Sir Christopher Lee isn’t the only veteran, venerable actor still having an impact on SF & fantasy today. At 78 years young, Nimoy appeared in two movies this summer—as Spock in STAR TREK and the voice of the Zarn in LAND OF THE LOST—and returns as Dr. William Bell in the FRINGE episode “Momentum Deferred,” which aired last night (Thursday) on Fox at 9 p.m. EST.
“Several things attracted me to the role: [FRINGE creators] J.J. Abrams, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whom I worked with on the STAR TREK movie,” Nimoy begins. “I admire their talent and the work that they do. The series is at the very least intriguing. My character was somewhat of a blank slate, but we began talking about it and I was attracted to the opportunity to build an interesting and unpredictable character. I’m enjoying it a lot. William Bell is sort of a ‘master of the universe’—a brilliant man, a very wealthy man, very powerful. We’ll find out more about him in future episodes.”
Bell first appeared in last season’s finale “There’s More Than One of Everything.” The head of Massive Dynamic, Bell was once lab partners and worked with Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), but the two have yet to meet up on the show. “That’s unpredictable at the moment,” Nimoy replies. “In this new episode, there’s a scene between Olivia [Anna Torv] and myself, and we’ll learn much more than we have known in the past about what their relationship is all about and what William Bell’s intentions are—or at least we will be TOLD what his intentions are. We aren’t quite sure that everything that he says is accurate or true.”
Nimoy was offered the role of Bell after working with Abrams on the STAR TREK reboot. “I met J.J. about three years ago when he first contacted me about the possibility of working together, and I went to a meeting with J.J., Bob, Alex and some of his production staff. They told me a very good and strong and touching story about their feelings about STAR TREK and, specifically, the Spock character.
“That gave me a sense of validation after all these years. I had been out of it for some time, as you’re probably aware. There were several STAR TREK series and movies in which I wasn’t involved. This was a re-validation of the work that I had done, the work that we had done on the original STAR TREK. I felt very good about it, and so I went to work for them.
“I had a great time working on the movie. They did a brilliant job, and I think the audience response shows that [the new STAR TREK] has reinvigorated the franchise. And when they contacted me about working on FRINGE—the same people, the same attitude, the same creativity, the same creative team—it was very enticing.
“I had watched FRINGE periodically,” Nimoy continues. “FRINGE is extremely well done. It’s very nuanced. It’s complex. It’s a mixture of science and science fiction in an interesting and intelligent way. And the show has a long way to go in storytelling. It tells a terribly interesting story, and the character that I was offered was potentially a very intriguing, controversial and fascinating character, which is very inviting for an actor.”
Nimoy has done voiceover roles in several movies and video games in this new Millennium, but he hasn’t appeared on screen since 2001, when he guest-starred in an episode of BECKER. “I’m enjoying [my return to acting], and I’m very comfortable in the two offers that I’ve accepted,” Nimoy relates. “The STAR TREK movie was a joy to do. I admire the production team that made the film. I admire the new cast. Zachary Quinto was a great choice for the new Spock, and it was a pleasure to work with him and with all the other people on the project.
“My FRINGE character was intriguing because, as I’ve mentioned, it was a blank slate, and we had some very interesting and intense conversations about who and what he could be and how we should perceive him, what we might or might not learn about him and what we might or might not trust about him. These are intriguing opportunities for an actor, and they came from a group of people whom I respect. They piqued my interest and I went back to work. I didn’t expect to, frankly, be acting so much at this time in my life. My concentration was on my photography, but I’m having a wonderful time doing it.”
Much of Nimoy’s acting work has been in science fiction and, of course, he will always be associated with STAR TREK’s Spock. “It’s a good thing if you can find your niche as an actor and be able to support a family,” Nimoy reasons. “Very early on—I’m talking about many, many years ago, 1952—I acted in my FIRST science fiction project, and I have acted in science fiction over the years ever since. The first one was probably not terribly well known. I thought it was going to rocket me to stardom, if you’ll pardon the expression. It didn’t quite work. It was a great project [a serial] called ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE, and I was the third of a group of zombies that came to Earth to take over Earth’s orbit! It’s funny, as I think about it now, but it was a way of making a living. Science fiction has been a fertile ground for the kind of work that I do, the kind of presence that I offer. I’m grateful for the niche that science fiction has given me.”
How does Nimoy feel about the current state of science fiction in TV and film? “I’m concerned about the positioning of story in terms of importance,” Nimoy states. “When I see lots of explosions and chases, I’m not impressed. There are three important elements that must be given priority position in science fiction as well as in any other kind of drama. The first is story, the second is story and the third is story. Story, story, story, story, story. If the story is compelling and interesting, all the rest will find its place.
“We have great technology in our industry, and that technology can be overused at the expense of story. And that’s a problem for me. But when the story is in place, I think the special effects can find their proper place. FRINGE uses the technology brilliantly, but in the service of excellent storytelling.”
Today’s science fiction and science fiction technology often becomes tomorrow’s science fact. “The technology involved is remarkable and terribly useful,” Nimoy reflects. “It’s a very convenient way to put out lots of information, and this is the kind of thing that was only dreamed about 10, 15 years ago. Science fiction very often leads the way for the scientists. They watch science fiction, see an idea being presented and say, ‘Well, gee, I wonder if that’s really possible…’ They go to work at it on the drawing board, and much of it comes to fruition.”
So is Nimoy a techie? Not a Trekkie, but a TECHIE... “Well, I use a computer, so I don’t know if that qualifies me as a techie, but I’m pretty good on the computer.”
Getting back to FRINGE, viewers now know that there’s an alternate universe where everyone has a double. Are we going to see a second William Bell this season? “I can’t really answer that question right now,” Nimoy explains. “The most important thing is that in [“Momentum Deferred”] we’ll get a sense of Bell’s relationship with Olivia. It’s very intriguing and there are intense moments that take place. The rest remains to be seen.
“I’m waiting to see what these terribly imaginative writers come up with for the future. I’m expecting that I probably will be going back to work for them before too much longer. I’m looking forward to what they send me on the page. And with this episode, we go a long way in discovering what William Bell is all about.”
Not even Nimoy is certain how many episodes he’ll be in this season. “I’ll be going back to work on FRINGE in about two weeks to do one more episode. Beyond that, we’re in discussion.”
As for other projects outside the science fiction universe, “I’m doing lots of photography work,” Nimoy notes. “That’s one of my major creative outlets right now. I have an exhibition that’s opening at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art next year. I’m really excited about that. Check out my website, LeonardNimoyPhotography.com.”
Another potential project is the second STAR TREK film that’s currently being scripted, but Nimoy doesn’t think he’ll be back as the elderly Spock (a.k.a. “Spock Prime”). “I expect that there’s going to be some time before they really know exactly who they need and what they need,” Nimoy says. “I doubt that I’ll be called upon again. I was useful in the last film to help bridge between the original characters, the original actors, and the new cast. They have a wonderful new cast in place, and I’m sure they’ll move ahead with them. I don’t see, at the moment, WHY they would need me in the next film. Although, if they called me, I’d be happy to have a conversation about it.”
After playing the Vulcan character for more than four decades, how does Nimoy now feel about his new moniker, Spock Prime? “I guess that means I’m in the prime of my life!”
Following up on our chat with Leonard Nimoy (read part I here), the actor talks about his latest appearance on FRINGE. In “Momentum Deferred,” his character, Massive Dynamic founder William Bell, meets up with Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) for the first time since last season’s finale.
Although Bell was mentioned throughout FRINGE’s first season, he was only seen that one time and remains a mysterious figure. “I’ve had some wonderful and creative conversations with [creators] J.J. Abrams, Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman, the writers and showrunner Jeff Pinkner to try to create from scratch a character who has never been seen before, who has only been referred to,” Nimoy says. “There are certain things that were given, which is that he’s a powerful figure, very wealthy and obviously an intelligent man with a scientific background.
“But in terms of characteristics, we started from scratch, and in ‘Momentum Deferred’ more of those characteristics will be evident. It’s great fun to be building the character from scratch—with certain givens. There’s so much to be developed in terms of the way he talks, the way he walks, his idiosyncrasies, his tastes… Is he difficult? Is he gruff? Is he charming? Is he a nice guy? What are his real intentions? All of these things are great exploration for an actor.
“I’m looking forward to this character unfolding in an interesting way,” Nimoy offers. “But there’s a long way to go. There’s a good deal to be discovered, and I’m looking forward to discovering it with the audience. It’s not up to me to write the scripts. I don’t do the writing, but the writers are clever, inventive and creative. They’re very bright people. I’m counting on them to give us some interesting character touches in the future.”
So far, Nimoy has only gotten the chance to work with Torv. “I’m looking forward to meeting and working with all the others,” he remarks. “They’re very talented people, and I admire the work they do. But so far, all my scenes have been with Anna. She does a wonderful job on the show. They all do. Anna and I spent a bit of time working together, and I was impressed with the way she works. I’ve seen quite a bit of her work on the screen. She handles a wide range of activities, from internalized psychological questions to very, very physical stuff, and she handles it very well. Olivia is very competent and very interesting to watch. I think she’s terrific.”
Bell believes that the world has “soft spots,” but Nimoy isn’t as certain. “What FRINGE deals with in this wonderfully intriguing way is this question of an alternate universe that one can slip through, from one universe to another,” he says. “I’ve been involved in stories of this kind before. I did a series called IN SEARCH OF… some years ago in which we dealt with subject matter like this. The question is one that you would, in terms of whether it’s scientifically accurate, have to ask people like Stephen Hawking. I’m not a scientist, and I can’t really tell you whether or not there are soft spots where you could slip through to another world, but I think that FRINGE deals with that idea in a very intriguing way.”
In Part One of this interview, Nimoy recalled his “star turn” in the 1952 serial ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE. That was one of the actor’s first films. His first TV gig was a guest-starring role in NAVY LOG back in 1956. With more than 50 years of small-screen experience to speak from, Nimoy notes that there is a difference between the TV of today and yesteryear. “I think it’s safe to say that what an audience is seeing today in television is far more complex than what we were doing when we were, for example, making the original STAR TREK series in the ’60s,” Nimoy observes.
“[STAR TREK] was very heavy with pages and pages of dialogue and very little special effects, but because the technology has advanced so greatly, it’s possible to do some complex, exciting and very useful technical stuff on shows these days. So you don’t have to rely quite so much on the story being told by the actors speaking. Delivering the exposition is the toughest part of the job, and if it can be done visually and physically, it’s a big help. On the other hand, there is a danger of going too far with the special effects at the expense of story. But if the story is well-done, if the story is strongly in place, then special effects can be enormously helpful to the actors, far more so than they were years ago when we were making the original STAR TREK.
“There’s some very good work being done [in television today], and certainly in terms of production value. It’s head and shoulders above what we were able to do years ago,” Nimoy declares. “I keep coming back to my baseline, which is the story. If the story is good and all this new technology can work to the service of the story, then I get excited. I don’t know how they’re doing some of these effects on TV budgets. I’m terribly impressed. It’s an exciting medium to be working in today, particularly if the script is in place.”
Acting isn’t Nimoy’s only passion. “I became enamored with photography when I was about 13 or 14, and I’ve been at it ever since,” Nimoy says. “I studied it seriously in the ’70s, and I have a Master’s degree in photography as a fine art. I would call my work primarily conceptual. I don’t carry cameras with me wherever I go. I get an idea for a subject matter I want to deal with and I pull out my cameras. I’ve published two books. One is called SHEKHINA, and it’s about the feminine aspect of God. The second is called THE FULL BODY PROJECT, which deals with body image issues in our society.”
Until just recently, Nimoy had been absent from movies and television. Many thought he had retired from acting altogether. “I thought I had reached that point some years ago,” Nimoy reflects. “I think about myself as like an ocean liner that has been going full speed for a long distance and the captain pulls the throttle back all the way to ‘stop,’ but the ship doesn’t stop immediately, does it? It has its own momentum and it keeps on going, and I’m very flattered that people are still finding me useful.
“I try to pick my spots so that I have a balance between the work and my personal life, which I enjoy very much. I don’t know that I would say, ‘No, I’m going to stop 10, 12, 15 months or two years from now.’ I still feel strong and healthy and active, and as long as there’s interesting work to do, I’ll probably keep on doing it.
“I’m also still actively involved with my photography work. I’m working on a current project, SECRET SELVES, that’s about hidden, fantasy and private personalities. And there will be an exhibition of that name, SECRET SELVES, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opening next summer, a solo exhibition. I’m excited about that.
“I’m also excited about developing William Bell further, and I hope the writers are interested in working with the character,” Nimoy concludes. “The whole FRINGE company has been very good to me, and I’m delighted to be involved.”
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