Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stewie Says Wil Wheaton

Now, hopefully those of you you are at all familiar with Family Guy know exactly what to do with the title of this post.  That's not really the point I'm trying to make today, however.

I've just finished reading Wil Wheaton's Just a Geek, one of his many recent books, published in 2004, that is ostensibly about his coming to terms with leaving Star Trek and how that has affected his life and career as an actor.  As some of you may know, Wheaton's made a pretty good transition into an Internet life during the past decade, one of the ambassadors of a movement that has come to define the 21st century.  I was first referred to Wheaton's participation through his connection to Fark, and for a long time, until I read this book actually, I believed that he actually ran Fark itself.  No, he maintains his own presence, thank you very much.

I grew up on Star Trek, maybe not in the way Wheaton did, playing Wesley Crusher in The Next Generation, but in a similar enough capacity that I identified the actor as much with that TV series as his seminal appearance in Stand by Me, the movie based on a Stephen King story that also featured the late River Phoenix.  It occurs to me now that Wheaton and Phoenix still have a lot in common, overlooking the fact that one of them is dead, in that they were both child actors who never got a chance to appreciate that Hollywood is a really unfair place for the majority of child actors.

Now, as an fleeting familiarity with the recent history of Disney and Nickelodeon stars will tell you, child actors are primarily cast due to their preternatural precociousness, their biological ability to look like a charismatic kid but their own ability to possess charisma to go along with it.  (Most of the ones who succeed as adults are women who can still make the babydoll image work for them, and men who can do excellent character work.)

In other words, you're screwed from the beginning.  The attributes that allow you to be a success as a child will always affect your future potential, and usually not in a good way.

I'm not sure Wheaton appreciates this fact, or at least the version of him from 2004 doesn't seem to have, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Just as the Wil Wheaton who rebelled against Star Trek and firmly believed in his brilliant film success (names like David Caruso also made mistakes like that, so age is not always the determining factor) ended up resenting the thing he escaped from when his dreams didn't come true, the Wil Wheaton who made his name in the formative days of the Internet is now free to interpret his life through his own experiences.

In recent years he's been able to embrace his past in ways he could never have anticipated in 1990, and here I'm thinking of his recurring visits to The Big Bang Theory, as an obnoxious version of himself who flirts with the open hostility of the very geek Wheaton himself has become since his days working on one of the geekiest properties in showbiz history.  Actually, watching this particular sitcom has helped me understand how I'm not the geek I thought I was.  Geeks are all about science and math and technology.  I'm not really into any of that.

The joke is that geeks are so absorbed into that stuff that the entertainment they enjoy comes to define the rest of their lives to such an extent that their social lives deviate so far from the norm that outsiders interpret the resulting behavior as the sole attribute of the geek.  In a paradox that perhaps Sheldon and Leonard could explain, I had to believe I was a geek to realize I wasn't.

That's a little of what Wheaton had to figure out about himself.  He spent so much time avoiding what he only thought he could escape that it never occurred to him that it already defined him more thoroughly than he'd ever considered.  But it didn't mean that his past was the only path to his future.

Today we live in a world where people who are passionate about something can spend their whole lives obsessing over it on the Internet, which has led to a vast splintering of every popular element of our culture.  While that makes new things exceedingly hard to catch on in the same ways the old things these Internetters dwell on did, it also means that we're building a new kind of culture, one in which someone like Wheaton no longer has to dread about the worst mistakes of his life, because there are an excessive number of ways in which he can capitalize on them and move on, lingering on in a thousand permutations, all eerily linked to his past but finally allowing him to escape it.

The thing is, Wheaton is a former child actor who didn't succumb to vices, and has since built a fairly normal life for himself.  His biggest worry in the book is that he won't find work again, and it never seems to occur to him that it's not because he's not edgy enough, but that any casting agent he comes across will already have an image of Wil Wheaton in one moment of time, and that's his childhood, not the particular parts he took, no matter how successful.  The more people encourage him to pursue a new career, which is writing as he exhibits to this day on his website, the more they fail to realize that what they should really be encouraging is his ability to exceed the pigeonhole, take a piece of the pie for himself.

For some reason he comes to believe the cameo cut from Star Trek Nemesis was his last chance to say goodbye to Wesley Crusher.  The thing is, he had multiple opportunities for that last chance, including one of the final episodes of Next Generation, which concluded a character arc begun in the first season of the series, in which the character, like the actor, realizes that he wants something different from what everyone expected of him.  Since the book, Wheaton has embraced his budding comedic instincts, something he learned sitting next to Brent Spiner on the bridge of the Enterprise, and anyone who's seen "Wil Wheaton" on Big Bang Theory will tell you that this is a guy with a future.

He's believed he could make a second life for himself as a writer for more than a decade, and as he's maintained an Internet presence for all this time, maybe he's right, but he's also done very few things with his writing other than what's directly related to that website.  He's never released a work of fiction, or nonfiction not related to himself.  All that writing ability his seventh grade teacher reminded him about has only been swallowed by the new pop culture, the one where you can upload any video and have it reach a million hits, and still leave no real impact.

Wheaton's calling is the same as it ever was, and he's closer now than ever before to getting it back on track.  I can't help but think that Wheaton himself may not realize it.  Just a Geek is supposed to represent his triumph over a sense of regret that Wheaton lived with for a decade, his ability to overcome the need for vindication, and to silence his ego once and for all.  Except many times over in the book, he provides a followup note to similar boasts he's made on his site, saying that once again that pesky ego was covering up what he was really feeling.  Sometimes we exaggerate our triumphs in lie of success and satisfaction.

It really is a fascinating read, and a powerful insight into an actor whose experiences resonate with my particular generation, someone I can instantly sympathize with, and support.  As I struggle from a much worse position (of being a never-been), I can still take notes from someone on a similar journey of discovery, fighting to make a dream come true when it seems like everything is trying to tell me that it will never happen. Wheaton is no doubt every bit as vulnerable as he sounds in the book, even if there's a veneer that is impossible to ignore, things he takes for granted that I could only hope to have one day, well after a childhood where I played at being what he was paid to pretend for years, opportunities his name alone provides him, even when he believes no one cares about Wil Wheaton anymore.

Once you're a name, especially today, you're always a name.  Wheaton could still star in a TV series that runs for fifteen years.  He could still land a movie role that makes him immortal.  It doesn't erase the struggles he went through to reach them.  He could write something that readers a hundred years from now study in a classroom.

Then again, that's my future, too.


  1. It seems about the only success people who become so identified with one particular property can achieve is to become a parody of themselves. Look at fellow child star Neil Patrick Harris, whose career only revived when he did a goofy cameo in "Harold and Kumar" which led to "How I Met Your Mother." Or even for a non-child star, just look at William Shatner. He struggled for a long time to be taken seriously and then finally in the late 90s or so he revived his career with those goofy Priceline commercials that led to a role on "Boston Legal" and so forth.

    About the only one who's managed to avoid that was Ron Howard when he started directing movies.

    1. I love NPH! I think he did exactly what I'm saying Wheaton has slowly been inching toward.

      Howard is truly outside the box, and did what people were suggesting to Wheaton, which he's been really slow to embrace, which to me suggests he doesn't really want to change. He still wants to act. And he can, as a comedic actor, preferably as a very "Wil Wheaton" type character.

  2. Tony, it sounds like a fascinating book. Wheaton's one of the few actors that managed to have a second career. He's more popular than ever because he feels like one of us.

    1. Exactly. He stumbled into the modern age. He was the right age for it.


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