Interview: Wil Wheaton on Writing, Movies and Comics (Part 1)
Writer, actor and soon-to-be publishing mogul Wil Wheaton has come a long way since his days as a child actor in such breakout roles as Gordie LaChance in Stand By Me and Joey Trotta in Toy Soldiers. But even with those popular and well-known performances, Wheaton was really thrust into the limelight as a cast member of the the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played Wesley Crusher for several seasons.
However, in the years since Star Trek, Wheaton has managed to mostly put acting and Wesley Crusher behind him and reinvent himself as a writer through his website, his work in various magazines and other publications, writing gigs on several comic books and work on manga titles from publishers such as TokyoPop.
Wheaton has also managed to launch a very successful publishing company, and is still a fan favorite at conventions and appearances all over the country. I caught up with the multi-talented Wheaton recently at a non-trendy eatery in Pasadena, CA, to talk comics, his career and his love of writing.
COMICMIX: Okay Wil, what people really want to know is what you order for lunch.
WIL WHEATON: The ricotta with mission fig here is awesome. I love that, but I get it so much…
CMix: Before you arrived, someone’s cellphone rang and it was the bridge alert from the Enterprise.I looked around and thought you were already here, but realized that you probably wouldn’t have that as your ringtone.
WW: No, my phone plays "Good Times, Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin.
CMix: That’s a good one. So, you just came back from a convention, right?
WW: Yes, the Emerald City Comicon.
CMix: Are you wearing an Emerald City Con shirt?
WW: You know what, I didn’t have time to get one. This is a "Hanners" t-shirt from Questionable Content, which is one of my all-time favorite webcomics ever.
CMix: Nice. At the convention you seem kind of surprised at the amount of books you were selling. Does that happen a lot?
WW: I never know what to anticipate when I go to a new show. And I have these internal metrics that I set — sort of like an average sales figure that’s kind of the line for whether or not it’s a successful show, and there are all these different means by which I measure success.
Is it fun? Are the people cool? Did I stumble across a cool new t-shirt? Did I meet new artists?
CMix: Were the people cool? Was it fun?
WW: It was by every metric that I use to measure conventions. Yeah, it was epic, this convention. It was great.
I’ve discovered over the years that conventions reflect the personalities of their organizers — almost like children reflect the personalities of their parents. You see kids who are little bastards, typically it’s because their parents are idiots. But they’re little, you know?
There’s a point where they’re just so small that they can’t… they haven’t become self-aware yet. They haven’t made their own decisions. And I’ve been doing cons forever and ever and ever, and it wasn’t until we did the Phoenix Comicon last year that I kind of grokked this. Because I talked to Matt, who puts on the Phoenix convention, and he’s such nice person — it was so important to him that people had fun.
Sometimes you’ll talk to people and they’ll be real disingenuous about the reality of cons and they can be a lot of fun and they can be a lot of work. For me they’re both. And it kind of depends on what you go in expecting and what you look for.
I went to this hoping to have a good time. And the guy that puts it on is good friends with Robert [Khoo] from Penny Arcade, who I know very well. And Robert said, "you’re going to love this."
Robert’s right about everything. So I was expecting I would have a good time. What I was not expecting was that I would get there at 10:15 or 10:30 on Saturday morning and this line of 80 people had already started and never got any shorter.
CMix: All waiting for you?
WW: Waiting for me and my books and stuff. And most of the people I met over the weekend — and this has been happening more lately, and has been really gratifying and reassuring to me — don’t want to talk about Star Trek, don’t care about Star Trek and don’t want to yell at me about Star Trek.
They read my blog and they’ve read my books and they’ve read my columns. They’ve read my freelance magazine work and they listen to my podcasts. Lots and lots and lots of people. A surprising, astonishingly surprising number of people are into the work I’m doing now.
And that feels really good, because for a long time, I felt like I was that guy who used to be an actor. One of the big motivating factors in the creation of my blog and then the publishing of my books and all the work that I had done was to kind of re-establish myself and re-define myself.
I’m actually reluctant to do interviews. I’ve been really mis-portrayed.
CMix: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because I thought for sure you were going to say "no" when I contacted you about doing this interview.
WW: I am inherently distrustful of media after the number of times that I’ve been rat-fucked by media outlets. But I figured I could trust you because I know Brian [Alvey, founder of ComicMix]. And I’ve read ComicMix long enough to know I get it. I understand.
I recently did an interview — I don’t remember who it was for — but I had to keep saying, "I just want to remind you that Star Trek doesn’t define who I am now. Maybe we can let go of the frame that you thought we were going to sit in when you wrote up all your interview questions."
That’s one of the reasons I’m just inherently mistrustful of the press: it’s really important to me not to be misunderstood and misrepresented.
CMix: When you’re trying to redefine yourself, you don’t want to just be the guy who was on Star Trek — but at the same time, you were the guy on Star Trek and you can never escape that. So if someone didn’t know you and asked you what you do, what would you tell them?
WW: I’m a writer.
CMix: In the beginning, was it difficult to make the transition from actor to writer? After you finished Star Trek, you didn’t want to act anymore, but eventually you came back. Were you saying, "I’m going to come back and become a writer now?"
WW: No, I came back and said, "I’m going to be an actor." I went to drama school and took years off. I could afford to take years off because I had saved up from the Star Trek years and stuff. I just went straight to school.
I spent years in a drama program and while I was in that drama program, in addition to acting, we had entire terms where it was writing, directing, acting, writing, directing, acting. And around that time I figured out that I really enjoyed the writing. I really liked the writing. It was great.
I didn’t choose to be an actor when I was a kid. It was chosen for me and I just sort of went along with it. And I enjoyed it. I was competent at it. I took direction really well and I interacted with other actors really well, which is kind of all you need. There’s a little bit of that "you either have it or you don’t" kind of thing.
With baseball, you can pick up a curveball or you can’t. And that’s sort of the deciding factor — if you’re going to make it past a certain level of recreational ball playing, that is. I can’t pick up a curveball to save my life, but I could do the equivalent of that with acting. So I was so young when I started, but this was not something that I chose for myself at all.
But when I did it long enough, it became something that I felt like I was supposed to do. And I did enjoy it very much. And there was a time when I felt that I was an actor. I watched movies and I studied movies and I learned the history of cinema and I learned to figure out what set different directors apart from others and I studied intensively the craft of acting.
And after all of that, I figured out that what I really wanted to be was a writer. I mean, you hear people go to college to study one thing and then they figure out they want to do something else. I guess it was kind of like that for me.
But long after I had made this realization, I continued struggling to be an actor — because as I write really extensively about it in Just a Geek, I had this complex where I felt like I needed to prove to everyone that I could still do that and I could be successful doing it.
CMix: And now you don’t feel that way anymore?
WW: No. In that process, I discovered that I enjoyed writing and I enjoyed storytelling and that it just wasn’t important to me to be an on-camera actor anymore.
CMix: You do take some parts, though…
CMix: Is that mostly for the benefits — insurance and such?
CMix: Screen Actor’s Guild benefits are pretty good.
WW: I enjoy performing on camera. I really enjoy it a lot. But it’s not the end-all, be-all of my existence like it once was. It can be fun, but it can be tedious.
A lot of the things that one has to do to be a successful actor — a lot of the indignities one has to endure and the constant failed attempts and the constant views of the promised land — I’m not willing to do that anymore.
In the equation of "Is it worth it or not?" I just can’t come up with a formula that returns a positive number.
CMix: Especially, like you said, since you’re trying to define yourself as a writer. It sounds like you’d be happy if people just thought of you as a writer from now on and never even thought of you as an actor.
WW: Well, I should be clear about something. It was important to me in 2001 through 2003 to actively attempt to redefine myself. I’m done with that. If there are people who will accept it and people who won’t accept it, what’s ultimately important is that I accept it.
The way I approach my life is based on that point of view about myself. And I know that I feel good and feel happy and I feel satisfied and I feel like I’m doing the right thing when I’m hanging around with other writers and talking about our writer thing.
And I felt that way with actors for about a five- or seven-year period in my late-teens and early-20s, but not now that I’ve grown up, I guess. I was thinking about this this morning: I’ve spent a lot of time at conventions with actors and I’ve spent not a lot of time at conventions with writers and creators and artists and people like that, and there’s this massive difference in the way these two groups of people feel about themselves and their interactions with fans. Among actors, there tends to be a sense of disappointment, occasionally a sense of entitlement.
Among the creators, there’s a sense of wonder and joy and excitement and inspiration and a sense of gratitude more than anything else, gratitude. And I have more in common with and feel more comfortable with the writers and creators way more than everybody else.
I think that’s a very controversial thing to say and I think that’s going to offend a lot of people and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’ve gone into the secret room and I’m sending out reports from the other side.But that’s just my perception of this thing and it’s absolutely not to paint actors and media people in one broad brush, because that’s really unfair and it’s really not like that.
But were I to make generalizations, that’s what I would say.
CMix: Having worked in the business myself, I understand what you’re saying. You have that sense of gratitude. You were surprised and excited that people were lining up for your books at Emerald City.
WW: I think it’s kind of the difference between people who work for a living and people who don’t — which is not to say that acting isn’t work. But let me clarify that, because if that quote were to be taken out of context, that would suck.
What I mean to say is, at a convention, artists sit there and work their asses off creating custom artwork, doing commissions for people. And for actors, it’s like posing for pictures. It’s different.
You know what? This is a bad line to discuss. This doesn’t end well at all. There’s no way for this particular avenue of discussion to end without me feeling like a dick. So we should turn the corner onto a different street.
CMix: Okay, let’s move on, then. You wrote some Star Trek Manga. Are you going to write more?
WW: No. I’m done. It was really fun. Star Trek manga was really, really fun. It was scary. It was hard. But it was ultimately really fun. The whole experience was like writing a script in the late ’60s for the original series.
And I felt like a real writer when I was doing that. I was making characters do things and I had to follow an internal logic. I had to follow the rules of the universe and I had to do things like that. When I wrote the second one, I was less self-conscious. I felt like I had done one already, received good reviews and audience feedback.
But what a difference between something being enjoyed by the audience and your friends and actually getting good reviews. I got real lucky with that one and I received good notices all around. So with the second one, which comes out next month, I think, I just wanted to challenge myself.
I pitched this idea to my editor and he said, "Great, do that." And then I had to live up to the challenge I made for myself. It was the first time I had the experience that I understand real writers have, where I had Captain Kirk and this other character talking to each other and I was just listening to them and transcribing them.
It was really cool. They asked me if I would write a Next Generation Manga, and would I write a Wesley Crusher story, and I didn’t want to do it because it felt to me like there was no way in that equation that I could return a positive result.
Ultimately, I’m just not interested in Wesley Crusher anymore. It’s been a long time and he’s sort of frozen in amber in a certain state. I don’t have anything to add to that. I don’t have anything new to bring to it at all.
CMix: No thoughts about killing him off?
WW: No. I’m way more interested in working on my own original stuff. And there’s a finite number of time/energy/creative units that I can gather on my "collect resources" turn. I would rather put those into building my own story than into repairing the Wesley Crusher building.
CMix: So on that note, are you working on anything original?
WW: I am now.
CMix: Anything that you can talk about?
WW: Nope. [Laughs] Sorry.
CMix: Fair enough.
WW: You know, I’m really lucky, I get to hang out with writers who are better than me and smarter than me and more successful than me and I get to be the dumb guy in the room and get to just sort of listen. I’m kind of like an intern — I don’t say anything, I just learn.
CMix: Then let me ask you this: Are you running it for any place in particular or is it just something you’re going to publish yourself?
WW: I’m writing one for myself. I’m writing another one for a publisher. I got an offer this weekend to write another one for a different publisher.
What I said on Twitter was, the best thing that happened to me today was a publisher came up to me and said, "Would you like to write for [Title of Comic Book Will Absolutely Loves]?" My response was something like, "Squeeeeee!…" with as much "eee" as I could type before I reached the 140-character limit. It’s exciting for me.
I don’t want to take anything for granted. I had that feeling of entitlement when I was younger and didn’t know any better. I don’t ever want to feel that way again.
I know that I’m very lucky and I need to keep working very hard because there’s somebody else working just as hard as I am and we both deserve that one seat at the table, and we both have to work real hard to get it. It’s easier for the other guy to get it because I’ve been sitting in it for a little while.
So I want to work really hard to make sure I get to keep that seat. When I get these opportunities, it’s kind of like when someone writes something nice about me online. I don’t know what to do with it because I’m so used to decades of the other thing.
When these guys come up to me and say, "Would you like to do this?" it’s a tremendous validation of all the hard work that I’ve done. Because that’s when I think, "Wow, you think I could handle this. That’s awesome." And now I’m scared to death that I’m going to fuck it up and disappoint them.
But that’s okay. I work well when I’m terrified. Fear is a very good motivator.
CMix: You were talking about how you were sitting in a room with a bunch of other writers, and you mentioned before that when you decided to write, people gave you good advice. Anyone in particular?
WW: It’s gonna feel like name dropping if I talk about them. But some very good, exceptionally successful writers have said to me, "You should do that. It’s okay. Tell that story."
And it’s extremely helpful. It’s like sitting on the bench for an entire season and the coach says, "All right, go ahead. You get to play now. I’ve watched you practice and it’s your turn to play."
CMix: Did you ever consider giving up?
WW: I was working really hard on this one idea. I had this idea that I thought was really cool and I spent several days breaking the story before I realized I was writing Quantum Leap. This was really disappointing to me — not because I don’t like Quantum Leap, because I do, but because I didn’t realize that I had put those things together.
So I started a new story and then realized I was writing Enemy Mine. I said to my friends, "I’m writing Enemy Mine, what do I do?" And they said, "Enemy Mine is just…" Well, I forget the piece of literature, but it’s just two men on an island.
And one of these guys said to me, "Just write your two men on an island story." And I said, "But it’s Enemy Mine." He said, "Really, is it these two exact guys doing exactly these things?" I told him no, it wasn’t, and he said, "Then it’s not Enemy Mine. It’s two men stuck on an island together."
Actually, you know what? I don’t think it’s name-dropping; Ed Brubaker told me that. He tells people this all the time because he was given this advice when he was a neophyte writer. He was stressing out about there not being a lot of new stories to tell and someone else said to him there are only five story ideas.
The problem for us is that Alan Moore has done all five of them — and he’s done them better than anyone ever will. But Ed said, "Men on an island. Just write it. It’s okay."
CMix: That sounds like good advice for any writer…
WW: I read the end notes to Atrocity Archive, and in the end notes, Charlie Stross says, "When I was working on this, somebody said ‘Hey, you shouldn’t read blah blah blah because it’s kind of like this.’" — but maybe I’m confusing books in my head. Maybe it was Casanova I read, and Matt Fraction said that. Hmm.
When you’re as big a fan as genre fiction as I am, it’s hard not to be influenced by things. I’m writing a noir story now that’s kind of a Phillip K. Dick story, because that’s what I was reading and listening to a lot when I got the idea to put this together.
So I’ve just accepted that Dick wrote science fiction, but he wrote it in a noir style — and that’s what I like, and that’s okay. He was my inspiration.
CMix: If you’re a fan of Dick, what did you think of Blade Runner?
WW: I haven’t had time to watch the "Final Cut" yet, but I have it. My wife and I watched all of The Sopranos until the last episode. We let the last episode sit for three months because we didn’t want to know how it ended. I was actually very satisfied with the ending, though.
With Blade Runner, I could not see it ending a different way. But as I grew to enjoy Blade Runner, it became one of those things that defined my visual sense of what a dystopian future looks like.
And it’s not even my favorite Dick story. I love the original version of The Minority Report. I think that story is just awesome. I think it’s called "Fifth Variety" or "Sixth Variety," and even though I know what’s going to happen three chapters before the protagonist does, the way that he puts that story together is tremendously satisfying to me.
So I liked Blade Runner a lot. I didn’t see the movie version of Minority Report, because I have a flow chart for when I go to see movies, and one of the first things on the flow chart is, "Is Tom Cruise in this movie?" Yes? Fail.
There are a few actors that, well… They just overwhelm the roles. He’s one of them.
CMix: While we’re on the subject of movies, you saw Iron Man — what other comic book movies have you enjoyed?
I love the original Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. I don’t understand why they made the new Superman movie. I liked it, but it kind of felt like the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. And if you’re going to do a Superman movie, don’t give Lois-fucking-Lane a child! I mean, come on, Lois Lane has a kid? Really? Patrick Duffy better be taking a shower in this movie, because this is stupid.
CMix: Just wake up, and it’ll all be a dream…
WW: I liked a lot about the first Batman movie… the Tim Burton Batman. I felt that someone should re-cut the first Batman movie and the second Batman movie together — and this was me when I was 16 thinking this — because there were great things in both of them, and really, really, really horrible things in both of them.
CMix: Well, at 16 you were probably more savvy as a film watcher than the average 16-year-old.
WW: I was also a bigger comic book nerd than a lot of people. Two things really bothered me in the first Batman movie. Making the Joker the guy that killed his parents really annoyed me, because part of what drives Batman is that he can never find the guy that killed his parents. And ultimately, whoever that person is, it doesn’t matter.
It’s not about, "Oh, I caught you, criminal X," it’s more like, "Wow, you’re that terrifying guy who I’m never going to be able to find that murdered my parents in front of me and has directly driven my entire life."
CMix: Well, they find him in Batman Begins, too…
WW: Yeah, and it’s the same problem all over again. I get that Hollywood wants to do that and get that closure, but I think it really misses the point. But that still didn’t offend me as much as the scene when Alfred brings Vicki Vale into the Bat Cave.
It’s like Alfred goes, "Um, hey, Bruce, listen — I know that you work really hard to have this whole secret identity thing and I know you have the costume and the dual life and you do all this stuff, but I was thinking that maybe it’s time you took your relationship with the reporter to the next level. So, since you weren’t going to do it on your own, I just thought I’d bring her into the Bat Cave for you."
Tim Burton got so much right in that movie, but I do not understand why that decision was made.
CMix: It might have been out of his control — maybe someone said Kim Basinger needed to be in more of the movie. You’ve written on your website that Iron Man is a great movie, but what do you think makes it a great movie?
WW: It felt like reading a comic book. It didn’t try to be something that it wasn’t, and it really embraced and celebrated what it was. And I think Robert Downey Jr. is one of the greatest actors of his generation. I really enjoyed the film — which is why I really enjoyed the comic they’re doing now. Iron Man in Vegas. It’s pretty interesting.
WW: I just hope that this does not make him the comic book movie guy, because he’s an insanely good actor. But I’m sure he’ll continue to do other work. I have this theory that guys like Peter Jackson and Jon Favreau and Zack Snyder are, well… They probably grew up being pissed off about Vicki Vale being brought into the Bat Cave, too — and they vowed that when they got their shot, they weren’t going to do that.
This wraps up the first part of my interview with Wil Wheaton. Be sure to check back next week for the second part of the interview and the following week for the third (and final) part of my interview here at ComicMix.
You can find out more about Wil Wheaton, his writing and his books, Just A Geek and Dancing Barefoot, at www.wilwheaton.net. Wheaton can be found at San Diego Comic-Con this year at the booth for the Dumbrella webcomics collective.