Wil Wheaton

Wil Wheaton is best known for his role as brainy prodigy Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but over the last few years, he's found an unlikely niche as a celebrity blogger par excellence. Other celebrities have kept web-logs, but few have matched the candor and self-deprecating wit of Wheaton's posts to wilwheaton.net, which explore subject matter both universal (parenting, losing a relative) and not-so-universal (getting cut from the latest Star Trek movie). A veteran of television commercials, Wheaton caught his big break when he was cast alongside fellow child stars Jerry O'Connell, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman in the Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me. The Next Generation gig followed, as did a sharp backlash against his character. Wheaton left the series before it completed its long and profitable run, and briefly left show business altogether for a computer job in Kansas, but he eventually returned both to acting and to California. He's subsequently appeared in a string of low-budget movies, guested at science-fiction conventions, written for and co-hosted the video-game-themed G4 network's signature show Arena, and performed with a sketch-comedy group. Currently, he's working on a book documenting his evolution from child star to celebrity netizen. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Wheaton about Star Trek, the perils of child stardom, and his work with the Arsenio Hall side project Chunky A.

The Onion: When you were growing up as a child actor, did you sense that what you were doing wasn't what kids normally did?

Wil Wheaton: Yeah. I clearly remember being in fourth or fifth grade and not wanting to go on auditions, and wanting to play with kids, and really feeling like I was different. Even when I was little and going on auditions, it was clear who was there because they wanted to be there, and who was there because their stage parents were making them be there. There was a major difference. The ones I became friends with didn't necessarily go there because their parents were forcing them, but because it was something they wanted to do. You could see the little kids who wanted to be movie stars, or whose parents wanted them to be movie stars, and I didn't want to hang out with them. Even when I was little, people would always ask me if I wanted to be a movie star, and I would always say, "No, I just want to be an actor." I remember becoming aware of that distinction right around the time Stand By Me became a big deal. Right around that time, I decided that I didn't really want the fame; I just wanted to keep working and do good movies.

O: Did you have any idea that Stand By Me would become a phenomenon?

WW: When I first auditioned for it, it was just another audition. If you look back at the early '80s, I auditioned for every big movie that had a young person in it. Me, Keith Coogan, Sean Astin, Peter Billingsley, and Jeremy Licht all auditioned for everything. Billingsley played Ralphie in A Christmas Story. I auditioned for that movie.

O: You could have been a good Ralphie.

WW: I had such a blast on that audition. I can see it now. It was raining and cold the day we did it, and I stepped in a puddle on the way there. I went with my dad, and my dad never took me on auditions when I was a kid. I remember seeing Peter there, and at the time, Peter was Messy Marvin, the Hershey's syrup kid, so he was like a major celebrity to us, a big deal. He got that, and then Sean got Goonies and River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke got Explorers. But at the time, it was just another audition. I remember my mom telling me that it was a big deal to be reading for Rob Reiner, and I had to be aware of the seriousness of that. I went in and did my little thing and had a really good time, and they told me before I left that they were going all over the country looking for people. So it was a couple months before Rob Reiner came back, and in the interim, I had some really unpleasant experiences going on auditions, and doing a couple of things where directors had demanded lots and lots of emotion, and lots of crying and stuff. I was 12 at the time, so I was at the age where it's kind of not cool for a boy to cry. I just felt a little awkward about it. To go back further, when I was really young, my parents took me to an acting class. It was a one-on-one acting workshop, and I remember my parents telling me that the guy running it was a really big deal, so I was supposed to cower in front of him. So the guy's in one of those one-piece unitard things, and his studio was like a creepy one-room place that was a walk-up on top of a deli, so it smelled real weird. The guy asks me if I have any questions, so I say, "What do you do if you have to cry for a movie?" And the guy says, "Oh, well, they'll just put some onion juice in your eyes." That just terrified me. I was terrified. So a couple years after that, I did a movie called The Shooting, and in the movie, my character has to cry a lot. I remember they were going to put smelling salts or something under my eyes to help them tear up, and I thought, "God, here comes the onion juice," and I immediately burst into tears. Every time the director said, "Bring in the ammonia," I'd immediately begin to cry. Anyway, so I go to the second audition for Stand By Me, and I'm getting ready to do the scene where River and I are with the body, and Gordie is crying about his brother. I say something like, "I'm kind of nervous about crying," or "I'm not real comfortable crying at an audition," or something like that, and they're like, "Um, uh..." And I finish my audition and leave. Well, apparently, Rob Reiner turned around and told everybody, "We can't hire this kid if he's not going to cry for the movie. It's a big deal." So Ray Gideon, one of the screenwriters, comes out and tells me, "Go back in and tell him you were kidding. If you don't do it, you're going to lose the job." So I went back in and said I could do it, and somehow I managed to save it. At the time of the audition, I didn't think [Stand By Me] was going to be a big deal. After a couple of weeks working on the movie, I was convinced that we were working on something special, and that it was going to be a big deal. I had no idea that it was going to become the mini-phenomenon that it was that summer, but we all knew we were working on something really fun and cool. Everything felt right about it. The script was extremely well-written. Rob Reiner cast four young boys who were—in their essences, in their souls—the characters they played. It's weird that now that we're all grown up, River's dead, I'm a writer, and Corey does odd jobs in the acting world, kind of like his character did odd jobs around Castle Rock in the movie. The only one who didn't have his future predicted for him was Jerry, because he grew up to be this really good-looking guy who works all the time.

O: Did you have an idea at the time what divergent paths your careers and lives would take?

WW: Not really. When you get a group of kids together, especially boys, the psychology of those kids requires that they find a weak kid or a sensitive kid or a soft kid. Someone's going to get picked on, and that was me. I was really sensitive, and it was easy to make me cry. I was extremely insecure and awkward. They all ganged up on me and teased me a lot, throughout the entire production, so I wasn't extremely close to them. At the time, I did interviews, and of course I liked them. I didn't like Corey, but I liked River and Jerry. Jerry was funny, and I thought River was really cool. At the time, I was encouraged by publicists to make our friendship more than what it was. I still get e-mails from people who read in their 1986 Teen Beat almanac that we were best friends, that sort of thing. We were as close as the dynamic would allow. I don't know about Jerry, but River and Corey were kind of experimenting with pot and stuff when they were working on the movie. I wasn't privy to any of that.

O: Was there a hierarchy among child actors when you started out?

WW: Definitely. There's this whole scene, this sort of JonBenet-esque scene that surrounds child actors, and I was never really a part of that. Apparently there used to be this hangout called Alfie's Soda Shop, or something like that, where young movie stars were encouraged to go. I think teen magazines would hold contests where you could go there and hang out with the cast of Silver Spoons. I never was into that. It just felt weird to me, and I didn't feel like I fit in. I spent a lot of my childhood not fitting in, in a lot of different ways.

O: Do you find that other former child stars have a sense of humor about themselves and their experiences?

WW: Usually. I think you have to. Either you have a sense of humor about it, or you're in rehab. There's not a lot of gray area. Some kids did a little acting when they were young, and then they went to college. For other kids, they worked like crazy when they were kids, and then they struggled and struggled, and now they're all turning 30 and just starting to try to find something else to do with their life. The only real strong commonality is that we all went to the same places. We all knew the same people. If you see an actor in his 30s who did commercials during the 1980s, you can talk about this kid named Scooter Stevens. He's in Better Off Dead. He plays the little brother who buys the rocket device. Well, Scooter's mom—I don't know how old she was, but she looked like she was in her 40s—she would go to these auditions in these incredibly low-cut, garish evening gowns. They were extremely loud, sparkly things, and she always wore these bouffant wigs. If you asked any kid from Los Angeles who went on commercial auditions for any period of time from 1979 to 1982, they'll probably remember Scooter's mom. They'll probably remember Bobby and Billy Jacoby's mom, who screamed obscenities at all the auditions. I remember them getting into an elevator with me when I was 9 or 10, and I remember her yelling at Bobby, "I can't believe I have you for a son!" because he hadn't done well at an audition. Those were all common experiences that we could all talk about and laugh about now.

O: How did you end up on Star Trek: The Next Generation?

WW: After Stand By Me, we were all sort of a big deal for a short period of time. They were casting for a new Star Trek, and there's a writer named David Gerrold, who's a well-known science-fiction writer who had written a number of episodes of the original Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry tapped him to help develop Star Trek: The Next Generation. Originally, Wesley Crusher was supposed to be Leslie Crusher, a girl. Let me tell you something: I certainly never got teased about that. So Gerrold sent a memo to Gene. I have a copy of it somewhere, because he saw me at a convention a while ago and said, "I think you might like to have this." It says, "I think we might want to consider turning Leslie Crusher into a boy, and I think you should look at this young actor Wil Wheaton, from Stand By Me. He's a great actor, and he'd be a great addition to your cast." And Gene said, "Yeah!" There was another guy, Bob Justman, who was cheerleading for me, so I went in for an audition. It's kind of intimidating meeting Gene Roddenberry—it was like meeting Arthur C. Clarke or somebody—but he was a great guy, and I ended up getting the job.

O: Did it enter your mind that the role might determine the course of your career?

WW: No, it never did, not even when I was working on the show. The whole time, I just figured, "This is great, I'm loving this, and when it's over I'll go do something else, and I'm going to be a successful actor for my whole life." It never occurred to me that those things would change. It never occurred to me that there was even a chance of that happening.

O: When did you realize that a lot of people were going to see you as Wesley Crusher?

WW: This interesting thing happened when I was 15 or 16. A bunch of us were invited to go on a Star Trek cruise. Everybody kind of snorts derisively when they hear about them, but I think Star Trek cruises are cool. I go on this thing, and all these original-series cast members start coming up. They're all sort of walking toward the boat, and it was the first time I'd really seen all of them. I just know of them as these legendary figures, these kind of mythological figures who have been spoken about in hushed tones. I'd been on The Next Generation for about a year at this point, and it had been made very clear to me that Star Trek is a big deal. The enormity of the Star Trek universe was beginning to settle in for me, so I was beginning to understand exactly what it means to be part of it. I'd been to a couple of Star Trek conventions before that, so I knew what that experience was like, as well. We're all kind of waiting to get on the boat. I'm excited, it's about 9 in the morning, and here comes Scotty, drunk as shit, staggering across the dock. He looks terrible. Now, I know Jimmy Doohan, and I adore him. I think he's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. His son and my brother are very good friends. I'm not saying this to be derisive to him at all. But at the time, I see this guy who's Scotty, and he doesn't look good. Then comes Uhura: Nichelle Nichols comes over the dock the same way, just not looking good. I begin to think, "What?" And here comes Chekov: Once again, I know Walter Koenig, I adore Walter, and his kids are both very good friends of mine. But Walter comes across, and he looks pissed. He looks furious. Then comes Grace Lee Whitney, who was Yeoman Rand on the original Star Trek, and she's holding her head up high, like she's trying not to make eye contact with anybody. I'm 15, and I say to myself, "Oh my fucking God, it's the ghost of Christmas yet to come." I turn to whoever I'm with and say, "I have to get the hell off of Star Trek." They say, "Why? Star Trek's great." And I say, "I don't want to be 30 years old, walking to the Star Trek convention hoping that somebody will remember me for what I did as a teenager." When I was 15, that made a lot of sense to me. I didn't really talk about it with anyone. I didn't sit down and say, "Let's do some pros and cons here." I just felt like, "Man, I can't do this." The agents I had at the time didn't want me on Star Trek either. They weren't really making any money from it, and it had gotten in the way of me doing some big movies.

O: Like what?

WW: A movie called Valmont. I was Milos Forman's pick to go to France and be in the movie. Star Trek wouldn't let me be gone for a week. Valmont was shot mostly over hiatus, but they told me the Trek episode we started with was all about Wesley Crusher. They couldn't work around it, so I had to pass on the movie. Well, a couple of days before we're supposed to begin, they change the schedule, shot the second episode first, and wrote me out of it. So I could have done the movie. I was very upset about that, and my agents really took advantage of it. I got what I call Iago-style advice from a lot of people. They were like, "You need to get off of Star Trek. Star Trek is bad." And I was like, [adopts bratty adolescent voice] "Yeah, it's terrible, I hate it. Star Trek sucks!" They took advantage of my youthful arrogance and my trust in them. That process had begun when I was standing on that dock looking at the original cast. Nobody ever said to me, "You can do Star Trek. You can ride Star Trek out for a long time. You can build up a nest egg and be part of this franchise, part of this merchandising blitz, all that shit. And then you can still do other stuff." It never occurred to me that you could be part of a big TV or film franchise and still do other stuff, but I don't know how many 15- or 16-year-olds think of that anyway. So I made a lot of effort, starting at that time, to get out of the show and do other things. Of course, as soon as I was free from it, I was 18 or 19, and I looked around and said, "Oh my God, I'm not doing anything right now! I can shave my head. I can pierce my face. I can get fat. I can do whatever I want." Because my entire life, I had been living the life of an actor, where you have to look a certain way, and you have to maintain a certain appearance. Goddammit, man, once I was free from that, I went nuts. I turned down film roles and didn't show up for auditions. I behaved very unprofessionally. What it all came down to was, you talked earlier about kids wanting to have a childhood... Well, I went and had one then.

O: Did you get something out of your system?

WW: Absolutely. At the time, I didn't like myself. When I was 18 or 19, I was really arrogant. I was kind of brash and cocksure, and I didn't listen to anyone. I was kind of a dick. If I had not left Star Trek and the entertainment industry, I probably would have continued down that road to being a huge dick. I would have alienated people who cared, and the only people who would have stuck around would have been those horrible people who follow around movie stars—who stick around until your star starts to fade, and then move on to the next one. The Kato Kaelins.

O: What did you do after that?

WW: I went to live in Kansas for a while. I figured that was about as far from Hollywood as I could possibly get, both geographically and culturally. Being out there, I got a chance to be completely removed from everything I'd been around my entire life. I could look at myself and see who I was and compare that to who I wanted to be. I worked for a computer company and helped develop a product called the Video Toaster 4000. It was sort of the product that began the desktop video-editing thing. It was really fun for me. I've always loved technology and computers, and I've always loved sitting down in front of a terminal for hours and making something neat happen. It was exciting to me to sit down with those things and make what I thought was a decentralizing tool.

O: There's an idea in popular culture that if someone is in a big movie or on a hit TV show, they're set for life.

WW: Well, I still run into that. People think that because I was on TV, I've got millions of dollars and a huge house and several cars and servants. And I don't. I live a very modest lifestyle. I'm definitely not an acting trust-fund baby. I was in a car accident a few years ago, and as soon as we got out of the cars, the woman in the other car looked at me, and I could tell immediately that she recognized me as this kid from Star Trek. She suddenly developed all these pains, and I totally called shenanigans on her. I was like, "Lady, you're not hurt and I'm not rich, so don't even bother."

O: Were you surprised by the hostility people directed at your character on Star Trek?

WW: Yes. I really was. At the time, I took it all personally, and felt it was all directed completely at me. I felt defensive, I felt hurt, I felt embarrassed. I didn't understand why they were like that. A lot of people wouldn't like this fictional character on a television show, so they assumed that the person who played that character was a horrible shmuck, as well. I ran up against that like crazy, and I still do. I got an e-mail yesterday from someone who said, "I have to apologize to you. I had no idea you were a real person." I get that all the time. "I had no idea that you had these feelings, that you cared about things, that things made you sad or that you struggled." I get that all the time: "I had no idea you were just like me."

O: Why do you think people reacted so strongly?

WW: There are a lot of reasons. The strongest—these are all ideas that people been presented to me over the years—was this one guy who said, "I wanted to be suave like Riker. I wanted to be neat like Data. I wanted to be commanding and respected like Picard. But I was a weenie. I was a weenie kid, I was too smart for my own good, and I was surrounded by adults who didn't respect me. I was Wesley. I wanted to be these other guys, but I was Wesley. So when I saw Wesley, it reminded me that I wasn't who I wanted to be. I hated Wesley because of that. I hated him because I saw myself in him." I've heard that a lot. I've also heard from people, "I hated Wesley because all the girls that I liked had a crush on him." I heard that a lot. And I'm like, "Yeah, baby, sweet. Whoo-hoo, give it up for daddy." And then there are also these people who are upset that this young kid seemed to be as smart as the adults around him. I think it's a combination of those things. Personally, I was really disappointed in the way they wrote him. Some of the writers wrote great stories for him, and some of the writers really grabbed on to this idea that Wesley was this super-smart kid, and they used that as their deus ex machina. Wesley became a plot device and not a character. What was going on with me—Wil Wheaton the person—at the time was exactly what should have been going on with Wesley Crusher the character. Wesley was smart enough to hold his own with his peers. He was a good Starfleet officer who could do all this stuff. I feel like such a fucking dork saying that. But I was a good enough actor to hold my own with some very good actors. I was comfortable, and I had these skills, and all that stuff. What I didn't have was the maturity and the grace to deal with them as equals. We could work together, but we couldn't hang out. It should have been the same way for Wesley. We should have seen how the kids his own age had a hard time relating to him and vice versa, just because there was a disconnect between his intellectual brain and his emotional brain. All that stuff was going on with me, and I wished they'd taken advantage of it. That was the big disappointment for me.

O: Wilwheaton.net has a strong following. What do you think draws people to it?

WW: People go there for a couple of reasons. I think some people go because they want to laugh at the washed-up child star. Every person who has gone there to do that has ended up e-mailing me, saying, "You know what? I went there to laugh at the washed-up child star, and I'm sorry that I ever thought like that. It's very clear that you're not like that." Some people go because they've heard about it. It's one of those things that you're kind of peripherally aware of online, particularly for people who are big Star Trek fans. I've been really lucky. I get a lot of people now who read it because they like what I write. The web site has changed my whole focus in life. I'm not trying to be an actor anymore. I'll still do it. I go on auditions from time to time. I don't put the focus on it that I used to, because I have discovered an indescribable joy in writing about all sorts of things: writing about my childhood, writing about my family, writing satire, writing political things about stuff I'm outraged about. It's like writing a letter to the editor, only I know it's going to get published. I absolutely love it. It's gratifying that there's an audience for that, that people want to come and see it. I have a little message board on the site, as well, and it has something like 5,000 members. We started it in May. It's all these really neat people, and some of them are fanboys, but the fanboys tend to hang out for two days and then leave, because that's not what the community is about. It's just this little virtual area on the Internet where people get together and talk about politics and families, and tell jokes, and kind of lean on each other for support. These are people who are totally separated by distance and economics and all sorts of different things, but they all share a common passion. They share a common set of ideals. It's been a wonderful, unexpected side effect.

O: You write about some personal stuff on your web site. Does it make you uncomfortable that people can read your innermost thoughts?

WW: Not really. I've been thinking about that a lot these last two days, because people have been telling me they admire my courage for talking about my family and that sort of thing. I don't feel like it's courageous to talk about that. I feel like it's courageous to stand up in the face of popular opinion and criticize the president, whether it's Bush or Gore or Clinton—or, God help us, Ross Perot. I think that's a courageous act. Speaking honestly and from the heart about something that's important doesn't strike me as a brave, daring thing. When I write about my childhood, or being a step-parent, I've found that it kind of connects with people of all ages and cultures. I must be writing about things we all go through, because the responses I get are all people saying, "God, I went through the same thing. I remember that." Or "You writing about your aunt reminded me of my grandfather." I think that's great. I'm grateful that I have an opportunity to touch people's lives and make people think and get in touch with who they are and where they've been. I'm very lucky that I'm able to do that.

O: The Internet Movie Database says that you dropped some science on "Dope, The Big Lie," from the Chunky A album. How did you hook up with Chunky A, and what has he been up to since then?

WW: As far as I know, Chunky A retired to Jamaica. Sadly, he went into a diabetic coma, and he actually lives on a cargo plane that never lands for more than 25 minutes to refuel. He's really a man without a country, which is unfortunate. Of course, Chunky A's good friend Arsenio Hall hooked me up with that whole situation. At the time, Paramount was doing The Arsenio Hall Show, and Star Trek was owned by Paramount, so they had me do promotional things with Arsenio Hall, and they put me on the Chunky A album. It's funny, because while I've never used drugs—it's not my thing—I've always been opposed to the war on drugs and the drug laws. They're terrible, and they don't work. I've always favored treatment and decriminalization over the way our country does things now. It's funny to me that I'm on this album where I'm like, "Drugs are bad, yo!" I don't remember what I said.

O: You don't have the lyrics to "Dope, The Big Lie" memorized?

WW: No, no, I don't. I wrote them on my hand with a Sharpie and they all kind of ran together. Everybody thinks I'm scatting, when I'm really just trying to read them off my hand.

O: What is Chunky A like?

WW: He's a very private person. He's really not what you'd expect. You go over and see him and expect him to be kind of larger than life, literally, and he's not. Remember the guy Hambone, who lived in his house, and he hadn't been outside in a long time because he couldn't move out of his bed because he was so large? He was sort of like the Slurm-mother monster from Futurama. Chunky A was headed in that direction. We all had an intervention where we tried to help him out. But unless you're willing to help yourself, those around you can only do so much. He was large of heart and large of waist, and he was always willing to finish whatever was on your plate.