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Star Trek Legend Jonathan Frakes on Discovery, ‘Movie Jail,’ and Life As an Actor’s Director

Photo: Michael Buckner/Shutterstock

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jonathan Frakes always found himself in some extraordinary crisis: imprisoned in an alien mental hospital or duplicated in a malfunctioning transporter, kidnapped by mercenaries or violated by a telepathic being. When I called Frakes one morning recently, he was navigating a crisis of a more benign kind: stranded on the side of the road, waiting for AAA to replace a flat tire. This seemed appropriate to the difference between Star Trek’s Commander William Riker and the man who played him for seven years on TV. The former was a raffish, dashing interstellar ladies’ man, the charismatic deep-space first mate who even made a spectacle of sitting down in a chair. Whereas the latter is a warm actor turned director settling in to his mid-60s, generous and candid about the highs and lows of his career.

It will have been 25 years this May since The Next Generation went off the air, but Frakes has remained a stalwart fixture of the Star Trek universe. Midway through his tenure on the series, he tried his hand at directing, and that change in roles heralded a second career behind the camera: Frakes would go on to direct eight episodes of The Next Generation, as well as three each of Voyager and Deep Space Nine, and two of the four major Next Generation films, First Contact and Insecurrection. Lately, he’s also been helming episodes of both Seth MacFarlane’s Trek parody The Orville and the new Trek series Discovery, including a new episode of the latter airing Thursday night. (He expects he’ll work on the upcoming Picard series and Michelle Yeoh spinoff, too.) As Frakes willingly admits, Star Trek has “been very, very good to me.”

You were a working actor for a decade when you landed The Next Generation in 1987. How did that lead to an interest in directing?
I realized there’s a lot of sitting around. I’m a little more active than that. It became clear that the best job on the set — the one that would participate in every shot — was the director. I had done a little directing theater in college, so it seemed like a logical progression. I have to say, next to marrying Genie [Francis], it was the best decision I ever made.

To decide to direct?
To learn another craft. I had 300 hours in the editing room with editors who were kind enough to share the importance of their job. I learned a lot about lenses and that sort of stuff from the DP. And then Rick Berman, who ran Star Trek, was generous enough to invite me into post-production. My secret passion was to be a musician, so we would go to the scoring sessions. I would get involved in pre-production. I was at casting sessions, and the concept meetings, and production design. I was so overprepared by the time they finally relented and gave me an episode to do.

What kind of director were you initially?
I’m considered, I think, an actor’s director, because I speak actor. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who are all about designing shots. They’re either intimidated by actors, not interested in actors, or scared of actors. But actors, we’re a very needy, creative breed. We like to be watched, and cared for, and appreciated. Some directors behave as if actors are sort of a necessary evil.

What was it like working with actors who were also your co-stars?
We were, as a cast, like herding cats. We were dreadful. We were rambunctious. We would sing and dance and fuck around right up until a director called action. We drove some directors mad.

Why do you suppose that was?
As I saw it, the reason for that was Patrick [Stewart]. He set such a high bar for preparation. We all came to work in the morning completely prepared. We knew our lines and had broken down the script. Some shows I’ve been on, actors show up who haven’t even read the script, or haven’t bothered to learn their lines. But that didn’t fly on our show. So the freedom that that allowed us between takes was crazy-making for some other directors. It drove them nuts.

You were that crazy?
Really, we were wild. Especially on the bridge when we were all together. And so they were hysterical to direct, and they took the piss out of me. But ultimately, they were incredibly supportive and appreciative and encouraging. I could appreciate how hard we were on directors when I started to direct.

You were given some great scripts to direct on TNG. You directed my favorite episode, “Cause and Effect.” 
When Brannon Braga handed me the script for “Cause and Effect,” I thought it was a joke. I thought he was fucking with me. Every act’s the same! It was a directing exercise, “Cause and Effect.” That was a great script. “Offspring” was a great script. “The Drumhead” was a great script.

Toward the end of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine starts. You directed a few episodes. How did you transition to that show?
Rick was the keeper of the flame of all things Star Trek. He and I had become not only collaborators but friends. I brought the shows in on time and on budget and we had a very productive working relationship. I was happy to do as many as he would give me, frankly. So I was in the rotation. And then the objective became: How do I get out of Star Trek and expand my résumé to include other shows?

So, how did you do that? What was the first step?
I was working as an actor on a show in Vancouver called Brothers of the Frontier. It was part of my contract that if I signed on to that show as an actor, the producer would give me an episode of one of his other shows, which was called University Hospital.

Why were you so eager to get away from Trek?
It’s such nepotism to do only Star Trek. I didn’t want to be that guy. But you get pigeonholed as an actor, and you get pigeonholed as a director. I feel blessed to have learned that not only am I a better director than I am an actor, but I wouldn’t want to be trying to put my kids through college now as just the Star Trek guy. Sometimes you don’t get the job because you’re the Star Trek guy.

So you became a director in order to escape from Star Trek.
I was trying to expand what I was doing. [TNG co-star] Marina Sirtis and I always say, we’d still be doing the show if they would have us. It was very clear that that was the best job ever.

But around this time, you’re asked to direct two Star Trek films: First Contact and Insurrection.
I did First Contact, and then I got a little bump from Paramount to make my own production company and we sold a series called Roswell. I was meant to produce and direct the pilot of Roswell, but at that time Insurrection came around, and Fox thought it might be a little ambitious to direct a feature film and direct the pilot of a television series. But that was a great period in there.

How did shooting First Contact differ from shooting the series?
The only real difference was that you had more time and more money. For example, in First Contact we built a city in the forest that gets bombed. I don’t remember who attacked us. The Borg? Do you remember this? They blew up the city. During prep for the movie, I ask the special effects guy, Terry Frazee, “What are we gonna do, blow up the garden? Plant some M-80s in the ground and some plants and trees will fly?” And he said, “Frakes, we’re blowing up the town.” They built a town and they blew the whole fucking town up. That was when I realized I was on a movie and not on TV.

I believe you also developed a nickname.
Two Takes Frakes is what they call me.

Because you’re so efficient?
That’s what it’s become. But ironically, I’m Two Takes Frakes because I didn’t know, when I did the first movie, that you need to print two takes. If take one was great, I was ready to move on to coverage. My line producer told me, “You gotta print two takes.” But now I also have a reputation for shooting efficiently, so it’s carried over. It’s a great moniker, isn’t it?

So you had Roswell, you did the feature films. At the same time you were also the host of Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction.
Oh, I wish that was still on. What a great gig that was.

You were wonderful on that show.
Those puns at the end Beyond Belief, I’m sure you remember. They were really corny. All of my deliveries of those corny puns, and the level of faux-seriousness with the dramatic lighting and walking across the office wearing my suit, all that shit that went with the acting job. Ironically, I just did a little guest spot on a Netflix show called Don’t Try This at Home, a German show. The reason I was hired was to play myself as the host of Beyond Belief. They loved Beyond Belief, isn’t that weird? It’s huge in Germany! When I go to the big sci-fi convention over there, next to Star Trek it’s the number one thing they bring up.

After Insurrection, you didn’t return to direct Nemesis. Why?
I would have loved to have done Nemesis, but it seemed like, “Really? That’s all you’re going to do, is Star Trek movies?” It’s glib to say now. I wish I had done Nemesis.

But instead you directed a family movie called Clockstoppers.
Clockstoppers was a success. It was clearly a great idea, and I was surprised that it hadn’t been done. That script had been at Paramount a long time, and because of the success of First Contact and Insurrection, Paramount blew the dust off and got a rewrite and we did it at a nice price.

After that, you directed an adaptation of Thunderbirds.
Thunderbirds put me in movie jail.

Because it wasn’t a success?
The movie was a success. I thought it was wonderful.

So what happened?
The first three movies I had done had made money. Then I had an agent who was pushing me for jobs. So I met on Thunderbirds and they said, “You have to move to London.” I talked to my wife Genie. We had two babies. But she said she would quit her job and move to London with me, so I took the job and we moved to London. It was an incredible place to live. I was working at Pinewood Studios. It was like a dream. I was living a fucking dream. It was a huge movie. Sir Ben Kingsley was in the movie. Bill Paxton was in the movie. Did you ever see Thunderbirds? The studio liked what they saw so much that they changed the release date. It was supposed to come out in March, but Universal said, “This is fucking great, let’s move it into the summer.” So it opened opposite Shrek and Spider-Man.

Oh no.
And it was reviewed badly.

Why do you think it was panned?
Frankly, the lead, Brady Corbet — who just directed his own movie, Vox Lux — he didn’t want to be a superhero. That was really the bottom line. He was charming and he was wonderful, but he was in the wrong movie, and that was my fault. The movie was not ready to compete with Spider-Man and Shrek. It was cursed.

What was the fallout to that?
I had the experience that everyone hopes never to have, which is that your movie opens and bombs. We were living in London on the dole from Universal. My kids were in two different schools. Our house in L.A. was rented. So we moved back to this camp we had in Maine. I licked my wounds and Genie opened a store. I had to regroup a little bit.

What exactly does “movie jail” mean?
It’s exactly what it implies. No one will return your calls. On television, you can take a shit and nobody notices who directed it. But in movies, because historically the Orson Welleses and the Spielbergs and Capras made the movies, that reputation, that mantel, is part of the deal. With that comes the responsibility and privilege of success. Joy goes with that. And therefore, failure. When a movie fails as significantly as Thunderbirds did, my name was taken off the lists. Literally. I went from 60 to zero. It was a wake-up for me. I had been so positive, and so blessed, and so fortunate.

A few years later, you bounced back into directing TV. Burn Notice, NCIS. Were you feeling okay about it?
At that point, I couldn’t have been happier. One year, I did 11 shows. You try to settle in around eight.

But not anymore? What changed?
It’s not a good time to be an old white guy, is the reality. Now we’re in a situation again where I’m lucky to have the shows I have, and blessed to be on them and do a good job on them. But I can’t count on an NCIS or two the way I used to. That used to be my bread and butter. You can look at people’s resumes on IMDb, as you do. If you see one episode of a show, it didn’t go so well. If you see four or five, you know he found a home there. I’m very proud of my résumé.

And now you’re back to Trek, not only with Discovery, but Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek parody, The Orville.
It’s come full circle. I started on Star Trek, and now I’m primarily employed making Star Trek shows. It’s been very, very good to me.

What ambitions do you still have for your career?
I’ve got some scripts. One of them is a magical realism film about jazz. I’d like to do a musical. I’m dying to do Killing Eve. I still hold out hope. I’d be great at that. I’d be great at directing single-camera character comedies like Modern Family. I love Happy Valley. I love Black Mirror. True Detective. Those shows fascinate me. They’re hard to get on, you know.