They tell you never to meet your heroes. It makes sense. Nobody wants to be let down, and most of us would just as soon keep the people who inspire us on a pedestal. But it’s also misguided. You see, if there’s one point that doing this job for as long as I have has hammered home, it’s that the people who inspire us are just that: people. And the thing about people is that even the best of us can fall off a pedestal. But if you approach the folks you admire with that in mind, you’ll often find yourself walking away from the experience with a renewed sense of inspiration, all without the need for a pedestal.
Where am I going with all this? Well, if you somehow managed to miss the title of this article, I was lucky enough to speak with LeVar Burton ahead of his appearance at Philadelphia’s Keystone Comic Con. And if all that talk of heroes and inspiration seems a bit grandiose? Well, maybe it is. But it’s also hard for writers of my generation to avoid. Because while Burton is best known to genre fans for the time he spent as Geordi LaForge on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, there are also generations of (now grown) children who first came to know him through his roles as a literacy advocate and host of the long-running PBS program ‘Reading Rainbow’. And it’s hard not to get a little grandiose about someone whose work was so important to your childhood.
But you didn’t come here to listen to me wax poetic about LeVar Burton! You’re here to see what he had to say! And on that front, you’re in for a treat. In the course of our conversation, we touched on subjects as varied as ‘Star Trek’, his love of storytelling, and the often unique relationship he has with those of us whose love of literature was fostered by ‘Reading Rainbow’. But, to quote the man himself, “you don’t have to take my word for it…”
Looking back at the early days of ‘Next Generation’, obviously when have a show like that you hope it’ll strike a chord, but nobody could have known that it would become the beloved classic that it ultimately did. When did you – as someone who was working on it – start to realize that the show was going to be something special and not just “the other ‘Star Trek’”?
That’s actually a good question. I remember feeling really clearly while we were shooting our seventh and final season of the series that we had been discovered by the world. That people were really, really watching and paying attention to the storytelling. And when we were nominated for the Emmy that year, for Outstanding Television Series – we had received many nominations before in the technical categories, but none of the acting and none of the writing – the show itself had never been nominated before our seventh season. And that was acknowledgment that this little ‘Star Trek’ spinoff that actually ended up creating first run syndication was not only a business juggernaut, but it was storytelling behemoth as well.
In addition to acting on the show, you are also one of a number of cast members who made the jump to the director’s chair. Can you talk a bit about that experience?
I love directing, and I’ll be forever grateful to Rick Berman and Jonathan Frakes for having created Star Trek University and making that possible for not just me but as you noted for so many others. Jonathan and Roxann and Robbie Duncan McNeil, all three of them make their living as directors right now. Directing is one of the things I love to do, and I don’t suck at it, and I owe that to ‘Star Trek’. So yeah, there’s that. [laughs]
What is it, then, about directing that appeals to you?
Acting can be a fairly inward-looking pursuit. Directing appeals to the extrovert in me in a different way. There’s so much more required of me when I’m directing than when I’m acting. I use more of myself in the pursuit of directing, and in the doing of that I feel very accomplished, I feel very much used, I think is the best way I can put it. We all want to feel useful in life, and when I’m in the studio recording a podcast, I feel like I’m in my purpose. When I’m directing I feel like I’m in my purpose. When I’m acting I feel like I’m in my purpose. I’m a storyteller. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am, you know? Whether I’m acting or directing or writing or producing or podcasting, for me it’s all an opportunity to tell stories.
Now, by my count, you’ve actually directed more ‘Star Trek’ episodes than any other cast member.
[laughs] That is the stat that gets thrown around, yeah!
Is there one you’re especially proud of?
I’m proud of most of them. I’m proud of all of them in one way or another. Directing an episode of television isn’t easy. Especially an episode of ‘Star Trek’. There’s just a very particular kind of storytelling, right? It’s not like directing ‘Charmed’ or ‘Soul Food’ or ‘Las Vegas’. Every show has its requirements, and I like to think I’m pretty facile as a director and can go from a procedural to an action to a show that really focuses on the acting and the moments between the characters. Like I said, it’s all opportunities to tell stories.
If you got the call tomorrow, would you be interested in returning to ‘Trek’, be it as a director or a guest star on ‘Star Trek: Picard’?
Oh, sure! Absolutely! I’d be crazy not to be open to that! And I’m not crazy, at least I don’t think I’m crazy.
Shifting gears a bit, you mentioned podcasting, and you’ve just recently launched a new season of your podcast, ‘LeVar Burton Reads’.
For those who might not be familiar with it, can you tell us a bit about the show and what we can expect from the new season?
Well I say at the beginning of every episode of ‘LeVar Burton Reads’: “Every week I pick a different piece of short fiction and I read it to you. The only thing that the stories have in common is that I love them. And I hope you will too.” That’s how we open up every episode. And so it really is just me reading some of my favorite short stories. [laughs] It’s me navel gazing, because one of my favorite ways to tell stories is by reading aloud, interpreting the words of a brilliant writer. And I think short stories are a particularly masterful genre because you have to master the craft of storytelling to tell a compelling story that grabs an audience immediately, introduces them to characters and puts them through a story arc, all in thirty-five pages, right? So it’s a peculiar and particular kind of story that I’m looking for, for the podcast. And more than anything else, I’m looking for something that I’m going to have fun reading aloud.
A lot of our conversation so far has focused on ‘Star Trek’, but something that is at least as important to your body of work and to your legacy as ‘Star Trek’ has to be ‘Reading Rainbow’.
When I mentioned to people that I’d booked this interview, everyone who heard that got excited. And it wasn’t because of ‘Roots’ or ‘Star Trek’ or whatever else they might know you from. Without fail, it was because they grew up watching ‘Reading Rainbow’. Did you have any inkling of the intensity of the reaction the show would generate in its audience?
Nope. I really, honestly did not see this coming. And I think that’s a good thing, because it might have messed with my head if I had known in advance that I would burrow so deep into the consciousness of a whole generation of folks, of people who are adults now. It’s kind of crazy, my connection with you guys. I’m assuming you’re in the demographic, an eighties kid?
Oh yeah. I grew up not far from a library, actually. So I used to watch the show and then drag my parents down there every week.
[laughs] Good for you! I love that about you! So yeah, it’s very cool. I feel like you’re all my kids. My daughter is twenty-five, so she’s in the demo, and I get it. And I love it. I love the relationship that I have with you guys, and it’s primarily… So you asked me about why I’m doing the podcast, and I said because I love reading aloud. That is true. I’m also very, very proud of the fact that I’m continuing to introduce you guys to new authors and new voices that you might not otherwise have heard about. And I certainly know that that was a part of our relationship from ‘Reading Rainbow’. And then lastly, I also feel a responsibility to encourage you to continue to use your imagination through the podcast, and listening to the podcast reminds you of how important literature is in your life and its value in being an opportunity to live in your imagination a little bit. You’re adulting now, you all, and you’re not reading for pleasure, necessarily, as much as you might be because you’re so busy adulting. And I get that. So I’m trying to drag you back in! [laughs] You know what I’m saying, Nick? I’m trying to drag you back into your imaginations, because we are leaving you a shitstorm of problems to clean up, my generation. And I apologize for that. But I’m trying to help you connect to the skills you’re going to need to solve these problems, and you’re going to need your imaginations, do you feel me?
I do, and I think I speak for all of us when I say it is greatly appreciated.
You’re welcome. And I mean that sincerely. I am heartsick at the state we are leaving this world in.
Yeah… So on a lighter note…
[laughs] Good for you! Yes, on a lighter note?
Well, given your long history as a literacy advocate, I have to ask: What’s your favorite book?
If that’s too tall an order, we can do a favorite author.
It is, because… Where do I start and for what reason, you know? Generally it’s the book that I happen to be reading at any given time, but right now I’m not reading any books because all of my reading time is sucked up finding and reading stories for the podcast. So I’m not reading anything. If I were… I’m waiting with bated breath for Ta’Nehisi Coates’ fiction novel to drop. I’m really, really curious to feel his voice as a storyteller, as a fictional storyteller – speculative storyteller, as it were.
And finally, do you have anything coming up that you’d like to share with us?
I’ll be in Philly for the con. I’m coming there from New Orleans, where I’m directing ‘NCIS: New Orleans’ with my dear friend and old friend Scott Bakula. He’s dear because he’s dear and he’s old because… he’s old. [laughs] He’ll love that I said that about him. So yeah, I’ll be in New Orleans for the next few weeks doing this. And then I go to Cleveland, to Case Western University to receive this year’s Inamori Prize. I’m pretty stoked about that. Season five of the pod. More news as it happens.
For more from LeVar Burton, including upcoming appearances and updates on his future projects, you can check out his website or follow him on Twitter. New episodes of ‘LeVar Burton Reads’ can be found on the show’s website or through a variety of podcast platforms, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. And be sure to check back with ScienceFiction.com in the coming days for more from Keystone Comic Con!