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This interview contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard's seventh episode, "Napenthe," and has been edited for clarity.
While the character of Hugh has become something of a classic in any Star Trek context, it's easy to forget how little Jonathan del Arco's iconic character appeared on the screen. After all, he's only in two episodes of The Next Generation (and his role in the lackluster "Descent, Part II" is arguably entirely forgettable). The fact is that del Arco's performance in a single episode, "I, Borg," is so iconic that it has resonated with generations of viewers.
Now, in Picard, the Uruguayan-American actor is back in the Star Trek universe playing Hugh, and he's a far cry from the innocent teenage Borg we saw all those years ago. This Hugh (a straight line from where we last saw him in "Descent") is older, wiser, and much, much more jaded. But he's found a purpose in helping his fellow Borg, and new inspiration thanks to his meeting with Jean-Luc Picard.
SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with Jonathan del Arco via video conference to ask him about his thoughts on Hugh's future, that incredibly emotional reunion, and his role in Star Trek: Picard.
You're an activist for LGTBQ+ rights and immigrant rights. What did it mean for you to be able to tell this story right now?
So much. I mean, Alex [Kurtzman is] on the front lines of giving voice to a lot of things, and gay characters or gay actors being a part of the storytelling has always been a part of that aesthetic. And I've been very appreciative of that.
So as a gay man — I'm not playing a gay character, but to be able to play Hugh again with all the things I carry as a gay man and that I can put into my work is a great pleasure.
After Hugh's first episode of Star Trek: Picard aired, you talked about how your original performance was based on your partner, who had recently passed away because of AIDS. Did you draw on those experiences again for this older Hugh, or was it something different this time?
I based [Hugh] on my partner that died, and you know, it wasn't a conscious choice. I was reading the script and I was newly widowed, maybe a year fresh off a loss, and a traumatic loss, because AIDS was not only horrible, but back in the day it was horrible on every level, social, every aspect of your life got ruined.
And when he had dementia, he was such an incredibly open-hearted innocent. And that was the sense of wonderment, and that was the voice I heard when I read the script. And so I played Hugh like him in that state, you know. So he has a lot of personal meaning for me.
It's in a weird way, I have processed my personal mourning of that loss. Obviously it's been 30 years, but in a way, a small amount of him lives on in Hugh and the original Hugh, and even today on the cruise, I'm still signing photos from "I, Borg." They like the new photos, but they still want the old one, you know, of Hugh.
It has a very special place in people's hearts, you know? And I think as an actor, when you tap into something real, that's a real human emotion. It took me this long to share my tricks behind the camera, how I got there emotionally. But I think we respond to that as audiences. We identify with loss. That's why the narrative is so effectual, affecting to people, is that I was using very real things that everyone can identify with, you know?
This time Hugh, to me, was more like myself. I was the survivor. I was a survivor. Right? You live with survivor's guilt, you manage your life, you move on.
The scene where my guys get shot at, I did use a lot of my feelings about having lost a lot of my friends and how incredibly crumbling that is, and psychologically destroying a person. I mean, there's probably the worst thing that could have happened to Hugh was to see people under his watch perish, you know?
It's a direct line from where we last saw him in "Descent, Part II," where Hugh is so disillusioned.
Yeah. It's ironic. It's ironic because "Descent," which was the one I didn't like at all compared to "I, Borg" — I thought it was just not in the same quality and realm. But ironically, if it weren't for that episode, I would probably never been in Picard, because it really set the stage for our next steps.
I'm sure you've been asked at countless Star Trek conventions what you thought Hugh's future might be. How does where he ended up in Star Trek: Picard line up with that?
I think it's very much in line. I think it's very, very much in line to how we left him in Next Gen, in terms of his sense of responsibility to his community, you know? And it really lines up with my own life, to be honest with you. It's very much who Hugh is, very much.
I fully admit I'd like to be a little bit more brave, as brave as he is, I think he's very brave as a person, and self-sacrificing. I don't think I'm quite at that place. I think he's a self-sacrificing being as evidenced by the scene. So yeah, I couldn't be happier with how he presented.
We got an emotional reunion between Jean-Luc and Hugh, one that was pretty perfect. You said on Twitter that the hug wasn't scripted and you asked if you could do it. Can you talk a little about your thought process there?
Yeah, it was what was a very small part of the script, which is always interesting to me, because sometimes the small parts that are written out have the most potential for interpretation. And I just had a sense about that. It's literally like a quarter of a page in the script where he's getting pulled by the ex-Bs and I show up and we have some niceties with each other and we were rehearsing it.
With Patrick, I was already getting a feeling of, like, I would like to see my dad again, who's been gone for 17 years, and just starting to feel that way about Patrick and seeing Picard again. And Hugh seeing Picard again.
When we were discussing what to do with the scene, Patrick said we need to greet, we should have some kind of greeting or something. And I said, "Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to hug you." And I had in mind that hug you see at international airports when people haven't seen each other in 20 years, you know, that passionate desire to touch the loved one, you know, and both of them so needy of it, right?
Hugh hadn't had human contact in that way probably ever, if not for a very long time, certainly since he's been on the Cube. And so yeah, that's what I thought. And then we rehearsed it and our director came back a little misty-eyed, and she goes, "Okay, that's really, really beautiful, we're going to do that." And so we did it and I had a feeling when we shot it, it would be one of those moments, I think I said to the director, "You just shot a classic Star Trek moment." She goes, "Really?" I'm like, "I think you did. I think it's a classic Star Trek moment because of that hug," you know? So yeah, it was great. I'm glad it worked out.
It is a classic. Especially because I think Patrick Stewart — who is such an incredible actor — there's such pure joy in his response, which you don't see often from Picard.
Here's what funny. I didn't see that until I watched the clip because I was hugging him and couldn't see his face, so I had no idea what was going on. It's very moving to me as an audience to watch that laugh. He's like, "Oh, you're being loved." It was very powerful. The child is back, we all become children when we are around our parents.
Let's talk about that last scene. We say goodbye to Hugh in this episode of Star Trek: Picard. It's hard to see his death, given what he's been through and how much of a fan favorite Hugh is.
Yeah, I agree. I mean, I think that's what makes the great television, and that loss, I think, will be felt by the fans and anyone watching, especially in context to last week's episode, where I get to finally see my dad again, if you will. I think that they did a beautiful job setting the deck up for that moment to happen, because I think the loss will be felt.
I want people to feel what they feel and process their feelings about it, because I'm sure there will be plenty. Because I think when you have characters that are a part of your life for such a long time, and you have ownership of them — I just want them to know that I'm okay, you know? And that I'm very happy with the work, and I feel like we did a great job and the series is great and that they should keep watching it and enjoying it the way I will.