Q&A: Leonard Nimoy Talks ‘Fringe’, Voice Acting and ‘Big Bang Theory’

Mr. Nimoy on why he un-retired: "I’m a sucker for a good role"

FRINGE_Leonard-NimoyAfter announcing that he was retiring from acting, the great Leonard Nimoy was thankfully lured back to work. Tonight, you can catch him once again as William Bell on the season finale of Fringe.

How was he convinced? “I’m a sucker for a good role and J.J. Abrams, the Executive Producer of the show, is a friend of mine,” he said in a conference call earlier this week.

I’ve loved Nimoy for years and any chance I can see him on-screen is a treat. In this Q&A, he talks about Fringe, his character William Bell, if he’s coming back for the show’s final season and voice acting.

The season finale of Fringe airs tonight at 9/8c on FOX

Follow Leonard Nimoy on Twitter! What is it about the role of William Bell that enticed you to return from retirement to reprise the character?

Leonard Nimoy: Well, it’s not just the role of William Bell.  It’s the show.  I think Fringe is a wildly imaginative show.  The writers and the creators of the show, the producers, are very bright and very theatrical.  All the characters are fleshed out wonderfully and the chemistry amongst the cast is terrific.  I wanted to be part of this project.  I enjoy the project.

Of course, the character of William Bell started out to be rather ambivalent.  We weren’t quite sure whether we were supposed to enjoy him or be afraid of him.  We couldn’t quite figure out what his motivation was.  At the end of last season, he seemed to come around to be less dangerous.  This season I think things have taken another turn.  He’s in another universe and has taken on other characteristics.

There were challenges in the character itself that were attractive to me.  I could play aspects of a character that I haven’t played in a long time, so it was very welcoming to me.

Lately, you’ve been playing a lot of these bad guy roles with William Bell and on Transformers 3.  Do you prefer playing the bad guy rather than the good guy?

Leonard Nimoy: I don’t have a preference for bad people.  No.  I have an interest in playing a broad range of characters.  Obviously, I’m mostly identified with a character who is very responsible and very solid and very intelligent, but there are plenty of questionable characters in my past career.  I’m interested in exploring theatricality and characters with some dimension.  William Bell certainly has that.

About two years ago where you said, “Well, I’ve quit acting.  I’m not going to come back.  I’m not going to do anything anymore.”  How long have you known you were going to come back and what was it like keeping that secret?

Leonard Nimoy: I’m not sure exactly the amount of time.  I would say somewhere around two or three months from the time that I knew I was going to do it until now.  I’m a sucker for a good role and J.J. Abrams, the Executive Producer of the show, is a friend of mine.  He calls.  I take his call.  The writers and producers, Joel Wyman, Jeff Pinkner, and the cast, they’re a wonderful bunch of people and I enjoy being there.  When they called and asked me if I would do it, it was pretty easy to convince me that there was an interesting challenge in the character and a very wonderful company to work with.

Fringe just had the great news that they just got renewed for one final season.  I know you probably can’t say exactly what’s going to happen with William Bell in the finale, but if there was an opportunity to see him again somewhere in those final 13 episodes, is that something you’re open to?

Leonard Nimoy: I’m sure that we will be having conversations about that before too long.  I haven’t heard anything new about William Bell or the show, except that it has been picked up for 13 episodes, which I think is wonderful.  I know the company was hoping for that that they could have another season to close out successfully.  I haven’t heard anything about Bell coming back, but I’m sure I’ll be getting a call.  We’ll talk about it.  It will depend on my schedule.  It will depend on what they have in mind for the character.  There are a lot of issues that have to be dealt with, but we’ll be talking.

Fringe is a very imaginative show.  It’s very well received with critics.  It’s got obviously a great loyal fan base, but kind of like with Star Trek it has struggled to get that large television audience.  Why do you suppose that is?

Leonard Nimoy: If I could answer that question I think the networks would all be on me for explanations of what to do about their schedules.  I’m not an authority on ratings and how these things happen.  You’re absolutely right in the comparison to Star Trek.  We did very poorly in the ratings but eventually, the show started to become more and more popular until it became a news story where stations were carrying the show at various hours and various time and sometimes in marathons on weekends and 6:00 every night in syndication. 

The same thing could happen with Fringe.  I can tell you that when Star Trek was put on a Friday night, which is a date night, not a good night for a show like this, it did very, very poorly.  Fringe has the same kind of audience, a very intense audience, a small audience, but very intense and very committed.  I think it’s commendable that the people at FOX decided to honor that commitment.

Now I understand that the show does particularly well in DVR recordings and I don’t know how that works or how they measure that.  What that means is that people who are out on Friday nights record the show and watch it some other time.  That’s a sign of the commitment to the show.

Is it important for you to keep up with what was going on with the world of Fringe?  I know this is a new universe for the William Bell you’re playing, but have you kind of jumped in here and there to catch up with what’s going on or were you just coming in cold again after the last episode that you did for the show?

Leonard Nimoy: I have a general picture.  I haven’t watched all the episodes but I have a general picture of what has been happening and where my character fits in the story, in the overall arc of the story.  I think they’ve done a really wonderful job of finding ways to reinvent the story and reinvent the characters.  When I was asked about coming on this season, I said I think the mystery of William Bell has kind of gone away by the end of the last season because it was pretty clear that he was a pretty decent guy.  I said, “Where are we going to go now?”  It was explained to me that we’re opening up a whole world and a whole new can of peas, so to speak, and William Bell is being recreated as something else.  That intrigued me and I was excited to go back to work.

Considering your supposed retirement, what’s leading you to accept small roles like Lazy Song and Big Bang Theory that you were doing? 

Leonard Nimoy: The Big Bang Theory has been an ongoing conversation for a long, long time regarding an appearance.  Some time ago they asked me if I would provide a napkin that I had used and I did.  They used it on the show as a gift to the Sheldon character.  It has become one of the most highly talked about and most highly enjoyed shows of all time I understand.  They are a wonderfully talented bunch of people and is a smart show and a show full of talent. 

They asked me to appear on the show.  For various reasons, a physical appearance didn’t work out but when they came up with this idea of a voicing of the Spock character with Sheldon being given a Star Trek transporter, the whole idea was wonderful.  It was a way for me to deliver a kind of appearance on the show and to work with those very, very talented bunch of people.

You’re doing this role on Fringe and you say you’re open to next season possibly.  If the right show and the right film or the right role came along, are you now seeing yourself as a little more open to doing some more acting or do you still mostly consider yourself retired?

Leonard Nimoy: The door is not completely closed.  Obviously, I said a couple of years ago that I was retiring and here I am talking about a performance that I just gave.  There are certain special situations that come along that can intrigue me.  This one did.  As I said before, J.J. Abrams is a friend.  Jeff Pinkner, Joel Wyman, they’re all friends, the producers of the show. 

I think the writing is wonderfully imaginative.  It’s a fascinating character and a great company.  It’s nice to get off the couch and throw the clothes on and a little makeup and go back to work every once in a while.  I still enjoy it.  In this case, as I said before, it’s all of the elements that come together at the right time in the right way and I was happy to do it.

There have been reports in the last month or so that you’re actually going to be appearing in the next Star Trek movie as well reprising your most famous role of Spock.  Can you talk about that at all?

Leonard Nimoy: Well, my feeling is they don’t need me.  They’ve got a wonderful cast.  Zachary Quindo has taken on the character of Spock and I think is wonderfully suited.  He is a talented guy.  He is a very intelligent actor, very well trained.  They’ve got a great company of people replacing all of us.  I don’t think they need me, frankly.  It’s flattering to be talked about, but I just don’t think they need me. 

I understand, by the way, that they have just finished shooting and they’ve got a wonderful actor, Mr. Cumberbatch, who has a great reputation in the UK and I think is going to build a reputation here in the United States very quickly.  The Sherlock Holmes series that he is famous for in the UK is coming to the United States and I think he’s going to be very quickly recognized as a major talent.  He’s in the movie.  I think they’re going to do just fine.

What kind of a journey is Leonard Nimoy on?

Leonard Nimoy: The journey that I’ve been on has been a blessed journey.  When I was 17 I set out with the hopes of making a living as an actor and I feel that I have been blessed with the kind of opportunities I’ve been given.  I’ve acted all over the United States.  I’ve acted in countries all around the world.  I’ve acted on stage as much as I’ve wanted to, a couple times on Broadway; toured several times in various productions around the United States and met all kinds of wonderful people in wonderful cities; television; film; radio; commercials.  I’ve had a taste of it all.  I’m a very, very thankful person.

You’ve done some voice acting roles in the last few years for movies and television, even video games.  How do you feel voice acting has helped you to further explore theatricality and character?

Leonard Nimoy: The voice thing is a blessing that I was given.  I did have speech problems when I first stated out as an actor.  I came from Boston.  I grew up in Boston and when I began to think about acting it was pointed out to me that I sounded very, very much like a very clearly defined Boston person and that it might limit me as an actor.  I spent some time working on my speech.  The voice was always there but my speech needed some work in order to make it more acceptable as sort of a broad American kind of sound.  The voice has been a blessing. 

I’ve had opportunities to do voice work of all kinds.  I did the In Search Of  series for seven years, which was almost entirely voice work.  It was something that was given to me and I was able to make good use of it.  I’m grateful for it.

You’re very involved in the art world in many different ways, are we going to be seeing anything of you in terms of music or getting back on stage?  Do you have anything in the works creatively otherwise?

Leonard Nimoy: My wife’s son, Erin Bay Shuck, is a Record Producer at Atlantic Records.  He’s the producer that brought Bruno Mars to the label and signed him.  I’ve been on his case to let me into the recording study to make some smash hit records.  He hasn’t succumbed to my pleas yet.  I would love to make a smash hit record but we don’t have any definitive plans. 

I do still do some of my photography work.  I have a photography website.  It’s Leonardnimoyphotography.com if you want to take a look at the kind of work that I do.  I’ve enjoyed photography ever since I was a teenager and I’m still at it.  I’ve had shows in various cities around the country and I have a number of pieces in permanent collections in museums around the country that I’m very proud of, but as far as the music is concerned, I don’t have any specific plans yet.

Would you be open to doing more comedy like you did with Big Bang Theory?

Leonard Nimoy: I love comedy.  I’m not known for comedy, but I love comedy.  I’ve done a lot of it in my lifetime.  The most recent comedy opportunity I’ve had was on the Big Bang Theory show where I had that wonderful funny interaction with the Sheldon character.  It’s not something that I’m known for, but I have done a lot of comedy in my work over the years, mostly in the theater.  Of course, I directed Three Men and a Baby.  Most people are surprised to hear that I made a funny movie.  I love to laugh and I love comedy.

William Bell, has shown up in a new and exciting way each season.  We’ve had you in amber this season and in person, of course.  We had you animated in episode LSD and Brown Betty from Seasons 2 and 3 and of course, in iconic Twin Towers at the end of Season 1.  Can you briefly tell us a little bit about how those worked for you and if you’re able to do Season 5, what new media would you like to be in?

Leonard Nimoy: Well, the William Bell journey has been really interesting to me and I don’t take any credit for it.  I’m only the performer.  I’ve given the material on the printed page.  They hand it to me in a script form.  Conversations first about which way William Bell is going now and then it comes to me on the pages.  I have been very grateful for having been given some wonderful, rich opportunities as an actor in the William Bell character.  We started out, as I said before, very ambiguous, didn’t quite know whether to trust him or not, and gradually it was revealed that he could be a helpful and reasonable kind of guy. 

We have not yet spoken at all about another season.  I know that the show has been picked up for 13 more episodes but there has been no conversation yet about whether they want William Bell and if so, what will William Bell be all about next season?  What’s on tomorrow night I think is quite extraordinary.

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