Star Trek Communicator
Issue number 142
pages 58 thru 61.
When John Billingsley was introduced to Dr. Phlox, the character he would inhabit on Enterprise, he drew on his theatrical training to flesh out the alien physician beyond a vague sketch in a writers' guide. He delved beyond a meager description of the chief medical officer's duties and alien lineage to craft a back story with motivation and appeal.
He speculated on Phlox's race, his culture and his personal history. What Billingsley did not anticipate was playing a guy with a 16-inch tongue. "Fans want to know more about Phlox and Denobulans, but writers have been sparing in their details, as they should," Billingsley says as he continues his work on the second season of Enterprise. "I suspect it's a gradual process with Phlox. You don't want to go too far, too fast." But episodes dealing with Phlox's physicality, which now includes a lengthy tongue and warty toenails that double as sustenance for some of the various critters in the NX-01's sickbay, have taken aback plenty of people- Billingsley among them. "Well, I have had to let go of some of the details about Phlox that I made up because they contradict what the writers are doing," he says good-naturedly. "But my character is pretty much the same as I envisioned from the start. I feel that we all are simpatico with the character."
Billingsley says he continues to relish his role as the 22nd-century chief medical officer of Enterprise as much as he did when he signed aboard in the spring of 2001. A stage performer and character actor of television and film, the Pennsylvania native says he enjoys his calls to the Enterprise stages, that his makeup sessions are not terribly daunting to endure, and that his turn on the series is all he expected it to be. "I'm having a great time," he says. "It's such a wonderful group of people. It's a real pleasure to go to work every day." He is also enjoying getting to know Dr. Phlox, the articulate and amiable Enterprise physician and one of only two non-humans on board the pioneering ship under the command of Capt. Jonathan Archer.
Over the course of several dozen episodes, crew members and viewers alike have become more familiar with the first Denobulan depicted on a Star Trek series, but not so much that Phlox has exhausted his ability to intrigue audiences. "They (Enterprise writers and producers) have not consulted me on these matters, but there's no reason they should. They are letting fans have information slowly." "For instance," he goes on chuckling, "I have a long tongue, something like 16 or 17 inches. I have to take care to groom my toenails. I have three wives but am estranged from some of my children. And that is about all they've revealed so far." But when information is forthcoming about the good doctor, it can come in large doses.
This season's outing "A night in Sickbay" offered, as one might gather from the title, a few glimpses of Phlox's routine, warts and all. After the captain's canine companion, Porthos, becomes infected with a deadly virus during a landing on an alien planet, Archer becomes troubled about the pup's well-being and volunteers to spend a night in sickbay to help tend to his needs. Noticing such habits in the doctor as his tongue combing and toenail clipping, Archer concludes that sickbay might be the last place he would prefer to convalesce himself. "Much of the show is dedicated to Captain Archer and me as the 'odd couple,' Billingsley explains. "They billed the show as Captain Archer pushing the envelope of his sexuality- but I wanted to push the show in a direction unlike any it has gone. I said 'Well, I have three wives- what if I had three... well, other things?'
Chris Black (co-executive producer) joked back and said I could not have three because they were planning for me to have five!" "I envisioned this scene where the crew walks into sickbay and unexpectedly finds me naked- and their expressions range from shock to astonishment and awe," Billingsley adds with a hearty laugh. " Somehow, I don't think it will come to pass." Billingsley continues to hold out for one hope relating to Phlox's procreative life. He thinks it would be great were his real-life wife, actress Bonita Friedericy, to be given a chance at playing one of Phlox's wives. Actually, he says, he'd like to see her play all three. (Viewers do get a glimpse of actress Melinda Page Hamilton as one of Phlox's wives, Feezal, in the upcoming "Stigma".) Humor has tinged many of Dr. Phlox's dealings with the Enterprise crew, Billingsley says, although he hopes that is not setting an unchangeable course for future adventures. "Phlox should not be all comic relief," the actor says. "There is a serious side to explore in Phlox.
He is an anthropologist, someone who is immersed into alien culture and cut off from his own people. How would that change you and your ability to relate to your own culture again? We could explore that down the road. He wants to understand humans and their feelings so much. And the only person on board with whom he can discuss those feelings is the only person on board who refuses to talk about feelings at all." A somewhat sinister undertone to Phlox surfaced in Season 2's "Singularity", in which the Enterprise crew was rendered all but helpless by obsessive-compulsive behavior brought on by radiation from a nearby black hole. In Phlox, that obsession manifested as an unstoppable drive to cure Ensign Mayweather of a headache- one that nearly leads him to lobotomize the unsuspecting helmsman. "The fundamental characters now are more fully realized," he says. "I'm glad for them to use me to provide humor now and again, but I don't want my character to only appear silly. He is intelligent and has a great sense of wonder."
When Phlox is not busy aboard Enterprise, Billingsley is busy himself with a number of other projects. Earlier this year, he portrayed a scruffy sidekick to Denzel Washington in Out of Time, a film due out this summer. The drama, which Billingsley describes as a film noir-ish tale of a sleepy Florida town and a police officer, played by Washington, framed for murder. "It was great working for Carl Franklin again," says Billingsley of the director who also filmed him in High Crimes just before Enterprise shot its pilot. "This is a summer popcorn escapist picture, and it was a lot of fun. I'm a character actor; they never cast me as the toothsome hunk, and that's fine.
I enjoy the three-dimensional characters instead." Billingsley remains very interested in the stage, his true performing love. Although he has not tackled a theater role in some time, he has taken part in reader's theater performances, including his reading of William Inge's Pulitzer-winning Picnic that was directed by his wife last fall. Performed in a Los Angeles park, the event was part of the Forest Service TreePeople's "Once Upon A Canyon Night" series. He has also channeled some of his energy into internet projects at johnbillingsley.net- among them, most notibly for him, a book club. Billingsley's interest in literature once took root in a theater project begun in 1990 called BOOKIT, which adapted works of fiction for the stage.
When it began, performers were reading short stories for audiences, going so far as to interpret dialogue and narrative passages from the printed page to the stage. As Billingsley himself departed the theater company, its members had started their move to longer works of ficion, including popular novels of the day. As the performer finds himself more often perusing a book rather than a play script, he hit upon the idea of initiating a dialog with Star Trek fans about writing he liked.
So far, the "John Billingsley Book Club" has tackled discussion on several volumes including Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and Modern Times by Paul Johnson. The reaction of the book club's readership to Modern Times, a dense historical tome spanning more than 700 pages, made Billingsley take a second look at his ideas for future selections. "It- well, it didn't sit well with most readers," he says and laughs. "But I still like the idea of the club. We'll read books together, post discussions about them, and sometimes not everyone will participate.
People will come and go as their interest takes them." In his furloughs from production, Billingsley hopes to do some traveling with his wife to destinations around the globe. He expects that some of their traveling will be linked to Star Trek conventions, which he says he has come to enjoy. "The fans are great," he says, "and they greet you with extreme sincerity. It's a real pleasure." As to whether Phlox will find a new legion of fans with each additional revelation into his character or race, Billingsley laughs and says that only time will tell. "I just don't know what will happen next," he says, "I just play it as they write it."