Intelligence's John Billingsley

EXCLUSIVE: John Billingsley talks Intelligence and Enterprise, 'the show that killed' Star Trek

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Jan 20, 2014, 7:03 PM EST (Updated)

Actor John Billingsley is not the smartest man in the world. In fact, trying to keep up with the concepts and dialogue of his new character on CBS's Intelligence has stretched him in the most unique ways, said the actor in an exclusive interview with Blastr. 

Billingsley, a longtime character actor who played Dr. Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise, has taken on the role of another doctor in Intelligence. Instead of playing an alien, however, he plays Dr. Shenendoah Cassidy, a computer scientist/neuroscientist who creates “a chip that when inserted into a man's brain essentially allows him to interface and interact with every bit of electronic gadgetry that exists in the world.”

The series stars Lost's Josh Holloway as the human computer Gabriel Vaughn, along with C.S.I.'s Marg Helgenberger as the head of Gabriel's government unit and Once Upon a Time's Meghan Ory as the Secret Service agent who keeps Gabriel safe.

Billingsley chatted with us about playing his brilliant new character, about his personal life, and about how he believes Star Trek: Enterprise should have been made.

Tell us about Intelligence.

BILLINGSLEY: On some level it's a superhero show, but as opposed to superhero shows where the superhero's abilities are clearly defined, this is a superhero whose abilities are growing in ways that none of us really fully understand. So I think there's certainly, if the series survives, some potential for that to get very interesting, to see where his abilities overwhelm him or where his abilities corrupt him or where his abilities desert him. He is a superhero who is in a constant state of flux, on a certain level.

It's an interesting combination of sci-fi and mystery. [Beyond that], it's got the procedural element. It's got the same kind of workplace comedy elements that an NCIS manages to work very effectively. A show usually evolves as it continues on, as the writers learn our particular strengths when it comes to how jokes work. How humor works. And as the characters, in the audience's mind, begin to relax more around each other. Some of the playfulness begins to emerge more. I think that's, to my mind, what's always made, for instance, NCIS such a popular show. It's a workplace comedy as well as a procedural.

Who is Dr. Shenendoah Cassidy?

BILLINGSLEY:  I think what's interesting is this is a guy who is a man of science and a man who is primarily interested in advancing our civilization, who has agreed to work for the Defense Department. This dichotomy [is] between his appreciation and affection for the people he works with and understanding that he wouldn't be able to do what he's doing if he didn't have the federal government and the defense budget behind him, and the sense that he's serving the devil a little bit. Sometimes it feels to him as if his innovations are being used in a morally questionable way.

There's a reference made in one of the episodes to Oppenheimer. There's an understanding, I think, which I appreciate on the part of the creators, that one of the underlying themes and one of the underlying tensions is that struggle that Cassidy, probably more than any of the other characters, is constantly undergoing.

One of the things that I'm fascinated by, that I don't know if it's going to come up again, is that in trying to develop this program, the chip was inserted into two people before Gabriel, one of whom died and one of whom in essence is left, I believe, a vegetable. So where does one's culpability lie? Even though those people were volunteers, and even though they theoretically understood what the risks were, there's an extent to which this is a guy who believes he's helping humanity, does it knowing full well that he has blood on his hands in the process. I think that's one of the interesting, dark themes of the show. You don't make an omelet without cracking eggs.

Cassidy is a father. What is his relationship with his own son and Gabriel, who he's very fond of?

BILLINGSLEY: Our relationship is very much at the heart of the story, I think. This sense of “What have I gotten my son into? What have I exposed him to?” My desire to try and rein in some of his enthusiasm and his ability to look me in the eye and say, “Dad, you're morally compromised here” or “You have to be careful about the deal with the devil that you're making.” I appreciate that relationship a lot. It's probably one of my favorite things about the show.

[As for Gabrielle,] it's touched upon in the show, but this is a program that's been six or more years in the making. He's sort of a second son to me, and insofar as he's a Special Forces guy and built like a brick s--thouse, he's kind of the son I never had as opposed to my wonderful, intelligent but dweeby real son. Here's the second son that I've helped create, who is Dash Riprock.

You've got 117 roles listed in IMDB and been in everything from Enterprise, of course, to True Blood to 2012 to The Others. Why take on this role at this time?

BILLINGSLEY: Oh, gosh. I'll be really candid with you: I'm a working character actor. It's not as if thousands of scripts are thrown over my transom. I get that question a lot as an actor, and I usually have to shoot it down, because I think there's a sense that people have that we have the luxury of choice. I don't. Once in a blue moon, I get an offer, but generally speaking, there's not a job on that list I haven't had to go out and audition for. For a character guy, nobody is really going to make a series about a paunchy, middle-aged, four-eyed ... with the exception of Paul Giamatti, we do not carry shows. So we audition. And it's gig after gig after gig after gig after gig.

What's it like being married to another character actor, especially the wonderful Bonita Friedericy, who played Gen. Diane Beckman on Chuck?

BILLINGSLEY: We're really, really, really lucky. I mean, one, I love my wife to pieces, and she's the most important part of my life. So for me, as much as I like to act, she always comes first, and I know she feels the same way about me. And then we've been fortunate in that we've been able to make a really nice living for a long time doing something we dig. But neither of those are ... How do I say this? We're ambitious because we like what we do, but we're not besotted by ambition. I don't think either of us feel that our lives are not complete unless we're working, nor that somehow it's a ladder and you have to constantly be straining to grab that next rung. That's not who we are. So we've kind of gotten to have the best of all worlds. We have a great marriage and a wonderful life in an industry that we are happy to be in, but we don't feel completes us or defines us.

Luckily, as a character actor you can work as long as you want to.

BILLINGSLEY: As long as your memory holds out. My dad has dementia.

I'm so sorry to hear that.

BILLINGSLEY: Well, the road takes us all to one destination. He's a great guy. He's 87. But his memory loss began to seriously affect him in his mid-70s. So there's a little part of me that thinks if genetic predisposition plays a role, that I've got ... I've got plenty more years, maybe. My dad, in his more lucid moments, says, “Why don't you quit? You've got money. Why don't you retire?” Well, I don't want to end up in a memory care facility. It's good to learn lines.

Let's talk about Star Trek: Enterprise. How do you feel about being on the show?

BILLINGSLEY: I had mixed feelings when Enterprise was canceled. I liked a lot of the people, but it was wearing to wear a rubber head.

I really can't say enough good things about [Scott Bakula] as a professional. I know that there were people who had strong opinions, both positive and negative, about that show, and about every single one of us as actors, but as a lunch-bucket guy, 'cause that's what I've always considered myself ... I'm kind of a blue-collar actor. I show up, I'm a character guy. I'm not going to get a lot of attention, but I've been doing this my whole life and I've worked with a ton of people. And he so stands out in my mind as the model of what you want a professional actor to be. So that's where I start. I always start with Scott.

The other thing that for me was just incredibly special was to be able to have the chance to join what was a long-established family. People were absolutely devastated when the series ended, not because the series ended, but because the franchise ended, or so it felt. And these were folks who had been around from Next Generation, who had seen their kids grow up together, who had seen marriages and divorces and deaths. And so when it ended on the lot that day, the level of emotion and affection, the sense that a huge, multigenerational family is now breaking up, and everybody's going to go off their own way ... I'll never experience anything like that again. That was kind of remarkable.

You'll always have a place in the hearts of Star Trek fans.

BILLINGSLEY: I know that's true, and it's funny, because to me, that's almost too much of an abstraction for me. So much of what we do in our lives is about "you show us you're an actor." You show up and you join a new family, and you do it again and again and again and again, and that's your life. For the most part, the family unit, it doesn't last for long. Even if you're doing a play or a movie, it's three or so months. When you do a series, you join a family and it lasts much longer. To join a family ... I can only imagine ... like Gunsmoke or Bonanza, what that must have been like. These people who spend their lives in this business together, it just doesn't happen. So on that level, as a professional, to have that experience was pretty cool. And the nature of how one is part of a fan experience that stretches back to the mid-'60s, that's a cool thing. It's tempered somewhat by the fact that in the eyes of many fans, Enterprise was, and I joke, “The show that killed the franchise." Not for all. Some people dug it. Some people totally did not dig it, and I don't ever feel like that's pointed at me, but I'm cognizant of the fact that if I'm meeting Star Trek fans, I might be meeting the pro-Enterprisers, but I might be meeting the anti-Enterprisers. So I don't walk in assuming.

It did end up as a kind of polarizing show, in a way.

BILLINGSLEY: Here's the other thing I also talk about whenever I talk about Enterprise. I felt really, really badly for the way Rick [Berman] and Brannon [Braga] were treated. I didn't get to know them terribly well. You don't tend to get to know the execs terribly well, because they're swamped with work. It's an incredibly debilitating job. But these guys have been more or less at the helm for years. They needed, more than anything, just a break after Voyager. They just needed a break.

And Paramount basically said, you know, "Onward. Onward. No break." So they had to develop Enterprise as Voyager was wrapping up, and I think that they didn't have time to really quite get a bible for the show the way that you would normally have a bible for a show. If you're developing a show for the first time, you're living it, eating it, breathing it, sleeping it every day for a long period of time. Like Breaking Bad. You hear about Vince Gilligan and how he developed that show, and how carefully orchestrated it all was, because he had the luxury of thinking about this thing for an age before he started making the episodes. Enterprise it was like, “Gimme Enterprise.” Boom, Tuesday, I got it. Thursday, we start shooting. I think one of the reasons that Enterprise didn't work as well as it could have worked is because they didn't have the time to really arc it through in their brains. Personally, if it was me, and I think this was to a certain extent true for Rick and Brannon, particularly for Brannon, perhaps, it would have been darker. But that was also the network saying, “No, no, no ...”

But you know what? The nature of it ... it's the first. I thought, it started this way, you know? It started out by suggesting that nobody wants to use the teleporter. What the f--k? We don't have adequate weapons systems. We've never actually had to face down completely vicious and incomprehensible aliens. We're going to get our asses kicked. To me, there was a life-or-deathness about it.

That would have been an interesting way to go.

BILLINGSLEY: They didn't really chase that down to its logical conclusion. To me, they needed to completely change the style of the show. There should have been overlapping dialogue, it should have been more Robert Altman-y, where people are bickering and arguing. I would have been really interested to see what would have happened if it had truly been -- this is my own aesthetic -- if it had truly been not your daddy's Star Trek.

I can see why the network would have said no to that. I could see why maybe Rick and Brannon would maybe not be the people to helm that, necessarily. I can see why an audience might have gone, “What the hell is this bulls--t?” But for me, the premise demanded more danger.

[There was] an early episode where we use a teleportation machine and a guy comes back, and in the first draft, it's like his head is attached to his ass or some such. It was like, “Aaaaah!” Which is what I thought this show should have been. But by the time it went through all the various knock-downers, which is sometimes what I think the business does, “I don't like that idea, nah, let's change that. That's too dangerous. Nah, we're going to alienate somebody.” By the time we got the final draft back, the guy's teleported back and he's got a stick coming out of his nose. It's like, “Ehh, f--k.” And he doesn't die. I save him magically in the sick bay and he's got a band-aid on. It's like, no. Kill the motherf--ker off. That's what you have to start doing early on. It's got to be scary. Battlestar Galactica I thought ... boy, that was a great show.

It was indeed. And it was very dark.

BILLINGSLEY: The problem is that you talk to folks, and I do have this conversation a lot. I've gotten into arguments with people from the original cast, yadda yadda yadda. Roddenberry's original vision was that man is perfectible, that we are going to be able to actually conquer greed and avarice and irrationality and yadda yadda yadda. And I think in the '60s, that was a lovely concept and conceit, and I totally get the reason why Star Trek appeals to so many people, because it seems as if it is emblematic and suggestive of the possibility of growth.

Yeah. But in 1966, as dark a period as that was, in Lyndon Johnson's years, the Great Society, we can conquer poverty, the war on poverty, the coming of the new generation ... there was an optimism that fueled that show. But Star Trek has to evolve, as all shows have to evolve. They have to reflect and speak to the period and the era in which they are being produced. Today we are living in a considerably darker, I think, and scarier time. A more factionalized time. I wanted Star Trek to actually address the question of "How do you get from a time today, when half the country hates the other half of the country, when we are as divided as we are politically, not to mention globally -- how do we manage to reach this perfectible place?" And I thought our iteration of Star Trek: Enterprise had the ability to ask those questions more effectively than they ended up doing.

Some fans might take offense to turning Enterprise into a darker version of Star Trek, a la Battlestar.

BILLINGSLEY: I've gotten s--t for saying this in interviews, but I don't really care. I have mixed feelings about the movies. Part of me ... I think the casting's brilliant. I love the casting. I think that's wonderful. I totally get the idea why in the first movie they came up with this parallel universe, in essence. It allows them to always pose the real risk of “We can kill one of the characters.” You have to have that as a legitimate risk. It keeps the contracts under control, too. But at the same time, I kind of feel like it does fall into a lot of the traps that I wish Star Trek wouldn't fall into. One, that the movies always end up having to become a sort of blowout action-adventure spectacular in the last 40 minutes, where it's just effect, effect, effect, effect, effect. Which I find tiresome, and not to me what was interesting about the original series. And I guess two, I kind of feel like even though I'm not somebody who was weaned on Star Trek, there is a part of me that feels like there's something about operating within the constraints of the backstory. It does gall me a little bit that they had so radically divorced themselves from the backstory. I get why they did it, but it still kind of rankles me a little bit.

Intelligence airs on CBS on Mondays at 10 p.m.

What do you think about Intelligence? And how do you think Star Trek fans would have responded to a darker version of Enterprise?