Data Integrity: Brent Spiner Talks About His Famous Character, 1st Book
By Kurt Anthony Krug
Actor Brent Spiner – best known as the android Lt. Cmdr. Data on all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its four subsequent movies – thought he was done with the beloved character that made him so famous.
In fact, Data was killed off in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. But you can’t keep a good android down. Spiner reprised his role as Data in the first season of 2020’s Star Trek: Picard, with Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. “I was influenced by the fact that I thought it was a really amazing group of people writing the show… Indeed, the stuff I did was beautifully written. Basically, I had a little wink in the first episode. In the last episode, there was this phenomenally-written scene written by Michael Chabon that I thought was fantastic, so why not? We do change our minds from time to time. I’d like to take a lesson from Sean Connery, who said, ‘Never say never,’” explained Spiner.
On Picard, Spiner also played B-4, Data’s android “brother,” and Dr. Altan Inigo Soong (the son of Data’s creator, Dr. Noonien Soong, whom Spiner portrayed on TNG).
He’ll appear in the second season of Picard, scheduled for a 2022 release. But will he be playing Data? Or Soong? He wouldn’t say. “I draw the line there,” said Spiner. A Texas native and University of Houston alumnus, Spiner – who’s also done voiceover work and had memorable parts on Night Court, Frasier, The Big Bang Theory, and in 1996’s Independence Day – can now add author to his résumé. On Oct. 5, his first book, Fan Fiction: A Mem-Noir Inspired By True Events (St. Martin’s Press $27.99), will be released.
The book is set in 1991 when Spiner was on TNG. It’s part memoir and part fiction, based on and inspired by true events, written in a noir style. In it, Spiner receives a series of disturbing letters from a deranged fan modeling herself after Lal (Data’s “daughter” on the 1990 TNG episode called “The Offspring”), which are so alarming that he enlists the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI for help. He also hires two bodyguards, who happen to be twin sisters. Incredibly witty, self-deprecating, and a master of deadpan humor, Spiner spoke with The Strand at length about Fan Fiction, separating fact from fiction, as well as his long career in showbiz.
THE STRAND: What inspired you to write Fan Fiction?
SPINER: The true story is a literary agent (Albert Lee) came to my manager and said he’d be interested in pursuing a memoir from me. He thought it would be lucrative and people would buy it. I really didn’t want to write a memoir – it didn’t interest me, writing a pure memoir. I had this other idea… which I told him. He’s like, “I don’t know. Let’s see if we can sell that.” That was after several weeks of trying to convince me to write a memoir instead, but I had this story in mind. Actually, I met with a friend of mine, Jonathan Ames (creator of Blunt Talk, which starred Stewart), who encouraged me. I asked him if he thought the story would work and he said, “I think you’ve got to write this.” I convinced the agent and my manager it was worth pursuing. Fortunately, they were able to get St. Martin’s Press onboard and the rest is history.
THE STRAND: You say it’s a mixture of truth and fiction. What is true? Did you really have a stalker who modeled herself after Lal?
SPINER: It’s inspired by a true event. I think we’re fairly clear to say that. Yes, some things happened, but they didn’t happen like I wrote them necessarily. The book is really fictional. I want to be really clear when I say none of it’s true, but it is inspired by true things that happened… The combination of all of that is what inspired the stories. For example, there are some true things in the book – at least true to this degree. Ronald Reagan came to the set – that wasn’t made up – but his dialogue in the book wasn’t exactly what happened. Also, (renowned neurologist) Dr. Oliver Sacks came to my trailer, but our dialogue and our encounter didn’t happen the way it happened in the book – it was fictionalized. The twin bodyguards – neither of them actually happened. The book is fiction. It’s a novel. My friends (the TNG cast) are in the book. They’re real people, but we didn’t actually have those conversations… I tried really hard to capture their voices.
It’s historical fiction. That’s really what it is.
THE STRAND: You have dream sequences with your stepfather Sol. Can you talk about that? Was he really abusive?
SPINER: Yes. Primarily. The thru-line of the book is fear. It’s fear that’s been awakened in me by the stalking incidents, so the fear in my past comes to a head all throughout this book.
THE STRAND: A woman named Jeanne Darst helped you write this book, correct? How so?
SPINER: Yes. She’s a wonderful writer in her own right. She collaborated with me on this book. She was fantastic to work with; I loved her. She really inspired me to write more and more and more. She was just so helpful to me. That was a suggestion from Jonathan Ames that I meet Jeanne and get some kind of direction on how to write a book. She did that for me, and she did it in many ways. She is represented in the book in many ways. There are things she said that are in the book. Primarily, she inspired me to write this book.
THE STRAND: How long did it take you to write this book?
SPINER: (deadpans) Around 30 years. Something like that. I’ve been thinking of this story since I was doing the show. I had elements of it. Actually, sitting down and writing it was a 7-8-month endeavor. The pandemic facilitated that. I don’t want to say in any way it was a good thing for me or anyone else, but it did force me into doing it because there was no acting work – at least not for C-team mediocre actors like me (laughs) – so I needed to fill my time. I needed to be creative; it’s part of who I am. I was able to devote a lot of time that I would not have ordinarily been able to in order to write the book.
THE STRAND: What was the best part about writing this book?
SPINER: I found it to be a really enjoyable process. It was something I looked forward to doing everyday. Now I have hundreds of books in my mind I want to write. Unfortunately, in my advanced age, I can only write another 20 or 30. I just found it to be a really enjoyable process. Just accessing that part of my imagination was really rewarding to me. It was therapeutic too, dealing with my past, dealing with things that had been stuck in my unconscious or subconscious for a lifetime that I needed to purge. Just being able to express myself artistically in a different way was great.
THE STRAND: Most challenging?
SPINER: That exact same thing. Just the discipline. I’m not the most disciplined person. I’m generally a really lazy human being, bordering on slothful. But when I get a role, I suddenly have this boundless energy to accomplish what’s necessary. I found that to be true with the book as well. Just having the discipline to keep going. Having a deadline is like the cameras are rolling – you’ve got to be ready. That really pushed me forward. Responsibility does inspire me.
THE STRAND: Do you plan on writing an actual autobiography like I Am Not Data in the same vein Leonard Nimoy wrote I Am Not Spock in 1975? Then wait another 20 years and write I Am Data (EDITOR’S NOTE: Nimoy wrote I Am Spock in 1995)?
SPINER: I was actually gonna write I Am Not Spock Either (laughs).
I’d like to keep acting as I long as I can stand. Or maybe not even stand – I see myself as the Lionel Barrymore (It’s A Wonderful Life) of my time, doing the last few years from a wheelchair. I think I still got some left… To be an actor at my age and still be working is very gratifying. The only downside of it was when I was a young guy, I had a fantastic acting teacher who really pushed all of his students towards as much versatility as we could possibly do. This was high school! We did Shakespeare, musicals, contemporary plays. He just wanted us to be able to do anything. It served me well. For a long time, I felt – arrogantly – I could pretty much do anything. The fact is now I’m limited to playing people of a certain age. The only thing that’s gone away is I can’t play young guys anymore… What I want to do and what I always wanted to do is have my own comedy show. I’ve tried, actually. I did a web series called Fresh Hell. I’d love to do seven seasons of Fresh Hell. We weren’t savvy in selling it back then and all that stuff; we were just making the show. I also did a short (film) called Brentwood. In both of these (shows), by the way, I play myself, which is one of my better characters. They’re very different – I’m very different in both of them; they’re not the same guy. They’re both really clever comedies. That’s honestly what I’d always thought I’d do. Y’know, careers have a life of their own. I thought I’d do comedies and sitcoms – that’s my wheelhouse. Somehow, I ended up on this sci-fi series. I certainly never expected that! I’ve been doing it for 30-some odd years. As I said, careers have a life of their own; you just have to go where it tells you to go.
THE STRAND: The book covers the worst part about celebrity and fandom. For you, what’s the best part?
SPINER: The book illustrates that fandom is a double-edged sword, even a triple-edged sword – if there is such a thing. To be clear, I’m a fan too. I think we’re all fans, aren’t we? I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t a fan of someone. That just means appreciation for the effort and for the work you do. That’s a wonderful salve to one’s ego to be celebrated by a group of people or one person or anyone for your efforts. It’s very satisfying to know there are people who enjoy and appreciate what you do.
THE STRAND: What’s the best part of attending these fan conventions?
SPINER: It really does please us when we hear that people bonded with their families and friends over watching the show. That’s really satisfying and one of the ancillary joys of having been part of the show.
THE STRAND: Star Trek turns 55 this year. Can you talk about what gives it such staying power after more than a half-century?
SPINER: I can try. I don’t know if the philosophy on this is really ever accurate. I think it’s different things to different people. I think for some people it has staying power because they just enjoy the show. It’s great entertainment, which – incidentally – was the intention from the beginning: To create entertainment that would appeal to people. I can philosophize on it myself and say we really, really live in a treacherous time and it just keeps getting more and more treacherous and frightening. The possibility of a future at all is questionable. We have so many obstacles to face. Something that we haven’t addressed – or we’ve addressed them, but they’re not taken on – are the challenges necessary to assure our future. There’s this subconscious fear in all of us that there may be no future. Star Trek – not just Star Trek, but Star Wars and all of science-fiction – appeals to us on some kind of visceral level that reassures that there will be a future, and that mankind – and womankind – will continue to exist. I think it brings people some kind of reassurance and comfort. Now that is bullshit, but that’s what you asked me for! It’s necessary to philosophize on why Star Trek has endured.
THE STRAND: Is it true that you auditioned for Data six times way back when?
SPINER: Back in the day, that’s what they did. They still do on a lot of projects. Back then, we were working for a studio – we weren’t on a network – it had to go through the producers, then (TNG creator) Gene Rodenberry had to approve, then Paramount had to approve, then the higher-ups had to approve – it keep going on and on and up and up
THE STRAND: What made you stand out from the other actors to get this now iconic part?
SPINER: Good looks, talent, I don’t know – you tell me (laughs). I’m sure any of the others who auditioned for the part were capable of doing it. That’s the essence of auditioning. Anyone who’s been on the other side of the table and has to make a decision will tell you that there’s a world of talent who comes before them. It’s really difficult to make those decisions because there are so many good actors who are trying to get the one job.
THE STRAND: What makes Data one of the most popular characters on TNG – if not the most popular character?
SPINER: I think he’s the most popular character in the universe (deadpans). Seriously, I don’t know if he’s the most popular character. He’s popular. They’re all popular. If you investigate it, I think you’ll find that all of the characters in the entire Star Trek canon are popular with people who watch Star Trek. I think with Data, there’s a lot to say for him. He’s available, which is also a problem. He is somebody people can project on to because he’s a blank slate, and he’s not dangerous; he’s accepting of all things and people and species. There’s something comforting about that.
THE STRAND: The TNG cast is pretty close. Can you comment on that camaraderie?
SPINER: I was best man for LeVar (Burton, alias Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge) in his wedding. I’m sure it happens on other shows. I know it does – we all saw the Friends reunion – but we really did have a special bond (on TNG). We were working 16-hour days on sets that had no windows. When you saw the ship, the stars outside the ship weren’t really stars. We weren’t really on a ship, we were on a set and that was a scrim with stars on it (deadpans).
THE STRAND: You weren’t? It was?
SPINER: (Laughs). We really could’ve gone crazy. I think what we chose to do instead was have a good time. We really did. We laughed all daylong every day. There were prickly moments here and there, but really nothing much. This camaraderie has survived. It’s transcended time, really; we’re close now as we ever were – if not more so. We still get together for dinner. I still speak to one or more of the cast members every week… As it happens, we’re also working together again, which is great.
THE STRAND: How do you like working with Patrick Stewart?
SPINER: Patrick is a fine actor and he’s even a better person than he is an actor. It’s hard for me to talk about Patrick just in regards to Star Trek. We are all very close friends and we all enjoyed working together so much. I always feel I’m in good hands. You’re only better when you work with people who are better.
Working with Patrick has always been a joy. I love acting with him. We laugh – the whole cast does – when doing the show and really enjoyed each other’s company so much. I consider them my best friends, all of them. Patrick is and has always been the leader. He has been the captain. He’s a mensch. He’s a really good guy.
THE STRAND: What about Jonathan Frakes (alias Cmdr. William Riker)?
SPINER: Jonathan’s first episode he directed is “The Offspring,” where Lal emerged – the famous Lal from my book. Jonathan really learned his stuff; he is a fine director. I always feel I’m in good hands when Jonathan’s directing.
I just finished doing an episode (of Picard) with him and it was just great! We have a shorthand, of course, and it’s great to work with somebody I’m that close to. He’s really skilled now and it’s not just me saying that about my friend; I think if you ask anyone on the set – any crew member, any other actor – they all take pleasure in working with Jonathan. He’s definitely my favorite TNG director.
THE STRAND: Do you mind being remembered as Data?
SPINER: I don’t mind being remembered as Data. Again, that’s a double-edged sword there, too. In fact, I’m very fond of Data. I’m very happy I played that role. It offered me – and continues to offer me – a lot of opportunity and a lot of challenges, but I prefer, if I had my choice, to be remembered as Brent Spiner. Just because that is actually who I am. Data is – I know this is hard to take – a fictional character. And I, believe it or not, am a really person. As much time I’ve spent being Data, I’ve spent so much more time as myself. That would be my preference. I have no problem with people thinking of me as Data – that’s up to them; that’s the way they process it. Good on them.