SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot developments in the Season 1 finale of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” currently streaming on Paramount+.
One day in 2021, Paul Wesley got a call from his agents asking whether he would be interested in playing James T. Kirk, the iconic “Star Trek” character originated by William Shatner in the original “Trek” series from the 1960s.
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“And I was like, Kirk? The Captain Kirk?” Wesley tells Variety. His agents professed not to know more than that, so Wesley hopped onto a Zoom call with Akiva Goldsman and Henry Alonso Myers, executive producers and showrunners of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” the latest “Trek” series for Paramount+.
“It was a lovely call,” Wesley says. “I told them that I had actually been neighbors with William Shatner, believe it or not, many, many years ago — pure coincidence. We just talked a little bit about ‘Star Trek,’ a little bit about Kirk. We hung up the phone and then the agents called and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ It happened that quickly. I don’t really don’t know what to say.”
According to Myers, Wesley was cast after the production had already held “a bunch of auditions” to find the right actor to play Kirk. “We were looking for someone who had a combination of gravitas and fun and was sort of familiar and yet different,” Myers says. “Honestly, we tried a lot of people and he was the guy that we all agreed on who we felt could do it. And then when we talked to him, he really seemed to understand what the role entailed and what he could bring to it.”
After news broke in March that he’d been cast in the role, Wesley tweeted about meeting Shatner on a flight to Los Angeles following Shatner’s voyage into low Earth orbit on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space shuttle. “I’m not one who usually believes in fate but this was more than a coincidence,” Wesley tweeted. “So thanks Mr. Shatner for the good company.”
Wesley was hired to play Kirk as a younger man — years before he becomes a Starfleet captain and inherits command of the U.S.S. Enterprise from Capt. Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) — on Season 2 of “Strange New Worlds.” But in a twist only “Star Trek” could concoct, Wesley is making his debut as Capt. Kirk on the Season 1 finale. Only he’s not Captain of the Enterprise.
The episode leaps into an alternate timeline after Pike, who’s known that in the future he is horrifically injured and disfigured, attempts to avoid his fate. Suddenly, Pike jumps seven years into the future, and lives through what would happen if he survived and remained captain of the Enterprise. For one, he encounters Wesley’s Capt. Kirk, who now is leading another Federation starship, having never joined the Enterprise — or met Spock (Ethan Peck).
In what Wesley said was his first ever interview about the role, the actor discussed what it felt like to take on a character who has loomed so large in pop-culture for over half a century, why he felt it would be “blasphemous” to try to recreate Shatner’s performance, and why the Kirk of the “Strange New Worlds” Season 1 finale is different than the Kirk from the original series.
From your tweets about meeting William Shatner on that flight, I gather you’re a “Star Trek” fan. What pulled you into “Trek”?
You know, it’s funny. I was born in the ’80s, so it’s not like I grew up watching the original series live. With that said, I’ve always had an appreciation for films from the ’60s, ’70s. I always like to think of if I were watching that live in that era, and I think, “Holy crap, that was the first show that really gave people this sense of a bigger world out there.” And so when I watched the original series, even when I was younger, I still got that sense of awe, that sense of, Wow, how cool would it have been to see this live on television? It really was is this incredible form of escapism for many, many people. It offers this incredible sense of hope that I think people really need.
In your first meeting with the “Strange New Worlds” producers about playing Kirk, was there a sense yet of what kind of performance they were looking for, how they were going to recreate this character who had been played by the original actor in a very specific way?
I think one of the most important things that I said — well, they may have said it first and I entirely agreed — was that I think the biggest insult would be to do an imitation of what William Shatner originated and what people fell in love with. If I did that, it would just be a reminder that I’m not William Shatner. And that in a way it’s almost like an insult of character, right? I think William Shatner, when you watch the original series, he’s so incredibly charming. He has this incredible sense of leadership, but it’s done with this little twinkle in his eye that no one can quite describe. It’s what made him so famous. It’s what made that character so iconic, and it’s just not something you can easily replicate. That’s something that comes organic to the actor himself.
So I think what they really wanted was for me to make sure that of course we pay respect to the character. We’re staying in canon. We’re really respecting who he is and his character traits. But it’s not an imitation. I really aim to be honest and truthful and in the moment. Pay respect to the character of James T. Kirk, but do not try in any way shape or form to imitate something that you cannot touch. It would be almost blasphemous, in a way.
So what essence of Kirk as a character, separate from what Shatner was doing in his performance, did you want to capture?
A director I was working with on “Star Trek,” said, “Kirk’s the kind of guy that will jump off out of a plane without a parachute and he knows he’ll figure out a way to land midair.” Obviously, that’s an extreme example. But his instinct, his gut, is his North Star. It’s something that I really wanted to make sure that I captured. And then on top of that, he has incredibly good sense of morality. He is someone who I think is selfless for his crew. He’s someone that, even though he has his bravado, I think at the end of the day, he has a deep sensitivity, and he cares about doing the right thing. I think those are the pillars of Kirk, if I had to really pick apart the archetype.
In the Season 1 finale, we jump ahead in time and meet a Kirk who never becomes captain of the Enterprise and hasn’t ever met Spock. Did that affect your approach at all?
Yeah. It was liberating. We can talk about it openly because the Season 1 finale is an alternate timeline. Kirk hasn’t been influenced by Spock, by Uhura. In many ways, he’s the same Kirk. But he’s not really the Kirk that we know, because he’s had a completely different life. So there’s room in Season 1 for exploration of Kirk in a different way. It allowed me to put less pressure on myself, at least for that particular episode.
You knew this would be the first time audiences would get to see you as Kirk, so what were you hoping to communicate within this alternate version of him?
It’s sort of an iconic moment for Kirk: He’s talking to Pike in the first scene, and then Spock interjects, and Kirk is intrigued by this man who said something that Kirk immediately flags as, that’s pretty sharp, that’s pretty wise. I want to capture that he recognizes, “Oh, that’s an interesting guy,” and they form a connection, even if it’s for a split second. Little Easter eggs like that. I wanted to capture a little bit of that bravado, but at the same time, that particular episode, there was a lot at stake there. There was less room to play with Kirk’s humor. There was some charm, but he was very mission driven in that episode, so we didn’t explore Kirk as much as we will in Season 2.
When Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn (as Number One) and Ethan Peck (as Spock) were cast for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Discovery,” there was no sense yet that they would ever been in their own “Trek” spin-off. So has anyone talked with you about playing Kirk beyond “Strange New Worlds”? Do you expect to be playing Kirk for a long time?
Um, I can’t answer that. I know that when I was doing my [first] Zoom [call], because I had done [“The Vampire Diaries”] for a while, They said, “How would you feel about jumping on the show for a while?” It was that kind of stuff. But ultimately, “Strange New Worlds” is pre- the Enterprise that we know, and I really think that that’s what this show is. Kirk is coming in, and he’s a part of that universe, but this really is Pike’s show in terms of him being the captain.
Ultimately, I don’t know what their plans are. All I can say is that I’m really enjoying being a part of this storyline, because it’s a Kirk that we’ve never seen. This is a younger Kirk. It’s before he was fully developed as a man. I know we saw a little bit of that with Chris Pine in the J.J. Abrams films, but it wasn’t part of the original canon. That’s the Kirk we’re dealing with [on “Strange New Worlds”]. So anyway, I really don’t know.
Even if there’s not necessarily a long professional commitment, there is a certain cultural commitment that you’ve now made in playing Kirk. How does that feel, to be stepping into that tradition?
It feels amazing. First of all, I was part of a cult-y family, in a sense — I don’t mean cult in a bad way. I mean, a cult classic. You know, “Vampire Diaries” was obviously a different audience. It was much more younger skewing. It was a very successful show. We created our own fanhood — there was a real community that was built around it. There were multiple spinoffs.
It’s much smaller than the “Star Trek” world. But I know what it’s like to be involved in those worlds, in the spotlight, so to speak. And frankly, my goal after “Vampire Diaries” was to do something that took me out of that world in a way, because you don’t really want to be stuck in that world forever. As an actor, as an artist, as a person, you want to evolve. You want to try different things. So when this opportunity came along, I said, “Of course, I want to jump into it.” This to me feels like the next evolution for me as a man now. I’m in my late 30s. I want to go to that next phase. I don’t mean to demean “Vampire Diaries”; it’s awesome. But I mean, “Star Trek” feels like a more adult level of that. So I was very excited to move on to that next phase of my life.
So now that you’ve nearly wrapped Season 2 of “Strange New Worlds,” what can you say about what to expect?
I can’t talk about it too much, but man, I had such a blast on Season 2. The writing is so good. It’s so fun. Season 2 is where we get to really let loose and explore Kirk. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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