Hugh Culber

Star Trek: Discovery's Wilson Cruz on the midseason premiere, gay representation, and a musical episode

Contributed by
Jan 7, 2018

This interview contains spoilers for the midseason premiere of Star Trek: Discovery.

Wilson Cruz has had an incredibly varied and interesting career, and it was with joy that we here at Fangrrls learned that he'd been cast as Dr. Hugh Culber in the latest incarnation of Star Trek. Over the past 10 episodes of the show, he's functioned as both the heart of the show and a voice of reason on the ship. His relationship with Lieutenant Paul Stamets, played by fellow Rent alum Anthony Rapp, has represented a new landmark for gay representation within the franchise.

In the midseason premiere, though, Cruz's character met an unfortunate fate. He was murdered by Ash Tyler when he discovered the secret (long theorized among fans) that Tyler is actually the Voq, a Klingon leader who has been surgically altered and implanted with a false personality and memories. We sat down with Cruz to discuss his character's demise, his future with Star Trek: Discovery, gay representation on the show, and the possibility of a musical episode.

I was sad to see the fate of your character, Dr. Hugh Culber, for many reasons, but mainly because it dashes my hopes to see a musical episode of Star Trek: Discovery. Will that ever happen?

I don't know. I do know that I think it was brought up. We were chatting about it one day in jest but it's not completely out of the question for Anthony and I. There have been musical performances on Star Trek in the past, and I think if it's appropriate and part of the story is served by it I think we would be down for that.

In all seriousness, though, as a fan of Dr. Culber, and yours, it was hard to watch this episode. Will we see Hugh again on the show?

I can tell you that we will be seeing Dr. Culber again. 

I can even tell you that as part of the longer epic love story we are planning on telling between these two characters there is a scene in this season that is my favorite thing I have ever filmed in my twenty-five years and I can't wait for you guys to see it. So when I tell you that it's not over, it really isn't. There are reasons why the story has taken a turn, but I just ask that you guys trust us in the storytelling. I had conversations with the producers and there is a bigger story here to be told, and we are going to tell it.

The portrayal of the relationship between your character and Anthony Rapp's, Lt. Stamets, has been so extraordinary in its ordinariness, especially with that lovely teeth brushing scene.

I think that was always the way that Aaron and Gretchen saw the rollout, and it was important for Anthony and I was well that this is Star Trek. These are Starfleet officers, first and foremost, and because of that we needed to meet them as Starfleet officers first in their professional capabilities and see that they are geniuses in their own right in their own field, and then having had that we could introduce their personal life and reveal it in a way that was authentic. What I loved about that scene, for me, from the very first time that I read it was that that was true intimacy.

Hugh Culber and Paul Stamets Star Trek Diiscovery

It would have been very easy for Gretchen and Aaron and their writing staff to write a scene with these two characters in bed or post-coital or ending with a kiss, but what was intimate about that scene was this is two people who are sharing their lives and their concern for each other and showing their love for each other in a way that's not sexual but intimate. That's what a real relationship is. Of course, there's heat and there's passion, but that's not every moment of every day. There is true concern from Dr. Culber in that moment, and he needs to relay that and show his partner love in that way. I was really excited about it, and we loved that scene and I know some people were upset that it didn't end with a kiss but for me, the kiss wasn't important. What was important was to show the love between these two people.

And that kiss, that passion, is shown later too.

Right. Let's build to something.

Do you have a history with the Star Trek franchise? Did you watch it growing up?

I did. I remember watching the premiere of the pilot episode of Next Gen when I was a teenager. I was a huge fan of that show and I had huge crushes on Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes, who by the way directs this episode, so can you imagine what it was like for me to not only film the episode in which my character was killed but be directed by the one and only Jonathan Frakes. It was surreal.

I keep using that word, but that's what this experience continues to be is surreal. I loved Next Gen and growing up I knew I wanted to be an actor, and I thought if I could do two things if I could be in a Broadway musical and if I could be on Star Trek I will have done something for real. I'm forty-four and I finally got to do both of those things, and by the way, got to do them with Anthony Rapp. So, not bad!

What was it like working with Jonathan Frakes?

What I loved about working with Jonathan was his confidence. He's very confident. He knew exactly what he wanted the shot to be. He let me bring what I wanted to bring to it and trusted me, really trusted me that I knew what I was doing. He gave me a lot of space and time in those really big scenes with Shazad, who I owe such a great deal to because he came so prepared to go for it in these scenes because we knew how important they were. It couldn't have been a better working experience. Whenever you die on screen or get killed on screen it's always weird. It's a weird thing as a human being to have to act out. It's always a little weird. It should be. It should be a little weird, but doing it with those two men and that great crew made it really really easy and really let me go to some dark places.

You've had such a varied career. How is Dr. Culber different from — or the same as — other roles you've played?

I think he is probably the smartest person I've ever played, that's for sure. I think Dr. Culber is probably the smartest person in any room except when Paul Stamets is there. I like to bring a level of vulnerability and real humanity to the characters I play when appropriate and I feel like Dr. Culber lives pretty comfortably in that vulnerable world, but he's a professional first. What's really interesting is I was also doing another series called 13 Reasons Why simultaneously. I was playing a lawyer on that show, I was playing a doctor in this show, in order to not drive myself completely insane, I found a thing where they were feeding each other a bit. Their professionalism and their hearts are not exactly the same, they don't have the same intentions and clearly not living in the same world, but I think that they informed each other for sure. It was a challenge at first, but I think it really turned out to be really great for both experiences.

I wanted to make sure that he had a big heart. That this was the doctor that you wanted to come to if you happened to be in trouble and that you could trust and trust that he knew what the heck he was doing and what he was talking about. I took a lot of that from prior Star Trek doctors like Beverly Crusher and Bones. They are the heart of those crews. They are the moral compass of those shows, and I really drew a lot from those characterizations.

What has it been like entering the world of Star Trek fandom as an actor? We're a devoted, but also vocal and opinionated group.

We really love the way that fans let their imaginations run wild and come up with their own theories of what's going on. That's half the fun for us is watching all of you figure it out or try and figure it out. Some of the theories you guys come up with are amazing. I'm like "maybe we should have done that", but I have such great respect for anyone who can have such encyclopedic knowledge about anything and there's so much to know about Star Trek. I haven't even scratched the surface personally. Not in comparison anyway. I have real deep respect for that. That they take what we are doing to heart and so seriously and it makes us feel good when we see that you guys are happy with it. We hope that you'll stick with us when things don't go exactly as you had hoped. It's a long road, it's a big story, and we take it very seriously.

You've been quite the advocate for gay youth over the course of your life. Can you speak a little bit about your work in that arena?

I consider myself an "actorvist". When I say that what I mean is that I use my art to inform my activism and to be my activism sometimes, but I also use my activism in my art. I'm aware that I'm playing one of the first LGBT characters on Star Trek in the first relationship so there's a responsibility that comes with that. I'm aware of that. I think I should be, but there have been times in the last twenty-five years when I've needed to take a step away from my career in order to do the work for the community because these were the times I was born in to.

We were born in to revolutionary times as far as LGBTQ are concerned so I, as an LGBT person, needed to be on the front lines of that fight so sometimes I left to be a field organizer at the National Gay and Lesbian task force for two years, and then ten years later I left for two years to be at GLAAD and be their director of entertainment partnerships and represent GLAAD at studios and networks and help tell the stories of LGBT people.

And now I'm executive producing a six-hour documentary series about the history of the LGBT images on TV and how those images have changed our culture and our politics. It's been a balancing act, but it's been one I've really enjoyed and I feel has allowed me to feel fulfilled as a person that I was allowed to not only fulfill my dream of being an actor but also fulfill my duty as an LGBT person in these times.