Walter Koenig interview: Star Trek, Babylon 5, JJ Abrams' reboot, and graphic novels
In the run-up to this month's Star Trek Destination London event, Scott chatted to Star Trek and Babylon 5's Walter Koenig...
As the build-up to Star Trek Destination London continues, Scott Snowden spoke exclusively to Walter Koenig about acting, writing, Gene Roddenberry’s vision and the cult of Star Trek phenomenon...
Firstly, congratulations on your recent star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Did you think to yourself “about time”?
[Laughs] Well it’s not something that has preoccupied me to a great extent over the years. If you look at it logically it seems that if they’re predicating it on my involvement mostly with Star Trek and popular art in general, then yeah, I guess on that level I’m as deserving as the other folks who have received a star for being involved with Star Trek.
You’ve played a number of great characters, both good and evil. Do you have a preference?
Well, not based on the kind of character, not based on the genre of character, but simply on the depth in which it is written, Bester from Babylon 5 was the most fun I had on television. He was a multi-dimensional character and he was pivotal to every story that he was involved in, and he grew.
I’d go so far as to say that he’s the sort of character that folks may despise, but you couldn’t help but feel some empathy when you discover that he had somebody that he’s loved all these years and in a stasis condition, and trying to make things better for his people.
So it’s one of those Machiavellian things. I don’t particularly believe in Machiavellian philosophy, but I certainly understand that the end justifies the means in this case.
Did you have delve into a deep, dark place inside yourself in order to play Alfred Bester with the relish that you did?
Yeah, I tend to do that with every character. Of course the more unstuck the character is, the more developed, the further you delve. I remember when playing that guy, I don’t think it’s a good thing to editorialise the character. I mean I don’t think of him as a bad guy. I think of him as somebody with passion who has a cause and is loyal to that cause, and you must as an actor embrace that in order to give it credibility.
You’ve acted in theatre, TV, film, you’ve directed, lectured, written books… does it bother you that you’re best remembered for Star Trek?
Well, that’s kind of a tough question to answer. On the one hand had it not been for Star Trek I’d probably be a therapist, probably be a psychologist at this point, and that would be an option that I felt that I could pursue with some success, but it was the option that I disliked least as opposed to something that I wanted most. So Star Trek was certainly responsible for my continuing on as an actor.
Would I have liked to have played a greater variety of roles? Certainly, and I don’t necessarily make that the fault of Star Trek. I think there are other circumstances involved having to do with how I physically presented and the mere fact that the television audience never really got a chance to see the range that I could possibly demonstrate in roles with a limited personality.
Putting Star Trek aside for a moment, if there was something that you would like to bring to the forefront of public attention and be associated with, what would that be?
You know, I’ve had a reasonable amount of success in theatre doing comedy, and I love comedy. I love playing roles where you interact with the audience; you get an immediate reaction, immediate response. I did a play called Steambath, The White House Murder Case. I played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. These are plays that had a considerable amount of humour, and I thoroughly bathed in the joy of people laughing and enjoying the work, and knowing that I was fulfilling my objective in playing the role.
What are you actually working on at the moment?
Well, I did a couple of graphic novels. The first one will be released, I believe, on October 20th. We’ve been selling advanced copies through Amazon.
The thing is that we had a finite number of copies that had to be pre-sold in order for publishing to go ahead, and last week we had a big bounce in the pre-sales, and now it’s got a guarantee that the book will be published in October. It’s called Things To Come. It’s about vampires after the apocalypse, and the fact that they’re the only sentient beings on earth. They live in a world of mutants, mutations, and they themselves could be considered a mutation.
They don’t know why they’re here. They don’t understand what their significant purpose is and what their future will be. That’s the kind of story as opposed to a love story or the tearing out of throats. It’s very introspective and sort of coming of age, vampire genre.
Do you prefer writing over acting?
Well, I certainly enjoy writing when it goes well, and I’ve had some successes.
…when it doesn’t go well it can be quite painful…
Oh yes, and it can be very painful, and rejections are not any easier to take than they are when you’re turned down as an actor. The nice thing about writing is I don’t need eight other people around me and a set and a director, and somebody doing a musical score. I can just sit in my garret and pound away on the computer, so that’s nice. I have a freedom with writing that I don’t have with acting, sometimes opportunities are limited with acting.
Did Gene Roddenberry’s vision affect you at all during production of the original TV series?
I think his vision was pretty much my thinking as well. I grew up in a very, I don’t know if the words are used, defined in precisely the same way in the UK as they are here; I grew up in a very liberal socio-political environment, where race was not an issue in terms of the people you like and didn’t like, nor was religious belief or anything like that.
We were very humanitarian I think in our behaviour and in our thinking, and that was pretty much Gene’s vision as well. He envisioned a world where everyone got along together, at least the humans got along together, the humans and the partial Vulcan. It didn’t matter whether you were African American or Japanese American or Russian American in the middle of the Cold War.
These people had respect and love for each other, and I think we were trying to make that message come through, perhaps making it a little easier to digest by putting it in a future time. So I wasn’t a kid. I was 32 years old when I came to Star Trek, so my ideology was pretty much intact by then.
Does the phenomenon of Star Trek still amaze you?
It does. It still amazes me. I find it pretty extraordinary. I mean there are times when I really take it for granted, so much so that I’m surprised that people still recognise me. Somebody calls out my name and say “whoa”.
It’s been around for so long and it’s had a place in our society for so long that it’s become sort of second nature to the point where I’ve become a little casual with it, but when I stop and think about it, when I stop and think about the occasion of December 10th when I was commended with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and it comes back in neon lighting just how influential it has been these last four decades, and I say “Walter Koenig, star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame”. I have a better time embracing that and absorbing it. It’s very nice and I’m very pleased by it, but I’m not sure it really goes together! [Laughs]
I mean I think of the people that I’ve seen there, you know, Jascha Heifetz and the John Gielguds and all the great actors, and I know that isn't finally the criteria on which one is judged. It has more to do with popular culture and name recognition. However as long as I’m accepted on that basis, I’m okay. I get a little unsteady when I think I’m placed there with people whose talents I have enormous respect for.
What are your thoughts on the JJ Abrams re-boot of Star Trek?
I think it was great fun, a terrific adventure. I think they maintained their own identities while paying some homage to the original series, which was very nice. I’m not sure that they needed to do that, but it was very nice that they did, and I think they certainly ingratiated themselves with the fans by doing that.
I thought the acting was stellar throughout. The young man who played Chekov was terrific. He’s already a movie star here. He’s had several features released in which he had the title role as a matter of fact, so it’s not our show and it shouldn’t be. It’s paced differently, it’s oriented, but it reflects this generation and this decade, and I think it’s a very appealing and very topical piece of film art.
Finally, are you looking forward to the Destination London event?
Very much so! I’m very much looking forward to that. I hear it’s going to be huge, and I’m going to see a lot of people in the business, and of course a lot of fans as well. It should be very exciting.
Walter Koenig, thank you very much!
Star Trek Destination London runs from the 19th to 21st October at the ExCel Centre, Royal Victoria Dock, London, E16.
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