'Star Trek' Actor Brent Spiner Talks New Movie, Stephen Hawking in Q&A

Meeting of the Minds
Brent Spiner (right) reprises his role as an eccentric scientist in "Independence Day: Resurgence." (Image credit: Claudette Barius - TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Brent Spiner is best known for playing Data, the sentient android in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This summer, moviegoers can also see him reprise his role as an eccentric scientist in the new movie, "Independence Day: Resurgence," a sequel to the 1996 blockbuster "Independence Day."

We chatted with Spiner about the new movie, the 50th anniversary of "Star Trek," his comedic icons, and his (unauthorized) nickname for Stephen Hawking.

Fans of "Star Trek," or anyone who has seen interviews with Spiner, will know he absolutely drips with charm, but is also completely down to Earth and unpretentious. He seems to talk to everyone as if he's chatting with an old friend, and this feeling partly arises because he's constantly making jokes (see the bit below about there being starships on the movie set). It's impossible to convey these qualities through print alone, but his story about Stephen Hawking is a great example of what kind of interviewee he is. [Earth's New Battle Against Aliens: Photos from 'Independence Day: Resurgence']

Space.com: Is there anything you're particularly excited about in this new movie that you'd like to share with fans?

Brent Spiner: Well, I'm particularly excited to see it, since I haven't seen it. I'm expecting it'll be fantastic. I just want to see what Roland (Emmerich, the director) did. Because it was a lot of fun being on the set, but you never really have a clue until you actually see it.

Space.com: When you are on the set there are alien props and starships and things, does it actually feel like you're in a sci-fi setting or is it just like any movie set?

Spiner: Well, the starships were real, that wasn't CGI (computer-generated imagery); we actually had many starships on the set, so it felt very real.

Space.com: [Laughing]

Spiner: You know what, being on a film set feels like being in a sci-fi movie always because it's just so surreal. In this case there was a lot of blue screen stuff that we were working among and we had no idea what it was going to look like [in the movie], but that's part of the fun of doing a movie like this, because it's so much about imagination.

Brent Spiner (left) and Jeff Goldblum both reprised their roles from the 1996 movie "Independence Day" in the film's sequel, "Independence Day: Resurgence," due out June 24. (Image credit: Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Twentieth Century Fox/AP Images)

Space.com: As an actor, do you intentionally try to be associated with science fiction or is this just a coincidence that you seem to have stumbled into these two sci-fi franchises ["Star Trek" and "Independence Day"]?

Spiner: I think it is completely a coincidence. It's nothing I ever dreamed I would be doing. Really, for me, I always thought I was going to be doing comedy. And in fact, I still think I am. Not in every case, but [with] these two franchises … in both cases I think I have sort of been comic relief. Having spent seven years on "Star Trek," and then having done this film and the one before it, the characters both had the opportunity to grow, so they became kind of multidimensional and not just comic relief.

But in answer to your question specifically, no. I mean … no, I had no idea. I don't even know how I wound up in it.

Space.com: Well, I'm happy to talk about the non-science fiction roles in your career, but I write for Space.com, so obviously our readers have a particular interest.

Spiner: Right, exactly. Well, let me just say this, because I think this might help: I think there's a tradition in the history of films for character actors to wind up in genre things later in their careers, and so many of the guys I admired growing up, like Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre and John Carradine, and really great character actors found their way into sci-fi and horror and things like that. Claude Rains. There's a real tradition for it. And not that I compare myself to those guys and their skills, but I'm happy to kind of belong in that tradition.

Space.com: Yeah, I guess in "Independence Day" there was a comedic element to your character that made it work very well. Do you think, as you just described, there really needs to be comedy in these types of genres — that it adds something?

Spiner: Well, I think you need comedy in everything. In every genre. I mean, if you look at the great dramas, even, [there is] comedy. Even [Eugene] O'Neill, I mean "Long Day's Journey [Into Night]" has laughs. It has to.

Space.com: OK, I know you're an actor, but I have to ask you about something Stephen Hawking said.

Spiner: I call him "The Hawk" because I've worked with him.

Space.com: Really?!

Spiner: Yeah, he did an episode of "Star Trek" and I was the lucky actor among the cast who got to work with him. So I've always referred to him as The Hawk since then.

Space.com: He gave you his blessing to call him The Hawk?

Spiner: No, he knows nothing about it. Unless he's read about it.

Space.com: [Laughing again]

Spiner: But he did have a good sense of humor so I suspect he'll be all right with it.

Space.com: OK, so Stephen Hawking thinks there's a good chance that if aliens come and find us it's probably because they want to kill us. What's your take on that?

Spiner: Well, my take is – I mean he is an astrophysicist, you know, and one of the great minds of the world, and so he formulates opinions about stuff like that. I don't even think about stuff like that. I mean, how would I know; I'm just an actor, you know. I mean, I think that if there [are] extraterrestrials — [Hawking] thinks they'll want to kill us, I think there's a lot of actors among them who would want to be beloved by everyone and who would turn to the stage.

Space.com: Do you have a busy year with this being the 50th anniversary of "Star Trek"?

Spiner: I've got a busy year primarily because I'm in a television show also for Fox, and it's going to be on Cinemax on June 3, called "Outcast," [based on the comic by] Robert Kirkman. Again, there I am again in this genre stuff.[Ed note: The show has a supernatural bent.]  But it keeps calling me and I keep opening the door.

But let me just say one thing about "Trek" because I do owe it to it. There are people who are devoted to it and there are people who couldn't be bothered with it, but I think anything that has been part of our culture for 50 years is worth having a look at. And I think you pretty much have to take it seriously at half a century. And [it's still] going, because apparently they have a new show coming on CBS. So I think "Star Trek" is the great American epic, and may it live forever. And I'm also hoping that we make 10 more "Independence Day" movies in my lifetime.

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Calla Cofield
Senior Writer

Calla Cofield joined Space.com's crew in October 2014. She enjoys writing about black holes, exploding stars, ripples in space-time, science in comic books, and all the mysteries of the cosmos. Prior to joining Space.com Calla worked as a freelance writer, with her work appearing in APS News, Symmetry magazine, Scientific American, Nature News, Physics World, and others. From 2010 to 2014 she was a producer for The Physics Central Podcast. Previously, Calla worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (hands down the best office building ever) and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. Calla studied physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is originally from Sandy, Utah. In 2018, Calla left Space.com to join NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory media team where she oversees astronomy, physics, exoplanets and the Cold Atom Lab mission. She has been underground at three of the largest particle accelerators in the world and would really like to know what the heck dark matter is. Contact Calla via: E-Mail – Twitter