Robert Duncan McNeill Interview
Audiences may not see much of Robert Duncan McNeill on television these days, but that’s because he’s been so busy behind the scenes as a producer and director. McNeill first earned his Star Trek stripes as an actor, with a guest shot on The Next Generation – as Nick Locarno in “The First Duty” – and then a seven-year stint as Tom Paris on Voyager. It was during Voyager that McNeill began to scratch a directing itch. He shot the short films The Battery and 9mm of Love, both of which starred his friend and Voyager colleague Ethan Phillips, and then directed his first Voyager, “Sacred Ground.” He directed three more Voyager episodes during the show’s run and has since directed and/or produced Dawson’s Creek, Enterprise, Supernatural, The Nine, Desperate Housewives, Samantha Who?, V and Chuck. In fact, Chuck is McNeill’s current home base. He’s a producer-director and has called the shots on a dozen-plus episodes of the spy-comedy-romance, including “Chuck vs. the Coup d’Etat,” which will air tonight. StarTrek.com recently pinned down McNeill for an interview, and he eagerly revisited his days aboard Voyager and caught us up on current projects.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind right now about Voyager?
McNeill: One thing that was never crystal clear from our episodes is all the fun we had as a cast between the shots. We really got along as any cast I’ve ever seen. I’m still friends with a lot of the people. All the boys from Voyager, we have a regular steak dinner. We had our most recent one a couple of months ago. We make each other laugh. That’s the biggest thing I remember.
You’d never played one character as long as you played Paris. What was that like, and how satisfied were you with his arc?
McNeill: I was very satisfied. That character started with a real chip on his shoulder and he was the rebel. One thing I remember saying early on was that we’ve got to find the surprises in the character, and I think one of them turned out to be his sense of humor. They really were able to write a nice, lighthearted sensibility to this guy who’d started as such a rebellious character. Also, early on, they had this concept that he was a womanizer and was always falling in love with the alien of the week. I remember having a conversation and saying, “It’d be really nice to see him get into a relationship.” They toyed with that for a while with Kes (Jennifer Lien), and after she left, I think they found the right match with Tom and B’Elanna and with Roxann Dawson and I. We got to explore a real, challenging long-term relationship, which I think was great. So the writers gave the character a wonderful transformation. He really changed and grew over the seven years – and he’s probably a real family guy now.
In your guise as director, you keep connecting with Trek people. John Billingsley was in The Nine. Tim Russ was in your Samantha Who? pilot. You’ve directed Scott Bakula, Tony Todd and Bonita Friedericy and others on Chuck. Would you agree it’s all very Six Degrees of Separation?
McNeill: It’s funny you bring that up because today I’ve had Garrett Wang hang out and observe a little bit, and then Tim Russ walked in with Merri Howard and Brad Yacobian, our Voyager producers. Tim’s working on The Whole Truth with them. A lot of our crew on Chuck worked on Trek, including Dan Curry, who does our visual effects. All these Star Trek memories are coming back. And now, talking to StarTrek.com, it’s a real Star Trek day. I’m doing a convention (Hollywood Xpo, this weekend in California). It never goes away, it seems.
Switching gears, when did you realize directing would be your calling?
McNeill: Honestly, it was before Voyager. I’d done a show called Going to Extremes, which was in 1992. We filmed it in Jamaica. I had a lot of time on my hands, being out of the country, away from home. That’s where I started observing directors. I’d always thought about it, but didn’t know what they did exactly and what the process was. So I used the opportunity to observe and learn. That’s when I knew directing was what I wanted to do. Star Trek was the opportunity. I told Rick Berman, on the first day of the pilot, when we walked away from the stage, that I was happy to be on the show, but that if it ran for even only a few years I wanted to start directing, that that was my long-term ambition.
What do you get from directing that acting wasn’t providing?
McNeill: It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve acted. Right after we finished Voyager, I did Infested. That was a low-budget, independent horror film I acted in. It got a little bit of attention, and it was with Zach Galligan and Amy Jo Johnson. That was a lot of fun. Then I did a Crossing Jordan season premiere, and I just thought, “Oh, here we go again. I’m starting another TV season as an actor. I’ve done that already. I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to focus on directing.” And that was it.
You are a producer-director on Chuck. Beyond the steady work and regular paycheck, what are the benefits of working on one show in that dual capacity rather than as a director-for-hire?
McNeill: The thing I love about television and why I’ve been doing it so long is that I look at a series like it’s one long story. Voyager was seven years of episodes, but really the big story was us getting lost and trying to find our way home, and that’s how we finished it up. Being on Chuck for four years has allowed me to be a part of the whole story. I wasn’t on the pilot, but pretty much since then I’ve been here helping to tell the story, and I hope I’ll be a part of it as long as we go. There’s a real sense of completion that comes with being a producing director. Then, as you said, it’s a regular job. I know where I’m going every day. I don’t need to worry about being in Canada one month and New York the next. My family knows where I’m at. I can stay home. And this show is just a dream. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve wanted to do. Even comedy. As an actor, at least on TV, I didn’t get to do a lot of comedy. I did some on stage. But on Chuck, I get to mix in comedy with the melodrama, the romantic part of the story, the family part of the story. And I get to blow things up in all the spy-action sequences. It’s the perfect mixture for me.
Give us a little feeling for your episode airing tonight…
McNeill: One thing we’ve done this season is we’re stunt casting every episode. (Producers) Chris Fedak and Josh (Schwartz) said “It’s going to be like the Parade of Stars this season,” and somehow we’ve pulled it off. We’ve had really exciting guest stars. We did that a little bit before, but this year has just taken it to a whole new level. My episode, Armand Assante comes back and we go to his country in our story and experience a little of what his life is like there. Of course, we stumble into trouble and have to figure our way out. It’s a lot of fun and actually one of my favorite episodes of Chuck that I’ve directed. I think people will really enjoy it.