LeVar Burton on The Greatest Generation
LeVar Burton came on our podcast, The Greatest Generation. In our chat he revealed his feelings on Geordi’s relationships with women, what acting with his eyes covered did to prepare him for his new podcast, and who was the Drunk Shimoda of the Star Trek: TNG cast .
This is a transcript of our interview. If you’d like to listen, you can listen here, and subscribe on MaximumFun.org, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Ben: I don’t know how much they told you about what our show is, but we’ve been going through Star Trek: The Next Generation episode by episode, and reviewing each episode.
LeVar: About where are you as we speak?
Ben: I’ll give you a hint. An episode that came out last week, was the first one you directed.
LeVar: “Second chances.”
Ben: That’s right. That maybe is a good place to start. You’re best known as a television performer and actor, but you have directed a ton of Star Trek, and we’re big fans of your directing on our show. I know [Jonathan] Frakes got into it fairly early on and it took you a while to dip your toe in that water. What was it like to dip your toe in that water?
LeVar: The transition itself was scary, exciting, fulfilling on so many levels. And you’re right; Jonathan was the first to crossover from actor to director and it was really Jonathan’s experience [that] was the basis for everything that came after Star Trek. But we refer to itas Star Trek University with Jonathan. Because Rick Berman as executive producer was really supportive if an actor came and said they wanted to direct — there was a process that became a complete and comprehensive education in all aspects of storytelling on film. You had to spend a lot of time in editing with every editor on staff. You had to come in on days off. You had to go to production meetings…spotting sessions…scoring sessions. It really was an amazing opportunity to learn the fundamentals, the rudiments and the fine points of filmmaking from the inside. I’ll forever be grateful. Jonathan — he really led the way.
Adam: That episode that you started with; “Second Chances” seemed technically more difficult than episodes that came before it. When you have split screen Rikers, concentrate on eye-lines…how difficult was it for you as a director to have that be your first episode?
LeVar: It was really baptism by fire. It was an incredibly complex episode. I remember thinking at the end of it — really having successfully figured out how I was going to shoot two Rikers in the same show, sometimes in the same scene, sometimes in the same shot. Having had to go through that process of working it out in my head, confirming that with visual effects department, and actually instituting methodologies that made the shooting on the day successful and give us the elements we needed — I remember thinking, I can do this! I can’t wait for the next opportunity. That was the thing about Star Trek University; you got one slot. Whether you got a second slot really was determined by your performance (how you did the first time around). Everybody, the entire company’s experience of you as a director was also factored in.
Adam: Did that change your relationship with your peers on the show — when you step into the big chair? Because so many other actors had done it. You were familiar with how that relationship tends to change in those situations.
LeVar: Did it change my relationship? No. Not ultimately. I’m still given a hard time by them, when we talk about my first time as director — because there’s a huge difference in sense of responsibility when you are responsible for making the days work. Getting it accomplished and in the can, and being on the other side of the camera where you’re more concerned with your character and lines and finding your light.
So, there is (at least, certainly true in my case) a bit of the asshole that came out in me. *laughs* It did not go unnoticed or uncommented upon!
My friends pulled me up short, pointed out my assholery in the moment. We were all able to move on and remain friends ’til this day.
Ben: One thing you were talking about with Star Trek University and learning about story, made me think of your new podcast, LeVar Burton Reads. It made me think about the fact that story has been a watchword in your career for such a long time. Do you feel like you brought things from Reading Rainbow and your other work to that Star Trek U experience?
LeVar: I tend to look at it through this lens: I see and recognize that my life’s trajectory through all of the different incarnations of my career, have all been about storytelling. At this point in my life, that’s what I identify as, more than any other title (actor, director, producer, writer) — I feel like I’m a storyteller. That’s what my life’s work was meant to be about. I see as I look back on my life and career, where I’ve been placed in situations where I had the opportunity to learn the art and craft of storytelling from some of the best — the masters. I talk about some of my storytelling mentors being: Alex Haley (author of Roots), Gene Roddenberry, Fred Rogers…and so, I relate through the identity of storytelling.
Ben: Do you think you’ll be directing any episodes of ‘Discovery’ then? Or are you all storytelling now?
LeVar: Jonathan [Frakes] is there now. After a hiatus of a few years to focus on the business of Reading Rainbow, I’m back in the director’s chair, in the rotation on a CBS show called NCIS New Orleans. I just picked up an episode of another CBS show called Scorpion. Exercising that part of me (storyteller as director) is huge fun for me! Going back to the podcast — storytelling as someone who reads aloud to people — that’s some of the purest storytelling. I just feel like, storytelling is what I do, what I am. I want to do it in as many venues and express that identity in as many ways as I can.
Adam: I don’t listen to a lot of books on tape, but I did start listening to your podcast, and it’s such a fulfilling thing to have somebody sit down and read to you. You talked before about people who approached you before, and they miss someone reading to them. They miss you, specifically. It makes me think: what does this do for you?
LeVar: A personal sense of satisfaction. Knowing I’m fulfilling my destiny. I’m doing what i’m meant to be doing. Nothing more complicated that that.
I love reading aloud! And I don’t suck at it. *laughs*
It gives me great joy to be able to go into the studio and read a story and inject that story with whatever talent or passion that I can bring. I get a kick out of it. I love it.
Ben: One thing that really hit me when I listened to your show is how much tonality…you have so much control over your voice and its range. I wondered if you thought about that much when your eyes were covered when you played Geordi.
LeVar: I know for a fact having my eyes covered for 7 years on TNG helped me develop that vocal range, that I don’t believe I possessed in 1987 when we started the series. Wearing the visor made a much better actor out of me. It certainly made a much better communicator out of me. I attribute that experience 100% for forcing me to develop a range and awareness of range as a tool for communication in my instrument. Without the visor, I don’t think I’d be as effective a communicator.
Ben: So you’re saying that’s what’s holding Adam and I back?
Adam: We should be doing the show blindfolded.
LeVar: Once I got past the initial excitement of being on Star Trek, and playing this blind man…once the reality set in that I would have my eyes covered for 7 years, that was a real…revelation. I had to really get used to that because my eyes in the frame of my face, occupy an inordinate amount of space and attention. I had come to (as an actor) really relying on my eyes as a primary weapon and tool in communicating. To have that taken away from me — once the reality of it set in, it was a challenge. It was devastating. I’m also the sort of person who genuinely believes everything happens for a reason.
Once I surrendered to the ‘what is’ (to the process) the end result was one that stretched me and made me better at what I do.
Adam: This attention that you have for eyes (your eyes and anyone else’s) does that affect the way you direct actors?
LeVar: Absolutely. Oh yeah. I think for all of us, the eye doesn’t lie. The eye has a way of communicating the innermost thoughts and feelings. There is very little censorship that goes on between the thoughts we think and how they’re reflected in our eyes. It bypasses the area of the brain that is about caution and censorship and editorial tools. That are about survival, certainly, but the eyes belie what is really going on. For most beings…you stare into a dog’s eyes and you feel a connection because there is one. That connection is communicated in the eye-to-eye gaze.
Adam: Just like when you stare into a cat’s eyes, you know they feel nothing for you.
LeVar: Exactly. *laughs* Sorry cat-lovers, that was a joke made at the expense of the feline species. I apologize.
Ben: What was your favorite part of playing Geordi?
LeVar: I love that Geordi…in the command structure of the Enterprise, is the character that takes everything less seriously. But responds to life from a point of view more than I can relate to. Geordi was just more loose, relaxed. Confident in a relaxed manner. I loved that about Geordi. His enthusiasm and confidence. Again, the physicality of playing him — when I put the visor on, physically, 85% of my vision was taken away. It was difficult. That energy, passion for what he did and how he went about his job, that was an important part of the character of me. The challenge was not being able to see. I had to learn how to navigate the sets without seeing my feet. Now, it was really important to me, that Geordi not be hesitant at all. That was part of his personality/confidence. He knew who he was, where he was going most of the time. He was all about faking it until you make it. So, I couldn’t be tiptoeing around. I needed to discover a way of moving without peripheral vision, or vertical vision even. It was a great challenge. It kept me very engaged in the character.
Ben: Working within a creative constraint.
LeVar: Absolutely. Delivering on the promise of the character.
Adam: Speaking of Geordi’s personality — you mentioned before, there’s this essential relaxed feeling to him. We saw him repeatedly get tortured on the show by Romulans and Klingons and Data, and at no point did he lose his essential joy. He never loses hope. Maybe another way he was tortured was in his relationships with women. How do you feel about how Geordi was portrayed in his relationships and were there conflicts between you + writers room about how that went and did you advocate for that way versus another?
LeVar: Yes. Wow that’s a great question. Let me go on record of saying;
I felt then and I feel now the lack of success in his relationships with women was total bullshit man! *laughs*
I recognize of course, the writers were attached to the trope that it’s the engineer, the nerd that has the lack of confidence. It certainly went against everything else I tried to infuse the character with!
Adam: Yeah I felt that too.
LeVar: It was a holdover from the original idea of Geordie. We were able to get rid of the idea of ‘the blind man who flew the ship’. That’s a one-joke thing. Having the geek be uncomfortable around women was a part of that original imagining. I would love to have seen the writers move beyond that. Even the android had more sex that Geordi. That’s just not fair.
Ben: Not fair. I wanted to sneak one last question in. Ever since ‘Episode 2: The Naked Now’, we have given an award on our show for the ‘Drunk Shimoda’: the character having the most fun or just being the silliest in any given episode we review. Of course named after assistant chief engineer Jim Shimoda. I wonder if you could name the ‘Drunk Shimoda’ of the cast.
LeVar: Jonathan Frakes. Without question. No one has more fun than him. He’s a huge personality and lives up to the highest principles of the drunk shmoda imaginable.
Ben: Tell the people how they can find LeVar Burton Reads out there.