Professional jockey or attorney – those are the two careers that Greg Ellis considered pursing while growing up. Then, however, he set his sights on the entertainment industry and never looked back. Born and raised in the small town of Wigan, Lancashire, Northern England, the-then budding young actor joined a children’s drama group and, at the age of nine, made his TV debut singing for a very special individual.
“I was doing a summer season at a theater in the North of England and me and five other kids sang live on TV for Princess Diana,” recalls Ellis. “That’s my first memory of performing in front of a camera. It was around 1980 and I remember being amazed by how many cameras there were and how few people were actually in the studio. Everyone was either tucked away in some booth high up or in another room. Talk about an unforgettable experience.”
Back then, Ellis never imagined that he would one day be soaring through outer space and making his mark on an historic TV and feature film franchise. The actor portrays Yorkshire-born Chief Engineer Olson in the new Star Trek movie. Although he is one of the good guys, it almost turned out to be the exact opposite.
“I originally tried out for the part of a Romulan,” says the actor. “A couple of weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I thought no more about it. At the time I was working on a TV show called The Riches, and one morning I got a call saying that J.J. Abrams [Trek director/producer] wanted to see me about the role of Chief Engineer Olson, the original engineer onboard the Enterprise. So I spoke to the director I was working with and he said it didn’t look like I was going to have a full [shooting] day and would make sure I got out on time. When I arrived at Paramount Studios I was given the pages for the scenes I was reading for and had to learn them on the spot. I auditioned and the following day found out I was up for the role.
“Not long after that I was on the Star Trek set, and what immediately struck me was how friendly everyone was. I got on really well with John Cho [Sulu] and Chris Pine [Captain James T. Kirk], who I had most of my scenes with, and Bruce Greenwood [Captain Christopher Pike]. He’s a big chess player, and my first day on-set, within an hour he had me playing a game with him. So there we were, Captain Pike and Chief Engineer Olson trying to outwit each other on the chess board,” chuckles Ellis. “It was all rather surreal. The thing is, I wasn’t a huge Star Trek fan growing up, and I’ve since become educated about as well as respectful of the massive fan base that Star Trek has. That’s something I kept reminding myself of while we were working on the movie.”
Prior to the film’s U.S. release last Friday, Ellis had appeared, albeit briefly, in the main trailer for Star Trek, which features snippets of one of the movie’s main action sequences. “Kirk, Sulu and Olson have to go on a skydiving mission down to a Romulan orbital platform that is drilling down into the planet Vulcan, the home of Spock [Zachary Quinto],” explains the actor. “We were wearing these skydiving spacesuits with helmets, and the helmets kept steaming up, so they had to pump oxygen into them to un-steam the visors in order for us to see what we were doing.
“I had two costumes, my Enterprise uniform and the skydiving one, which was amazing, particularly the minute details. For example, the gloves we wore were personally fitted by this incredible glove maker. I’d never net a glove maker before. He measured my hands, then made a test pair of gloves, and finally added all the detail and piping to the end product. Again, the attention to detail, even down to the clip to keep our skydiving parachutes on, was so impressive. Michael Kaplan did the costumes, and I’d previously worked with him on another movie. It was as if you took [the designers] Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, mixed them all up and then times it by 10. That’s what the spacesuits were like.”
While it may appear as if Engineer Olson and his crewmates are hurtling towards Vulcan at breakneck speed, the actual shooting of the skydiving scene was, in places, rather simple. “Surprisingly, there wasn’t too much green screen involved,” says Ellis. “J.J. Abrams and his crew were extremely creative insofar as filming. When it came to my character skydiving, they put mirrors on the ground, which reflected the sky. I was then lowered onto the mirrors, while J.J. and the camera operator stood on a raised platform with the camera pointed straight into my face. Imagine that and then invert the whole thing; it looks as if I’m flying through the sky, and it is the real sky, only reflected. So, again, very creative.
“Clearly J.J. Abrams is a talented guy. He has the Midas Touch when it comes to movies and TV. The thing is, there are so many people who work with him and for him, and they’re fans of his as well and go from project to project to project. They’re utterly loyal to J.J. and that’s a testament to just how wonderful he is. He’s a true collaborator who has a vision, and it’s not only exciting but also fun to work with him every day.”
It may surprise some Trek fans to discover that Star Trek is not Ellis’ first time playing in this particular make-believe universe. Back in 1999, he guest-starred as a Cardassian named Ekoor in the two-hour Star Trek: Deep Space Nine finale What You Leave Behind.
“I went into that job looking forward to doing that particular incarnation of Star Trek but having no idea of the seriousness of doing the show’s finale,” notes the actor. “In one of the scenes I blasted two rebel Cardassians and, as I walked down some steps, said the classic line, ‘That’s Locarian City.’ At the time, I didn’t know where or what that was, and I later became quite educated in its history as well as what a Jem’Hadar, Bajoran, Romulan and, indeed, a Cardassian, was.
“I remember going through three hours of prosthetics every morning for this role, so when I did the Star Trek movie I was actually quite happy that I was playing a human being and not a Romulan. That said, wearing a ‘mask’ like that, I think, helps you get into character. It was the same when I did the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It’s just a great ride to be involved with something so iconic.”
The X-Files, Bones, The Closer and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are among Ellis’ other TV credits. The actor is probably best known, though, for his performance as international arms dealer Michael Armador in season three of 24. “I had a terrific time on that show,” he enthuses. “I had worked before with Kiefer Sutherland [Jack Bauer] in a movie called To End All Wars, which was about prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, and it was great to have the opportunity to work with him again.
“The challenge of 24 really comes down to the fact that the story is told in 24 hours. My first day of filming was a night scene on-location. It was a meeting with Nina Meyers [Sarah Clarke] on one side and Jack Bauer and the Mexicans on the other. My character was holding an auction for a biological weapon, and when it’s over, Jack was going to walk with the Mexicans to his car. However, we had to rethink the scene because it would have taken longer to do that than we had in real time.
“So it’s a matter of thinking in a different mindset, which in this case is real time, and the hurdles involved with that. However, it’s good to be challenged in that way and it makes you stay on top of your storytelling because that’s what the show’s fans expect. Kiefer is very involved and very professional about the details, and it shows.
“Originally I was only supposed to be in three episodes, and when I was given the script for my fourth episode it had a scene where my character’s throat got slit. I thought, ‘That’s OK, I had a good time.’ Then I got the rewrite and I was suddenly and miraculously alive. They [the producers/writers] had decided to kill off the Nina Meyers character instead. So you never knew from script to script and rewrite to rewrite how long you’d be alive for, and I wound up sticking around for, I believe, nine or ten episodes, which I was thrilled about.”
Besides his roles in front of the camera, Ellis is also a much sought-after voice artist. His work can be heard on various video games including SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Tomb Raider: Legend, as well as such cartoons as Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Ben 10: Alien Force and Phineas and Ferb. Not surprisingly, this type of work has its own unique set of challenges, some harder than others.
“A lot of times it’s tough keeping a straight face and staying quiet when someone else is talking about because it’s so much fun,” says Ellis. “Typically, you’re in a room with other like-minded, silly individuals and you all get to act like children, depending, of course, on the project, and enjoy yourselves. Things can move fast, though, and it’s a matter of keeping up. Direction and notes are thrown at you and you have to quickly digest and incorporate them into your next take.”
Does the actor have a favorite character to have voiced? “Growing up I used to read the comic Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, and years later that was my very first animated TV project, so I was pretty excited about that. As a child I also had an Action Man figure, who was like G.I. Joe, and I got to be the voice of that character, too. I did a few episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars as well and enjoyed being a small part of the Star Wars world. I’ve also done three of the Pirates of the Caribbean video games and, having done the films, a lot of the actors are my mates, so I’ve voiced most of their characters in the games. And I’m the voice of the Jack Sparrow doll, which I think is an interesting little piece of trivia.”
A couple of years ago, Ellis was one of the musical artists invited by Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber to perform for Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral as part of The Best of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. “I got to sing two solo songs, which was pretty neat,” he says. “First of all, singing at St.Paul’s with its acoustics, history, architecture, etc. is just incredible, and to then have the Queen and the Royal Family there to meet afterwards made for a truly unforgettable night.
“It was many years later, but my childhood TV experience of singing for Princess Diana came around full circle as well,” adds the actor. “It was, I think, the third preview of the musical Miss Saigon where I got to meet her backstage and found her to be a really lovely person.”
Currently, this verstile entertainer is keeping busy with a few new projects, including the recurring role of Simon Cochran on the TNT series Trust Me, and a guest-spot on Nip/Tuck. “I’ve been back in the prosthetics chair again for that show, but only for a couple of hours,” says Ellis. “I have a writing partner in England and we’ve written a couple of things that seem to be moving forward. So I’ve been very lucky work-wise and, touch wood, long may it continue.”
As noted above, all photos courtesy of and copyright of JSquared Photography, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!