6:00am PT by Phil Pirrello
"It Was a Devastating Day:" How 'Star Trek' Actor Crafted Surprising Scene
[This episode contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard, season one, episode seven.]
RIP, Hugh. Jonathan Del Arco’s Third of Five, a former Borg (or "Ex-B") that Picard helped free from his nemesis’ collective 28 years ago in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "I, Borg," was killed in "Nepenthe," the seventh episode of Star Trek: Picard. And in a tragic dose of irony, the fan-favorite character died aboard that from which he was set free — a Borg cube — moments after helping his liberator escape.
Star Trek fans are on the verge of obsessive behavior (reference!) when it comes to all things Hugh, and this was not lost on the actor when The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke to him about Hugh’s impact on the franchise and how lucky he was to shoot Hugh’s final moments the way he did — which he learned was coming much later than one would expect.
"I didn’t know until I was almost getting ready to shoot it," Del Arco revealed. Whereas actors on shows like Game of Thrones had more advanced warning on being told when their characters were going to sign off permanently, Del Arco actually liked getting the head’s up when he did.
"It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know way early because, the moment I did find out — which, of course, I was upset — it actually ended up liberating my work quite a bit. I mean, I was able to prepare — there were phone calls with [executive producer] Michael [Chabon] and everyone early on — but basically, I realized I had X amount of scenes and moments in which to work and do all the things I wanted to do with the character. And take some risks as an actor. And so, in a way, it was helpful, because, like when you know your character is going to die — the way humans know they are going to die in real life — you kind of live for the moment. And that’s what I was able to do building up to the scene."
Hugh’s death scene took place on a very emotionally taxing day that brought with it some physical pain as well.
"I got a cornea scratch from the contact lens I was wearing," Del Arco explained, "so I was basically not supposed to be on set that day at all. But we had to get it done, though I was kind of blind. I couldn’t really see anything."
Despite the eye injury and the drama of the scenes, Del Arco said he was able to find comfort in between takes by listening to music. But the scene that arguably proved more tasking on him, however, was that which leads up to Hugh’s actual death — where the Executive Director of the Borg Reclamation Project is forced to silently, painfully, watch the duplicitous Narissa execute his fellow "Ex-B’s" as she interrogates him for Picard and Soji’s location. Tonally, the cold-blooded executions feel more out of a drama like Schindler’s List, and not Star Trek, with the former providing a certain historical context that Del Arco tapped into for his performance.
"The bulk of my research for the show, actually, was on Holocaust survivors. I listened to hours of interviews with survivors, and researched the psychology of survivors — and, having lived through the AIDS crisis, and watching friends die — I used my experience there as well. It was a devastating day to shoot."
As emotionally grueling as the scene was, which the actor shot during a seven-hour period, Del Arco gave each take everything he had.
"I definitely had a couple of martinis on the way home," Del Arco said, jokingly. "I have very few lines in that scene — Narissa has all the dialogue — so I’m mostly reactive. It wasn’t scripted for me to sob at all at that point, but I did it — and every single time we had to shoot that scene, I lost my shit."
The episode’s director, Doug Aarniokoski, was concerned for his actor — especially since Del Arco gave 100 percent even when he was off-camera. And while he appreciated the director’s mindfulness there, Del Arco was "superstitious that that energy was going to go away, that level of performance, so I wanted to ‘stay in the zone.’ And then we shot the remaining final two scenes." Del Arco also remarked how grateful he was that the production scheduled his scenes in sequence, so that his death would be his final one, as some shows do not always accommodate that.
What wasn’t fun, Del Arco admits, was ultimately having to say goodbye to a character he has played for almost 30 years — he was the only Next Generation guest star actor to be asked back (so far) to be on Picard.
But being able to complete his character’s arc was among Del Arco’s favorite experiences of his time in Star Trek.
"Another that really stands out for me — and I know is sort of one of the iconic scenes in Star Trek history, a favorite of fans — is the one with me and Sir Patrick [Stewart] in [Picard’s Ready Room] from 'I, Borg,' where Hugh recognizes him as Locutus. And another would be reuniting with Patrick [on Picard] for our first scene together in years. I’ll always cherish those and my friendship with Patrick."
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard are available Thursdays on CBS All Access.