rare mistakes. It didn’t work on so many levels. I don’t think the Enterprise cast was happy to have us. I’m frankly not sure the fans wanted to see us there. It was great, obviously, to be with Marina again and a lot of the crew were people I’d worked with on Next Gen. So the fun part was there, but the legacy of it… I don’t think it was our finest hour.
How do the words “Sir Patrick Stewart” roll off your tongue?
We’ve been calling him “Sir Patrick” for years, even before the Queen did. Actually, we had a wonderful party for him. Everyone from the cast, plus Rick and (screenwriter) John Logan, got together for the occasion. And… (laughing)… LeVar led the toast with, “If you think for one f---ing minute think that any of us are ever going to call you ‘Sir’ you’ve got another thing coming.” So that was the tone of the evening. And I know that Patrick was genuinely emotionally and psychologically touched by this honor that he’s worked toward and deserved. But it was great. It was the first time in ages that everybody made it (to one of the TNG group’s dinner reunions).
We’ve heard you describe yourself as a “reformed actor.” Does that still sound about right to you?
I would say that’s a very accurate description of my current acting status. I did a job on Criminal Minds last year, and it was the first real acting thing I’d done in six years. I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t think I’d be able to get the lines. I didn’t think I’d look good. I didn’t think I’d be able to find the character. I stressed about it for a week, and it ended up being a wonderful experience. My scenes were with Joe Mantegna and Matthew Gray Gubler. It was just the three of us in a room all day. It was the day before Thanksgiving and the crew wanted to work through lunch. I said, “That sounds great. Let’s just go for it.” And it was great to do that again. I haven’t worked since. I actually haven’t had an audition, but for a couple of voiceover jobs, since.
So, if the directing hadn’t fallen into place for you, what would you be doing right now?
Thank God I learned this second craft. I really don’t know how I’d be supporting my family. I’d be looking for another kind of gig. (Frakes’ wife) Genie (Francis) isn’t working the way she used to and my peers as actors – at least from the Star Trek guys, with the exception of Patrick (Stewart) – are struggling as well. Some of it is by choice, granted, some of it is just by the double-edged sword that Star Trek has been for all of us.
What do you feel are your best attributes as a director?
Having been an actor, I think I can communicate well with actors. And I think I can manage time well.
You’ve done a single episode of some shows and you’ve done multiple episodes of some shows. A), do you have a preference and B), should the audience be able to tell the difference?
Personally, what I’m looking for now is a producer-director job on a show, like what Rob Bowman has on Castle and Robbie Duncan McNeill has on Chuck. That job exists on certain network shows. Unfortunately, a friend of mine has that job on Leverage, which would be the most likely place for me to do that at the moment. Having said that, there are benefits to both sides of it. It’s great to go back to Leverage and I’m looking forward to going back to Castle and NCIS: Los Angeles because you know the players and you have a shorthand. Yet, I just finished The Glades and also Burn Notice. Those are shows I’d never done before and I didn’t know anyone with the exception of the D.P. and also Gabrielle Anwar (of Burn Notice), who was in The Librarian. And there’s something to be said for that, too, for the unknown and taking your bag of tricks someplace new. Your jokes work because people haven’t heard them 100 times.
What will you be moving on to once you wrap this episode of The Good Guys?
I’m in prep on The Good Guys, and after I finish it I’ll go to NCIS: Los Angeles to do another one of those. Then I’ll do another Castle. Then I’ll go to Chuck. What a blessing this year has been.