He's a Native American who embraces 24th Century technology whilst trying to preserve his cultural heritage. He's a graduate of Starfleet Academy who joined the Maquis to protect his people from the Cardasssians. And he's second-in-command aboard the U.S.S. Voyager. David Bassom talks to Robert Beltran about life as Commander Chakotay.
On reading the script for Star Trek: Voyager's feature length pilot, Caretaker, Robert Beltran vowed to win the role of the U.S.S. Voyager's first officer, a Native American named Chakotay.
"I felt that he was a very intriguing character and I knew I fit his description pretty well," he explains. "It was a good match for me physically and personality-wise. I had never seen a Star Trek film or a Star Trek series and I'm not a science fiction fan, but I read the script straight through thinking that Chakotay would be right for me, and I went into the audition with a lot of gusto. I think my enthusiasm came over and the producers could see that right away."
When speaking to Beltran, it quickly becomes obvious that the actor does indeed share many of Chakotay's characteristics, including his remarkable composure and wry wit.
We both seem very calm on the outside," concedes Beltran, "but, you know, there's actually a volcano underneath. Anyone who has seen Chakotay in the episode, Maneuvers will know what I'm talking about!"
In the months leading up to the launch of Star Trek: Voyager, Beltran's presence in the series remained dependent on whether the producers chose to cast a man or a woman in the role of the U.S.S. Voyager's captain. Had they decided to appoint a male commanding officer, then Chakotay would have been transformed into a female character. However, Beltran chooses not to think about the possibility of losing his prestigious role in Star Trek: Voyager and feels that there was just one issue that generated any significant concern.
"The only real pressure came from whether or not we were going to live up to our predecessors," he explains. "Over the years, the Star Trek shows have all been great successes, so we had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, when they cast Kate [Mulgrew] as the captain, we all became very hopeful that we could keep up the tradition because we knew we had such a good cast.
"Our cast are really fine, fine actors," he continues. "Any one of them could carry an episode and do a great job. So, I think we were all apprehensive about whether or not we would measure up to our predecessors, but at the same time, we were confident that we could do it."
Ever since their first adventure, the cast of Star Trek: Voyager have been praised for their easy-going camaraderie, which is frequently likened to that of the original Star Trek cast. Beltran is pleased to report that their chemistry came quite naturally and is just as warm behind the camera.
"The camaraderie sort of just fell into place," he says. "That's probably due to the producers, who must have been aiming for that kind of chemistry when they cast us. I think our camaraderie stems from the fact that we really enjoy working together. We like each other and we really do care about each other personally.
"It's a cliche that I've always heard in the business, but I've never been as close to another ensemble as I am on this show. Nine people have come together and become a family - that's truly what's happened with us. We really do have a lot of fun together."
The actor is quick to praise Kate Mulgrew for nurturing the cast's friendship.
"If we had a captain who was not as warm and as giving and as open as Kate, it would be totally different," he states. "The captain sets the tone and Kate is the one who has allowed the cast to become a family because she's very down to earth; she loves to laugh and have fun."
Although the title, 'Captain Chakotay' has a certain ring to it, Beltran has no aspirations to ever assume command of the U.S.S. Voyager on a permanent basis.
"The focus of our show reolves around a female captain," he explains. "I think that's what makes our ensemble unique. If we were to have a male captain, he would immediately be compared to Patrick [Stewart], Avery [Brookes] and Bill [Shatner]. I wouldn't be afraid of being captain, but I think Kate at the helm helps to make our show unique. So, I'm happy being Commander Chakotay."
For Beltran, one of Commander Chakotay's most appealing qualities is his deep spirituality. While most of Star Trek's leading Human characters appear to be atheists and accept science over religion, Chakotay maintains his Native American beliefs and actually uses science as a means to practice his traditional rituals aboard the star-ship. For example, he has a 'spirit guide' - a Timber wolf - who appears to him in dreams and visions to help him make decisions.
"Chakotay's spirituality is one of the things that makes him a unique character in Star Trek," says Beltran. "Very few Star Trek characters had spiritual beliefs: the only one I can think of is Spock, who had a serious kind of spirituality about him, but that wasn't necessarily a Human spirituality. Chakotay's spirituality certainly makes him stand out a little in a science fiction series like Star Trek: Voyager, because the show is heavy on scientific beliefs and scientific jargon. I think it works very well."
If Chakotay's spirituality is the most distinctive trait, then the character's tattoo must be his most obvious physical aspect. Beltran spends around 20 minutes a day in the make-up chair, having the marking painted onto his face and is quite glad that the design isn't any larger. However, the actor admits he frequently forgets the tattoo is there and appreciates that there is a strong possibility he might go home one day still wearing it.
"There's always that risk," he laughs. "but I could probably drive home with the tattoo and not get a second look in L.A!
"Before we started work on the show, [make-up designer] Michael Westmore did about 10 different designs of the tattoo and, thankfully, they came up with the one you can see today. I think the tattoo is very nice. It fits well to the contour of anybody's face. I've actually met some people at conventions who have got tattoos based on it!"
However, Beltran has an essential piece of advice to any Chakotay fans thinking of having a tattoo in honour of their hero.
"Use a crayon or some washable paint and wash it off at the end of the day," he states. "Don't get a real one!"
During it's first season, Star Trek: Voyager had to establish it's nine leading characters as well as it's style, format and a whole new galaxy to explore. Faced with such an enormous task, it was perhaps inevitable that the show neglected a few of it's characters. Commander Chakotay was arguably the most obvious casualty of the season and emerged from Star Trek: Voyager's first year as one of it's least developed characters. However, Chakotay's fortunes changed dramatically in the second season, when such episodes as Initiations, Tattoo, and Maneuvers turned the spotlight on the U.S.S Voyager's stoic first officer.
"I definitely think that they have started to write better stories for my character," says Beltran. "The writers are learning there are certain things that I will do to mould the character the way I want him to go, and there are certain things I can't do. It's a good compromise between myself and the writers. I think we're capturing what I want to do with the character."
"Commander Chakotay is, of course, just one of the many characters Robert Beltran has brought to life during the past 15 years. A graduate of Fresno State College, Beltran began his career on the stage and earned his first taste of fame in the cult comedy, Eating Raoul. The actor subsequently starred in a wide variety of theatre and screen productions, including two further cult movies, Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills and Night Of the Comet. Beltran is well aware that he is no stranger to cult classics and acknowledges the fact that Star Trek: Voyager might be considered his biggest cult hit to date.
"I'm not sure if it's fair to call Star Trek a cult hit because it involves so many millions of people," he muses. "It's more like a cult movement than a cult hit! But I guess there are similiarities between cult films and Star Trek; they both have an incredibly loyal following and really do have lives of their own. The main difference is that when you do a film, you don't go into it knowing it's going to be a cult hit. Sometimes, you can see that a television show will have a cult following."
In the past two years, Beltran has gained a strong insight into the Star Trek phenomenon. Naturally, he has been exposed to a lot of theories about it's enduring appeal, and has reached his own conclusion about the franchise.
"A lot of people say that the key to Star Trek's success is it's positive view of what the future holds for mankind," he says. "Personally, I feel Star Trek continues to be popular because it represents good stories and interesting characters, and explores the unknown. Anyone watching a Star Trek show can really let their imagination go wild."
Beltran was initially apprehensie about attending his first Star Trek convention, but realised that the key to enjoying them was honesty.
"At first I wasn't quite sure what to say," he explains, "but I realised that the best thing to do was just be myself."
With shooting of the show's third season well under way, Beltran is confident that the future looks bright for Commander Chakotay and Star Trek: Voyager. Unlike several of his co-stars, however, the actor has no ambition to write or direct episodes, and is more than happy to leave the character's development in the hands of the show's writers and producers.
"I don't really like to be a part of the overall planning of Chakotay because I'm not really familiar with the science fiction genre," he explains. "I have a lot of fun reading the scripts each week and being surprised at what they have me do. The writers and the producers have been doing this a bit longer than I have and I think it's more effective for me to just read the script and go through it and give them my opinion about different things.
"As far as the overall show is concerned," he continues, "I'm very excited about what they might come up with in the third season because the writing has improved steadily and in leaps and bounds with each new episode. And I think they are writing much better for all of the characters."
Star Trek:Voyager has provided Beltran with the steadiest job he's ever had. While the actor admits that his presence on the show prevents him from doing as much stage and film work as he would like, he has absolutely no intention of resigning his commission in the foreseeable future.
"The show allows me to work with people who I enjoy working with," he says. "It let's me contribute to the making of a quality show - and they're paying me for it! And that really makes everything worthwhile."
Robert Beltran believes that Star Trek: Voyager is a reliable source of quality television and hopes that viewers will join Chakotay and company for their weekly adventures in the Delta Quadrant for many years to come.
"Anybody who tunes in will not be disappointed," he promises. "You'll be getting quality writing and quality performances which go beyond the norm offered by formulaic television. Being part of the Star Trek tradition keeps us on our toes and we always have it in the back of our minds that we have to measure up to our illustrious predecessors."
Transcribed by Gill Hoyle
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