Unlike a great many of his fellow former child actors, Wil Wheaton hasn’t really had time to develop a highly public and problematic drug habit or let it all hang out in an embarrassing reality show confessional, what with the steady stream of TV and web roles (live action and animated), the video game voiceover work, the website building, the writing of books and blogs and weekly newspaper columns, and that legion of Twitter followers that require constant feeding with pithy snippets.
Wheaton next wields his sizable geek cred to full effect as a maniacal hacker in tonight’s episode of Leverage on TNT. (In particular, the scene in which he throws down with Aldis Hodge for the hacker equivalent of the OK Corral shootout is pure gold.) Wheaton took some time to talk to Fancast about his experiences on the Leverage set, plus shared a few thoughts on sports, web shows, writing, and what it’s like to finally enjoy some hard-won credibility as an icon of Internet culture.
Saw your episode [of Leverage]. The segment where it’s high noon in the parking lot with a couple of laptops was pretty damn funny. Was this a fun set?
WW: Yeah. It was a wonderful set. If you feel as a viewer that the characters in a show enjoy being together – regardless of what the show is about and what they’re doing – the odds are very good that that just comes naturally out of what’s happening on the set. The way that these five guys in Leverage really all like each other and deal with each other, it infects the rest of the set. It was a wonderful set. Everybody was happy to be there. People were generous with their time and their creative energy. I think it shows up on screen.
How did you come to be involved with the show? Obviously you play a computer genius, and there’s even a Star Trek reference thrown in….is it safe to assume this part was written for you?
WW: The part was originally written for a girl that Hardison (Aldis Hodge) knows from some other point in his life. I know John Rogers – the head writer and co-creator of the show – and I used to play hockey with Dean [Devlin, executive producer]. Dean was in his twenties, and I was in my teens then. I have been an enormous fan of Leverage from the pilot. John had talked to me and said, “Listen – I’m going to find a way to have you on the show, I just have to find a character that is going to work for you.” So he told me when they saw this script, they saw a place where they could put me in, with potential reoccurrence. So they changed the character to more reflect who I am.
You used to play hockey with Dean? Who’s a better hockey player?
WW: Well, Dean was a forward and I was a goal tender, so we played really different styles. But I loved being on that hockey team. That was one of the most important part of my late teens was playing with him and the rest of the guys. I am a rabid hockey fan. I live in L.A., so I’m a lifelong Los Angeles Kings fan. The older I get, and the more I watched professional sports, the less I have attachments to teams, and the more I care about good games and I care about players. With a few exceptions. My two favorite teams are the Kings, and whoever’s playing Anaheim. In baseball it’s the Dodgers, and whoever’s playing the Giants.
On Criminal Minds, you played a serial killer. Do you enjoy tackling the characters with a more homicidal bent?
WW: Playing characters who are very unlike who I am when the cameras stop rolling is a lot of fun. It’s a safe and societally acceptable way to be a bad man. The character I played on Criminal Minds was so dark and so evil. The young couple that I was torturing and tormenting on that show was William Mapother – who I’ve loved and respected and admired – and Robin Lively, whom I’ve known since we were twelve years old. So playing a character where I’m having to leer at Robin was really uncomfortable. Those moments never came up on Leverage. I get to play a bad guy who looks at everything with a grin and a sense of amusement. We actually made a deliberate choice. When Chaos [Wil's character] realizes there’s another crew trying to get into the art auction, it could have been really serious, like, “Oh sh*t, guys, there’s a visiting crew here!” But we made a choice, that Chaos would think that this was awesome. It’s like Flounder in Animal House.
WW: I have considered it. I have yet to hit upon an idea that excites me enough to make it worth the time to try and develop and produce a web series. I’m not really interested in doing one of those shows where a dude talks about stuff, but in this case, the dude is me. If I could come up with some sort of dramatic narrative story-telling like [The Guild], that’s something I would be interested in doing. What I really like about The Guild is that I know everybody. Most of the cast are long-time friends of mine. We all came out of the ACME Comedy Theater together.
Who are some of your biggest influences as an actor, and who are some of your biggest influences as a writer?
WW: As a writer, I was really influenced by David Sedaris, and Sandra Loh, and Dave Eggers, and people who write narrative non-fiction in a style that is literary but still accessible. The reason I became a writer is because I heard This American Life one day. I ran down to the grocery store one day to get eggs, and I was listening to NPR. I heard this program, and, it was the most compelling thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I just sat in the parking lot of the grocery store and listened to it, and I realized I’d been sitting in my car for half an hour. It was David Sedaris on This American Life. I got the eggs, came home, and found out everything I could about him as a writer, and about that program, that show. I decided that I wanted to be the geek David Sedaris.
There aren’t a lot of actors I’ve looked at and thought, “I want to be like that” in the way that I do as a writer. I’ve always admired actors like Jeff Bridges who can be completely absorbed into a role and you forget that you’re watching him. Whether you’re seeing him in The Big Lebowski, or Tron, or whatever, you never feel like you’re seeing the same actor. It’s been really important for me as an actor not to overwhelm the roles I play, the way some actors I don’t like watching do.
With your blog and your Twitter following and your online presence being so successful, what drives you to share your life so openly?
WW: I’ve never been real comfortable with the concept of celebrity. It’s really manufactured, even before the advent of reality TV – people were seeing what was designed for them to see. I feel like that led to a certain cynicism, and a fundamental lack of understanding of who the people behind these roles are. For some actors, that’s fine – that’s what they want to do. It’s really not what I wanted to do. Because I have been so deeply involved in internet culture…..even back when the internet was just a Mosaic browser, and you had to go to the computer lab at school, so you could see satellite weather pictures from NOAA, and that was a big deal. That’s the culture that I came from, and that’s where the people who were saying, “We hate Wesley! We hate Wil!” – where that culture existed. It was really demoralizing and frustrating. So when I saw that I had an opportunity way back in 2000 to speak for myself, and go around what you would consider the traditional entertainment media, and tell my stories the way that I wanted to tell them….which was pretty plain and honest, and hopefully entertaining. I seized it, and really, it was rewarding, and it was fun, and it was successful. As the world changes, and we as an audience expect more interaction with the creators of the shows that we enjoy, I was kind of already there.
Leverage is a good example of this. John [Rogers] always jokes about how he’s trying to drag the entertainment industry kicking and screaming into the twentieth century – knowing that we live in the twenty-first. Being able to Twitter from the sets, and send pictures, and write about it on our blogs, and interact with the audience once the show is over, is really cool. It gives the audience an unprecedented amount of access. Leverage is one of the very few shows where the people involved get that, because they were already doing it. It was a fun way for me to marry these two worlds, both as an actor, and as someone who is deeply involved with, and cares deeply about, internet culture.
“The Two Live Crew Job” episode of Leverage airs Wednesday, August 26 at 9/8 c on TNT.