Walter Koenig has played the character of Pavel Chekov in thirty-six original-series episodes, seven films, six video games, an webisode of Star Trek: New Voyages, and the 40th Anniversary internet miniseries Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. But there's more to Koenig than Chekov, whether it's his role as the villainous Alfred Bester in Babylon 5 or his passion for Big Little Books. Koenig has appeared on the series The Lieutenant, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, I Spy, Columbo, and Diagnosis Murder. His films include Moontrap and the wild, wild ride that is Mad Cowgirl. Koenig came to San Francisco to promote the latter at the SF Indie Fest; at the York Hotel, and at my behest, he regaled me about his career.
Groucho: So I wanted to start by talking generally about acting. You wrote in your autobiography "good actors are an open wound," and I think that's a perceptive comment. For you, how did you come to acting and—and—maybe you could elaborate for me on what it is you think is intrinsic to the actor's personality?
Walter Koenig: Well, I discovered early on that I had some aptitude and I found some reinforcement. And I suffered from a lot of questionable self-esteem, you know, as a pre-adolescent and as an adolescent. What I discovered was that there was this feeling of reassurance—and made me feel that here was something that I could do. That there was some question as to what my intellectual aptitude was. I went to a private school with an accelerated scholastic environment, and my intention was actually to go into pre-medicine in psychiatry. I had actually started psy—you know, as a client when I was twelve, thirteen years old because I suffered from all those problems of socially withdrawn, and you know I wasn't psychotic, but I—
WK: I was unhappy and I discovered that being an actor was, as I said, was reinforcing and made me feel like this is something that I actually—not only did it make me feel good, but it was an expression. It was an expression that I could—you know it was a lot of emotional investment in the kind of roles that I played and made me—I guess, you know, conceivably, there was probably some thera—some cathartic value in being an actor. And so at the same—so I had that, you know, that sense that I had something worthwhile saying as an actor. And at the same time people seemed to think I had—there was some talent, you know? And that made me feel good. So I guess that's how it all began, you know? And I just kept going with it.
G: Yeah—in an actor's career you're constantly being tested, though, aren't you? To maintain your strength and your ego and to keep plugging at it—?
WK: It's a constant test. And it's—the amount of ego abuse that transpires is abso—first of all it's absolutely uniform to actors.
WK: You know? When I talk to—when I both taught acting and when I've also lectured about acting I've said, you know, there is no other artistic expression that is such a—you know, a unilateral rejection of talent. You know it's—when you are turned down, you are told that you're no good. It's not your product, it's not you know, something that you create and stand apart from. It's you! It is you. And each time it's you.
WK: And I'm not beating my breasts; it's something that every actor goes through, you know? And the only way you can survive that is if you have the passion to do so.
WK: If you're willing to not be discouraged and to say, "Well, screw it I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going to keep going. I'm going to find a way to get past all those feelings of inadequacy and stay with it." And so it's always been a constant battle; it's up and down—one's whole life is up and down. You know? You have those peaks and those great mountain tops and those incredible valleys that you go through.
G: Even from a place of affection, Sydney Pollack once warned you you'd never work, right?
WK: Yeah, we were at a party, and he was a little intoxicated.
WK: And he said to me, he said I would never get kissed by a girl. He said, "I never got kissed by a girl"—he was only nineteen or twenty at the time, but he was my teacher. He says, "And you'll never get kissed, and you better—unless you're seen in a garret somewhere, you will never work." I mean, it was a wonderful baptism of fire.
G: Yeah. (Laughs.)
WK: If I managed to, you know, to survive that, because I was very—I was really kind of sensitive, and I really needed to get past it, but I did. You know? And I think—you think of yourself as being, you know, poor me, and I'm not very worthy, and somehow when I reflect back on the fact that, with all those feelings of rejection, that how did I manage to keep going? You know? How did I manage despite the so many experiences that were so debilitating and so difficult to survive? And somehow—you know, I've been at this for over forty years and I still manage to get by.
G: And you built really an amazing career with a variety of creative outlets, over that time. It's very impressive, and I think this new film is a great testament to your creative vitality. Here you are in a movie that's really out there. (Laughs.) You know? Mad Cowgirl is a very creative and unique film, I think. How did you find your way into this film?
WK: Well, you know, it's really quite interesting. My feeling—what I found attractive about it is playing, you know a preacher. My sense was: what I want to bring to this is a total credibility. In order to have that credibility, I had to believe it. And the whole thing that he says, if I were to stop and evaluate it, it would be the antithesis of what I really believe in, okay? But the exercise was to embrace this character and embrace what he says. And in fact, much of what I said I improvised. You know talking about Jesus and the blood of Christ. You know, I'm a Jewish kid from New York City. (Laughs.)
G: Uh-huh. (Laughs.)
WK: You know? But I didn't want it to be a caricature. I didn't want it to be an editorial comment.
WK: I wanted to be as honest as I could. And that challenge was interesting for me, and I found—you know, I was really quite surprised when I started reading reviews about how slimy this character was, and I never thought of it in those terms. I thought of it—you know, "This is what I choose to believe," you know?
G: Right. Just like any villain.
WK: Yeah, yeah.
G: You have to believe it full bore; otherwise you can't play it.
WK: Exactly, exactly. And that was fun. That was great fun.
G: I'm curious what you thought when you saw the finished product. Were you surprised by the overall picture of the film?
WK: A little bit. I feel—well, you mean to talk about the picture itself?
G: Yeah, uh-huh.
WK: It's a little bit—it's a little abstract for me.
WK: You know? I cannot say with great conviction that I understand exactly what the movie's about.
WK: But I think he's—Greg Hatanaka is a real craftsman. He has a very strong sense of control in a technical sense. He understands how to direct. He understands how to shoot, edit. The musical score I think is really quite driving. It was much better than the script that I read. I thought it was a little disjointed, but I think that—you know, you stand back from it, and you have a kind of an overview of the whole thing, it begins to make sense that it was—it's difficult when you read it, you know, step by step. You know, you need to see the gestalt. The whole. . .
G: Right, right.
WK: The whole sense, in order to get a feeling of what it's about. I think it's an adventure for the audience, you know? I think there's a—you know it's—really does kind of—it's a very aggressive kind of film.
G: Oh yeah. Very visceral.
WK: Yeah, very visceral and it's sort of—it's like an attack. You know? But I think it's very stimulating for the audience. I think they'll truly enjoy it, and I think Greg is going to be a very successful actor. I think he brings a lot of emotion and brings—and the performance is all good. I think Sarah Lassez is a very talented actress. I don't know her. I have no vested interest in anything about her.
WK: But I think her work is really good, and I think she'll probably, you know, become a star.
G: Your part in the film, it gives a very rich and kind of comic vein as one of these characters who is really pressing upon the leading character, the "Mad Cowgirl," if you will. Did you have in mind any particular televangelist when you did this, and did you do any research or did it just kind of come intuitively?
WK: Well actually, Greg asked me to watch a televangelist.
WK: And I chose not to. Because I did not want to—I didn't want to imitate.
WK: You know, or mimic another—you see that kind of, you know, yeah, Burt Lancaster kind of great—embrace these kind of characters that are just so florid and so full of—
G: Rainmaker types.
WK: Yeah, yeah. Passion. Yeah, yeah, exactly. Rainmaker. You know, and I didn't want to do that. I—my sense was playing a pastor. You know, and making him as—
G: Magnetic, maybe?
WK: Yes, well, as believable. The thing is, I guess my sense is that, you know, we watch these evangelical kind of people, religious people. And we say, well, you know, how do you justify it? How do you accept the idea of the hypocrisy of characters that talk about God and, you know, leading a pure life, and leading a—and believing in heaven and all of that? How do they justify that, and at the same time are there—their personal life is contradictory, you know? It doesn't—it's not what they say. And, you know, it's really—I don't want to pick simply on people who are religious. We know all about what happens with, you know, the sexual problems that we have and all about the—and all of the—I can't think. All of the bad things that we talk about, and how do you justify that and at the same time have their behavior being so heinous. Well, you know, it's the same thing as all of these politicians, who are supposedly representing the American public and are supposedly doing things that are supposed to be ethical and humanitarian and are there to support the Constitution and civil rights and the Bill of Rights and all of those things. And at the same time we are shocked by the fact that these people who expound on and espouse the sense of humanity, you know? And the sense of all that we believe in about people, and then we find that they're corrupt, and their ethical posturing is all, you know, crap. It doesn't—it's, you know, we can't really believe. We can't really believe it. We—it all becomes so cynical. We learn to believe that—who do we trust anymore? Who is there to trust?
WK: You know, all these people who—whether it's religion, whether it's politics: who the hell is there that we can have any faith in? And my sense is that: how does the character that I'm talking about, how does he also have sexual congress and involved in other people, and at the same time he's talking about God and, you know, all of these things. And my sense is that we are so full—we are multi-dimensional. There's more to people than we'd like to believe. That people are just loaded with—on the one hand believing and having a sense of faith and believing in God and what is important and all of that, and at the same time their behavior is really contradictory to what we would like to believe.
WK: And I guess that's my choice. The fact is that on the one hand I can embrace all of that and believe that that's who I am and at the same time still be able to take advantage, and the behavior—the character I am playing is immoral and not who we would like to represent, not who we'd like to believe. And I just felt that—I guess it's a way of—how do we—it's a way of finding by—on the one hand it's. I'm having a little problem here. It's on the one hand believing—you say, well, how do people behave that badly? How do they—how do we learn to believe that people are acting in a way that is, you know, so different than what we believe, and by having the opportunity to play that character and make that interpretation, I understand how they act the way they do. You know?
WK: It's what people do. We—
G: You're something of a—you've confessed in your book to being something of a natural cynic. No?
WK: I think so.
WK: I think so.
WK: I guess, you know, I think of the people who run the administration—the people who are supposedly protecting our country and our public, and believing in them and taking care of them, and people that we have faith in and we trust. And we've determined that these people are really not the people that we believe in. And I just think that by—you know it's almost like—what's the word I'm trying to think of? It's acting out. It's an opportunity to act out. And by doing so, and seeing how I respond, and how I interpret and how I deal, and the difference between contradictory behavior, by acting all that out, I understand what goes on. We understand, you know, "How can this guy act that way? Or that person act that way? How can this religious person behave in that manner?"
G: I think this is the other side of the actor's coin. One side I really believe has something to do with correcting a need in personality, to be affirmed as you said. But the other side is really to discover the humanity around you, isn't it?
WK: Yeah, yeah. I think so. I think so.
G: Which is a very positive way to go. I would be remiss if I didn't talk to you a little bit about your association with Star Trek, which I'm very fond of myself. You know, when you were on the series and in the years following, you wished always that there had been more for that character, and I think it's interesting that now, you've gotten a new opportunity, haven't you, to revisit that character and sort of put a bookend to that role?
WK: You're talking about—
G: With the New Voyages?
WK: Oh yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I was approached about—this is an extraordinarily—see, I am very cynical.
WK: At the same time I rhapsodize about the sense of—kind of a romantic sense of folks who are interested in—want to—who really enjoy Star Trek, and they're fans, and they want to keep it alive, and they want to keep it going. And all these folks have come together to shoot this story. This Star Trek episode. The original series. People who dug into their pockets, and they volunteered. We have an Academy Award winner, a fellow who won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy. We have people who've created museum-quality sets and costumes. The gentleman who's doing the CGI, the computer-generated stuff, is also in charge of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. All these folks have come together because they really—there's a such a wonderful feeling of fraternity. And the inspiration, and that sense of people with this feeling of enthusiasm and excitement that they manage to keep it going and perpetuate it. And they approached me, and they said they would like me to be involved. And I thought, "How great. This is not—these are people who still have that sense of passion, you know? And that's a wonderful thing. Dorothy Fontana—
WK: Who's a wonderful writer; she wrote the story. And for me it was an opportunity to perform and have an exit of closure, that this is the chance that I have to play this character. You know? There's always been a very strong disproportion—there's two things goes on. Disproportionate sense of enthusiasm for my contribution. You know? It's pretty much hanging on the coattails of the Star Trek movement. And I've always felt a little self-conscious about it. Because I really haven't had a chance to do something really worthwhile. I've just kind of been there. So I've always wanted to say, "But, but, but—I can do something." I'd like the people who still are fans to see that work. And the second part of it was, I also feel that I want to bring some dimension to this character of Chekov. And this is that opportunity. I really believe—this is a character that has some introspection, who has some nuance, some depth to the character. And I'm enormously grateful for the opportunity to have this experience. It was terrific! I mean, I loved it! We shot in Ticonderoga, New York. And everybody was so enthusiastic. And it's so great that we have an experience here. We always talk about how Star Trek has been a—how we've projected technology and the science and what's going to happen—the whole thing with communicators before we had cell phones and all of that. Well, here we have an opportunity to take a stamp in advance of everybody else: going on the internet. Having an electronic performance. We have that, which is quite unusual, and I think it's a wonderful—it's almost like a poetic experience for all of science-fiction, to make that very progressive step. You know. And I think it'll be great for people to sit down at their computers and watch this terrific episode.
G: That's very exciting. I mean, it really is amazing that, with D.C. Fontana writing it, it's almost as if—it really is like a time-travel experience (laughs), isn't it?
WK: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And so—you know, I kind of cross my fingers 'cause I really don't know for a fact that it's going to be that good. I hope it is. (Laughs.) And I hope the work is good. And I'm looking forward to it. And I'm thinking, "God, I'm getting old. We can't wait too long." (Laughs.) I need that experience before too much longer. And we're hoping it will be done by June. And we'll see! It would be really neat. We're talking about forty years! Forty years of being reminded I was part of that, and I would just like, you know, to say, "Hey, I did something I think worthwhile, and I want people to see that." Because it's something that I would like to contribute to all those fans who've supported the show so fervently and with so much energy and enthusiasm.
G: You say you're getting old, but to look at you in person and on film, you would never know it.
WK: Well, bless you. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) What's the secret to your Fountain of Youth here, Walter?
WK: Well, I'm having my seventieth this year, so time is certainly marching on, so I'm looking forward to it. But I do want to say as well, because I'm here for this film festival, I think it's exciting that there's a lot of young people up here shooting films who have their own voice, and their own kinds of stories to tell. That's very exciting. It's very exciting to see directors and writers and producers for whom it's very important to have a very personal message that they want to communicate. And we can always talk about, you know, Universal and Warners and Paramount and all those people who making bucks. But on the other hand, we're talking about people who have something to say, that they have art. That they're really involved in that, and it's important to them. Just the way it is for Gregory Hatanaka. He invested in this picture. He did this film himself, and I'm very proud of his work—very admirable. And this whole film festival I think is great! You know, it's really something that has occurred, I think—my sense is that there's a lot of people making independent films. And I think we need to applaud that, and we need to encourage that kind of work.
G: And you remain a creative initiator yourself. You have a couple of films gearing up for production, don't you?
WK: Yeah, well, I actually shot an independent film. I wrote and directed—nobody seemed to like it very much. (Laughs.)
G: Oh no! Is this—which one? "Illegal Alien"? Or is that filmed yet?
WK: No, it's called "What If?".
G: Oh, "What If?". Right.
WK: Yeah. It's a short film. I had a really good experience. It wasn't as successful as I hoped, but I certainly had a good time. And as I say, I very much admire people who are not dissuaded, who move forward, who maintain their goals and work at expressing their very personal voice, which I think is important.
G: Alright, well, I guess we have to wrap up here. I could have talked to you so much longer, Walter. This was great.
G: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you.
[And don't miss Groucho's interview with Star Trek's Sulu: George Takei.]