Fringe’s Leonard Nimoy – For Whom The Bell Tolls

Leonard Nimoy as Fringe's William Bell. Photo copyright of Fox Television

Leonard Nimoy as Fringe's William Bell. Photo copyright of Fox Television

IN the original Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy’s character of Mr. Spock had to figure out a way to help his fellow crewmates get back from an alternate universe in the second season episode Mirror, Mirror. Now, years later, the actor is playing another character, Fringe‘s William Bell, who apparently has information about a parallel universe. Introduced in the season one finale, There’s More Than One of Everything, Bell returned in the recently telecast year two episode Momentum Deferred, which shed some light on Agent Olivia Dunham’s (Anna Torv) past and her alternate-reality encounter. Nimoy has already reprised his role for an upcoming episode, which will hopefully reveal more of Bell’s true motives.

Earlier this month, Mr. Nimoy joined me and other journalists on a conference call to discuss his work on Fringe as well as his acting career in general. An edited version of that Q & A follows. Enjoy!

Did you have any reservations about taking on another role with the potential of such a fanatic following?

LEONARD NIMOY – I love this question. I can’t help but laugh because you’re absolutely right. It’s an interesting set of circumstances. What attracted me to it were several things – J.J. Abrams, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who I worked with on the Star Trek movie. I admire their talents and the work that they do. The series is at the very least to say intriguing. The character of William Bell was somewhat of a blank slate, but we began talking about it, and it was attractive to me because there was an opportunity to build an interesting and unpredictable character. I’m enjoying it a lot.

So lately it seems as if you’re J.J. Abrams’ muse of sorts. Can you tell us a little bit more about your relationship with him?

LN Well, I first met him, I guess about three years ago when he first contacted me about the possibility of working together, and I went to a meeting with him, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman as well as some of his production staff. They told me a very good, strong and touching story about their feelings surrounding Star Trek and, specifically, the Spock character. And that gave me a sense of validation after all these years. I had been out of it [Trek] for some time, as you’re probably aware. There were several Star Trek TV series and movies in which I was not involved, so this was a re-validation of the work we’d done on the original Star Trek. I felt very good about it and went to work for them. I had a great time doing the [Star Trek X1] movie. I think they did a brilliant job, and the audience response shows that that was the case and has reinvigorated the franchise. So when they contacted me about doing Fringe – with the same creative team and attitude – it was very enticing.

Had you seen Fringe? Were you a fan of the show prior to that?

LN – I watched it periodically and think it’s extremely well-done. It’s very nuanced and complex. It’s a mixture of Science and Science-Fiction in an interesting and intelligent way. It tells a terribly compelling story, and the character that I was offered was potentially an extremely intriguing, controversial and fascinating one, which is very inviting for an actor.

I was wondering how you felt about the current state of Science-Fiction on TV and film?

LN – Well, I’m concerned about the positioning of story in terms of importance. When I see a lot of explosions and chases, I’m not terribly impressed. I think there are three important elements that must be given priority in Science-Fiction as well as any other kind of drama. The first is story, the second is story, and the third is story. Story, story, story, story, story. If the story is compelling and interesting, I think the rest will find its place. We have great technology in our industry, and that technology can be overused at the expense of story. That’s a problem for me, but when the story is in place, I think the special effects can find their proper place as well. Fringe uses the technology brilliantly and in the service of excellent storytelling.

Are there any other projects you’re currently involved with?

LN – I’m doing a lot of photography work. That’s one of my major creative outlets right now. I have an exhibition, Secret Selves, which is opening at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art next year and I’m really excited about that. Check out my website –

You had not been acting for a while, and then you’ve done Star Trek and Fringe pretty recently together. Having stepped away for a while and then returned, are your feelings about acting what they were, or have they changed?

LN – Well, I’m enjoying it. I’m very comfortable in the two offers that I’ve accepted. The Star Trek movie was a joy to do. I admire the production team that made the film, and I admire the new cast, too. Zachary Quinto, I thought, was a great choice for the new Spock and it was a pleasure to work with him and all the other people on the project. The Fringe character was intriguing because, as I’ve mentioned, it was kind of a blank slate and we had some very interesting and intense conversations about what we might or might not learn from him, and what we might or might not trust about him. These are fascinating opportunities for an actor, and they came from a group of people I had respect for. They piqued my interest and I went back to work. Frankly, I did not expect to be acting so much at this time in my life. My concentration was on my photography, but I’m having a wonderful time doing it.

After your role on Star Trek, your projects weighed heavily towards the Sci-Fi genre. Were you always a big fan of Sci-Fi?

LN – Well, it’s a good thing if you can find your niche as an actor and be able to support a family. Very early on – I’m talking many, many years ago, probably 1950 or 51 – I acted in my first Science-Fiction project, and I’ve since acted in Science-Fiction over the years. That first project is probably not terribly well-know. I thought it was going to rocket me to stardom, if you’ll pardon the expression. It didn’t quite work. It was a great project called Zombies of the Stratosphere, and I was the third of a group of zombies that came to Earth to take over its orbit. It’s funny as I think about it now, but it was a way of making a living. Science-Fiction seems to be a fertile ground for the kind of work that I do, the kind of presence that I offer, and I’m grateful for it and the niche it’s given me.

Have they mentioned anything about their needs for you on an upcoming Star Trek movie?

LN – My understanding is that they’re working on a script right now. I expect there’s going to be some time before they know exactly who and what they need. I frankly doubt, though, that I will be called upon again. I think I was useful in the last film to help bridge the gap between the original characters, the original actors, and the new cast. They have a wonderful new cast in place now and I’m sure they’ll move ahead with them. So I don’t see why they would need me in the next film, although if they called me, I’d be happy to have a conversation about it.

Your character of William Bell believes the world has “soft spots” – do you believe in this as well?

LN – What the show deals with in this wonderfully intriguing way is a question of an alternate universe through which one can slip through from one universe to another. I’ve been involved in stories of this kind before. I did a series called In Search Of…some years ago in which we dealt with subject matter like this. In terms of whether it’s scientifically accurate, I think that’s a question you’d have to ask people like Stephen Hawking.I’m not a scientist, and I can’t really tell you whether or not there is a soft spot where you could slip through to another world, but I think the Fringe series deals with that idea in a very intriguing way.

Do you believe William Bell is good or evil?

LN – That’s a really wonderful question. Time will tell.

What sort of acting challenges have you found playing the William Bell character?

LN – Well, the first thing was some wonderful and creative conversations that I had with J. J. Abrams, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman as well as Jeff Pinkner, who’s the show runner, to try to create from scratch a character that’s never been seen before, but only been referred to. There are certain things that were a given, including that he’s a power figure and a very wealthy and obviously terribly intelligent man with a scientific background. But in terms of characteristics, we started from scratch, and I think in the episode that recently aired [Momentum Deferred], a lot more of those characteristics were made evident. It’s great fun to be building the character from scratch, with certain givens, but so much to be developed as well in terms of the way he talks, walks, idiosyncracies, his tastes, is he difficult, is he gruff, is he charming, is he a nice guy, what are his real intentions? All of these are great exploration for an actor.

Can you talk a little bit about your love of photography and where that comes from?

LN – I became enamored of photography when I was about 13 or 14 years old and I’ve been at it ever since. I studied seriously in the 70’s and have a Masters degree in photography as a fine art. I would call my work primarily conceptual. I don’t carry cameras with me where I go. I get an idea of a subject matter I want to deal with and then I pull out my cameras. I have published two books – one is called Shekhina about the feminine aspect of God, and the second is called The Full Body Project, which deals with body images in our society.

You had your scene with Olivia (Anna Torv) in the recent episode; did you get a chance to meet any of the other actors and, if so, did you form an opinion of them?

LN – No, I have not worked with the others, only Anna so far. I think she does a wonderful job in the show, they all do, and I’m looking forward to meeting and working with the rest of the cast. They’re all very talented people and I admire the work they do.

What do you think of Anna Torv as an actor and a person?

LN – I think she’s really excellent in the role. We spent a bit of time working together and I was impressed with the way she works. I’ve seen quite a bit of her work on the screen. I think she handles a wide range of activities, from internalized psychological questions to all sorts of physical stuff, quite well. She’s extremely competent and interesting to watch. I think she’s terrific.

Have you found that there’s anything different in the way TV is done these days or what it requires of you as an actor, or is that aspect of the work still pretty much the same?

LN – I think it’s safe to say that what an audience is seeing today onscreen in a TV episode is far more complex than what we were doing when, for example, making the original Star Trek series in the 60’s. We were very heavy on pages and pages of dialogue and very little special effects, but because the technology has advanced so greatly, it’s possible to do some very complex, exciting and very useful technical stuff on a show these days. So we don’t have to rely quite as much on the story being told by the actors speaking. On the other hand, there’s a danger, as I mentioned earlier, of going too far with the special effects at the expense of the story. However, if the story is well done, if the story is in place strongly, the special effects can be enormously helpful to the actors, far more so than they were years ago when we were doing Star Trek. Delivering exposition is the toughest part of the job, and if it can be done visually and physically, it’s a big help.

Looking to the future, do you have any goals in mind, any invisible timeline where you just want to get out of the spotlight and retire, focus on photography, etc.

LN – I thought I had reached that point some years ago. I like to think about myself as an oceanliner that’s been going full speed for a long distance, and the captain pulls the throttle back all the way to “stop,” but the ship doesn’t stop immediately, does it? It has its own momentum and keeps on going, and I’m very flattered that people are still finding me useful. I try to pick my spots so that I have a balance between the work and my personal life, which I enjoy very much. I don’t know that I would actually any longer say, ‘No, I’m going to stop, 10, 12, 15 months or two years from now.’ I don’t know. I still feel strong and healthy and active, and as long as there’s interesting work to do, I’ll probably keep on doing it.

As noted above, photo is copright of Fox Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!


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