A Chat with LeVar Burton: Perception, Reading Rainbow, and more!

Color me ecstatic. Not only is a brand-new series premiering this Monday that has me completely enthralled, but I was able to talk to a TV legend on a conference call about the show: the iconic LeVar Burton.

LeVar appears as Dean Haley in the upcoming show Perception. The show stars Eric McCormack, who plays Dr. Daniel Pierce, a college professor who consults with the FBI on cases, all because of his innate knowledge of the human mind. The twist? He may be brilliant, but he’s also a paranoid schizophrenic. LeVar has a recurring role in the series — appearing in over half the first season’s episodes — and plays the college dean, a role he sees as something he can make his own.

Let me tell you, listening to LeVar on this conference call was a pleasure, and I’m not ashamed to say I was a bit starstruck. In fact, when it was my turn to chat, I won’t deny I felt a little like this. But read the quite enjoyable Q&A below, where LeVar talks Perception, the new Reading Rainbow app, Comic-Con, and even Community. And don’t forget to check out Perception this Monday at 10/9c on TNT.

Just curious, you know, how did you get attached to this project?  It seems sort of like an interesting show for you to appear in. – Aaron Sagers

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.

Do you see it as sort of — I mean, it’s a crime procedural, but it also sort of has this science fiction element to it.  I mean 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 mean, 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 the popular culture medium like television.

Yes, and also just because I know, you know, you’ve been to a lot of Comic-Cons.  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? Is it two different kind of convention worlds?

Definitely, I mean, I will at Comic-Con this year.  This is the 23rd anniversary of Next Gen 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, you know, Jonathan is always off working, we’re all doing other stuff with our lives.  However, when we’re together there’s just nothing better.

Yes, and finally I know there’s lots of people on the line but can we expect to see you perhaps making a return to Community? Because that was such a great cameo for you.

You know what I’m absolutely open to it.  As I’m sure you now 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.

Well great, thanks so much for your time. I could tell you that I grew up with Reading Rainbow and The Next Generation, and so, it’s kind of great to be seeing Reading Rainbow come back and then see Next Gen on blu ray. It’s like childhood all over again.  So thanks so much.

My pleasure.

*****

I was wondering what’s it like getting to work with such amazing actors like Eric McCormack and Rachel Leigh Cook on the show? – Jamie Steinberg

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 — you know, 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, 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, you know, saying good night to everybody when they leave, I mean, just that their humanity is a part of how they move in the world, and it shows up in their interpersonal, you know, relationships with cast and crew and it just — 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, you know, and like 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.

*****

Hi, thanks so much for making time for us today.  It’s great to talk to you.  LeVar, 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? – Karen Mull

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…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 mean, 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, you know, Ken knows it fully well how important Reading Rainbow is to me, and, you know, 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 mean, 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 [Smith], just really tremendously talented, quality human beings.

And then I get, you know — and my day job right now is, you know, continuing that mission of inspiring children who are making decisions as to whether they’re going to be readers or not, to, you know, choose the light.

Is it — no, 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 like blown away because as an homage to Alex who had such a major impact on my life and, you know, this country, by the way, I think it really does come full circle.  It’s really — 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.

*****

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? – Earl Dittman

You know, I read a lot of scripts and, you know, 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 or…

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.”

Yes.

And he made it possible.

******

I just have one real quick question.  I was wondering, 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? – Suzanne Lino

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.

******

Hey, listen, and so, you know, you’ve been on a lot of shows with a lot of big fan bases like TNG and Reading Rainbow obviously, you know.  And I guess those shows have a lot of big fan bases behind them, I mean, and you’re quite interactive with your fans via Twitter and whatnot.  What are you enjoying most about interacting with them? – Mike Tim Crowley

Twitter I love because it’s an opportunity for me to have a conversation with, you know, people who — you know, from different parts of my life and my career, you know, 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.

******

Hi, thanks for being here.  I was wondering what we can expect to see from your character and your interactions with Dr. Pierce throughout the season? – Meredith Jacobs

I’m not certain I’m able to share that with you, simply because, you know, 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 if that 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. – Raked

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, you know, ADD or Asperger’s.

They’re just — 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.

*****

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? – Nicole Fix

Oh, my gosh.  It’s everything.  Unless the story-telling is smart, it’s hard to have impact.  I’m really drawn — really am 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?

Agree.

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, I mean, it’s amazing, on future generations.

Let’s hope, you know, let’s hope.  You know, as Van Morrison says, you know, I just consider myself a journeyman, I’m working and practicing, working and practicing.

*****

Don’t forget to check out LeVar on Perception when it premieres this Monday, July 9th, at 10/9c on TNT. 

*images courtesy of TNT and twitter.com/levarburton

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