Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has arrived on Paramount+, and with the return of the USS Enterprise comes the arrival of a brand-new Chief Engineer: Hemmer the Aenar, played by Bruce Horak.
The Beat got the opportunity to speak with Horak over Zoom about his personal history with Star Trek and comic books, how his performance in Goblin: Macbeth connected with his performance as Hemmer, and what details we might have missed about those new Enterprise uniforms!
AVERY KAPLAN: Do you have a personal history with Star Trek?
BRUCE HORAK: I do have a personal history. I started watching reruns of the original series when I was just wee one with the family. My dad was a huge comic book nerd: he started collecting comics when he was just little, and he had a study full floor-to-ceiling with comic books, and it was really how I learned to read. He had some of the Star Trek comic books, and we watched the original series. We would do our Shatner impressions. I think really, I was a fan of McCoy. You can’t get away from Shatner and what he did. All the way through, watched The Next Generation. I think I’ve seen just about every episode and even some of The Animated Series. Watched some of that and I just loved it, loved it. I do love it.
KAPLAN: Do you have a favorite comic?
HORAK: Well, I was a big fan of Daredevil. That was the series that Frank Miller did just in general, but that Daredevil introduction. I lost 91% of my eyesight to cancer when I was a baby, and to see a blind superhero is just like, yes, this is the greatest character ever written. If there was a particular issue of Daredevil I’d say, it’s the four Miller graphic novels. The art, the storytelling, it’s dark. It’s awesome. Yes, I just love it.
KAPLAN: Can you tell us about your introduction to the character Hemmer? Did you were auditioning for this specific part?
HORAK: I did. The call went out, they were looking for a blind or visually impaired performer to play a blind alien on a new Star Trek. That’s as much as I knew when my agent called me and I said, “Yes, there’s no question. Are you kidding?”
Then I read the scene. It’s the dinner table scene [from “Children of the Comet,” available to stream on Paramount+ now] and I meet Uhura, and we have our little interaction and then Spock throws a carrot at me. I don’t know if I can talk about the rewrite before it was that, but in the audition piece, I was supposed to end by throwing a carrot up and catching it in my mouth. I spent like seven hours practicing how to do that. I wanted them to know, this is a blind actor and he’s going to do this, and then I wanted to blow them out of the water of throwing a carrot up and catching it in my mouth at the end.
I could get it about four to five times, and I thought, “You know what? It’s one time and this is big. I don’t want to mess it up,” and so I thought there’s got to be another trick I can do. When I was about 12 years old, I taught myself how to juggle, which is very difficult to do because I have no depth perception, but I learned that it’s all about the throws. I can juggle very proficiently. I could even do it with my eyes closed (which is hilarious). I was cutting apples in the scene, and then I ended the scene and I started juggling apples.
That was my first audition, and then I had three more Zoom auditions going up the ladder event. My fourth audition was with (co-showrunner) Henry Alonso Myers, and we hit it off.
KAPLAN: As you mentioned, you lost 91% of your eyesight and I’m curious, what does it mean to you to be playing a Star Trek character who’s blind?
HORAK: It means everything. It really does. The Roddenberry universe where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place is just one to which I aspire. There’s something about being able to tap into my own lived experience as someone with a disability who has fought against the ideas of impairment and the barriers, sometimes internal, sometimes external preconceptions of what I can and can’t do in abilities and things like that. In that first scene, he comes right up against it, and then we would just blow it out of the water. Here he is an incredibly proficient engineer. He’s the chief engineer on the flagship, so he’s good.
He’s got to be good to get where he is. He’s got experience, and he’s got these incredible telepathic powers and well, that’s not me. If I’m just playing myself while I’m doing is public speaking, but if I get to embody somebody else, then I get to act. That was such a wonderful challenge is to take that on in a way I’m playing the Daredevil that I always wanted to do.
KAPLAN: I noticed in your newsletter, The HoboSapien Chronicles, that you’ve recently performed in Goblin: Macbeth. Can you tell us a little bit about this project and whether or not it relates to your performance as Hemmer?
HORAK: Goblin: Macbeth was an idea envisioned by Rebecca Northan who has a company called Spontaneous Theatre. I met Rebecca 25 years ago, and we’ve created a multitude of projects together. Our background is a Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, which is an improvisational company. Keith Johnstone who started Loose Moose has also a bit of a background in Trance Mask or mask performing. Many of the shows that Rebecca and I have created involve mask work.
Legend Has It was the one a couple of years ago. We’d bring an audience member up and they get to basically do a live-action Dungeons & Dragons where we improvise the world around them. A lot of mask work and goblins and orcs and all of that. We get to put these masks on and create these other characters.
Goblin: Macbeth happened in Calgary, Alberta produced by the Shakespeare Company. They have 25 years of history. Haysam Kadri, the artistic director, called us out of the blue and said, “I got a problem. I had a show dropout. Rebecca, what have you got?” Rebecca said, “I’ll call Bruce and see what we can put together.” A phone call happened and three weeks later, we were on stage doing a production of MacBeth.
It was two people or two actors and a musician. We ordered silicon goblin masks from CFX. They’re these incredible masks. I edited MacBeth down to about a 75-minute script. Two goblins discover a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare, the Riverside Edition (which is where they find it, by the river). They’re confused as to what all this Shakespeare stuff is and why the hubbub about it. They read Hamlet’s advice to the actors and figure, “We can do that,” so they hijack a theater. They drag an audience in, they force a technician to run lights and sound.
They kidnap the front-of-house manager and hide them backstage to later appear as– Well, they have a part where they go backstage and kill them in order to get real blood. They don’t quite understand the difference between acting and pretend. Anyway, we just play these two goblin characters switch off, do all the roles, we improvised, play with the audience, and it was just an absolute trip. I think Rebecca and I actually had about maybe 20 hours together in the hall to put the thing together and then Ellis Lalonde joined us as our musician.
It’s just it’s a totally wild ride. Is there a connection between that and playing Hemmer? Definitely. It’s the mask work. It comes down to putting on another face, transforming the body and the voice to embody that character, and disappearing for a while into being someone else. I find acting in general but especially mask work is a real exercise in empathy where you literally put yourself in somebody else’s skin and move through the world as them. What a wonderful gift to be able to do that. Hemmer, I put on these prosthetics and I look at myself in the mirror and zoom in on my camera and see this other being, looking at me, and what an incredible gift. I highly recommend it.
KAPLAN: In addition to acting, you are a portrait artist. Can you tell us about your portrait work?
HORAK: Yes. Got some of them here on the wall behind me. I started painting portraits in 2011. A friend of mine had seen me on stage and had known me for years and then had saw me out in the street with a white cane and thought, “There’s some disconnect here. What’s up with Bruce’s eyes?” and thought maybe that’s something had happened recently. I said, “No, it’s actually always been this way. I don’t see the way that you do.” I started painting portraits initially as a way to interpret my own vision and share that with friends and family.
Then it just evolved into this series, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to try to paint 1,000 of them. I’m going to sit with 1,000 different people and paint and see if I can really capture how it is that I see.” It’s changed from that because what I’ve discovered over the course of it is that, the portrait sittings themselves are these really wonderful connection times. I get to meet new people and have these incredible conversations and oftentimes beautiful insights. Then I get to capture that time on 8×10 canvas and acrylic paint. It’s really a passion of mine.
The pandemic has made it even more extraordinary because I can do it over Zoom now. I sat with people all over the world. It used to be that someone would come by my studio, and we’d have a couple of hours together. Now, I can do it with people in Hungary and down in the U.S. and all over the world. It’s a real passion.
KAPLAN: Can you share any details about the sets or uniforms that we might not be able to tell from the show? What’s it like to be aboard the Enterprise?
HORAK: What can I share about the sets and costumes? One detail that I don’t know that everyone’s picking up on, or maybe it’s so subtle, but on the shirts themselves, in the patterns, there’s the little insignia depending on your division. I’m an engineer so the image for the engineer is a little almost like a circle. I don’t know if you can get your HD and zoom in but on my shirt, that tiny little symbol, it looks like just ridges on the shirt, but it’s actually tiny like every single one of them, and depending on which department you’re in, that’ll be the little tiny stitches. It’s just the detail is amazing. It’s amazing.
What is it like to walk onto the Enterprise? It was a dream. It was absolutely a dream. I did my camera test so the first set that I actually walked onto was the bridge. I just wanted to sit in the chair so bad. I didn’t, and then it’s funny too, because I got so close a couple of times, and I walked by and at one point I just reached out to touch it. Wow, I just need to know that this is real. It’s like, “No, I need to know that this is actually real.” Like my hand isn’t going to go through and I’m not just going to wake up and they’re going to be like, “Haha, got you.”
No, this is the real thing, and wow what a dream. That little 12-year-old me is jumping up and down and doing high kicks which I can’t do as much anymore because I’m getting older, or, my chiropractor says I should do way less scissor kicking.
New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are available for streaming Thursdays on Paramount+.