Yesterday, in part one of our interview with Stephen Collins, the actor discussed his disappointment with his performance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Here, in the second half of our conversation, he recounts moments from the production and catches us up on his current projects.
What was the best note that Robert Wise gave you on the set of The Motion Picture?
Collins: That’s tough. I remember a lot of things about Bob, but I’m not sure I can remember a specific thing he told me. The thing that I remember, that jumps to mind, even if it doesn’t answer your question, is that Bob was an editor before he was a director. He’d edited Citizen Kane. He shot like an editor. He would literally cut an actor off in the middle of a close-up, while you were speaking, and he’d say, “I’ll never use that. I’ll never use that.” It kind of drove me crazy. I’d think, “How do you know you’ll never use it? If you see it, you might change your mind.” But he’d say, “No, no, I’ll never use that.” So if a scene was a page and a half long he might shoot 3/8 of a page in a close-up because he thought he’d never been on you at that point or on Chekov or whoever it was. To me, that seemed crazy because why not let the camera run for another 20 seconds and you’d have more options. You might find, when you get in the cutting room, that it works in a way that you hadn’t preconceived. But that was how he worked and he was an extremely successful director. It was interesting to me to see that someone could work that way. And he was always an extraordinary gentleman on the set. He was under a tremendous amount of pressure on that set and he was always a quintessential gentleman.
The film opened on December 7, 1979. But what do you remember about the premiere, which took place shortly before that?
Collins: It was at the Smithsonian, which was exciting. I’d never been there before, so just walking through and seeing the space capsule and Lindbergh’s plane, it was fantastic. Most important, I hadn’t seen the movie. Almost no one had seen it. Jeff Katzenberg had called me about two weeks before and said, “Don’t take another job until this comes out. You’re going to be the biggest thing in Hollywood.” I really appreciated that and I wish he’d been right. But because the movie didn’t impress the critics much, because it underperformed and because, frankly, as I said, I didn’t think I was very good, that didn’t happen. Jeff, I think, had an understandable case of myopia. But no one had seen the movie. Star Trek aficionados know that Kirk’s trip back to the Enterprise at the beginning goes on forever. Let’s say it’s eight or nine minutes. If it had been merely five minutes or four minutes I think the movie probably would’ve grossed 50 percent more than it did. The movie was rolling right along and the audience was having a grand time, and it just stopped cold. The problem was that the sequence wasn’t finished until three days before the movie opened. They didn’t have time to cut it into the movie and preview it. Anyone would’ve said, “Oh, that sequence goes on forever.” They didn’t have time. I think because that sequence had cost so much money and taken so much time to get done that they all wanted to believe that it was magic. It was kind of magic, particularly if you’re high. It’s beautiful. It just goes on too long. It’s part of the lore, that they didn’t have time to do what you’d like to do, which is cut it into the film, do a couple of preview screenings and learn that they needed to cut that sequence by a third.
Anyway, back to the premiere, it was a heady thing. I’d never been to that kind of big opening. Bob had us up to his suite at the hotel and there was a lot of champagne flowing, and that was very exciting. I remember, of course, the credits rolling after the screening and it was very exciting to see my name up there bigger than life and to have seen myself up there bigger than life. But, like I keep saying, I also remember thinking, “Ugh, I’m not very good in this movie.” That was my experience, but I survived it.
You’ve talked about The Motion Picture on and off for 31 years. What’s something no one’s asked you or that nobody knows?
Collins: I think one of the things that I’ve never talked about much, because nobody would know to ask about it, was that we had a Star Trek softball team. It lasted at least two years after we finished shooting the movie. It was a wonderful, wonderful team. Walter Koenig was the captain/manager of the teams. I loved playing on that team. There were a bunch of guys from the crew and a few of the actors and some of our bridge extras. It was some kind of show business league. There are always these kinds of teams. I know that there’s a No Ordinary Family softball team, but I don’t play on it. But this Star Trek team kept going long, long after the movie was done, which is unusual. I played left field. Walter was on the team. Ralph Byers, one of the guys on the bridge, was with us. I have a photo, which I’ll send you (check it out among the photos of Collins). Jon Povill, our (associate) producer, was on the team. In the early going, Bill Shatner played. I’m looking at the picture now. Bill is there. Walter is there. Nichelle (Nichols) is there, in front. Jim Doohan is there. And Persis, too. Pretty much everyone else was with the crew. It’s a very cool picture. I think someone just snapped it and I’m not sure if anyone’s ever seen it before, so you have kind of an exclusive.
Let’s talk about what’s going on for you now. What was it about No Ordinary Family that you liked enough to sign on for another weekly series?
Collins: I just liked the pilot script. I’d always been a fan of (writer-producer) Greg Berlanti, from when Seventh Heaven was in its early years and Everwood came on the air. I admired it and thought it was a really well-written show. You make mental notes of people like that. There wasn’t much of a role in the pilot for me, but Greg called and said, “If this show goes to series this part will really become fun, and I hope you’ll do it.” That was enough for me to take a flier and he’s been good to his word.
What’s been the meat on the bone so far as Dr. King?
Collins: People love to call characters good guys and bad guys or good and evil, and Dr. King certainly seems to fall into the dark category. And that’s fun. I keep hoping that I can play a little bit with the audience’s expectations, the same way that a character like Dr. King plays with the people in their life. They don’t do it on purpose, necessarily. It’s important for Dr. King to seem as trustworthy as possible. It’s different if you’re talking about something like the Joker in Batman, but in real life I think most characters that are seen by the audience as evil actually come off as kind, good people when they need to. It’s just fun to play that. It’s an interesting challenge as an actor not to twirl my mustache. Other than that, I’m always looking for a group of good people to work with, and this is a bunch of people who are smart and trying to put something genuinely entertaining out there.
What’s coming up on the show?
Collins: I have to be really careful talking about these things, but let me see if I can tell you something concise while dancing around the question. Dr. King has told this character we call The Watcher, who’s known as Will and is his henchman, that he wants him to get more information on Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz) because he knows something is up with her, but he doesn’t know what. Unbeknownst to Dr. King, Will has started dating Stephanie’s assistant, Katie (Autumn Reeser). All of that would be OK with Dr. King, except of course the wild card is that Will/The Watcher seems to get genuinely interested in her. So there’s a question of control. The Watcher has always been like a surrogate son to Dr. King and he’s certainly always done everything and anything that’s been asked of him, without questioning it. So there’s a little bit of, shall we say, delayed adolescent separation going on here, because The Watcher is kind of wanting to have things his own way now, and that’s not OK with Dr. King.
You’ve written a book. You’re in a band, Stephen Collins and the 7th Band. You just popped up on Brothers & Sisters for an episode. What else do you have going on in terms of writing, music or acting?
Collins: There are a couple of movie things in the offing, but I don’t like to talk about these things because they come and go so quickly. But there are a couple of things that would be exciting and they’d both be projects done by friends. So I hope they get off the ground. I very much want to write another book and I’ve started a couple, but for one reason or another I haven’t be able to plow through to the end. I want to see if I can do that again before I’m in a home. And my band plays occasionally. We usually only play a couple of times a year because the other guys are so busy and it’s just hard to get us all together. I love playing with those guys and every time I do it I think, “Oh, this could be the last time.” But I love it and certainly figure we’ll do it some more.
To read part one of this interview, click here.