There I was, sitting in the Bad Robot offices waiting for my meeting with JJ Abrams. I had been flown down to L.A. earlier that morning and had spent the day meeting with a number of people that were involved in the upcoming Star Trek sequel, but nobody was at liberty to tell me exactly why I was there.
I was waiting to hear that from JJ directly.
A couple weeks earlier I was in Vancouver, Canada when my agent got a call from JJ Abrams’ office saying that they were interested in me playing a role in the new Star Trek movie. Details about the project were being kept very hush-hush, so I had no idea what part they wanted me to play; however, they asked me to send down a bunch of reference photos for them to draw conceptual sketches on top of. I had gotten the call because JJ had seen a movie I had done and that had triggered some sort of inspiration, but at that point I didn’t even know what movie it was that he had seen.
So as I was sitting at Bad Robot; I felt like I was floating in a very cool dream. Then I went into JJ’s office, sat down with him and he filled in all of those blanks for me. He laid out all of the details regarding my section of the story and what my role would be in that segment. He also explained that he had seen a movie that his father, Gerald Abrams, had produced called The Pastor’s Wife (in which I had a small role) at a time when he was trying to figure out a specific problem in Trek 2. He figured I might be part of the solution to that problem. I told him that I would sure like to be.
What soon became clear in that meeting is that it was my unique look that had initially grabbed his attention. The simple fact is that I look a little different than a lot of actors, and that has been something of a double-edged sword in my career. For years I would lose out on certain roles just because I stood out too much, or because I did not fit the typical aesthetic of a certain character archetype. It was something I fought against in the early stage of my career, but eventually grew to appreciate. My appearance not only gave me the opportunity to put a unique physical stamp on a role, but my life experiences also gave me a perspective that was different than a lot of my fellow actors. Once I started to take ownership of that, my career path started to unfold in unexpected and exciting ways.
It was this distinctiveness that would form the basis for JJ’s solution, but it was clear that there would be a lot of work still to do – more questions that would need to be answered. JJ asked me to join the team and I told him I would be honored.
And so it began.
After getting the US/Canadian paperwork sorted out, I started flying down to L.A. for makeup tests and pre-production. What was amazing to me was to see how organically the whole process was evolving – the performance would inspire changes in makeup, which would inspire changes in the costume, which would then shape the performance in new ways. Aside from JJ and myself, there were a few people who were absolutely instrumental to the creation of the Nibirans:
Neville Page, the creature designer, seems to have this ability to effortlessly produce wild, amazing conceptual drawings that would make your jaw drop. Michael Kaplan and his wardrobe team created a stunning array of costumes and designs that were wonderful to play around in. And of course the incredible special effects makeup was the result of a lot of hours of hard work by David Anderson and Jamie Kelman.
I was first introduced to Star Trek as a kid when my dad and I would sit down and watch The Original Series. We didn’t have cable in our house, so I was only able to catch bits and pieces of The Next Generation and, later, Deep Space Nine. When I got older, one of the two channels we got started showing Voyager, and I was excited to be finally getting in on the ground floor with a series. In each of these series, I always preferred the more unique and strange looking characters, such as Neelix on Voyager and Odo on DS9. Still, I was a pretty casual Trekkie.
I have always considered myself a casual fan, but it was in college that I discovered one of my friends was a diehard Star Trek fan, and would come to realize what true fandom was. He had boxes and boxes of Trek literature and would spit fire and brimstone if someone mistakenly referred to him as a Trekkie (“I’m a Trekker, dammit!”).
It made me realize that even though I loved watching certain shows or movies (like Lord of the Rings, The Matrix or the original Star Wars trilogy), my devotion was to the telling of stories in film, TV, and theater. Or even around a campfire. And if nobody was around, I would act out these stories. As a kid I would wander around in the woods behind my house in an old bathrobe pretending to be a Jedi, with an old broken fishing rod that served as my lightsaber. I realized later that this was great imagination training for my future career as an actor; particularly for green-screen situations where you have to respond to something that isn’t really there.
Unfortunately I can’t say too much more about the creation process at this time. Everybody has worked so hard to create this spectacular world and I wouldn’t want to say anything that might ruin that illusion for the audience. However, if you are a film nerd like me and want to know more about this stuff, you will get your chance when the DVD/Blu-ray comes out. We had a camera crew documenting the whole journey of the Nibirans, from early creation stages to filming, and I’ve been told that will be a feature that fans can watch.
As you can imagine there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the making of this movie, and that meant being very, very careful throughout the whole process. This also meant that aside from a few close friends and family members, nobody even knew I was working on the Star Trek movie. Like a lot of people, I was blown away by JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot in 2009, and when I first heard that he was making a sequel, even before I got the call to come down and join the gang, I was very excited. But once I joined the team, there were quite a few instances where I would be talking to a friend who would launch into an excited monologue about how much they loved the first movie and how much they couldn’t wait to see the sequel, and all I could do was stand there and smile.
But I really respected the filmmaker’s decision to keep everything under wraps. It’s obvious from talking to any of them that they are passionate about movies and that they have a tremendous amount of respect for their audience, so preserving those surprises and creating the best movie-going experience was very important to them. Seeing it from this perspective not only made the secrecy easier, it made it more exciting too.
About a month out from the North American premiere I was given the go ahead to let the cat out of the bag, and right away I started to realize just how big a deal this movie was. It may sound strange, but even though I was working on a huge Hollywood movie, the actual experience of filmmaking felt almost small and intimate, particularly since I was fortunate enough to work with such great people. What I mean by that is: once the camera starts rolling, then everything else has a tendency to fade away. And in that burning point of creation, working on a blockbuster is the same as working on an indie short with friends, or working on a great play. People keep asking me if I was intimidated or overwhelmed by the enormity of this film, and I tell them that I didn’t really notice – there was too much to do.
After seeing him in action, if I had to take a guess as to why JJ Abrams is so successful at what he does, I would say that one of the reasons is because he has a remarkable ability to focus on one thing at a time. Each and every day of filming there would be thousands upon thousands of things that required his attention and energy, yet I would watch him move effortlessly from one thing to another, focusing completely on whatever was in front of him. As an actor this meant that when he was talking to you – giving direction, listening to feedback, or working out some sort of creative problem – he was totally focused on that conversation. It was comforting, inspiring and made you want to really bring your A-game. And he seemed to be like this with everyone on set, from props and wardrobe people to the extras. This would create a wonderful working atmosphere and I think audiences can feel that passion and dedication coming through the screen.
Attending the L.A. premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. The afternoon of the screening, a friend of mine and I drove by the Dolby Theater (formerly the Kodak) where the premiere was being held and I saw an entire block of Hollywood Boulevard had been closed off and bleachers being erected. Then I saw the lineup of fans stretching down the block and around the corner. It was at that moment that the realization landed on me like a sack of pianos: “Oh yeah, this movie is kind of a big deal.”
The L.A. premiere was also my first time seeing the full version of the film and I was blown away. Throughout pre-production, I had worked very hard to not learn any more about the story than I needed in order to do my job effectively. There were a few times when I was invited to set to watch some other scenes being filmed and I would politely decline because I wanted to be surprised when I saw the movie. As I mentioned, I believe wholeheartedly in preserving the movie-watching experience for the fans, so I did what I could to preserve the experience for the fan in me.
At this point, I’m not sure what impact appearing in Star Trek Into Darkness will have on my career and my life. Any actor knows how frustrating it can be, especially in the early stages of their careers, to knock on all sorts of doors that remain closed. Star Trek was like a C4 charge going off, and now that the smoke is starting to clear I can see what doors have been blown wide open. I recognize that my contributions on films are modest, but I’m proud of the work I’ve done and I’m thrilled that people all over the world are seeing it. It’s already connected me to people that I would never have had the opportunity to connect with before and I am very excited about what the future holds.
Now that JJ Abrams is taking the helm of Star Wars I find myself once again excited as a fan at the prospect of seeing what he does with that series. But this time around I know what a pleasure it is to work with him and his team, and that he not only knows what I can do, but where to find me if needed. So I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my fingers (and perhaps a couple toes) crossed that there might be a role in Star Wars that he’ll call me to help out with.
Maybe I should tell him about the young bathrobe-and-fishing-rod Jedi…