Wil Wheaton on His New SyFy Show, the Politics of Geekdom, and What It Means to Be a Nerd

THE WIL WHEATON PROJECT -- Pictured: (l-r) Wil Wheaton, Chris Hardwick -- (Photo by: Danny Feld/Syfy)
Photo: Syfy/2014 Syfy Media, LLC

When Wil Wheaton files his taxes, he identifies himself as a writer and an actor. Presumably, that’s because he’s too modest to write “polymath geek icon.” Wheaton’s career trajectory is as remarkable as it is difficult to describe: He starred in the seminal 1986 coming-of-age drama Stand by Me, portrayed the divisive character of Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, then fell into obscurity for most of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

But within the past decade, he’s become a touchstone of the amorphous entity known as geek culture. His biggest canvas is Twitter, where he currently has 2.6 million followers and where he tweets about everything from net neutrality to board games. Speaking of board games, he also hosts a video web-series about them called TableTop, and this month, Wheaton raised a record-setting $1.4 million from fans to keep the show going. He’s a regular on The Big Bang Theory, does a ton of voice-acting for geeky animated shows, has written a half-dozen books, blogs prodigiously … the list goes on and on.

And now, as he approaches his 42nd birthday, Wheaton has a TV show of his own for the first time: The Wil Wheaton Project, debuting tonight on SyFy. It’s sort of a nerdy take on The Soup: In front of a studio audience, he riffs on everything from paranormal reality shows to Reddit memes. We caught up with Wheaton to talk about the intersection of geekdom and politics, Long Island Medium, and some surprising news he got from Neil Gaiman.

So on a scale of one to “Dear God, make it stop,” how’s your press day going? You said on your blog that you’ve been dreading it.
You know, it’s actually going better than I anticipated. It’s not the press’s fault that I feel so weird talking about stuff. I like to let the work speak for itself and it’s a little outside of my comfort zone to go sit down and say, “Hey, everybody, look at how great I am and I’m making a thing.” I understand that an important part of business, in the entertainment business, is just letting people know your thing exists, and in a situation like this, I’m proud of my show and I’m excited about my show, but I’m also a little anxious about being a public figure again. You know, a person that’s on TV every week. I still get a little nervous and sick to my stomach when I think about that.

But if you’re so anxious about being a public figure, why put your name in the title of the show?
We named the show The Wil Wheaton Project because we couldn’t come up with another name.

Come on.
We had been calling it The Untitled Wil Wheaton Project because we couldn’t come up with a name. All the names we kept coming up with were stupid. They were too on-the-nose or too precious or too cute. And then somebody said, “What if we just call it The Untitled Wil Wheaton Project?” The network wouldn’t let us call it Untitled, but they let us call it The Wil Wheaton Project. One of the guys at the show said, “It’s gonna make it hard for them to fire you.” [Laughs.]

You’ve had a pretty insane few weeks, what with the show debuting and your record-setting success at crowd-funding the TableTop web series.
Yeah, the last month or so has been weird because I’m in the weird sort of binary existence where I can’t believe this is happening and [I also believe] I’m gonna fuck this up somehow. It’s very important for me to be grateful for what I have and really to honor what I have and honor the trust people have placed in me to be part of our community.

What do you mean by “our community”? Who’s “we”?
The nerd community, creative people. I’m privileged to occasionally stand on a table and people listen to what I say, and in those moments it’s important to me that I have something to say and that I honor it.

How has that community, however one wants to define it, changed, and how has its role changed since you started on Star Trek?
It’s certainly a broader demographic than it was when I was younger, and I think a lot of that has to do with my generation growing up at a time where we were treated like we were weird and there was something wrong with that. And it’s like, I don’t think we should be taking any victory laps or anything, but I think we should be really proud of ourselves that we have created this world where we are now the creators of things, right? And we’re lucky that Joss Whedon is our leader and he makes amazing things.

In some ways, I think that we’re speaking to our parents and saying, “See, I wasn’t wrong about all of this stuff,” and we’re saying to the younger version of ourselves, “Look, it’s going to be okay.” And one of the things that I’m very proud to stand up and yell about is that we need to end gatekeeping in our society. We need to stop people from saying, “You need to pass the test if you’re going to come in here and do this.”

Wheaton as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation

What test do you mean?
So there’s a guy and a girl, and they’re talking to a guy that we’re going to call the Gatekeeper. And the guy goes, “Man, I really like Green Lantern.” And the Gatekeeper goes, “I know, right? Me too.” And the girl goes, “I love Green Lantern!” And the Gatekeeper goes, “Oh, yeah? Who’s the Green Lantern right now? I bet you haven’t even read the comic book.” You know? They do that kind of shit. And I’ve said it so many times: Being a nerd is not about what you love; it’s about the way you love it. And no one gets to tell another person, “You’re not loving a comic book the right way.”

I identified this when Twitter started blowing up. And just because I was an early adopter, I was on there before a lot of legitimately famous people were on there. And all of these social-media gurus were coming to talk to me and I figured out that when someone says “This is the right way to use Twitter,” the translation for that was “This is the way I can profit or benefit from you using Twitter.” And I kept telling people, “Do it your way, it doesn’t matter. Just do your thing.”

And I don’t mind kicking a beehive. Some people say to me, “You could have so many more followers if you didn’t say this or that.” And I don’t fucking care. It’s not like I’m keeping score. And you know, if I’m going to alienate people who think that standing by a park with an assault rifle is okay because you can, then I don’t want that person to follow me anyway and I don’t fucking care if they don’t support any of my work, because fuck that guy.

When it comes to political beliefs like that, one has to wonder: How are you going to use The Wil Wheaton Project as a way to push those ideals?
Well, first, it’s a comedy show, so we have to be funny. And one of the things we do is we never punch down. We’re never mean. You know, I hate it when people go to Comic-Con and [take pictures of fans in costumes and] they’re like, Wow, Batman really let himself go. And I’m like, Great, okay, bravo. You really worked hard on that. How many writers did you have on that for you? I just don’t like it. I don’t think it’s funny.

We will highlight the stuff that we love, we will gently mock the things that need to be gently mocked, but through all of it we are celebrating nerd culture. We are celebrating the things that we love. We are celebrating the really funny memes that we love from Reddit; and we are celebrating the videos we love from YouTube. I’ll tell you, who we’ll beat up on is that Long Island Medium asshole, because she takes advantage of people who are in pain. And anyone who knows me and is aware of me knows that I’m a skeptic, I’m a secular humanist, I’m a populist, and I will bring those values to my show as much as I possibly can. I know that I’m going to get pushback from the network. I know that when I go to meet with the network today, I’m going to get yelled at for talking about network neutrality, because Comcast doesn’t want anyone to talk about it.

You talk about net neutrality in the test show?
No, I just talk about it in my real life. I know that I’m going to get yelled at about that. And, you know, it’s the reality of living in a world where I’m trying to juggle all of these things and keep all of these things going. What I can promise viewers of The Wil Wheaton Project is that I am going to stay true to these ideals that I have laid out for a decade online, that I have fought for, and that I think are really important. If that gets me fired, then that’s okay because I’ve got to live with myself.

Right before we started talking, I saw you dash off a tweet. I was surprised at how quickly you did it. Do you ever sit and labor over what you’re going to write, because so many people are watching?
No, because when a person starts thinking of it in those terms, you lose the plot. I don’t know why so many people follow me on Twitter. I don’t get it. I’m lame. I make dumb jokes; I talk about hockey and beer and my pets.

Because of the huge audience you have, do you feel a responsibility to be political?
No. Absolutely not. I don’t.

But you’re very openly political, nonetheless.
I am, and I’ve been that way my whole life. I don’t feel that is a responsibility; It’s just who I am. For instance, network neutrality: This is something that fundamentally affects everyone in the country. And it crosses all political identifications. It’s a thing that I really deeply care about. The reason I deeply care about it is that it allowed me to have a second act in my life.

In 2000, I was a failed former child actor, then I became a writer, and I became a successful writer. And I began having opportunities to be an actor again. And I didn’t have to wait anymore for a corporation or a network or a producer to give me permission to practice my art. I could do it myself, and I could take it to an audience, and I was able to do that without a network behind me, the way that networks are propping up people to put them out there. For every manufactured boy band, there’s a legitimate a cappella group that could be making records on YouTube and putting records on Bandcamp and using Brown Paper Tickets to tour and it scares the shit out of businesses. I am here talking to you and I am getting ready to start The Wil Wheaton Project because the internet let me get to a point in my career where I could do that again. I don’t want to be the last person who gets that. I want that to exist for other people.

If you could make a cameo in one superhero franchise film, what would it be?
Jesus, I don’t know. That’s a huge — Where do I even go with that? If I got to do something that was slightly larger than a cameo, I would like to be the voice of Matthew the Raven in Sandman.

The day we finally get a Sandman HBO series, that’ll be the day that everybody wins. That’d be something.
Neil Gaiman’s a real good friend and I asked him just level with me: “How’s the script?” He’s like, “You’re not going to be upset.” That’s the answer I needed.

I guess we’ll close out with, what are your kids watching? What geek stuff are you proud to see them get into?
My son Nolan is not really a geek for sci-fi and fantasy. He’s a fitness nerd. He’s a personal trainer and a nutrition counselor. He’s a fitness nerd. He loves fitness. He’s certified in all these different things and he’s done all this stuff to learn how nutrition affects your body. I instilled in my kids this idea that the way to love a thing is to love until it’s — you get that fucking rabbit behind the barn and you pet it to death! That’s how you love it! And then you take that rabbit’s corpse and you go to other people and you go, “Here, pet it, it’s great! And if you like petting this corpse, there’s a whole pen of rabbits on the other side!”

Wil Wheaton on Geek Politics and His New Show