Lt. Commander Shelby – in “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and II” -- was brilliant, had a great vision for contending with the Borg and made no bones about her feelings for Riker. She considered him weak and sought to replace him as first officer. Elizabeth Dennehy played Shelby so powerfully that fans rooted for her to join the TNG cast or return as Shelby in a subsequent Trek series. It never happened, but 22 years later, Dennehy’s performance remains as riveting as ever and the actress – yes, she’s the daughter of Brian Dennehy – is still a favorite of Trek fans worldwide. Dennehy will be on hand next month at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention, and StarTrek.com recently had the opportunity to catch up with Dennehy for an easygoing, informative interview. Here’s what she had to say about her TNG experience and her life today as a mom and actress.
If we’re not mistaken, TNG was only your second or third job in Hollywood. How did you land the role?
Dennehy: I was 28 and I’d moved to Hollywood and I had an audition for Star Trek. I was like, “Ugh, God, science-fiction.” I was very haughty… not disdainful, but I was a classically trained Shakespearean actress. But then, look at Patrick Stewart. I went in and it was a lot of dialogue, and I was ultimately just so pleased to be chosen. The room was filled with lots of people that I recognized, so it was a great vote of confidence to get a job so soon after coming to L.A. It made me feel like, “OK, I belong here.” It was a real thrill to be on the set. I called my grandmother from a payphone at the studio and said, “I’m calling you from the Paramount lot.” Just to be able to do that, it was a real thrill. When I saw what I had to wear… less thrilling. Nobody wants to walk around in a skin-tight Spandex jumpsuit.
Did you know thing one about Star Trek when you got the job?
Dennehy: No, and I hesitate to even tell people that. I’d never watched The Original Series. I’d never watched The Next Generation. I don’t know why, but I’d just never gotten into sci-fi and fantasy shows. So I had no idea who Riker was. I didn’t know any of the characters. I was completely ignorant. I showed up on the set and met Jonathan Frakes, and he knew my dad. So he and I got on really, really well, and instantly had a lot to talk about. He said, “You have no idea what’s going to happen with this.” He started to explain to me about the conventions and the fans, what being on that show did to your world. I said, “No way, no one’s going to care about me. I’m only doing two episodes.” Man, he knew what he was talking about.
What did you see in Shelby as a character?
Dennehy: I liked that she didn’t let the protocol get in the way of doing the job. She didn’t care about diplomacy. She saw what she had to do and wasn’t going to let anyone stop her from solving the problem that she was brought on board to solve. Some people come up to me at conventions and say, “Oh, you were such a bitch.” I couldn’t play her like that. I had to see her side, and her side was, “You have a problem and I’m here to solve it.” And… she was right. So I always look at Shelby as the kid in school who got straight A’s, had her arm in the air and was saying, “Pick me, pick me!” She knew all the answers and didn’t care if people resented her for it.
That two-parter ranks way up there in the minds of the fans. How much could you tell at the time that you were making something good, maybe even special? Or were you so new to the business you couldn’t know?
Dennehy: Michael Dorn came over my house and we watched the first part. He gave me some perspective because, like I said, I’d never watched TOS or TNG. It was the first time they’d ever done a cliffhanger. It was the first time that Riker’s authority was ever questioned. So I knew when we were filming the show that it would cause waves because of those things. Jonathan and everyone told me it would really rock people’s worlds. I just had to take their word for it because I really didn’t know what that world meant. Then, I remember, when I was watching it with Michael, thinking, “Oh my God, this is like a movie.” I was blown away by the special effects, by the suspense. When they’re shooting and the camera is moving around you, you have no idea that what they’re doing is setting up that shot at the very end where we’re all in profile. It’s the Mount Rushmore shot. That was so cool when you see it, but we had no idea how cool it’d look when we were shooting it.
The character was so memorable that people wanted to see more of her. Had the producers ever hinted to you that you might return to play Shelby again?
Dennehy: All I was ever told was that it was these two episodes. I would have loved to have returned to TNG. I would have loved to have gone on to one of the other shows. Like I said, I was really, really green, and the people they hired for the subsequent shows, like Kate Mulgrew, were really, really seasoned. I would have loved to have returned. And I tell aspiring actors all the time, get on something sci-fi because the work is interesting and the conventions are really fun.
A lot of fans loved that Shelby was included in the New Frontier series of novels, in which she's fully developed, made more likable, married and an admiral. Have you read any of the books? If so or even if not, how pleased are you that the character lives on?
Dennehy: I am pleased that she lives on in the books. I have not read them, but I think they should be made into films... immediately!
So far in your career, what has been your favorite experience?
Dennehy: My absolute favorite job I ever did was The Lazarus Man. I never wanted it to end. I did the pilot with Robert Urich in 1995. I’d never done a western before and I had a great part with a lot to do. I drove a horse and buggy. I actually shot a gun. I punched a man. It was so much fun doing things I’d never done before, and those are the jobs you just dream of, where you’re pinching yourself every day and saying “I can’t believe I get to do this.” That was number one at the top of my list. (Urich) was a delight to work with. The director was a delight. We had so much fun. I was living in Santa Fe for three weeks. I thought, “I’m going to wake up and it’s all going to have been a dream.”
I also love doing theater, and I’ve had some wonderful experiences. Another job that sticks out is a production I did of A Streetcar Named Desire down at South Coast Rep. That was around 1995, which was a really good year for me. That was a dream job; perfect role, perfect cast, loved every minute of it. So, those two leap to mind instantly.
What are you working on these days?
Dennehy: I was just on the show Rizzoli & Isles, which was fun. I’m not working quite as much as I’d like to be, but it’s hard for women in Hollywood if you’re in your fifth decade. But I have two boys, super-talented boys who are keeping me very, very busy. My oldest boy is, right now, in a production of Macbeth with Armin Shimerman and Kitty Swink. Isn’t that hilarious? They run a theater company called Antaeus in North Hollywood, and my son is 15 and a theater student at a performing arts high school. He’s having the time of his life. It’s very new to him, the business. I just couldn’t be happier or more proud. My other son is 13 and a great student and a very talented musician. They both do this Hollywood School of Rock, where they put on these amazing rock concerts. I’m bursting with pride for both of them. So it’s weird. I wish I worked more, but I’m glad I’m around so much to watch their lives.
And, bringing it back to Trek one more time, how eager are you to get out to Las Vegas next month for Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention?
Dennehy: I love Vegas. I take my kids. People are so, so sweet. It’s hotter than hell, but as long as you stay in the air conditioning and go in the pool, it’s OK. It’s all good. I don’t see anything negative about any of this. It’s just delightful. I get to hang out with so many of my friends. I’ll see Armin and Kitty there. The last time I went Jonathan and Michael were on stage doing something together, and I went out with a microphone and surprised them. I hadn’t seen Jonathan in years and years and years. So it’s a really, really nice experience.
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