ON A HOT JUNE AFTERNOON IN 2000, I joined my best friend Darin for lunch at one of our teenage haunts, Old Town Pasadena. An afternoon in Old Town is a trip to a time when we were free of responsibility, and the world was filled with possibility and opportunity.
The changes in Old Town reflect the changes within ourselves. Thanks to the efforts of the Pasadena preservationists, the historical building façades haven’t changed, but they are the only thing that remain the same. The empty doorway where a punk rocker once sneered at passing businessmen is now a Pottery Barn, occupied by a San Marino yuppie who screams into her cell phone. The eclectic record store where we’d buy imported Smiths singles is now a Sam Goody, its windows plastered with posters announcing the latest release from Justin Timberlake. Tourists stand uncomfortably at crosswalks, trying to ignore the homeless who have come to enjoy the trickle down economics of a prospering shopping thoroughfare.
All of this progress is not without its benefits, though. Old Town is safe, if sanitized, and several good restaurants have moved into the area.
On this particular afternoon, Darin and I walked down Colorado Boulevard, following the same route as Pasadena’s claim to annual fame, the Tournament of Roses Parade. We passed The Cheesecake Factory, several trendy Japanese noodle houses, and walked straight into Hooters.
Hey, Darin was engaged, and I’m married. Sometimes a guy’s gotta know if he still has it.
We walked in ahead of the lunchtime rush, so we could sit wherever we liked. Through a speaker above us, Bob Seger rhetorically asked, “ain’t it funny how the night moves?” We looked around the mostly empty restaurant and chose the section with the hottest waitress in the joint.
As we took our seats, our waitress came over to our table: a cute-but-not-beautiful girl in her early 20s. Bleached-blonde, fake tan, long legs. Hooters. Her name tag said “Destiny.”
She flirted with us as she took our order, all smiles and giggles. We ordered wings. Super Fire Hot, baby.
She stood up and left to put in our order. Darin and I stared at each other, grinned, and exchanged a mental high five. We still had it, and it felt good.
She’d only walked a few steps, when she stopped suddenly, turned around, and came back to our table.
She looked at me, lustily. “Can I ask you something?”
“Oh, hell, yeah, Willie,” I thought to myself, “The ladies still want your sweet action!”
My face flushed and my pulse quickened.
“Sure,” I said.
She screwed up her courage and leaned close to me, her full, pouting lips just inches from mine. Her perfume embraced me. Her ample cleavage seductively longed to bust out from beneath her thin cotton T-shirt. She drew a nervous breath, bit down on the corner of her mouth, and asked, breathlessly, “Didn’t you used to be an actor?”
“WHAT?! USED TO BE?! I STILL AM!” I hollered, as mental images of a hot Hooters threesome were replaced with the cold reality of appearing on Celebrity Boxing.
She immediately knew that she had made a mistake. She thought quickly, licked her lips, self-consciously fussed with her over-processed hair and tried again: “Oh, I mean, weren’t you an actor when you were a kid?”
All I could do was numbly answer, “Yeah, when I was a kid,” as I hung my head and ordered the first of many pints of Guinness.
Funny story, right? Yeah, funny like when you watch another guy get kicked in the nuts. In the days that followed, I tried to write it off. Tried to bolster my wounded self-esteem by telling myself that she was just a Hooters waitress, so she didn’t matter. But the truth was, that simple, scantily clad waitress had driven home with painful acuity my deepest fear: I was a has-been. I “used to be” an actor, when I was a kid.
If I “used to be” an actor, it wasn’t for lack of trying, but it was the result of a series of choices I’d made, starting all the way back in 1989, when I was just 16 years old, and in Florida for a Star Trek cruise . . .
Even though it was early in the morning, it was already hot and humid in Miami. My brother and I stood together in front of the hotel and waited to get on a bus that would take us to the port. There were hundreds of Trekkies swarming around us, and a ripple of excitement went through the crowd when the hotel doors opened and the entire cast of the original Star Trek, minus Shatner and Nimoy, walked out. Most of them looked a little drunk, and some of them looked a lot unhappy.
Marina Sirtis, who played Counselor Troi on Next Generation and was the object of a very large teenage crush, came out of different door and approached us.
“How are you doing, Teen Idol?” she said.
“I’m okay, I guess,” I said. “What’s up with them?” I pointed at the original series cast, who were now posing for pictures and signing autographs.
“Oh, they’re just having a good time,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Okay. I’ll see you on the bus. We are going to have so much fun on this cruise!” She hugged me and walked away.
My brother pointed at one of them and said, “Dude! He is fucked up!" and began to laugh, but I couldn’t join him. In 1989, Star Trek was my life. At 16 years old, I was a veteran actor—I worked on the series for 50 hours a week—but I was also a veteran of the Star Trek convention circuit. Three weekends out of the month I entertained audiences at Holiday Inns all over the country. When I looked at these original series actors, I saw The Ghosts of My Career Yet To Come.
I had no idea at the time that it was probably not that big a deal to have a few drinks early in the morning while you were on vacation. I had no idea that some of the Star Trek alumni were quite happy traveling around the country and performing for Trekkies at conventions. It also didn’t occur to me that some of those actors, who had only done three or four episodes, had willingly chosen to live out their lives recalling their time on the Enterprise.
I spoke with the arrogant surety of a 16-year-old. “Look at that,” I said. “That’s my future, if I don’t get out of Star Trek and do movies. There is no fucking way I’m going to spend the rest of my life talking about what I did when I was a kid. I’m going to prove to everyone that I can do more with my life than just be on Star Trek.”
“Dude,” was all he could say. It was a multipurpose word in our vernacular. “Dude” could stand in for several words and phrases, such as “Check out that hottie,” or “Stop talking now because Mom’s standing right behind you,” or “This is seriously fucked up.”
“Exactly,” I said.
A couple of hours later, we were on the ship, and today, after 15 years, all I can recall about the entire 3-day cruise is that conversation, because at that moment, I made a choice that would drive my life and haunt me for years: I would get out of my Star Trek contract, and I would go on to a huge career in movies. I would prove to everyone that I was a great actor and that Star Trek was just a small part of my resume.
Yeah. It didn’t quite work out that way, and it’s probably my karma for having such a negative impression of those original series actors, who I have come to know as kind and wonderful people. Actually, I have such regard for them now, I almost hate to open this book showcasing such a negative view of them, but that moment in 1989 was the foundation upon which the last 15 years of my life have been built.
I thought about that moment often, especially over the next few years, when the writers reduced my role on The Next Generation to little more than saying, “Aye, Sir. Course laid in,” and the producers of Next Generation prevented me from taking a major roll in Milos Forman’s Valmont.
As an adult, getting paid thousands of dollars a week to say, “Aye, Sir. Course laid in” is a seriously sweet gig, but when I was a teenager, it sucked. I felt like I had to prove to everyone that Stand By Me wasn’t a fluke, that I deserved all the attention that I got from that movie. I never considered that most actors go their entire careers without one film like Stand By Me to their credit. I never considered that I could have stuck around on Star Trek until the end, and then stepped off into a film career, like, say, Patrick Stewart. Because of that moment on the dock in Miami in 1989, I was convinced that if I stuck around until the end, I’d be stepping off onto a dock in Miami in 1999.
I have often wondered how different my life would have been if my brother’s “Dude” had meant, “Hey, why don’t you relax? You’re young, and you have your entire life ahead of you. You have an opportunity to work on a great series for a few more years, build up a nice bank account, and then parlay the success of Star Trek into a film career. But don’t quit now, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. And stop staring at Marina’s ass. That’s just rude.” Maybe that sentiment was a little too deep for a couple of teenagers.
Of course, I’m still talking about what I did when I was a kid, and I never got that big film career I was hoping for. When I was released from my Star Trek contract, I was 18, and like most 18-year-olds, I knew everything. I realized that I had never had a childhood, and I’d never really just gone off and done things that I wanted to do. I also realized that when I looked in the mirror, I saw the reflection of everything I hated about Hollywood and humanity staring back at me from behind angry and unhappy eyes.
How the fuck did I let this happen to me? I have to get out of here.
In the early 1990s, I vanished from Hollywood and moved to Topeka, Kansas. I spent a little over a year there, working on computers during the day, and on my incredibly screwed up psyche at night. When I felt like I’d put myself back together, I returned to Los Angeles, and enrolled in a five-year acting program. I remember thinking that I’d gotten all the way to Star Trek on instinct alone, and if I wanted to move beyond it, I’d need some technique.
When I was in drama school, I passed on several film opportunities, among them, Primal Fear. You may know it as the movie that started Ed Norton’s career. I know it as The Huge Opportunity That I Completely Fucked Up. When my agent told me that I was making a huge mistake, I told him, “Look, man. I’m in drama school now, and I can’t leave until I finish. It’s like when Luke was on Dagobah, and he wanted to go to Bespin to save his friends. Yoda told him not to quit in the middle of his training, but Luke didn’t listen, and he was never able to be as great a Jedi as his father.”
I foolishly thought that Hollywood would wait for me. When I graduated from drama school five years later, I had a rude awakening. Not only had Hollywood forgotten me, they’d completely forgotten my type of actor. The everyman was out, and a new type, called “edgy,” had taken my place.
Think about that for a second. Edgy. What does that conjure up in your mind? Now ask the person next to you what their description of edgy is. Your descriptions didn’t match, did they? They weren’t even close, right? Now talk about it for a minute and see if you can reach an agreement on exactly what it means. Can’t do it, can you? Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. I’ll let you in on a dirty industry secret: nobody knew what edgy meant, beyond “unwashed” and . . . uh . . . “unwashed” and . . . er . . . well, that’s it. I’ve just spent several unproductive minutes staring at a blinking cursor, trying to come up with another word besides “not Wil Wheaton,” which is really three words and more of a descriptive phrase than a synonym.
While Hollywood didn’t quite know what edgy was, they were certain that I wasn’t it. I am passionate, too smart for my own good, unfulfilled, caring . . . but not edgy. So I spent several years struggling, unable even to book a commercial. I wasn’t well known enough for product endorsements, but I was too well known to be some random guy extolling the virtues of floor wax. The flood of opportunities I enjoyed when I was a child and teenager slowed to a trickle, then stopped. I “used to be an actor, when I was a kid.”
It was so hard to get work, I often contemplated giving up life as an actor and going back to college.
“You have to love the work more than you hate the rejection, and the unemployment,” my mom said.
I did love the work, and I believed in my abilities as an actor. I felt that I could take direction well, and understood the vagaries of storytelling: those ephemeral things that make an actor’s performance greater than the words on the page. I was compelled to act.
That compulsion became obsession. Success as an actor had always come my way without any real effort when I was a kid (resulting in that feeling of undeserved success). After I graduated from drama school, I felt like my acting chops were better than ever, and spent several years being just one big part away from making that elusive comeback. That drove me crazy. I was in my twenties, but I looked like I was in my teens, so I often auditioned to play a teenager. Since I didn’t have the same energy or mentality as the real teenagers around me, I never got cast. When I walked into auditions, I was rejected before I opened my mouth, and I felt like I was wasting everyone’s time—including my own. It didn’t take long for the word to spread around Hollywood: Wil Wheaton may look young, but he can’t play young. After countless failed auditions where I was 10 years older than everyone else, I became cynical and pessimistic.
On the very few projects where I was reading for an older character, I would often be one of the final two or three actors to be considered. But consistently coming in second or third was actually worse than not making it past the first round of meetings. It was like scaling Mount Everest, only to die within sight of the summit . . . over and over again.
I couldn’t understand why I kept getting so close to booking jobs without anything to show for it, so I asked my agents to pursue feedback from casting directors. The answers provided more questions: “Wil was absolutely the best actor for this job, but he just wasn’t handsome enough, or edgy enough, for the part.” I suppose telling me I was “absolutely the best actor” was intended to make me feel better, but it only made me feel frustrated and depressed. Each time I heard the word edgy, I seriously wondered whether I would ever be able to support my family by being an actor.
Family?That’s right. I was 27 years old and I had a family. Shortly before I graduated from drama school, I had fallen in love with a wonderful woman. Five years later, we were married. I had taken on the responsibility of helping to raise her two children, with little financial and no emotional support from their father, who actively worked to disrupt not only our marriage, but our relationship with the kids as well. I’d taken everything I had saved from Star Trek and Stand By Me and invested it in our home and our wedding.
My life as a husband and stepfather was very rewarding, but a desire to regain the success I’d enjoyed as a child and teenager pulled at me constantly. It kept me awake at night and was a constant distraction. Like the Not Me ghost from Family Circus, Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake slept between my wife and me in our bed and ate with us at every meal. When I could have been playing with my stepkids, Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake and I would sit and stare vacantly at the TV, wondering what could have been.
The weekend after the Hooters Incident (as it came to be known), my wife was out of town and Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake and I found ourselves in front of my computer. I surfed the Internet, played Diablo II, created WinAmp play lists . . . I did everything I could to get that Hooters waitress out of my mind.
Yes, that’s how badly it hurt me: I was actively trying to get a Hooters waitress out of my mind. While my wife was out of town.
Somewhere in that day, while I was battling the forces of polygonal evil on Battle.Net, Prove To Everyone tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Dude. You should make a website and let the world know that you are still alive and still acting.”
I paused the game and looked back at him. I had wanted a presence on the Web for a long time, but I didn’t have the skills to build a website. I’d been given the names of several designers, but wanted to do the whole thing myself, for better or for worse.
“Oh my god. That’s a fantastic idea! Maybe we’ll even get noticed by Hollywood again!”
“Just make sure you make the website edgy,” he said.
“If you were real, I’d cock-punch you for that,” I said.
I quit the game and went to Yahoo! Geocities, where I created an account called “tvswilwheaton.” (Get it? “TV’s Wil Wheaton!” Because I’m still on TV, except I’m not.) Because I had absolutely no idea how to write HTML, and I knew nothing about tables, CSS, RSS feeds, or the W3C, I spent the next few hours clumsily learning my way around the Yahoo! Pagebuilder. I used their WYSIWYG editor to—ahem—“design” my very first web page. The result was incredibly lame, but it was mine. I named it Where’s My Burrito? after one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons.
When it was done, Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake and I shared a high five. I was proud of what I’d created. I posted a link to it in a small Wil Wheaton online fan club and wondered if anyone would care.
Boy, did they care! I had over 700 visitors in a couple weeks, without being listed in a single search engine. The response excited me, and I started updating the site quite frequently by hand-coding “news updates” into the main page. Here’s the very first “news update” I did, way back before I had even heard of a weblog:
I am so embarrassed when I read that and compare it to the way I write now. It’s a horrible mangling of the English language, I change from present to past tense and back again, and use an annoying passive voice throughout the whole thing. Oh, and all the ComicCon stuff is bullshit. I may have been at the keyboard, but Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake was definitely in the driver’s seat, so I projected my idealized self: I was a devil-may-care Gatsby, funny and irreverent, and living the celebrity dream.
ComiCon was nothing like I had expected, and the truth is, it was a horrible experience. I went there expecting to sell hundreds of autographed pictures to hundreds of adoring fans, but hardly anyone was interested. I sat in a cavernous and undecorated area far away from the main convention floor, surrounded by people who were definitely on the downside of their careers. The hundreds of adoring fans I’d hoped to see did show up . . . when people like Kevin Smith and the cast of the short-lived Witchblade took up temporary residence at tables near mine. When they left, so did the fans, who glanced dismissively at me, if they noticed me at all. I was humiliated and depressed.“This is what my life has come to,” I thought, "I am a has-been.” Prove To Everyone made sure I left those details out, and encouraged me to play up the success of the TCA event and the subsequent trip to New York for Lifegame. So that’s what I did. (By the way, it was pretty cool to take a pee next to Billy Idol. If you get a chance to pee next to a rock star, make sure you do it.)
Though the dishonesty bothered me, Prove To Everyone spoke with a silver tongue, and I convinced myself that if I projected a successful image, it would somehow become a reality. It was a lot of work to fictionalize my own life, though, so I wrote about things that were safe and mundane. I posted links to other websites and talked about my experiences building my self-described “incredibly lame website.” I issued pathetic pleas for e-mail and comments, but I avoided talking about myself or revealing anything too personal. That all changed when my dad came home from a surfing trip in Indonesia. He was so sick I thought he was going to die.
For the longest 48 hours of my life, I was terrified that I was going to lose my father. After two days, the doctor from the CDC determined that my dad had contracted a blood infection when he stubbed his toe on a boat anchor during his trip. If he hadn’t been in the United States when he’d gotten sick, he would have died. Thankfully, he managed to fight off the infection and made a full recovery.
I still don’t know why I chose to write about my dad, and my very real and unprotected feelings, but when I was face to face with my father’s mortality, Prove To Everyone was silenced and releasing my fears and doubts was liberating.
The few people who were reading my website appreciated the raw honesty. In the days after I wrote that entry, I got several e-mails and comments from people who shared similar experiences with their own fathers, and while I read them, I thought that it might be okay to talk about some of my real feelings.
“As long as you don’t let on about how much you’re struggling in your career,” Prove To Everyone said.
“Oh, you’re still here,” I said. “I thought you’d found something else to do.”
“I think I’ll be sticking around for quite some time,” he said. “With The Voice of Self Doubt to keep us company.”
He was right. After that brief moment of honesty, Prove To Everyone regained control over everything I wrote and I was back to attention whoring and posting links to other websites. About two weeks later, Prove To Everyone and I sort of collaborated on a weblog post. He got to talk about Auditions, and I got to talk about my family.
How about that pathetic plea for attention? Yeah, that’s nice. Prove To Everyone said I was bored, which was partially true, but he stopped me before I could continue with, “I’m scared, and I’m horribly depressed. I am a husband and stepfather who can’t provide for his family. I `used to be’ an actor when I was a kid.”
The total absence of acting work was hard on my ego, but it was also a terrible financial strain on my family. My wife and I often borrowed money from my parents, and she was working over 40 hours a week just so we could have food on our table. I felt guilty that I didn’t go with them to the beach for Ryan’s birthday, and I told myself that if we hadn’t been getting calls from bill collectors every day, I would have blown the auditions off to spend the entire day with him. But the insistent voice of the collectors was nothing compared to the Voice of Self Doubt and my good friend Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake. They were the real reason I went on the auditions, which didn’t result in any work, because the part I was “in the mix” for went to someone who was—wait for it—edgy, and the other was already cast when I got there.
When I e-mailed Roger Avary and I told him that I wanted to work with him again, I meant it. Mr. Stitch was an amazing experience and Roger is a talented writer/director, as well as a great person to be around. However, Prove To Everyone knew that this movie, called The Rules of Attraction, would be noticed by Hollywood when it was released. If Roger gave me a part in his movie, I would silence Prove To Everyone, The Voice of Self Doubt, and the Voice of Bill Collectors.
For the first time in years, I had some hope that my stalled acting career would begin to climb again. I relaxed a little bit, and when I wrote in my weblog, Prove To Everyone took a break, and I was able to talk some more about my stepkids.
When I wrote about my family I felt like I was showing school pictures or vacation slides, and even though it was personal, it wasn’t about my struggles in Hollywood. I liked writing about my wife and stepkids, because I knew that I was a good husband and stepfather. I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove to anyone—a dramatic difference from the way I felt when I wrote about auditions and my (lack of) acting work.
I was “blogging” almost every day, and even though Prove To Everyone spoke more often than I did, more and more people were stopping by to read what I wrote. Where’s My Burrito? was a fine place to start, but I was outgrowing Geocities. I was ready for a real website, so I bought the domain name www.wilwheaton.net and spent the next several weeks teaching myself how to build a website from scratch.
I thought Where’s My Burrito? had a certain unpolished charm, but Prove To Everyone knew that if we were going to rejuvenate the acting career, we needed to have a more professional-looking presence on the Internet. The problem was, I couldn’t afford to hire a designer, and I was afraid that even if I did, I would end up with a “celebrity” site that would be just be a marketing tool.
Prove To Everyone thought this was a fine idea, but I wanted to do something more than that. I compared the entries I wrote to the entries Prove To Everyone wrote, and saw a remarkable difference in the responses and the way I felt about them. I locked Prove To Everyone in a shed in my back yard and spent several weeks learning HTML and PHP. I bought a copy of Macromedia Dreamweaver, and surfed around the web for design ideas. I looked at “celebrity” sites, and “personal” sites. All the “celebrity” sites were exactly what I expected: marketing tools, controlled by publicists and professional image-meisters. But the “personal” sites felt like there was some dude sitting at a computer, putting up stuff that he thought was cool. The “personal” weblog sites gave me a window into the writer’s world, and I decided that I would do the same thing.