Wil Wheaton talks growing up on Star Trek, as actor and man

Star Trek's 50, Wil Wheaton isn't yet. The man who played "Next Generation" boy genius Wesley Crusher opens up about his favorite behind-the-scenes moments and which actor he never wanted to let down.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
6 min read
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When you spend your teens on the USS Enterprise, you're bound to have some interesting memories to share.

While Wil Wheaton started as an '80s child actor in such films "The Secret of NIMH," "The Last Starfighter" and "Stand by Me," he's best-known to many for his role as teen genius Ensign Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which aired from 1987 to 1994.

Disclosure: He's also a good friend of mine who happens to be an amazing RPG player, a skill he demonstrates on his YouTube shows "Tabletop" and "Titansgrave."

In honor of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I chatted with Wil about his fondest "Star Trek: The Next Generation" memories, why Wesley Crusher should end up as a Time Lord, and what he thinks of the new Star Trek TV show in the works.

What was it like for you to grow up on the set of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" during your teen years?
I was a huge Star Trek fan as a little kid, so getting to work on "Next Generation" was like getting to do what I used to do as a kid on the playground at elementary school and make it the best virtual-reality LARP (live-action role play) I'd ever experienced.

At the same time, I was a teenager, and as we got into the third season, I felt like the writers just didn't know what to do with my character, and more often than not I didn't feel challenged as an actor and I kind of felt like part of the furniture. So as I got to be around 16 years old, I just started to feel like, "Why am I even here?"

But the other side of that, I formed relationships and friendships that have endured for 30 years. And when I think past that teenage angst, it's an overwhelmingly positive and joyful and wonderful part of my life.

How did being on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" at such a young age shape you as an actor?
I definitely grew a lot as an actor from working with Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) because I never wanted to disappoint him or let him down, or be in a scene with him where I was the weak link.

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Wil Wheaton shares fond memories of working with Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

I remember reading an article about someone who played hockey with Wayne Gretzky, and that player said, "When Wayne is on the ice with you, you play better because you never know when he's going to pass to you, and you don't want to be the guy that ruined a brilliant Wayne Gretzky play." So you play harder and better; you find things within yourself you didn't know you had.

I felt like that around Patrick. I made sure I knew all of my lines. I understood that relationship and the scene. But I feel like the writers worked harder when they had Picard-Wesley scenes because they were always better written than even the Wesley-Beverly scenes.

Also, just as a human, being around the cast shaped me tremendously. I always thought Brent Spiner (Lieutenant Commander Data) was really funny, and I wanted to be funny like he was. And Jonathan Frakes (Commander William T. Riker) was super cool and I wanted to be cool like he was. They were influences on me without really trying.

In the last 10 to 12 years as we've done things together, every one of the cast members has told me they felt like they were helping to raise me. I wasn't even aware of it at the time. It ended up shaping me a lot as a person, and I'm grateful for it.

What are some of the "Next Generation" behind-the-scenes moments you look back on most fondly?
In the second season when Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast it was a big deal. It's kind of like if Jennifer Lawrence or Tom Hiddleston said, "I want to be on Star Trek." Whoopi was the biggest star in the world at that time. I don't know if this is true or not, but I've heard from more than one source that we hadn't really earned a second season based on merit, but when Whoopi said "I want to do this" it gave us another shot. She was that big of a deal then. We got a really cool new set and it also gave us a whole other dimension to the show.


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The other thing that will forever stand out for me is this episode where Picard has to go to a starbase and Wesley needs to go to the starbase for Starfleet Academy. So Wesley's going to fly the shuttlecraft to the starbase and Picard is going to ride with him. And at this point in their relationship Picard is still kind of "meh" toward Wesley. Wesley's super nervous and Picard is annoyed at him for existing. But over the course of the episode, their relationship grows a lot and defrosts.

Patrick made a series of scenes that could have been very forgettable into something very memorable, which shaped not only the relationship between the characters, but also our relationship as actors. Up to that point of my career, I had really acted using my instincts. And that was the beginning of me realizing that I had good instincts but no training, raw talent but no technique. I felt like I needed to work full-time to perfect my art.

Are you excited for the new Star Trek TV series?
Star Trek best belongs on television in episodic storytelling. My dream would be that the new Star Trek TV series would be like "American Horror Story" in that there's one cast of characters that continues within one season, or that it would be like "True Detective" where one season would be set on a space station, another season would be set on a battle cruiser, another season would be set on Earth and another season would be on a starship that encounters the USS Enterprise.

What would Wesley Crusher be up to now if "Next Generation" were still on air?
I think Wesley would effectively be a Time Lord. I've been playing around with that idea on my Tumblr, and actually wrote some excerpts of "The Unpublished Memoirs of Wesley Crusher." He can move freely around space and time. He knows how to pull himself out of time, but unlike the Doctor (in "Doctor Who") he can choose whether to reveal himself to the people where he is.

He can manipulate time, he can exist in time outside of the perception of other beings around him, I've decided. He was always really interested in learning and understanding things. If time doesn't exist the way it does for us, it's not a linear experience, I feel like he becomes this almost eternal being, who explores the universe.

Why do you think Star Trek resonates with so many generations of fans 50 years later?
For a long time, it was the only thing like it. For a lot of people it was their first exposure to science fiction that wasn't just for kids that was on television.

As an adult, which Star Trek character do you relate the most to?
McCoy from the original Star Trek TV series because he's really emotional and he likes to help people. When I was a kid, I always liked Spock because he was really cool and unflappable and very stoic, and I wished I could be like that. Our idealized self changes as we get older.


Wheaton played himself on a "The Big Bang Theory" episode in which Leonard, Wolowitz and Koothrappali must decide who gets their extra Star Wars movie ticket.

Cliff Lipson/CBS