It’s almost impossible at the moment to turn on the television and not see Wil Wheaton. If you stop on an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ll catch him as Wesley Crusher, maybe even in one of his infamous pumpkin-colored sweaters. If you click on The Big Bang Theory, he could be there as Evil Wil Wheaton, and if you turn to Leverage, you might see him guest starring as the super-sharp hacker Chaos. And, sometime in 2011, he’ll turn up as a semi-regular on Eureka. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Wheaton – who’s now, believe it or not, 38 years old – for an extensive and frank conversation in which he talked about his days on TNG, addressed Wesley’s status as one of the more polarizing characters in Trek history, and updated us on his array of current projects as an actor, author and blogger; check out his popular site at www.wilwheaton.typepad.com. Below is part one of our interview, and be on the lookout for part two tomorrow.
How comfortable are you these days with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Wesley Crusher, and their place in your life?
Wheaton: I’m incredibly proud of the experience. It’s a huge part of who I am. I joke a lot online about how we all have had awkward teenage years. Most people are really lucky because their awkward teenage years are evidenced only in photo albums that mom pulls out at holiday gatherings to embarrass you in front of your new spouse. But for me, it played out in front of the world and it’s preserved on the pages of teen magazines and in videotapes from the old days. It’s a huge part of my life, Star Trek, and the years I spent doing the show played an enormous role in developing who I am as an adult. It was 23 years ago and I can look back on it very fondly now. It’s fun to look back on it. I watch episodes of TNG… I wrote a book about it called Memories of the Future, that’s like an episode guide to TNG. It’s part episode guide, part high school yearbook, and part an “Oh my God, I can’t believe that was cool” narrative. It’s basically a humorous look back on the first season of TNG, when we were all really struggling to find our way and the writers weren’t quite sure what the show was going to be about. There are things there that really look dated and really don’t stand the test of time. And it’s been such a delight to go back and look at all that and to use it as an excuse to call Brent (Spiner) and (Jonathan) Frakes and LeVar (Burton), and to use it as an excuse to get together and hang out and talk about these things. It’s really wonderful for me to be an adult now and look back on that experience. I can see it through the eyes of a child. I talk to Frakes about it, and he recalls it through the eyes of a 30-year-old. It’s real cool to see where our memories overlap and where our perceptions were widely divergent.
If you could have a do-over, in what ways would you have liked to have seen Wesley developed differently?
Wheaton: I always wished that they’d taken advantage of something that I was experiencing in my own life at the time. I was too smart for my own good and I was kind of precocious as a result of that. I was surrounded every day by adults who I could relate to professionally, but not really personally. At the end of the day they could all go out for drinks, and I just went home. We didn’t have a lot in common. I remember Frakes trying to get me excited about jazz and I was trying to get him excited about Depeche Mode, and we just couldn’t find common ground there. That created a lot of angst for me because I felt really conflicted. I loved these people and we were so close professionally, but personally I felt very lonely and very isolated. And I imagine that Wesley Crusher would have felt the same way and would have experienced a lot of the same feelings that I did. I think if the writers had spent some time exploring that it probably would have given Wesley some extra dimensions that would have made him appeal to a wider audience. At the same time, when we were doing TNG, we were first-run syndication and we had 42 minutes to tell a story. The stories had to be completely self-contained. There were no multi-episode arcs until the fourth season, when there were some two-parters. There was nothing at all that comes close to what you saw on Battlestar Galactica or Lost. We had nine regulars on TNG and the writers had to choose, really carefully, who they were going to write for and what kinds of stories they were going to tell. So when Ron Moore started writing for us and wrote me some really great scripts, I did what I could to really honor the gift that he gave me with those stories.
A lot of people loved Wesley, but you also took tremendous heat during TNG’s run. Despite the fact that you were just a kid playing a character written by others, those people who simply hated the character more or less took it out on you. How personally did you take the criticism?
Wheaton: I’m 38 now and I meet people all over the place, in airports, in coffee shops, at restaurants, at conventions. I meet people who grew up watching TNG, who are around my age, and they tell me how much they loved Wesley Crusher and how much they related to him. Whenever I go to anything associated with science or medicine or engineering, when I go to speak at universities, when I go to do things with NASA, I meet people who were inspired to become what they are today, working in some sort of science-based field, because they loved Wesley Crusher. So I have discovered over the years that the people who are adults now, they didn’t have access to Usenet and the Caps Lock key when they were kids. What I was hearing back in the old days were older people who were just sort of predisposed to not like a young character on a show. I think the writers could have navigated around that and made him more relatable, instead of like an idea, but they had a hard time overcoming a lot of that stuff. And when I was a kid it was very hard. It was hard not to take that personally. Kids are awkward. Kids are insecure. I spent 50 hours a week doing Star Trek when I was a kid. That was really my life. To go to conventions back then and have people criticizing me and attacking me personally instead of maybe talking about the writing, it was hurtful.
During your most recent appearance on The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon referred to Wesley as the Jar Jar Binks of the Star Trek universe. How comfortable were you with the writers calling him that? And, in general, how big a blast do you have making your appearances on the show?
Wheaton: I don’t view him as the Jar Jar Binks of the Star Trek universe. That was not my call. It’s funny. One of the things that’s great about the interactions between Sheldon and Evil Wil Wheaton is that, from Evil Wil Wheaton’s point of view, he just keeps giving Sheldon rope to hang himself. Evil Wil Wheaton builds traps and just steps back and watches Sheldon fall into them over and over and over again. Evil Wil Wheaton just delights in that. It’s the greatest thing in the world. Getting to work with an incredible, incredible actor like Jim (Parsons) is such a joy. Every time I work on Big Bang Theory, I grow a level in comedic acting because everyone who works on that show, from the writers and directors to the producers and cast, is at the top of their game. It’s like I get to go in and sub on an all-star team a few times a year.
Be on the lookout for part two tomorrow.