one small part of a pretty great life

“My point is, there was a time when I thought I would never get out of Wesley Crusher’s shadow, but now that’s just a small part of a pretty great life, and it’s a part that I’m glad is there.”

The interstate highways in Texas go on forever, it seems, between major cities.  For hundreds of miles, there’s not much to see but other cars, the occasional water tower, a few cows, and a ribbon of concrete that cuts across the vast, flat landscape.

A few months ago, I was in a van with Paul and Storm and Anne as we drove between Houston and Dallas down one of those endless highways. Anne was asleep in the chair next to me, as Paul drove and Storm navigated. I played Carcassonne on my iPad as we left Houston behind us and never seemed to get any closer to Dallas.

As I was losing yet another game (it turns out that it’s much easier to win in a three player game than it is in a four player game, regardless of your opponents’ skill level, due to the additional randomness inherent in the draw) my cellphone played the original Star Trek communicator sound in my pocket. I pulled it out and read a text message from my friend Steve Molaro, who is the show runner on The Big Bang Theory. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” He asked.

“I have all the time in the world,” I replied, “because I’m in a van on a highway in Texas and I think I’m going to be on this road for another decade before we get to Dallas.”

“I’ll call you in a little while,” he replied. I went back to losing my game.

A little while later, the Doctor Who theme came out of my pocket.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Steve.”

“Hey! How are you?”

“Really good. Listen, we’re writing a scene for you and I wanted your input on it.”

I was taken aback. It’s such an honor and a privilege to work on The Big Bang Theory at all, but to be asked to provide some input into how my scenes are written, especially when the writers there are so goddamned good at what they do, was pretty amazing.

“Sure,” I said. “I am at your service.”

Steve told me about the story arc they were doing with Sheldon accidentally discovering a new element, and how Sheldon was unhappy about it. “We thought it would be nice for Amy to bring you in, to try and cheer him up,” he said, “so I wondered if there was ever anything in your life that you regretted or felt bad about at the time, but you came to accept as a good part of your life.”

Oh, you mean my entire teenage years and my early twenties? I thought.

“Yeah,” I said. “When I was younger, people gave me such a hard time about Wesley Crusher, there was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I resented Star Trek. It felt so unfair that people who had never met me were so cruel and hateful toward me as a person because they didn’t like a character I played on a TV show, I wanted to put Star Trek behind me and forget that it was ever part of my life.

“But as I got older and started to meet more people who were also kids when Next Generation was in its first run, I started to hear these stories from people, about how they had nothing in common with their parents except for Star Trek, and they wouldn’t have watched Star Trek together if Wesley hadn’t been on the show. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are now doctors and engineers and scientists because they were inspired by Wesley and Geordi the way our parents’ generation was inspired by Scotty.”

“That’s wonderful,” Steve said.

“Yeah, it’s really great. You know, my favorite episode of Next Generation is Tapestry, because I fully believe that our lives are a complex tapestry, woven from all our experiences — positive and negative — we have in our lives. There was a time when I really resented Wesley Crusher, but I just love my life now, and instead of feeling like I had to get out of his shadow, I feel like I’m standing proudly on his shoulders.”

“This is exactly what I was hoping for,” he said. “This is going to be such a great scene.”

“If there’s anything I can do, just pick up the phone,” I said.

“I’ll get in touch when we have the scene finished, and I’ll see you in a couple weeks!”

“Awesome. Thanks, man.” I hung up my phone, and looked out at the endless Texas landscape, unchanged in any meaningful way during the phone call.

“Who was that?” Anne asked, waking up from her nap.

“Molaro. He had questions for me for the Big Bang I’m doing when we get home.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

“No, not yet,” I said.

“You’re no fun,” she said.

“I know. I’m the worst.”

I went back to losing my game, Anne looked at her phone, and the van pushed ever onward toward Dallas.

‡‡‡

A few weeks later, I got the script for the episode. As always, it arrived late in the evening, the day before the table read. I signed for it, thanked the courier, and ran into my office.

I sat on my couch, tore open the manilla envelope, and began to read. When I got to the scene with Sheldon, Amy, and Wil Wheaton, I read it as an actor: I kept my emotions neutral, and let the characters talk to me. Then, I read it as a fan of the show: I heard the individual voices, and I laughed at the jokes. Then, I read it one final time, as The Guy Who Played Wesley Crusher: I realized that I was going to be on one of the most popular shows in the English-speaking world, saying to anyone who cared to listen, “I’m an author now. I do public speaking, and I have my own web series about boardgames … there was a time when I thought I would never get out of Wesley Crusher’s shadow, but now that’s just a small part of a pretty great life, and it’s a part that I’m glad is there.”

That’s when the tears sprung into my eyes, and the weird mix of joy and something else that wasn’t quite sadness, but had its roots there bloomed in my chest.

I read the rest of the script, and, like I always do, felt like a kid the night before Christmas or his birthday, impatiently waiting for the morning to come.

When I went to the table read the next morning, I was greeted warmly and welcomed by everyone there. When we got to the scene with Sheldon, Amy, and Wil Wheaton, Mayim said Amy’s line, “We’re, uh, trying to cheer him up, so …” and the room exploded into laughter, myself included. Mayim was sitting across from me, and she looked up from her script and said to me, “I’m so sorry. I want you to know that I do not share Amy’s opinion here.” The entire room laughed, again. “I know, it’s okay,” I said. We read the rest of the script, and took a break before we began rehearsal. I found Steve and Bill Prady and some of the other producers, and walked over to them.

“Great job,” Steve said to me.

“I’m not gonna lie,” I said, “I got a little weepy when I read it.” I paused for a second. “Thank you for this.”

“No, thank you for being here.” He said.

“Can I pitch you a joke?” I said.

“Sure.”

“Would it be too meta if Wil Wheaton says something about how he gets to guest star on a popular series, but Sheldon doesn’t know what that show is?”

“We thought about something like that,” he said, “but we worried that it may confuse the audience and take them out of the moment. That’s why there’s no reference to you being on Eureka or Leverage or anything like that. We thought it would be simpler and cleaner if our Wil Wheaton doesn’t have the same television acting career that you have.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “And, once again, can I just observe how weird and hilarious it is that there’s your Wil Wheaton, and Wil Wheaton Prime, and they look the same but are very different and I’m both of them?”

We all laughed, and they went back to the writer’s building to do their thing, while I went to the set to do mine.

Over the week of rehearsals, the words never changed in that scene, but my performance did. It was Chuck Lorre who pointed out to me that the sentiment may be very emotional to me, it’s more matter-of-fact to Wil Wheaton the character. When he gave me that perspective, the performance settled into what you saw in the episode.

Like Wil Wheaton said to Sheldon, there was a time when I felt like I’d never get out of Wesley’s shadow, but now I truly am grateful that Wesley Crusher and Star Trek are a part of my life.

Their Wil Wheaton couldn’t say it, but my Wil Wheaton can: Big Bang Theory is a very important part of my personal and professional life, and is one of the reasons I can stand on the shoulders of Star Trek in a way that I thought — well, feared is more accurate — I never would, and I’m incredibly grateful that it’s there. I’m grateful for the friendships I’ve made among the cast, crew, and writers, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me to work in comedy. Every time I’m there, I learn a little bit more about comedic acting, acting in front of an audience, and acting in a sitcom.

I don’t know what the future of my career holds, but I know that whatever is over the horizon, the road I’ve traveled to get here is like those Interstates in Texas: everything can look the same, and it can feel like you’re not going anywhere, until you suddenly get where you’re going and realize that you’ve been traveling for a long time.

112 thoughts on “one small part of a pretty great life”

  1. As someone who recently turned the biggest regret in my life into something wonderful, I get what you mean even if I haven’t seen the episode yet. I was one of those kids your age who idolized Wesley. Thank you for being you through it all.

  2. Wil,

    As I watched that scene I thought about the choices you made to play it, and I appreciate your sharing your thought process with us here. It was actually a pretty cool scene and one I’d gladly play for others who were in the same boat as Sheldon. I like the “Wil Wheaton Prime” idea. ;)

    Keep looking up!

    carolyn (thespacewriter)

  3. Wil – beautiful post. I had an odd sensation watching that episode: here’s a TV character talking about a person whose blog I’ve been reading since 2003. Reality bent a little bit. Reading your blog has provided many opportunities for reflection. Thanks!

  4. Isn’t life the most amazing, crazy, ever-changing, odyssey ever?
    Yep, it is.

    Wonderful, Mr. Wheaton.

    But please, most importantly, post a “How To Play Carcassone On An iPad” video!!! I have no idea how to play a solo game.

  5. It’s good to know that I’m not the only that wanted to erase my teenage years and early twenties. I’m just starting to get over that now. Thank you for this.. it gives me hope.

  6. Thank you Wil,

    I too was quite moved by that line and impressed that you were allowed to express something so personal and have it fit so perfectly in to the show. Thank you for being so candid about your personal struggles with depression and the difficult time you had growing up in the spotlight.

    Yes, there was a lot of scrutiny brought upon Wesley Crusher and it must have been difficult at times to separate the sentiment towards the character and your own performance as an actor. This would have been difficult for any actor to manage, let alone a teen looking for approval in a world of adults. You handled it admirably with the grace and skill of an actor many years your senior and the show would not have been the same without you.

    It must be such a great feeling to finally be comfortable in your own skin. I am SO happy for you!!

  7. I just caught up on Big Bang last night and I really enjoyed your heartfelt performance. Thanks for sharing your experience and feelings behind it all. It was really cool to hear that. Keep up the great work, Wil.

  8. Wil, in the history of my nerdy family watching TV together we have squeed and high fived the TV twice… once during the Xmas episode of Eureka where everyone turned into Japanese anime, and the second time when Amy said, “I brought someone to cheer you up.” and you walked out.

    So, thanks for being you.

  9. I’ve never watched Big Bang Theory (sorry everybody!) but I think this post had the same emotional impact on me as if I had. I’m sure you were great, and it sounds like a great scene. :)

  10. I love this website !… It’s really cool to understand that even 2-minute cameo of TV shows have a little backstory to it. I have actually never been more excited to wait for your role, repeating “Where is he? Where the FUCK is Wheeeeeaton!?!?!”

  11. That was such a touching post. I think I may learn something about this. Thank you Will for shearing your experience with us.

  12. I was in middle school/high school when TNG came out and, having watched the OS growing up, loved it right away. When the character of Wesley Crusher was introduced, I was thrilled (still riding the crush I had on you from in “Stand By Me”). I loved the character’s goofy awkwardness. Whereas Picard was always so level-headed, wise and respected, Worf was noble, Data was irrefutably logical (and ever so much the Pinocchio), Troi was just too gosh-darn beautiful for words, and Riker was so suave, Wesley was a lot like me- nerdy, awkward, a wanting so desperately to be all grown up and treated like a real adult while still struggling with the miasma that is adolescence. Wesley gave me hope that even in the advanced future, there’d be a place for weird geeky people like me and made some of the hell that was high school a little more bearable. I never had much of a head for maths and sciences, but I did go on to become an English teacher. I’m still that awkward, weird, geeky girl, but now my classroom is there as a safe-haven and harbor in the storm of high school drama for the kids who were like me, like Wesley. My kids find camaraderie, humor, and the latest internet memes in my room. It makes me sad to know that those years on TNG were so hard on you, but I’m glad that you can look back on that experience with a little love. Know that for one kid growing up in NJ in the late 80’s/early 90’s, you and the character of Wesley Crusher were one of the best parts of TNG.

  13. I thought about your journey from your teenagerhood attitude about Wesley to today’s outlook on it when I saw that episode. I loved how the script mirrored what I’ve seen you say about it. It was also cool to see BBT Wil being almost sentimental. ;)

  14. Thank you Wil. You are truly a role model for our generation, and your heart knows no bounds. I love following your experiences and I am very happy for you and your family. You seem like a really good person and I take your motto to heart. Thank you again for sharing and being a good example to follow.

  15. Mr. Wheaton. I think I’ve told you this before, but I just wanted to let you know again. I’m one of those kids who grew up in the 90s and TNG was a HUGE influence on me; specifically Wesley (aka you, because you’ve convinced me that you two are totally the same person). I’m now a 3erd year PhD student studying physics. To get all techno jargon, Terahertz spectroscopy and its applications to ultrafast communications and Quantum information science. You the actor and as well as your counterpart were a huge, positive influence on me.

    And you still are. I do my best to help teach and encourage my family and friends to try out table top games and have brought home pandemic for Christmas for my family to try out. I also have gotten around a half a dozen people into DnD after your exploits with Acq. Inc.

    So to both the past and present you, thank you! May future you be as incredible a human being as the first two.

  16. Texas interstates aren’t all as monotonous as I-45. This might be a very different anecdote if you took this telephone conversation, transposed it to the length of interstate between Dallas and El Paso, and gave yourself nine hours instead of three. Looks like another planet once you’re past Pecos. Best of luck to you, Wil.

  17. I am much more impressed with the dialog in your scene now that you have told us the story behind it. When I first saw it I was wondering if there was any truth behind it. Also nice to read your thoughts regarding working on TBBT.

  18. I loved this scene so much, for so many reasons.

    It just brought a slow smile to my face, and that’s never a bad thing.

    And hey, speaking of the regrets of being young, you wanna know something funny? I regret hating Wesley Crusher as a teenager, because Wil Wheaton is pretty fucking amazing, and I wouldn’t know that without Wesley to introduce us, so to speak. (A random “where are they now?” forum thread on startrek.com brought me here years ago, and I haven’t left since. And yes, I admit I was not a fan of Wesley, even though we were of similar age. Also, I didn’t have the money to go to cons back then, so I promise I was never mean to you in person, and I hope to hell I never would have been, because that is positively uncivilized.) So I’m a lot easier on Wesley now when I watch TNG. In fact, he’s kind of like my biggest, goofiest dog. Sure, he’s annoying, but he’s my kind of annoying. :)

    Thanks for being you, Wil.

    *Imperial Guard Salute*

  19. Really loved your episode Wil, really felt what you meant with those amazing lines. Having been a fan of your career and read your books (which hubby recommended to me when I was in a pit of depression about my creative career) it really hit home.
    I never comment on your Tabletop episodes, although I’ve been a subscriber from day one. I apologize for that but do promise I watch every episode. (You’ll win one soon, I know it!)

  20. Thx Wil

    That we have the courage to stand in our own shadow is what makes life both a struggle and a joy.

    Scott S

  21. I really loved seeing you in this scene. It felt like it was from the heart. Thanks for writing about the experience!

  22. Always love seeing what you are up to. I was 10 or 11 and was at a Trek Convention between seasons 1 and 2 of TNG. Someone asked Marina if Wesley was coming back in season 2 and she said yes. Some groaned. I remember feeling really shell-shocked. I related to Wesley and enjoyed the character. As Marina staunchly defended your character and you, I remember defending you in my young mind as well. I am glad that perspective and time has lent itself to your branching out and escaping whatever stigma that was and being a great success in the industry.

  23. Beautiful post Wil! Made me tear up. Loved that scene in Big Bang too. I was one of those kids who watched Next Gen because I could relate to Wesley and it was a great bonding experience for my dad and I, so thank you for that!

  24. Sometimes I read this blog and and totally lost (I am not a gamer in any sense of the word), but THIS entry…WOW.
    It made sense to me (Costume Designer) on a creative team level. It made sense on the “let’s understand our past” level.
    It made me proud to have watched every episode of every Star Trek series and Big Bang. Thank you for this eloquent blog.

  25. Tapestry’s my favourite also Wil, for largely the same reasons. Err, better make that *similar* reasons – I don’t think I ever played Wesley Crusher…

  26. This was a lot of fun to read after just having seen the episode. Thanks for sharing it.

    By the way, that highway from Houston to Dallas REALLY sucks when you’re on it for 20 hours due to a hurricane evacuation! ;-)

  27. This was beautiful. Perfect. Exactly what I hoped you’d say. Thanks…

    (and yes, I’m just going to assume that you wrote the entire thing because of the question I asked about the earlier post. It’s probably not true, but like the any good piece of writing, I’m much happier believing the fiction! Thanks again for writing it…)

  28. This post is so simple, yet so profound. You think it’s going one way, and then you hit us with that ending. Thanks, Wil!

  29. I said this to my daughter at the end of the show, and I am glad for the chance to say it to you: I love the way your character-Wil started out as an ass on this show, and has morphed into not-such-an-ass as the series has progressed. It’s almost as if no matter how hard they try, writers just can’t KEEP you an ass for very long. Too much real-Wil shines through!

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