Star Trek star Wilson Cruz on the show’s queer appeal and how gay love can save the universe

Star Trek star Wilson Cruz attends the at Skirball Cultural Center

As Dr Hugh Culber in Star Trek: Discovery, Wilson Cruz became the gay man who saved the universe.

But the actor has been fighting for change ever since his career began, deciding to be his true self from the start.

In playing Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life, he became the first out gay actor to play a lead gay character in an American television series.

PinkNews caught up with him before the Discovery season four premiere – yes, before it was announced it wouldn’t be on Netflix. But don’t worry, will premiere in the UK on Friday (26 November) on Pluto TV and is currently streaming on Paramount+ in America.

PinkNews: How are things in the world of Star Trek? How are you feeling about season four?

Wilson Cruz: I feel good about it. I actually officially finished production on season four yesterday, because I went in and did all of the finishing touches on ADR, on the sound stuff.

So I’ve seen some of it, I wouldn’t say I’ve seen all of it. First of all, it looks unreal. I mean the look of the show is gorgeous. We have this new AR wall that we used for the first time this season and I got to see a lot of that yesterday, and it’s mind blowing what that technology can do.

Found family is a large part of the show and especially so in season four. What can people expect of the Culber, Stamets, Adira and Gray family?

We definitely established that unit this season, we really see them all create this network of support and understanding and love for each other.

In many ways, like in real life, Culber and Stamets see a bit of themselves in Adira and Gray much like Anthony [Rapp] and I see ourselves see a bit of ourselves in Blu [del Barrio] and Ian [Alexander], just because we were also young people who grew up in this industry and have a spotlight shine on us as we were figuring out who we were and how to walk through the world.

So we see this dynamic on the show as well. Dr Culber, who will never go back on a promise and will always follow through, makes a promise at the end of season three that he will do everything he can to make sure that people see Gray, physically, and that people see him and appreciate him for all his gifts.

We definitely see Dr Culber fulfil that promise, which was really important to all of us, especially to me. We do it in a really beautiful and sci-fi believable way.

But we really see a lot more of this dynamic between Stamets and Culber, that they really are this couple that supports and loves each other. They’re going through some very real uncertainty this season on the show. And surprisingly, we’ll see that roles are a bit reversed.

I’ll say that much. We get to see how this couple navigates this uncertainty when one of them is having a very difficult time.

What’s the fan reaction been like with the addition of Adira and Gray to the storyline?

The majority of true Star Trek fans are very supportive and very excited about the storytelling. As a franchise, Star Trek has always been about creating how you show up in a team, how we show up and support each other, so that everybody lives up to their potential, but not just for themselves, but because we have a mission, and we need everyone to be at the top of their game.

Star Trek: Discovery

Blu del Barrio is the mysterious teen genius Adira in Star Trek: Discovery. (Netflix/CBS)

You can’t do that unless you’re allowed to be all of who you are.

We get to see that modelled through Gray and Adira, about how they walk through the world, how we celebrate them, living their true selves, and how that allows them to be a part of this team and helps us save the galaxy once again.

So I think it fits right into all of the themes of this franchise. I think people really gravitate towards the storyline and to these characters. And I think after the season, they’ll certainly do more.

It’s a strange situation because in the world of Star Trek, in 3189, same-sex relationships and non-binary people wouldn’t be something that would likely be seen as ‘different’, yet it’s something the writers have to address to familiarise people with in 2021.

Well, I’ll say this about that – because I’ve thought about this a lot, right? Just because we as a species get to a point where it’s normal to allow people to go through an identification of their true selves, that doesn’t mean that that process is any easier.

I think who you are and who you are to yourself and the discovery of that, and the acceptance of that, is a very personal process that I think even a thousand years from now is a process that takes time and it needs us to be supportive of people when they’re going through that.

So you know, I don’t think we make a big deal about it. We acknowledge it, and we accept it and we give them the room to grow into it. That’s what we’re doing as parents on the show.

But also, as you know, as Michelle [Paradise], and Alex [Kurtzman] as the creators of these characters, I think there’s a real human element of it that will always be true.

Fandoms can famously take a while to adapt to change. How do you find the Discovery experience now? Are people embracing it more?

I believe so. Especially after last season, where we jumped into the future. I really believe the show came into its own, I feel like everything that happened before that was leading up to this opportunity to go to the future, and take Star Trek where it hadn’t gone before.

That excited the fandom, that reignited us as a cast, and as creatives, it was exciting. There are always going to be people that throughout every version of Star Trek, every series that has come through, there’s always been resistance to change. Maybe it’s an American thing [laughs].

There’s a comfort that people receive from Star Trek, it’s like coming home for a lot of people and sometimes when you paint a house a new colour people not everybody’s gonna like the new colour and there’s some disagreement.

But I think that we have proven ourselves to be true to the values of Star Trek, we have proven that the show and its creators are invested in the storytelling. Everyone is bringing their A-game.

All pistons are firing now that Sonequa [Martin-Green, as Captain Burnham] is in the chair, which is what we’ve been also leading towards, the show takes on another feeling, so we really see how this core group can step up to the plate when the plate this season is very, very full. I’m excited.

It has to be said that if it wasn’t for the success of Discovery, we probably wouldn’t have all the different iterations of Star Trek that we’re getting now.

And that’s not me saying it! That’s Alex Kurtzman, who is our leader. It was because of the success of this series and all the effort to reintroduce Star Trek to a new generation that really allowed this expansion of the franchise.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Prodigy, but my f**king head exploded it’s so beautiful. That’s the latest iteration.

And I’m really excited for people to see my friends in Strange New Worlds coming up, something that fans asked for because of their love of Discovery, those characters came here. We’re rooting them on.

I know that some people are trying to create some kind of competition or something. But we love each of the shows, we are rooting for them. Those are our friends, we worked with them for a year [Strange New Worlds spins-off from season two of Discovery and The Original Series].

I’m excited about all this new talent that’s part of the Star Trek franchise. I really want to point out Brett Gray, who’s playing the lead in Prodigy [Dal] who is, I think, one of the most fantastic young actors around. He was on On My Block, which was one of my favourite shows. And he’s a scene-stealer. I just love him – in an actory way!

Talking of Prodigy, did you see there was someone trying to have a negative take on the show discussing gender, or forcing that as an agenda on children?

No, I missed that. And I’m kind of glad I did to be honest with you, because that sounds like a bunch of nonsense. I think there are some fans who are looking for an agenda, right, who are sensitive to the creators having an agenda and you know, if you were looking for one, you’re going to find one.

The writers room for Discovery is already very diverse, but do you have any say into the output of your character?

I wouldn’t say I have input in terms of where the season goes, or what the story we’re telling is, but I have regular conversations about who Dr Culber is, what his expanded responsibilities are and how he’s navigating that as also the therapist, the counsellor of the ship now as well.

From the beginning, it was really important for me to have some ownership over him and his journey and Lord knows that he’s had one. I wanted to ground it in a really human experience. That sounds crazy, but for me, Culber’s rebirth is really an analogy, it’s a metaphor for second chances, someone who sees and is unsatisfied with his current circumstances and because of an event in his life, realises that he needs to take ownership of his life and make choices and live – really live – right?

Like, stop putting things on hold and stop playing second fiddle to people and knowing his own worth. Before Culber died and came back he was Stamets’s partner and now he is an entity of himself, who has his own goals, his own values, and we see them play out.

When you first came to Hollywood and made the decision to be out from the start, why did you choose that path? And do you think it helped or hindered you?

I chose it for two reasons. One was personal, which was I know that I will only be able to be happy and fulfilled as a human, as a person, if I’m allowed to be exactly who I am, with no apologies and to be honest with people.

And it happened in the mid 90s, when coming out was a political act, when it was something we did to empower others to do as well, because we understood that our visibility was going to allow us the political power we needed to make the change in this country. And that takes sacrifice. And that is a hard thing to do.

I was 19. And I think when you’re 19, you’re more willing to take a risk. I also knew that I was playing a role, the first teenager on American television who was an openly queer person [Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life], and I wanted to put my stamp of approval on it, I wanted to signal to the audience that not only is this a character that I’m playing, but it’s a character that I stand behind, and that I am infusing with my own experience, what it was like for me.

I also knew that it was going to empower other people to do the same thing. And that’s what it did. At the time, with my grandiose thoughts about it, I wanted to build an army of young people, a new generation of young people who are going to come out and be proud of who they were and change the way that queer people in this country were treated.

I know that sounds grandiose, but I also needed it to be, as a man of colour, I also needed young people of colour who lived in these conservative households and communities, so that they weren’t alone.

Was that experience not quite scary for you?

Oh, it was absolutely scary [laughs]. It’s absolutely scary. I mean, I had to come out to my parents first, I hadn’t even been out to them yet. So that was really scary.

But I also was really aware and really convinced that I would have been miserable otherwise, and I wasn’t willing to be miserable. I wasn’t willing to live a life in the closet. And I was young enough that if it didn’t work out, I had time to figure something else out.

I think in a lot of cases, we see that it’s not [easy to do that, still], especially if you’re a trans person or non-binary person, especially a person of colour. In those communities, it’s still difficult. It’s why I’m so proud of these two young people on our show.

What impact did that first role have on you? Do you think it had an impact on the industry?

I think the impact on me was, I understood my power, I understood that I could create a conversation. That was meaningful to me at that age.

I also knew that it would change the trajectory of my career. That was a choice, right? That I wanted to not just be an actor, which is great, but I wanted to be an actor who used his talent, his art, to inform the lives of LGBT+ people, because I saw how impactful storytelling could be in educating, in creating empathy.

So from then on, I sought out roles that would allow me to do that. It was no accident that I followed very quickly with the role of Angel in Rent, which I also thought was important for us to talk about. I talked about the Club Kids and what isolation and acting out on that isolation could do to young people if we’re not careful, if we’re not caring for them.

Party of Five, where I played a man who’s taking care of a young child and how do we talk about sexuality with young people in a way that respects their youth? I sought out opportunities – not to say that I didn’t do frivolous things, because, you know, a boy has to pay the rent, but the things that I cared about were the parts that allowed me to say something about who we are.

Did it change the industry? I can’t take responsibility for that, there were a lot of moving parts. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been vocal, that I took time off to work at an organisation called GLAAD that worked on the issues of visibility within the industry.

That I can be a face and a touchstone for creators and networks and studios to have conversations with in order to figure out how we do it better. I’m proud of the fact that while I was there, we started this conversation about trans and non-binary characters on television.

By the time I left – not to say it’s just me, I’m just saying as an organisation – we saw Pose coming out, we saw the effects of Glee, we saw all of these shows that really included a more inclusive picture of our community. So in that way, I was able to be a part of that change.

Things have definitely changed, but what else do you think still needs to be worked on?

I’m always gonna want to see more LGBT+ people of colour on my screen.

We still, for the most part, are still seeing only white, queer people, mostly queer men. Straight or gay men.

What really needs to happen is that LGBT+ storytellers and creators are given the opportunity to create these stories and tell them from an authentic place.

Wilson Cruz as Culber.

Wilson Cruz as Culber. (CBS)

I also still believe that queer actors should be playing these queer roles. Queer actors aren’t given the opportunity to play the straight roles. We’re not always invited into the room for straight roles, whereas our straight counterparts are invited to play our roles.

So until there is an even playing field for all of us, which doesn’t exist right now, I still think that we have to, I think the industry and creators still have to lean towards hiring queer actors to play these queer roles. And I also have to say that it benefits the project, I think that a queer person brings an authenticity and a lived experience to that storytelling that you couldn’t bring, even if you try.

I’m not saying that straight actors haven’t been successful in their storytelling. That’s not my point. I just know and I see around me an army of queer actors who are so incredibly talented who are not being given the opportunity to tell their stories, and they’re not, they’re not being able to tell straight stories, and they’re not able to tell their queer stories.

So you know, something has to give. And so the playing field is even. That’s how I feel about it.

As an activist, what do you think there needs to be more campaigning for? What should we really be focusing on?

I sit on the National Board of an organisation called GLSEN, which is the Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network – we probably will go through a name change very soon, because it’s not an inclusive name – but my point is, their mission is to make every school in this country a safe space for LGBT+ students.

One of the ways that we can really drive home equality and allow young people to see themselves is to include LGBT+ history in our history when it’s taught in schools.

Now listen, we are going through a moment where we’re still fighting to include the true history of the civil rights movement, reconstruction and civil war. So I understand that it’s a steep mountain to climb, but I know how empowering it would be for young people to hear the stories of Marsha P Johnson, of Sylvia Rivera, of Harvey Milk – to talk about the Briggs amendment in California about how there was a proposition where you could fire your teacher, because they may have been gay.

Young people don’t necessarily understand, because they’re not being taught, how far we’ve come and the risks that so many took in order to get us to this point. So if young people aren’t being told their history, we are in danger of repeating it and that’s my biggest fear. We can see that playing out right now.

When Toni Morrison is being talked about being removed from libraries in this country, we’re in real trouble. Right? I mean, this is a Nobel Laureate that we’re talking about, she was not only one of the most celebrated female writers of her time and not only one of the most celebrated African American writers of her time, but just in general, one of the best authors to ever have lived. And they’re talking about removing her and not teaching her in school.

So I understand that we are in a fraught moment. But I sincerely believe that if we really want to support our young people, and continue to expand rights in this country, we need to teach this history.

What was working on Party Monster like? The film has gone on to have cult status and it’s a side of queer culture that still fascinates people.

Yeah, it fascinated me too. I am of two minds about that project, but I’m still proud of being part of it. At the time, I was incredibly happy to be a part of it.

It was a very small budget film, those costumes basically melted off of us by the time the scene was over! In hindsight, what I wish for is that the story of Angel Melendez, the victim of that story, would have been more centered in that story, but it was never, even in the original script, he wasn’t, so I accepted the premise as it was. And my job was to make him as three dimensional as possible with the screen time that I was given.

So looking for opportunities to infuse him with humanity, because I really believe that he deserved that. He wasn’t around to talk about his story or what happened to him and so I needed to be his voice because he didn’t have one anymore.

It’s very telling that after the movie was released that that monster, while he was in jail [Michael Alig, who killed Angel], decided to attack me personally. He didn’t like the movie. He attacked me personally because he, I think, felt threatened over the fact that we were forcing people to see the humanity of this young man that he killed, with very little thought by the way, very little thought before, during or after.

Because I was giving him some humanity, in that way, I felt it was a badge of honour in many ways. But you know, all in all, it was just a really fun movie to make. And I get that people are really drawn to that world. It was a very 1990s story.

Do you think there’s a book in you?

Oh my God. So this is like a running theme right now. You’re the third person in a week. And I have real resistance on it about it. I don’t know why. Perhaps I need to go to therapy first [laughs].

Yes, I do have a book in me. I just wonder if it’s a little early for me. I know the other people who write books, I have friends who have written books. I just feel like when I write it, I want it to be one volume.

Right now I feel like I’m halfway through my story. I could be wrong. But there is a book editor who is being very assertive [laughs]. Honestly, I’m flattered every time someone asks.

I feel like I’ve been so transparent for almost 30 years that I feel like I don’t have any stories left to tell, like, I’ve put it all out there! Maybe it’s just about collecting those stories and putting them in the book.

No pressure! Star Trek has always had a huge gay following. Why do you think that is? And what do you think is the gayest thing about Star Trek?

I can only speak for myself, right? Why was I such a fan of Star Trek as a gay man? Star Trek allowed me to imagine a world where I would be OK at a time when it wasn’t.

Even though we weren’t really a part of the Star Trek storytelling until recently, in a real way, you could imagine that that was a place where it wasn’t going to be a big deal anymore.

I guess the gayest thing about Star Trek is Stamets and Culber being in bed together and talking about their lives and how to best deal with their children. Like, that’s pretty frikkin’ gay.

I also think one of the gayest things ever about Star Trek was that in season one [of Discovery] it was gay love that saved the universe. It was me from the other side, from some other plane of existence, coming back and kissing my husband enough to help him realise what was going on. Like, it was a gay kiss.

Star Trek: Discovery actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz embrace during season one.

Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz’s kiss on Star Trek: Discovery was groundbreaking. (Star Trek: Discovery)

That’s the gayest thing you can think of about Star Trek. They didn’t go ‘gay kiss saved the universe!’ It just happened. And then, a few days later, even me I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that was us!’

It’s so refreshing for that representation to be front and centre in a show like Star Trek.

I’m really excited for people to see this loving supportive relationship and where they find themselves in the season.

To the point where it made me, in doing it, I was like, ‘Oh, I should probably be in a relationship. [Laughs] I should probably think about maybe doing that, because this seems like something that would be good for me.’ I’ve been single for a long time. So it even made me question my singledom!

Star Trek: Discovery is streaming on Paramount+ where available, and will premiere in the UK on Friday (26 November) on Pluto TV. Seasons 1-3 are now available on Blu-ray and DVD.