Saturday, November 28, 2009

Looking for something to do? Beam over to Star Trek con at Eastside Marriott

or former Lafayette resident Garrett Wang, the role of Ensign Harry Kim on “Star Trek: Voyager” was more than a job. It was a personal quest — powered by racism.

Wang, who headlines this weekend’s Star Trek convention in Indianapolis, wanted to portray Asians in a better light. It bugged him to see Asian-Americans stereotyped as restaurant workers and martial artists. Worse, he hated laughing stocks like the bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in the classic 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Being in the South really impacted my life,” Wang (pronounced “wong”), 40, said by phone recently, recalling his high school days growing up in Memphis, Tenn. “Having to deal with racial epithets every day really molds your life.”

That’s why he dumped his pre-med ambitions and Asian studies major at UCLA and turned to acting. He bounced from one theater production to another before landing an audition for “Voyager” (1995-2001), the fourth “Star Trek” TV series. It took him six auditions to earn the gig, he said.

Knowing his role was historic in Trekdom — he was the first Asian-American actor to appear regularly in a “Star Trek” series since George “Sulu” Takei in the original 1960s show — Wang, then 24, quickly set the tone.

“I approached (the producers) about my concerns” on stereotypes, said the Riverside, Calif., native. “I told them, ‘I really don’t want scenes of (Kim) ordering a bowl of noodles from the food replicator. Just make him a normal, young Starfleet officer.”

The show was a natural fit, said Wang, who admits to growing up a science-fiction geek.

“ ‘Star Wars’ was a big influence on me. From that point forward, I watched every sci-fi thing I could,” like “Battlestar Galactica” and “V,” Wang said. He watched the original “Star Trek” in reruns, too, but “it really didn’t impress me.”

“When you’re nine, 10 years old, you want to see special effects. ‘Star Trek’ at that time didn’t really have that. ‘Star Wars’ looked way better. There were spacefights and battles. You’re not looking for storylines (at that age), you’re looking for action.”

Wang tried to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in college, but struggled to stick with it after seeing the season one episode about kidnapping titled, “Code of Honor.”

“It probably is one of the worst episodes in the entire series,” he said. “I’m watching this and thinking, ‘This blows. This is the worst writing.’ Months later, he tried to give the show another shot — only to find a rerun of the same “crappy episode.” In the end, Wang never got into “TNG” or the subsequent series, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” aversions he said helped keep his nerves in check when he auditioned for “Voyager.”

Set in the 24th century, Wang’s show followed the Starfleet vessel USS Voyager, which becomes stranded 70,000 light-years from Earth while pursuing a renegade ship and then turns to making the 75-year journey home. “Voyager” is the only “Trek” series to feature a female captain, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) as a lead character.

After “Voyager” ended in 2001, Wang took a break from acting, sold his house in Los Angeles and traveled. He bought some properties in Las Vegas, and he got into the convention circuit, sometimes doing as many as 20 shows a year. He didn’t take on a major project until 2005, when he starred in the six-part TNT miniseries, “Into the West,” produced by Steven Spielberg. Wang blamed the lack of work on the explosion of reality shows and a flood of actors coming over from feature films.

“There were so few jobs,” he said. “In four years I had 20 auditions. That’s a very difficult way to operate and live.”

Fast forward to today, Wang said the latest “Star Trek” movie, directed by J.J. Abrams, has reinvigorated the franchise. He saw the movie nine times — “The only movie I’ve seen more than once was ‘Star Wars’.”

“I thought the casting was great, although I’m not sure I’m sold on John Cho on being Sulu. … The soundtrack was amazing, the pacing, the editing, the script. Everything in the film was super, super cool. Being someone who worked on Star Trek, I was kind of nervous before the release. I thought, ‘What if this thing sucked?’ ”

Wang said he was irked that neither he nor any previous Trek cast member except Leonard “Spock” Nimoy was approached to star in the new flick.

“Word on the street was, (director) JJ Abrams didn’t anybody from any past Star Treks. He wanted all new faces — even down to the makeup artists. That’s insane. But it was like, ‘A new king’s in town. We’re going to have all new people.’ And that’s what happened. And I would say it worked.”

So, after six “Trek” series (counting the animated version), a billion-dollar merchandising industry and 11 movies, does Wang think it’s time to give the franchise a rest?

“No, hell no,” Wang said. “I think they defiantly should do more films. I think there’s room for another series, too, but it has to be edgy. If you can capture what was in the (latest) movie and make it into a series, I think it will be immensely successful.”