There was a time when Wil Wheaton was best known as a Teen Beat heartthrob and worst as "that annoying kid from Star Trek." Though he would forever be Gordie Lachance in our moss-encrusted Oregon hearts, after a promising career as a child actor and a teenage stint as the widely hated boy wonder Wesley Crusher on TNG, Wheaton largely disappeared from mainstream consciousness for two decades.
But he didn't go away.
In his own little corner of the Internet, Wheaton was quietly but diligently forging a new public persona—one founded in his real identity as an affable everyman geek, instead of a meticulously coiffed kid in a Starfleet uniform. He blogged candidly and prolifically; published several books; lent his voice to cartoons and video games; hosted podcasts; played professional poker; attended sci-fi and gaming conventions; and amassed over two million followers on Twitter.
Somewhere along the line, Wheaton emerged as a genuine cultural icon.
This week, he visits Portland to perform a show with musical comedy duo Paul and Storm. Does he sing too? We called him to find out.
WW: Tell me about this show you're doing in Portland.
Wil Wheaton: A few years ago, Paul and Storm and [MythBusters'] Adam Savage and I created a show called w00tstock. The idea of the show was to get a bunch of nerds together to enjoy an evening of music and comedy and storytelling that is all centered on the nerdy things we all love so much. The show is immensely popular. We've toured it around the country. It's become a fixture of San Diego Comic Con. But in the last couple of years, Adam and I have gotten really busy with our various television commitments, so it's really hard to get everyone together to do w00tstock. But every now and then, my schedule works out so that I can do a show with Paul and Storm. And we call it "Wil Wheaton vs. Paul and Storm." So I write narrative non-fiction, tell stories about what it was like to grow up as a nerd on TV, tell stories about dating, and Star Wars, and all of the things that were a big part of my life growing up in the nerd subculture of Generation X. Paul and Storm play songs they normally play in their concerts then I tell stories that I've written, then we do it together. They play music that goes with my stories. Then we sing a very long song about pirates.
Those guys are your new… network mates? I don't think there's a word for it. But they recently joined your YouTube channel Geek and Sundry, right?
Yeah, they do their show Learning Town and I do my show Tabletop. They've actually been on my show on the first episode.
Let's talk about Tabletop. Did you actually realize "half an hour of me playing board and card games with my friends" would be such a success? Because on paper, that's a pretty hard sell...
Yeah, I was pretty sure we were putting together something that was going to be very flexible and entertaining. I was inspired by Jon Favreau's Dinner For Five, which aired on [IFC], and Celebrity Poker Showdown and World Poker Tour shows. I had in my head a very clear vision of combining two things that I think are really interesting: one is interesting people, who have fun stories to tell and who are great performers. Getting those people together always makes something cool happen. The other thing I wanted to do was show by example that playing tabletop games is wonderful and fun and social and positive and its something I've been doing every week since was 14.
It seems like there's been a massive renaissance lately in tabletop gaming.
I don't want to mistake correlation for causation, and anecdote is not data, but from what I've been able to tell, the show has had a really positive effect on the games industry. We talk with distributors and when we feature a game on the show, it sells out. There's a lot of games that have had to go into multiple additional printings in order to meet with demand. I was thrilled with that. My ulterior motive with the show is to create more gamers.
Who's been the toughest competitor so far?
I'm not very competitive on the show. I have so much going on when we film: I'm the executive producer on the show, I host the show for the cameras and for the people who are on the table. I play two games a day for ten to 20 days at a time. It's very difficult for me to be competitive.... I am not what we call in the game world a "power gamer." Probably my toughest competitors was [YouTube superstar] Ryan Higa when we did three quick casual games: Zombie Dice, Get Bit! and Tsuro. They're all very short, very luck-based games and Ryan just had improbably good luck. It was just ridiculous.
I think it would be fun to have some of the people from The Big Bang Theory, just because we're all friends. I would looove to have [Firefly's] Nathan Fillion on the show because I think he's incredible. [Dr. Who's] Karen Gillan... [The Daily Show's] John Hodgeman... [author] Neil Gaiman.
2012 seemed like such a great year for web series. I mean, every year has been a incrementally better year, but I feel like last year there were just so many great new shows and so many actors and comedians really embracing it, as well as TV networks and more established studios trying to get in on the act. Has web TV finally come of age?
A couple of thing happened all around the same time. Very fast Internet is in a whole lotta homes in America, which means you can watch things at a high resolution and not have to wait a long time for them to download. At the same time, the Internet lost the shackles of the computer, so you can watch things on your television that you would've needed your computer for just a few years ago..... People who are creative decided instead of trying to fight for very limited time on broadcast television, just to go online where you really don't need to compete in the same way for viewers. And those viewers are able to watch the shows we create when they want to, where they want to, in a way that's really convenient for them. This, I think, is really key to understanding how the entertainment industry needs to adapt or die.... A lot of web-based programming—like what we do at Geek and Sundry, what Chris Hardwick does at Nerdist, the new [Netflix] series House of Cards—all of these programs directly speak to the kind of entertainment consumption experience that the current generation is really drawn to.
One thing I noticed a lot last year especially was that as well as emerging artists, lots of more established actors and writers are doing web shows and videos in their spare time, too. What's driving that? Is it the creative freedom you have doing stuff outside the networks? Or is that just how people in Hollywood unwind these days?
I can only speak to my experience. My experience is that the cost is a little bit less, the risk is a little bit less, it's just a little bit easier for someone who has something they're passionate about to take a risk online because you don't have the same consequences. If something doesn't work it doesn't really matter. The stakes aren't as high as they are for networks or a studio that has to support not just the program that's on but they have to pay for an entire studio lot and all those office buildings and all those people. I've seen that first hand, the inefficiency of major studios and networks, the institutionalized inefficiency. It makes it difficult for those companies to take risks on things because they only have so many doors they can open in a given year.
All that said, you've been back on TV in a big way these past few years, like The Big Bang Theory, Eureka and Leverage. There's definitely been a trend towards playing… can I say jerks? Was that a deliberate creative move on your part?
Yeah that was a deliberate choice. This all started years ago, I kept having auditions to play roles that were very similar to the roles I played when in was a kid. When I was a kid I played very sweet, sympathetic, heroic characters. And when I was going out for those roles as an adult, I never booked them. So I took a marketing class and I learned a while lot about marketing myself as an actor... The very short version is everybody has a type that they play—once you know what your type is, you can focus on roles of that type.
So my friend Kim Evey—who is a producer on The Guild and Learning Town—was doing a really funny [web] show called The Gorgeous Tiny Machine Show. And she asked me if I would come be on it and I said, "Yeah, will you have me play a super douchebag?" And she said, "Why?!" And I said, "I just have this feeling that playing a douchebag is what I'm supposed to do. I just feel like playing a nice guy doesn't work anymore." And she wrote me the part of this really douchey agent. And it was phenomenally popular. Then when Felicia [Day] asked me to do The Guild, I said, "Will you make me a douchebag?" She said, "Yeah, will you be a douchebag in a kilt?" "Absolutely!".... Suddenly, playing characters who are very unlike me, I started getting hired all over the place. Getting cast in them all the time.
And I've found my type: my type is to play that guy you love to hate.
GO: Wil Wheaton vs. Paul and Storm is at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., 719-6055, albertarosetheatre.com. 8 pm. $20. 18+ and minors with parent or guardian.