Beware of SPOILERS for Season Five of Stargate Atlantis in this interview!
The character who began as an in-your-face, pencil-pushing bureaucrat is now the newest commander of the Atlantis base. I.O.A. agent Richard Woolsey, once a thorn in the side of Stargate Command, is ready to take charge of the expedition — and veteran actor Robert Picardo is more than ready to play the part.
In GateWorld’s exclusive interview, Picardo talks about how he originally came to be cast as Mr. Woolsey five years ago, and how a seemingly flat antagonist became a recurring character. He also discusses Woolsey’s need to reinvent himself now that he has taken command of the Atlantis expedition. Finally, the actor reflects on why he loves Stargate, comparing it to his years on Star Trek: Voyager.
GateWorld’s interview with Robert Picardo runs approximately 30 minutes. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe to the iTunes podcast! The full interview is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net, I’m Darren Sumner — I’m here with Mr. Robert Picardo, one of my favorite science fiction icons, now on Stargate Atlantis!
Robert Picardo: I don’t want to interrupt, because you’re doing really well. I like the sound of that! I am, in fact, the new commander. In fact, when I call my agent now, they say, “It’s the commander.”
GW: First, take us back to your original casting as Richard Woolsey back in the seventh season of SG-1.
RP: I was up in Vancouver working on another show. I’m not even certain what it was. It might have been Tales From the Crypt. No! I remember. It was the new The Outer Limits. I was up doing The Outer Limits, that’s it. And I got a call from my agent saying, “How do you like the weather up there?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You’ve been offered a one-day guest star on Stargate SG-1.”
And of course I was familiar with the show from when I was a Showtime subscriber. And I think it had recently moved to the SCI FI Channel, and I don’t think I had seen it in a little while. But I said, “It sounds great!”
And it was a very dialogue heavy, one-day shoot. Because I had a commitment to fly to England like a day or two later. So they had to shoot all my stuff in one day.
GW: This was for “Heroes” …
RP: This was for “Heroes.” Which was apparently an episode that was 10 minutes long. And the material was so good that rather than cut it, they decided to expand it into a two-parter, starring Saul Rubinek, who is one of my favorite character actors. He’s just great.
And, in any case, I got the script, and he’s basically this hard guy. You know, just this functionary with a tough, investigative exterior that was sent in to assign blame. Because the doctor had died tragically and he thought somebody’s head had to roll. So I didn’t have a lot of personality. I was just very mistrustful of everyone, and came in and interviewed everyone so that I could decide whether or not there needed to be a fuller investigation.
And everybody was real nice to me. And the other actors were very warm and supportive. And the producers … one of the producers at that time had given me one of my first TV-movie jobs years before. So it was a fun environment. I didn’t think much of it. The shoot went well. I said “Thanks!” and goodbye.
GW: And they brought you back right away!
RP: They brought me back right away — which surprised me, only because the character seemed conceived of as kind of a one-time bad guy. But then the second time they brought me back, I still was not a bundle of charm. But I was acting at the behest of the evil Senator Kinsey.
RP: Exactly. And [I] didn’t know that I was being manipulated. That episode, they began their rehabilitation of the Woolsey character by showing that he really meant well and had a passion about the importance of having civilian oversight of secret military operations. And felt that it was extremely important to keep it from spinning out of control, or having the wrong people, ironically, getting control of it.
So once they showed that I really meant well, and I had quite a nice scene at the end of the show with William Devane playing the president, where I said, “I know you made certain deals in order to get elected, and here’s some information about whether or not you’re kind of in bed with the wrong people, without knowing it.”
And then by that time, I’d made some friends up here, and they kind of liked having me around. So they started writing other appearances. And they gave Woolsey a regular function, which was great. He became the new I.O.A. liaison. So that gave me kind of a regular reason to show up and annoy people. But still, the character was … I don’t want to say he was non-dimensional, but he basically came in as a conflict character. As a problem. And sort of the guy who was the ultimate bureaucrat, who came in and told everybody what they were doing wrong. A certain think-tank personality. He wasn’t used to working in the real world himself. Just simply evaluating others who were.
And then the character has been developed over certain other episodes over on SG-1, and then even spun over to Atlantis as a recurring guest character. And then they started to build a little humor in, which was nice. In the episode “The Scourge,” we got to see the fact that in the real situation, Woolsey was not quite so confident and on his game as he was in the conference room.
GW: [Executive producer] Joe Mallozzi sites the “running with your arms pumping” scene as the one that just made him laugh out loud.
RP: [Laughter] Well, actually, I rarely make myself laugh. But when I saw that scene, I laughed as well. I was hell-bent on being the first one saved.
GW: So do you think Woolsey has grown as a character over the last four or five years?
RP: Oh, absolutely! And as I said, it’s mostly a credit to the writers deciding they wanted to make the character more dimensional. Give him some comic foibles. Give him an awareness that he rubs people the wrong way, and perhaps can’t quite help it.
There was a nice little moment in a scene from last season where I come to evaluate Colonel Carter’s command. And I say something to Amanda Tapping like, “It’s been brought to my attention that I sometimes rub people the wrong way.” And the line just kind of hangs there … like Uncle Mitch’s after-dinner fart [Laughter] where no one can quite acknowledge [it]. And then there’s simply a bump in the conversation and then we move on. And I thought that was a major step for Woolsey. To admit publicly that he knows that social graces are not his strong suit.
And it’s yet to be explained, thus far in the episodes we’ve shot, why exactly that he wanted this position. Because he’s always evaluated other people’s command. And there’s been no indication that he envied or aspired to be the leader himself.
GW: So is this something that he sought out?
RP: It’s something I’ve thought about, and I have my own ideas about. But I literally have not discussed with the writers why he wanted this. I just made my own decisions, because it wasn’t pertinent to what we’ve shot thus far. So I just thought about it myself and [I] hope, because I know that there are guest stars with Amanda Tapping coming up, that we’ll actually get to have some sort of confrontation about why I took her job, so to speak. Or why I recommended she be replaced. Perhaps pitched myself as a temporary replacement. Or the I.O.A. actually picked me as a temporary replacement. And then I just stayed on.
That’s what Joe Mallozzi first told me when he approached me about assuming command, was that the I.O.A. decides to replace the military commander because of it always being a science expedition with a civilian. And in the interim, I become the commander while they are basically head-hunting. And I’m doing a sufficient enough job that I get to stay on.
We had not necessarily established that, although that could be the underlying reason. It just simply hasn’t been expressed in any of the first four episodes so far. But he clearly wanted it. It’s not something — I can tell by how they’re writing the character — this is something he very much wants to prove himself in. And from an actor’s perspective, it’s fun to play characters who are trying to reinvent themselves. I never enjoy the challenge of playing someone one way — who is happy with the way he is. And not about to try to change or to grow.
It was one of the challenges, and one of the fun parts, of playing the character that I played on Star Trek — that he was designed for one purpose, but aspired to have usefulness in so many other areas. I think that’s an appealing thing for an audience to see a character who wants to reinvent himself, [who] realizes what his character flaws are, what his weaknesses are, and wants to try to overcome them. So, that’s the part that I’m most enjoying.
And thematically, we had to play down the fact that Woolsey is not necessarily courageous in his guest appearances. We had to put that aside and whatever comic moments we’re looking for in the show come from the fact that his people skills are not so good.
GW: It’s one of the greatest stories in drama. The antagonist going protagonist. That journey to get there is one that is probably going to take most of the season.
RP: I agree with you. I mean, it’s all about him discovering why he has this ambition and how he can rebuild himself brick by brick to succeed.
Whenever you play a character that’s older than your target audience — because I think science fiction tends to have a younger male audience — they do hook into a character of any age who wants to reinvent himself. I think that’s a feeling that you have in every phase of life. You know, graduating high school and going off to college and saying, “You know what? I don’t want to be called Bobby anymore. I want to be Robert. Or Rob.” Or I’m going to just change myself. Whatever I didn’t like about the way I was interacting. I’m going to try to make, try to present myself as a new individual and see how I can grow into that image.”
GW: So you think becoming base commander has sort of instinctively made Woolsey a protagonist? Or is that a process of development? Moving from antagonist to protagonist.
RP: Well, again, because of his weaker social skills he’s antagonistic in the way he presents his protagonist agenda. I mean, yes — “I’m here to protect the security of the base.” But he’s also constantly talking about “We have to focus on our primary mission, and try not to pull people back from some of the various goodwill and humanitarian gestures” that they do.
I mean, he’s a bureaucrat. And to me, what makes it so much fun for me secretly is we’ve had it clearly demonstrated in our current administration how bureaucrats telling the military what to do, when they have no military experience of their own, can lead to some serious disaster. And part of me, rather impishly, thinks of Woolsey as a likable Dick Cheney — if that’s even something imaginable. But science fiction fans have the greatest imaginations of any fans in the world. So if you can imagine Dick Cheney being likable — having the capacity for self-reflection and having the ability to admit having made a mistake — then you’re sort of on the way to the possibility of a bureaucrat growing into a human being.
GW: There’s some similarities with David Hewlett’s character, Dr. McKay. He started out as a grouchy, unlikable guy. Do you think there’s a way to play Woolsey as generally likable without losing that edge of how he’s always been?
RP: I wouldn’t want to. I really wouldn’t want to. Because that’s part of the ongoing fun. When you do series television, the audience wants to feel that they know these characters. It’s a funny kind of … there’s a certain duality in that the audience wants to get something they’ve seen before that they loved. But they always want to be surprised a little.
So you have to do that blend of “This is what you’ve come to expect from the character” but try to surprise them with the character still struggling to grow. But you don’t want to suddenly become another character, because the becoming is always much more interesting than the state of being. So I would never want to surrender that. And suddenly have him be much better socially, and also much more courageous.
GW: That’s not who the character is.
RP: No. The process of him growing into a leader, I think, is going to be a very exciting one — to play, from my perspective, and hopefully for the audience to watch and enjoy.
GW: So, Woolsey shows up in “The Seed.” Is that your first episode?
RP: I appear briefly, and surprisingly, at the end of the first one. I just can’t remember the title. “Search and Rescue.” I’m terrible with titles. I’m good with stories. So at the end of “Search and Rescue” he shows up and, rather abruptly and unceremoniously, announces that someone’s going to be taking over. “And, whoops! I think it’s me!”
And then the next episode, “The Seed,” is quite dramatic. There are very few humorous moments regarding my character, other than his initial abruptness and arrival … and not being capable of making an inspirational speech. But beyond that, it’s quite dramatic. And regarding my character, the arc is basically him realizing that under these circumstances, he cannot simply play by-the-book, which is what he came here thinking he could do.
GW: That’s who he has always been.
RP: Exactly. He’s always been asking other people, “Why did you not follow protocol?” And now he’s realizing first-hand …
GW: Maybe sometimes you have to violate the Prime Directive.
RP: I didn’t think we had a Prime Directive here at MGM! Do we? I thought Paramount had the Prime Directive. [Laughter] What do you guys call it?
GW: It’s copyrighted …
RP: MGM needs another name for the Prime Directive. Like “The Main Thing.” I think Woolsey, he knows what “The Main Thing” is. But, I think they very much wanted to see that “all bets are off” light go off in Woolsey’s eyes. And that it wasn’t going to be just simply opening up the manual and following the code.
GW: — which you got a taste of last season in “The Seer,” the episode where there’s sort of this questioning of Carter’s command.
RP: Exactly! And what’s wonderful about the show that we’re doing right now, “Ghost in The Machine,” is that the shoe is on the other foot. And I basically take a page from her leadership, and try to create that myself. I try to call a bluff in the same way that she did. And this is not something that’s referenced in the script — but my character’s background, I think I’m very much trying to emulate a moment that I witnessed very closely, and almost single-handedly destroyed.
In fact, looking back, that could very well be the moment that Woolsey decided he wanted to be a leader himself. Because he kind of admired the calm and the strength that she had in that moment and thought, “That’s appealing. I wonder how I can create that in myself.” I certainly didn’t have that idea at the time, but looking back, that was a major moment that he witnessed there. And I think a major lesson learned.
So in this episode, “Ghost In The Machine,” you’ll see him really take his first big step toward his own leadership style. In the intervening one that we haven’t spoken about yet — there’s one other one that we haven’t talked about …
GW: “Broken Ties.”
RP: Yes. “Broken Ties” has a very good and dramatic A-story, but there’s a lot of kind of little B-story moments of Woolsey getting used to life on a remote space base. So there are some comic moments regarding his period of adjustment. And also kind of the fact that he’s a lonely guy who has been married to his work. And now he’s here, and has all these people that he works with rather intensely, but he doesn’t have any friends yet.
GW: Did he have friends on Earth, do you think?
RP: I think that’s my secret. We find out in that episode that he’s divorced. He was married for a number of years, had no children, was divorced and lost his Yorkie to his wife in the divorce settlement.
You have to remember, Joe Mallozzi is a huge dog lover, and I’m a big dog lover, too. So I imagine there will be some canine thematic elements!
GW: I want to find out that the Yorkie’s name is Neelix! [Laughter]
RP: There you go! You’d have another lawsuit there.
GW: Back to the command thing real quick: Are you looking forward to the scene that will ultimately be written where Carter and Woolsey compare notes?
RP: Oh, yeah! I am looking forward to that. I’m also looking forward to the possibility that there will be some new liaison from the I.O.A. who comes to out-bully me. In fact, I’ve already thought of a couple actors to recommend for the part. All of that “the shoe is on the other foot” stuff is going to be fun to play. Because I was not exactly tactful in my approach when I was evaluating someone.
It will be interesting to see what I expect, and how I react.
GW: Now that Woolsey is not an outsider when it comes to the Atlantis team, how do you approach interacting with each of these individual characters? I imagine that Woolsey interacting with Colonel Sheppard is totally different than Woolsey interacting with Ronon.
RP: It’s funny that you should mention Ronon, because I’ve already thought that because he’s the “man of action” of the show — the man of few words — and I’m the man of many words and formally no action, that we are natural, I think, not only comic foils but dramatic foils for the show. So my goal and my hope is that they will … I’ve already talked to Joe Mallozzi about finding ways to pair us together in certain situations. And I’ve even made a suggestion or two of my own.
So, we’ll see. Because to me, the most fun thing for the audience member is to see a character that they’ve already grown to love, like Ronon, thrown up against somebody who he’s not only not used to dealing with, but suddenly has to deal with. And it’s always fun to do new character pairings in a long-running show. I had some ideas as to how we might react together, so it will be interesting to see what happens.
Ideally, you develop unique relationships with all the different characters, but because we are such polar opposites, and because I so clearly annoy him, I think it’s a natural pairing.
GW: There’s a line late in Season Four in the episode “Midway,” which you weren’t in, where Ronon has to go up against the I.O.A. and he says, “I know how to handle guys like Woolsey. I can handle myself. I can tow the party line.”
RP: There have been a number of lines. He also says, in the episode where I first appear which is “The Seed,” he says something like: “Six billion people on the planet, and this is the best they could come up with.” [Laughter] Something like that. Fix my math. How many people are there on the planet?
GW: Six point five?
RP: Not bad! Alright! Yes! I thought I was going to be off by some order of magnitude and have to excuse myself.
GW: Do you consider yourself a fan of Stargate? What is it about the show you think viewers find so compelling?
RP: I’ve said this for a while. I have to be careful about saying this at Star Trek conventions. I do think there is kind of a looseness, a free-wheeling quality to Stargate that really appeals to me. They do humor, by and large, better than we did it on Star Trek.
That’s a hard thing for me to say, because I played a character that carried a lot of the humor. But I think there’s something about the kind of consciousness that they are in a science fiction show. I think it started with RDA, that kind of “We are intrepid and tough every week, so we have to save the world yet again” [attitude]. That also echoes Harrison Ford in the early “Star Wars” movies, and “Indiana Jones.” That kind of tone that they’ve captured in this show really appeals to me. And it’s a great way of mixing humor with all the action segments.
I think all of the visuals are great in the show. I really love the opening theme music. I have to tell you, my greatly looked-forward-to guilty pleasure will be to see my face glued into the opening credits. I really love the opening credits of this show. I loved the opening credits of the last sci-fi show I was in, too. But they are completely different. Because Voyager was kind of stately and operatic in its opening, and this is more grab you by the belt, yank you out of the chair and throw you out the window. I really like it.
GW: As an actor, how does this experience compare to your years on Voyager?
RP: Well, it’s obviously relatively early to tell. But this is a very comfortable set. You know, Star Trek felt more like a feudal system. It was like this old, kind of entrenched empire. And there was good and bad about the feudal system. You were rewarded if you served well! [Laughter]
But because it had been around a while, and because there were so many shows and movies happening at the same time, this feels looser and kind of more democratic. I had a great time doing my old show. Just the perception is that it’s a little bit more relaxed around here.
GW: You can let your hair down just a little.
RP: Well, if I had it, I would. I’ll have to let your hair down. [Laughter]
GW: Just to sneak in one more Star Trek question, because we’re both such huge fans of the franchise and the Doctor …
RP: Sure! Please ask Star Trek questions, and I’ll tell you why. There are a few Star Trek fans out there — and I’m going to find out who you are and where you live — who don’t watch Stargate now. And what I want to say now is … I welcome you.
Now, while you would be reading this on the GateWorld Web site, if you’re a “dyed in the wool” Star Trek fan, I’m not going to deal with that issue right now. You have to step out of the shadows, and turn on Stargate Atlantis. And give me three episodes. Watch me in three episodes, and I challenge you not to become a Stargate fan.
And if you don’t become a Stargate fan … then I don’t want to hear about it. [Laughter] Just give me my shot, OK?
Go ahead. Ask your Star Trek question.
GW: Should the franchise, God willing, ever return to the twenty-fourth century, would you like to go back to that character and spend more time with the Doctor in some capacity?
RP: I had a fun time. It was a great run. I think it’s a great idea that J.J. Abrams is going to reboot the franchise. And I suspect the movie will be a great success because I think he’s a very smart guy and an exciting director. So I think your question has already been rendered moot by that. That they are going to start over again, and they are going to be set in a different point and time.
Sure, it was great fun to play the character. It would be wonderful to kind of slip the shoes on again. But I don’t see it happening. What they might do, if they start making Star Trek movie after Star Trek movie, is they might start stunt casting, in different ways, some of the familiar faces — but probably playing different roles because of the different time frame.
I’ve been contacted by the New Voyages [fan film, now Star Trek: Phase II] crew. I thought the one with George Takei was just splendid. And they’ve asked to do one with me. My initial idea was to play a character who was virulently against the development of artificial intelligence — sort of a religious or quasi-religious figure who felt that it was satanic or something like that. The anti-“Zimmerman.” That’s what I wanted to do.
GW: Like how Brent Spiner did on Enterprise …
RP: Did he do the same thing? That’s right. They told me that.
GW: He played Soong’s ancestor.
RP: But I do think it will be interesting to see the franchise come back. And I think good science fiction just encourages people’s appetites for more good science fiction. I don’t really see a competition between the franchises. I know I’m the first [regular cast] actor to have one foot in each franchise, which I’m proud of.
I know this: It will mean I get a lot of offers to write my name on my face all over the world. [Laughter]
GW: As fans, we thank you for your contributions to our favorite genre. Thank you for spending time with us, Robert Picardo.
RP: Great! I appreciate it. Thank you both!