An Interview with John Billingsley, Part 1: Billingsley IS Phlox
This summer, a few days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began, actor John Billingsley graciously opened up about his role as Doctor Phlox, the first Denobulan character ever and chief medical officer on Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005). “Yeah, it’s kind of cool. It’s a cool gig, I gotta say,” he enthused. “I have played no end of schizos, lunatics, perverts, wackos, serial killers, assholes, bullies, and dimwits.”
Indeed, John has had a long career as a character actor in film and TV, with his credits on IMDb running into the hundreds. I recently watched him opposite Aubrey Plaza in Emily the Criminal (2022), where he opens the film as a bureaucratic jerk who will not hire or help the titular character, toppling the first domino in the story where Emily considers crime as her vocation.
“To play Doctor Phlox for four years, it’s somebody closer to my own temperament and worldview.”
He says this with great, warm conviction while simultaneously punctuating the greatest pain of this work. “Four years” is uttered with bittersweet sadness — perhaps longer than the typical run for most series TV, but three years less than TNG, DS9, and Voyager each got. Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled early, some say a victim of being the fourth new Star Trek TV series after the original, but a bigger contributor was being on a failing network (UPN) in a recently post-9/11 world. Launching a show that had flying ships exploding was jarring since flying aircraft destruction was fresh in the minds of the public.
Billingsley strongly waxes about Doctor Phlox. “A man who not only is intelligent and charming, but is mostly positive, optimistic and sensitive and sensible, with a sort of a Buddhist-like outlook, was a great joy and probably the highlight of my career. This part was very dear to me and it does mean a lot to me to have been the first Denobulan.”
Protective for sure, I was already corrected for mispronouncing “Denobulan”, but I got a lesson from the first Denobulan on how to say it correctly. “Start with ‘don’t know,’ but relaxed: ‘Dunno.’ I repeat, ‘Dunno.’ Now add ‘blue in.’ Dunno-blue-in. Dunnobluein, Denobulan.”
I earn a passing grade, but realize that one of John Billingsley’s strengths is to get things right. Feeling bad about my initial pronunciation failure, I share that a recent episode of Strange New Worlds (“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”) had a background actor playing a Denobulan and that Lower Decks and Prodigy have had Denobulans from time to time. “Background actor and a couple of cartoons,” he sarcastically tallies.
Then John realizes that, by the time when Strange New Worlds is set, “I (Doctor Phlox) could still be alive. I’d be an old f***er, but I’d still be around. So, you know, let’s put that in the article. John Billingsley will work, I don’t want to say scale, but John Billingsley will work.” John is always working, but he would love especially to embody Phlox again, although the current writers’ strike and looming actors’ strike mean “nobody is working now.”
Doctoring the Drama
On Enterprise, John was typically number seven out of seven on the call sheet, not having many bridge scenes. However, he would frequently tease the other cast regulars (especially Dominic Keating) about his leisurely pace, to the tune of “Day-O” in his best Harry Belafonte voice: “Day off, Daaay off/Six days off and the checks still come.” He spared me more of his singing, but promised me that he puckishly ribbed Dominic Keating with the multiple verses he wrote in his spare time.
John explains that Doctor Phlox walked a delicate balance in the character salad of Enterprise. He was both a comedic foil and a deadly serious, capable physician. He was an outsider to the human experience, could see the comedy in the situations the cast found themselves in, but was often professorial and the smartest guy in the scene because of his medical training and experience across many cultures.
Phlox was played for laughs and got CGI support. Billingsley estimates that his ear-to-ear grin was a $10,000 effect at the time, and as the series got more budget attention, that detail was not repeated often. His face did blow up like a puffer fish, which was another amusing effect. Phlox could climb like a squirrel, and his family dynamic of multiple romantic partners was a comedy trove. He speculates that Phlox might have more unusual traits or powers, without speculating what they are.
However, most of the comedy added by Phlox was character-based and organic to the dynamics of a scene. While having experience in typical sitcoms, Billingsley did not like the forced nature of playing a scene for a joke.
John Billingsley played “many Shakespearean clowns” as a stage actor, but his personal preference was for the challenging dynamics of Chekhov. “I love Chekhov. Chekhov always said he was writing comedies. It’s very challenging to find a way to make a Chekhov play work as a drama and a comedy. I think they are the best. I mean, he’s like Shakespeare to me. I haven’t been a stage actor in a decade, I loved doing Chekhov when I was younger.”
The stakes in the episode “Dear Doctor” did not escape John Billingsley. The episode allowed him to “throw his (acting) elbows.” He’d been coasting until — midway through the first season — he got the script for “Dear Doctor”, a script and episode he loved, with one major exception.
He appreciated the hefty screen time his character had and loved getting to work out his role while learning more about Phlox and his culture and choices. “The more you’re on screen, the more comfortable you become with the way the guy walks and talks — his cadences, his behaviors, his quirks, his nuances, and how his sense of humor functions.”
He worked out the apparent contradiction his character dealt with — being from a planet with a massive population and overcrowding, and yet, being skittish about unintentional touch. Billingsley decided that a crowded planet had very nuanced rules about personal space, since it was a response to the planet’s conditions. “Why is somebody who is smooshed up against so many people antsy when touched on the shoulder? And I had to come up with a justification for that, which was kind of rooted in the idea that, because space is at a premium on Denobula, people are extremely observant of your personal space,” he said. “So, it’s almost fetishized on Denobula that you don’t make casual contact. It’s interesting when you’re playing somebody from a brand new culture, how you have to make those decisions almost immediately and justify them almost immediately. That was kind of interesting about that episode.”
He fondly remembered the director, James A Contner, and his prominent scene partner Kellie Waymire, playing Crewman Elizabeth Cutler, and Scott Bakula as Captain Archer. “(Contner) was a great guy. I really, really liked him. He was gentle and kind. Man, we worked very well together.” Kellie Waymire was on the way to playing a possible love interest for Phlox as a recurring character, but an undiagnosed heart disease tragically ended her life too soon. “Everybody loved her. She really wanted the gig.”
Billingsley also deeply enjoyed working with the show’s captain, Scott Bakula. “Of course I loved working with Scott. Scott is a joy. He is the nicest guy in Hollywood and an amazing captain of our set. He really understands what it is to be the quarterback of a show.You are a leader. You know everyone’s names. You help celebrate everybody’s birthdays and marriages and events,” he continued. “Your temperament and attitude sets the tone. And I’ve been on shows where number one is kind of a dick. Scott as number one made our show work, because he created a very happy place.”
The major flaw of the episode was the ultimate choice Doctor Phlox and Captain Archer struggle over. Ultimately, Phlox takes a pro-genocide position, but the captain tries to talk him out of this. However, Phlox ends up convincing the captain to go his way. “And, you know, I think I shouldn’t speak for Scott, but I believe he shared a similar concern,” Billingsley stated. “I mean, I kind of felt like it’s a justification for a genocidal act.” Phlox withholds a cure for a culturally and politically dominant species, in favor of a long-term support for a subjugated species, immune to the disease. “I can play both sides of it, but it was a little hard to square in my first (featured) episode.”
The installment couched the dilemma as a Prime-Directive-versus-genocide issue. “It was just weird being on the up-with-genocide team.” Billingsley does think the episode was very Star Trek, since it gets the viewer to think about medical ethics, subjugated (enslaved) people, class privilege, and immediate versus long-term consequences. The Prime Directive is, “for dramatic purposes, a brilliant idea. Are we violating the Prime Directive? We can, we can’t; we should, we shouldn’t. The Prime Directive is (really) kind of bullshit. If you really want the Prime Directive, don’t go out there. To meet is to influence, to stick out your hand is to influence.”
In part two, John talks about his influences and personal prime directives, giving back. He discusses his work in his community and friendships with co-workers from the Star Trek family — from show sets to conventions and community activism, aka Trek-tivism.
Frank Kennedy writes and performs original material for thoughtful audiences including a once, sold out off-Broadway stage in the pre-pandemic days. He blends his skills as a storyteller and sleight-of-hand magician, telling poignant stories of fatherhood with sons living on the Autism Spectrum. Watching Star Trek almost daily with his Mom as a teen – during the post-cancelation syndicated-rerun days of The Original Series – he is proud that he was part of the fan enthusiasm that turned Trek into a continuum of shows and films, rather than a forgotten canceled show with poor ratings. Along with devouring new Trek content, he has filled his life with adventures to over sixty countries, boldly going and learning about cultures on the planet Earth.