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Leonard Nimoy is probably as close to an elder statesman as sci-fi fans have these days, so it’s been quite a joy to see him having a career resurgence of late in the Star Trek relaunch and in FOX’s Fringe. He returns to that show tonight in the role of the mysterious William Bell, and we’ve got the full transcript of his interview from earlier this week.
Did you have any reservations on taking another role with the potential of such a fanatic following?
I love this question. I can’t help but laugh, because you’re absolutely right. It’s an interesting set of circumstances. What attracted me to it was several things. J.J. Abrams, Bob Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, who I worked with on the Star Trek movie, I admire their talent and the work that they do. The series is, at the very least, intriguing. The character was somewhat of a blank slate, but we began talking about it, [and I was] attracted because there’s an opportunity to build an interesting and unpredictable character. I’m enjoying it a lot.
When will William Bell and Walter Bishop face off?
Unpredictable at the moment. In the episode tomorrow night, the scene in between myself and Olivia, I think we will learn a lot more than we have known in the past about what their relationship is all about and what William Bell’s intentions are, or at least we will be told what his intentions are. We’re not really quite sure that everything that he says is accurate or true.
To follow up, what does William Bell do when he’s over there? Who is he spending time with?
William Bell is sort of a “master of the universe,” a brilliant man, very wealthy man, very powerful. We’ll find out a lot more about him in future episodes.
Don’t you find it remarkable how what is science fiction today can become science?
It is remarkable. I was thinking as we began this conference call about the technology involved here. It is quite remarkable and so terribly useful. It’s a very convenient way to put out a lot of information, and this is the kind of thing that was only dreamed about 10, 15 years ago. And you’re right, science fiction very often leads the way for the scientists.
Scientists watch science fiction, see an idea being presented, and say, “Well, gee, I wonder if that’s really possible.” They go to work at it on the drawing board, and a lot of it comes to fruition.
I’m only trying to be slightly funny, but are you a techie?
Am I a techie? Is that what you’re asking?
Yes, instead of Trekkie.
Well, I use a computer. I don’t know if that qualifies me as a techie, but I’m pretty good on the computer.
So lately it seems as if you’re J.J. Abrams’ muse of sorts. Can you tell us a little bit more about your relationship with him?
Well, I first met him I guess about three years ago when he first contacted me about the possibility of working together, and I went to a meeting with he and Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman and some of his production staff. They told me a very good and strong and touching story about their feelings about Star Trek, and specifically the Spock character.
It gave me a sense of validation after all these years. I had been out of it for some time, as you’re probably aware. There were several Star Trek series in which I was not involved and Star Trek movies in which I was not involved. This was a re-validation of the work that I had done, the work that we had done on the original Star Trek. I felt very good about it and went to work for them.
I had a great time working on the movie. I think they did a brilliant job, and I think the audience response shows that that was the case and has reinvigorated the franchise. And when they contacted me about working on Fringe—the same people, the same attitude, the same creativity, the same creative team—it was very enticing.
Had you seen the show? Had you been a fan of the show prior to that?
I watched it periodically. I think it’s extremely well done. It’s very nuanced. It’s complex. It’s a mixture of science and science fiction in a very interesting and intelligent way. And I think it has a long way to go in storytelling. It tells a terribly interesting story, and the character that I was offered was potentially a very intriguing and controversial and fascinating character, very inviting for an actor.
I was wondering how you felt about the current state of science fiction on TV and film.
Well, I’m concerned about the positioning of story in terms of importance. When I see a lot of explosions and a lot of chases, I’m not terribly impressed. I think there are three terribly important elements that must be given a priority position in science fiction, as well as in any other kind of drama. The first is story, the second is story, and the third is story. Story, story, story. If the story is compelling and interesting, I think all the rest will find its place.
We have great technology in our industry, and that technology can be overused at the expense of story. And that’s a problem for me, but when the story is in place, I think the special effects can find their proper place. I think Fringe uses the technology brilliantly, but in the service of excellent storytelling.
And are there any other projects, other than your current collaboration—?
I’m doing a lot of photography work. That’s one of my major creative outlets right now. I have an exhibition, which is opening in Massachusetts at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art next year. I’m really excited about that.
What do you photograph?
Check out my website, LeonardNimoyPhotography.com. Isn’t that an amazing title for a Web site?
Is there anything that you’re really interested in, any current science-fiction things on TV or film?
Fringe, Fringe, Fringe, Fringe, Fringe.
You had not been acting for awhile, and then you’ve done Star Trek and Fringe pretty recently together. Having stepped away for awhile and then returned, are your feelings about acting what they were, or have they changed?
Well, I’m enjoying it. I’m very comfortable in the two offers that I’ve accepted. The Star Trek movie was a joy to do. I admire the production team that made the film. I admire the new cast. Zachary Quinto I thought was a great choice for the new Spock, and it was a pleasure to work with him and with all the other people on the project.
The Fringe character was intriguing because, as I’ve mentioned, it was kind of a blank slate and we had some very interesting and intense conversations about who and what he could be and how we should perceive him, what we might or might not learn about him, what we might or might not trust about him. These are intriguing opportunities for an actor, and they came from a group of people that I had respect for. They piqued my interest, and I went back to work.
I did not expect to, frankly, be acting so much at this time in my life. My concentration was on my photography, but I’m having a wonderful time doing it.
I was taking a look back at your career this morning, and it seems that, after your role on Star Trek, your projects weighed heavily towards the sci-fi genre. Were you always a big fan of sci-fi, or was that a—
Well, it’s a good thing if you can find your niche as an actor and be able to support a family. Very early on—I’m talking about many, many years ago, probably 1950 or ‘51—I acted in my first science-fiction project, and I have acted in science fiction over the years ever since.
The first one was probably not terribly well known. I thought it was going to rocket me to stardom, if you’ll pardon the expression. It didn’t quite work. It was a great project called Zombies of the Stratosphere, and I was the third of a group of zombies that came to earth to take over earth’s orbit. It’s funny, as I think about it now, but it was a way of making a living.
And science fiction has seemed to be a fertile ground for the kind of work that I do, the kind of presence that I offer. I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful for the niche that science fiction has given me.
So in the season finale last season, it was very, very heavily implied that Peter Bishop came from the alternate universe, which suggested there’s a second Walter Bishop as well. Are we going to see a second William Bell?
I don’t think I can really answer that question very specifically right now. I think the most important thing is that tomorrow night we will get a sense of what his relationship is with Olivia. It’s very intriguing and very intense moments that take place tomorrow night, and the rest remains to be seen.
I’m waiting to see what these terribly imaginative writers come up with for the future. I’m expecting that I probably will be going back to work for them before too much longer. I’m looking forward to what they send me on the page. But, right now, I think we go a long way tomorrow night in discovering what William Bell is all about.
I’m glad you said that about detailing your meeting with Olivia. I understand that they’re sort of getting the most “bang for their Nimoy buck” by doing two episodes at a time with you. Is that how they’re working it?
No, no. I don’t know where that came from. My understanding is that tomorrow night is the one episode – I did this work a few weeks ago, and that work is in the show tomorrow night. I don’t think that we did work for more than the one episode, and I will be going back to work for them in about two weeks to do one more episode. Beyond that, we’re in discussion. But no, I don’t think it’s true that we’re doing more than one episode at a time.
Have they mentioned anything about their needs for you on an upcoming Star Trek movie?
No. My understanding is they’re working on a script right now. I expect there’s going to be some time before they really know exactly who they need and what they need. I frankly, frankly doubt that I will be called upon again.
I think I was useful in his last film to help bridge between the original characters, the original actors, and the new cast. They have a wonderful new cast in place, and I’m sure they’ll move ahead with them. I don’t see, at the moment, why they would need me in the next film, although, if they called me, I’d be happy to have a conversation about it.
Your character, William Bell, believes the world has soft spots. I just wanted to know, do you do you believe in this as well?
Well, what the show deals with in this wonderfully intriguing way is a question of an alternate universe, through which one can slip through, from one universe to another. I’ve been involved in stories of this kind before. I did a series called In Search of… some years ago in which we dealt with subject matter like this.
I think the question is one that you would, in terms of whether it’s scientifically accurate, you’d have to ask people like Stephen Hawking. I’m not a scientist, and I can’t really tell you whether or not there is a soft spot where you could slip through to another world, but I think the Fringe series deals with that idea in a very intriguing way.
How’s the transition been from New York to Vancouver?
Easy for me. Actually, easier because, although I love New York and spend a good deal of time there and I have a place there, but I’m based in Los Angeles, and traveling to Vancouver is easier.
What do you think Vancouver gives the series?
I love Vancouver. I’ve been going to Vancouver for, oh, at least 35 years that I can think of. And I look forward to going back many times.
One more quick thing: do you believe William Bell’s evil or good?
That’s a really wonderful question. Time will tell.
What sort of acting challenges have you found playing the William Bell character so far, would you say?
Well, the first thing was some wonderful and creative conversations that I had with J.J. Abrams and Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers, to try—and with Jeff Pinkner, who’s the showrunner—to try to create from scratch a character that’s never been seen before, only been referred to. There are certain things that were given, which is that he’s a power figure and a very wealthy and obviously a terribly intelligent man with a scientific background.
But, in terms of characteristics, we started from scratch, and I think tomorrow night a lot more of those characteristics will be evident. It’s great fun to be building the character from scratch, with certain givens, but so much to be developed in terms of the way he talks, the way he walks, idiosyncrasies, his tastes. Is he difficult, is he gruff, is he charming, is he a nice guy? What are his real intentions? All of these are great exploration for an actor.
And as a follow-up, I just wanted to ask if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about your photography and maybe where your love of photography came from.
Well, I became enamored with photography when I was about 13 or 14 years old. I’ve been at it ever since. I studied seriously in the ‘70s. I have a master’s degree in photography as a fine art, and I would call my work primarily conceptual. I don’t carry cameras with me wherever I go. I get an idea of a subject matter I want to deal with and I pull out my cameras.
I have published two books. One was called Shekhina, about the feminine aspect of God, and the second was called The Full Body Project, which deals with body-image issues in our society.
So you had your scene with Olivia, with Anna Torv. Did you get a chance to meet any other actors, and did you get an opinion of them?
No. I have not worked with the others, only Olivia so far. I’m looking forward to meeting and working with all the others. They’re very talented people, and I admire the work they do. But so far, all my work has been with the Olivia character, and I think she does a wonderful job on the show, by the way. They all do. They’re very good.
What do you think of Anna Torv as an actor and as a person?
I think she’s really excellent in the role. We spent a bit of time working together, and I was impressed with the way she works. I’ve seen quite a bit of her work on the screen. I think she handles a very wide range of activities, from very internalized psychological questions to very, very physical stuff, and I think she handles it very well. She’s very competent, very interesting to watch. I think she’s terrific.
I know Mr. Spock’s character could be kind of complex at times, I would think, and I was wondering about your character as William Bell. Is there a particular character flaw or even something good that you would like to have highlighted in future episodes?
This is a wonderful question. I’m really looking forward to this character unfolding in a very interesting kind of way. I think you’ll see, tomorrow night, one very strong aspect of him and certain idiosyncrasies that are being developed. But I do think there’s a long way to go. I think there’s a lot to be discovered, and I’m looking forward to discovering it with the audience.
It’s really not up to me to write the scripts. I don’t do the writing, but the writers are clever, inventive, creative. They’re very bright people. I’m counting on them to give us some really interesting character touches in the future.
Have you found that there’s anything different in the way television is done these days or what it requires of you as an actor, or is that aspect of work still pretty much the same?
Well, I’d say that’s a good question. Thank you. I think it’s safe to say that what an audience is seeing today on screen in the television episode is far more complex than what we were doing when we were, for example, making the original Star Trek series in the ‘60s. We were very, very heavy on pages and pages of dialogue and very little special effects, but because the technology has advanced so greatly, it’s possible to do some very complex and very exciting and very useful technical stuff on the shows these days, so we don’t have to rely quite so much on the story being told by the actors speaking.
On the other hand, there is a danger, as I mentioned earlier, of going too far with the special effects at the expense of story. But if the story is well done, if the story’s in place strongly, the special effects can be enormously helpful to the actors, far more so than they were years ago when we were making the original Star Trek series.
But are you saying that these days you’re allowed to do a little more nuance in the acting and not have to so much deliver the exposition because that—
Oh, thank you. Exactly, exactly, exactly. Delivering the exposition is the toughest part of the job, and if it can be done visually and physically, it’s a big help. Exactly.
Looking to the future, do you have any goals in mind, any invisible timeline where you wanted to just get out of the spotlight and retire, focus on photography—
Well, I thought I had reached that point some years ago. I think about myself as like an ocean liner that’s been going full speed for a long distance and the captain pulls the throttle back all the way to “stop,” but the ship doesn’t stop immediately, does it? It has its own momentum and it keeps on going, and I’m very flattered that people are still finding me useful.
I try to pick my spots so that I have a balance between the work and my personal life, which I enjoy very much. I don’t know that I would actually any longer say, “No, I’m going to stop 10, 12, 15 months or two years from now.” I don’t know. I still feel strong and healthy and active, and as long as there’s interesting work to do, I’ll probably keep on doing it.
Mr. Nimoy, obviously, with Star Trek, you set the gold standard in science fiction. What do you think about the products that have come out in recent years, things like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, or even Fringe for that matter?
Well, I’m really impressed. I’m impressed. I think there’s some very, very good work being done, and certainly in terms of production value. It’s head and shoulders above what we were able to do years ago.
I keep coming back to my baseline, which is the story. If the story is good and all this new technology can work to the service of the story, I’m excited about some of the work that’s being done. I look and I say, “Wow.” In tomorrow night’s episode, there are things being done that I wouldn’t know how to do.
I directed two of the Star Trek films and I produced one. I don’t know how they’re doing some of these effects that they’re doing now in these TV shows and on TV budgets. I’m terribly impressed. I think it’s a very exciting medium to be working in today, particularly if the script is good, the story’s in place.
What is still on your “to do” list with all the things you’ve done in the world?
Well, I’m looking forward to developing the William Bell character further. I hope the writers are interested in working with the character. I am. I don’t know how much further we’ll go with it, but the character, so far, has been very intriguing and the whole Fringe company has been very good to me. I’m delighted to be involved.
I am still actively involved with my photography work. I’m working on a current project, which is called “Secret Selves,” which is about hidden or fantasy or private personalities that people bring for me to photograph. And there will be an exhibition of that name, “Secret Selves,” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opening next summer, a solo exhibition. I’m excited about that.
Fringe airs Thursday nights at 9/8 c on Fox.