Some individuals are natural born leaders while others should never, ever, be out in a position of responsibility over anyone else. Richard Woolsey is one of those men. A pain in the ass bureaucrat whose frequent assessments have scrutinized both Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis teams, Woolsey’s intelligence and quest for the truth are only matched by his lack of tact or people skills. Nonetheless, when Colonel Samantha Carter is suddenly reassigned in the upcoming fifth season of Stargate: Atlantis, someone has the brilliant idea of making Woolsey the new commander of the otherworldly expedition.
“Frankly, when they hired me for the job, I went ‘Oh God, that's interesting!’” recalls actor Robert Picardo on the Stargate: Atlantis set. “Of course I love working here. I love the company. I'm treated beautifully and I love coming to Vancouver. So all the outside things were like ‘Yes, yes, of course I want to do it!’ Then there was a little voice going ‘Wait a minute! You've set this guy up as kind of an annoyance, a bit of a prig. I come in and evaluate you so you all better watch out and be on your best behavior! I'm going to find out who screwed up!’ Now suddenly he's the guy in charge and he's a briefing room guy. He's a think tank personality. Woolsey is not a leader. He evaluates other leaders. He's got a terrific legal mind, he knows the military rule book, knows all the rules about protocol, eliminating collateral damage, and acceptable losses but he doesn't make decisions. Woolsey just comes in and tells you how you screwed up.”
“So that's an interesting dilemma for a character who thinks he knows the right way to do everything and suddenly is put to the test,” continues Picardo. “I thought it was very interesting but we've also set up that he's not terribly courageous. We had great comic mileage in the SG-1 episode 'The Swarm', where Woolsey is running away faster than anybody else. So we had set up certain precedents that I was a little concerned about because I didn't want to suddenly become a different character. But on the other hand, I thought if the writers are choosing to do this, it's for the exact reason to put someone in charge who's not a born leader, to see what happens, how he develops, and how he's accepted.”
All that tangible tension is business as usual for Picardo. Best known as the holographic medical examiner The Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, he has made a career out of embodying those uptight guys who have the best of intentions but don’t make very good first impressions.
“Sometimes they're shorthanded as the guy you love to hate but I like to look at them as people who just have certain neuroses that create their social mask,” notes Picardo. “Perhaps they are a little unlikable or a little impenetrable in some way but then you learn why they got that way from other things that come out about their personality. Even dating back to the Wonder Years where I played the gym teacher, if Richard Nixon had an IQ of 60 and a gym cap, that's who I was. Now you don't think that's going to be a likable person but what you end up liking about that character is that he cannot help but be that way. You see whatever motivates him to be that strange and quirky and you grow to like him anyway.
"Those characters are fun to play imagination wise because it's not like you set out to get the audience to like you. You want the audience to find delight in whatever they notice about you or reveal about you that explains something that they saw two weeks ago or something about the way you act. I could not play a straight ahead courageous hero. It's not what I do. They'll hire some other guy to do that so if they want me, then they want me to put my particular spin on that. That's more fun for me and I think it's very creative of the producers to try something like that here because I'm definitely an oddball choice.”
Having been a part of two of sci-fi’s most beloved and longest running franchises, Picardo has some first hand insight into the differences between the Stargate and Star Trek universes.
“There's a kind of freewheeling humorous, we're winking a little at the genre thing, that they do on Stargate very well,” offers Picardo. “Star Trek tends to take itself a little too seriously. They were either very dramatic shows, or if we did a humorous show, it was always a little like ‘Oh, we're doing humor on Star Trek,’ especially on the original series. I shouldn't say this in print but it was always a little painful when they were funny on Star Trek. My character on Voyager, because of the way he was presented, I could go either way. I could be a real buffoon, a windbag, be self-involved, and we could get a lot of comic mileage from him. However, the audience accepted me with gravity when I was in a dire situation so they would follow me in comic or dramatic stories. What I like about this show is they do both at the same time.
"Stargate constantly makes jokes. I was about to be eaten by a Wraith, and not in a fun way, last night. I'm about to be fed upon and I had a line that was quite funny. It had to be played dead serious but it's clearly a laugh in the moment I'm about to be killed. And I think it's cool that they do that. They'll keep both balls in the air very seamlessly and part of it is that they like to wink at the genre. It has that 'Indiana Jones' tone.”
Indeed, Stargate: Atlantis is notorious for its wit, even to the extent Richard Dean Anderson’s Jack O’Neill could have easily held his own in a quip face off with Robin the Boy Wonder.
“And not every character can do that at the same time,” agrees Picardo. “In order to keep the drama, you can't have every character not taking it seriously but you can rotate it around. We've set Woolsey up as a non action guy. He's a theorist, not a real hero, so he's learning that. When there's actual danger, I have to take it extremely seriously because I haven't survived through 80 episodes the way the rest of the guys have. I'm new to it so I can't do that. In a dire circumstance, you won't see my character winking at the camera but I can still have a writer's joke. And you'll still have a laugh at that moment. I had to totally commit emotionally to my fear in that moment, rather than step outside of it the way one of the other characters who are a little more ‘I've looked down the jaws of death before...’ I haven't so I have to play it a different way but the writers are still having a little fun in a very serious moment.”