“Unless the story-telling is smart, it's hard to have impact. I'm really drawn to intelligence and to intelligent story-telling. And you know it when you see it. Even if you can't define it, you know it when it smacks you in the face, right?"
In particular, Burton is interested in the way the main character struggles with schizophrenia but also uses it to his advantage. He spoke passionately about the need to de-stigmatize mental illness.
“We cannot continue to function as a healthy society,” he explained, “if we have this negative spin in our minds about what it means to have out-of-balance brain chemistry. It's nothing you can control.
“And so we really need to look at how we feel about it and perhaps give ourselves an opportunity to change our minds about how we feel about it."
Burton knows the impact television can have in contemporary culture.
“To have that conversation begin with a television show, I know the value of that,” he says, referring to his career-making performance as an African sold into slavery in the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots.
“I watched this nation become transformed in eight nights of television.
"So I know and appreciate fully the value of the medium to be an alive part of the evolution of culture.
"And I think that we really need to have this conversation in America about how we feel about out-of-balance brain chemistry, just like we needed to have the conversation about racism in America, its roots and its legacy."
Burton also spoke at length about Reading Rainbow
and his dedication to children’s literacy and education. Fans of Burton's can read the full interview below.
Monday, July 9 at 19/9c on TNT. Turner Conference Call
LeVar BurtonJune 28, 2012
How did you get attached to this project? It seems like an interesting show for you to appear in.
Ken Biller and Mike Sussman are Star Trek
alums and I read the pilot and forced my way in. I love Ken's writing and I loved his pilot and I called Ken and said, "Is there any way I can be in this?" And he said, "Well, the one character that you're right for it's in a scene in this pilot." And I said, "Yes, but I see room there for this guy to grow."
And Ken worked it out. He was thrilled at the prospect. We had a great relationship on Star Trek
and I directed a lot of episodes that he wrote and as a fan I just wanted to be in this.
Do you see it as -- it's a crime procedural but it also has this science fiction element to it. Do you see that or am I way off base?
Well, I don't know that I would call it a science fiction element as much as a real psychological element to it. I think that Ken's point of view on the treatment of -- and I'm going to put this in quotes, "mental illness," and brain chemistry and how our perceptions literally determine our reality. I think this is a fascinating conversation to have, especially in a popular culture medium like television.
I know you've been to a lot of ComicCons, are you going to be going to San Diego Comic-Con? And also, what's your take [on] the fan experience at a Comic-Con versus the insider experience at the Comic-Con, is it two different convention worlds?
Definitely, I will be at Comic-Con this year. This is the 23rd anniversary of Next Gen, Star Trek: The Next Generation
coming on here, so we are actually doing, not in San Diego but we are doing a sort of a reunion tour where all of the cast is getting back together. We did the first one in Calgary back in April. We have dates coming up in Orlando and Austin and Toronto, I think.
So from the inside, when two or three and in these cases all of us are together, it's just a glorious experience because we all remain incredibly close even though we don't see each other every day like we used to when we were shooting the show. Patrick lives in England, Jonathan is always off working, we're all doing other stuff with our lives. However, when we're together there's just nothing better.
Can we expect to see you perhaps making a return to Community?
Because that was such a great cameo for you.
I'm absolutely open to it. As I'm sure you know, there has been a change of the regime there at Community,
so we'll see what the season holds. I'm a fan of the show and I'm interested like most of you to see what direction, this change, how it will impact what I think is one of the most inventive shows on television.
It was good seeing you on Watch What Happens Live
I am now -- I am an Andy fan. I love the guy. I think he's so smart. I have seen him but I hadn't -- the Housewives shows are, they're not -- I'm not the demographic for those shows but sitting with Andy Cohen and really getting a sense of who he is [was] really a lot of fun for me. And the fact that he does it all in his studio, adjacent to his offices. I’m just very impressed with him as a businessman.
So hopefully you got your signed copy of the book.
I got a signed copy of the book and I got a set of four tumblers. I got lots of What Happens Live
I was wondering what's it like getting to work with such amazing actors like Eric McCormack and Rachel Leigh Cook on the show?
I’m a huge Eric McCormack fan, was before meeting him and working with him and even more so now. He totally kills this role, definitely, and I really appreciate the difficulty of what he is so deftly doing in every episode. And he's just a joy to watch and a marvel to behold. I'm so happy to be working with Eric McCormack.
And then on top of being as good as he is, he's also -- he's a real professional. There are a lot of kids who want to be famous these days who come to Los Angeles and say that they want to be an actor or an actress but really what they want is to be famous. Eric is a real pro. He takes what he does seriously, yet he doesn't take himself as a celebrity seriously, so he's one of those people who knows, understands what it means to be the number one on the call-sheet. You know what I mean when I say that? Number one on the call-sheet. Eric knows, he knows what it represents. He knows how to do that.
People like Scott Bakula, Mark Harmon, they're guys who know how to be number one on the call-sheet. They care about the work and saying good night to everybody when they leave, that their humanity is a part of how they move in the world and it shows up in their inter-personal relationships with cast and crew and it's wonderful when you see that in action.
What do you think it is about the show that will resonate with fans?
Eric and the writing, and I can't say it enough, I’m a huge Ken Biller fan and I just think that the way he is approaching this idea of how what happens in our brains determines the reality we experience. I think the subject matter is intrinsically fascinating, at least it is to me and I don't believe I'm alone in that.
Your career has been marked by such really important and really iconic roles and a whole slew of awards for Reading Rainbow.
What do you still want to accomplish at this point in your career as an actor and director? What still keeps you working every day?
Aside from Perception
I've really taken a bit of a side-step as much as the last two years of my life have dedicated and wholly devoted to the Reading Rainbow
app. We launched it just last week and in 36 hours shot to number one in education. It's still the number one grossing education app. This really feeds my passion.
My mother was an English teacher. My older sister is a teacher. My son is in education. I have cousins, nieces, this is the family business, you know what I’m saying?
That was actually my next question, how you balance literacy with the (creative)?
That's how I do it. I did Reading Rainbow
the television show for 25 years and Rick Berman, the executive producer of Star Trek
, having produced a children’s television series The Big Blue Marble,
knew how important the show was to me and knew how important the show was to television. And so, he made it possible for me to do both Trek
and Reading Rainbow
at the same time.
And Ken knows it fully well how important Reading Rainbow
is to me, and this is what I feel like I’m really, really supposed to be doing. And the reason why we brought Reading Rainbow
back is there is such a need right now. We have fallen so far behind our own expectations as a nation in terms of how we educate our kids and what the outcome of a public school education is these days. And we can't rely on government to get it done anymore. It has to be a public-private partnership.
Our government is broke, right? We've spent the last decade-plus engaged in funding the machineries of war and our kids have been left behind. And, you know, from my point of view that's just not okay.
So with the app out, this is maybe a nice break for you being in a recurring role on television?
It brings a balance to my life because I stepped away from acting after Next Generation and became a full-time director. And then my business partner, Mark Wolfe and I decided to re-launch the Reading Rainbow
brand. And so that's been a two-year journey.
And now through Perception
-- I haven’t been on television in, I don't know what, 10, 12 years in a series. So I get to return to my first love here. And Ken, as the writer-producer, is committed to giving me notes to play that he knows the public hasn't seen from me before.
So I get to go to work and act and love every minute of that and love the people that I'm working with, Eric and Rachel and Arjay, just really tremendously talented, quality human beings.
And then I get -- and my day job right now is continuing that mission of inspiring children who are making decisions as to whether they're going to be readers or not, to choose the light.
Should we not be surprised then that the role that brought you back to television. Is that as an educator?
You know what, everything happens for a reason. And when Ken was naming the character, he called me and said, "I'm thinking of naming the character Haley. What do you think of that?"
And I was blown away because as an homage to Alex [Haley], who had such a major impact on my life - and this country, by the way - I think it really does come full circle. It's interesting because this is the 35th anniversary of Roots
this year. It's also the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation
coming on the air and between -- literally between Roots,
Kunta Kinte and Geordi La Forge is LeVar. And there's just a wonderful symmetry I think to that.
And playing Dean Haley in Perception
is the fulfillment of some kind of, I don't know, some kind of karmic wonderfulness. I guess that's the best way I have of describing it.
I have to say congratulations. What an incredible show, incredible performance, incredible everything. It must be a welcome return to television with a role like this.
Yes. You don't get this all that often. You know what I'm saying?
Yes, that's what I'm going to ask you. During your hiatus, did Hollywood knock every so often and say, "Hey, do you want to come on this show or this show" and you turned them down, or they just weren't knocking?
I read a lot of scripts and at this stage in my life and in my career, I go and audition for a lot of things, some things that I don't connect to. And once in a while I really do connect with something. And like I said before, when I read the script, I was like, “This I just want to be a part of.”
What was it about your character that you're really connected to? Is he like you in any way?
It wasn't the character, it was the writing. And in going to Ken, I was basically saying, "Look, I trust you. You won't let me sit around and do nothing. But I want to be in this because I love what you're doing here."
And he made it possible.
I was wondering how many episodes in the show are you on, if you know?
I'm in -- let's see. How many did we do? Do we do eight? Did we do -- I forget. I think I'm in six.QUESTION:
Six? Well, that's good.
I believe, yes. What's the total number for the season?
I have no idea. MODERATOR:
It's 10. I'm in 6 of 10. Yes, 6 of 10.
Seven of nine would have been cool, but, you know.
Seven of nine would have been okay, too.
Do you think there'll be any controversy when the show airs considering it's a fully-functioning schizophrenic with a job [who] doesn't take any medication?
Well, it'll be interesting to see if there is, isn't there? I think the whole idea of mental illness and the stigma that we have associated with it in this country is up for discussion. We are ripe to reevaluate that stigma.
And to be able to, as I say, have that conversation begin with a television show, I know the value of that. I watched this nation become transformed in eight nights of television around an issue that goes to the heart of almost everything that happens in this country, in this culture. And that's the subject of slavery and its legacy on subsequent generations.
So I know and appreciate fully the value of the medium to be an alive part of the evolution of culture. And I just think that we really need to have this conversation in America about how we feel about out-of-balance brain chemistry, just like we needed to have the conversation about racism in America, its roots and its legacy.
You've been on a lot of shows with a lot of big fan bases like TNG
and Reading Rainbow.
And you're quite interactive with your fans via Twitter and whatnot. What are you enjoying most about interacting with them?
Twitter I love because it's an opportunity for me to have a conversation with people from different parts of my life and my career, Roots
fans and Star Trek
fans and Reading Rainbow
fans. I can converse with them absent gatekeepers. I get to say what I want, when I want, in a manner that I want, 140 characters at a time. And there's no studio or network or publicist between me and my voice. That's what I love about it.
What can we expect to see from your character and your interactions with Dr. Pierce throughout the season.
I'm not certain I'm able to share that with you, simply because in the interwebs we have phrase, "spoiler alert," that we respect. And I haven't had an opportunity to talk to Ken. I know where the character is going and I'm not certain that it would be a good idea for the audience to know in advance of them discovering. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, it does.
I can tell you for certain that Dean Haley grows in importance in terms of the unfolding of the story. I'm just not prepared to share that with you just yet. I invite you to go on the journey.
I was wondering if psychology and the inner workings of the mind was something that has always been an interest to you or is that something that really came out once you read this pilot and got involved with the script?
I'd have to say that the field of psychology and the nature of reality is something that I've been interested in for a long time. I read the Don Juan Chronicles,
boy, when I was 16 or 17 years old.
So as a part of my own personal journey, the nature of reality has played a dominant role. And the exploration of the nature of reality has been a subject that I've been interested in a long time.
What excited me was Ken's take on it, his entry point into it in a vehicle in the popular culture. I just thought, "Wow, thank God. Finally, somebody gets it, somebody has cracked the code on how do we talk about this in a way that is interesting visually, is compelling in a story-telling sense." And can smartly, intelligently discuss an issue that we all have in common. I don't think there's anybody on this call that doesn't know someone who's either on medication or should be on medication and is not.
So I'm not saying that we're all walking around, you know, paranoid schizophrenics. I'm just saying that brain chemistry and brain chemistry out of balance is an issue that is so prevalent in America today from kids with ADD or Asperger's.
And we cannot continue to function as a healthy society if we have this negative spin in our minds about what it means to have out-of-balance brain chemistry. It's nothing you can control. It's inherited.
And so we really need to look at how we feel about it and perhaps give ourselves an opportunity to change our minds about how we feel about it. And I'm a big fan of the power of the medium in terms of giving us an entry point, a way into the conversation.
You're very, very eloquent. I really enjoyed it. So my question is you always seem to star in series that thrive on intelligence. How important is intellect and programming to you as an actor?
Oh, my gosh. It's everything. Unless the story-telling is smart, it's hard to have impact. I'm really drawn to intelligence and to intelligent story-telling. And you know it when you see it. Even if you can't define it, you know it when it smacks you in the face, right?
Yes. And I've been really lucky. I've been very, very blessed throughout the course of my career. I just am grateful. I'm enormously grateful.
Well, I'm really glad because you've helped inspire probably everyone on this call in some way, in some role that you've played throughout your career, and I'm sure your own children, too, it's amazing, on future generations.
Let's hope, you know, let's hope. As Van Morrison says, I just consider myself a journeyman, I'm working and practicing, working and practicing.