Robert Duncan McNeill- Lt. Tom Paris
      By Ian Spelling and Joe Nazzaro

Many things have changed for Robert Duncan McNeill since he first stepped onto the STAR TREK: VOYAGER sets nearly three years ago. Things have changed for McNeill as an actor and for Tom Paris, the character he plays on the show. Things have also changed behind the camera, as McNeill recently followed in the footsteps of such STAR TREK predecessors as Jonathan Frakes, Levar Burton, Avery Brooks and Rene Auberjonois in making the transition from actor to director.

"That's a lot of ground to cover in so short a time," notes McNeill. ,,Robert Beltran and l were talking the other day. I said to him, 'I feel like I've come full circle as an actor on the show.' I tended to do a lot of very realistic, modern, naturalistic kinds of work before STAR TREK-contemporary shows. On STAR TREK, with the fantasy element and all of these special effects, sometimes you get carried away in an acting style where you experiment with the acting and don't trust that playing it naturally will be enough. So, you tend to try to help it. There was a time where we all might have been guilty of this as actors. I think all of us realized, especially this season, that the best thing for the show is for us to just trust the material and play it as honestly and realistically as we can.

"Even in those moments when there are aliens and spaceships flying around, we really have to focus on the simple honesty of how to play those moments. That's what works best. We've all made an effort this third season to do that, to really give some grounded performances and not play into the theatrical quality of this show. I think that's what made STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION a success. The actors almost underplayed, sometimes, the theatrical quality. That, in a way, made it all the more believable."

As for Tom Paris, specifically, his development has been quite intriguing. He began as a cocky womanizer with a chip on his shoulder. Briefly, he even seemed to fancy captain Janeway. Subsequent episodes found him hanging out at Sandrine's, the holographic pool hall and bar, where he continued his womanizing ways. Later, he became involved in a Paris/Neelix/Kes romantic triangle that even the show's producers now admit was ill-advised. As the Kazon-voyager situation unfolded, Paris seemed distracted and angry, and particularly hostile toward Chakotay, all of which was revealed to be part of a ruse to fool Seska and the Kazon into thinking that he might willingly betray his ship mates.

McNeill was none too pleased with all the character jockeying and let his feelings be known to executive producer Jeri Taylor. "My nature is to let the writers do what they want to do and stick to my Job.  I have to say, though, that my character sometimes became talking wallpaper, acknowledges McNeill. ,,I said to Jeri [during the second season], I don't want to be one of those actors who's really outspoken and complaining, and telling you what to do, but l want to contribute.' That's really my biggest goal, to contribute. I love the show. I love the people. And I want to be here doing something. tried to become much more involved in stories and let them know my feelings about what they're writing as it goes.

They established a really interesting character in the pilot and then they were afraid to develop all of the things that were interesting and flawed about him. The fact that he was a ladies man was something they established, but then they got afraid of it. They didn't want to insult the female audience and they wanted to have a real Starfleet, romantic hero. but then I only had one real romantic interest in three seasons. The Doctor has had three or four. They got very afraid of some of these qualities they introduced in Paris. I think they emphasized the negative aspects of his rebellious side. What's positive in that is that he's somebody who thinks for himself. His being creative, being able to think for himself and being willing to break the rules can help him solve problems. That's something they never quite got, that the loose cannon quality can sometimes be an asset. Now, this season, they're trying to show that a little more. They're making their strongest attempt so far to really develop this character.

,,What we're all trying to do this season is define each of these characters and separate them a bit. I think there was a mistake made in the first and second seasons because they wanted to make all of us fit into Starfleet and what had been established over the previous series. They developed a sameness about all of the characters. We all became wonderful examples of Starfleet officers. Even Neelix, who's from the Delta Quadrant, was suddenly fitting right in with Starfleet rules and regulations. Right now, the writers realize there are many differences in our characters that they need to emphasize, and they are. We need to do more of that, expose what's inside the characters emotionally and really make them different from one another."

Fans may also have noticed that season three of STAR TREK: VOYAGER has brought with it far more humor than has been seen before. Yes, the crew is still thousands of years from home. But, no, they aren't constantly bemoaning their fate, as they did in episodes past. Gone, too, is much of the earnestness and seriousness on view during seasons one and two. Now, in fact, it's not unusual to hear Janeway, Kim or even Tuvok make a wry, dry observation.

McNeill points to Q's latest adventure, ,"The Q and the Grey," as a case in point. ,,Q obviously has a history of being a very funny character, but they allowed all of us to have a few of the same sort of moments Q has all the time," notes McNeill. "We all got to deliver a few comic lines. There has also been a change in attitude that the producers have asked us to keep in mind, and that's to embrace this adventure we're on. We've stopped showing the audience how much we want to get home.  We're really enjoying where we are and if we get home quicker, that's great. If not, we're going to have some fun on the adventure. That attitude is great for Paris. He doesn't want to go home. He could go back to prison if he gets home. He's very happy being lost in the Delta Quadrant. I like the changes we've been making and 1 think the audience has responded to them."

One thing that hasn't changed much about STAR TREK: VOYAGER is the fun that the cast has off-camera. The actors are a tightknit bunch and seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company. No one takes themselves very seriously and it makes for a rather laugh-filled set. ,,It helps a lot," says McNeill. ,,In fact, that's what Jonathan, LeVar and some of the other actors we've met from 
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION said they felt made the difference in their show, and made it as successful as it was, the fact that they really enjoyed each other's company. They really had a blast on the set, and didn't take themselves too seriously. Even Patrick Stewart, who certainly could have, didn't. He was one of the biggest practical jokers around. They said it took them a few years to get there, and we seem to be there right from the beginning.

,,I agree with them. I think that camaraderie, that chemistry you develop, that silliness and fun really translates onto the screen, and people see that communication and bonding, and that's what makes the difference in a TV series. You want to see a cast every week who have that spark, that real enjoyment of the work, and I've seen lots of work on television where you can watch the actors and it
looks like they're in pain. They're not having fun. They don't want to be there. They aren't really talking with the other people in the scene with them; they're just doing their own work by themselves. l find that really boring. I think we want to see that spark."

Among the on-screen relationships between Tom Paris and the rest of the crew, there's n question that the one most often and most deeply explored has been that with Harry Kim. They were established as instant friends in "The Caretaker" pilot and have continued to be pals. "They've really expanded that relationship. We've seen Paris and Kim have same fun and we've seen them in action together in episodes like "The Chute," when things got serious. That's good," McNeill enthuses. ,,There are some other relationships that have never really been explored enough, in my opinion. One thing that's going to happen this season; at least it has been mentioned to me that they want  to do this, is there may be a relationship between Paris and B'Elanna. They're both strongwilled people and it would be great to create a little sexual tension there. We're not exactly sure what will develop out of it, but there's definitely a little flirtation going an.

"Don't you think that would make a very interesting romance, Paris and B'Elanna? I never thought the Kes thing was right. It made Paris look really bad, flirting with Kes. Luckily, last season they really cleared that up and dropped it so Neelix and Paris could became the odd couple. I would love to do more episodes with Neelix. Tom Paris and Neelix are a great odd couple, and Ethan Phillips and I get along so well. We have so much fun together that would love to do more episodes with him."

McNeill may very well get the chance to make that happen one day and, if he's lucky, he might even get to direct one or two more episodes. The actor became the first STAR TREK: VOYAGER cast member to direct an episode when he helmed ,"Sacred Ground." That show, in which Janeway tried to save Kes after the Ocampa entered a Nechani shrine and was hit by a bolt of energy, was actually lensed late in the second season and held over until season three. McNeill recalls that one of the first things he did after being cast as Paris was meet with executive producer Rick Berman and tell him how much he wanted to direct. McNeill mentioned that he had hoped to direct an episode of his previous series, Going to Extremes, and that he was first in line to do so. The show, however, was cancelled before an opportunity to direct arose. Berman also heard McNeill recount how he had spent a year assisting a director of the hit sitcom Home Improvement after Going to Extremes vanished from the airwaves.

Clearly, McNeill wanted to direct. "I did, but it's a hard, hard nut to crack, going from actor to director. It's hard to get that first break. I let Rick know right away that I wanted to do it," he says. Time passed. The first season of STAR TREK: VOYAGER ended and McNeill was not tapped to direct. Apparently, Berman wanted McNeill to grow more familiar with his character, with the inner workings of a STAR TREK series, with every nook and cranny of the show's sets. One weekend day during the series' second season, while McNeill was attending a convention, the actor received a message while checking out of a hotel: "Call your wife! Emergency!"

McNeill's wife explained that Berman had called that morning and wanted McNeill to phone him at home as soon as possible. Mrs. McNeill was agitated. She thought for sure that Berman had called to inform her husband he had been fired. ,"She said, 'Why would he call on a weekend unless there's something really wrong?' I said, 'OK, don't worry. I'll call him now and I'll call you right back.' So, I did," he remembers with a laugh. ",Rick said some things in scheduling had gotten a little screwy and there was a directing slot available in two weeks, was I ready to start? I said, Absolutely.' I didn't have much time to get nervous."

So, what proved to be the greatest challenge in bringing ,,Sacred Ground" to the screen? ,,The biggest challenge in TV and especially in STAR TREK is that there's not enough time to do it. Doing a VOYAGER is like doing a feature film every week. We have seven shooting days to do it. You walk an the stage and you're already behind," McNeill observes. ,,So, the biggest challenge to me was managing the time. I didn't realize how much, as a director, you have to pick and choose your battles. You can't go after the whale script as if it will be a work of art. You have to pick and choose your moments where you'll put your money and your time. You try to fly through the scenes that take place an the Bridge, in the Ready Room, in the typical sets where you're basically giving a lot of Information. It's an the planets and an the other sets that you try to do something special."

Since beaming aboard VOYAGER, McNeill has closely watched the directors who've put him through his paces, especially those, like Frakes and Burton, who are actor/directors. ,Jonathan was a wonderful inspiration. I kind of amalgamated a number of directors from our show. Many people said, "Oh, you're just like Jonathan. In same ways, yes, 1 am," he agrees. In other ways, though, Jonathan and 1 are very different. He's a kind of performer when he's directIng. He keeps everyone laughing an the set. There's a real high energy level with Jonathan directing. My personality tends to lean more toward LeVar's, maybe. When LeVar directs, there's a little more quiet an the set. Maybe it was because I was quite nervous during my first show, hut I wasn't running around laughing and joking.

"Anyway," continues McNeill, "Jonathan is great at cutting through everything and getting to the paint of what needs to be done to get a moment, to shoot a scene efficiently. LeVar was great to watch. Les Landau was a real help. Rick Berman was very important to watch as well. 1 sat for a year-and-a-half as he gave notes an dailies and episode cuts directed by other people. So, I guess no one person was my inspiration, everyone was.

McNeill reports that he also picked up a few lessons about acting while directing. ,,As an actor, you learn to attack a script from a very individual character point-of-view. I look at a script and say ,'OK, here's the story, hut how do I portray Tom Paris' point-of view here?' That's usually my focus. What I've been learning is how to read a script from a different perspective, to step back and read it first as an audience member and watching everybody's point-of-view, and then as a storyteller. How can I go in there and visually tell this story? How can I let the camera assist me in telling this story, rather than just setting it on a tripod, turning it on and saying, 'Go!' The amount of assistance a camera can give you is immense. You can use the movement of the camera, the different lenses and types as photography to tell the story. And that's what I've been learning."

Ultimately, McNeill got the episode he hoped to get. "I'm really happy with it," he asserts. ,"Everybody contributed. I tried to incorporate everyone's ideas. It's the kind of episode that's very much a thinking person's, moody piece. It's not a big shoot ,em up. It's a story of ideas, of feelings, of character journeys. It was wonderful for me to have that as the first episode because I got to focus on the actors. My next show is the one that introduces the Borg, the ones you saw in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT to our show. It's a different challenge to direct an action piece."

What with his getting to direct at least one and perhaps two more episodes this season, and with all the alterations in the show, Robert Duncan McNeill couldn't feel more positive about STAR TREK: VOYAGFR these days. "Everybody is very excited and sort of re- energized. We've made some really good improvements. THE NEXT GENERATION and DEEP SPACE NINE both took a couple of seasons to get going. And we're not unique in that way. We had a real good premise, but it bas taken us a couple of seasons to find our own distinct way, which we have now. We're really good now and I think you'll see that we're all going to get better and better."

Tom Paris has figured prominently in a good many adventures since the actor's last Interview in STARLOG #213. Now, Robert Duncan McNeill takes a few moments to reflect on those shows:

"Ex Post Facto"
"It was interesting for me as an actor, because It was a little bit different in style. LeVar Burton shot it in a film noir style, and it was written in a very Raymond Chandler-ish tone. What didn't work about it was the way it ended up being like a Murder, She Wrote episode, with all the characters sitting around, and here's the big summary of what really happened. The structure of that episode didn't quite resolve itself in a satisfying way. It was formulaic the way it resolved itself, but a good part of that episode was really interesting. I thought the idea of crime and punishment, where the criminal has to relive his victim's experience, was a great premise and perfect for STAR TREK."

"Our 'Neelix as a Journalist' episode. In the Original draft, I only had one or two scenes and they wrapped up the story. So, it was a last-minute save on that show. There still could have been more explanation of what 1 had been going through."

"That's my favorite episode so far. I loved that one. It was a perfect combination of really good character development combined with some jeopardy and a little bit of action. Jonathan Frakes was a blast to work with on that one and Ethan Phillips and l laughed all day long."

"That was a bizarre show. It really was. When I read the first draft, I couldn't get It. I thought they took on much more than could be handled in one episode. But it was fun to put on the makeup and it helped them win an Emmy. Also, I got to sleep with Janeway and she became the mother of my worm child Iike a few scenes that I thought were important for Paris. I like the onewhere I explain to Janeway how I need to prove myself by breaking the warp speed barrier. And I helped them rewrite the episode's final scene. I did not feel the Original story ended very well. I was pleased because l got to have some input into how to resolve the story."

"The Chute" and ,"The Swarm" 
back-to-back episodes in which Paris was gravely injured: ,"I said to the producers, ,I thought we were going to make me an action hero this year, not a victim. I keep winding up on the verge of death. 'The Chute,' I loved. Les Landau was making his farewell show with that episode. He was going off to work with Steven Spielberg on High lncident. So, Les was experimenting with styles he could use on bis next series. Much of 'The Chute' was done with hand-held cameras. Again, I love when we can do VOYAGER differently. 'The Chute' was sort of a combination of The Road Warrior and NYPD Blue. lt was a very gond show, and Garrett Wang and I had some very meaty stuff to do."
"The Swarm' was fun for me because I had my first little flirting scene with B'Elanna in that one. I see that they'r going to develop that somehow. They're going to do it slow and steady, I think. l'm looking forward to seeing how that develops."

"Future's End"
That was a lot of fun .I got to have a romantic interest that was very innocent. lt was a nice change. That's something we've been talking about for two years. How to deal with Paris' interest in the ladies with out making him look like a cad. They did a real nice job of giving me a love interest that was sincere and affectionate without recalling all my casual remarks about tbe Delaney sisters."

Robbie's on the cover! See image.

Taken from the Star Trek Voyager Magazine Issue 11, April 1997.