LeVar Burton is a well-known actor who has appeared in shows like “Reading Rainbow”, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the mini-series “Roots”. LeVar is currently guest starring in TNT’s new show “Perception”, which premiers Monday July 9th at 10:00 PM Eastern. LeVar took out some time to chat with Media Mikes about TNT’s “Perception”, his new “Reading Rainbow” iPad app and also the 25th Anniversary of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.
Mike Gencarelli: How did you get attached to TNT’s “Perception”?
LeVar Burton: 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 like in a scene in this pilot.” And I said, “Yes, but, you know, I see room there for this guy to grow.” And Ken worked it out. You know, he was thrilled at the prospects. 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.
MG: This show is a crime procedural but it also has additional elements to it as well. Can you reflect?
LB: Well, I would say it has a real psychological element to it. I think that Ken’s point of view on the treatment — 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 the popular culture medium like television.
MG: How was it been working with Eric McCormack on the show?
LB: 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 a real professional. There are a lot of kids who want to be famous these days who come to Los Angeles and say that, you know, they want to be an actor or an actress but really what they want is to be famous. Eric is a real pro, right. 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, right. They care about the work and saying good night to everybody when they leave just 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 just wonderful when you see that in action.
MG: 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 on every day?
LB: Aside from “Perception”, I’ve really taken a bit of a side-step and 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? 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. 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 brokaye, 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.
MG: So with the app out, this is maybe a nice break for you being in a recurring role on television?
LB: 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 or 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 just really tremendously talented, quality human beings. 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.
MG: Do you think there’ll be any controversy when a show airs considering it’s like a fully-functioning schizophrenic with a job but doesn’t take any medication?
LB: 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 what 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.
MG: You always seem to star in series that thrive on intelligence. How important is intellect and programming to you as an actor?
LB: 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? 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.
MG: You’ve been on a lot of shows with a lot of big fan bases like “TNG” and Reading Rainbow, obviously. You’re quite interactive with your fans via Twitter, so what are you enjoying most about interacting with them?
LB: Twitter I love because it’s an opportunity for me to have a conversation with people who are 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.
MG: Are you going to be going to San Diego Comic-Con and also sort of what’s your take like the fan experience at a Comic-Con versus sort of the insider experience at the Comic-Con?
LB: Definitely, I mean, I will at Comic-Con this year. This is the 25th anniversary of “Star Trek: 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.