Paul Wesley's Captain Kirk on Star Trek is not like William Shatner: 'This is a whole new look'
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1 finale.
A new captain has beamed up to the command deck.
Vampire Diaries alum Paul Wesley was announced in March as a young Captain James Tiberius Kirk on the upcoming second season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. But — SPOILER ALERT — Wesley's Kirk ended up making his debut in the season 1 finale, which dropped on Paramount+ Thursday.
According to Wesley, who opens up about the role for the first time with press, the original plan was to never formally announce his casting. The network and producers hoped it would be a surprise for Star Trek fans when he popped up on screen at the end of SNW. But meddling paparazzi threatened to leak images of him from the set, so the powers that be decided to announce his season 2 role, while holding onto the season 1 surprise.
"I'm glad they did [announce it] because it allows people to digest it in a way," the actor tells EW.
Trek fans know Kirk by way of William Shatner on the original Star Trek series of the 1960s, while a newer generation got their introduction to the character from Chris Pine in the J.J. Abrams Trek films. This Kirk, Wesley says, is somewhere in between. "This is a whole new look," he notes.
The SNW finale sees Captain Pike (Anson Mount) getting a visit from his future self. He's not just shown, but lives out a potential tragic future that could happen if Pike's prophesied death doesn't play out as its meant to. This future takes place several years down the line when Pike meets Kirk, who's captain of the U.S.S. Farragut and arrives on the scene amid a conflict with the Romulans.
Wesley discusses taking on the role, what people can expect from his performance, and what's coming in season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I feel like you're probably getting this a lot these days, but how does it feel to be Captain Kirk?
PAUL WESLEY: Gosh, how many adjectives? I could give you about a hundred and it would still not really describe it. Obviously, it is incredibly daunting. Ever since I got the role of Kirk, I'll literally be speaking to someone and there's a massive language barrier and I can't quite communicate certain words. Then I'll say "Captain Kirk." There's nobody on the face of planet earth... or I should say, most 99 percent of people know who Captain Kirk is. That is crazy. It's arguably the most iconic fictional character. There's Hans Solo and there's Captain Kirk.
There's the generation of Trek fans who know Kirk through Chris Pine and there's the other generation who know Kirk through William Shatner. What is your personal Captain Kirk?
He's somewhere in between. At the end of the day, the most important thing for me and the most important thing for the showrunners was to not insult the original series' Kirk by doing an imitation of [Shatner]. It's an interpretation that is different. I think doing an imitation of either [Kirks] would be an insult. We just remind people that it's not William Shatner. This is a whole new look. It's a whole new Spock. It's a whole new Uhura. It's a whole new Kirk. It's a new Pike. They're old characters interpreted in a new way. What is most important is to pay respect to the integrity of who Kirk is — his wants, his needs, his deep desires, his morality, his spontaneity, his instinct.
What was really important for you to bring out in him with your debut in the season 1 finale?
In the season 1 finale, it's actually a Kirk that we've never seen because he doesn't really exist. It's an alternate projected timeline of something. If Pike hadn't died and he was still commanding the Enterprise, what would this world look like? Of course, it doesn't exist. It's just in his mind. So he meets Kirk, and Kirk is not captain of the Enterprise. Kirk is captain of the Farragut. Kirk has never met Spock, he's never met Uhura, he hasn't gone through all the things that the original Kirk had gone through. So, in a way, it allowed me to... I'm not gonna say whatever I wanted, but it's a looser interpretation, right? We're not sticking to a regiment. So it was a little liberating because I didn't have as much pressure. I can't talk about season 2 too much, but it's a little bit more in line with a Kirk that we know, but it's pre-Enterprise. The most important thing is, to answer your question, is to maintain that sense of Kirk having this incredible gut instinct that he relies on, that is preternaturally accurate in a way, a morality, courage, charm, humor. We don't get to see as much of that humor in the season 1 finale because there's something very intense happening. Season 2, we get to explore a little bit more of Kirk.
In the finale, we see Kirk and Pike hitting up against each other. Do you see this episode as setting up that particular character dynamic in season 2?
Yeah, I do. The two men have a great deal of respect for one another. Pike sees this future, so he kind of knows Kirk in a way, but Kirk doesn't know him. So it's fascinating to see this. It's like, I've met you before, but I can't tell you that I've met you before and I can't explain to you how I've met you before. I do think that the two have different command styles and different approaches, but I think there's a lot of respect between the two men. There's never really a sense of animosity or real competitiveness. There's a deep sense of respect, 'cause ultimately they want the same thing. Kirk just knows that he'll figure it out quickly and he's relied on that his entire life.
We found out about you playing Kirk with the anticipation you would come in season 2. Obviously, you have this surprise appearance in season 1. It sounds like you've been hanging onto this secret for longer than I think a lot of us realized. Did you have to shoot this appearance under the cover of darkness, as it were?
Yeah, totally. I didn't tell anyone other than very, very close family and friends. And it was like an "if you say anything, I'm never talking to you again" kind of thing. Ultimately, we weren't even really gonna announce that I was playing Kirk at all until suddenly I just appeared on screen in the finale. But then we were shooting season 2 and a couple of photos came out because we did an episode where they go to earth. That's when they said, "Okay, let's just announce it because there's a lot of speculation," etc. I'm glad they did because it allows people to digest it in a way, you know? It was really hard to not tell. I ran into some people who are diehard Star Trek fans. This was before the announcement. Friends of mine that I hadn't seen in ages, and I'm like, "Well, I'm doing this show called Star Trek." They're like, "Oh! What character?" I'm like, "Maybe you've heard of him. Captain Kirk." They're like, "Shut up! No, you're not." Nobody believed me. They literally thought I was a crazy person. Then the announcement came out and they were like, "You weren't kidding!" It's such an iconic role that everyone thinks you're pulling their leg. So I was glad that the announcement came out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1 is currently streaming on Paramount+.
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