When John de Lancie was first cast as Q on the pilot of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” his expectation was that he was only supposed to play the wily omnipotent being — who challenges Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) with proving humanity’s worthiness — for that single, two-part episode. But three days into shooting, “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry took de Lancie aside.
“He said to me, ‘You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into,'” de Lancie says. “And oh my god, was he right.”
De Lancie reprised his performance as Q on seven more episodes of “TNG,” including the series finale, when Q promised he would visit Picard again “from time to time.” Despite appearances as Q on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager” (as well as a brief cameo on the animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks”), however, Q never did drop in on Picard for another verbal tête-à-tête.
A prolific character actor in TV, film and theater, de Lancie’s played everything from “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” as the voice of the villain Discord to “Breaking Bad” as Donald Margolis, the distraught father of the heroin-addicted Jane (Krysten Ritter).
But for many, Q is de Lancie’s signature role. His episodes of “TNG” remain some of the most beloved in the series’ seven-season run from 1987 to 1994, and the news that he would be playing the role again lit up Trekkie Twitter in celebration. In this exclusive conversation with Variety, de Lancie explains his reaction to the news that he was being invited to return to “the dinner party,” as he puts it — and his reservations about reprising a character he hasn’t played since 2001.
When “Star Trek: Picard” was first announced, did that cause you to wonder, “Oh, what if Q could come back?”
Well, it’s interesting. Terry [Matalas], one of the executive producers, when I met with him, he said, “Oh, of course, you knew you were going to be coming back.” And I said, “You know what, Terry, ‘Star Trek’ has done a lot of movies and other shows without me. So I did not assume that that was going to be the case.” I just sort of discipline myself as a professional over the years to go, “look, it’s somebody else’s dinner party. You cannot spend your time worrying about whether you’re getting invited. Just take it off the radar. You get invited or you don’t get invited, that’s all.”
So when were you first invited back to this dinner party?
Well, I want to say, six months ago. This whole COVID year has been disjointed, but it was after their first season.
How did that feel to know that they were interested in bringing Q back?
You know, it was, and is, a little bit of a mixed bag. One of the issues that I have is you don’t want to fall into the trap of re-creating. I was obviously a little concerned — very concerned — about the issues having to do with, well, excuse me, this is 20 years later. I’m supposed to be immortal and I certainly look very mortal. There were issues about all of that. I was flattered. Of course, I said yes. I didn’t have to think about that part. And then I wondered, where are they going to go with this?
Did the producers talk with you at that point about what was planned for Q, or was this more of a mystery to you?
There was generalized talk, which intrigued me. One of the things that’s sort of unusual, having played a character that has had such a long history — I’ve only done, I think, nine episodes [of “Star Trek”], between the three shows. [Editor’s note: It’s been 12.] I’ve always thought of it as being kind of a diamond in the rough, and having new facets of that stone that’s going to be cut. So here it is, many years later, we’re still cutting that stone. There will be elements of that stone which have already been cut, and they will simply need to be burnished up. And then there will be elements of this stone that will be newly cut, for which there will be people who go, “Oh I always thought you would go in that direction,” and then others, “Oh, I like him the way he was before!”
It solved one major problem for me, and that is I feel very strongly about the whole thing of, you can never go back. Dare I say, how often have we gone back to meet with old girlfriends or boyfriends or what have you and you go, “Oh, I think it would have been better just keeping this in my imagination!” Here, we are not, in fact, going back. We are taking what we have and we are moving forward. And to me, that’s exciting.
Have you shot anything yet?
How did it feel to act against Patrick Stewart again?
It was fun. My own issues have always been the same. I have to put in a lot of homework because I’m very dyslexic and I just have to work really hard to get all of that into RAM, as it were. And then once that’s done, I’m there to play. And so it was just fun. That type of preparation has paid off and you’re just ready to rock and roll.
Did you pay any attention to the way that the announcement of your return was received?
I saw the little trailer, which I thought was really well done, where there’s a playing card that disappears and then you just see the Q. I felt that that was very befitting this character. This is thin ice for all of us: There are expectations. In the case of that little announcement, I thought they exceeded expectations on that. It was a really nice little morsel of, “Here he comes!”
“Star Trek” fans are notoriously picky, but I have not seen negative reactions to Q’s return — it’s been quite enthusiastically received. How does it feel to have people be so interested in seeing you continue to play this role?
Well, as you were saying that just now, what I felt was mostly was, Oh shit. [Laughs] The pressure is on! That’s how I feel about it. I find that to be a challenge. I hope that I can match it. I hope that we all can match it, and more to the point, exceed it. [Laughs] This is one of the reasons I stay away from all this stuff. I kind of just have to stay in the world of what can be done, and what cannot be done, and not to get too pressurized in all this.
One common reaction I’ve seen is people saying, “oh, thank god, I can feel good about the letter Q again.” Obviously, in the last few years, the letter Q has taken on a much different connotation with the rise of the QAnon conspiracy cult. How strange has that been for you, given how identified you’ve been with the role?
[Sighs] I’m really grateful for that character that I played — and I have become protective of that, of what Q means and all that. Certainly with this other thing, I’ve chosen not to dumpster dive into it. I don’t want to bring those two elements together in any way whatsoever. There’s a part of Q that I’m playing that is frankly more real and more positive and more life-affirming than the [pause] ridiculousness that I hear about this other stuff.
Since we’re talking about reprising one of your most memorable roles, I did want to ask — given that “Better Call Saul” is a prequel series for “Breaking Bad,” have you ever wondered if Donald Margolis would pop up on that show?
I would have loved for that character to have continued. Through my career, I was always hired to play the very aggressive, wordsmith-y sort of character, which ironically is difficult for me because I just tend to work seemingly twice as hard as anybody else. That character allowed me to just relax a little bit, and to just feel, as opposed to trying to dominate or bulldoze. But again, you brought it up and I appreciate it and I take it as a compliment, but I just don’t think about it ever. I just can’t.
Let me just tell you, it’s very interesting what different characters can do for somebody. In this case, just imagine a 22-year-old, shy, kind of strung out kid who comes up to me and says, “Hey, are you Jane’s father?” And I go, “Uh yeah.” And he’s looking at me kind of askance, and he goes, “Yeah, well, now I guess I know what my parents went through.”
I’m sure his parents did everything to try to keep him from, you know — “Please, you can’t keep on doing this, you’re going to ruin your life.” And he couldn’t hear any of it, but he could be affected when he saw it in a story. So I’m really happy to have played that role.
This interview has been edited and condensed.