FAN EXPO Philadelphia is a sci-fi, horror, anime, and gaming event taking place in Philadelphia from April 8-10th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, tickets are still available. Besides attractions and exhibitors, quite a few celebrities make appearances. We had a chance to catch up with one of those celebrities, John de Lancie, whose sci-fi pedigree includes the role of Q throughout the Star Trek franchise and featured most recently on Star Trek: Picard. He sat down with us to talk about his career, his adventures in sailing, and why Eddie Izzard tapes are good for anxiety.
I did not realize you were born in Philadelphia…
I was born in Philadelphia down on Sansom Street, then my parents moved out to Ardmore when I was about eight or nine. My father was with the Philadelphia Orchestra and taught at and then ultimately ran the Curtis Institute of Music, so I spent a lot of time in the city going to concerts. It was my home and I still have a very dear friend that lives there. He and I met each other when we were one and a half years old when both of our mothers met in Rittenhouse Square, and we’ve been friends ever since. I’ll see him while I’m in town.
I want to know what it’s like to sail on the Pacific Ocean…
I’ve been sailing on the Pacific Ocean for about 40 years. I sail out to the Channel Islands all the time; they are about 30 miles offshore. Once I took a trip to Tahiti with a couple of friends, and we also went to the Marquesas [Islands] which was an amazing place. It’s enough off of the beaten track so it’s not like going to Tahiti, and it’s where the more ancient Polynesian culture existed. It’s located further east than Tahiti, the Tuamotus, and the Society Islands, and after the Polynesians populated [the Marquesas] they were able to take advantage of the winds and go downhill onto the Tuamotu Islands, which I also went to. The Tuamotus are the largest coral archipelago in the world and that’s where you’ll see pictures from National Geographic.
I brought the boat back the following year, which was 52 days back. I did that with a young man, Ray, who was my son’s best friend and who had never gone sailing before. This was definitely a baptism by fire with six hours on, and six hours off for 52 days.
Have you ever encountered a scary moment out at sea?
Many…many…[laughs], and you just have to keep your wits about you. One of the things you have to do, and all of the sailors I know do it – when you’re on the water you’re constantly running scenarios through your head. What if?
I had a few mishaps…some of them came on me by surprise and others were thankfully averted. Whenever I would turn on an engine, I would do something that probably more people don’t do…I just would just sit there maybe five or ten minutes looking at it, closely. Looking at the belts, checking for the heat…just looking at it. And then go “okay, we’re good” …but one day, about a thousand miles out, I saw a little vibration. So, I essentially parked the boat and I changed out the water pump on the diesel engine. If I hadn’t, and that thing went, it would have [messed] up a lot of other stuff.
One night I went out on the deck and the mast was leaning over. I had lost a chainplate and lost the shroud, the piece of wire that goes all the way to the top of the mast. Well, that was something to be fixed IMMEDIATELY. We parked the boat and began repairs for that.
Another time I hit a storm on the way back…more like the end of a storm that was coming down from the Bering Strait. The waves were high…I was would back and I’d go: “Oh —- me.” [Laughs]. Perhaps I don’t need to be looking behind me too much! The boat was doing great…it was a great, great boat. A real ocean boat. Often times they say that the boat will save many an ill-experienced captain. You just sometimes just turn it over to the boat and let the boat take care of itself. This is where I encountered my third problem: Ray and I had to park the boat for 36 hours with those large waves because we had to figure out how to deal with another problem all the way out on the bow.
So, there were times…you just have to keep your wits about you. Just one problem at a time.
Those stories make me nervous just listening to them…
[Laughs] At one point during the storm, I could tell with the two of us the tension was really high and there was nothing more we could do. It was around midnight, and I said to Ray: “Hey listen, do you know Eddie Izzard? The comedian. How about you and I watch an Eddie Izzard tape?” [Laughs] So we’re down below, everything is battened down, we’re getting blown back and forth and the boat is really moving around, and we watched an Eddie Izzard tape. I knew it was important for us to get our minds off of what was going on. And we laughed, which was a nice tension reliever. Then he went to sleep for a couple of hours, and I lay there, kind of dosing. Around first light, at about 5 am, we suited ourselves up, shackled ourselves down, and went out and hung out on the bow for a couple of hours trying to figure out how to fix it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your career in science fiction. Your most seminal role is Q from the Star Trek franchise, mostly featured on Star Trek the Next Generation and now Picard. There is a big-time gap between Picard and The Next Generation. How do you compare the experiences?
When they asked me to go and do Picard, the first thing I wanted to know is if they were planning on having me in those tights again. They said no, of course not. The next question, which was a very serious question, was are we trying to create or recreate? Because if we are trying to recreate, I have a problem with that. A lot of time has passed. It’s a different show…it’s twenty years later and I’m a different person. It would be unseemly if I was prancing around like the clown that I was before. And they said no…we want you now and we want you with the sensibilities of now…and I said okay.
Do you like it better now or then?
Back then, when I first did Q, I made a calculated move. [On TNG] I’m surrounded by Picard, who’s sort of a stick in the mud, and everybody was very very serious. And I thought…to differentiate myself, I don’t need to follow that. So, I made those choices back then. I guess, in a way, they were good choices because I did six episodes for Next Generation and in the end became certainly disproportionately popular because of those choices.
This time [on Picard], the material gave me a reason, whereas, with the first incarnation of Q, there was no backstory. [On Next Generation] They thought, and I thought, it was going to be a one-off, so there was no backstory…there was nothing. Everything was very much on the surface…what you saw is what you got.
Here, there is a backstory. Here, there is an agenda. It’s not just about being annoying with Picard. There’s something at stake…not only for you but for me. That adds weight to the portrayal [of Q] that was not really there in the opening episodes of The Next Generation.
Now I have to say the episode [of Next Generation], “All Good Things,” by that time, was about serious stuff. Picard and Q always worked best when the event was philosophical in nature.
Your website says you have a strong interest in science and your past credits are full of appearances in major science-fiction franchises (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood) …did your interest in science develop from playing those parts, or was it the other way around?
I was not a very good student…enough that I flunked out of multiple schools. At the time, it was presented to my parents that I was ‘lazy’ or just ‘not living up to my potential. This is right around the time that the whole idea of learning disabilities and dyslexia was just in its nascence. When it was said that maybe I had dyslexia, I was happy that they were at least not calling me stupid, but there was nothing done about it.
I took it on myself to learn how to read, so I began to read out loud. The first book I read, from cover to cover, was Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It was about these guys who escaped from a Confederate prisoner of war camp in an observation balloon that takes them out to the Pacific Ocean, and they alight on a mysterious island. I was so impressed by how much these guys knew…what they knew of a scientific nature, what they knew about reality…they knew about all of these things, and I thought to myself: “These are the guys I want to be like”
I had just begun sailing and then began reading about explorers…sea explorers and scientists and more and more and more I became interested in that world and that has extended all the way through my entire life.
For tickets to FAN EXPO Philadelphia, click here.
Photo courtesy of Kent State University
Interview edited for clarity