In the season one finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, we were introduced to former Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley as James T. Kirk. Only that Kirk was from an alternate future, where he Captained another starship. Then, in season two, Wesley played the Kirk from yet another alternate timeline, in the episode “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” Finally, in Strange New Worlds‘ sixth episode of season two, “Lost in Translation,” we finally meet Wesley’s version of the Prime Universe’s Lt. Jim Kirk. We got to chat with the actor about playing so many versions of one of sci-fi’s most iconic heroes.
Nerdist: Your version of James T. Kirk first appeared in the season one finale, which showed us Captain Kirk in an alternate future. Did you know at the time that it was going to blossom into a recurring character in season two, or did you think, given the timeline of the series, that it might be a one-off?
Paul Wesley: No, I knew that I was going to do a few more episodes in season two. So it’s a great question, because season one’s finale was based on [the classic episode] Balance of Terror, as you know, and I made a pretty concerted effort to try to create some semblance of Kirk and Balance of Terror, which was a much more serious Kirk. If you actually rewatch the episode, he’s quite serious. The stakes are quite high, and there’s very little Kirkisms. He’s a captain who’s on a mission. And so I made a decision to play it that way. Knowing full well that I would have an arc in season two that I was certain would allow me to explore other facets of Kirk’s personality. And I was right. And so I was able to play Kirk differently in season two. But I had no idea it would be an alternate timeline in season two.
You’ve told this story before, about how after you finished shooting your first Strange New Worlds episode, you wound up seated on the plane next to William Shatner. Did he have any good words of advice on playing the character he made so iconic? And not to get too “woowoo” on you, but did this all feel like a sort of omen to you that your Kirk was gonna stick around long term?
Wesley: Yeah. To be honest with you, I don’t really believe so much in “woo-woo,” as you would say. But I couldn’t help but think, “This is crazy.” The statistical probability of us being on the same plane after I secretly wrap the season one finale playing Kirk is very low. The statistical probability of us sitting next to one another? Even lower. And so I thought, “All right, well this is pretty insane.” And I didn’t, frankly, get any advice from him because I was sworn to secrecy. William Shatner and I had actually met a few times and spoken on the phone because we used to be neighbors, so I kind of introed myself “Hey, you know we used to be neighbors.” He’s like, “Oh yeah, right.”
And we were talking a little bit, and then I awkwardly inferred that perhaps I was playing a character he might be familiar with. But he was so confused. And then I just kind of was like, “I’m sworn to secrecy and I told everyone I wouldn’t say anything, so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.” Also, frankly, I also am someone who, I hate to annoy people. And he’s been playing this character forever and gosh, he must be so sick of talking about it. And so I didn’t want to bug him on his plane trip, either.
Jim’s relationship with La’an has been one of the unexpected joys of season two. It never seemed like she of all characters would ever be a romantic pairing for him. What’s it been like having two different versions of your character in a romantic pairing with Christan Chong’s La’an in the same season?
First of all, when we meet alternate timeline Kirk, she goes to a different timeline and meets this guy and falls in love with him. And he frankly falls in love with her too. And then he dies. In episode six, she meets Kirk again. Now what I thought was, “Okay, if I create a whole new Kirk, and he is a completely different personality, he doesn’t have the same sort of charm or mannerisms, then maybe it won’t be as difficult for her.” And so I kind of just made the decision. I said, “Okay, I’m going to kind of make him somewhat similar to episode three. Because it makes it so much more heartbreaking.”
And also because episode three was still really the Kirk that I want to be, even in the prime timeline. Kind of nerdy, adventurous, charming, funny, a rogue, good morals, loyal. These are all things that I still was instilling in Kirk anyway. So I thought, “Okay, well how much more heartbreak can there be?” It’s like the movie Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, but only one person had memory erased.
One of the fun things we saw in episode six, “Lost in Translation,” was Jim’s relationship with his brother Sam, who is serving on the Enterprise. We never saw that in the original series, because he died [in the episode “Operation — Annihilate!”] as soon as we knew he existed. What’s your take on the Sam/Jim dynamic? Why is Sam so seemingly threatened by Jim’s success?
Wesley: Well, I don’t have a brother. I have three sisters, but I think threatened maybe isn’t the right word. I think he’s just annoyed that his brother somehow is not only doing well, but actually ahead of him in many ways. And I think sometimes you have that “nice guys finish last” thing. I think in many ways, it’s applicable to Sam in the sense that he’s doing everything right. He’s doing everything by the books, one plus one equals two. And [Jim] Kirk’s jumping off a plane and then somehow finding a parachute while he is falling. And he thinks, “How does this guy pull this off every time?” I think he doesn’t understand why Kirk is the favorite child. Or why Kirk is somehow ahead of him in many ways, career-wise. And I think it’s like he’s thinking, “How is this guy doing this? It’s driving me insane.”
Your Jim Kirk differs from Chris Pine’s [in the Kelvin timeline films] because, unlike his version, yours will eventually grow into the Shatner iteration of the character. How do you think your Jim is different than the one in the original series? And how do you think he’ll evolve into the version the world knows?
Wesley: Look, I think that the Kirk in the original show is a very specific Kirk that existed in a 1960s television paradigm, and it was a very episodic series. And what I mean by that is if you watch season one, episode four or something, and then you watch season three, episode three, Kirk is kind of the same guy. Just having different adventures. And I think the Kirk that I want to play, the pre-captain—In many ways, he is not ready for the captain’s chair yet. But by the time that I’m hopefully finished with this character, and I don’t know when that will be, I would like him to feel like, “Okay, that guy should be in the captain’s chair. That guy’s ready.”
At the end of episode six, we witness a historic moment: Kirk and Spock meet. And of course, we’re left wanting more. I asked Ethan Peck this same question, but the question applies to you too. How much pressure do you feel at making sure that relationship comes off exactly right?
Wesley: I obviously feel pressure, but I also believe that actors bring a part of their own personality to characters. And I have to tell you, I’m pretty good friends with Ethan. And we have a Kirk/Spock dynamic that exists naturally between us. Whether it’s casting director geniuses or pure coincidence, I don’t know. But I know that our relationship is very organic, we’re not going to force it. We just have this natural cadence and rhythm that is so Spock/Kirk, I can’t quite describe it. Ethan marches to the beat of his own drum. He does things his own way, and sometimes says things that are so out of left field. And in many ways we’re opposites. But I really adore him, and I would like to think that he likes me as well as a person. And I think that’s very much like Spock and Kirk.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season two drops new episodes every Thursday.