You're on a popular Sci-FI show. You get to breathe the same air as Jeri Ryan. What more could you possibly want? We ask Robert Beltran, who seems less than happy on the set of Star Trek: Voyager... (Interviewer: Melissa J Perenson)
Candour and conviction in Hollywood is a rarity that one doesn't stumble across all that often, which is why actor Robert Beltran's blunt honesty is both refreshing and jarring at the same time. Taking time out to speak while on hiatus, the man who would be Chakotay after six years of playing the first officer on Star Trek: Voyager spoke quite freely about his desire for the stories to become better distributed amongst its cast.
"What bothers me so much is that [the writers] have a cast of really, really fine actors, actors that can hold their own with anybody, anywhere, anytime, and they're absolutely wasting three-quarters of that cast on the most mundane scenes per episode, and concentrating on two or three characters. It gets very boring," Beltran remarks, "I feel that the whole Janeway and Seven of Nine thing has gone on so long that it seems that [the show] should be called Star Trek: Janeway and Seven of Nine, instead of Star Trek: Voyager. And frankly, the word that I'm getting from fans and people that watch the show is, 'Enough of this already' - and they're just echoing what is so obvious." As he continues, Beltran indicates his perceived source of this inequity: "I think it's laziness on the writers' part," he observes. "I think they tend to write for characters that they feel they can write well for, and the rest get all of the mundane, 'Captain, shields are down,' 'Captain, there's a ship approaching,' 'Captain....' all the stuff that says nothing and means nothing, you know? A few scenes that actually have some bite [to them] are taken up by the same two or three actors, two or three characters, and it gets very boring for the rest of us that are waiting around.
"Not that I've been so thrilled by the material this year that I haven't enjoyed my days off, believe me," he adds. "I'd rather not say anything than spew forth some of the stuff they do write, it's much better to say nothing."
Beltran freely admits that the show's recent emphasis on Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) in particular has been trying, given how little time remains to be split amongst the other actors in Voyager's ensemble cast. "And I feel badly for Kate and for Jeri, because it's like a tape on a loop. It's the same thing over and over. They're not getting any great character development. Seven of Nine, I don't think, has grown so much so that she can say that they're concentrating on her growing as a character - I don't see it - and certainly the captain hasn't changed, so to me it's like they're just repeating the same refrain over and over and over. My god - how long do they expect an audience to sit through that stuff?"
Part of the problem, notes Beltran, is that both Janeway and Seven are painted in some way as superhuman. "It's just so boring. If you think about it, why do Janeway and Seven of Nine need anybody? They're so smart and so capable, they can do anything. The captain has all the answers, and Seven of Nine has her Borg knowledge, so why do they need the rest of us? It's like the writers have painted themselves in this hole, that now they have to manufacture crises that Janeway and Seven of Nine should be able to fix just like that, considering what we've seen before."
Equally as frustrating for Beltran is that so many of his scenes are actually on the bridge of Voyager. And while they may appear interesting and necessary on-screen to viewers at home, in reality bridge scenes are repetitive and often a chore for the actor involved. "The bridge scenes are always the same, over and over, no matter what the episode is about," maintains Beltran resignedly. Improvising, he illustrates this concept rather pointedly: "'Re-route the power from rhe scooby-dooby to the fluma-fluma.' 'OK captain, that's working.'"
Ask Beltran about the season he's just wrapped up, and it becomes evident just how jaded he's become. "That's the dangerous thing about talking to me about this sixth season, because I'm on vacation now, and it was like taking a huge yoke off of my shoulders, because I didn't have fun this sixth season. It was pretty dreary and tedious for me. And I can't speak for some of the others, but I have a feeling it was the same for some of the others in the cast. I don't have many memories of the sixth season that are positive and that I can say were worthy of [praise], because I don't remember very many of them at all."
And those that were notable each time veered off into the territory of Janeway or Seven. On One Small Step, for example which was originally scripted as a journey of self-exploration for Chakotay, the focus then switched to Seven of Nine. "Everybody was so impressed and saying what a great script it was; I wasn't so impressed with it, because it ends up the same way - Seven of Nine saves the day, and Chakotay's prostrate on the bed and impotent, not able to do anything. It ultimately became all about Seven of Nine appreciating something that she hadn't appreciated before. And how many times have we all seen that? So to me, it was the same thing dressed up in a different cloth."
His restless discontent is not news to the producers, adds Beltran. "I'm not saying anything I haven't said to [executive producer] Brannon Braga. I've called him up and said to him flat out, 'I'm bored to tears.' I told him that as an actor, I'm hungry to do something. This year has left me starving. And of course [the writers] always ask me what would I like to see [Chakotay] do - I don't know what I want Chakotay to do, I'm not even that much into Science Fiction. Maybe they hold it against me that I'm not exactly wild about their material, and that I have been pretty vocal about it, but I've never been one to sit back and be happy with scraps thrown to me. I think it's a waste of me and a waste of so many other talented actors on the show that are way undernourished from the stuff that they're feeding us."
The one thing that Beltran hopes for as the series enters its seventh and final season this autumn, is greater parity between cast players. "The only thing that can save [Voyager], that can bring some freshness to it, is the interpersonal relationships. If they're not going to work on that, then they should just [end it] now, put everything in the episodes they filmed, and put us in syndication and let it go. We're basically repeating ourselves over and over. There are no interpersonal relationships."
Even when it comes to the relationship between Chakotay and Janeway, the embers of interaction have faded in Beltran's esteem. "As it stands right now, I don't think the captain has any personal relationship with just about anybody. She seems to he standing alone, either fretting about her pet project, Seven of Nine and how to humanize her, or bossing everybody around incessantly, and we're all just snapping to her commandment. I don't think there's any relationship at all between her and her first officer; I haven't felt anything, other than 'Do this Chakotay' or 'Go see about that, Chakotay.' There's no friendship; it's completely written out. And that's true with her and all of the characters. She just gives orders now, And she fixes everything. And that's the way I see it."
As for his character specifically, all Beltran offers is, "That's up to the writers. They don't pay me to write."
His frustration with the series clearly a point of contention, Beltran admits that he's considered moving on - even though there's only one more year to go on the series. "It gets to the point where you're either happy on the show, or you want to get the hell out. And I'm at the point now where I want to get out if things aren't going to change," he states. "I want to start looking for other work. I mean, the money is fine, and the occasional episode I remember that it used to be fun, and there were challenges that came my way."
Bright spots for the sixth season often revolved around humour - generated not by the show's attempts at comedy, but by Beltran's interaction with his cast-mates. "There isn't one of us who doesn't have a sense of humour," he says of the camaraderie on set. "To keep ourselves from going absolutely nuts, we kid around a lot."
That Trek remains so popular, notes Beltran, is "A hard one to figure out. At times I feel it's worthy of its long life; at other times, I feel it's sort of been able to achieve it by tricks and smoke and mirrors. At times, it's first and foremost a television show that has the premise of being in the future. Its premise is a strong premise. What happens, though, in a television show, is that you have to write episodes based on this premise and you have to keep it fresh. And it's very hard to do. I feel for the writers and the producers who have to come up with this freshness. It's hard to achieve consistently, and they don't do it always. There are great failures."
But the reason it endures, he offers, is "That the good writing, the good episodes, are what the fans come back to over and over again. And they endure the ones that fall short of their expectations, just so that they can hopefully get to one that has some substance to it. It's a matter of the writers and creators achieving something and meeting with the audience that appreciates it, and it's a large audience that appreciates it."
In the meantime, Beltran is putting Trek behind him during his hiatus. Instead, the actor is getting back to basics, pursuing the things he's passionate about. "I'm back in my acting class, and I have been for about three, four months now. I get to work on material that I really, really love, and material that feeds my soul," enthuses Beltran. "It's called The Classical Theatre Lab, and it's a group of actors who get together and work on classical material. It's like an actor's gymnasium sort of thing. I've also been preparing a poetry reading over at The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach [California]."
Just listening to the tenor of Beltran's voice gives away his love of poetry. "It's like anything else - there's good poetry and there's bad poetry; it's all so subjective, you know? It's like classical music, you know? Sure, it all takes great skill to write it, but you don't necessarily enjoy all of it, but there are some wonderful pieces of poetry that you absolutely love and cherish. I was asked to do this reading of Latin American poets for the month that they're celebrating poetry. It's a very wide subject and there's a lot of very great material. And I just have to hone it down to, say, an hour's worth. So it's very hard to do, so much great stuff gets left out, so many great poets get left out. Hopefully, we'll make up for it year after year."
Having the summer hiatus to refresh himself and pursue his personal interests is what's giving Beltran the strength to face the next - and final - year of Voyager. "I'm sort of nourishing on this stuff instead of chewing on this cardboard that I've been chewing on all year," he laughs - obviously referring to his role on Voyager itself, and not the cardboard life-size stand-up representation of himself. And it's that kind of perspective that keeps Beltran plugging away through the next year.
*********************************** Transcribed & graphics scanned/arranged by Gill Hoyle