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Wheaton surveys nerd culture in new show

Wil Wheaton has been entertaining geeks since his teenage years as Wesley Crusher on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” More recently, he has appeared as a fictional version of himself on “The Big Bang Theory” and on his board game Web show “TableTop.”

His latest endeavor is “The Wil Wheaton Project” – a weekly program highlighting nerd culture that airs Tuesday nights on Syfy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. (Starts recording after asking for permission) Thanks – I try very hard not to violate wiretapping laws while doing my reporting. It’s very important to me.

A. You’re never going to get a job at the (National Security Agency) with that attitude.

Q. So tell me about your new show. As I understand it, the show is sort of a weekly TV love letter to nerd culture. Is that how you think about it?

A. I think that’s a fair assessment. It’s also just sort of taking all of the things that I love and all of the things that I do in relation to the things that I love and putting it into a television format that people understand and know what to expect from. Somebody said to me it’s sort of like everything I do on the Internet converted to television, which I think is pretty accurate.

I have said that being a nerd is not about being what you love, it’s about the way that you love it. And the way that we love the subtexts and the programs that we are going to be covering on “The Wil Wheaton Project” is exactly what you’ll be seeing come out of me on the show. We highlight the things we think are awesome, and then we tease and make fun of the absurdities, as well.

Q. We started out with a fun NSA jokes here, and I know that’s an issue you’ve been very vocal on, basically since the first Verizon order (which revealed the NSA was collecting domestic phone records in bulk) came out. Are we going to see you tackle those issues, as well?

A. I don’t think so. The purpose of the show is to entertain and to make what is popularly known as nerd culture accessible to anyone that cares to pay attention to it. I’m hoping to have a half an hour every week where people who like the same things as I like will join me to look back at the really great stuff that happened in comic books and sci-fi fantasy and a lot of the things that we watch on television – maybe try to highlight some of the lesser-known things that exist on the fringes of nerd culture that I think are really awesome and maybe aren’t getting through on television.

But the prime directive from the network and the production company and from me to the writers is that we need to be funny. We need to be entertaining. And every now and then we can slip in something that maybe is a bit more serious and maybe makes a little bit of a point, but we need to do it in a way that is funny and entertaining because that’s the purpose of the show.

Q. So while you have a broad definition of what being a nerd is, it really does seem that in your career you’ve become a bit of an icon or ambassador for more traditional nerd topics – be it from your roles on “Star Trek” to “The Big Bang Theory.”

A. Until recently that’s been something I’ve made a conscious effort not to think about because I find that if I overanalyze something then I start to feel like whatever that thing is becomes like a rabbit and I’m Lenny back behind the farm and just petting it to death. What I have kind of concluded recently is that I’ve basically been in the same place as far as the movies I love and the television I love and the video games I love. And the way that I love them has sort of moved around to the point where I’m no longer way out on another planet. I’m right in the middle of it.

I know that I’m a little bit of a spokesman for those things, and I know that I have a little bit of a high profile in that world. And because I’m aware of that, I’m grateful for it. And it’s a privilege to have that voice, and it is important to me to respect it, not take it for granted. And every now and then when people want to hear me talk, it’s important that I have something to say.

I guess that, if anything, I kind of need to tone down how much I love stuff because most media – and I generally don’t like to do interviews; I prefer to just let the finished work to speak for itself – but being ready to go, the network wants me to talk to everybody and let people know about it so that enough people know about it that it’s able to speak for itself.

Q. I know you’ve been very open about your struggle with depression and anxiety in a way that I think is very brave. How do you handle that with being so public?

A. I remember when I was younger and was really struggling with depression and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that I had it; I just knew that I felt bad. It’s real common for someone who doesn’t have depression to think, “Well, you should just cheer up.” And speaking as a person who has varying degrees of good and bad days, the answer to that is that if I could, if I could just feel better, I would. The reality is that when you suffer from depression you just can’t, and you need help – there’s medical help, and talking therapy help, and there’s these things that kind of all go together.

What finally made it okay for me to ask for help and to get over the stigma – there’s a huge stigma in my family around depression – and for me to get over the stigma, I’ve talked with some friends of mine who are extremely successful and they have depression and anxiety, and they talked about it in public. Because they talked about it, it made me realize that I wasn’t alone and that I didn’t have to suffer and that if they could have it and be treated and be super successful and happy, then so could I.

There’s this writer Jenny Lawson who has been really open about it. And she was writing about it one day, and I just decided that I had suffered in silence for a really long time and I’m very lucky and very privileged in that occasionally people want to hear something that I have to say. I thought, you know, if I can help someone get help the way that my friends and Jenny Lawson helped me get help, I feel that I have a responsibility to do that.

It’s part of me. And some days are good. I know that the publicists at the network would rather that I didn’t talk about it, and I know that they would rather me put up an image of being successful and happy and advertiser-friendly. But the reality is that I’m a flawed human being, and I struggle every day with one thing or another, and some days are great, and some days are less great. That’s just the way that it is.

By being open and honest, I keep myself open and honest and I stay connected to the real world, and I don’t become one of those entitled douche-bag celebrity people. I don’t ever want to be one of those people. By talking about all of this stuff and staying honest and staying real, it prevents that from happening, and it makes me feel like I’m sort of doing something good that’s more important and bigger than me – that’s more important and bigger than just being an entertainer.