‘Trek’ wasn’t his final frontier
The lone drunk guy in a Pasadena pub is feeling talkative, warmed by holiday spirit and beer, even though it’s only 11 a.m. He eyeballs the stranger next to him, a thin, sandy-haired man ordering orange juice. “Hey, you look familiar,” the inebriated man tells his new best friend. “Do I know you?”
Like most former child actors, Wil Wheaton gets this question a lot. On request he politely rattles off his more memorable credits, all of them more than a decade old: a starring role in the 1986 Rob Reiner film “Stand by Me,” five years as squeaky-clean teen Wesley Crusher on the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He doesn’t try jogging the man’s memory by mentioning his new career as a writer. For four years he’s had a popular blog, wilwheaton.net, postings from which form the basis for his new book “Just a Geek.” It’s cool enough that cult writer Neil Gaiman, author of “The Sandman” graphic novel series, provided the foreword to “Geek.” But Wheaton knows that to the general population, he’s frozen in time, a perpetual adolescent. “I can tell when they’re running a lot of my episodes on cable,” he says later, with a shrug.
Back at the pub, the man’s eyes light up. Everyone, it seems, is a Trekkie. After naming his favorite episodes, he roars, “Man, why did you give up acting?”
At 32, Wheaton hasn’t, though it may appear that way. Before making a graceful exit, he explains to his new fan what every actor knows. Sometimes you don’t give up, but Hollywood loses your number anyway. Even with this stranger, he’s unflinchingly honest about his fall from grace. Baring his soul, after all, has opened the door for him to have what F. Scott Fitzgerald once said was impossible in American life: a second act.
It was a similar fan encounter at a sports bar in 2000 that made that second act possible, even as it sank Wheaton into a funk. After a waitress asked him if he “used to be” an actor, he decided to “prove to everyone that quitting ‘Star Trek’ wasn’t a mistake” by building a personal website. But what began as ego stroking segued into a soul-baring examination of the wrong turns, adolescent mistakes and ego-battering disappointments he’s had since walking away from the popular “Star Trek” spinoff in 1990. “I examined my life and realized I was everything I hate,” he says. “And that’s what ended up in the book.”
Though Wheaton briefly turned his back on Hollywood in the ‘90s, passing on a role in “Primal Fear” (a decision he regrets) and briefly working for a software company in Kansas, in recent years he’s been struggling to catch Hollywood’s attention. With the exception of voice work in animation and video games (Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans” and video games Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Ghost Recon 2), he’s scored mostly near-misses and forgettable independent movies. Even a brief return to the Enterprise fell flat: His scenes for the 2002 film “Star Trek: Nemesis” ended up on the cutting-room floor.
“I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me,” he says, his voice raspy from a lingering cold. “But in the early years of my website, someone sent me an e-mail saying, ‘You never talk about yourself,’ ” Wheaton recalls. “And [my next post was] OK, I’m scared and I’m frustrated and I’m working so hard but no matter what I do, I can’t get ahead. You wanted to know, now you do.”
After Wheaton was inundated with positive e-mails, he knew the site’s purpose could no longer be simple self-promotion. “I realized pretty quickly that I had an opportunity, if I didn’t screw it up, to make a positive difference in people’s lives.”
The resulting blog entries that make up “Just a Geek” are a mix of cautionary tales, sentiment (he writes about his wife of five years, Anne, and stepsons Nolan and Ryan) and repentance. “When I look back on my life from 16 to 21, I’m ashamed of myself,” he says. “I was such a jerk, because I really believed my own hype. And every now and then I get an e-mail from someone who says, you are so different now from when I met you when you were 19. And I have to say I’m sorry I thought I was such hot [stuff], because in order to be a good husband and a good parent, I need to take responsibility for the person I used to be.”
That has also meant making his peace with his most defining role, Wesley Crusher. He now regrets exiting “Star Trek” to pursue a film career (“It just never occurred to me that most actors go their entire career without one movie as special as ‘Stand by Me,’ ” he says) and is quick to dispute the belief that Crusher was largely hated by “Trek” fans. “That was a statistically insignificant number of people, and believe me, I have researched this,” he says. “I’ve never been able to put that story to bed, and it’s definitely hurt me.”
He knows that some people, including casting directors, will never see him as more than the geeky kid sitting at the bridge of the Enterprise. “In entertainment, perception is reality. I mean, people think Sylvester Stallone is 6 1/2 feet tall and that Vin Diesel is a good actor,” he jokes. “But even my publisher wants ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Trek.’ And I’m like, come on! This is not some geeky backstage tell-all book.”
Even so, Wheaton isn’t shy about naming names when telling tales about his rocky acting career (in “Geek” he condemns Jimmy Kimmel for pushing “Win Ben Stein’s Money” producers to award a co-hosting job to his cousin over Wheaton, and he speaks bluntly about conflicts with “Star Trek” executives).
Still, he hasn’t given up hope that Hollywood may yet come calling. Even as he works on his next book (a novel “about a guy who ends up at a poker game off the Vegas strip with a gun to his head, and the story is how he got there”), he performs as a member of the Acme Comedy Theatre troupe in L.A. and is a spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Assn. (Wheaton-themed memorabilia is the focus of an EBay charity auction next month). And when the role is right, he auditions.
“I haven’t given up, but I’m not sitting by the phone anymore,” he says. “I’ve taken off the prom dress.”
‘Just a Geek’
What: Wil Wheaton’s autobiography, based on postings from his blog wilwheaton.net. Info: Published by O’Reilly Media Inc., oreilly.com, 296 pages Price: $24.95