This weekend, Chicago is celebrating science fiction and fantasy film with the Juggernaut Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre. Now in its sixth year, this festival is being put on by Chicago’s Otherworld Theatre Company, a group who dearly loves the genres and is dedicated to showing their love on the stage in Chicago. Complimenting this love of theater and film fantasy is their choice of host for this year’s festivities: Gates McFadden, whose career has included choreography, acting, directing and teaching movement, clowning, masks and more, including time spent working with Jim Henson on a variety of projects that culminated in McFadden choreographing Labyrinth. Shortly after, of course, McFadden would become a household name with her work on Star Trek as Dr. Beverly Crusher. Third Coast Review was fortunate enough to get a chance to talk with her ahead of the festival about how she got involved, her time with Jim Henson and on Star Trek, and what draws her to sci-fi.
Since I’m an avid Star Trek fan and consider Jim Henson one of the great geniuses of our time, it was an honor and a pleasure to talk to someone like Gates McFadden. She’s incredibly enthusiastic about all the work she does, fun and easy to talk to, and I hope you’ll enjoy the talk just as much as I did!
Hello and thanks for talking with me! I love sci-fi and grew up on Star Trek so it’s great to be talking with you!
Good, good! Thank you!
So to start us off today—how did you get involved with the Juggernaut Film Festival at the Music Box?
An agent of mine called me and said they were looking for someone. They said [Otherworld] was a theater company that did sci-fi and that they were looking for somebody to host their film festival. They asked who she’d recommend off her list. And she’s known me as an artistic director for years—I built this 3-theater space in LA, now 4-theater, so she says “Oh my God, the perfect combination of film, sci-fi and theater is Gates McFadden!” Because I really do love theater and I love companies that try to do new work. It was kind of a no-brainer. And you know, I’m a Midwesterner, what more can I say?
Oh yes—you’re originally from Ohio, is that right?
That’s right. North—well, between Akron and Cleveland. Cuyahoga Falls. And my best friend was from Chicago, so it was great.
Knowing you have such a love for theater—Chicago is a great town for that, so it does seem like a really great fit.
I know! One of my former USC students who was also in the theater company and did a brilliant performance of an original Irish play called The Belle of Belfast is currently doing theater in Chicago so I’m hoping I get to see her for a minute while I’m here.
I hope so too. So…how did you get started? I wanted to talk a little bit about the choreography career and your work with Jim Henson and Labyrinth. How did that come to be?
I had a real curvature of my spine, which I don’t think I knew about until much later, in my adult years. My mother had put me into movement and dance classes when I was like two and a half, and I started to do it seriously at about age four or five. I swear to God, I was going hours after school. So, I got very involved in all kinds of dance and movement. It actually helped me to deal with the curvature of my spine, but [the curvature] also meant I could never be a ballerina, because I couldn’t do certain things. But it didn’t hold me back, and I was a big tap dancer and did everything—kick line—I had several friends who became Rockettes.
I have a very eclectic career. It kind of—I was always doing theater in universities and also local community theater, and after college I went off to study at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, where I really fell in love with all kinds of improvisation and clown, and just all kinds of theater stuff that Jacques Lecoq did at his school. That’s when I started teaching at universities, because I was his assistant in a workshop at Harvard and out of that came all sorts of teaching positions at theater schools and universities.
So how did you run into Jim Henson?
Well, he saw me in Cloud Nine. I didn’t know that he’d seen me, but I had the lead part, and the next thing I knew I had an audition for The Muppets Take Manhattan, but no one else was in the room but me. At that time I was just teaching—I think movement for actors and improvisation and clown, and I would do that as well as acting in plays at night. I was recommended as someone who was really good in masks, movement and all kinds of articulated movement. I was a director and a mask teacher, and he was actually looking for that. He was looking for somebody who could do a lot of different things, and I was tested on a couple of projects I didn’t even get credit for, like Dream Child by Gavin Miller. I was in charge of all the fantasy sequences and it was hard. I had never worked with that kind of radio-controlled animatronics. It was state of the art at the time. Now everything is a billion times more advanced. I did that for a while, and then he asked me to do Labyrinth and that was a year of my life!
Then I came back and I got Star Trek. I could have gone on and choreographed Little Shop of Horrors but I decided it wasn’t a field I wanted to go into, because I wanted to go back into acting and directing. But I love choreography, I love it. And I love it all.
It’s neat to see you can be flexible in your career and change disciplines. I imagine it’s harder to do with Star Trek. Did you have any trepidation going into Star Trek?
Yes I did—and so did a couple of the cast members! And actually, I turned it down. Luckily, and oh my goodness how lucky I am, they came back again. Because the truth is I loved sci-fi. I was really into Lord of the Rings and Dune and The Twilight Zone—that kind of thing. But because I was always working so much, I had very little time to get involved in a lot of movies. I flipped for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien and a whole bunch of other things though, and so once I got into the Star Trek world, I really loved it. But it took me getting into it, because I wasn’t familiar with it.
Star Trek is one of the few shows in all the years of fan cons where I see three or four generations who come up and they’ve watched Star Trek, and they’ve watched it together. That’s so unusual, because most things are either too dystopian and too…y’know, Alien is not for enjoying as a family, unless they’re all grown. But Star Trek is really great storytelling—it’s got everything! It’s got politics, it’s got social stuff, it’s got humor. It’s all these morality tales, in a way–but they don’t tell you what to think, they get you to think. They help you to think, which is what we want people to do, right?
That’s where I got into it too. I grew up with Next Generation when I was younger because my mom was watching it, and I liked it then but I didn’t understand it all, except that I did relate to your character, Beverly Crusher, as a mother figure, because my own mom was widow raising a child on her own.
Wow, that’s really great.
Crusher always reminded me of my mother in that way, and then when I watched it again with my fiance–we watched through all of Star Trek and the movies and stuff–it was inspiring for me to see why it was never out of place for me for women to have command or to have control because of these roles.
Isn’t that true? Isn’t that true! Yep! And I think—I mean it definitely started to change with Star Trek: The Next Generation. To have a single parent, and then to have someone who was also in a very command position,and then to also have her have sexuality—that was a combination that was pretty unusual, I thought. And then, by the time you got to Voyager you had a woman as captain. I think that there’s something wonderful in every single Trek series. I haven’t watched every single episode, but I do love the actors who are involved with it and the writers who write it. I’ve seen enough to admire the whole franchise.
So you mentioned some of the sci-fi you were into in the past—is there any sci-fi that you’re super into right now?
Yes, there’s a lot of them! I find that Black Mirror is a lot like Twilight Zone in a way, a whole different story each time, but there’s a lot of sci-fi that I watch. If it’s something I’ve seen a million times before though, I won’t watch. I think that’s true with all sci-fi fans. We’ve become very sophisticated. We expect a fully developed world. Any time somebody does that, I’m there. I love to imagine other worlds and I love things that have been done with great detail. It makes you really get into watching it, you know? It’s the idea that something gets you thinking about things—thinking about other possibilities and other realities so when you come back to this one, it informs how you see it.
Jumping back to Star Trek for a minute—I’d read in some other interviews that you were at times frustrated with Crusher’s character sometimes. What’s a change you’d make if you could go back and write something for her?
I don’t hit that question often, mostly because I think of it as water under the bridge. I guess the one place is…There was a decision that was made, and I don’t know why, because the Crusher/Picard relationship was very popular, but there was a decision made to have it so that he could have a lot of guest stars, and that was too bad, and I think there were a variety of reasons, but of course I was frustrated.
I’ve definitely been a feminist all my life and I’ve paid the price of that by being fired from things when I’ve spoken up. [Author’s note: McFadden was reportedly fired from Star Trek after Season 1 and replaced with Commander Katherine Pulaski, portrayed by Diana Muldaur. Gates McFadden was then asked to return in Season 3.] I think it was one of those unfortunate things that when I came back, when I agreed to come back, I should’ve made it clearer that I wanted Crusher episodes. I think what happened was that they had to get these scripts well in advance, and I had more Pulaski character scripts that they were turning into Crusher, and it felt a little awkward until that ended in the fifth season, and when I finally would have someone that was writing Crusher episodes I started to feel in the fifth and sixth season that it was Crusher.
One more quick question—are you keeping up with Star Trek: Discovery, and are you talking to the new cast and crew?
I’ve met the new cast and I think they’re fantastic! I know Rainn [Wilson] from when he was a student at NYU. He did clown with me. And I’ve met Mary Chieffo, who plays the Klingon, L’Rell, from Julliard. She’s wonderful. I saw her at the premiere and then I had lunch with her. She’s awesome. The cast seems great. They seem like a super chill, fun cast. I really liked Discovery. Jason (Isaacs) is fabulous. All of them. I mean Michelle Yeoh—God, what’s not to like? I think they chose really well.
I love Tilly (Mary Wiseman) too. She’s such a cool character because she’s a little bit—not neurotypical, but she’s still a capable, amazing character that you can count on, and a great friend, and it’s just one detail about her that she’s not exactly the same as everyone else.
I’ve only watched a few episodes [of Discovery] but the ones I’ve watched I really liked, and I think that it was harder to start from that point, but once you get into it, it becomes very clear that they have a success on their hands. It’s great.
Well, thank you so much for your time, and we hope to see you again at the film festival!
If you’re a sci-fi fan like us, you won’t want to miss this weekend’s Juggernaut Film Festival. The festival, put on by Otherworld Theatre, will run Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 5:30 pm. You can buy a full weekend pass in advance for $80, or $85 at the door, or you can buy single day passes and even individual film blocks. There’s even VIP passes which allow access to an after party with Ms. McFadden and the filmmakers as well as professional photo and autograph ops. Check out the lineup for the festival here, and purchase tickets by following this link, and we’ll see you out there.