So two months after I decided to hit the reset button on my life, I found myself falling into some of the old patterns of behavior that weren’t working for me, the very patterns that I’d vowed to change. There are lots of reasons that I just don’t feel comfortable talking about to the entire world, but one of the things that kept coming back to me was unresolved issues related to being a child actor.
As it turns out, this subreddit I like to read (nb: yes, a lot of Reddit is a cesspool, but because we can choose which subs to read and who we interact with, I view it like a mall of ideas, and I’m not required to shop at every store) called RedditDayOf. Every day, there’s a different topic, and readers submit stuff related to that topic. So I was sitting at my desk with my coffee, waking up and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my day, when I saw that the topic was Child Stars. Before I knew what I was doing, I typed, “I was a child star in the 80s. AMA.” and ended up spending the day talking about my life in and out of the spotlight, as a child star, a former child star, a failed child star, and a successful adult actor and human.
I’ve collected and organized some of the things that came up in that thread, because they ended up representing some Frequently Asked Questions. If you’re interested, and want to get to know me a little better, read on.
Mostly Big Bang Theory, and Some Other Roles
Q: Are you character acting on BBT, or are you mostly just being you? I hope you have as much fun acting on it as it is to watch it!!
A: It’s a little bit of both. It’s taken me years to get comfortable with the idea that I’m playing a character who looks like me, who shares much of my biography, and my name, but who is a work of fiction.
Q: How come most of your adult roles are asses?
A: I think that all actors have a particular type that we can play, a particular function in the dramatic experience that each of us is best suited to bring to life.
When I was a kid, it was the struggling idealist who was doing his best to gain approval from the adults around him. As an adult, I’ve settled into playing the guy you love to hate, who probably has some good in him, somewhere.
I’m not sure exactly why that is, because I work very hard to be a good person who leaves good things in the world, but it’s really fun to play those characters, so I’ll keep doing it as long as they keep hiring me.
Q: Stand By Me and Star Trek are great and all, but you know what I really loved as a kid – Toy Soldiers. I spent a lot of hours daydreaming about how I was going to deal with any Columbian terrorists who might invade my school. I loved that kind of thing. And Denholm Elliot was in it! Any particular memories of that one?
A: My fondest memory from that shoot was when we were filming in the quad, after our characters put all the dean’s furniture out on the lawn.
We were between takes, and Sean Astin asked the prop guy to give him a banana. The camera rolls, and Sean is standing there, eating a banana in the most contemptuous, surly way I think anyone ever could. Lou Gosset is talking to him, and Sean throws the banana peel into the trash.
Lou, keeping his anger and laughter under control, deliberately says, “Pick. Up. That. Banana.”
Sean rolls his eyes and picks it up. It’s one of the funniest moments in the film, tells you everything you need to know about the two characters’ relationship, and was entirely improvised by two great actors.
Q: I was crushed when the Wil Wheaton Project didn’t get renewed. Like, really let down. I can’t imagine what you thought. But we’re out here! Wheatenette, here!
A: It’s okay the TWWP didn’t get renewed. The network goons and I had very different ideas about what the show should and could be, and it wasn’t a fun experience for any of us.
I will always believe that if they’d given us a better chance, and let us make the show we wanted to make, it would have been successful, but since we didn’t want to make the show they wanted, they pulled the plug. I’m sure they’ll find a team to make that show, though, and they’ll be happy.
To be totally honest, though? I’m just glad that they’re finally doing real Sci-Fi on the network, again, and that it’s really good.
Mostly Star Trek Questions
Q: I personally always loved Wesley Crusher, but I know many didn’t. Was that hard to deal with?
A: Yeah. It sucked. Imagine being only good at one thing, and having people constantly attack you for that thing, even though you’re doing your best. It took me a long, long time and a lot of therapy to get over that.
Q: In 2001 you appeared on a special Stars of Star Trek episode of The Weakest Link.
In that episode Ann asked you why you spell your name with only one “L.”
You started your answer as “Leaving one L off the end of my name …”
Ann instantly interrupts you and says, “… is pretentious.”
So, my question is, why only one L, and was that moment scripted or just amazing timing on the part of Ann?
That episode you also were playing for a charity based on protecting the freedom of the internet. It proves you did not just hook your wagon to SOPA for fame. It shows you always cared about us. Thank you for all the work you put into this effort, and being our guardian.
A: That moment was not scripted, at least not by me. It may have been scripted by the writers and Ann.
It was really fun to play that character on that episode, and people still freak out at me for being such a dick, apparently not watching all the way to the end when I let them in on the joke.
I appreciate your kind words about my advocacy online. I’ve been online since the mid-80s, and protecting our rights and freedoms is very important to me.
Q: Did you drive any of the cast on TNG crazy? I know I probably would.
A: I’m sure I drove them crazy all the time, but it wasn’t intentional. LeVar once told me: You were a pain in the ass, but you were our pain in the ass.
Q: How did you feel about Wesley’s characterization when you were filming? Did you like the scripts when you got them or were you often disappointed? Did you have any input at all on the direction of the character?
A: I was frustrated that the writers kept Wesley as an idea, or a device, rather than as a real person. I don’t think that was entirely their fault, because the executive producer forbade them from talking with any of us actors, and getting to know us, so unless a particular writer really knew a smart, weird kid, they didn’t have a lot of experience to draw upon.
A few writers, though, like Melinda Snodgrass, Ron Moore, Tracy Torme, and Sandy Fries, did some pretty good stuff with the character, and I did my best not to mess up their words.
As far as being disappointed? Not that much, at least in the first two seasons. I was happy and excited to be on a series, thrilled to be part of a thing I’d loved my whole life, and too young to be cynical, so I just did my best to do my job and enjoy the experience. I didn’t start feeling that frustration and disappointment until later, when I felt like I knew the character better than the writers and producers did, but I wasn’t allowed to have any input on how he was written.
Q: because the executive producer forbade them from talking with any of us actors
Why was that?
A: We (actors) all think it’s because he wanted to isolate us, and somehow disempower us.
It was a really stupid thing to do, because it just pushed us together, made us a stronger group of people who still love each other almost 30 years later, and undercut the show’s ability to be even better than it was.
Q: I’ve heard a theory recently that your character in TNG was actually Q. A Q? The Q? Whatever, that theory seems so amazingly appropriate…..did you have any idea/thoughts about that plot-line?
A: My headcanon for Wesley is that he’s a Time Lord.
Q: After years of starring on Next Gen and then having your character progress from the show, was it odd playing the character again for Nemisis after so much time had passed? I personally thought you looked awesome in that dress uniform.
A: It wasn’t odd as much as it was awesome, and it represented a significant transition for me from child star to adult actor.
I spent over a decade after I quit Star Trek regretting it and wondering what could have been. I created a demon called Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake who controlled my life. It was really tough. A large part of the narrative spine of my autobiography Just A Geek
is about that.
But getting to put on Wesley’s face and hair and sideburns and uniform, and getting to go back to the set, surrounded by people I loved, but felt ashamed to be around, and actually appreciate it, was a huge huge huge thing for me.
I haven’t seen the thing Mac did where he plays an adult Kevin, but I wonder if he experienced a similar catharsis, being able to own that character and let it go on his own terms, the way I did with Wesley.
Q: If you could write a Star Trek movie with no content restrictions, how would it go?
A: It would be a porn parody. My friend April plays Troi in the TNG porn parody and that is both hilarious and unsettling to me.
Mostly Child Actor Questions
Q: Has there ever been a time you wished you hadn’t been a child actor?
A: I wished I wasn’t a child actor all the time, but the thing is, it’s part of the tapestry of my life, and if I pulled a that thread too much, the whole thing would unravel.
Q: What do you feel was the difference between you and other child stars who happened to have some problems transitioning to adulthood?
A: I can only speak for myself, but I think a big part of it was identifying, at a very young age, the difference between my peers who wanted to be creative people, the ones who wanted to be famous, and the ones who were doing it because their parents were cashing in.
I felt like my parents were pushing me, and while it was really important to me that I please them, part of me enjoyed being on the set. I enjoyed playing make believe. Even though I never got the satisfaction of feeling a scene come together as a child (I do now, as an adult), I felt like I was good at something. Feeling like that was important to me, because the things that kids usually feel good about, like doing well in school or being coordinated and athletic, were things I was not good at, even a little bit.
So as I got older, and I saw those three groups of kids become teenagers, I saw that the ones who weren’t in it for the art were going to parties, drinking and using drugs, and doing everything they could to get in front of paparazzi, so people would pay attention to them. I wasn’t the most sophisticated person in the world, but I found that stuff to be really boring, and I felt like I didn’t have anything in common with them, anyway.
So, in a way, being weird and nerdy and awkward and shy helped save me from those pitfalls, because I never felt like I fit in there, and I felt like it was all fake.
I give a lot of credit to my group of friends from high school, who were not in the film industry, for being a positive influence on me (having 9 mothers in the cast of TNG didn’t hurt, either). While a lot of people who ended up being True Hollywood Stories were on their way to reality TV, I was playing D&D and painting 40K figures and going to comic book conventions.
I was just as unhappy and confused as a lot of my peers were, but I was just different enough from them to avoid their self-destructive behavior.
When I was in my 20s, and I was ready to give up, I met the woman who would become my wife, fell in love, started raising a family, and knew that I had to do something if we were going to survive. Luckily for me, the Internet was starting to be a mainstream thing, and I was able to start my blog, which gave me the opportunity to be a writer, which lead to me writing books and columns and creating a second act in my life.
Q: Do you have any “normal kid” stuff that you think you missed out on by having an acting career so early in life?
A: Oh yeah. I think the biggest thing I missed out on was learning how to be a regular person around other normal people. I was surrounded by industry douchebags all the time, and that’s how I thought normal people behaved. Luckily for me, I managed to figure out around the time we did Stand By Me that those people were not that awesome, and that I shouldn’t emulate them. Unfortunately, it took me about five years to properly put that into practice, but I think that has more to do with being a teenager than it does with being an actor.
Q: Do you think your lives would have been different if twitter had been around when TNG and Dougie Houser were on the air?
A: Yes, and it would not have been good. I would have made Jaden Smith look like Steven Hawking.
Q: Could you talk about how education went for you? How well did you balance it while working on TNG? To what extent do you feel like you had to make up for lost time or learn more on your own?
A: I had to spend 3 hours a day in school while I was on the set, at a minimum of 20 minutes at a time.
When I was a kid, that seemed like forever, but as an adult I can’t believe we’re allowed to get away with it, because it’s impossible to do any serious and meaningful learning in 20 minute blocks, and such short days make education feel like an afterthought, instead of the foundation of a successful life.
I have a lot of empathy for those athletes who are in their early 20s and who seem like total douchebags, throwing money around and acting like idiots, because in a lot of ways I was similar to them: nobody every taught me how to be a person, everything I did was about the job, and everyone who had a financial stake in my success told me that I was the greatest thing in the world. Because education wasn’t treated as something important and fundamental, because I didn’t really feel like I had to work and earn good grades, I took it all for granted … until I started TNG. My teacher, Marian, was magnificent. She worked really hard to ensure that I actually learned, she challenged me to earn my grades, and she held me accountable for everything I did while I was in school.
Still, that only went so far. As an adult, I feel like there are enormous gaps in my education. I don’t know basic chemistry. I can’t remember a single thing from algebra onward. A lot of my science and history knowledge comes from independent learning I’ve done as an adult, and it feels profoundly incomplete.
I’ve made a commitment to myself to do more in 2016 for myself than I have in years past. I’ve spent the last ten years or so working really, really hard to be a financially successful adult human, and in that effort I have neglected things that are important to me, personally. Luckily, we are living in a moment that allows online university and self-directed learning, and I feel like that’s something I can embrace and do well.
Q: Was that school time built into your shooting schedule, or did they just squeeze it in willy-nilly when they could?
A: A little bit of both. Sometimes, I’d come in 3 or so hours before they needed me to film, to go to school. I liked that because I could just focus on schoolwork and learning. Other times, I’d be in school while scenes were set up, while coverage that I wasn’t in was filmed, etc.
As far as getting it in, hurr hurr hurr, the law is that I had to do 3 hours of school, and couldn’t work more than 10 hours in a day. Production knows this, and the first AD makes the schedule to accommodate that.
Q: Were you ever treated as “just a kid” and excluded on that basis? It sounds like your TNG co-stars were very sociable with each other; did they include you in that, or did you feel isolated?
A: Nearly every director we had treated me like I was an idiot who had no idea what I was doing. One of them even dragged me around by my elbow, instead of just telling me where he wanted me to stand, and almost all of them just called me “the boy” or “the kid”, even if I was standing right there. That was really upsetting, and the other actors often corrected the directors and admonished them to use my name.
I mean, how does that even happen? How can a director be so dehumanizing to a kid?
I felt isolated, but not because anyone made me feel that way. I felt isolated because, while I could relate to the cast on the set as fellow professional actors, at the end of the day I was a kid and they were adults, so we couldn’t hang out. That’s something I regretted and missed for all of my adult life until recently, when I started getting invited to dinners with the rest of the cast whenever we were in the same place.
Q: That’s unbelievable. Did you ever receive any sort of explanation (or indeed any apologies) for that behaviour?
A: No. When I work on a set with kids now, though, I work really hard to treat them with dignity and respect, and if someone is treating them the way I was treated, I’ll call them out on it.
Q: hello wil. i am a huge fan of yours, not because of your acting, but for the man you grew to be. you have strong moral fiber.
you never went full miley.
i read a blog you had written about a woman who had done some therapy to walk again, focused on your picture. that’s where i became a fan of yours. if you can provide the link to that story here that would be awesome, since i lost it somewhere.
A: I wouldn’t be too hard on Miley. None of us knows what her childhood was like, what her parents were like, or what sorts of struggles she has.
I think she does her best to express herself in a way that she feels is meaningful to her, and even though that can make those of us on the outside feel uncomfortable, without knowing exactly what she’s dealing with on a day to day basis, I do my best not to judge her.
The story you’re looking for is here.
Q: How does modern internet fame compare to 80s Hollywood fame for you?
A: That’s a really good question, and it isn’t something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.
I guess it’s more real? Like, nobody gave a shit about me (except as a punchline or a vagrant thought wondering whatever happened to me) before I started writing my blog 16 years ago. Holy crap that’s a long time ago. But I’ve worked so hard to achieve something entirely on my own, and it happened on the Internet, mostly, so I guess it feels more earned than the stuff that happened when I was a kid.
It’s also less intense, because I can walk away from the Internet if I want or need to, and when I was that strange level of Teen Magazine Famous in the 80s, I couldn’t just easily walk away from the mall or wherever I was.
Q: I was in junior high when TNG premiered, and it was your face, ripped from the pages of teen magazines, that decorated my locker for a few years.
What was it like for you at that age, doing those photo shoots? How aware were you that you were a teen heartthrob and how did you feel about it? Looking back on it now, do you feel any differently?
Also, regarding Wheaton’s Law (“Don’t be a dick”), how fun/liberating is it to play an evil version of yourself on The Big Bang Theory?
A: What was it like for you at that age, doing those photo shoots? How aware were you that you were a teen heartthrob and how did you feel about it? Looking back on it now, do you feel any differently?
I hated it. It made me feel self-conscious and weird and fake, and I couldn’t understand why girls wanted to have pictures of me, when I couldn’t even bring myself to find the courage to talk to a single girl on my own.
Also, regarding Wheaton’s Law (“Don’t be a dick”), how fun/liberating is it to play an evil version of yourself on The Big Bang Theory?
It’s pretty great. The villain is the hero of his own story, so getting to be the kind of troll that I am not at all in real life is a lot of fun.
Mostly Stand By Me Questions
Q: Do you ever keep up with the other legendary stars of the eighties and early 90s you worked with on Stand By Me?
A: For a long, long time, I felt like I couldn’t. I felt ashamed of myself for not being more successful after I quit Star Trek, and I felt like I couldn’t show my face around the people I was close to and admired. When I finally got the courage to approach them, when I was in my 30s, they all said some version of, “you have nothing to be ashamed about, and I’m glad you’re back in my life.” That was hard to accept, because it made me feel like I’d wasted a lot of time.
I have a few friends today who I grew up with, like Seth Green and Alyssa Milano, and I follow the careers of people I knew back then, because it always makes me happy when I see that one of us managed to avoid reality TV.
Q: It’s funny. I didn’t even realize you were in Stand By Me. How was it working on that film? If you could go back in time armed with the knowledge you have now, would you have avoided some of the roles you’ve played or do you think they are part of what’s made you who you are today?
A: I wish I hadn’t done the shitty movie The Curse. I got bad advice from people who were supposed to look out for me, but couldn’t say no to a significant payday. It was a terrible experience, seriously hurt the trajectory of my career, and is the biggest regret I have in my professional life.
Mostly General Acting Questions
Q: Are we ever going to see you in a long running role again?
A: I hope so. I honestly feel like I’m at a point in my life where most of Hollywood isn’t that into me, though, so I’m feeling like that’s very unlikely.
I’m doing my best, though, and maybe something will come my way.
Q: What is the most frustrating part of being an actor, or a well known person?
Mostly Life Questions
Q: My 16-year old’s all-time favorite movie is Stand By Me. We’ll rewatch it a couple times a year, a magical film indeed. But my question is more related to my 13-year-old. He seems to be struggling a bit finding his place in life, you know, feeling comfortable in his own skin as he starts leaving childhood behind. It strikes me that he shares some similarities with you, based on what you’ve written regarding your upbringing: feeling out of place, being a sensitive and talented kid, being more interested in games than socializing, etc.
What words of advice would you have for this sweet and talented kid who sometimes feels like a fish out of water? What helped you reach a place where you felt comfortable being, well, you?
A: There is no easy answer to this question, because the answer is different for every person, and the answer can even change for every person, as that person changes.
When I was his age, I was not comfortable in my own skin, at all. It’s so tough being 13, because your body hates you, your brain is confused about everything, and you want to be a kid while also wanting to be an adult while trying to trick all the other equally confused kids around you that you’re the only one who has it all figured out.
Probably the hardest thing to do is to accept that, at 13 and probably all the way to 25 or so, you’re constantly changing. What works for you one week may not work at all the next week, and you have to give yourself permission to make mistakes. You have to be kind and gentle with yourself, and just do your best to be the kind of person you want to be around.
The bullet point advice I’ve given in to kids in the past, which has seemed to work more often than not is:
- Be kind
- Be honest
- Be honorable
- Work hard
- Always do your best and accept that “your best” varies from day to day
- Be the kind of person you want to be around
- Stand up for yourself
- Stand up for people who are unable to stand up for themselves
I don’t know if any of this is helpful, but I’ve spent a lot of time sitting here looking at a blinking cursor, and this is the best I can do right now.
Q: Once you grew up and got married, you became a writer, and then an actor again.
If you hadn’t done that, what would you have done? And do you think being a child star would’ve dictated that choice?
A: I probably would have ended up on reality TV and then dead. In fact, I may have just skipped the reality TV part.
Mostly Mental Health Questions
Q: You’ve talked in the past about your struggles with depression and mental illness. How did you address and overcome those in order to be successful and continue your career? Was that a significant roadblock?
A: I didn’t accept that I have depression and anxiety until I was in my 30s, so the whole time I was a child actor, I was living with it and not knowing what it was. I tried talking to people about the chest-crushing panic attacks I had, but I don’t recall anyone taking me seriously or listening to me.
Before I got treatment for my mental illness, it was definitely holding me back in my career and in my life, but because I was living in the center of it, I didn’t realize how much it hurt.
One of the reasons I speak so openly about it now, and encourage people to get help, is because I probably spent 30 years suffering needlessly, just because I didn’t know how to be an advocate on my own behalf, and didn’t have anyone in my life (before my wife) who was willing to recognize my symptoms and encourage me to get help.
This is a serious problem in entertainment, especially relating to children: a child actor can be a license to print money, and the entertainment industry is overflowing with people who will wring every dollar they can out of a child actor before throwing him away and moving on to the next one. Those people, who we often trust and rely upon to look out for us and help us navigate around people like them take advantage of our naivete, and don’t do anything that risks us walking away from them or our work. It’s very rare for someone who is supposed to be looking out for a child actor to actually do that, especially where mental health is concerned. Like, if I saw a kid who was clearly struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, I’d do everything I could to help that kid get better, even if it meant getting that kid out of the industry for a short or long time. That sort of thing, while really good for a kid, hurts the bottom line of a person who is making money off that kid, so that person isn’t going to do anything about it.
I believe that one of the reasons River Phoenix died is that he was surrounded by people who were riding the gravy train, and didn’t want to risk getting thrown off, so the people closest to him, the ones who had the best chance of getting through to him, didn’t look out for him.
Q: A video of yours was actually one of the biggest motivators for me in dealing with my own mental illness issues, so thank you for being so open about it.
A: That’s awesome. I’m glad I was able to help. Remember: you are not alone in this fight.
Q: What video? This thread might be a good place for a link to it.
Q: How did you feel reactions were when you started being open about your problems? Did you have any negative backlash in any way or was it mostly supportive?
A: The only thing I was afraid of was saying the wrong thing, or unintentionally messing someone up. I spoke and continue to speak with professionals, so I learn how to help people seek out their own care, and take care of themselves.
The only people who have ever said anything shitty are the gamergaters, but I don’t have a fuck to give about anything those jerks think.
Q: What are some ways you’ve found to pull yourself up after particularly bad dip in mood?
A: Everything is temporary. That’s a challenge to remember when I’m in the middle of a bad time, but I have to remember it and repeat it to myself. I also use CBT to help break the cycle of Depressed thinking, and I give myself a break when it’s shitty, because I know it’s not my fault that my brain chemistry is wonky.