Wheaton: Everyone Practiced 'Stand By Me' on TNGBy Michelle
October 3, 2005 - 3:13 AM
Wil Wheaton, who left his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation for "this big film career that never happened", said that he never wanted to be a celebrity but he understands now that what the cast shared on the first Star Trek spinoff was, in the words of his former co-star Jonathan Frakes (Riker), "like lightning in a bottle."
Speaking to Chase Masterson at TheFandom.com, Wheaton admitted that he was too young to understand when he first consented to an acting career and it took him a long time to put his experiences in perspective. "Acting runs in my family," he noted, explaining that his first role came about when his mother took him to an audition with her for a commercial that required a mother and son. They booked the job together for Jell-o Pudding Popsicles, so for his very first gig, he worked with Bill Cosby on a golf course artificially decorated to look like southern California in summer. That first experience, on location with a big celebrity and many amenities including his own mother's presence, "started a big career in commercials for me." Wheaton added that he has never gotten a straight answer from his mother about whether she took him because, as she claimed, she couldn't find a sitter, or because she knew they were looking for a child for the commercial and thought she could launch a career for him.
After a bad experience with a screaming director on a Duncan Heinz brownie ad, Wheaton told his mother that he didn't want to do commercials anymore and wanted to try movies. He made after-school specials for television of a sort that he describes as no longer made in the current cable era, then was involved with the smash hit Stand By Me with an iconic cast including River Phoenix and Kiefer Sutherland. That film was made 20 years ago, Wheaton told Masterson, noting that he is a different person now, "there is so much distance between me and that movie." Praising Stephen King's source, Wheaton observed that director Rob Reiner cast "four young boys who really were those characters."
For Wheaton, the film is sad to watch because it's about the process of growing up. In King's book Different Seasons, the chapter upon which the film is based is the autumn one, representing the fall from innocence. "The movie is so full of archetypes that there is something everyone can relate to in that film," said Wheaton, adding that everyone associated with the film was "really lucky" as all the elements came together - the right place, the right time, the right cast, the right crew, the right script.
Wheaton had a similar experience with The Next Generation but it took him many years to realise it. A young teenager when the show was cast and a lifelong fan of science fiction - Wheaton's book Just A Geek recounts his appreciation of Logan's Run, The Prisoner, 2001 and other genre productions - he noted that he was shy and already had trouble going to the mall for fear of being recognised. "It was all about teen magazines," he said, getting his picture taken, when he only wanted to act, not to be famous. "When Star Trek came along I was really excited because I was a huge fan of the original series; I also thought, from an acting perspective, that I was going to get to act every week." Though he was so nervous auditioning for Gene Roddenberry that he almost blew it, he was very calm for the studio audition, sitting on the floor playing an electronic game.
During the uneven first season, the cast of The Next Generation was notoriously rowdy and one director even quit, though what Wheaton remembers most about this incident was Patrick Stewart (Picard) going to bat for the cast. "They gave us a talking to like we were schoolchildren, that we were having too much fun, that we were slowing things down, that we were unprofessional and irresponsible and that we all had to stop," he recalled. "I remember Patrick getting really pissed. It's the worst kept secret in Star Trek that Patrick is the biggest joker of all of us...he went to bat for the entire cast. 'Are we getting the work done? Are we finishing the days? What do you want us to do, come in here and have a miserable time? And he was so mad!'" The studio execs left with their heads down, and the cast went on to become legendary for its closeness and affection.
Though the show did not become a great success until the third season - "When Michael Piller took over The Next Generation, that was when it hit", noted Wheaton - he was already becoming famously dissatisfied with the criticism of his character and was seeking other venues. Eventually he left, though he continued to make guest appearances right on through Star Trek Nemesis. "There was a long time when I Wouldn't go conventions because I felt sort of ashamed of myself that I'd left Star Trek to have this big film career that never happened," he said, joking that his career consisted of "Stand By Me, Toy Soldiers and Star Trek, and then it was over." He felt as if he could not show his face at a convention, though he eventually started to go to see the people he liked on the cast. Frakes joked that he had gotten older while the rest had "just gotten fatter", and when Wheaton asked whether they had all been as close as he remembered or whether he had been sheltered because he was a child, Frakes insisted that the way Wheaton remembered it was the way it had always been.
"We were so lucky that everything came together," said Wheaton, noting that he had friends on each of the later Star Trek series who wished they had been on TNG "'because you guys all liked each other!'" The guest stars always told him how much they had enjoyed it as well. To him the only comparable experience was his recent appearance on CSI, which he said made him feel the way Trek guests always said they felt on TNG, where the cast loved each other and the show and respected the material. "There is that thing about chemistry. It happens in sports too, it's like a symbiotic thing that happens...everything fires at exactly the right time."
If Wheaton felt very luck to have had such an experience on Stand By Me, he said that Nemesis was an example of how a single flawed element could destroy everything. It had "a great script" and "a cast ready to honor the legacy", Wheaton declared, but "a director who said more than one time on the set, 'I don't care about Star Trek'...one thing can go wrong and the whole thing falls apart." Like many of his co-stars he expressed regret that their last voyage together will be considered less than successful.
FOr more, including Wheaton on his books, the full mp3 interview can be found at TheFandom.com.