What’s Jonathan Frakes up to these days?
You know, we tend to lose sight of the fact that Trek actors are professionals. Their Trek-related roles are not their lives – they’re part of their careers. Trek actors aren’t limited to those iconic characters that we fanatics eternally see them as, but we fans certainly wish they could always play those characters. I mean, Armin Shimerman’s Shakespearean, scholarly talents notwithstanding, in my mind he will always be the Ferengi bar-owner from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
And Jonathan Frakes, for many, will always be Commander Will Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation – and my favourite character from that series. Riker was the Kirk for that generation. He was brash, headstrong, a bit of a ladies’ man and a rising talent in Starfleet. As a Kirk fan, I immediately saw him for who he was.
And that’s okay. It’s human nature to fixate on what we love.
But the thing about Jonathan Frakes is that when I first saw him in STTNG, I immediately recognized him as Stanley Hazard from the 1985 ABC mini-series, The North and the South. I’m good for trivia like that; it’s one of those useless talents that I use to entertain friends at parties and whatnot. Even though he became my favourite TNG character, I was still able to remember his other roles.
When I got a chance to catch up with him at the Toronto ComiCon at the end of March, I was able to extend that perception even further and discuss some of the new projects he’s currently in and his upcoming roles.
I wanted to start off with an easy one, so I asked him what his favourite TNG episode was.
“Well, ‘Best of Both Worlds’,” he answered. “That’s an easy one, when we were first introduced to the Borg. But I clearly have a soft spot for ‘The Offspring‘ as that was the first episode I ever directed. What was yours?”
Yeesh – the classic turnaround. I wasn’t prepared for that. But the mischievous glint in Frakes’ eyes told me that he was definitely intending on having some fun.
I stammered a response agreeing about “Best of Both Worlds” as well – but I also had to add a disclaimer that with the last name of Kirk, I was more of a TOS fan.
Frakes then went on to talk about his upcoming work.
“I produce and direct a series called The Librarians with Noah Wylie,” he told me. “There’s also Jane Curtain, Rebecca Romijn and John Larroquette. That’ll be April to September and then I’m off to NCIS and then I’m doing a series on PlayStation format called Powers with Brian Bendis. It’s been a nice variety of work and I’ve just finished acting in a comedy called Angie Tribeca. It’s an Airplane-style comedy – hard genre to make work but when it works, it works like gangbusters, and Rashida Jones is brilliantly funny.”
Another role of significance that needed to be mentioned was Frakes’ role as King J’son of Spartax in the upcoming animated Marvel feature, Guardians of the Galaxy.
“Wow … that came out of the blue. That was a great role to get. I’m really enjoying this new voice acting part of my career and the world of voice acting is so small. About only a hundred people do these voice roles, it turns out – or less. There are so few people and it’s so hard to crack. So I’m just trying to get my foot in door.”
I pointed out that he was no stranger to voice-over work. I brought up his work in Gargoyles.
“I did Gargoyles but that was 15 – 20 years ago. It’s been off the air – but that was a great show; too smart for television.”
I then tried to explore Frakes’ comic reading background as that just seemed to make sense.
“Did I read comics? Nah… My father was an English professor – comics were forbidden from our house, which I thought was a totally bad idea. As Levar Burton, my Reading Rainbow buddy, would say, if you can get kids to read anything, let ‘em. My dad was right about a lot, but I think he was wrong about that.”
Continuing to talk about literature topics, I brought up Frakes’ contribution to the recent Antaeus Theatre’s Shakespeare Insult Challenge. That got a bit of a reaction from Jonathan.
“Wow – you are ALL over this, no kidding!” Clearly he was impressed by my ability to bring up the various details of his career (Yeah, like I said: trivia, it’s my gift.)
“Armin [Shimerman] and Kitty… I go all the way back with Armin. I’ve known him from before Star Trek and they asked me to participate. So I saw Patrick’s – and he sets a really high bar – and I did mine and turned it in. Last month I was with Gates McFadden who shot three of them! She made major productions with wind machines and blowing hair! They were great! And Antaeus made their money!”
If you’re not familiar with Antaeus Theatre, this is a Shakespearean theatre company that makes classical theatre accessible via outreach programs to under-privileged youth and educational opportunities. Their recent and successful Kickstarter campaign was buffeted by the appearance of many Star Trek celebrities whose careers owe a great deal to classical theatre. Frakes, no stranger to classical literature, brought up his father’s academic background.
“My father taught Hemmingway, Faulkner and Joyce. At one point, I was in high school and I said to him, I’d like to read Ulysses. And he said to me ‘Jonathan, you can’t handle Ulysses.’ So I took that to heart and I tried, and I put it down. Then my father died and I got most of his teaching editions of his novels, including Ulysses. So I took it down from my shelf and started to read and then put it down again, because he was right! I still can’t handle Ulysses!”
I turned the conversation back to Star Trek and the new series in 2017. Jonathan’s face lit up with a bright, wide smile.
“Who do you know? Tell me! [laughter] The new series… I want to be a part of that. Nick Meyers is on that – Rod [Roddenberry] is attached as well so they’ve got the brand right. Meyers is a genius. Talk about literate. He’s the most literate and brilliant writer/director who’s ever been attached to Star Trek. He’s very Shakespearean. I’m really excited to see him a part of the new show. I’m begging to get on as a director. If the writing room is open – I’m very optimistic.”
It’s good to have our perceptions of these actors challenged so we can appreciate their work in new ways and to see them in different roles and functions. After all, it’s the talent that we need to appreciate rather than the roles. We can have our favourite roles of theirs, that’s for sure, but at the same time it’s important to remember that they’re allowed to grow and develop as well. After all, in following the great William Shatner’s adage, “get a life,” let’s not forget that they’re supposed to have ones too.
Jonathan Frakes has a life – it’s a vibrant and diverse one with lots to offer his fans, and we look forward to seeing more of it, whether in front or behind the camera.