The Shift Interview: John Billingsley On His New Sci-Fi Movie & Experience With Star Trek

Screen Rant interviews John Billingsley about his new sci-fi film The Shift and whether he thinks Dr. Phlox from Enterprise could return to Star Trek.

edited image of john billingsley and kristoffer polaha in the shift


  • John Billingsley stars in the new sci-fi movie, The Shift, alongside Kristoffer Polaha and Neal McDonough.
  • In The Shift, Billingsley plays Russo, the owner of a theater in an alternate universe, where a portal allows Kevin to see into other universes.
  • Billingsley discusses his role in The Shift, fan perception of Star Trek: Enterprise, and his involvement in charitable causes.

John Billingsley is best known to Star Trek: Enterprise fans as Dr. Phlox, and he stars in the new sci-fi movie, The Shift. A multiversal adaptation of The Book of Job, The Shift stars Kristoffer Polaha and Neal McDonough, who plays a Devil-like figure called The Benefactor.

In The Shift, John Billingsley plays Russo, who owns a theater in the totalitarian alternate universe that Kevin (Polaha) is banished to by The Benefactor. Russo’s theater contains a portal that lets Kevin see into other universes, and he uses it to find Molly, his wife from his world whom Kevin strives to reunite with.

Star Trek: Enterprise Cast & Character Guide

Star Trek: Enterprise introduced new faces to the prequel series set a century before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series.

Screen Rant had the pleasure to chat in-depth with John Billingsley about The Shift, how fan perception of Star Trek: Enterprise has changed, if Dr. Phlox can return to Star Trek on Paramount+, and the two charitable causes Billingsley is part of, the Hollywood Food Coalition and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Screen Rant: We’re gonna talk a little bit about Star Trek, but we’re really here to talk about your new movie, The Shift.

John Billingsley: My new movie. I like the sound of that.

I really enjoyed it. At first, I wasn’t sure about an adaptation about the Book of Job, but I thought was really well done.

John Billingsley: I think this is always the challenge when you’ve got a complicated twisty sci-fi movie, that when all is said and done, and you start showing it to people, the focus groups get pulled between ‘doesn’t make sense’ and ‘needs to be faster.’ I think they decided that they had to worry more about propulsion sometimes than clarity. So there are bits and pieces that I recall from the script that had to go that might have made it a little easier to follow portions of it. But that’s the trade-off, I think. I mean, you can’t watch a Christopher Nolan movie half the time [without going] ‘Wait, what? What’s happening?’ So I had two reactions as I was watching it: I thought the performances were terrific. And I loved the guy who played the lead. I thought he did a marvelous job. And I was also like, ‘What?’ I’m not clear what happened and I read the script. What’s going on there? Like, why is there that guy who’s crossing the bridge and everybody’s lined up, and he gets shot in the back? What was that about? So some of the cuts, I think, might have clarified that.

Kristoffer Polaha is really charismatic. I saw him in A Biltmore Christmas, the movie he did with Jonathan Frakes for Hallmark with Robert Picardo. That was really fun. And I thought he and Neal McDonough were great together.

John Billingsley: I did, too. And I thought [Elizabeth Tabish], who played his wife, was wonderful. And I really think what made the movie work is that you have to believe that this is one of those love affairs for the ages and that they’re meant to be together. And in the small amount of screen time they have to establish the intensity of that bond, I thought they did a really lovely job. They kept a sense of humor about it, it was playful, it was warm. You really believe this is a guy who would devote his entire life to try and figure out how to get back to his wife.

Absolutely. So what drew you into singing onto The Shift?

John Billingsley: Well, much as I wish that I was the kind of actor who would just be fielding offers right, left and center, that ain’t my reality. So one, it was an offer, which doesn’t come around all that much. Two, they were willing to pay me a not insubstantial amount of money. It fit my schedule, and I liked the part, and I liked the script. I’m an atheist. As soon as I heard it was a movie that was religiously inflected, I thought, well, this may not be for me. But I, like you, thought as a retelling of the Book of Job story, it didn’t lean so heavily on the theological to make it unpersuasive to an audience such as myself. And I thought the sci-fi hook was really arresting, I love the idea that there is a universe full of alternate yous. And then you can find a way to watch them and kind of see what the other yous are up to. I thought that the idea that I could kind of open that window into a universe was kind of intriguing.

I liked your whole movie theater set, and reminded me a little bit of A Clockwork Orange, but not torture to watch that screen and see other universes.

John Billingsley: It’s cool, yeah. Some of those bits got chopped a little bit. So I’m not quite sure the setup was entirely clear, what [the theater] is. There was a reference, for instance, that I know didn’t make it into the movie, that my character is beginning to get the idea that this is all a setup, that the devil wants people to come in and see the alternate versions of themselves in this dark, miserable, sh*tty world so that we all will only think that life is only dark, sh*tty and miserable. I missed that beat in the storytelling.

The theater itself, which I think is a really cool story, is an old Masonic Temple in Birmingham, Alabama, and one that was devoted to serving the needs of the African-American community. So it was where Martin Luther King met when he and the Freedom Riders were planning on how to handle some of the Birmingham-centric civil rights actions. In the basement, you can find the pool table where Martin Luther King played pool while he was relaxing in between meetings. That was fabulous. Just the nature of being in an old historical building like that with all those associations was very cool. I also got bronchitis so that was a drawback. It was as dusty a set as you’ll ever meet.

Oh man. Well, that is very, very cool, except for the bronchitis. Were you given any backstory about your character, Russo? Who he might be in other universes? Or did you make it up yourself?

John Billingsley: That’s an interesting question that I never thought of. Who is he in other universes? He seems to me like the heroin dealer who doesn’t take heroin. I don’t get the impression that he is particularly comfortable looking into that portal. I don’t think he wants to see. I think his attitude towards other people is, ‘I’ll supply it, but a pox on it.’ And in that sense, I think one of the great tragedies of this guy’s life, and probably the tragedy of this world, is that there are a lot of people who are stuck in a role that they desperately wish they did not have to be stuck in anymore. In my own backstory, he and his wife had a lovely movie theater back in the day, and they showed revivals, and it was great. And then after she died, and after the catastrophe occurs on this world, he’s left doing this, which he hates, but he has no way out.

Oh, that’s interesting. Has there been any talk of a sequel? Would you sign on for another?

John Billingsley: I’d happily do another. No, there has not been any talk of a sequel. You could certainly see the nature of the idea that there are a gajillion opportunities for any one person to bop around in time and space, certainly as a jumping-off point. I, personally, wouldn’t be as keen on putting poor Kris through the wringer again. Job Again! Job 2! That seems unfair to poor Job.

Well, it happens a lot to movie heroes. Bruce Willis got attacked by terrorists multiple times on Christmas.

John Billingsley: And that’s why I could never go back and watch Die Hard 2. It’s like, hasn’t he suffered enough? His feet haven’t healed, for God’s sake.

Phlox Enterprise Sickbay

I’d love to talk a little bit about Enterprise. I still prefer to call it Enterprise.

John Billingsley: I used to call it The Show That Killed the Franchise. But fortunately, the franchise revitalized itself. And now it’s found a new home in the streaming world so people aren’t quite as catty about it as they were when it was originally on the air. We were not a popular show during the day.

I really did enjoy the show. I was one of those people who was on board since the beginning. I mean, I felt like the show could have been grittier.

John Billingsley: Exactly. Yeah, I’ll tell you a story because that was my feeling too. As for what the setup was, I think, and so many voices in the television industry kind of pour into your ear – ‘We want this, we want that’, ‘We don’t want this, we don’t want that’ – there was an early episode — I thought the premise of we’re scared… nobody wants to use a transporter is great. I love that idea. I wish we’d gone farther with it. There was an episode early on when I would kind of have a little ear to the ground to kind of find out what the scripts were because I wasn’t always used, and I wanted to cherry-pick and go find other gigs if I was gonna be off for a week. So I read the first draft of an episode and a crewman… They don’t like to use a transporter, but they did this once. A crewman comes back in his head is where his ass should be. It’s like, I love that. So by the time it gets to the final script, the one we ended up shooting, he’s beamed back [and] there’s a twig sticking out of his ear. Oh dear. The doctor will just cut that off. And I thought that crystallized what I thought the mistake was of the show, to your point, that it didn’t really trust the terror of this journey. I leeched people. I loved the fact that my character was somebody who actually was just short of being a witch doctor. Bubble Bubble, toil and trouble. And then relatively soon it was the usual hypo spray. You have cancer? You’re cured! Which I thought was one of the things that I wish the show had kind of been able to steer away from.

Yeah, I did feel like they leaned very, very heavily into the old, comforting formula, and tried to make it very close to TNG as possible. And it really hurt the original premise, which is that this was a rugged frontier ship. And you were out there all alone. And you really shouldn’t have made it back.

John Billingsley: Exactly. I know. I had exactly the same feeling. I think, in a way, now the challenge has been met, and successfully. In a streaming world, you have a lot more latitude than you did on network television. And there are multiple iterations of Trek. So the individual shows can take certain risks that maybe we couldn’t. As the only show [at the time] representing Star Trek, there were too many people who were basically on some level saying ‘You can’t go too far away from the formula.’ I mean, I always liked Robert Altman movies. To me, I would have loved it if it had been like overlapping dialogue. If there had been a sense of, I mean, in a clusterf*ck situation, when everybody’s scared, to me, the idea is suddenly the hierarchy and the protocol gets overwritten by people… I wanted more [arguing, people talking over each other] too.

Enterprise is clean. It was a clean show, as Star Trek always is clean. The episodes that are great on Star Trek, to me, still always do something really wonderful. They figure out how to present a conundrum that is usually rooted in ethics and science, and explore it from a variety of different viewpoints while making sure that you have a fast-moving story with some tension. When we pulled that off, we were good. When we didn’t quite, when episodes felt like there wasn’t really a hook. I thought we were sometimes fairly flat.

As you said, for a lot of years, Enterprise was known as The Show That Killed the Franchise. But now, people have come around to it. A lot of fans in the last few years are now on board with Enterprise. You are now fondly remembered legacy characters.

John Billingsley: How about that? I know. And I think, in part, that’s because we didn’t kill the franchise. So some of the disaffection that attached was, “Oh, look, we handed you the keys to dad’s car and your crumpled the fender.” Now that people have a way of looking back at it with nostalgia, it’s another in a long line of Star Trek shows. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, but there’s not as much perfervid energy attached. I remember early on, this was after 9/11 when we premiered. And obviously, that was, both pro and con, a seminal influence on the development of our show. But there were people picketing at the Paramount lot a couple of weeks after 9/11. And I drove up thinking, ‘Oh, dear, what] does Paramount have to do with 9/11? What it was going on?’ And turned out they were picking about the theme song. ‘We hate the Enterprise theme song! We hate the Enterprise theme song!’ One, it made me really appreciate how passionate fans can be. And two, I thought, ‘Oh, there are things about this show that are not well received.’ And still to this day, people are most likely to say they hated the theme song and they hated the finale. I like the theme song, I’m with them on the finale.

I personally cover Enterprise at Screen Rant, and I’m always advocating I’m always advocating for you guys to come back into the new shows. Are you waiting for a call to return as Dr. Phlox?

John Billingsley: I think I’d be the only person still living. Plus, even if they decide Dr. Phlox isn’t around, Dr. Phlox’s son, Phil Phlox. I’ve been signing my name Phil Phlox for years in hopes that that will eventually become canon. I’d be delighted to come back. In fact, on the picket line, I was having some conversations with some of the writers on Strange New Worlds. And I can’t remember whether or not I’ve spoken to Terry [Matalas] about this, but I was definitely saying, “Yeah, Dr. Phlox is still out there.” I’ll put the old rubber head on.

Parenthetically, one of the things that I’ve been doing for the last few years, because I do a lot of charity work, I volunteer for an organization called the Hollywood Food Coalition. We do something called TrekTalks every year, on January 13, which is a digital fundraising telethon. We have eight hours of panels with different guests. And it has been a great way for me to get to meet and know, some of the folks in these new iterations of Star Trek, and such wonderful, talented actors on these shows. The franchise is in good hands right now.

The cast of Star Trek Enterprise pose for a promotional image

Let’s get more into the Hollywood Food Coalition, which is such an important cause.

John Billingsley: The Hollywood Food Coalition is an organization that I’m extremely connected to. I was the board president for a number of years and helped to grow it from a small soup kitchen to a now-$6-million organization that also shares and rescues 3 million pounds of food a year with multiple constituencies. A lot of what we try and do, not only in helping people who are indigent in Los Angeles, is recognize food deserts and what systemic solutions are that allow more food and more resources to travel broadly across a lot of different areas of need. I could go on and on about this organization. It’s very dear to my heart. We’ve been doing this for a long time. Not only do we serve a hot multicourse meal every day to all comers, but the food we rescue we share with existing small not-for-profits to buttress and augment their meal programs. So it really is about coalition building, which is something very dear to my heart. And what I also love about Star Trek, why I do an event, TrekTalks, that is geared to bring Star Trek celebrities together. And why I’m also working with various scientists in the scientific community to try and bridge the gulf between the sci-fi fans, the scientists, and celebrities so that we can all kind of work together more effectively to raise money and awareness. It’s such a great community.

You’re also part of Team Trek at PanCan, fighting pancreatic cancer. I talked to Jonathan Frakes about PanCAn this year, and I talked to Armin Shimerman. I’m planning to walk with you guys in April. I’d love to hear your perspective on PanCan.

John Billingsley: Well, my mother died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70, in 1990. And from diagnosis to death, two months. This was a time when there was not a lot of awareness, which is what, in my opinion, the real virtue of this push is. If you catch it early enough, if you are cognizant that there are certain symptoms, particularly if you’ve had any kind of history of pancreatic cancer in your family that might be indicative, and you get to the doctor, the survival rate has increased fairly dramatically in large part because of the efforts of this organization. People now get to the doctor faster and doctors know what to look for faster. My mother, when she went to the doctor, she was complaining of various issues including back pain and stomach issues for months. By the time she got to the doctor, as far as he was concerned, pancreatic cancer, kiss of death, see you later.

So the nature of what this wonderful organization has fought to do is to raise awareness amongst the potential patients, amongst the medical community, while also supporting medical research that is allowing for the kinds of treatments and medical interventions that were not feasible when my mother was alive. Jonathan’s brother died of pancreatic cancer. [Armin Shimerman’s wife] Kitty [Swink] is a pancreatic cancer survivor of 20 years. And then recently, Juan Carlos Coto, whose brother Manny Coto was a writer and showrunner for Enterprise. Manny passed away recently to pancreatic cancer after, I believe, a two-year battle. And now he’s part of TeamTrek as well. We walk in the spring. PurpleStride is the walk, which takes place in 60 cities around the country. Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is the website. If you go there, and you follow the links to PurpleStride, you will find TeamTrek I am on raising money to help support the organization. I’m so proud to be part of it.

About The Shift

The Shift Movie Poster

After a tense encounter with a mysterious stranger called The Benefactor who has otherworldly powers, a man gets banished to a parallel Earth where he fights to get back to the woman he loves.

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