I had the chance to sit down and chat with Brent Spiner over the phone—you know him as lovable Commander Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and quirky Dr. Okun from “Independence Day.” Though we all thought Dr. Okun was killed in the 20-year-old blockbuster, turns out he was only in a coma. The eccentric doctor returns in “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which hits theaters June 24.
Read on for our discussion that veered into hypnotism, working with director Roland Emmerich, redeeming qualities of humanity, and, of course, “Star Trek.”
CH: What does it mean to you personally to have a chance to revisit and reintroduce Independence Day to a new generation?
BS: Personally I’m happy to have another crack at this character and to see if I can elaborate on him a little. I really enjoy playing him and I feel really fortunate to have an opportunity to do it again. As far as introducing it to a new audience, that’s always a pleasure. No matter what you’re doing. What can I say… I really wish I didn’t have to do that. I’m kidding.
CH: Take me back 20 years when you first saw Independence Day. What was going through your mind at the time?
BS: Can you hypnotize me first? It’ll take me back 20 years. I’ll do a little self-hypnosis right now. Okay, okay, I’m there, 20 years ago. I did not get to go to the premiere, which was apparently incredible, because I was working. I didn’t get to see the movie until sometime later in the summer and I saw it at a shopping mall in Hawaii. A little tiny theater in a shopping mall in Hawaii. I thought [Independence Day] was fantastic. I was thrilled with it. Like everyone else I really enjoyed it… Wait a minute, I’m eating popcorn, I’m drinking Diet Coke… That was 20 years ago. It was a wonderful experience and seeing it with an audience was fun.
CH: What was your favorite aspect of Independence Day, from the genre to the plot to the action to the effects?
BS: I think Roland Emmerich is a master at doing that sort of big, gigantic, action film. I was in awe of his ability to pull all of those elements together.
CH: What is a quality about Roland that sets him apart from other directors you’ve worked with?
BS: I’m not sure it’s a quality that sets him apart but rather aligns him with the best directors I’ve ever worked with. That’s just fun energy. I think that’s true of any good director. They all seem to have that one quality of not needing sleep, never slacking in their energy, just a constant pitch. Sometimes we were doing 17-hour days and Roland was exactly the same at the end of the 17 hours as he was at the beginning of the day. The rest of us weren’t—we were exhausted, but he was not. And I’m sure he was up late into the night planning the next day’s work.
CH: What was it like on set? Were there practical sets along with green screens?
BS: There were both. There were practical sets that were gigantic and really fantastic. There were scenes that were on a huge sound stage, and there were a bank of monitors where people were digitally applying what is behind us… I had seven years of acting with a green screen on Star Trek—in our case it was a blue screen. We were constantly talking to creatures and people and you name it on that blue screen for seven years. It was quite easy for me.
CH: In the film, humanity unites for a common cause. We see sacrifice, teamwork, and resilience. What was it like getting into that mindset along with the cast?
BS: Getting into that mindset with the cast—I wish the world could get into that mindset. I think we do have a common enemy and that we collectively are destroying the planet. If we could come together and solve that gigantic problem together, the world would be one and it should be one. And I think that’s the best part of the film is that it projects at least Planet Earth as being united in a cause.
CH: I think that’s a reason why audiences continue to return to apocalyptic films because they show humanity’s tenacity and bring us hope.
BS: I think so too. I think part of the appeal of Independence Day is that you have these giant tentpole movies like Independence Day and all the Marvel and DC films, but in general, the rest of them are superheroes with powers who are combatting this insurmountable object. In our case, we are just real people fighting it. The public sort of plugs into this and relates to it and says, hey, that’s just like me if I was fighting those guys. Except of course with my character, nobody would say that.
CH: But I think anyone can relate to some aspect of any character on-screen.
BS: That’s true. That’s true. There’s an enthusiasm in Dr. Okun that anyone can relate to.
CH: Dr. Okun is a bit bizarre and there are bizarre people out there who embrace the quirkiness.
BS: Now are we talking about ourselves or other people?
CH: Is it harder to jump back into a role after 20 years in Independence Day or to continue playing the same character for 15 years like you did in Star Trek?
BS: Acting is acting. Yes, in this case it was sort of a challenge—only in that it has been 20 years and I haven’t seen the film that many times over that 20 years, so I had to watch the movie again to remind myself who Doctor Okun was. Almost instantly when the hair came on and I hit the set running, I think Doctor Okun came back pretty quickly.
CH: Was there a strong sense of nostalgia when you returned to the role?
BS: Yes, not just jumping back into the role but hanging out with those actors again, seeing them for the first time. I hadn’t seen them at all really—I maybe bumped into them maybe once over the 20 years—so it was great having sort of this high school reunion with all these terrific actors and people.
Independence Day: Resurgence hits theaters June 24, 2016.