Somewhere on the spectrum between a disruptive, often petulant child and an all-powerful cosmic force, there was the Q.
Created by Gene Roddenberry in 1987 as a recurring alien agent provocateur to bedevil the crew of the Enterprise-D on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Q became a fan favorite during his eight appearances (as well as additional episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager), thanks in large part to a deliriously wicked performance by actor John de Lancie.
Having been part of the series' premiere, it made for a nice bookend when Q played a pivotal role in the acclaimed 1994 two-hour finale "All Good Things,” now available on Blu-ray both as a feature-length solo disc and as part of the newly released complete seventh season featuring all 25 episodes. Twenty years after the epic conclusion of TNG, de Lancie looked back at his time as Q with Spinoff Online.
Spinoff Online: This has obviously become a signature role for you. What was going on with you when the role of Q first came your way, and what intrigued you to want to take it on?
John de Lancie: Well, I was doing a show down at the Taper at the time called Terra Nova, and I was playing the role of Amundsen, which I have to say, now, in retrospect I think helped me get the role of Q because it was not unlike that: a bigger-than-life character – in this case, Amundsen the Arctic explorer. I got the role – I auditioned for it – and my son was born maybe a week later, and I had some rehearsals with Patrick [Stewart] at my house, and with Corey Allen [the director of the pilot "Encounter at Farpoint"], and then I went to Japan to perform, of all things, Terra Nova.
So there was a lot going on, and on the way back I began prepping for the role of Q and started my Monday, my first day back – I got back from Tokyo on Sunday night and I started the show on early Monday morning in the trial scene, so there was a lot going on for me in that part of my life.
Did you have much interaction with Gene Roddenberry himself, and do you have some memories to share?
My first interaction with Gene was that after I auditioned I walked out of the room and then this big guy walks out with me, and he puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, "You make my words sound better than they are." And I said, "Well, you must be the writer." And he said "I'm Gene Roddenberry." And I had no idea who that was. And he said, "I think we're going to be seeing more of you." And I gave him that kind of like, "Hey, this is not my first barbeque – I've heard this before." And I gave him that "Uh-huh, oh, well, OK …"
And then as I made it to the outside door, there was another man there who came up to me who had also been in the audition and he said, "I'm the guy who called for you. I'm the producer who's been calling for you. And they're going to hire you, and this is a payback." And I said, "What do you mean? A payback from what?" And he said, "Well, about four or five years ago I was laying flat on my back in the hospital with a quadruple bypass operation, and every day at 1 o'clock in the afternoon" – and then I knew where he was going, because I had been on a soap opera [Days of Our Lives] and I was very funny on it. And he said, "You made me laugh when I thought I was going to die, and I thought if I ever had a chance I would give you a shot."
That's a pretty spectacular story.
What did you come to love about the role of Q? What was the personal fun in it for you?
Q was naughty, you know? He's naughty. He's not evil. He's not all good. He's sort of bad. You get to play him the way you role out of bed in the morning. Depends on which side of the bed you roll out of. And so that's great fun. Now, just understand that the process of shooting especially a television show, and especially a television show like this, where these were more teleplays than they are like what a regular movie is: I would have big speeches and then a few lines and then another big speech and stuff like that. And so as somebody who always struggled learning lines and what have you, there's a lot of tension attached to it as well. And then we get one or two rehearsals and then the camera starts rolling, and after about the third time if they don't have it in the can, people would kind of start darting eyes.
And even to make that more difficult, if you are a regular and you're with people day in and day out, you become more at ease in what you're doing. But for myself as just simply a guest actor who came in, the pressure is on. So while it was great fun in the end to play a character like this, you also had to run through a gauntlet – a maybe self-imposed gauntlet – that isn't so much fun.
On the Blu-ray's extra features, you said say one of the healthiest things I've heard from an actor: that you didn't wait around and say, "Hey, when's the next time I'm coming back?" You just took it for what it was, offer by offer. How did you maintain that cool, calm and collected attitude toward a role you were obviously getting a lot of great notices for?
It's not cool, calm and collected; it's sort of self-preservation. The fact of the matter is that I had nothing to do with whether I was going to be asked back. And as I've said many a time, it's like worrying about whether you're going to be asked to somebody's dinner party. You don't dare ask them, because it's all too awkward. And you would like to be invited, but what can you do if you're not? So I disciplined myself – and I've always been this way – to think, "Well, it's finished. It's over. I did it. I did a good job, or not such a good job, whatever the case may be, but whatever it is this is the last one and I'm not going to think about it."
Another interviewer before you asked me, "Don't you feel bad that you were never in the movies?" Look, I would like to have been in the movies, but what am I left with? Just feeling badly? If I had invested myself too much in the issue of wanting to be in the movies, well, then in fact that's what I would've been left with, is just feeling badly about it. There were obviously forces, reasons, good reasons, maybe not so good reasons, whatever it is – stuff that's out of my purview as to why I was or wasn't in their movies, so that's the end of it, and so I just walk away. And also the thing is that if you don't walk away, you sort of stay, you know? Being idly hanging around, and that's not good for an actor to do. You can't do that. I mean, this is a show that has continued to pursue me – even when you consider just this interview – but that's a part of the phenomena of this particular show. It's not something that would've been helpful, back then, to maintain.
You were there at the very end of production, after having been there at the very beginning of production. What was it like working with Patrick on those final scenes as the series was just about to send everybody off to do movies?
Well, it was a dark and stormy night, and we shot until late that night. We started pretty late – I don't think we started shooting until something like 9 o'clock at night – and I think that for as many people as were in that soundstage, everybody had a different feeling about it. I know Patrick was exhausted, and was going on to doing a movie. For me, this was just the last episode of a eight-episode run on a show that lasted seven years, and I was happy to be there. And it was a scene that was shot up on a scaffolding with no indication of volcanoes or the early Earth – you didn't see any of that stuff. So for me, I was more in the pure actor mode, and the others probably had more of a sense of the end of an era-type thing.
You had a very special rapport with Patrick Stewart as actors, and I wonder if you could delve into what your relationship as actors was like throughout your run on the character?
Patrick and I were, I think, the first two people to be cast. They had hired him, and then I think I was the next person that they hired, because there was no discussion with me about anybody else. He and the director came over to my house and we rehearsed outside – my wife was ready to give birth to our second son within days – and our relationship through the show was always one that I think you saw it, always, on the screen. I'm happy about that. If Patrick became serious, I became funny. If he became funny, I became serious. It was a constant attempt to one-up each other at all times, which made for sort of easy playing. It has a lot of conflict attached to it.
It was a little different than the relationship between Q and Janeway, which was we were sparring with – I thought – one hand tied behind our backs because they were so concerned that Janeway not become infatuated with Q. For which I kept saying, "But that would make it sort of fascinating, now wouldn't it?" But with Patrick it was just straight-out "Who's gonna win?" And that's why there's a fair amount of sparks that are flying.