Walker Brandt is an actress who has appeared in such films as City Slickers (1991) and Dante's Peak (1997). Her television credits include appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Single Guy. She has also posted videos about her experiences in show business on YouTube and her website WalkerBrandt.com. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with her about her career.
1. Walker, one of my favorite of your appearances is in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The First Duty.” Were you a Trek fan prior to appearing on that show? How did you get cast as Jean Hajar?
-Well, the interesting thing about that is that I grew up watching Star Trek. My mom is a huge fan. She was raising four kids, so she didn’t go to any conventions. I fell asleep watching it myself, but we all sat and watched it growing up. I did develop an admiration for the genre and the show at a young age. I became a bigger fan after appearing on the show. I auditioned for Star Trek as a result of having done a role in the film City Slickers. Prior to auditioning for City Slickers I had been traveling around the world modeling and worked on a few commercials in Europe . Once City Slickers came out I started auditioning for film projects and Star Trek: TNG was the first television audition I had ever been on. I initially read with Star Trek: TNG casting director Ron Surma and had a callback a few hours later with the producers, I ended up reading most of lines I ended up doing in the co-star role. I was cast an hour later and was being fitted for wardrobe that evening, so it was pretty fast. I had some technical dialog so the casting office gave the actors a reference book that some actors called the Star Trek bible to look at with all the different terminology, which apparently NASA had a hand in putting together with the show’s creator and producers. One of my biggest concerns in performing the role truthfully was being able to say the technical words right but also getting a visual of what it was and also knowing what the other actors were talking about during our shoot when they used words I had never heard of, like Kolvoord Starburst. There was a last minute change to my character once I got on set. Jean was supposed to be the alien, but Michael Westmore, head of makeup, looked at me and said he wasn’t going to put that nose on me so the makeup went onto the other actress girl (Shannon Fill). I was grateful because I wasn’t sure if it was going to be itchy or distracting so I thanked Michael. After telling Michael that my mom was a huge Star Trek fan he asked me if I’d like to see the Star Trek museum on the Paramount lot and showed me some of the original Star trek prosthetics, which was amazing!
2. Did you ever entertain the notion of playing the role again?
-I would love to be on Star Trek again. My career went more into film after that. I did a series in Germany and a lot of films overseas. I then ended up taking time off to raise my family. I was so excited to work with Patrick Stewart, who is an amazing, brilliant talent.
3. Among the films you’ve been in are City Slickers (1991) and Dante’s Peak (1997). Any fond memories of those films?
-I have great memories of those films. I was very lucky to be introduced to the industry with some talented people. City Slickers was my first audition, so that was a whole new level. Improvising with Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby and director Ron Underwood was great. They were so engaging, warm and welcoming. They spoiled me rotten, they sent me gifts all the time. I spoke to Bruno once a week, because we were playing husband and wife. He introduced me to my first acting coach and gave me the book Respect for Acting, which is fabulous. Bruno was such an amazing craftsman and extremely dedicated. I shot the film for two weeks in Universal and Culver City Studios which was fun.
Dante’s Peak was cast by Mike Fenton, who has been in the business forever. I went in and read for it with. I read with Mike in the first audition then was called back to read for the director, Roger Donaldson at the casting offices at Valencia Studios. It was a new experience for me because it was basically an improv audition. The director doesn’t really give direction, he just basically tells the actors that you’re in a specific circumstance and react to it. So he set up the scene which was “you are a volcanologist and the volcano you’ve been studying for months has just erupted and you are trying to get everyone organized and out in the midst of the chaos. Action!” (laughs) It was the whole scene and pretty intense to say the least!
Playing opposite Pierce Brosnan was another privilege. He was very generous and kind. At one point, we had 12 cameras on us inside that truck. They had everything covered it was amazing. I never worked quite like that. I also had the blood bags wired up to my hair. I never worked with anything like that before and it was really fun. Everyone on that set was incredible to work with.
I mainly focus on commercials and spend time with my family, which I couldn’t focus on as much when doing films. Being a working actor takes a lot of time and energy.
4. I saw you in a video on YouTube in which you talked about how you enjoyed working on a commercial for American Airlines. Are there any other commercials you have fond memories of doing?
-Commercial directors are so much fun to work with. It’s like a condenced movie. It is a big challenge for the director to get so much done in a short period of time. Commercials now have become more ‘real,’ which I love. The AA spot was the first time I worked with a very large Motion Camera which moved on a track at a very fast pace starting behind me then came within inches of my face as it passed. In the spot, I’m in that living room and then in an airplane. The room morphs into the interior of the plane and the message is you don’t have to miss the special moments with your kids now you can talk to your kids and say goodnight to them while flying. The camera is zooming right past me and the child who played my daughter sitting in the living room. The next day, I was shown an outline of where my head was the previous day, so I had to line my face up in the same position while sitting on the plane. The director was wonderful, and he knew the ins and outs. It was a really exciting experience because he made it easy. He was both technical and performance minded which was refreshing because it is rare that a director is both, the director was Gerard de Thame. That spot came out great. I’ve gotten more calls and compliments on that spot than on the others I did that year. I’ve probably shot between 50-100 commercials from products ranging from beer to carpet cleaning to Pharma. I’ve shot nearly every kind of spot over the years, except for pet food. It would be fun to work with a pet!
5. When did you realize that acting was the profession for you?
-After my audition for City Slickers (laughs). I wasn’t someone who grew up thinking I’d be an actor. I grew up with a passion for horses and thought I’d go into raising horses or psychology. I didn’t realize acting was a field for me until I was approached to do that role. Prior to that, I didn’t know I could model either. I was a tomboy and spent most of my time outside, so I was a nature girl. For me, all of it was a surprise. A photographer approached me for modeling but I wasn’t interested. But I gave in, per my boyfriend, and he shot a few pictures, which was strange and awkward. A few weeks later, I was told there was an agent that wanted to meet me. My boyfriend again persuaded me to pursue it. I then started traveling around the world and was exposed to a different world. I had a nickname, “Chameleon”, I had to pretend I was somebody else for every modeling picture I did because it was so uncomfortable for me and as a result my modeling pictures tended to look like different people. I was with Johnny Casablanca’s agency, Elite, for about a year and a half and then went to another agency, Flame. Lynn Pinkerton, the owner of Flame, told me I was an actress after looking at my photos. So when she got a call from Pam Dixon’s office a year later for City Slickers, Lynn sent me in and I was the only one she sent in for that role. At the time, acting and modeling were not as intertwined as they are now. I used to do little skits for my family as a kid at family get-togethers & I always enjoyed it but it wasn’t called acting or something my parents would have supported, until I started doing it. I may have gone into another field had I not had the exposure I did with such wonderful talented people. That kept me busy for about 10 years until I took time off for family.
6. Are there any actors or actresses that inspire you?
I’m a huge Julie Andrews fan. I loved Marlon Brando. I loved how he changed the craft of acting by taking it into this really raw place. He crossed the line in such a way and brought a raw, real grit to that classic form and changed acting forever. As far as inspiring contemporary actors, I don’t like Sean Penn’s politics (laughs) but he’s very talented, as is Robert Downey, Jr. I told my husband I want to come back as a guy who loves this acting gig and do it the way I want to (laughs). I love doing roles that are more character-driven. But in this business when you look a certain way it’s hard to get cast in some roles. Playing Dexter would be incredible, but I doubt a woman who looks like me would be cast (laughs). Robin Wright, the lead in House of Cards, is great too, but women who look like me are often cast in stereotypical roles. When I was younger, we would play crazy characters, which was fun. I don’t see many of those coming across my desk. I’ve always thought about doing my own projects but it is very time consuming and hard on my family.
7. To whom do you credit your success as an actress?
-Being in the right place at the right time (laughs). It’s such a luck of the draw. I have to take credit for some of it because I have the courage to go forward. Spending a lot of time in my imagination as a kid and trusting that with knowing how to play. My drive and my naïve childish willingness to go out and play with others definitely is where my success has come from. Success is an actor is about being playful in certain circumstances. Sometimes you want to play with your family, not with strangers, and playing with strangers is when you get jobs. The great actors are the ones which trust constantly, who have no inhibitions about who they play, like Spencer Tracy and Garbo.
I also credit everybody I have worked with because took a chance on me. I didn’t know anybody or have any relatives in the business. Those producers took a chance to make something special.
8. Other than Trek, do you have any favorite TV series or movies?
-House of Cards is a favorite. Downton Abbey is great direction, great writing, great performances. The Brits put out great TV and great film. They have a lot of fun and have more time than we do. They haven’t allowed themselves to buy into the superficial SFX world like we have. I love the classics. I’m a huge fan of The King & I and The Sound of Music, Casablanca, Rebecca. I love Hitchcock, Kurasowa and Ford. I fall asleep to classics almost every night I can because I love falling asleep to great work like that. Katherine Hepburn is one of my favorites. There was one movie from the 1940s with Ava Gardner and this guy-I can’t remember his name-gave this huge spit. It was gross, but it was stunning, especially for that time. You see quiet moments in the classics that are so riveting. Pilots are often a waste of time because, for one thing, they often don’t use the same actors. They also play it safe, which is not how great art is made. I love artists that don’t play it save. That is also what Netflix has done by buying many TV series. It’s giving the audience the respect of asking them what they want. I think we’ll see a big chance on TV with pilot season going the way of the dodo bird.
9. Do you prefer working in the theater or on a soundstage?
-I prefer working on a soundstage. I loved working in theater. I haven’t done as much as I’d like because of the time commitment & family. The most fun thing would be to do comedy in front of an audience because you have an audience giving you instant reciprocation for your work. But I love working on a soundstage because it’s all imagination, especially when acting in front of a green screen which was really fun. I was cultivated as a green screen actor when I was a kid (laughs). Doing a movie like Avatar or Lord of the Rings would be really fun because you are really collaborating as a team with the director and writers in order to create something from nothing. It’s so fulfilling to go there, into the deepest spaces of a human being and pull that reality from within yourself to believe what you’re not seeing.
10. Can you give us any hints about your upcoming projects?
-I’m mainly doing commercials right now. I just went out for a pilot about a week ago. I can’t talk about anything until I’ve shot it. There an issue with people Tweeting and Facebooking right now, so we have to sign non-disclosure agreements. Even films are pretty crazy. Some of my friends are working more on films, although it’s not as crazy as working on commercials. The PR department has to set up all the marketing and interviewing now. It’s even built into contracts for actors to engage with fans and on social media. Some actors may tweet that they got a commercial and are then fired before they shoot it.
My blog came about because of a director named Peter Hayaguchi. He said that I should discuss my experiences. My stepdaughter, who wants to direct, took a course from him. Being shot and directed by your own daughter is very interesting (laughs).
He took that same course and made a science fiction series called The New Kind, which is very interesting.