After six years as Commander of the U.S.S. Voyager stranded with his Captain and crew in the Delta Quadrant, Robert Beltran is all for a change of scenery. The actor better known to Star Trek fans as the Native American former Maquis, Chakotay, waxes lyrical about a return to the Alpha Quadrant, the developments he'd like to see in his character's arc and how he'd enjoy more romance on the show.... Interview by Ian Spelling.
Everyone in the universe has them. Heading into Star Trek: Voyager back in 1994 Robert Beltran surely had them. Now six years later, Beltran can compare expectation to reality. "Given the track record of the previous Star Trek shows, I thought that we had a good chance to be on for a while, as long as we maintained a certain level of quality," says the actor who plays the U.S.S. Voyager's stoic and heroic Commander Chakotay. "Actually, there haven't been very many surprises. I had heard that the fan base was international and pretty loyal and avid, and that's turned out to be very true. I had heard that the fans could he intrusive, and I've only found that to he true occasionally.The writing and the shows themselves have maintained a consistency as far as style and quality are concerned. We work with directors [such as Allan Kroeker, David Livingston, Rick Kolbe and Les Landau] who come back over and over and over again. We're acquainted with a lot of directors now, which makes it a very comfortable set, which is unusual for a weekly show. So, I think there haven't been too many surprises. And that's a good thing."
Chakotay began his trek aboard Voyager as an angry and determined Maquis rebel, but he quickly emerged as a solid senior officer, trusted by no one more than Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). The character's development since then has been fairly limited, and Beltran himself, a straight shooter, makes no bones about it. "Chakotay went from being this Maquis to someone who readily accepted the fact that, in order to get home, he would have to sort of toe-the-line as far as Starfleet and the Federation were concerned. That happened early on," Beltran notes, "and I think that rationally and reasonably, he did the only thing he could have done. Beyond that, in terms of evolution, I don't know that there has really been one. I think we occasionally see different shades and different colours of Chakotay, but I don't think there's been any great evolution in the character."
"I'd like to see some of his background filled in and maybe also his plans for the future. I'd love to revive the Maquis rebellion. I would enjoy that. That's one thing I think that would lend itself to a lot of stories and a lot of interesting character things that I could do. To be honest, though, I don't give it much thought."
Bottom line, since Beltran's being so honest : do we see enough Chakotay? "I get paid the same whether I say one line or one hundred," he responds. "I think the writers write for the characters they feel they write well for. And I don't think there are any writers who think they write well for Chakotay. I don't know that anybody has found a voice for him. Maybe they feel they have. I just do my job. If it's one line, that's fine with me. If it's one hundred lines, that's fine with me, too. I don't expect great acting challenges on a television series, except occasionally. And there have been challenges occasionally, but for the most part, the formula is so set that you can pretty much guess what's going to happen next as you flip the pages along, reading each new episode. That's just the nature of any television series that has lasted this long. I don't expect surprises, but when I do get one it's very nice."
To date during the sixth season, there's been no 'Chakotay episode' to speak of. Thus, Beltran must dip back into the past to select the hours - In The Flesh, Unforgettable and The Fight - stand out most. "Each one of those had nuances that I was allowed to play," he enthuses. "They were very distinct stories, very unique stories. It was nice to finally have some sort of romantic interest [Virginia Madsen as Kellin] in Unforgettable. And I liked the melancholy tragedy of it - of not being able to consummate it with this woman. With In The Flesh, I enjoyed the concept [which involved Species 8472 recreating Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco in order to practice for an invasion], the writing, the execution and the acting. Actually, I felt that way with all three shows."
The Fight didn't even feel like Star Trek. It could have been present day. It could have been fifty years ago or twenty years ago. It was just not an obvious Star Trek story. We've had other storylines with aliens trying to communicate with us and not being able to except through extraordinary means. And that was the case with The Fight, but everything surrounding the crisis made it interesting. Also, we had Ray Walston (as Boothby) and Carlos Palomino (as Kid Chaos). I had even more to do with Ray in In The Flesh than in The Fight. Ray is great to work with. He's one of the living greats, a real acting treasure. Carlos is one of the great fighters of all-time. He's very humble and gracious. He was fun to work with too - very giving and helpful."
As for future episodes, Beltran - who also still counts Tattoo among his favourite episodes -doubts that Chakotay and Janeway will ever hook up romantically, although he knows he can't rule out the possibility. Far more likely a scenario, however, is Voyager's long-anticipated return to the Alpha Quadrant. And the actor is in favour of it. "I'm actually up for anything that will make for interesting stories," Beltran stresses. "I don't know how many aliens with weird noses and scaly skin, who are mad at us for flying into their airspace, we can run into. I think we've sort of tapped out the Delta Quadrant. I could be wrong, but I'm up for anything that will give us impetus for this season and next season. It could be interesting for Chakotay to go home, but in Timeless a huge storyline was taken away. We know that he was pardoned and made a hero, and then met this woman. So much of the future seemed to be taken care of. That's the only thing I didn't like about Timeless. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it is more interesting for Chakotay in the Delta Quadrant."
Life outside the Star Trek universe continues to keep Beltran busy, but not as busy as he might like. Beltran was slated to make his film directing debut during ST:VOY's most recent hiatus, but the project fell through "Like a deck of cards." So sure was Beltran that the film would come together that he scheduled nothing else. It then fell apart at the seams, leaving Beltran with an empty hiatus to fill. And fill it he did. "I did a signing tour of England, which gave me the chance to see more of it than London " he notes. "Then I went to France for a little while and vacationed there. Then I came home and did a lot of work on my house, which I needed to do. Also, my mother had a hip replacement, so I spent a lot of time with her. All in all, it was a very nice vacation, but it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for."
Speaking of features, Beltran reports that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Luminaries, a long-completed, low-budget feature in which he appears and which is currently seeking a distributor. "It's a comedy-drama," he says. "It's not the usual American cinematic fare, but it's getting a lot of notice at the film festivals and I think it will be released pretty soon."
And now it's back to Star Trek: Voyager. Beltran may from time to time knock the constraints of playing a character on an ensemble show in its sixth season, but he's not griping too loudly. He knows he's got it good. Besides, he gets paid to joke around and play make-believe with the likes of Ethan Phillips, Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ. "I always have fun," Beltran concludes. 'We have a great cast and a great crew. I know I've said this since we started, but it's very true. We all get along very well. It's always lots of laughs and I really enjoy working with everybody. That's made these last few years really tolerable because, like I said, sometimes three or four episodes can go by where not much happens with the character except the occasional 'Yes, ma'am' or 'Shields are down to 70 percent, Captain.' At least I can go to work knowing that I'm working with friends who I really love. That and, hopefully, some interesting storylines will get me through the next couple of years."
Transcribed & graphics scanned/arranged by Gill Hoyle