The NCIS: New Orleans actor—who stars with Brie Larson in the new movie musical Basmati Blues—takes a quantum leap through his decades in Hollywood.
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Bakula had previously starred on the short-lived series Gung Ho and Eisenhower & Lutz and was fresh off a lead role in the Broadway musical Romance, Romance when he auditioned to play time-traveling, body-swapping scientist Sam Beckett on Quantum Leap. "People asked, 'Why are you leaving New York? You got a Tony nomination!'" he says.
The actor dove headfirst into the trippy series costarring Dean Stockwell, and embraced embodying everything from an elderly black chauffeur to a Kiss-inspired rock-band member to a space-bound chimpanzee. "It was an overwhelming series to shoot," says Bakula, 63, who won a Golden Globe for his work on the NBC show — which ran from 1989 to 1993. "I was going from one episode to the next, spending weekends learning new skills like horseback riding or trapeze. But we were all having a blast."
The actor joined the hit CBS sitcom in 1993 (during its sixth season) as reporter Peter Hunt, who was a love interest for Candice Bergen's titular character. "The show was so smart. And I loved that there was a live audience; it felt natural to me," he says. "The cast was so gracious when I joined their company, and Candice set that tone." In fact, he has hopes of reuniting with Bergen on the upcoming revival of the series. "I didn't die. I just went off to work!" he says of his character's potential return.
After headlining the CBS crime drama Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Maria Bello and appearing in the final Major League movie, Bakula set his sights on working on Broadway director Sam Mendes' first feature film, 1999's American Beauty. "I read the script and called my agent and said, 'I'll take any part in this movie. I just want to be involved,'" says the actor, who was ultimately cast alongside Sam Robards as a gay couple living in the film's seemingly idyllic but truly troubled central neighborhood. "I really connected to the idea of 'What is going on behind our neighbors' doors? When we close the door, who are we?'" says Bakula. "I mean, I was in a movie that won a bunch of Oscars," he adds. "That's something I never imagined would happen for me!"
Bakula became a Star Trek fan watching the original TV series in reruns while in college, so he welcomed the opportunity to become a part of the mythology when he was offered the role of Jonathan Archer, the captain of Earth's first long-range interstellar ship, on Star Trek: Enterprise, which ran from 2001 to 2005. "The key, to me, was when they said the show would take place 100 years before Kirk and Spock," says Bakula. "I liked that I didn't have to follow anyone, and the idea of being the first ship in space, the Wild West of it all, and there being no Federation." And he had no fears about being embraced by the Star Trek fans. "From Quantum I understood sci-fi fans and their passion," he says. "And if they love you, then you're theirs forever."
"It was so much fun," Bakula says of working with Andre Braugher and Ray Romano on their TNT series. "It was a good bunch of guys." Critics raved about Men of a Certain Age and Bakula's performance as unemployed actor Terry, but the show never found the audience its stars had hoped for and it was canceled in 2011 after two seasons. "It was really hard to let go after just 22 episodes, it was painful," he says. "Even though it was a show about old guys, there was a really cool feeling about it."
Bakula says he initially heard about Behind the Candelabra while working with director Steven Soderbergh on the 2009 crime comedy The Informant! "There had been some talk of Candelabra, and then it went away for several years," says Bakula. "Then, out of nowhere, I got a call while I was doing a show at the Globe in San Diego." The 2013 HBO TV movie reunited Bakula with "Mr. Soderbergh" and provided him with the chance to step back in time as Bob Black, a Hollywood producer who introduces young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) to flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas). "From the first costume fitting to the end, it was a riot," he says. But it wasn't just a good time. His work on the movie scored him an Emmy nomination (an honor he'd received four times during his tenure on Quantum). "That was an unnecessary perk, but I took it!" he says, laughing. "It was really exciting to attend all the awards-season events. I hadn't been nominated in 20 years, so I got to enjoy it when it happened."
The chance to lead the latest installment of the NCIS franchise came to Bakula as he was preparing to shoot season 2 of HBO's Looking in 2014. He loved the character of Special Agent Dwayne Pride, but shooting on location in New Orleans didn't make it easy to film his scenes as entrepreneur Lynn on Looking in California. "I was shooting in Louisiana five days a week and then flying to San Francisco to shoot until the wee hours of the morning every Saturday and then flying back," he says. "It was wild." Now Bakula is more singularly focused on New Orleans and is proud of how his show has expanded the franchise's universe. "It's encased in the NCIS world—and there are certain things we do to present the procedural elements to that audience—but we've been able to branch out and make it our own. We've built a community of characters that feel authentic to the city," he says. "I love New Orleans. I just wish I had more time outside of work to explore."
Bakula shot this movie musical with Brie Larson before her Academy Award-winning turn in 2015's Room (or, as he puts it, "before Brie Larson became Brie Larson"). "It's a love card to India," Bakula says of the film, in which he plays a scientist whose daughter (Larson) gets involved in a romantic triangle while they are working in Asia. "I got to work with Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, and this spectacular group of Indian actors. They took us places and told us stories. It was the perfect way to see such an incredible, massive country. I'm awed by my whole experience."