Interview by: AMC’s Clayton Neuman
The Star Trek: The Next Generation actor describes his futuristic production of Madame Butterfly and explains how a role on AMC’s Breaking Bad helped him outlive the omnipotent Q.
Q: You’re directing a stage production of Madame Butterfly set 1,000 years in the future. How did that idea occur to you?
A: Well, what I didn’t want to see was a sushi restaurant up on stage — I didn’t want to see women dressed up like Geishas that look like they’re in packing blankets with knapsacks on their face, because it becomes artifice. So I placed them on a magical island that provides everything — light and food and that type of stuff. And it gets me in a place where I can concentrate on the music and concentrate on the story.
Q: So in a sense, the fantasy grounds the story?
A: When Puccini did this 100 years ago, Japan was just opening up. People were fascinated they had rice paper walls and the women looked the way they did. They didn’t understand the notion of a Geisha, so the whole thing had a sexy sizzle attached to it. Otherwise it’s just the story of a sailor who comes to a port, bops a girl and then leaves. And I just thought, it’s been so long, I don’t see that this image helps us any more. But if you set it 1,000 years from now, we’re on a volcanic primitive island in the Sea of Japan. And in comes a guy, and he looks around and goes, “My God this is a magical place.” And you go, “Yeah it is. Magic.”
Q: You and Leonard Nimoy used to do a series of radio dramatizations of classic scifi called Alien Voices. Why did you stop?
A: The problem with Alien Voices was we had four really terrific years. And then it began to be about selling: Simon & Schuster wanted whatever, 40,000 units sold a year. And what we wanted to do was create really well-produced shows and have a library so that people in the future will simply know to come to an Alien Voices production that will always be good. And they didn’t see it that way, and I thought, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I’m going around peddling audio books! This is not what I want to do.” I loved writing them and directing them and doing them live, but I just didn’t want to get involved any more.
Q: Did you ever consider adapting one of them into a feature film?
JDL: We tried with The First Men in the Moon, which is old H.G. Wells. It all takes place on a countryside in England in 1910. We took it to Disney and they said, “Yeah we want to do this, but we have two requirements: We want an 18 year old girl.” Is that a joke? Am I supposed to say “Who doesn’t?” So I go, “Okay, what’s the other requirement?” They say, “We don’t want to do it as a period piece.” Then they go, “Why the sour face?” I said, “We’ve been to the moon! We’ve already been there.” “Well, go to Mars.” At that point it’s so far off of what my notion was. These stories were really good in themselves, and we were doing them because nobody had done them that way.
Q: Are you opposed to reimagining classic scifi?
A: No, I’m not opposed to it, but that’s not what we were doing. So I just thought, it’s now First Men and an 18 Year-Old-Girl on the Moon, and it’s not about the quaintness of those laboratories that were in peoples’ farmhouses any more. It’s all the other s–t we’ve seen before. So all of that stuff was beginning to happen at the same time, and that’s when Leonard and I looked at each other and said enough with this.
Q: And now Leonard is reimagining scifi with the new Star Trek. What did you think of the movie?
A: Oh I thought that Abrams had really breathed life and a whole new way of looking at a very honored franchise. And I think that it was certainly time to do it that way. Those frontally-didactic shows that they were doing towards the end were just a little old-fashioned. This felt new and fresh, and Leonard was terrific. I think that they somehow were able to get the franchise off of life support and back on its feet. Maybe 40 years ago it was new, but they had too many television shows and too many vain attempts of late that this was very refreshing. My wife was crying in the first part of it [Laughs]. I was like, I can’t believe it. And Leonard had told me they really do some nice stuff with the characters, and he was right. So it was nice.
Q: Are you needling him to try and get Q in the next movie?
A: Uh, no. I have to say as the years have gone on I’m getting a little tired of just Q, because I do a lot of other things. Almost everywhere in the world you go, people will come up and say, “Oh my God you’re from Star Trek.” But I was in Syria recently, and I had people stop me on the street, they came up to me and said, “Oh my God, we just saw Breaking Bad.” That was a surprise. And it was great.
Check AMCtv.com’s Breaking Bad blog Aug. 17 for an interview with John De Lancie about his role on the Emmy-winning drama.