Star Trek 50th anniversary: Can you imagine an alien that squawks? John Billingsley did

Originally published September 7, 2016

As part of CNET’s coverage of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I chatted with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek’s inclusive message to how to convincingly play an alien.

By Ian Sherr

If John Billingsley had his way, you’d have heard him squawk like a bird in the middle of his lines.

He was auditioning for the part of Phlox, the ship’s doctor on “Star Trek: Enterprise,” which ran from 2001 to 2005. The character was part of a race of aliens called the Denobulans that hadn’t been depicted on the Star Trek shows before.

When the actor read for the part, the producers requested a slight alien accent. Billingsley had no idea what that meant or what a Denobulan would sound like. So after unsuccessfully bouncing a few ideas off his wife, he decided to give his character “kind of an Indian lilt.” And a squawk.

Since no one told him not to squawk, he continued to do it “in moments of rapture,” even after he landed the part.

But the bird sounds were not to be. When he tried squawking during production for the pilot, they told him to stop screwing around.

“I figured, go for the job you would like to have,” Billingsley remembers with a laugh. “At the time I was auditioning, I thought I’d like to be a bird — and I was going to give him something to flap his wings about.”

Though Billingsley played an alien, he appreciated the fact that he didn’t have to learn the long and intricate history of the Vulcans or how to speak Klingon. “What were the Denobulans like? They were like me.”

Billingsley spent two and a half hours in makeup each day becoming his character. That’s about the same amount of time it took  Michael Dorn, who played Worf on two other Star Trek shows, to morph into an Klingon. Billingsley routinely turned on classical music and squinted at The New York Times without his glasses while being transformed.

Like many Star Trek cast members, Billingsley, now 56, began his career as a stage actor. He moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at TV at the age of 35 and ended up as a “character actor.” In Hollywood parlance, that means he played a specific type. He wasn’t the crusading attorney or the gruff cop. Instead, producers cast him as a child predator. A lot.

startrek50cropped2.jpgHe was up for the part of the tech whiz on the action show “Alias” once, but didn’t get it.

So when the opportunity to join “Star Trek: Enterprise” came along, Billingsley was open to it. He’d watched the original “Star Trek” as a child, but he didn’t, in his words, “grok” it. He preferred magazines and books, including the works of notable sci-fi authors Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. “I have been a big reader all my life,” he said.

That’s probably why he felt a connection to Phlox, whose Buddhist-like attitude he appreciated. He also liked that his character used holistic medicine and didn’t rely on technology, at least not too much. “It was nice to play a good guy and someone whose value system and temperament is much closer to my own,” he said.

Billingsley, you see, is a self-described  Luddite, and found the technobabble Star Trek is so well known for the most challenging part of the job. Thankfully, most of it was medical babble, which was easier to manage.

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