For four years, John Billingsley dispensed intergalactic medical advice as Star Trek: Enterprise's kindly Denobulan Dr. Phlox. Living in the skin of an alien physician was largely a lovely experience, he says. It allowed him to play a warm, friendly character quite different from the "louses and schmoes" he is frequently cast as. It provided enough money for him to buy a house and make a few investments. And it introduced him to the worldwide network of loyal Star Trek fans, who often offer such unusual perks as personalized guided tours of their workplaces — not bad when said workplaces are as wide-ranging as the San Diego Zoo and MIT.
Of course all good things must come to an end, and Enterprise was canceled in 2005. Navigating the post-series regular experience can be a tricky thing, but Billingsley has managed it with aplomb. He has worked steadily, even landing another cast spot on ABC's short-lived The Nine, and will next be seen in a multiepisode arc on the seventh season of Fox's 24. "I just picked up where I left off, which, given the nature of a character actor's career, means primarily guest-starring, little indie pictures, many of which never see the light of day, and keeping your fingers crossed you get another series," he says.
The experiences actors have in forging their after-show paths tend to vary wildly. Some may find previously impenetrable doors opening. Others find themselves having to prove they can play something other than the character they've been portraying for the past few years. Whatever the case, a practical outlook and clear ideas about your career seem to be key elements for moving forward.
Billingsley has these in abundance: He comes across as pragmatic and grounded as he discusses the ever-evolving life of a working character actor. He confesses that he didn't exactly go into mourning when Enterprise was canceled. "For me, having it end after four years was kind of perfect," he says. "Although I had a lot of fun and I really enjoyed that character a lot, given the nature of the show and the inherent confines of the show, four years was fine."
He notes, however, that his situation was different from many others'. For one thing, although Enterprise lasted several seasons and gained a respectable fan following, it was never considered an outright success. The show appealed to a niche audience and struggled to stay on the air.
"It wasn't as if I was emerging from a show and folks around town were saying either, 'Oh my God, that hot thing, now he's available; I want to swoop him up,' or conversely, 'Aw, geez, he's typed forever as character X, and he can't be used anymore,' " says Billingsley. "I didn't have either of those experiences. If anything, it was 'Oh, John, yeah, I remember him. He was on Star Trek? I didn't know. So that's where he's been.'"
His strategy, then, mostly consisted of "knocking on a few doors and re-introducing myself to some people who may have forgotten me." He'd also made sure to work on different projects while Enterprise was still on the air, doing guest stints on shows such as Angel and acting in films, including the Denzel Washington thriller Out of Time. "[The producers of Enterprise] were very nice in accommodating me, and I was able to go do a couple of projects while the show was actually in production," he says. "I felt that because it was a genre show, there was a likelihood that I was going to essentially disappear in the eyes of the industry if I didn't do that."
These days, Billingsley says he still auditions quite a bit, but he has noticed an uptick in the number of projects that come to him as straight offers — mostly guest-star spots and the like. Oddly enough, he thinks this has more to do with his work as nebbishy Egan Foote on one-season wonder The Nine than with his role on Enterprise. "Even though [The Nine] didn't last, it had good publicity and was well-received by a wider swath of the community. That kind of mainstreamed me a bit more in the eyes of some people," he says.
Although his series regular gigs may have helped him gain recognition, his hard work and thoughtful practicality have kept him going in the right direction. He seems keenly aware of the reality that an actor's career is about a body of work and not merely a single experience on a show, no matter how successful or unsuccessful the show may be. "It's knowing the industry, knowing who's your pal, knowing who's your ally, and staying in pretty close conversation with your representation," he says. "You've got to kind of make throwing your elbows out a big part of the job as you keep moving forward."
Taking Time Out
Billingsley jumped right back into the auditioning game, but some former series regulars find they need a bit of a break from the industry: time to find themselves, to experience life, to figure out what they want. Such was the case for Renée O'Connor, who spent six seasons as loyal sidekick Gabrielle on Xena: Warrior Princess. The series was shot in New Zealand, and upon returning to the States, O'Connor found that some industry folks were willing to see her only in a certain light. "I left this young girl and I came back a woman, a mother, married," she says. "It wasn't what people were expecting."
O'Connor decided she was ready for time away from acting. Thanks to Xena, she had the financial security to take a break and be a full-time mom. "I think when you're on a TV show for so long, you tend to feel like life is passing you by, because you're insulated on a set all day for such a long time, especially if you're on the other side of the world," she says. "I really wanted to have more to my life besides a career. I wanted to have a sense of family; I wanted to be a hands-on mother. And that's exactly what I've been doing." That doesn't mean making the decision to take time off was easy. "It was so confusing because I've always been so driven, so clear about what I want with my career. This was the first time that I didn't know what I wanted," she says. "I don't think my heart was completely into being in the audition room versus putting my child down for a nap."
But she couldn't stay away forever — acting is still one of her deepest passions — and recently she has started to get back into the game, booking such gigs as the upcoming Sci Fi Channel film Genesis Code and a guest spot on the hit CBS series Criminal Minds. And though going back into the audition room initially threw her for a loop ("It's a completely different mindset than actually working on a set"), she's figured out that it's ultimately about enjoying the experience. "That's the key, for me," she says. "I walk in, and it's just having this opportunity to meet people and then to explore the feelings of these characters — that's what that day is about. I don't try to jump ahead [and think about] booking the part."
O'Connor has also found other creative outlets. She formed her own production companies, ROC Productions and ROC Pictures, around 2002. The companies' first effort, the romantic comedy Diamonds and Guns, was released on DVD earlier this year and will play the On Location: Memphis International Film Festival later this month. O'Connor is now working on a new project she hopes to direct. The experience has made her particularly passionate about actors creating their own work. "I think everybody needs to find their own voice and their own journey," she says.
As she continues hers, back into the world of acting, she notes that her time away from the industry has only enhanced her craft as a performer. "It's so freeing for me to be able to know that my kids are fine and I can go and play and use all the colors of my life that I've gained in the last few years that have given me more depth as a human being."
The post-show experience can range widely by actor, but a lot of it boils down to a single word: choices. The decisions you make, the strategies you employ, will play a crucial role in shaping your career. Emma Caulfield, who spent five years as tart-tongued former demon Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had a pretty clear idea of how she wanted to proceed once the show ended. For one thing, she didn't particularly want to take on another series. Though she loved her time on Buffy and is thrilled that the show got her seen as more of a comedic actor — previously, she says, she was considered mostly for dramatic roles — she found herself getting restless in the series' final years. "I realized that I would actually prefer to have more of a variety and accept the highs and lows of the non-series regular life," she says. "That was really an eye-opener for me, because that was all I was about prior to booking the show: 'Oh, I just want a series regular job.'"
Since the show's wrap, she's tried to make informed choices. It's important to her to progress, to take chances. She'd rather gamble on a project she sees as creatively fulfilling than play it safe and do something she's done before. "[After Buffy] I wanted to hold out — keep myself afloat [by] whatever means I needed to do without selling my soul, so to speak," she says. "[That means] holding out for interesting projects that may or may not go anywhere, that maybe I'm paid hardly anything for, but are interesting to do. Luckily I was in some kind of financial position to be able to do that."
In that vein, she's devoted herself to passion projects while accepting more-mainstream gigs here and there to keep herself financially afloat. Some of these have come in the form of TV movies for cable channels such as Lifetime and ABC Family. "If I'm being really, really honest: With one of them [last year's A Valentine Carol] I really loved the material; I thought it was hysterical and I wanted to do it," she says. "For the rest, it's pretty much a way to keep supplementing my income so that I can do things that I want to do. By and large when those things are offered, it's like, 'Well, should I do that right now? I'd like to do my own short film, and I need [financing]. That would more than supplement it. Okay, great. Now, how long? Three weeks of my life? Fantastic, go.'"
Of course, Caulfield notes, that doesn't mean accepting a TV-movie offer is always an easy decision; it's something she considers carefully. "At a certain point, I had to be careful to put a hold on doing them," she says. "Because I wouldn't want to be the TV-movie girl; that's definitely something I don't want. I've been fairly fortunate that the ones that I've done really aren't pushed. I mean, they're pushed to an extent, but my face isn't on billboards. I don't want to be that actor whose face is all over, like, 'Oh, she's headlining another TV movie.'"
As for her passion projects, she points to her starring role in 2007's Hollow, a dramatically hefty short film that's become a hit in the festival circle and netted her a few acting awards. She's also working on a short she wrote, titled Don't Panic, It's Organic. And she just completed work on a pair of comedic indie films, one of which features her as a lead. The indies may not come with big paydays, but she's hoping they will pay off careerwise — perhaps in the form of more big-screen roles. "I'd like to make an impact in film," she says. "That's really what I've always wanted to do."
Being firmly ensconced in the series regular experience can be exhausting — the long hours, the nonstop work schedules — but it also provides a sense of comfort if the show becomes successful. "You get this sort of false sense of security, I think," says O'Connor. "There's a tiny handful of actors that get very complacent."
The industry, however, will continue to morph and change around you. Erika Alexander, who played strong-willed attorney Maxine "Max" Shaw for five seasons on the sitcom Living Single, says that if you want to remain relevant, you have to learn how to adapt. "You have to have patience; you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit inside of the industry," she says. "No matter what, your show will end. But how will you progress? How will you find a way to be relevant inside of an atmosphere that is very volatile and very material and sometimes has no basis [in] merit?"
For Alexander, adapting has meant embracing that aforementioned entrepreneurial spirit. She's passionate about learning new skills and exploring different mediums. She has directed theatre and "a couple of small television projects of my own" and is looking to branch into short films. "I think that if you'd like to create new opportunities for yourself, that is a wonderful medium and format to compete in, and it doesn't take much of an investment of time or money to do so," she says.
She'd like to use different mediums "to grow as an artist and to create the types of opportunities for the things I see that are lacking inside of this industry" — for example, more diverse roles for women of color. "You don't see many women of color in science fiction," she says. "You don't see many women of color inside of thrillers, detective stories — things like that."
She has worked steadily since Living Single, racking up guest credits on shows including ER and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and taking on roles in films such as 2006's Déjà Vu and the upcoming Mission St. Rhapsody, but Alexander says she still gets approached by perplexed fans who ask where she's been. "When you don't see me, I'm actually working harder," she says, with a chuckle. "I say, 'What do you mean? I've been Off-Broadway doing a show with Phylicia Rashad [The Story], getting great reviews. Sorry you didn't see it.'"
Like so many other actors who have successfully moved on from the series regular experience, Alexander knows that if you want to continue to succeed in this business, your career can't hinge on one single project. Even after spending time on a hit series, you must keep moving forward and figuring out where you want to go next. "To have longevity, you must have substance," she says. "I tell [people] all the time, this is a marathon, not a sprint."