Wil Wheaton has been entertaining geeks since his teenage years as Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." More recently, he's appeared as a fictionalized version of himself on "The Big Bang Theory," and on his board game Web show "TableTop."
His latest endeavor is "The Wil Wheaton Project" -- a weekly program highlighting nerd culture that premieres on SyFy Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. The Switch talked to Wheaton on Friday afternoon via telephone. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Andrea Peterson: [Starts recording after asking for permission] Thanks -- I try very hard not to violate wiretapping laws while doing my reporting. It's very important to me.
Wil Wheaton: You're never going to get a job at the NSA [National Security Agency] with that attitude.
So tell me about your new show. As I understand it, the show is sort of a weekly television love letter to nerd culture. Is that how you think about it?
I think that's a fair assessment. It's also just sort to taking all of the things that I love and all of the things that I do in relation to the things that I love and putting it into a television format that people understand and know what to expect from. Somebody said to me it's sort of like everything I do on the Internet converted to television, which I think is pretty accurate.
I have said that being a nerd is not about being what you love, it's about the way that you love it. And the way that we love the subtexts and the programs that we are going to be covering on "The Wil Wheaton Project" is exactly what you'll be seeing come out of me on the show. We highlight the things we think are awesome, and then we tease and make fun of the absurdities, as well.
We started out with a fun NSA jokes here, and I know that's an issue you've been very vocal on, basically since the first Verizon order [which revealed the NSA was collecting domestic phone records in bulk] came out. Are we going to see you tackle those issues, as well?
I don't think so. The purpose of the show is to entertain and to make what is popularly known as nerd culture accessible to anyone that cares to pay attention to it. I'm hoping to have a half an hour every week where people who like the same things as I like will join me to look back at the really great stuff that happened in comic books and sci-fi fantasy and a lot of the things that we watch on television -- maybe try to highlight some of the lesser-known things that exist on the fringes of nerd culture that I think are really awesome and maybe aren't getting through on television.
But the prime directive from the network and the production company and from me to the writers is that we need to be funny. We need to be entertaining. And every now and then we can slip in something that maybe is a bit more serious and maybe makes a little bit of a point, but we need to do it in a way that is funny and entertaining because that's the purpose of the show.
So while you have a very broad definition of what being a nerd is, it really does seem that in your career you've become a bit of an icon or ambassador for more traditional nerd topics -- be it from your roles on "Star Trek" to "The Big Bang Theory"...
Until recently that's been something I've made a conscious effort not to think about because I find that if I overanalyze something then I start to feel like whatever that thing is becomes like a rabbit and I'm Lenny back behind the farm and just petting it to death. What I have kind of concluded recently is that I've basically been in the same place as far as the movies I love and the television I love and the video games I love. And the way that I love them has sort of moved around to the point where I'm no longer way out on another planet. I'm right in the middle of it.
I know that I'm a little bit of a spokesman for those things, and I know that I have a little bit of a high profile in that world. And because I'm aware of that, I'm grateful for it. And it's a privilege to have that voice, and it is important to me to respect it, not take it for granted. And every now and then when people want to hear me talk, it's important that I have something to say.
I guess that, if anything, I kind of need to tone down how much I love stuff because most media -- and I generally don't like to do interviews; I prefer to just let the finished work to speak for itself -- but being ready to go, the network wants me to talk to everybody and let people know about it so that enough people know about it that it's able to speak for itself.
Oh, no -- my puppy took a blanket off the bed!
It's so funny, because she runs around the house like "I've got a blanket."
So your puppy is about as excited about the blanket as you worry you come across about things.
I love things like she loves everything. So, I've been doing all of these interviews, and I've found that a lot of press is conditioned to expect five-word answers and a lot of people are sort of stuck on talking points and stuff, and if someone asks me about a game, three or four minutes later I'm still talking about why it's so awesome and how I can draw a straight line from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan.
I just talked to Larry King last week, and I could tell that he's used to people giving really brief answers that are straight off the talking points, and I was like, "Dude, let's talk about this -- Larry King wants to talk about board games, let's go!" So if anything, I've had to sort of dial it down a little bit.
Well, at the risk of sounding like you and your dog I just want to say really quickly that I really love "TableTop"...
I'm glad you like it.
We're still trying to get together a board game night for our little crew of tech reporters at The Post, but it seems very likely we will finally do it in the near future...
I was in Mashable two weeks ago, and I was doing an interview with them. And the woman I was talking to was telling me that she loves board games, too, and she loves "TableTop" and started the board game night at Mashable by having them watch "TableTop," which is really exciting to me. One of the reasons we created that show was to let people experience what it's like to sit down and spend time with interesting people playing games.
My ulterior motive for "TableTop" was to make more gamers -- and by all accounts that mission has been a very big success. I'm hoping to do something similar with "The Wil Wheaton Project."
I'm hoping that people who already love sci-fi fantasy and the supernatural shows will come on board and enjoy what we're talking about. I'm also hopeful that they will be able to share this speculative fiction entertainment with their partners who maybe aren't already into it in the same way that people who are gamers shared "TableTop" with their friends and families and partners who are not gamers.
For the record, I'm hoping my attempt to do board games will eventually result in a D&D group -- so, long-term strategy.
That's great, good luck.
I think it's probably a little ambitious, but we'll see how it goes.
You can always come up with something a little bit lighter -- there's a game called "Mice and Mystics" that's really fun. It's basically a role-playing game in a box with a prebuilt campaign. You don't need a game master -- everybody plays together. And it's really, really, really fun. It's low investment and easy if somebody is intrigued by the concept of role-playing.
That sounds like a lot of fun -- my Trojan Horse was going to be "Munchkin," but I still have some strategizing to do... But to try out a completely different topic. I was wondering if we could touch a little bit on your "Star Trek" years -- I'm the big "Next Generation" fan here on the Switch, while my colleagues are more "Deep Space Nine" folks -- it's a point of contention we are working out. But I'm particularly interested in hearing how you think the experience of being a child actor in that prominent of a role would be different with the sort of connectivity that many celebrities have with their fans now online -- Tweeting every little detail...
You know, I really can't say. I came to this online world as a kid using BBSes [an early form of online message board], and I actually did some like "Star Trek" Q&A stuff when I was 14, 15, 16 years old back then, but nothing even close to what it's like now. And I was aware even then that online there was this group of people who didn't like who I played on the show, so they decided that they hated me.
People weren't making the distinction between the actor and the character, and so it became very difficult for me to make the distinction between me and the character -- and it was very hurtful. It was really difficult to deal with. I felt like I never got an opportunity to speak for myself. Back then the only way to communicate with anyone was to sit down and do an interview, and for the most part no one was interested in anything I had to say.
If I did ever get to talk to someone who was writing a story it was usually some sort of fluffy dumb type of teen magazine thing that really didn't mean anything -- or it was something for a science fiction publication, and it was basically built around a frame of "people don't like Wesley, how do you feel about that?" and it never went any further than that. Growing up and dealing with all of that, it sucked.
But in 2000 in my late 20s I became aware of the existence of online journals and blogging software and I saw that I had an opportunity to finally speak for myself and talk about the things that were important to me -- to share some of myself. And that's when I started my blog. Writing that blog was tremendously therapeutic for me because it let me work through a lot of the lingering pain and frustration that I had from when I was younger.
It let me lay out who I was and what I was about and say to the world: "This is me, and if you're going to take this thing that I have for a character I played 20 years ago and put it on to me -- that's not my problem, that's yours."
And because I was there at the very beginning blogging when these social media things started picking up, I felt very comfortable there because I was already a person who lived very openly, loudly online. And Twitter, Tumblr and all of the different social networks were just sort of a different way to express and communicate what I'd already been doing.
I don't know if those things had been around when I was a kid and I had started there instead of starting with blogging -- with the intellectual demands that blogging puts on people. There's a really good chance that teenage me would be communicating to the world in some way that is sort of like if you took Jaden Smith and Justin Bieber and put them in a blender and just pulled the worst garbage out of it.
It's very likely that's the way I would have expressed myself because I was young and naive and trying to figure out who I was. I can't say for sure how it would have been, but I can say with a lot of confidence based on looking back at myself and some of the pictures, and occasionally I'll come across an interview where someone filmed me speaking at a convention, it wouldn't have been pretty just because I was a weird kid.
You kids that grew up and don't have your childhoods immortalized online -- you're lucky. Just be glad your embarrassing high school photos and those teenage thoughts are confined rather than being recorded for the rest of history until the heat death of the universe.
I appreciate that literary reference [to the Cory Doctorow novel "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom"]. One of the major takeaways from the point you were just making is that I should definitely not end this interview with a "Shut up, Wesley."
I wrote a blog post and said, "This is why you shouldn't follow me on Twitter" and something similar on why you shouldn't follow me on Facebook or anywhere, because this is who I am and I'm not going to be what you want me to be, and these are some of the rules that I have: One of them is that I know that there are certain people who think "Shut up, Wesley" is hilarious.
I've heard it a million times. It is not possible to say that in a way that is funny and interesting and new. It's just kind of like that was 26 years ago. It's time to move on. So, yes, thanks, I appreciate you not going to that particular place.
Well, obviously I inadvertently went there. So for that I apologize.
I know you've been very open about your struggle with depression and anxiety in a way that I think is very brave. How do you handle that with being so public?
I remember when I was younger and was really struggling with depression and I didn't know it. I didn't know that I had it; I just knew that I felt bad. It's real common for someone who doesn't have depression to think, "Well, you should just cheer up." And speaking as a person who has varying degrees of good and bad days, the answer to that is that if I could, if I could just feel better, I would. The reality is that when you suffer from depression you just can't, and you need help -- there's medical help, and talking therapy help, and there's these things that kind of all go together.
What finally made it okay for me to ask for help and to get over the stigma -- there's a huge stigma in my family around depression -- and for me to get over the stigma, I've talked with some friends of mine who are extremely successful and they have depression and anxiety, and they talked about it in public. Because they talked about it, it made me realize that I wasn't alone and that I didn't have to suffer and that if they could have it and be treated and be super successful and happy, then so could I.
There's this writer Jenny Lawson who has been really open about it. And she was writing about it one day, and I just decided that I had suffered in silence for a really long time and I'm very lucky and very privileged in that occasionally people want to hear something that I have to say. I thought, you know, if I can help someone get help the way that my friends and Jenny Lawson helped me get help, I feel that I have a responsibility to do that.
It's part of me. And some days are good. I know that the publicists at the network would rather that I didn't talk about it, and I know that they would rather me put up an image of being successful and happy and advertiser-friendly. But the reality is that I'm a flawed human being, and I struggle every day with one thing or another, and some days are great, and some days are less great. That's just the way that it is.
By being open and honest, I keep myself open and honest and I stay connected to the real world, and I don't become one of those entitled douche-bag celebrity people. I don't ever want to be one of those people. By talking about all of this stuff and staying honest and staying real, it prevents that from happening, and it makes me feel like I'm sort of doing something good that's more important and bigger than me -- that's more important and bigger than just being an entertainer.
Unfortunately, I know that I'm running up against the clock here, but is there anything else you really want to say -- about the show, or any of your other projects?
I'm really excited about this show to finally be on the air so it can be judged on its own merits and I won't have to talk about it anymore.
You're excited to be done with interviews.
It's weird because we've done test shows and we've done a live show, and the show officially goes on the air on Tuesday, and we're shooting our first episode for broadcast on Monday, but we've already done four episodes that will never be aired because we've been trying to get this thing ready to go. We're a pretty timely show, from the time we tape it to the time we deliver it to the network: eight hours. It's not a lot of time to turn the show around, so it's kind of weird to be working really hard on this thing and putting a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of creative focus into something. And every time we do something awesome I want to just grab that clip off the server at the office and put it online because that's what I'm used to as someone living in my blogging, social media world.
It's so weird that I have to like get permission to show stuff and go to the network and say, "Please let me put this online, it's so funny!" And they don't want me to, because they want to wait because the show is already on. I'm anxious for this to be on and just to have a little bit more feedback from an audience that is outside of the people that I work with because we think it's really funny and we think it's pretty interesting and entertaining -- but ultimately what we think doesn't matter: It's what the audience thinks. And I just hope that we land on an audience in a way that makes it possible for us to keep doing this show.
Chris Hardwick and I have been really close friends since we were 20. And when he started @midnight I called him and said, "Your show is so funny and it looks like you're having so much fun." And he said, "Yeah, I could do this for the rest of my life." To have that kind of a feeling around a show that you work really hard to develop and to release? That is super awesome.
I'm just anxious to just get past the uncertainty of the whole thing.
Well, I think this interview is going to go up on Tuesday morning so, in theory, shortly after it goes up you will be getting some feedback when the show airs.
Yeah -- it's an interesting experience because I'll get audience reactions in something awfully close to real time. But what the network cares about [ratings] doesn't happen for three days. And that's a weird experience.
But it's a thing I can't spend too much time thinking about and let that sort of thing overwhelm me. I have to just stay focused on what is important and what I can actually have an effect on, which is making the best show that I can make and having the most fun that I can while making it.