After starring as Doctor Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation and four subsequent feature films, prolific actor, director and theater choreographer Gates McFadden is launching a podcast series called InvestiGates: Who Do You Think You Are? Joined by her old Star Trek friends and castmates, McFadden explores surprising details about their personal and professional backgrounds through a series of stimulating conversations.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, McFadden shares why she was open to helming a podcast, finding new conversational avenues with friends she has known for decades and if she is open to the possibility of reprising her fan-favorite role as Beverly Crusher in the future.
You’ve been helming your own podcast series InvestiGates — I love that name, by the way — with The Nacelle Company. How did this opportunity first come about?
Gates McFadden: I was familiar with The Nacelle Company — I had done a narration for them — and the CEO Brian Volk-Weiss called me up and just was amazing and went, “I would really love for you to do a podcast that I would produce and you could talk about Star Trek with your friends!” And I was like, “Whoa, stop right there: That ain’t going to happen. My friends and I, we are all tired of talking about Star Trek. There’s no way, I’d have to pay them a million bucks each to get them to talk about an episode!” [Laughs.]
So I said no thanks and I wasn’t interested and then he calls back about a week later going, “I really would like you to do this, I think it would be really great and you could talk about anything you want and have anybody you want on. I just really want you to do one!” And I was like “Wait, I could talk to an astronaut or anybody I want? I wish I had a vision…nothing’s coming up right now but thanks again!”
And he came back again and he was so smart because he had planted the seed in my head and I just love trying things I haven’t tried before. And I started thinking if I did one what would it be? And that’s how I was hooked. And then I thought that they obviously wanted me to talk to some of my Star Trek friends and what we would talk about. By the last time he contacted me, I said yes and went and saw some friends of my mine, they dog-dared me to do it, and that’s how it happened. [Laughs.]
One of the things I love about the first episode where you talk with Jonathan Frakes is you’ve known each other for decades, yet you touch on topics that it feels like you’ve never discussed before. How do you find those conversational tangents with someone you’ve known for so long and for so well?
McFadden: That, of course, was the key to it. I started to research all of my friends and go through all of the stuff and noticing I forget what he said about that or what happened here. I started looking at when we were especially busy doing different things and what was going on. When I was doing the show, I was pregnant and had a kid and couldn’t go out drinking as much and those late-night talks, I didn’t have as many of those. And later, they had to go through that with their kids, so it was wonderful. There are so many things I had forgotten about and wait until you get to the Brent Spiner episode, I had forgotten about certain things.
And there were things I remembered in a couple of sentences, how he grew up and stuff, but I never had a clear, coherent line of questions I wanted to ask him. And I think that’s what happened to me: I had a whole bunch of questions, most of which I never got to, and I was open to where people wanted to go and had certain things that could be a base and I could come in with that and try to get a range of subjects. Most of the time I had so much material and had to edit it down which was really hard, but I wanted to show the range of different people. They’re all interesting just like everybody’s interesting in life. You just have to find things to get them talking. I had a ball doing it. Ultimately, I learned how to sound edit and I realized I got annoyed hearing myself talk like it was Dante’s Inferno. [Laughs]
You guys have been talking about Star Trek to death, working the con circuit and taking the occasionally awkward Q&As. With Star Trek being what brought you all together, is it the inciting incident or the elephant in the room?
McFadden: No, we all are really close and we were on a pretty intensive group text all through the pandemic. I think what it is is we’re all interested in what we all have going on like what LeVar Burton is doing and Brent writing a fan-fiction book and Marina Sirtis going back to England. It’s exciting in the way that George Takei and Bill Shatner have gone on to do all these amazing things, they’re multi-faceted folk. There are just so many things that people do and I feel like that’s where we connect the most in those sorts of things. We keep up what’s happening on different shows, especially with everything Jonathan directs, but we’re interested more with other things going on in their lives.
I don’t have a burning question to ask Brent about the episode I directed or about one of the movies. We did it. And I don’t think any of us go back unless someone’s directing and wants to watch how shots are done. The fans know the episodes so much better than I do. These two fans asked me to do a cameo on a podcast and they were just chatting about different episodes and I clicked on what they were doing and they just happened to be doing [the episode] “Remember Me” and they were so smart about talking about the episode, stuff I never thought about. I thought they had broken it down in the best possible way and I thought you just couldn’t top that. They really studied it. They’re analyzing it. And they’re asking me questions, but I couldn’t do a better job than [what] they’re doing.
This comes up in the episode too but you’ve done a lot of a theater work and a lot of choreography, including working with David Bowie on Labyrinth, at the arguable height of his cultural ubiquity. How was it working with him? Is he truly the Man Who Fell to Earth?
McFadden: He is absolutely one of the nicest, non-pretentious, curious, funny, always open to things — He was very impressive and that continued right up until his final creative work with his last album, his music videos; he was unbelievably brilliant. And he was multi-faceted too, and that’s something I was very impressed with him about. That was pretty extraordinary looking back but, at the time, I didn’t look at it that way.
I had this huge job and a ton of responsibility and a lot of things I hadn’t done before. Working with the goblins, and the people who had to wear these heavy things on them, and some of them had arthritis in their joints and things like that. I was dealing with a lot of things I had never dealt with before and I was working my ass off and didn’t have time to fangirl. It was only afterwards that I went, “Dang, I didn’t ask him about that!” But that’s the way it goes. I get totally immersed in the work, I always have, and that’s what’s happened with the podcast. I don’t care if I’m making up a recipe, I love the whole creative process and that’s my favorite place to live.
You were also working with the Jim Henson Company at the height of its powers. How is it staging these elaborate dance sequences or battle scenes on a production like Labyrinth?
McFadden: It’s funny because we ended up doing something Buster Keaton had done. We ended up having some of the rocks tied to the goblins by wires when they were running, which is what Keaton did. When I first arrived, they were trying to do these animatronic rocks and they just kept breaking down and they were much less controllable and Keaton showed when you’re running and tied to a wire, it’s pretty invisible. When you’re running, it comes down at you and looks fabulous. There were things like that happened, but I think my favorite scene was the ballroom scene because, on that scene, I really was given a wide berth and David Bowie was so accommodating and he tried all sorts of different things.
All of his disappearances were choreographed as if he was magical. And I think it’s because I was not as experienced, I didn’t realize that I could just edit and make him magically appear anywhere, but he was actually bending down and doing all this stuff that was phenomenal. He was very good in movement, though I did have to show him again how to waltz. I think I might have just pushed for that because I wanted to waltz with him. [Laughs.] It was an absolutely amazing group too, I got to cast my dancers, the whole thing. I was given the most freedom for that portion and it was my favorite part.
But I had also done theater choreography in New York City with the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Theater Company when David Jones from the Royal Shakespeare Company came over and started his company there with a lot of people who have gone on to become quite famous — Cherry Jones, Joe Morton, Roxanne Hart, a lot of amazing actors in that group. And I was the company choreographer. His wife Sheila Allen was a Royal Shakespeare actor who toured like Patrick Stewart, getting RSC actors to tour American universities. And she had come with a group of actors while I was teaching at Brandeis and watched one of my comedy clown classes and, because of her, I taught other RSC actors Nicholas Nickleby in New York and it was phenomenal and that’s how I became involved with doing company choreography for Shakespeare plays and different things like that and that happened certainly before Labyrinth.
It’s been an eclectic career and I didn’t go into teaching because that’s what I was dying to do. I kept getting offers because my teacher — who everyone really wanted — wanted to go back to France. He wasn’t interested in teaching American drama in the league of theater schools in the United States, but he recommended me and I kept getting job offers; it was just luck. I was the only assistant he had for this workshop he did, but if he had three, we would’ve all been doing the teaching, it’s just one of those things. At the time, everyone wanted someone who taught his techniques, now, every theater school has someone who teaches these techniques.
You have had an eclectic career, working in theater, television, film and now podcasting. What is a constant across all those mediums that you find joy in? And what’s something new in podcasting that you’ve developed?
McFadden: I think it’s like what happens in anyone’s process, you go, “What do I want to have happen in this? What’s my intention in this?” With characters, you know the arc of a character, what they want– the same questions you’d ask if you were a director or an actor, what is the atmosphere and what I’m trying to create. And then I had to go learn. And I learned a lot of things podcasting, because there was no script. It was just me talking with my friends and I didn’t want to listen to other podcasts of friends talking to each other. I listened to one podcast a long time ago of chefs talking to themselves and I felt, while it could be funny, there was a lot of dead space in between and I’m not sure I wanted that. I wanted to edit out when people are thinking of their next thing.
On the other hand, sometimes a moment of silence is really powerful. And I wanted to learn and be open and it was a struggle because I would lose stuff in editing, pushing the wrong button and I would not come back to the studio for two days. I was just so upset. And then I would re-edit it and I learned that sort of thing, the fact that I could just have a conversation and not interviewing somebody. It’s a different thing. How do I do it where they feel comfortable? I wanted people to feel comfortable enough that there were different subjects where they could go, and they could not go somewhere they didn’t want. I told them all if there was anything they wanted to be cut out, I’d cut it out no questions asked and they were all great. Everybody was incredibly accommodating and wonderful and very different.
In talking about learning more about your character, I was talking to Kate Mulgrew and she said she had grown to a place where Janeway was always with her. As someone that’s been around Beverly Crusher for years and years, what is something you’re proud to have instilled in her? And what have you learned about her?
McFadden: It becomes more difficult sometimes, that question. Obviously, there are parts of me that are in her but I’m much wackier than Crusher. I’m someone who loves avant-garde and types of music people are shocked I listen to; I love all sorts of strange things. Crusher certainly wasn’t that, she was a scientist. What I think I learned about her and this is the most true: I do love mentoring and being somebody who tries to learn and figure something out and who also has an instinct for mentoring. I have loved being a mother in my life. I have loved being an aunt to my niece and nephew. To my students, I have loved to be a mentor to them in periods where I’ve been in contact with them. I think that part came through, that is myself.
There are many other aspects that aren’t me but the writers tried to bring in other aspects that were like us. I think they found things like, “Oh, she used to do theater! Let’s have her be the theater coach on the ship, out of the blue!” And stuff like that was bizarre in many ways, but you just go with it. It was a character that was always in flux — not like Janeway who had a character that became very clear — I have had people who have moved me enormously by telling me at conventions that they’ve had 5-9 foster homes and I was the mother who was the constant. That had never occurred to me until a fan said that to me and that’s pretty powerful. I think what I have embraced very much at this point in my life is how important role models are to young people, that it’s crucial. If they don’t have role models, it’s a pretty tough world. I’m very honored that whatever they saw in the character was very helpful.
Even though you have the benefit of editing, was some of that initial recalcitrance when Brian first approached you from leaving you and your friends out there so honestly and openly?
McFadden: Maybe! I wanted to build a theater in L.A. and do new plays and contact new playwrights and I had a vision for every play that I directed. This took a long time to get the vision and I really found it in the editing. I spent hours editing. I think it’s like editing in film. It does make a difference in how the conversation flows, but, when you have 2.5 hours of material and you have to edit it down to an hour — it also varies. I didn’t have as much time with Jonathan and the connection started to get bad. With Marina, the connection wasn’t good and that was tricky. Other people, I had lots of time and we were face-to-face. I think it’s about finding meaning in what this is.
I would listen to these friends of mine and go, “That’s really interesting!” And try to make them shine as much as possible. I thought that was an important thing and these are amazing people. Here are questions, and here’s where they go, and I want to follow up with something and you learn a lot about yourself. That’s the hardest part, what you learn about yourself. I would much rather not be on the podcast with them and just be the editor because it’s tricky, you’re playing two things at the same time. You have to be the one to make sure you keep it going and it’s interesting and fun, but it’s also hard to learn what’s interesting about yourself.
I know this is a bit of an obligatory question but would you be open to reprising your role as Doctor Beverly Crusher as we see this renaissance in Star Trek programming?
McFadden: Oh, sure I would! It’s a great role and I would also be open to doing a role where she’s not ethical and it’s a different kind of character. I think it’s really become a more inclusive universe now and I really like where things are going. And there are so many things that really affect people. So many great, new role models and humor and ways of trying to grapple through with the present. We have gone through a tough time here and the world just keeps getting more and more complex because there are so many more of us and we’re aware of things going on in Gaza in a way my great-grandparents weren’t.
I think I’ve really come to embrace the whole Star Trek world in a way that escaped me when I was doing it. I really didn’t understand its power. I do now and I really want to honor it. Whether I’m asked to or not, that’s fine: I’d love to but I also understand you can’t have everybody there all the time. I’m really happy that their casting is still phenomenal. They keep casting pretty amazing people because we all tend to get along. We see each other at cons and on cruise ships and we have fun together, which is pretty special.
Looking back at these ten episodes for this podcast series, what are you most proud of branching into this new medium, both in your own professional development and highlighting things with your friends?
McFadden: First of all, I’m honored they’d agreed to do it because everybody has been on so many times — especially in this past year — there’s so many documentaries and things coming out. So I was very honored that my friends said yes, that meant a lot. I also feel that we ended up having fun and that was important to me. I felt they trusted me to edit it, and I hope I did a good job with that. For me, it was about learning and I’ve learned a tremendous amount. And I hope I can now use that knowledge in a better way to make more interesting interviews or conversations happen. The thing that I’m most proud of is that I risked failure. I risked having people not like it, or like it, or it not do well because I think the fear of failure can often hold us back. And I just went, “C’mon, someone’s offered you something during a pandemic! What’s wrong with you? Just say yes and if it fails, it fails, but not try is really failure.” That’s what I’m most proud of.