Star Trek Icon Jeffrey Combs Describes the Deliciousness of Playing the Bad Guy

Star Trek Icon Jeffrey Combs Describes the Deliciousness of Playing the Bad Guy
Agimus tries to worm his way between Mariner and Boimler in this week's Lower Decks. (Screenshot: Paramount+)

Jeffrey Combs is a Star Trek icon for good reason — his ability to show up under layers of alien makeup and deliver some of the best performances of the series, across so much of its history, makes every appearance a delight. Whether it’s the chilling complicity of Deep Space Nine’s Weyoun clones or the brash ego of Enterprise’s Thy’lek Shran, the galaxy could always use more Combs.

The good news is, we do indeed have more Combs. The beloved actor returned to Star Trek this week — not under his usual mound of prosthetics, but to lend his voice to one of Star Trek: Lower Decks’ villains of the week: Agimus, the evil supercomputer that finds itself trying to pit best friends Boimler and Mariner against each other after an away mission leaves them stranded on a barren planet.

To celebrate Combs’ return, Gizmodo chatted with the actor about why now was his chance to join Trek’s revitalized era, why his love of “the bad guy” keeps him coming back to the series — and whether or not there may be another return beyond his animated turn as the franchise’s universe keeps expanding.

James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: You have such a long and eclectic history with Star Trek, but I wanted to ask — what was it about Lower Decks, and this opportunity to come and voice this character this week? What was it about that that drove you to come back to the franchise now?

Jeffrey Combs: Well… it’s always nice to be asked to do something. To be invited to do something. I didn’t know much about Lower Decks, except that it was being appreciated by fans, and any time I hear the words “Star Trek,” I know I’m in good hands. So I didn’t hesitate long to say yes. It’s a little difficult these days to be a part of some of the other on-camera iterations that are airing or streaming now. Simply because… well… they’re Canadian productions and that kind of hinders us poor American actors, to a degree. So I was thrilled. I liked the script a lot and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I find it — the show — just to be really… witty. Rapid-fire. The joke is past you before you go, “Wh-wh-wha?” A different tone from any other Star Trek I’ve ever done. And I kind of like that. It’s refreshing. It doesn’t take itself quite so seriously as some of the other iterations.

Gizmodo: You have a history in voice-over work — including some past Star Trek games — but the last few years, with how peculiar everything’s been, what was the voice recording process experience like for you here?

Combs: I’ve done other voiceovers through the covid thing and if anything is easiest to do with production, it is the voice-over situation because you are already going into a room where a lot of the people are behind glass, anyway. So, all you have to do is create a little isolation chamber and put a HEPA filter in there and wear a mask until the last moment and wipe everything down and prove that you’re negative or had a test or a vaccination. It’s all protocol. It’s not much different… in the past when I’d done voiceover and all the actors were there — or as many as they can muster into some kind of a horseshoe arrangement with their own stand and microphone. Well, with this one, you’re kind of in isolation. It’s you. So, you don’t have anything to ramp to, there’s nothing else someone might do that might plunk you to say a line in a particular way. So, I guess there’s a little more flying solo guesswork, there. Having seen this episode, I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Screenshot: Paramount+Screenshot: Paramount+

Gizmodo: It’s a great episode, and your performance as Amigus is part of that. Star Trek loves itself a good evil computer!

Combs: Oh yeah, a good evil computer. Nothing better. And I loved it, also, it’s not a stoic computer, it’s a manipulative computer always trying to play up somebody’s vulnerabilities, praise them too highly — just anything he can do. “Just let me in and we’ll be fine.” It’s transparent at the same time.

Gizmodo: It’s such an energetic performance and I wanted to ask — did you go back and look at some of the other times Star Trek had done this plot before to study those performances?

Combs: Honestly, I didn’t. Sometimes research is a good thing, and sometimes it’s just best not to know. Because you’re only instinct — what’s written in front of you is strong enough that you don’t maybe need a prop from any past iteration. So I just felt this music kind of popped to me and thought, “I think I know what to do with this.” Just keep it moving and have some fun.

Gizmodo: With all your different Star Trek roles like Shran and Weyoun, or Penk on Voyager… a lot of your performances in the past have been not necessarily villainous, but have an antagonist edge to them. Shran wasn’t necessarily a bad guy, but when his back’s against the wall he’s showing teeth. What’s it about these kinds of characters who are sometimes sinister, but not necessarily the bad guy, that keeps drawing you back in?

Combs: Listen, it’s all in the writing. That’s where it begins. Also, if you’re not a series regular the chances are pretty darn good you’re going to be someone in conflict with these series regulars in one way or another. So, it kind of follows any time you do get some kind of a role on Star Trek or any other television show, chances are good you’re going to play someone a little compromised. Either morally or less so. Listen, playing someone whose “a villain” is far more entertaining for the actor. Then, how do you play “good?” You know? It’s really hard. There’s often nothing to play a lot of the time. I really admire people who are just straight-ahead reading personas because, “Well, but… there’s kind of nothing to play there… nothing delicious.” My key is I never look at them as anything other than “a villain” — you can’t play evil. You can play someone who has a different agenda, but you can’t play “bad.” So, that’s sort of the way I approach it.

Shran is not a bad guy. He’s someone who’s been put upon. There’s a chip on his shoulder. He’s up against a formidable opponent, as he sees it and he’s gonna stand his ground, toe-to-toe and give as good as he gets. “It’s about justice, ok?” Weyoun, well he’s a… you know. Well, actually, it’s not his fault. He’s been genetically altered. He can’t help himself. He doesn’t even have the capability to examine whether he’s good, bad — he’s been bred to be loyal. Like some dogs are bred to fetch. He just can’t not be the personification of what the founders wanted him to be. Except for the one episode where we did a glimpse of, “gee… these Vorta can be really nice people… if they weren’t so genetically messed up.” And of course, Brunt’s the more F.C.A., the Ferengi, the far more in-your-face. That’s pretty hideous. Absolutely hideous. Middle management is coming to destroy your life.

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Gizmodo: You’ve had such a varied experience across your Star Trek appearances — now that Star Trek has come back and it’s this big thing again… there are so many shows happening. What is it to you about the franchise, for you, as an actor, that keeps drawing you back to it time and time again?

Combs: From the get-go, it was about a point of view. Star Trek was about doing… yes, it’s adventure, yes it’s swashbuckling, yes it’s meeting aliens from other planets. But more than that, it is a commodification — an example — of how good we can be and how, together, we can solve problems. That humanity is not lost. That there is a moral code that human beings should live by. Basic tenets. And we don’t always live up to them. Most of the time we don’t live up to them. But the ideas of “we don’t interfere” with somebody else… we try to find a peaceful solution to things. We try to befriend each other. To create a bond.

That has been a throughline through Star Trek from the beginning. And it resonated in the ‘60s and I think it’s still resonating today and I think that’s why these new iterations of Star Trek are still being watched — because people are still searching for “What is noble?” “What is good?” “How can I be my best?” Here’s an example: there’s also an ability to examine — I don’t care what alien you’re looking at or what planet they’re from or what multiverse they originate from, it’s all really science-fiction and examining the human condition. They’re all aspects of our own human personality that we’re facing and having to deal with — inside and out. That’s why science and science fiction is so popular and Star Trek, in particular, I think.

Gizmodo: Would you consider an in-person return to the make-up chair?

Combs: Are you offering me a job, James?

Gizmodo: If I had the power at CBS, absolutely!

Combs: Well, I appreciate that. You know, without hesitation, yes, but at the same time… things are always moving forward. There are a lot of things in play that I have no control over. Fans ask me, “How come you’re not on? When can we see you?” And I get a little frustrated because it’s not in my hands. You have to be asked to dance. You have to be invited. It’s really not up to me. But I kind of feel I still have some gas in the tank. But you know, when it comes to commerce and entertainment it’s just like cereal: “New and improved!” Always new and improved. At least that’s sort of the mindset. So, I don’t really know what goes through decision-makers’ minds, but there always seems to be some sort of a disconnect between what the fans would enjoy and what they wind up doing. Not always. Not always. But I just appreciate fans’ enthusiasm for me after all these years. I really do. It’s nice to get my toe back into the Star Trek water with Lower Decks.

Star Trek: Lower Decks’ second season is ongoing on Paramount+.