Scott Bakula may be known as the star of two TV icons: “Quantum Leap” and “Enterprise”, but he is also a singer and dancer and accomplished showman. Bakula caught the acting bug as a small child, split his time between plays and athletics in high school, and left the University of Kansas to pursue community theater in his native St Louis before relocating to NYC in 1976. Work in regional and Off-Broadway productions preceded his 1983 Broadway debut as Joe DiMaggio in the short-lived, critically derided stage musical “Marilyn: An American Fable”.
Bakula finally enjoyed a theatrical success alongside Jerry Colker and John Kassir playing aspiring comics in the Off-Broadway success “3 Guys Naked from the Waist Down” (1985). Though he initially moved to Los Angeles to work in theater, starring in “Night Club Confidential” (1986), he soon turned up in the recurring role of Annie Potts’ ex-husband on CBS’ “Designing Women” as well as the occasional TV-movie (i.e., “I-Man”, ABC 1986). Bakula’s first experiences as a series regular came on the short-lived “Gung Ho” (a 1986-87 ABC sitcom based on the popular Ron Howard feature) and “Eisenhower and Lutz” (CBS, 1988). He returned to Broadway triumphing in two roles in the unique two-act musical “Romance/Romance” for which he earned a Tony nomination as Lead Actor in a Musical.
Still, it would remain for “Quantum Leap” to make him a star and open the door to a limited feature career. His “regular guy” qualities invited audience empathy and made his situations on “Quantum Leap” unusually compelling as he ended every episode in a new body, uttering his almost trademark, “Oh, boy!”. Bakula first made the leap to features with Carl Reiner’s “Sibling Rivalry” (1990), starring Kirstie Alley as the creatively stifled wife of his stuffy young doctor. His first leading role came in the predictable sports comedy “Necessary Roughness” (1991), playing a 34-year-old former high school football star belatedly claiming his glory days.
After taking supporting roles in the lackluster “Color of Night” (1994), which teamed him with Bruce Willis, and as the token white guy in “My Family/Mi Familia” (1995), starring Jimmy Smits, his role as private-eye Harry D’Amour in Clive Barker’s horror opus “Lord of Illusions” (also 1995) returned him to leading man status. Although intended as the first in a possible franchise, audiences seemingly preferred to watch the genial actor on the small screen. Since the box office disappointment of “Lords of Illusions” stalled his feature career, Bakula accepted the recurring role as Candice Bergen’s boyfriend and rival reporter on CBS’ popular “Murphy Brown” had subsequently maintained a profile on the small screen. Unfortunately, his attempt to repeat his series success, the spy comedy-drama “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (CBS, 1996) was an early ratings casualty.
He also periodically returned to his musical theater roots, playing a benefit concert of “Anyone Can Whistle” at Carnegie Hall in 1995 and giving voice to Danny the Cat in the animated feature “Cats Don’t Dance” (1997). Another shot at feature leads, the sequel “Major League: Back to the Minors” (1998), fizzled but it was the brief role as one of Kevin Spacey’s gay neighbors in the universally acclaimed “American Beauty” (1999) that brought him his best feature exposure yet. He also starred that year in the ABC miniseries “Tom Clancy’s NetForce” and delivered one of his better turns as a cynical, complex detective who rises above bigotry in Showtime’s “Mean Streak”.
The CBS movie “In the Name of the People” (2000), however, cast him in the thankless role of a convicted killer who asks the parents of the child he murders to raise his daughter after his execution. Bakula continued to appear in both television projects–most notably the holiday-themed telepic “Papa’s Angels” (CBS, 2000) as the patriarch of an 1930s-era Appalachian family, and the Showtime miniseries “A Girl Thing” (2001)–and feature films–including “Role of a Lifetime” (2001), starring as a has-been actor staging a comeback by assuming a new identity, and in a supporting role in the well-reviewed drama “Life as a House” (2001).
That same year, Bakula returned to series television in another sci-fi genre show–indeed, “Enterprise” (UPN, 2001-2005) was the latest instalment of the granddaddy of sci-fi TV, “Star Trek.” As Capt. Jonathan Archer of the very first space-faring vessel to bear the name of the famous “Trek” starship (the series was set decades before the adventures of Kirk, Spock, et. al), Bakula proved a kinder, gentler figurehead than some of the previous skippers–his character even brought his dog aboard. Although the actor routinely delivered thoughtful performances, the series failed to click with audiences as well as its predecessors and lasted four seasons, as opposed to the usual seven season run of the latter-day “Trek” series.
Bakula returns to the big screen as an FBI agent caught up with Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh comedy, The Informant. He spoke to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview during the Toronto Film Festival.
Question: What is the process of getting involved in a film like this? I mean, is it a series of meetings? Do you have to – surely at this time of your illustrious career, you’re not auditioning for people any more.
Bakula: I absolutely do audition for people.
Question: I don’t believe it.
Bakula: Anybody who’ll ask me, and if I’m interested, I will audition for anybody. I don’t care. But for this particular movie, my phone rang. I was driving up from San Diego to LA. I was doing a musical at the Old Globe. So I was totally not in this world at all. And it was my agent, and he said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “Well, I’m driving.” He said, “Maybe you should pull over.” I said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “You’re in the new Soderbergh movie with Matt Damon, and you’re gonna be number two on the call sheet.” And I said, “You’re”- you know, I – I was astounded. And I said, “What”- I had no idea that it was out there. I didn’t know anything about the movie. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. He said, “Your friend, Greg Jacobs, who produces for Steven and is his first AD for 17 films”-he and I know each other. Our kids went other school together. I coached his son on the soccer team. And he threw my name into the hat early on for this part, and asked my agent not to tell me. Because he said, “We’re friends, and I just – you know, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just let it go. And we’re not gonna ask him to come in and read or anything. But we just want you to know that we’re working on it. And Warner Brothers seems really interested about it, and Steven’s on”- you know. So, they did all this work, never told me. Never shared – you know, an inkling. So he tells me this on the phone. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Well, that’s great, great, great.” Hang up the phone. I call him back ten minutes later, and I said, “Did you say I was offered the part? I’m in the movie already?” And he said, “Yes. Didn’t you”- I said, “Yeah, I just – I’m not – I’m not believing this.” So, this one just came outta the blue.
Question: How do you make a character like this different? I mean, the screen has been full of FBI characters. And this guy is often kind of befuddled, and doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with this other – with Matt’s character. And it’s a really interesting character. He’s funny. What do you inject to a character like this, to make him a little bit more unique?
Bakula: Well, I find that – and as I’ve seen the movie a few times now, I find that really what made the character unique was Mark Whitacre. Because if it was a straight ahead kind of a case, you’d do it. You’d find out who the bad guys were, they’d go to jail. And because he kept changing the rules every six months, or eight months, or – you know, and – it was impossible for my guy to follow the normal path. Because it just – it didn’t make sense. And yet, his Pavlovian kind of life and style was, this is how you do it. These are the steps. This is the procedure. You know, roadblock. What? Okay. What happened there? All right. All right. everybody, we’re organized again. Let’s go. Boom, boom, boom. Fell off the cliff. You know? And because Whitacre affected him so powerfully, that’s where all the – really, all the work was. It was just reacting to things you just never saw coming. It was just being blindsided, one time after another. And he was so intent, and so hopeful about this opportunity for his life, that you overlook things when you – you know, you overlook flaws. You overlook possible problems, because you want it to be a certain way. You’re hoping, you’re projecting past sometimes what reality is. We’ve all done it, in different ways in our lives. And this guy’s no exception.
And at the same time, you can’t blame him because this guy fooled everybody. My bosses. Everybody that he worked for. The resume that he wrote to get the job at ADM- this is all true – was false. And they never checked it. Because he was so good in the room, and he was such an engaging, likeable guy, and had the goods, and was smart, and all of these things – he just kept winning people over and over. His wife didn’t know. I mean, it’s just – it’s a phenomenal story.
Question: Was it necessary for you as an actor to do research on this? Or did you decide that it was all there on the page, and not worry about it?
Bakula: It was – for me, it was all there on the page, and in this book. I don’t know if you read the book or not. It’s very dense, it’s very – you know, thousands of hours of research and recordings, and everything that Curt compiled. And so there was so much there, so much information was there. And so many – so many pieces of character are from the book and from the screenplay, that I didn’t feel compelled to do a lot of research. On top of which, Steven said, “Do not.”. Don’t go and call up and have dinners with the real Brian Shepard, and get to know on that night what was going on, and what happened to your family that day? We’re spinning the story a different way, and not only is it not necessary, I’m asking you to not do that.
Question: Now, does your real counterpart – have you met him since?
Bakula: I met him during the movie. He lives in Decatur. I met his family. They came to the set. They had lunch with us. His wife commented on – that my clothes were exactly correct. [LAUGHTER] And, you know, kind of nudging her husband all the while, because it was a real-life issue for them, and people used to make fun of his clothes and his ties. And so there was that kind of interesting connection, and yet disconnect. Because there was great concern on a lot of the people’s part who were affected by the story. That town is all about ADM. It still is. And how they were gonna be portrayed. How – you know, what was Hollywood gonna do to them, and their characters. And when they heard it was a comedy, then people got really confused. Because it’s a very serious story, and it affected many, many people in a very serious way.
Question: Do you think the reason why it’s a comedy is because there’s so much absurdism about this whole situation, that to do it as a straight drama, people would just not believe it?
Bakula: Right. Well, Steven said, there were scenes that he knew that he couldn’t put up on a screen, that people wouldn’t laugh at. The absurd truth of some of these moments, when he’s saying, “Well, what if – you know, you used a plane? Well, what if you got kickbacks of”-he said, “There’s no way people aren’t gonna start laughing at that.” So, when he approached the movie through the mind of Mark Whitacre, through the mind of a person with bipolar disorder, or however you want to call his particular challenge that he had going on in his life – it spins the whole movie in a different direction. And one that he felt could only be in this kind of darkly comedic yet, at the end, ultimately poignant, and I feel, very heartfelt and sad kind of movie.
Question: What are the challenges to play a reactive character? I mean, what are the difficulties, and what are the challenges?
Bakula: I think the great challenge is overreacting, you know? And feeling like – when you’re reacting, there are times as an actor – and certainly as you get older, hopefully you get over this – but, that you feel like you’re not doing enough. You know? “Well, what if me just sitting there and staring is not enough? Maybe I have to do a bigger stare, or a stare with a something.” You know. And just sitting and calmly – I mean, Spencer Tracy’s probably the greatest example of somebody who just was marvelous at doing so little, and listening, and yet so effective. And that, I think, is the biggest challenge. The great reward is, when you see the movie, as I saw last night for the first time with an audience – and you see the pay-off. Which is, when you’re doing reactive listening, when you’re the straight guy, whatever it is that you’re playing, and the jokes are working, and the audience is with it, and in the moment – then the dances work. And it’s all – you know, you don’t have to be the guy throwing the punch line to feel like you’ve been a part of the scene, you know what I mean?
Question: Now you’re associated with two fairly iconic TV properties. There’s a rumor that they’re gonna try and reboot Quantum Leap.
Bakula: That’s always out there. [LAUGHTER] That rumor’s always out there.
Question: Would you like to see that happen?
Bakula: I think so. I mean, it would be fun. I would always – you know, you talk about this stuff, and you’d have to see how it would manifest, you know? In terms of a script. And – I always have joked that they’ll do it, but it won’t be with me and Dean, you know? Because that’s just the way that Hollywood is. If they did a feature, they would recast it. And make it better.
Question: Like Star Trek.
Bakula: Yeah, but, you know, I’ve been able – I’ve been so fortunate to work in different mediums, in different types of genres within all of those mediums, and work with some wonderful people. And that’s what I hope to keep doing. And as I get older, I’m hoping to do more and more stage. And that’s really where I started, and where I go back to.
Question: I found it interesting that you said you did musicals.
Bakula: Recently I just did Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl.
Question: How was that experience?
Bakula: Fantastic. It was the third time I’d been at the Bowl. I did the Bowl with Carol Burnett, years ago, which was just extraordinary. And then I did it another time, there was a salute to – salute to Broadway by TV and film stars. So that was myself and Peter Gallagher, and Carol Channing was there that night.
Question: Did she do “Hello, Dolly?”
Bakula: She did “Hello, Dolly,” yes. The greatest moment at the Bowl for me is watching Carol Channing enter from stage left and get to center stage, in her tight [LAUGHTER] red sequinned down-to-her-ankles gown, that is just – mint dee dee dee dee dee – look out, everybody! More applause. Dee dee dee dee dee. It was the – you know, the greatest entrance I’ve ever seen.
Question: I don’t associate you with musicals
Bakula: Well-but I sing in almost everything I’ve ever done. I sang all over Quantum Leap. I sang all the time. And I wrote music for Quantum Leap. I’ve been so lucky.
Question: So now that musicals are back in vogue, is there a musical that you would like to see adapted for the screen, that you would like to be involved with?
Bakula: Well, I would have loved to have done Sweeney Todd. But – the folks that did that did a marvelous job, and I’m a huge Johnny Depp fan, so he can do – as far as – can do pretty much anything. But, you know, I’m just lucky that I still get to sing. And I sing more and more.
Question: Are you recording?
Bakula: I haven’t, for a long time. But, you know, people are always asking, “When are you gonna record?” And that’s a whole â€˜nother – that’s like, stop everything. Do another career. I did a one-man show. I did a big benefit for the Ford’s Theatre back in Washington DC a year and a half ago. Two hours of just me singing and talking. And that was probably the most frightening thing I’ve ever done. Because I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that people would just come and sit and watch me for two hours, you know?
Question: How did they do?
Bakula: They did. They did. And – it was very successful, and I had a ball doing it. So. Those are the kinds of things that I’m also doing. You know, to keep -
Question: What about Broadway?
SCOTT you know, the last time I was there was 1988. I did Carnegie Hall for another benefit. But, I’d love to go back and do that. And that’s about timing. That’s a big chunk of time commitment. I just did a pre-Broadway try-out of a show called Dancing in the Dark, which is from the Bandwagon movie, Fred Astaire, down at the Old Globe in San Diego. And that didn’t move forward, but that was bound for – potentially, for Broadway. So, my hat’s in there.
Question: How do you juggle everything? You have a family.
Bakula: I do. I have four kids, two of which are not at home any more. So, I’m down to two at home. So, that’s – that makes it a little bit easier. But you still have four kids, and they’ve got their life and – so that takes a lot, a lot of time. And you can’t do everything. And that’s what I’ve had to – I had to just kind of say goodbye to theatre for a lotta years, because I was fortunately working in the television industry, and at a pretty good clip. And when it was time to go on hiatus, I spent it with the kids.
Question: How was it for you dealing with some of those hard core fans from both of those show? I mean, the Trekkies are a bunch unto themselves.
Bakula: Yeah. Well, you know, science fiction fans, if they love you, they’re – you’ve got ‘em.
Question: But God help you if they don’t.
Bakula: Well, they let you know, you know? And they don’t really – you know, they really don’t hang around if they don’t like you, because they’re just – if they’ve – if you’re in, you know, then you’re in forever. And they’re demanding fans. They expect that you be honest in your science fiction, and correct in your science fiction. And they expect you to be available, and a part of the world of science fiction. And they claim you. So, there’s kind of a responsibility about that. But I knew that. I knew when I took Enterprise that I was perpetuating that. But they’re loyal, and they ask you to be really good. And they really watch. And, you know, for a performer, that’s – you can’t really ask for more than that. They’re not casual. They’re intent. And you better have – you better not screw up your facts, your logic, they’ll ring you up on that one. And so – you know, that’s who you work for. We work for our fans, and for an audience. And so I love them. They’ve been great to me.
Question: Are you a fan of those genres yourself?
Bakula: I am. I look back now, it’s like, “How did I end up in all these science fiction things?” And then I look back at the stuff that I loved when I was a kid, and the TV shows that I liked, and the books that I liked and Ray Bradbury, and all the things that I loved reading. And then I say, “Well, you know, it’s kind of”- when I open up a script that says, “The guy – he wakes up and he’s in a bed, and nobody knows – he looks in a mirror and he’s somebody else, and they can’t figure it out, and this hologram appears,” I’m just sucked right in. I’m not going, “This is stupid.” I love it. So, it’s – I’m drawn to it. It’s hard for me to say no to science fiction stuff.
Bakula: Which I have to do. You know? You just can’t – because – and people are always like, “Well, let’s send him a script about some sci-fi thing.” Or, “Let’s write him another sci-fi show.” And it’s like, “Well, hang on. I just can’t keep doing that over and over and over again.” But to be in those two franchises have been just remarkable.
Question: What are you doing next?
Bakula: I’m in the middle of a series called Men of a Certain Age. We just started shooting it. TNT. Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and myself.
Question: And is it a dramedy?
Bakula: It is. It is. Even as I hate to say that word. But it’s important to say it, because it’s an hour show and so it’s a slice of life.and it’s Ray Romano’s perspective on life which is really unique.
Question: Is it his comic sensibility?
Bakula: Yes. Yes. His – yes, very much his. And because it’s not network, it’s cable, he really gets to kind of – you know, hone in on it, and be a little bit more raw, and a little bit more honest about his perspective on life, and life issues. So, it’s three guys that – great friends in college, stayed close their whole lives. And we find them now, a little mid-life crisis going on for one guy.
Question: What’s your crisis?
Bakula: My crisis – I don’t have one. I’ve got the perfect life. I’m single. I’m an actor – my only crisis is, I haven’t quite – I’m not a star. But I’m – you know, I got – I’ve got some good B-movies and a couple infomercials. I’ve got a temp job. I teach a yoga class. I’ve got a 25-year-old girlfriend. It’s okay to start the day with a little hit off a – you know, a joint in the ashtray by the bed. I also have a 45-year-old girl that I’m sleeping with when she’s in town, and kind of like, a 35-year-old waitress. So, it’s the greatest character. And of course, they’re envious of my life. Andre’s Dad owns a car dealership, and he’s a car salesman. He has a wife and three kids. They’re remodeling. Ray’s separated, really wants to be back with his wife, but he’s got a little gambling problem, on-line gambling. He owns a party store. And he’s kind of getting out into the dating – and he has two kids. So, he’s dealing with his life and his problems. And they’re looking at my life. And it’s just a really nice mix. There’s nothing like it.
Question: It must be fun to be on a TV show that is original, and that you get a chance to show off a comedic side of you.
Bakula: Yeah. It’s really fun. And probably the best part so far is, we’re off script a lot. We’re improvising a lot. Lot of improv, a lot of free-forming. “Do we have the scene?” “Yeah, we got the scene.” “Okay, now let’s just let it rip, you know, and let’s see what happens.”
Question: Has TNT set an air date yet?
Bakula: Yeah, December eighth. Yeah. Yeah. So, we’re the only thing coming on. We’re the only thing premiering then. So, we’re getting all of their attention. And I think Leverage premiered there last year in December. They’re trying to get us in before the Olympics start. We were originally gonna be on in January, and then with the winter Olympics, they said, “No, let’s get you moved up.” So. They’re very excited. You know, we’re having a ball making it. It’s funny, and Ray Romano – people are gonna be astounded. He’s got really wonderful chops. He’s a great actor, and people are gonna see that. And you know Andre Braugher’s work is great, and people are gonna see how funny he is. Because – you know, people are like, “Andre Braugher. He’s like, a serious, serious actor.” “Well, yeah. you know, he does other things, too.” So, very excited about that.