While it was announced early in season one of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that Paul Wesley will play the franchise's most recognizable and renowned figure in Capt. James T. Kirk for season two, the shock was that it was sooner than expected with his debut appearance in the season one finale "A Quality of Mercy". Evoking the shades of The Original Series episode "Balance of Terror", The Vampire Diaries star spoke about his experience keeping his role a secret, not emulating the performance of TOS star William Shatner & more.
"It was so secretive!" Wesley recalled. "It happened so quickly that I thought it was a prank because it was literally a call from my agent over the weekend saying, 'Hey, do you want to do a quick Zoom with [showrunners] Akiva [Goldsman] and Henry [Alonso Myers] and casting directors?' I said, 'Yeah, of course. Do you know what is this for?' And they were like, 'It's a character who is very iconic in Star Trek, just talk to them and see what happens.' So, we did this Zoom, and we all just had a great time. The episode had not been written yet, but they knew they wanted Kirk to come in. So, there was no material, it was just kind of a general conversation about everything you can imagine. And that was it. Then it was literally like, 'You're leaving next week.' [Laughs.]"
Upon landing the role, Wesley approached things carefully. "The most important aspect is to not do an imitation of something that is sacred. And obviously, William Shatner's interpretation of Captain Kirk has really touched people; it's been important to people for a variety of reasons," he said. "I think the most important thing is to not do an imitation because it's an insult to the character who is so iconic — and it's a reminder that I'm not William Shatner. [Laughs.] So, this is a version of Kirk we've never seen, and every episode is different.
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Wesley was also quick to remind us that since the events take place within Pike's (Anson Mount) mind, they're not canon. "Obviously, the season one finale is an alternate timeline that doesn't exist, because it takes place in the future. He's not captain of the Enterprise. He's never met Spock, and he's never had all those experiences. It's a Kirk who has been shaped differently. So in the season finale, it really was open to interpretation. In season two, we meet a Kirk who we know better. I think the most important thing was to pay respect to the important pillars of his personality: His morality, his incredible instinct, his courage, his empathy towards others, and how protective he is of his crew."
The actor also recalled what it was like first donning the uniform. "[Laughs.] All of those words are pretty accurate. Television moves rapidly, and so even just sitting in the chair — I rewatched every TOS episode, trying to understand the posture or where to put my hands — really just feeling at home in this chair. I ride motorcycles and when you first get on a motorcycle, you don't really understand how it moves, and you don't really understand how to do nice, tight turns. You don't feel comfortable. And it's like that with the chair, how you're just sitting there. That was one of the things that I needed to understand, so it felt like I had been sitting there thousands of times. And it's like that in this outfit. I know this outfit; I feel at home in it." For more on how Wesley bonded with Dan Jeannotte, who plays James' brother George Kirk, and Shatner's endorsement, you can check out the rest of the interview here.