Interview with Michael Bell
By StarTrek.com Staff - August 31, 2010
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the roles that Michael Bell played in Star Trek should. He was Groppler Zorn in the TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” played Borum in the DS9 hour “The Homecoming” and returned to DS9 again to guest star as Drofo Awa in “The Maquis, Part 2.” Though he’s amassed his share of additional live-action credits, Bell is actually best known for his decades of work as a voiceover actor for games (including several Trek titles), television commercials (he was the voice of the Parkay tub!) and animated shows (including everything from G.I Joe to The Transformers to The Rugrats). StarTrek.com recently caught up with Bell for an exclusive – not to mention funny -- interview in which he recounted his Trek experiences, discussed his voice work and shared his pride in his daughter, Ashley Bell, who stars in the just-released horror film The Last Exorcism.
Go back to 1987 and the TNG pilot. How did you land the Groppler Zorn role?
Actually, I met Corey Allen, the director, early in my career. He was teaching drama and I became a pupil. I’d just come to Hollywood and was star struck, of course, and studying with him was a no brainer. Corey eventually became a successful director and he cast me in a couple of theater projects he directed. We struck up a firm friendship. He was one of the few people in Hollywood who was truly loyal to the talent he worked with, and always remembered to call them in for projects if the role was right. He called me in to read for Star Trek, for Q. I read for him and Gene Roddenberry, who reminded me I worked for him before in the Then Came Bronson pilot. After I finished reading, they both asked me to read for Groppler. The rest is Trek history... at least for me.
What interested you about Zorn?
It was a pilot for the new series predicated on the success of the original, which I’d always wanted to do, and that was uppermost in my mind. The role of Groppler was carefully etched -- not patently evil, but certainly unprincipled where his general comfort was concerned, and not unlike many past and present politicians. I loved playing against that and Corey allowed the room to discover. However, even if the character was one-dimensional, I’d never have passed. Supporting actors, unlike major stars, do not have the luxury of picking and choosing.
What do you remember of the experience?
One of the best things about the pilot was that I was not intruding on a TV family that already had developed a close relationship. We were all new and feeling our way together. No one was tired or self-inflated having been on a successful series for years. It was a new voyage and exciting for everyone, and my being just another ho-hum guest was not an issue. Sadly, that is the case for many guest stars on successful series. Very few cast members toss out the welcome mat beyond a tepid hello. Kind of like the new kid at school. I wish it were otherwise, but it ain’t!
Did you sense pressure on set? After all, a show only gets one shot at making a first impression…
Just around my heart, head and bladder. I (was excited) when I was introduced to Patrick Stewart. Did you see him in Ricky Gervais’s Extras? Brilliantly sick. What an actor. As I think back, we met several years later at a sound studio where we were both working. He said he requested the character of Groppler be reintroduced in the final show, but alas it was not to be. What a gentleman. Imagine him even thinking of me? These were all professionals, and although their characters would gel and firm even better after several months on the series, they were well on their way in the pilot.
How about DS9? What do you remember about Drofo Awa and Borum, about shooting “The Maquis, Part 2” and “The Homecoming”?
The Borum two-parter was a hard shoot; in the desert around 90 degrees, little shade and lots of sweating. I think my nose melted a couple of times. By the time we finished, I’d grown a full mushroom plant on my nethers. I loved getting gussied up in that face mold and high heels. Michael Westmore is a frigging genius. It was a bit claustrophobic while the mold was hardening on my face. Mike kept talking to me so I wouldn't feel like I was suffocating. His voice was muffled, of course, but reassuring. Drofo's gill bladder indicating distress had to be manually inflated by Mike himself with a tube attached to the mask and trailing off camera, where Mike squatted and blew with all his might. As the character exploded in anger, I could feel the sides of my face extending. Very odd. As it is, I have never seen that episode.
You also provided voices for several Trek video games, including New Worlds, Empires at War, and Armada II…
You probably know the characters better than I do. I’ve never seen or played those games. Boy, do I sound like a shut-in or what?
You've done loads of voiceover work. How/when did voiceovers become a serious opportunity for you?
I was under contract to Universal studios as a result of being born exceptionally attractive. However, I hungered to play more than devastatingly handsome heavies, CIA agents and cops. Once I was introduced to the world of VO and a myriad of characters I’d never get to portray on camera I started angling for VO work.
What are a few of your favorite VO credits?
I’d say G.I. Joe, Transformers, Smurfs, Rugrats, and videogames like Legacy of Kain, Ratchet & Clank, etc. Rugrats was a wonderful gift, rich characters with so many sides to their personality. I loved doing Chaz and Grandpa Boris. Most fans want to know about Duke and Major Bludd, as well as Prowl and Sideswipe.
What are you working on now?
I’m directing the graphic motion comic Irredeemable for Chris Follino of Catastrophe Productions. It’s got a huge voice cast. Actually, Wil Wheaton is voicing Plutonian, the main character, who’s a superhero who turns on his fellow superheroes and the public.
Acting is the Bell family business. Your wife, Victoria Carroll, was an actress. And how proud a dad are you, with your daughter Ashley starring in The Last Exorcism?
Frankly, I wanted her to be a geriatric nurse so she could take care of me and my wife in our twilight, loose-bowel, complaining-incessantly, grumpy years, but nooooo, she wanted to be an actress. And she’s a talented and beautiful one at that. Go figure! And yes, we are very, very proud. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as she towards her career.
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