Jason Matthew Smith is a veteran cast member of the reboot Star Trek movies. Playing an unnamed crew member, he seemed to be the least likely to survive all the way to movie three, yet, here he is in Star Trek Beyond—and he has a name! I had a chance to chat with Jason as we were both about to travel to San Diego for the wonderful chaos that is Comic-Con International. We talked about his role in the movies and his surprising longevity, the Trek legacy, and the losses recently suffered by the Star Trek family.
You play this guy who beats up on James Kirk, right?
That’s right, yeah. In the first movie, I think the name was Burly Cadet, and then in the second one they credit me as Cupcake, because that’s what Kirk called me, and I called him that. And then in this next movie I’m Lieutenant Hendorff, it’s the same character, it’s just a progression.
You’re sort of the proverbial nameless crew guy with the red shirt (as parodied in Galaxy Quest) that gets left behind, right?
That’s right, but I made it through three films, go figure, I’m kind of an anomaly.
You are a complete anomaly. In a lot of ways, you’re the stand-in for the audience, the fans. The normal, average guy . . .
Yeah, that’s correct, and I kind of feel like that a lot of the time. When I was on the set, just because I’m not a big star, I’m not Chris Pine (Kirk), or John Cho (Sulu), or any of these guys, I’m just an average blue collar working class actor, and yet I get to be a crew member on the enterprise, which is just an unbelievable experience.
Tell me how that all came about, you’re a Midwestern guy . . .
I did, yes. I actually, I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, I grew up in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Cincinnati is where I spent the most amount of time, 12 years, to the age of 24. I graduated from University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music with a BFA in acting, and then I went to Northern Illinois and got my MFA in acting.
I wanted to make sure that when I got to LA that I was competently trained and knew what I was doing.
How did you first get cast?
I auditioned for it against a bunch of other actors, and went on tape for it, and I wasn’t really sure what exactly I was auditioning for because they didn’t tell us that it was Star Trek, and didn’t tell us character names or any of that stuff. I just auditioned with the scene that they gave me at the casting office and put it on tape, and they called me back about a week later and said hey you got the part, I was like great, what is it?
Ha! That’s got to be so strange.
Yeah, and then finally I found out it was Star Trek and I only got to read my scenes because it was so top secret, and I only got to do that in the studio surrounded by security guards and everything while I read my scenes, and I had a great experience on that first one, it was so much fun. We were all brand new, and I didn’t really know a lot of the other cast from their other credits, so we were all on this journey together and got to know each other over the years.
Yeah, I don’t think any of the actors were really really super well known before the first movie.
I think Simon Pegg maybe was the most well known out of all of them, but …
Of course, but besides Simon Pegg. . . and John Cho. I think everyone was kind of … I mean who’d heard of Zach Quinto or Chris Pine, I mean maybe you heard of them, but they weren’t like what you were thinking of as …
Huge stars. Well Zach had done Heroes I think at the time, which was very popular at the time. We definitely heard a lot of the skepticism, I remember that when we were doing the reboot, that a lot of people were like, oh why are they doing it again? My mother and my uncle are huge original Trek fans, of the original series and the movies, and I too, I love those guys, I think they have great chemistry. We weren’t trying to out do them or anything like that, or do imitations of them, it was just that introducing the story in a different way to a new generation.
Yeah, and I think the production, much credit to J.J. Abrams of course, in creating the same world with the same notes, but really, really successfully, unlike say, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie, which was to me, a disappointing disaster.
I didn’t even get a chance to see it.
You missed nothing. But yeah, there was a lot of skepticism about rebooting Trek, even as a prequel. How did that play on the set?
Well, no, I mean obviously we watch TV and we read the papers and things of this nature. When you’re shooting it though you are kind of insulated. It was very top-secret, the whole thing, and obviously everybody wanted to get a peek of what the costumes would look like and who the actors were. I remember the secrecy, like the studio took it so extreme, we were wearing these druid robes over our costumes, got into these little golf carts that had black curtains on them, took us into the studios and stuff like that. It was very insular, but it was a really cool bonding experience, to be a part of that.
Now you’ve done three movies, what’s the best experience that you had in shooting the films?
That’s a tough one. I think just for me, it’s not so much as what I gave on the camera as much as getting to know the cast and the crew, and the times that they’re setting up the shots we had great conversations and talked about kids and politics and things of that nature. Working with Idris [Elba] was definitely a high point for me too.
Yeah. When I’ve interviewed other actors, they also talk about that camaraderie as being the highlight: that bonding and that camaraderie, and that feeling of a troop that really comes through.
And so much more over … We’ve been doing it now for eight years, and had a lot of life experiences in between the films, so when we get to see each other and spend time with each other, it’s really like catching up with old friends and stuff like that. It’s really been a great experience all the way around.
Did you ever get a chance to sit down and talk with Leonard Nimoy?
I saw Nimoy in the makeup trailers. Usually he was fast asleep, most of the time when I saw him, but everybody who worked with him and the crew and the cast, we adored him and we were so grateful that he decided to be a part of the new series. I’m such a huge fan of his to begin with, I think he is so underrated as an actor. His character of Spock that he created was just so complex and really way beyond most TV performances, still today. Having to play this logical creature that has a real struggle with emotion and balancing his human side there, that was amazing to watch.
Even as a kid, his was one of the first performances that I really remember seeing on a regular basis, weekly, and I was just drawn to him, and watching his Spock spoils me for TV characters in drama throughout my life.
He definitely set the bar high.
He really painted the character with such complexity, when he really didn’t have to do that. To be honest, that was one of my big worries about the reboot. That they weren’t going to capture Spock correctly—all the layers. However they were going to write him, however they were going to play him, I was afraid they weren’t going to get that. I was so relived and thrilled when Zach Quinto just nailed it.
Yeah, I mean Zach, he is really an amazing actor as well. I mean it’s so interesting to be able to have … Because he’s very cultured, and to talk with him, and to get that side of him, and then see him make the transformation into this very logical rational person, it’s unbelievable. I think in the first one, his relationship with his mother, and also his love for Uhura and stuff, I thought that was really a cool touch that J.J. [Abrams] did.
Yeah, I loved it, I loved every minute of it. I want to talk a little bit about Comic-Con, have you been to Comic-Con before?
I’ve never been to any convention before, as a matter of fact.
Oh, be prepared.
I’ve had a lot of friends that have done conventions and done Comic-Con, and they’ve been talking to me saying you need to be a part of this, and I wasn’t really that aware how to go about doing it, and finally somebody introduced me to somebody and suddenly it happened, and I’m so excited to be a part of it, and to see, you know I hear it’s an absolute unbelievable experience, and everybody is dressed up and everything, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Well this too, being the fiftieth anniversary of Trek, and our movie premiering the night before Comic-Con, and it’s being released nationally on July 22, I figure if I’m ever going to do a convention, now is the time. I think it’s going to be, it’s long overdue, a massive celebration for Trek, and I know there are yearly Trek conventions all over the place, but I really feel like this is sort of the golden anniversary. It is the golden anniversary. It’s going to be a big, they should just call it the Star Trek Comic-Con.
They should, it’s going to be very big, except that all my friends at the other networks aren’t going to be very happy about that. . .
Exactly, I know.
The cast, the Star Trek world, has had a couple of big losses over the past year. Of course Leonard Nimoy, how sad to lose him, and then of course Anton Yelchin. That must have been just a shock. Have you had a chance to talk with any … I assume that you guys finished shooting long before he passed away.
Yeah, I was over in France visiting my wife’s family, and when I’m over there I’m kind of in a media blackout, because I don’t really follow the French television and all that stuff. I heard about it from a friend of mine, and he said I don’t know if this is a hoax or not, but have you heard about this. I got online and checked it out and I couldn’t believe it, and then everybody started calling me. I worked with Anton mainly on the first film, I was struck by how young he was, he was like 18 or 19, I think, when we did that first reboot, and he was really a prolific actor, and he had definitely an upward trajectory going in his career. It’s heart-wrenching to know that in the blink of an eye, freak accident, that his life was taken from him, and I really feel for his family, and my heart and prayers go out to them. I think it’s going to definitely cast a bit of a dark cloud over the premiere.
I would imagine, yes. Such a tragic loss.
Yeah, exactly, and I really don’t know what they’re going to do with his character moving forward. It’s just a terrible thing all the way around. I think most of us, it’s so recent, we’re still in a bit of a state of denial and shock about the whole incident, but seeing each other again for the first time in a while will probably be a bit of a sobering effect.
You said earlier that you were a fan of the first series, do you have a favorite episode or favorite movie of the original series?
Well definitely, it’s kind of the same as everybody else, is The Wrath of Khan I think was just, it’s awesome. Ricardo Montalban was so amazing, I still, with my friends, I still quote some of his lines and stuff like that, “from death’s heart do I stab. . .” You know all that Shakespeare. Of course, “Kahn you blood sucker,” and all those great lines from that movie. I did like The Search for Spock too, and they all have their special places. They weren’t gigantic huge big budget movies like what we have today, I think that’s a testament to the chemistry and to the story telling ability that those movies still are awesome to go back and revisit.
What else are you working on these days?
As far as upcoming projects go, my wife and I are working on a couple of independent films in collaboration with some other people. We’re doing a romantic comedy, sort of to show my range and with most of the roles I’ve been able to do, I haven’t been able to show as much as I would like, and so we kind of started creating our own opportunities. That’ll be shot this fall, or early next year in Los Angeles, and then we have another one that is going to be shot in Morocco next summer. It’s an action comedy.
I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to chat with you, and I hope that we run into each other at Comic-Con, among the hundred and fifty thousand people.
Jason will doing an autograph session at the Sails Pavillion during Comic-Con on Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week! He hopes you’ll all stop by and say “hi.”
San Diego Comic-Con International begins in earnest Thursday, July 21. And, as you might imagine with this being the 50th Anniversary of the Star Trek Franchise, there is much to Trek-ing to do. I’ll be covering several events, including a major press conference, as well as doing one-on one interviews with Adam Nimoy and with Gene Roddenberry’s son “Rod.” So stay tuned to Blogcritics’ SDCC coverage all week!