#61. A Conversation with Scottie Thompson

From working with director J.J. Abrams on the new Star Trek film and appearing in television shows such as Ugly Betty, Shark, and Law & Order to a recurring role on NCIS and her newest series Trauma, Scottie Thompson is doing A LOT. She's also kind enough to talk with me about her career, life and inspirations for becoming an actress, as well as sharing some interesting behind-the-scenes stories on recent projects and how she went from being in the Harvard Ballet to being beamed up into the Star Trek universe.

Jason Anders: How are you doing?

Scottie Thompson: I'm great! I'm just stepping out of the car getting ready to go see a dance show later this afternoon, so I apologize if there's a lot of noise because I am on the street right now.

JA: Speaking of dance, didn't you start off as a dancer for the Richmond Ballet?

ST: I did!

JA: And not only that, but you were also involved in the Harvard Ballet Company- I am assuming you initially wanted this to be your career?

ST: Totally, I was obsessed with it from age three, which is when I started. I just lived and breathed it until I was about nineteen years old. I was an apprentice for the Richmond Ballet and thought it would be what I would do with my life, I wasn't even sure if I would end up going to school. After a couple of months living that life I just felt the need to explore the world in other ways. I still think it's one of the most perfect art forms that exists- and the discipline that you learn by combining the skill with the artistry is exceptional in my mind. I just felt like I needed to get out and use my brain in different ways. I got more into theater when I was in school.

JA: How challenging was it being involved in Theater and Dance at Harvard?

ST: I started off by auditioning for about thirty plays without any experience- they cast the same three actors in the lead for every one, but they of course couldn't do all of them, so I was like fifth alternate for something, and ended up being able to get cast. It's really cool because it's all directed by students. It's a really equal playing ground with everyone listening to each other, and you're creating it all together with everyone on the same level. Though I was rehearsing and doing all of these strange training methods for thirty hours a week on top of trying to be a student.

I knew I wanted to act professionally, I just had no idea how to do it on a practical level. It was just knowing that I wanted to end up in that world, and having no idea how to do it. Even if you go to graduate school for acting, there's very little practical education there.

JA: What are your favorite onscreen performances that you would say maybe served as an inspiration for you as an actress?

ST: I'm obsessed with Marion Cotillard in La Vie en rose- I think it's the best female performance I've ever seen. I also love Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love- which is my all time favorite film, even though I don't speak Mandarin. It's the subtleties and the artistry in the way that film is shot, and the acting.

JA: Something I am really excited to ask you about is working with J.J. Abrams on the new Star Trek film.

ST: J.J. Abrams is just a wonderful human being! I only got to work with him on the one day that we shot, I had met him earlier during the week that we did the whole makeup test- it took me six hours to get into hair and makeup the first time. There's was a problem where they wanted me to put in these earrings, which would have required me to have these fake ears put on, and they weren't sure if that would work. J.J. was so funny talking about how long it had taken to get the whole look down saying, "It looks beautiful enough as it is."

In the actual shoot it felt more like modeling because I wasn't speaking very much, he said "you're very good at this whole 'imagining' world." He encouraged me to be really free. I just really enjoyed the opportunity to work with him- he seems to understand actors really well, and that's just from one day of working with him. Speaking to the other actors on set was fun, like Chris Pine who was always singing this Star Trek rap that the actors had made up in the hair and makeup trailer. Everyone seemed to be really into the whole process, which was really cool to be witness to and slightly a part of.

JA: How did you end up cast in that role, and what was the audition process like?

ST: Basically they just told me to pretend that I hadn't seen the love of my life in a really long time. When i was cast and met one of the producer's I just said 'thank you' because I'd gone my whole life hearing "beam me up, Scottie"- also people always said I looked like an alien. He said "Exactly! That's why you're perfect for this role!"

JA: What is some of the best advice you've heard when it comes to achieving success in this business?

ST: Make your own luck. I'm still understanding what that means. You can't just sit around waiting because there's a lot of people just sitting around waiting for the same thing, and at some point you have to take the bull by the horns in whatever way you know how to do.

JA: You mentioned Godard earlier, and I'm curious as to what your favorite films of his are.

ST: Bande à part- I love Anna Karina! And of course À bout de souffle , it's a classic. I just saw that Le mépris was re-released a year and a half ago and I went to see that on the big screen, which was stunning to watch.

JA: Did you ever see Pierrot le fou?

ST: I did, and it's so funny that you mention that! I had to watch it for a directing class I did in college, and it was just so insane, it was so awesome!

JA: I love that he straps the dynamite to his head!

ST: Is that your favorite?

JA: That's definitely my favorite of Godard's.

ST: I've got to watch that one again, there's just so much to take in. The artistic director at Harvard once told me that it was the best movie any director could ever study and look at, in his estimation. So it must say something about that whole world quite well if that's your top choice.

JA: Do you have a dream list of directors you want to work with?

ST: Gus Van Sant, Wong Kar-wai, and Sarah Polley. I have a lot of admiration for Sarah Polley and what she's done in her young career. Also Jason Reitman- I tend to inhabit darker characters and I really want to do comedy.

JA: Let's talk about the show that you are in right now on NBC, Trauma, which is on Monday nights at 9/8c; how did you become involved in the series?

ST: I auditioned and tested for it, and then it sort of became different from what it initially was.
JA: Has it been announced yet whether or not it has been picked up for more episodes?

ST: We're actually not sure, it's kind of on the edge right now. We're continuing filming- in fact I am going back up there tonight, we start the next episode tomorrow. So we'll see... fingers crossed!

JA: It's amazing the shows that get picked up and the ones that don't- it shocked me that the new David E. Kelley series wasn't picked up by the network, it seems the best series always end too soon. Hopefully that's not the case with this show because it's really a great series.

ST: Yeah, I know- and this is definitely a big budget investment. There's a lot of crazy thinking and things that happen on a weekly basis.

JA: A lot of the people involved on the show are such big names, including writer Peter Noah from The West Wing and composer Bear McCreary from Battlestar Galactica.

ST: I know that Dario Scardapane and Jeff Reiner are both huge music people, so I know they are very involved in the choice of music.

JA: So tell me more about being on the set and shooting the episodes.

ST: Because I am back and forth, I'm not there as much. I'm only in the hospital scenes. It's interesting because they go out and film in these crazy wild setups- and I'm in more of the calm, composed atmosphere as opposed to the other scenes throughout the episodes. The character of Diana is very new to it all and insecure in what she's trying to do, and even though she knows a lot, she doesn't actually know how to apply that knowledge yet. It's cool that she can be in that phase in terms of the structure of the show.

JA: Did you know anything about the medical field prior to playing this character?

ST: Not particularly- my little sister just started medical school, so I've been following her progress in that area. But no, I wasn't a math, biology, or science person in school. I think in terms of the humanity of the character and the passion she has for what she does that I certainly didn't have to stretch too far because that relates to what I do in my life. Thankfully we have ER doctors on the set advising us, and many of the extras are nurses- which is nice, because there's a lot of technical jargon.

JA: Do you prefer acting for film or television?

ST: I like that film trusts you to not rely so heavily on dialogue, and I like exploring the beginning/middle/ and end that is there in the time frame of a film. This is my first exploration of a character in television that is not just a guest spot, and that's a whole new understanding because you don't necessarily know where your character is going to end up- you get to create the character's background, and it's new for me to consistently develop a character that way.

I've always been a film fan, but television has been very kind to me, and I appreciate it.

JA: Do you have a list of favorite television shows?

ST: I grew up never watching television... aside from NOVA on PBS. I'm currently obsessed with Mad Men and 30 Rock. I just think Tina Fey is so incredibly talented and brilliant.

JA: And finally, if you had to sum up your career with one word what would it be?

ST: I know it's cliche, but "Roller Coaster".