Wil Wheaton Interview: Close Encounters of the Shatner Kind
Image attributed to Wil Wheaton
Wil Wheaton is best known for portraying Wesley Crusher on the science fiction TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gordie Lachance in the film Stand by Me. He appeared regularly as a fictionalized version of himself on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, and other television credits include Leverage, Eureka, The Outer Limits, Diagnosis: Murder, Criminal Minds, Supergirl and S.W.A.T. Wheaton has also worked as a voice actor in animation, video games and audiobooks.
On April 12, 2022, Still Just a Geek: An Annotated Memoir, was published as an updated version of Wheaton’s 2004 memoir, Just a Geek: Unflinchingly Honest Tales of the Search for Life, Love and Fulfillment Beyond the Starship Enterprise. In Still Just a Geek, the celebrated actor, personality and all-around nerd, reexamines one of the most interesting lives in Hollywood and fandom.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Recently, on social media, you described an encounter with a fan at the checkout. At the end of the story, you said, “So many things in my life are gifts when I remember to be open to receiving them.” Can you explain what you meant by that, Wil?
Wil Wheaton: I think there are people who might feel that being identified with a specific role can be a burden or a disappointment, and it’s a really wonderful gift. It’s a reminder that when these moments happen, I have been fortunate enough to be part of something that genuinely matters to people and generally makes a difference in their lives. When someone chooses to share with me the importance of something that I did and chooses to share with me that something I was part of added meaning to their life in a certain way, that is an incredible gift. It is kind. It is generous, and I am incredibly grateful for these moments when they happen.
I also have to choose to get out of my own way, to not judge myself and accept that kindness so that I can then return it to the person who is giving it to me. It’s just part of my, “We have to practice to be people all the time.” Being a person is a constant work in progress. This is one of those things that work in the same way one maybe works on chasing down fly balls in the outfield at practice. I practice being receptive to people who choose to share their kindness with me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you recognized a lot?
Wil Wheaton: Not really. It kind of depends. I have what my friends and I, in the genre of television world, refer to as a “situational notoriety.” In some places, I’m extremely recognizable, and I really stand out. Also wearing a mask all the time has considerably reduced the amount of times people pick me out of a crowd, although because of the photos I post on Instagram, my glasses are identifiable. I’ve had people say, “I thought it was you. I recognized your glasses.” When I was younger, that very frequently felt uncomfortable and awkward. As I’ve grown older and healed a lot of my childhood trauma, I’ve been able to recognize this for the wonderful and just incredible privilege it is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you feel the need to update Just a Geek, released in 2004, with Still Just a Geek?
Wil Wheaton: I actually didn’t. It wasn’t my idea. It was my editor’s idea. He said, “I reread Just a Geek, and I think there’s a lot in it that is a really great story. I think there’s a lot in it that you will feel regretful about, and I’d love to hear what you have to say about all of that stuff.” I was very skeptical at first. I didn’t know if it was a good idea or if it would be particularly helpful to anyone, including myself, to look back on when I was 20 years old. I was very grateful that it was David’s idea. This was a process that took me a couple of years because I had to open up a lot of emotional wounds. I had to address a lot of things in my life that I have not addressed publicly, as it really relates to being a survivor of narcissistic abuse and child exploitation and all of those aspects of my life. I started to see that I had changed substantially since I wrote this book.
The person at the beginning of the original Just a Geek is a little bit different than the person I am at the very end of Just a Geek. Not by a lot but by enough. By the end of Just a Geek, I’d gotten to a point in my life where I had accepted that Star Trek’s going to be a part of my life no matter what, and that’s totally cool. I’m into it. That’s where Just a Geek ends. Where Still Just a Geek picks up is 20 years later where I have actually had a surprisingly successful acting career that I didn’t expect at all that included long runs on multiple series and this audiobook career. It’s sort of looking back on who I was, who I am, how I’ve changed and what that means to me. As being almost 50, I look back on being almost 30.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was it your Mom and Dad that forced you into acting?
Wil Wheaton: It was my mom. She put me to work when I was seven. She coached me. She told me what to say. She groomed me to go to the agent and tell the agent that I wanted to do what mommy does. I was seven, right? I’m going to do what my mom and dad tell me what to do. Time is weird at that age. Also it’s just weird with memory and distance, but I feel it was around six to 12 months into it, I hated it. What would happen was I would get picked up from school, and instead of going home to go play in the neighborhood with my friends or do my homework, I would get in the car, and we would sit in rush hour traffic. Then we’d go to Hollywood and go on sometimes four auditions at a time. I would leave school at three o’clock, get home at seven o’clock and still have to do my homework. I never got to play outside. I hated it.
I begged my mother. I remember so clearly saying, “Please let me be a kid. I don’t want to do this. I just want to be a kid.” She would always tell me, “I gave up my career to do this.” I believed that. I knew it wasn’t true, but anyone who has been gaslighted knows we convince ourselves into believing things that we know aren’t true because of the gaslighting.
As far as the man who was my father was concerned, he was never interested in my life. He was never interested in me as a person. He made it very clear, from the earliest memories I have, that there was nothing I could do that was going to earn his approval or be good enough for him. So when I was going through all that stuff with being a child actor my dad was never around. He was completely uninvolved and totally unpresent, and as far as I know just really never cared.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was going on at home with your brother and sister?
Wil Wheaton: They’re both younger. In our dysfunctional family with narcissistic parents, my brother is the golden child. I am the scapegoat. I tried very hard my whole life to have a relationship with my brother. I wanted to be a capital “B” big brother. It was so important to me. My brother is four years younger. When I was 12, he was bullying me just like Dad did. He put me down. He was mean to me. Nothing I did was good enough for him. I saw my brother becoming just a generational clone of our dad. I tried very, very hard to have a relationship with him. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Ultimately, like my parents, my brother started demanding things from me. When I said, “You know, if you wouldn’t only call me when you want something, I would love to be family.” Instead, my brother decided that I was dead to him and made sure I knew that. I’m still very close to my sister. We’re extremely close. We’ve been very close my whole life. I love and cherish her, and I’m very grateful for her presence in my life. Our mom tried to do to her what she did to me. She tried to put her into modeling, tried to put her into acting, and my sister just didn’t do it. Now, they have relationships with our parents that are theirs and valid. I’m very happy for them, and I just don’t.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Not at all?
Wil Wheaton: No. I had to end contact with my parents. When I tried to address my trauma and my pain, they were unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for any role they may have played in anything that was upsetting or hurtful to me whenever I brought it up. I know this happens to people when you try to bring it up and try to talk to someone who’s hurt you when they refuse to accept accept responsibility for it and just tell you, “All those things you remember aren’t real.”
We have no other choice. It’s either give in to this invented reality that you know isn’t real or leave the situation. Not having parents is awful. It hurts all the time. It’s sad. There is a black hole where a parent’s unconditional love should be. But the reality is that black hole has been there my whole life with them constantly doing all the things they did to me. It’s not just a black hole. It’s a black hole with a bunch of fire around it. Not having parents sucks. But for me, it’s better than having the people who are my parents.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That’s truly horrible, Wil. I’m so sorry that happened to you.
Wil Wheaton: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you enjoyed acting even though you were forced to do it?
Wil Wheaton: When we did Stand by Me, I had a good time being on set. I enjoyed the performance part of being an actor. I enjoyed the imagination, make-believe, role playing aspect of it. I still do. I’ve always loved that whether it’s being an actor or a writer or in some other creative capacity. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, things with my parents were about as bad as they could possibly get. That’s when my dad got physically abusive with me.
I actually really liked being on set because I loved being around adults who genuinely loved me. I loved being around what felt like a real family, the way I imagined the family was supposed to be. In addition to just being a giant Star Trek nerd and loving pretending that I was in outer space, I thought it was all terrific. Over the years, I figured out that if someone wants to work with me in an acting capacity, and it’s a project that’s interesting to me, I still enjoy that. I enjoy the creative collaboration. I enjoy all of that stuff.
But I hate auditioning. I don’t have any passion for it. I don’t have any passion for going into a room and trying to convince somebody that I’m worthy. That’s a huge emotional trigger for me. It’s just not what I wanted to dedicate my life to. But I happen to be good at it because I was forced to dedicate so much of my life to it. So I’ve found ways to really extract the good things out of it. I used to really struggle with, “Am I going to be an actor or a writer? What am I going to be?” I think a lot of that was because I was so heavily defined by my work, according to my mother. As I let go of all that, I realized I can be a creative person. I can be an actor. I can be a writer. I can be all of these different things. I don’t have to be one thing. I have a set of skills, and I’d be so foolish not to use them when given the opportunity.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you regret leaving Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Wil Wheaton: I did for a very long time. A lot of the original Just a Geek is about that. When the original Just a Geek was published in 2004, if someone said my name, the general response tended to be, “Who’s that?” or “Wasn’t that the kid in Stand by Me forever ago?” or “Isn’t that the guy who quit Star Trek?” That was not great (laughs). It was really tough.
I had to come to terms with and accept that I made a choice that I needed to make. I needed to not be at Star Trek. I needed to not be there. I needed to not be an actor. I needed to not live in Hollywood. I needed to not be under my parents’ control. So when I was 18, I left. I went on what I think comes close to like a walkabout a little bit. I started to get a little bit of a sense of where I wanted to go with my life. As I began to live more and more of what was important to me, I was able to accept that Star Trek’s part of me and that it’s always something I’m really going to love.
If I hadn’t left Star Trek, it’s extremely likely that I would’ve been there to the very end. I would’ve been in all the movies. I would have millions of dollars. I would have a giant house in the Hills, and I would be miserable. I wouldn’t have anything that matters to me. I never would’ve met my wife. I never would’ve found out that I really wanted to be a writer. I never would’ve been in a position where I was ready and so grateful and enthusiastic to host Ready Room and be kind of do or die to the behind-the-scenes universe of everything that has to do with Star Trek. I love it.
In a way, my personal journey is parallel to what Wesley Crusher’s personal journey was where Wesley was put into this path of expectation like, “You will be a Star Trek captain one day,” and he’s like, “Okay. Here we go.” When he’s around 17 or 18 years old, he realizes, “I don’t want to do this. Everyone else wants me to do this. I’ve got to figure out what it is I want to do.” I did the same thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I read the story in Still Just a Geek about your awkward initial encounter with William Shatner. The New York Post shared that story, and Shatner made a statement about it. He said, “I have no recollection of this event. Others on set say it never happened. I actually have apologized to him a few times even though I don’t remember it, and he accepted my apology. Now that must also be forgotten? He must need the publicity for some project.” What say you?
Wil Wheaton: (laughs) First of all, Bill, thank you so much for telling everyone who follows you that I have a new book out. I really appreciate that. That was incredibly helpful, and I’m very grateful for that. Listen. I don’t expect Bill to remember this thing that happened 35 years ago. But I do. It was very hurtful to me, and it was incredibly impactful for me. Of course, I’m going to remember it in the way that he doesn’t. The fact that he doesn’t remember it does not make it untrue.
A couple of years ago, someone who was very much like a photo double of his said, “Oh, that story isn’t true.” The thing is, that guy wasn’t there when it happened (laughs). The reason I laugh about it is it’s easy to get mad about it. It’s gaslighting exactly the way my parents gaslighted me like, “No. That didn’t happen. You made it all up.” And, of course, if it did happen, it must somehow have been my fault. Bill did apologize, and I was and am grateful for that. I still have the note that he wrote me where he said, “You’re a fine young actor. I would love to have you on my bridge anytime.” It was extremely kind, and I’m very grateful that he did it.
We’ve seen each other a number of times since this thing happened, and most of the time, Bill’s pretty cool. This is the reality of Bill Shatner. Some days, he’s a wonderful guy. He’s funny. He’s so funny. He’s charming. He’s a great storyteller. Other times, he’s a real jerk. He can be an internet troll online. I don’t know why he chooses to be that way. But the reality is that he’s a complicated dude, and you never really know who’s going to show up. I don’t know what else to say. He can say he doesn’t remember, and I believe that to be true. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek: The Original Series, was involved in that, too, and made William Shatner apologize?
Wil Wheaton: The way I understand it, Gene went to bat for me. All of my cast and crew went to bat for me. I was a kid who was so bullied as a child. The bully across the street shot me with his BB gun. I went inside and was like, “Mom and Dad, help me!” They would not do anything. No one ever stood up for me. When I was in fifth grade and struggling with math because Mom was forcing me to go on auditions, and I had to do my homework in the car, a teacher made me stay after school. She sat me outside the classroom door so I could be humiliated sitting there when all my classmates were in afterschool daycare playing kickball. My parents never stood up for me then. No one ever stood up for me.
That time on the set of Next Generation after this happened, all these adults who I loved and respected, including Gene Roddenberry, stood up for me and had my back. That was incredible and one of the reasons I am so dedicated to having other people's backs. I want to be very clear about something else because you brought this up. I have no hard feelings toward Bill Shatner. You know what I mean? That was 35 years ago. I’ve seen him a bunch of times. It’s not like I’m talking shit behind his back. He knows about this. It’s been in the air for 20 years, right?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes indeed. I’ve got to tell you. You were really creepy as a serial killer and rapist in Criminal Minds (season four, episode four).
Wil Wheaton: Aw, thank you. Thank you very much. It was a very challenging character to play. He was so filled with rage, just binding, suffocating rage. It was uncomfortably easy for me to find that emotion. I think I tapped into a lifetime of that kind of simmering around, and I channeled it into the performance. I have to tell you. My performance made me uncomfortable. I think it was a really good performance. But it made me very uncomfortable. I was like, “Wow. I could do that.” That’s a lot. I spent much of the last ten years or so working as a survivor to find and stay in a middle path in between the fight and flight reflexes that a lot of us survivors have attuned over the years. It’s very easy for people who have been through something like we’ve been through to default to, “I’m running away” or “I’m killing you.” There’s just not a lot of in-between.
Working to find and stay in that in-between is how we live a happy, productive, calm, fulfilling life. That comes from learning to build boundaries and establish, protect and hold boundaries. Those are things I was not taught as a child. So now that I know all of those things, I can look at that performance and see where it came from, see what experiences informed me. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve done the therapeutic work to heal myself.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you comfortable playing yourself in The Big Bang Theory?
Wil Wheaton: It took 10 years. Would you believe that? At the beginning, I was like, “Okay. I’m going to fake it. I’m going to say the lines. I’m going to trust the director. I’m going to listen to the audience. I’m going to trust that the actors are telling me I’m good at this, that I’m funny and they like me being here.” But the whole time, I felt like somebody’s going to go, “Alright. Listen. We have figured out how much you love this. Everybody gets it, and now, you’re fired.” (laughs) That’s how it was going to be taken away from me. I worked on the show for 12 years. Sometime around year 10, something clicked in me, and I recognized the difference between myself, who I think of as Wil Wheaton prime and The Big Bang Theory’s Wil Wheaton, who we think of as formerly evil Wil Wheaton (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I think it worked well.
Wil Wheaton: I think it worked well, too. There were moments when I worked on The Big Bang Theory that were wonderfully cathartic and beautiful for me. Every time I got to tell a story as Wil Wheaton on The Big Bang Theory about being a child actor or about his career, it was this weird sort of parallel universe version of my career. Whenever I got to do those things, sort of speak my truth and bring my life experiences to that character, it was one of those gifts that we talked about in the beginning.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: If you could go back and have the support of your parents in your career choice, would you have chosen something other than acting?
Wil Wheaton: I don’t know. I was never given the opportunity and the support to find out. I have absolutely no idea. I think about it a lot. Part of emotional healing, part of trauma recovery and part of living my life the best way that I possibly can has largely involved accepting all of these things that I can’t change that I know aren’t my fault and that I don’t blame myself for.
I do have to look at the life I have right now, and it’s unbelievable. It’s just wonderful. I’m so grateful. I have incredible children. I have a daughter-in-law who I love to the moon and back. My wife is a remarkable human being. I am amazed that someone like her has chosen to be my life partner and that we’re on our way to celebrating 25 years together. My career is more fulfilling and more satisfying and rewarding than I everthought it would be.
A lot of where I am now is because years ago I was willing to make a really difficult choice and acknowledge that I deserve to be happy. I didn’t deserve to be treated the way the people who are my parents treated me. After trying over and over and over again to address is so that we could be a family, I had to acknowledge that it was never going to happen. You know, we can accept but not condone. We cannot carry something without forgiving. Those things are very important.
When I look at the life I have now, I love it, and I don’t want to change anything. All of the parts that hurt are all into the tapestry of my life. If you’re familiar with The Next Generation episode “Tapestry,” if you pluck at a single thread, the whole thing comes undone. I love what it is right now. I love my life. I love what I see when I look toward the horizon of my life. I wouldn’t change anything even the stuff that’s terrible because it all went together to make me who I am.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Other than enjoying the release of a new book, what other projects are in the works, Wil?
Wil Wheaton: I’m working on the next book. I had an idea a couple of months ago, and instead of dismissing it like I typically do when I have an idea, I just made some notes and more notes, and pretty soon, I had about 40 pages of notes and an idea. I had a moment in the last three months where I walked into a venture. I said to my wife, “I am a writer.” She said, “Yes. I know.” I was like, “No. I don’t think you understand. I know that I’m a writer because I’m going to write this no matter what. I don’t care if it’s published, and I don’t care if anybody reads it. I’m going to write it because it means something to me.”
Artists make sacrifices. Artists make choices. We make sacrifices to be actors. One of the things that always bothered me was that I was forced to make sacrifices. I wasn’t given the opportunity to choose them. I am given the opportunity to choose what I want to do with myself right now, and there are unbelievably cool things that are in my future.
There’s a thing I worked on this week that can only be classified as, “Are you kidding me? How in the world did I even get to be part of this?” I can’t talk about it (laughs). I don’t know when it’s going to come out. But the whole time, I was just like, “Are you kidding me?” I just kept stopping and saying, “Does anybody see what’s going on?” I just wanted everyone to say that it was real and that it’s really happening! It was great. I loved it.
But when someone asks me what I’m doing now, my answer is that I’m writing the next book. That’s where I am spending my time when I’m not working on Ready Room, narrating an audiobook or doing press for Still Just a Geek, which are the primary activities in my professional life right now.
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