Yesterday, in part one of our interview with Jeffrey Combs, the veteran character actor and Star Trek favorite talked in detail about how he first connected with Trek and then looked back at his gallery of characters, which includes Tiron, Brunt, Weyoun, Penk and Shran. Today, in the second half of our exclusive conversation, Combs chats more about Trek and discusses his current projects, including Transformers: Prime, as well as his full slate at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention, to be held next month in Las Vegas.
You talked yesterday about the many characters you played on the various Star Trek shows and you mentioned your debt of gratitude to Jonathan Frakes for first hiring you, Rene Auberjonois for suggesting to the producers that you play another role as well, and to Ira Steven Behr for bringing you back repeatedly on DS9. But those three men weren’t involved with Enterprise. So who from that show gets the credit for bringing you in as Penk on Voyager and Shran on Enterprise?
Combs: I would say that it was Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. I don’t know too much about how it came down with Voyager. They just called and offered me that role. I didn’t audition for it. Nor did I audition for Shran. They just called and asked me about that. If I remember, I was interested in auditioning for the Enterprise pilot, but I guess they just didn’t see me for any of those roles. So I was kind of surprised when they just called and offered me Shran. At first, actually, they just offered me a guest star (role). I said I needed to know a little more information than that. So they said, “Well, it’s an Andorian.” And that piqued my interest because I’m a fan of the original series. I certainly knew who the Andorians were and I knew that they’d not been explored all that much. So there was real territory to track them. Then, the key question, of course, was “Does he die at the end of the episode?” They said, “No, he doesn’t.” Lightning doesn’t strike twice. I didn’t think they’d do with Shran what they did with Weyoun. But they said he didn’t die and I said, “Great, I’ll do it.” And I’m so glad I did.
Now, the story goes that (Enterprise producer) Manny Coto planned to make you a series regular, as Shran, if Enterprise got renewed for a fifth season. Had that been conveyed to you at the time, or is that story a post-Enterprise revelation?
Combs: It’s a post-Enterprise revelation. I suspect that came out of some interview with Manny. I deeply appreciate it. At the same time it sort of hurts. “Ah, man, the one that got away! Dang it! Coulda, shoulda, woulda.” But I take it as the huge compliment that it is. I was quite involved in that fourth season and so it sounds like it would have been a natural progression, and it would have been a cool one, to have a new alien on the bridge adding another dynamic. That would have been really, really interesting.
If we said to you that you could play one of your Trek characters one more time, which character would you choose and why?
Combs: Ooh, that’s a good one. I would say Shran, just because I like his attitude and his complexity. And there was still some stuff to explore about him. I think I’d like that.
You’ll be performing your acclaimed one-man show Nevermore at the Official Star Trek Convention in Vegas. How did the show originally come about?
Combs: It started, I’d say, five years ago, when I read a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, and I was just struck by why no one had ever really told this man’s story. To me, he’s America’s Van Gogh, just a compelling, tragic figure. I mentioned it to Stuart Gordon, a director I’ve worked with many times, and about two and a half years later he came to me with a script for an episode of Masters of Horror, on Showtime. It ran for two years and was a series where a director could pick his project and, without too much interference, bring it to complete, whole fruition, which we need more of. That was Poe’s story “The Black Cat,” with Poe being the main character. It was a brilliant idea because that way you could tell Poe’s story and weave into it biographical details from his life.
And while we were shooting that, Stuart said, “My God, you should do a one-man show as Poe!” I went, “Are you out of your mind? That’s not something I’m going to do. No, that’s OK.” Well, a couple of years went by and the seed had been planted, so I called him up and said, “How would that work?” So we sat down and we came up with a format and a flow to the evening and I started memorizing a lot of material. I do Poe. I read poems, I read a story, as well as talk about “my” childhood and my marriage and other literary figures of the day. We create a recital setting, as if the audience has come to one of his recitals. Having said all that, we also were able to incorporate some of Poe’s self-destructiveness into this piece. So it’s not just a traditional, formal evening. We sort of break the mode and make it so that you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
How excited are you to perform Nevermore for the fans in Vegas?
Combs: Oh, I’m very excited. I’ve performed this show about 50 times now, and we’ve honed it and honed it. It was supposed to be a four-week run and that turned into six months. So I toured it around last year and what you’ll see in Vegas will essentially be the same show I had on the road, although I think that the venue (an oversized space at the Rio) is going to dictate some differences. That’s a huge space. There will be a camera following me around, so that they can project it. That’s different. And I will be miked because the space is so big. So these technical necessities may change the show a little bit, but I hope to bring the same intimacy and power that I do to a more intimate show. I’m really, really looking forward to it, and I’m grateful to Adam Malin at Creation for being my advocate and pushing the show. I’ll also be at the convention, appearing on stage (for a Q&A session with fans) and doing a concert with the Rat Pack. So I’m very excited about the whole weekend. I’m even going in early to see a show. I’ll be seeing Beatles Love with my family. But I love the Vegas convention. Every year it never ceases to amaze me how massive and enthusiastic the crowds are. It is such a testament to Star Trek and its staying power that every year this convention just continues to blossom and provide the opportunity to interact with the fans. It’s also a homecoming for me. That’s where I see all my friends. Even though a lot of us live in Los Angeles, it’s not easy to get together. So, bless Creation, the show gives us the opportunity to give each other a hug and see how each other is doing. It’s really a warm gathering, and I look forward to it.
You’ve been working a long time and different people probably know you for different roles. When you walk down the street and people recognize you, what are the credits and/or roles that they’re most excited to talk about with you?
Combs: I just got back from Hawaii. My family and I rented a car. I noticed one day that the bumper had a scratch on it. We didn’t do it, and I thought for sure when we turned the thing in that they’d give us a hard time. I pulled in and this guy immediately looks down at the scratch, and I thought, “All right, here we go.” He comes up and he goes, “OK, blah, blah, blah,” and he doesn’t say a word about the scratch. At the end of the transaction, he goes, “Oh, by the way, I loved you in The Frighteners,” which is a movie I did that was directed by Peter Jackson and starred Michael J. Fox. I turned around and went, “Wow, great. Thanks.” And maybe he cut me a break. Rarely does that happen. Most of the time I walk down the street and no one says anything. Most people won’t recognize me for my Star Trek stuff because I was so deeply in makeup. If people recognize me, it’s for my roles out of makeup, like The Frighteners or Re-Animator or The 4400. If people pick up on my voice, they’ll actually sometimes mention Star Trek, but they’ll also talk about my voiceover work for animated shows, like Justice League Unlimited. People seem real enthusiastic about my portrayal of the Question for that.
What do you have coming up?
Combs: I just started working on a new movie Would You Rather. It’s basically the game Would You Rather. Would you rather kiss that person or this person? Although this one has very grisly and intense consequences for the game. It’s got a very good script, this movie. It’s with Brittany Snow. I’m also looking for forward to a movie I did a couple of years ago coming out, something called Motivational Growth. It’s a really interesting movie. It’s about a young man, a loser who hasn’t left his apartment in about a year and a half. His only companion is his 1960’s console television. One day, the television dies and the man has nothing to live for. So he tries to kill himself. He falls and hits his head, and when he wakes up, a growth of mold in the corner begins talking to him and giving him advice, and tries to tell him how to become a man. And I’m proud to say that I’m the voice of the Mold. New heights in my career! I’m playing bacteria now. But it’s a very imaginative and sardonic script and I’m happy to say there’s no CGI. It’s all practical effects. They created this (mold) puppet with a big mouth that moves and articulates with my words. It’s just amazing. I really have high hopes for that film. And I am so happy to be a part of Transformers: Prime. I’m a series regular on that show, voicing Ratchet, who is like Scotty and Bones wrapped into one. They’re in the middle of broadcasting the first season and we’re in the middle of recording our second season. The animation is spectacular, and I stand next to icons in the voiceover world. Peter Cullen stands right next to me. He’s the voice of Optimus Prime. And there he is.