Robert Beltran - Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager
"My people have a saying..." belongs to First Officer Chakotay. A truly memorable character. TVGEN talked with actor Robert Beltran on the eve of Star Trek: Voyager's 100th episode and found there's a lot more than a mystical tag line behind that tattoo. John Walsh
A friend of yours once said you'd perform Shakespeare at a dog fight. Do you still have an appetite for the classics?
I really do. I love acting on stage, particularly Shakespeare's plays. I was lucky enough in college Fresno State to be in a department that emphasized plays with challenging language. So naturally Shakespeare was a huge part of that. And my first professional experience was with the California Shakespeare Festival. I had two years and a tour of pretty intense Shakespeare work.
It has turned out to be good training for what I'm doing now. Voyager is basically talking heads. There's some action, but most of the ideas are expressed in sometimes complex language.
"I relish the moments when I can use my whole body, instead of just working in an extreme close-up."
Star Trek: The Magazine
We're now nearing the end of Season Six, and we haven't seen any major episodes for Chakotay. Robert is philosophical--"The days off give me plenty of time to do other things!"--but thinks Chakotay deserves more. "Acting challenges only come in scenes where a situation or a relationship is being explored, but that hasn't been happening this year. I get my kicks acting in my acting class. But we still manage to have fun on the show; we have a great crew, and I still really enjoy working with my fellow actors."
Robert says some of the other cast members have a much stronger input in their roles than he does. "I think they write very well for Bob Picardo [the Doctor] because he talks to them often; he's very, very hands on with his character. They write very well for Kate because they know her too. With me, I think once they came to see me in Hamlet [which he directed and starred in] and it was very helpful for them to see what I'm capable of. But, like I said, they don't know me that well personally, so it makes it a little harder for them to find Chakotay's voice through me. With me and Robbie [Duncan McNeill] and Garrett [Wang] it's a little more difficult because we're not very specific; we're not a Talaxian or a doctor or a captain. So it's harder for them to write for us."
Returning to the stage
As for life outside STAR TREK, Robert's professional background was originally in the theater, and it's something he would like to return to as soon as he has the time. "That's the reason I became an actor," he says. "I always have to remind myself that I have to go back to the theater, because if I don't, I get stir crazy and I lose the reason I became an actor, and that's very frightening. You want a nice paying job where you can do seven years and build up your income and live the life that you've always dreamed of, but that doesnt take away the fact that I'm starving when I'm not doing theater, because that's what feeds me the most.
"But I do like the acting style of STAR TREK, because I like language; I like plays that have clarity and intelligence and, for the most part, STAR TREK has that too. I think stage actors generally do best on the shows because generally in the theater you're using language-driven plays such as Shakespeare, Shaw, and Tennesee Williams; everything is in the language, the subtext. The same is true of STAR TREK--even though the subtext is thin most of the time, you're dealing with intelligent and clear writing, and I always like that."
Robert hasn't joined the long line of STAR TREK actors who have ambitions to move behind the camera. "I love theater" he says "but I'm not in any hurry to direct a VOYAGER show. The actors on our show who have directed have done a very good job but I don't find there's enough inspiration for me to want to direct. Also for television I would have to get a little bit more educated with the process. Directing actors in a scene is no problem but the optimum positions of the camera is something that I need to learn, what kind of lens, that sort of thing: the technical aspects of it. But I suppose I would enjoy bossing all these other guys around."
Robert's film 'Luminarias,' a comedy drama starring Robert, Scott Bakula, and Cheech Marin, was released in April. The end of the current VOYAGER season will see Robert taking another film role, and continuing to develop future projects. "I'm currently working on 'Othello," which I'm going to do soon, but not soon enough unfortunately, as a theatrical production. Also, I'm collecting screenplays and trying to find something that I can take to some producers who are interested in doing something with me, but we haven't found the right vehicle yet.
"Also I would like to direct my own films. Not exclusively -- there are some directors that I want to work with, and would love to be directed by them -- but for the most part I think really good directors are rare, and that's why I think I would probably prefer to direct myself; that's why I stand or fall by my own decisions." And Robert is not averse to the idea of signing up for another long running series, if the right opportunity comes up. "There are more pluses than negatives to doing a long running series," he says. "I would go into another series if I liked the character and the premise, that's what drew me to VOYAGER, that I liked the character of Chakotay as they had mapped it out in the pilot, and I thought there were a lot of possibilities for something interesting to be done. So, yeah, I'd do another series!"
Thoughts on Chakotay
As VOYAGER heads for its seventh season what does Robert think of the character he's played for six years? "There's a very thin line between Kate and Katherine Janeway; there's a thicker line between me and Chakotay, but we have a lot in common on a basic level. It's other areas where we don't have anything in common, but that's where my imagination comes in.
"His spirituality is different from mine. I'm a Christian, so, although I respect other religions, Chakotay's doesn't inspire me; I just find it interesting the way I would find ESP or other phenomena interesting. So, in that sense, we're different. Also, I think I personally am a lot crazier than Chakotay, and I let my hair down a lot easier than he does. I wish I had his discipline; that's what I've given him I think. He's a guy who's very much in control of himself. I'm a lot moodier than he is. . . . Chakotay is very close to me."
It's between takes on Voyager's sixth season, and actor Robert Beltran has settled into his trailer for a brief respite while the crew sets up the next scene. For once, Voyager's First Officer is caught out of uniform, instead luxuriating in civvies while awaiting his call. Perhaps it was the influence of the clothing, then, that could explain Beltran's impromptu comedy that he'd added as he, Ethan "Neelix" Phillips, and guest star John Fleck rehearsed an uneventful segue scene in the transporter room.
Maintaining a sense of levity on the set is important to Beltran. "It's really the only way to get through a show like this," he explains. "You can look silly taking a show like this too seriously. I take the work seriously, but at the same time you try to have fun--otherwise it makes for very long, long days.
"Sometimes, [the show] approaches absurdity," he adds, laughing good-naturedly, "but that's part of the challenge: to make it real for the audience."
After six years on the air, episodes are bound to flow together in one's mind. "It's all part of the assembly line now," remarks Beltran matter-of-factly. "Only occasionally is there something really outstanding that is different from the rest of the stuff we've done before. This is not a criticism, it's just the way it is in episodic TV after you have been on the air five years and at least 130 performances. There is a certain amount of familiarity."
But the series has yet to become routine, in any sense of the word. Since the scripts are often delivered to him late before shooting, Beltran tends to read only his scenes and those necessary in order for him to understand his role in the context of the episode. "It is not unusual for us to get a script on Sunday night that we are supposed to start shooting on Monday," he notes. "This season has been hectic in that sense."
When asked about the nature of how the season has started out, Beltran pauses. "Since thus far none of the episodes have centered around Chakotay, I've only had a chance to read the scenes and prepare for the scenes that I'm in. So I'm not too familiar with the stories of the episodes that have happened so far this year." Usually, it's not difficult to extrapolate the story from what he had read. But, he acknowledges, in some ways his approach makes his job as an actor even harder. "I just have to know my scenes very, very well."
...Beltran hasn't really considered what he'd like to see the future hold for his on-screen persona. "I don't know," he admits unabashedly. "I'm asked that same question by the producers every year, at the beginning of every season. We always have a little meeting, and I don't [have much to contribute] because science fiction is very alien to me. I'm not a big science fiction guy. The only thing I ever ask is for well-written stories and interesting scenes. What more can you ask for than that? I don't have any agenda for the character. I like the fact that he's open-ended at the moment. The few suggestions that I have had had already been done [on other Star Trek series], and I just didn't know that. I don't watch Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, and I never watch the original series."
Most of his ideas centered around Holodeck adventures for Chakotay. "I had a space ball story, but the only thing they could possibly do with that would give my character some kind of unique departure from the past--a love interest or some Holodeck program," Beltran reasons. "I just don't think very imaginatively in terms of science fiction."
Although Beltran remains noncommittal when it comes to Chakotay's future, he does offer some thoughts on the character's past, way back in the early days of the show when a deeper relationship between the captain and Chakotay was hinted at, and yet tackled headon.
"While it was happening, I was happy with it. But I wasn't sure where it was going, so it was sort of like walking a tightrope because Kate [Mulgrew] and I didn't know whether they were ever going to have us consummate it or whatever," he recalls. "I thought it could have been interesting had [the producers] chosen to pursue that, but when they decided not to pursue it, I realized I kind of like the open-endedness of Chakotay. He could go anywhere, do anything, practically."
Just because Chakotay resides somewhere in the distant future, though, doesn't keep Beltran from finding some common ground with his alter ego. "The thing I like about him is that there is still a somewhat unknown quality to the character," muses Beltran. "There is something very mysterious about him--at least, that is what I try to convey, and that's what I try to have come across. That there is something about him that we do not know. And probably will never know. Maybe it is a tragedy in his life. Maybe it is a deep pain of some kind, maybe a restlessness that keeps him from being totally fulfilled." Whichever is on target, he adds, "That is something I identify with the character, or try to infuse from myself into the character."
Unlike several of his co-stars, Beltran has resisted the allure of the director's chair--for now. "I have not directed and I don't [plan on it]," he says. "To me, it's just a matter of being a traffic cop, and I'm not inspired. It's also the whole science fiction thing. If there was another series, maybe a different premise on a series, then maybe I would be challenged to do something like that. I like just about everything except science fiction and horror. I am interested in directing film, though, and I have directed in the theater, but for some reason I'm not that crazy about taking the time to direct a Voyager episode. It doesn't interest me that much." His stage directing credits include Hamlet, Albee's Tiny Alice and McLure's Lone Star among others.
Although Beltran has a background in the theater, he says stage training hasn't been particularly helpful preparation for the rigors of his weekly Star Treks. "Lots of training on stage is helpful, of course, because usually the theater is about the language," observes Beltran. "[Theater] gives you a certain facility with language--especially if you've done a lot of Shakespeare or other work by playwrights who use language brilliantly. For the life of me, though, if you can't visualize what you are talking about, it is really hard to commit it to your memory, whereas in Shakespeare you have a very specific image that allows you to grasp the lines so much easier. But with this technobabble stuff, you can be talking for a whole paragraph about something you have no idea of what it is. There's this thing I was talking about [recently] and it's just smoke and mirrors; there is no substance to it. And for me, it is just so hard to talk about something and to put to memory something you can't see. It's why I have a problem with technobabble."
Beltran's issue with science fiction is the sheer fantasy of it all. Citing the episode he's in the midst of filming, he points out nonchalantly, "There's a ship that maneuvers at the speed of your thoughts. That seems rather fantastic, doesn't it? As an actor, I just can't swallow that stuff. To me it is pure fantasy. I like things that are a little bit more grounded in reality. That's my problem with science fiction. It is just my own particular taste."
While Beltran accepts Voyager's roots, . . . Initially, he hadn't been quite as prepared for what he was getting himself into by joining with Starfleet. "I had no idea, really. The reality was not even in my consciousness," he admits. "The Phenomenon was not something that was a part of my daily life, but I was aware of it. It wasn't until I got to be in the show that I realized how it pervades everything. What's amazing is how people react to [Star Trek], and what it means to them. the fans of the show feel so strongly about it."
As a child, Beltran always enjoyed acting; as a young adult, he decided to study acting in college, "just because I always liked it. I liked it in elementary school, and I liked it in junior high school and high school and college," remembers Beltran. It was on the encouragement of others that he decided to major in acting while at California State University at Fresno. "The more I did it, the more I realized that [acting] fulfilled a lot of things that I need in my life--an active imagination, and a lot of elements that challenge you intellectually and spiritually. As far as a vocation goes, I couldn't ask for anything better. Even though I have done things that weren't that challenging, the times that I have [been able to do so] more than make up for it. I don't mind really working hard, and I love the work."
As much as he enjoys his craft in general, Beltran does have some preferences within his field--not the least of which being stories set outside the science fiction and horror genres. "I like the process [of acting for television] a lot more than the finished product. In the theater, I love every minute of the rehearsals. and I also love performances. With film and television, though, in general I hate the process because it depends on the material. If it is a script I really, really love, then the process is wonderful. If it's something that I am only doing because I need to work to make some money, then is is sheer boredom and tediousness."
One thing that took some getting used to was acting in front of a blue screen when shooting special effects shots. "In a way, acting in front of the camera can be absurd, because oftentimes you're not looking at the person that you should be doing the scene with because there's a light in the way. And it's more so in Star Trek because a lot of times we're looking up at the screen viewing whatever's going on in outer space, and we're supposed to react to this stuff that we're not really seeing!"
While good visual effects are integral to Voyager, from Beltran's perspective, it's the story and not the visual that distinguish one Voyager episode from another. The handful that stand out, he adds, are those built around his character, "If it's another character's story, than normally you are in one or two scenes spouting off the stuff on the bridge that we do every week. There is not much you can invest in that to make it really special. But if the episode revolves around you [as an actor], then more than likely you will find something that is very good," he observes. . . ."Tattoo". . .'Unforgettable.'. . . "Timeless". . . . the episode "The Fight" stemmed from one of Beltran's few suggestions for his character, namely, to incorporate boxing into Chakotay's storyline. . . . [and]"In The Flesh."
While Beltran hopes that there are some moments he'll be able to sink his teeth into over the course of the year, . . . It is good to explore "the little interesting quirks and dynamics in the relationships he has with the other crew member," he explains. "The only thing really that I expect from a script is that it make sense and that there are no breaches in the character as it's been drawn up until that point. All I've ever wanted from the script is for it to tell a good story. I think that the high quality of the writing [has been] maintained; and the little one-hour morality plays [we do] can be intriguing."
And, he adds, "They've done fine by Chakotay; and I'd like to keep encouraging [the writers and producer] to keep coming up with whatever it is they want to do. Most of the time, its a lot of fun to do the material. I take each episode one at a time.
This interview was sometime towards the end of Season Seven - but I am not sure from where or by whom.
ROBERT BELTRAN IS PERHAPS A LITTLE MORE READY TO LEAVE STAR TREK VOYAGER THAN SOME OF THE OTHER ACTORS: "I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO STARTING SOMETHING NEW. I AM GOING TO MISS EVERYBODY, BUT I THINK IT'S TIME TO MOVE ON. I'LL BE BACK TO BEING A GYPSY AGAIN, AND GYPSIES CAN'T MAKE DEFINITE PLANS."
The actor did enjoy Season Seven more than the previous few, especially episodes like "Shattered," the two-parter "Workforce," and Natural Law," where Chakotay actively advanced the plot.
"This year they have gotten a little bit back on track with Chakotay, as opposed to the fifth and sixth year where they were totally off the wall" he says.
Beltran has attempted to keep some consistency for his character and maintain certain of his traits throughout all seven seasons, and he believes he has been successful. "I think it was a pretty symbiotic relationship that I had with the writers," he explains. "When I have my input in my character, then I can fix a lot of things [I disagree with]. I think that the firmness, and the steadfast loyalty, and the sensitivity that he started out with I was able to maintain. . . .By trying to make the Janeway character all-knowing, all-powerful, they tended to weaken the Chakotay character, but I did my best to counteract that whatever way that I could."
Favorite episodes for Beltran include Season Four's "Unforgettable," which guest starred Virginia Madsen, and two fifth season segments with the late Ray Walston reprising Boothby, "In The Flesh" and "The Fight." He also enjoyed Season One's "Parallax" and the next year's "Tattoo" and "Maneuvers." These episodes all featured a closer look at Chakotay, as well as some early Maquis plot elements. About the Maquis, Beltran recalls, "I thought that was always a nice little something to be able to use, character-wise."
Beltran speaks warmly about Voyager fans and their help. Most of the actors support charitable causes, and Beltran's yearly Galaxy Ball raises funds for the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles. "I really have a lot of respect, and I appreciate the fans quite a bit," he says. "I appreciate their loyalty to the show. I appreciate the support that they give the charities that all of us actors on the show support. The fans have been very, very good about getting behind them and helping raise money. I just can't say enough about how wonderful that is."
Finally, would Beltran don the tattoo and play Chakotay again? His answer, like many of his answers, is guarded. "I would not come back and do a guest starring role for one episode," he says, speaking of a visit on a hypothetical future television show. "I would not be interested in that. If there was something a little bit more long term, and I felt like they could guarantee me a certain amount of quality in the writing and the arc of the character and what they were going to do with it , if I felt secure, then I wouldn't have any problem with it."
What about a feature film appearance as Chakotay? "I would have to read the script," he offers. "If I felt that there was something worthwhile for me to do as an actor, sure."