For 20 years, Independence Day fans thought Brent Spiner’s manic hippie scientist Dr. Brakish Okun was dead.
And for good reason. In his last scene in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 sci-fi disasterpiece, Okun is seen pressed against the glass of an autopsy chamber in his underground laboratory, a gleaming alien tentacle wrapped around his throat. “Release…me…” he wheezes, now a living mouthpiece for the captured alien’s commands.
When the glass breaks and Okun falls to the floor unconscious, Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin) checks his pulse and Okun is never seen again—or at least, not until the debut of this weekend’s mega-sequel Independence Day: Resurgence.
How is Okun alive again? Spiner says it’s simple: he never died in the first place. The film’s original script included a line declaring the mad scientist’s death, but Emmerich and screenwriter Dean Devlin cut the line from the final film, leaving the door open for Okun’s miraculous return.
“Roland and [screenwriter] Dean had talked about it before and said that if they did another film, that Dr. Okun was not dead and they could bring him back,” Spiner says. “So I was kind of counting on it all these years.”
Spiner reunites in the sequel with a handful of high-profile co-stars from the original, including Jeff Goldblum, Vivica A. Fox, Judd Hirsch, and Bill Pullman, who delivered the indelible St. Crispin’s day speech still invoked by tipsy uncles at Fourth of July barbecues every year. Will Smith is notably absent from the sequel but Spiner is hung up on another ex-cast member who didn’t return: “I’m still a little disappointed that Harry Connick Jr. didn’t make it back, but I got over that really quickly,” he jokes.
The 67-year-old actor is phoning from Denver, just before wading into the city’s local Comic-Con, to talk two major career milestones: the 20th anniversary of Independence Day and the 50th of the franchise he’s still most closely associated with: Star Trek.
But before we dive into the legacy and sex appeal (really) of Lieutenant Commander Data, the endearingly guileless android Spiner played for seven years in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he politely interrupts our interview to ask an urgent question. He needs to know if Meatloaf is OK.
The Grammy winner collapsed onstage at a concert in Canada the night before our conversation. “I’m ashamed to say, but I was on the New York Post online,” Spiner explains, “and one of the headlines—not the big headline, but the one up in the corner—said ‘Meat Loaf Dies After Collapsing Onstage.’ And I looked it up online everywhere else, I couldn’t find anything that said he had died. So I’m hoping that was just a Mark Twain moment for him…”
I do a quick Google search and assure him that the latest Meatloaf news is more reassuring: he’s “recovering well” after the collapse.
“Oh,” Spiner laughs. “That’s different than dying. Just like Dr. Okun! People thought he died, but no, he did not.”
What was it like working with the old Independence Day cast again?
Oh it was great. It was a treat that not many people get. I felt really lucky to be coming back and working with these same people that are all terrific and just as much fun as they could possibly be. I love working with Roland. He’s got unbelievable energy and enthusiasm and it never flags and that’s great to be around.
Do you have favorite memories of shooting the original?
My favorite memory of the original really was when I realized they were gonna let me do what I wanted to do and not only that, but encourage it and enhance it. I remember when I first read the original script, Dr. Okun was just a regular doctor who worked in Area 51. And for some reason, inspiration hit me—it doesn’t happen very often, at least not to me, but occasionally it does and that was one of those incidents where I thought, “Hey, I wonder if I can go in another direction with this and turn him into sort of an old hippie who’s been underground too long.”
When I first went in and read for the part, I read it that way. Dean Devlin put it on tape, showed it to Roland and by that afternoon I had the part. When I went in with Roland for the first time, I said, “Hey, can I have long hair?” And he picked up the phone and ordered a wig. That was a great experience for me, to be able to take something that jumped at my imagination and add it to what they had imagined and turn it into reality. And here I am 20 years later doing it again! That’s a huge gift to be able to do that.
You’re also in the new exorcism drama Outcast, which tells a pretty grim tale about domestic abuse, religion, and possession. It’s been interesting watching you in that world, since I usually think of you as a comedic actor.
Well I think of me as a comedic actor too, in general. Not that I haven’t done serious work but this has very little humor and it’s really dark. It comes from the recesses of [Walking Dead creator] Robert Kirkman’s soul. Which is interesting because Robert is a very light, very fun, positive guy. But deep down inside of him, he pulls this stuff out. I’m enjoying playing this mysterious, dark character. Until about episode five, I am just a real mystery. I’m just looking and sizing up the situation before I make my move. And so it’s fun to do that, it’s been really fun for me to tap into the dark side of myself.
So we won’t know what he’s up to until episode five. How much did you know about him when you began shooting?
Very little. (Laughs.) Honestly. It was almost like improv because I’m discovering the character at the same time you are, really. It gets clearer and clearer as the season goes on, but really I was not called upon to play anything more than sort of enigmatic mystery in the first three or four episodes. But then it does develop very quickly after that.
It’s also the 50th anniversary of Star Trek this year. You’ve said before that when you first auditioned for Data, you took the gig mainly to get out of debt and that you didn’t really think another Star Trek could work after the William Shatner-led original.
Obviously I was wrong thinking this was not gonna last. But looking at it now, 50 years of it, you have to give it credit. It’s a really important American epic. Maybe the great American epic, really. Because what else has gone half a century and shows no signs of lagging? There’s a new film coming out in August and they’ve got a new series that’s going [next year] on CBS. I’d like to see Star Trek go on for all our lives, frankly.
Why do you think it’s outlasted so many other franchises over 50 years?
You know, I don’t know really. Usually when people ask me that question, I generally say it’s probably me, I’m why it’s lasted this long. But in fact, you know, people say, “Oh, it’s a positive vision of the future,” and I’m not so sure that’s really true either. There are certainly very positive aspects that it projects—the acceptance of all beings no matter who or what they are, things of that nature. It really speaks to people who feel disenfranchised in some way, that they would be accepted for who they are and what they are. But more than anything, we live in such precarious times that I think we’re all frightened about whether there’ll even be a future. Star Trek tells us, “Oh yeah, don’t worry, there will be a future, and it’ll be beautiful and colorful and there’ll be great people who treat people with respect and dignity.” I think that’s what’s most appealing about it.
It’s hard to believe these days that we’ll ever get to a future like that.
Well, we’re a really divided world, you know. We’re not just a divided world, we’re a world of really complicated and troubled people. I don’t know that we’re ever gonna solve those problems.
You’ve been the face of this iconic role for 22 years, which must come with both upsides and downsides.
Well the downsides have been really limited compared to the upside. I guess the downside is just people in public, and not the entire public, but some people kind of hoping and thinking that I am this guy, this machine, and that I’m just like that in real life. And the sort of terror (laugh) that strikes their hearts when they find out that I am just a human being, and a wicked human being at that.
What do you say to them?
I just slap them. “Get a hold of yourself!” (Laugh.) But really, the downside is so limited compared to the bonuses of having played the character.
I’ve always been curious what TNG crew thought of Galaxy Quest and the way it portrays that weirder side of the relationship with fans.
Oh, I love Galaxy Quest. We all loved it. In fact, I love that movie so much, I was so jealous because I thought, “Why didn’t we think of that? That should have been our last film!” We should have done it, it should have been us. But they did a terrific job.
Star Trek fans still get sort of a bad rap for being overzealous or over-passionate that way, even compared to Star Wars fans.
You know what, I think for a long time people who identified themselves as nerds or geeks or whatever got a bad rap, until it finally occurred to everybody that they inherited the earth. I think it goes back to the Saturday Night Live thing [a 1986 skit featuring William Shatner] that was hilarious, but people sort of thought, well, that’s what Star Trek fans are.
And I’ve been to a lot of conventions, I’ve met thousands of Star Trek fans and for the most part—yes, at every convention there are a handful of people who are in costumes who are a little overzealous about it—but for the most part it’s moms and dads and their kids. But most importantly, it’s really smart people. I’ve had people come up to me saying, “I became an astrophysicist because of Star Trek” or “I’m a doctor because of Star Trek” and I have known fans including Dr. Stephen Hawking, who did an episode with us. And Oliver Sacks was a fan. So you know, I think there is a real cliché about what Star Trek fans are, but I think they’re just really smart people.
There’s so much cultural currency that now comes with identifying as a geek, almost like a complete reversal from the way it once was. It’s considered “cool” to be one of those fans now.
It really is kind of amazing. When we were on the air initially, we were the only sci-fi there was at that time; certainly on television, there was nothing else. Then X-Files came along shortly after us and things really began to turn around. But I’m delighted with the change because basically, I’m a nerd. So it’s been good for me. I feel accepted.
Data was never unpopular though. Didn’t he used to get love letters from enamored viewers? He became a bit of a sex symbol. What do you think was behind that?
Well first of all, Data and the guy who played him are just incredibly attractive. You know, physically attractive.
But beyond that, Data was a completely accessible being. He was incapable of judgment on a superficial level. I think that’s really appealing, not just to women but to everyone. But I do think that was it—it was his accessibility and his availability. We did one episode about a woman who had a relationship with Data for a little while, I think it’s called “In Theory,” and it was about a woman who fell in love with or had a kind of romantic relationship with Data and it was because she was into unavailable men. She chose the most unavailable person she could possibly find. And it was also because he was non-judgmental and available on a whole different level of emotion.
Your web series Fresh Hell, in which you played a post-fame version of yourself, never got a conclusion. I know you’re averse to turning to Kickstarter, but why?
It was a project of love. There were three of us involved in it—Harry Hannigan, Chris Ellis and myself—but I just feel odd about asking the public to give me money to do what I want to do. If I were broke, I could understand it and I could say, “Hey, I don’t have any money, could you guys help me out?” But the truth is I just don’t get that whole trend of “I need your money because I don’t want to spend mine.” There are some projects on Kickstarter that have been very worthwhile, like Reading Rainbow, which Lavar [Burton] did. It got a huge response because everyone recognized how worthwhile it was. But in general, it just didn’t feel right for me.
That being said, I still want to do it. I still want to do more Fresh Hell. But I want to do it on television, full-out. I need Netflix or Hulu or someone to produce it. They may as well.