If you thought Jonathan Frakes left the small screen behind after Commander William Riker and his Star Trek: The Next Generation crew mates warped away from series television 20 years ago for a string of films, you haven’t been reading the credits on some of TV’s top series.
After cutting his teeth as a director on some of TNG most well-received episodes and two successful films, Frakes has been helming episodes of several of-the-moment series, including Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., NCIS: Los Angeles, Castle, Burn Notice, The Glades and Leverage. Just this week, Frakes made waves among fans after he expressed interest in directing the currently director-less Star Trek 3 — while admitting he’s a “long shot” for the gig.
On his way to gather with his still-close pals from TNG for Creation’s Star Trek Conventions in San Francisco and Seattle this weekend, Frakes jumped on the phone with Spinoff Online and took some time to reflect on the two decades that have passed since TNG’s final episode.
Spinoff Online: So here we are, 20 years after The Next Generation went off of the air! How do you feel about Star Trek these days?
Jonathan Frakes: Crazy about it! The gift that keeps on giving. I’m every day blessed that this is the show that I ended up on. Of all the pilots that I auditioned for in my misspent youth, I’m thrilled that this is how it shook down.
At this point, what’s that particular gift that you’re getting from Star Trek right now?
Well, today, I’m on my way to a two day convention: one in San Francisco, one in Seattle, so I spend the day with my dear friends, with Marina [Sirtis] and Brent [Spiner] and [Michael] Dorn and [John] de Lancie and Denise [Crosby]. We’ll do a show both nights, a reunion show. Yesterday, I did a YouTube television series spoof where I played myself in a courtroom drama that was hysterically funny and lots of fun to do for these young people, who are now Trekkers as well. I’m still in it, you know?
You’ve certainly logged your fair share of conventions. What do you still enjoy about your experiences there?
The best part is what I just mentioned: the camaraderie with my Star Trek family. And then there’s the satisfaction of seeing hundreds or thousands of people who have gone out of their way and spent their hard-earned money to come and visit someone from a show that they were influenced by or cared about. And it’s not to be scoffed at. It’s a very important show to a lot of people, and I respect that. I’m proud to be part of it.
Last week I talked to John de Lancie about his memories of shooting the series finale. I know it was very different for you regular castmembers to be closing out the show, but almost immediately then moving into making the movies. What are your strong memories of that final episode?
Well, I thought it was the last scene we were shooting video of a poker game. And we all got very emotional, and we were – a lot of tears. But then, John and Patrick reminded me that they went on and did a scene together that was really the last scene of the series. So my memory of the last day is we were all together, playing poker. We had invited Picard to the game, and it was sad because – it was certainly sad because we had a 150 people on our crew who we’d been with for seven years. But there was not much sadness in terms of not being together as friends because we were just about to start Generations. So it’s a very – I mean, you can’t find a kinder, gentler way for a series to end then with a four-movie deal afterwards.
So much of your career since the show ended has been on the other side of the camera. What has it been like to have that be the prime driver of your career and not have to focus on the frustrations of an actor? Although I’m sure directing comes with its own challenges…
Well, I’m very lucky that I learned to direct. because I’ve been [working] wall-to-wall ever since, and I’ve been lucky to be on the shows. I love this new series The Librarians that I’m doing, so that’s just about to explode. I just did a great new series called Hindsight which I shot in Atlanta, written by Emily Fox and starring Laura Ramsey and Sarah Goldberg. It’s a dramedy, sort of like Girls meets Friends, but it’s a period piece that takes place in the ’90s, so I guess we have to wrap our heads around the idea of the 9’0s are now a “period!” I just finished Falling Skies — the last season of Falling Skies — which is a totally different style. But I’m really blessed in terms of what I get to do.
Will you be doing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. again, or any of the Marvel TV shows?
I’m hoping and waiting on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because they haven’t staffed up for all of the season yet. They booked the first nine, and I was kind of flat out in terms of my schedule. I start another show called Switched at Birth, and I go back to Hit the Floor, so I’m hoping I will stop at them.
As busy as that job keeps you, do you still want to take on the occasional acting gig, beyond cameos and sly references to Star Trek?
I found myself having to cast myself. I’m glad I’m not trying to put my kids through school as an actor. I mean, Patrick’s done great, and obviously, Shatner’s fine. But it hasn’t been so easy to get other jobs as an actor, if you were wearing the Star Trek suit.
Did you know that going in? Did you have a sense, knowing the post-Trek career paths of the actors on the original series?
Well, I didn’t know we were going to be as successful as we were! I do remember Leonard Nimoy saying, “It’s better to be typecast then not be cast at all.” Which I thought was quite wry.
I know you and your TNG castmembers were and are very tight-knit — tell me about your experience with that extended Trek family, now with people from numerous shows and the new movies. What’s it like to be part of that increasing large group?
It’s wonderful. Actually, we got very close with Karl Urban who does a lot of the conventions, and I see [Zachary] Quinto at the conventions, and I’m in touch with J.J. [Abrams]. and I know that world. Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead — I did a voice for him once when I was doing Thunderbirds in London. So I have a relationship with some of those people. I think those movies are fabulous, by the way. And I’m pitching for the third one which is now available — director’s chair.
That would be awesome!
Also, I have a great memory of Deforest Kelley who is arguably the sweetest of anyone in the entire Star Trek universe. [William] Shatner hosts our reunion events, and I go to his house for Sunday night football, so there’s a great crossover, and I think we all feel kind of fortunate to have each other and to be a part of this family.
As we sneak closer to the 50th anniversary of the franchise, and the 30th of TNG, do you feel there’s maybe going to be an opportunity to play Riker, at least one more time?
I hope so. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it would be… I don’t know. What do you think?.
I feel like because of the science fiction nature of Trek, anything is possible. And there’s certainly going to be a cycle in which fans will be very nostalgic to see you all together again in character.
Well, they’re obviously making room for Kirk in the next Trek movie. Time travel heals a lot of sins. I’d love it.
Who is the biggest surprise Star Trek or Riker fan that you’ve encountered over the years? Someone you never expected to geek out over you?
Yes — a wonderful musician named Lyle Lovett. You know who that is? He, and a number of members of his band are huge Star Trekkers. And I ran into him in the airport — and I was a huge fan of his, still am – so that was kind of a thrill.
One of the things that Gene Roddenberry devised Star Trek to do was to sneak deeper messages into the sci-fi storylines that weren’t so on the nose or in your face. For you, personally what’s been the message you weren’t expecting when it comes to your experience with Star Trek?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know if there wasn’t something I wasn’t expecting. I’m kind of thrilled that the takeaway from Star Trek is that the universe that Gene created is one in which there’s no sexism, and there’s no racism. And in our times, right now, it would be a very healthy way to live.
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