STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS’ Bruce Horak on Playing the Chief Engineer

The USS Enterprise has a new crew. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, set before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series, sees a familiar face in charge of the legendary vessel: Captain Christopher Pike. We know a few other members of the ship’s crew, but the series also introduces a number of fresh faces—like the Enterprise‘s Chief Engineer, Hemmer. We’ll meet the character, an Aenar portrayed by Bruce Horak, in Strange New Worlds‘ second episode, airing Thursday. Nerdist talked with Horak about landing the role, Hemmer’s life’s purpose, and more.

Nerdist: I want to go back in time a little. How did the role come about and what was your audition process like?

Bruce Horak: It was just a whirlwind, really. The casting call went out and they were casting for a new Star Trek. That’s what I knew. And that they were looking for a blind or visually impaired performer to take on the role of a character of an alien specifically, who was also a species that was blind.

My agent reached out to me right away because I hit the description of a blind or visually impaired performer and I love Star Trek. I’ve been a fan since I was just a wee lad. Then I got the sides and read the first scene, which is the scene from episode two, where we’re introduced to Hemmer and he meets Uhura. She offers him some help and he declines, and they get in a conversation about impairment. I just got so excited about this. He spoke a lot of my own truth about it. And so I did maybe four auditions over Zoom from the kitchen of my house. Reading with somebody over Zoom, like they’re on camera, it felt very Star Trek.

Then after four of these incredible Zoom auditions, they brought me in for a contact lens fitting, which was horrifying. I do wear a contact lens occasionally, but they irritate my eyes. So they brought me in to see an eye specialist. They tried on this lens and I was like, “I don’t think I can do it.” They wanted to white out my eyes. My right eye is prosthetic. So they were going to build me a new prosthetic eye that was painted properly, which—in a way I was like, I would actually have endured the pain of a contact lens just to have like a new, awesome Star Trek eye made.

Ultimately, the doctor said, “Listen, you got nine percent vision. You’re doing great with what you got. Let’s not mess with it.” And the crew just said, “Yeah, no problem. We’ll fix it in with CG.”

They’ve given me new eyes. Which is, I mean, as someone who was born and raised and who has lived his whole life with nine percent vision and shattered eyes, looking at the screen and seeing these new ones… They’ve done the thing that I’ve dreamed of.

Hemmer, an Aenar, stands in Pike's kitchen in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Something I appreciate about Hemmer is that, yes, he does have a rough exterior, but I feel like when other crew members work alongside him and show an interest and competence, he has a softer center. What’s it like bringing that balance to the screen?

Crunchy outside and gooey on the inside. He is a bit crunchy on the outside. I think that comes from just his incredible intelligence and his incredible abilities. The Aenar species, at least as far as my research goes, is—they’re a dying species. I think that kind of pressure might, or that kind of loneliness or aloneness, might give someone a bit of a crunchy exterior.

You’re absolutely right. I think the softening of him, the compassionate side and the empathetic side of him, they do come out. It’s complicated. He contains multitudes.

We’ve seen in a character promotion for Hemmer that he says his life’s purpose is to fix what is broken. What do you think that says about him as an Aenar and an engineer?

He’s a fixer. He’s someone who gets in and sees what the problems are and has that ability to fix them. I did some digging into some of the research on engineers, which I am not, but I have a brother who is—my brother Steve is an incredible engineer. Of the engineers that I’ve met, he’s got a bit of a gruff exterior and on the inside, he’s a little bit… Did I base the character on my brother? Well, he’s definitely in there. It’s a stew.

[With Hemmer], it’s confidence and it’s a willingness to see a problem and to come at it and take a risk and try something. And if that doesn’t work, then you try something else, trial and error, but also bringing all that education and wisdom and history that you might have as an engineer. I feel that Hemmer’s got a lot of experience. I mean, to be the chief engineer on the flagship of the Federation, he’s got to be good. He’s got that as a lifestyle choice really—being the fixer and the fact that that is his modus operandi, it just makes so much sense to me.

Hemmer preparing vegetables in a scene from Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Something that I find very interesting is—of course Starfleet is not a military organization, but they do bump up against conflict. With Hemmer being an Aenar and a pacifist, how do you think he reconciles those two parts of himself?

It’s the way of the universe—it’s destruction and creation and those cycles. Sometimes in order to create, you have to destroy. I think the pacifism is something that I connected to. I’ve always considered myself a pacifist or at least tried to be. Hemmer articulates this in one of the episodes—that he’s not going to fight. He’s not going to kill for Starfleet. But he will fight for those ideals and that pacifism is not passivity. It’s active. And I think that’s a really important distinction. I think pacifism also often gets disregarded as being inactive and lazy. And that’s not really the case.

If there is trouble, if there is conflict, it’s your job to step into that and to find another solution. And I think, again and again, we’ve seen in Star Trek, they look for other solutions. They look for other ways through. Let’s find a compromise. Let’s look for a way that we can work this out. To me, it makes so much sense that the one working the engine of the Enterprise is a pacifist. That’s the heart of what’s actually moving this ship around the cosmos.

Have you had any particular moments on set when you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe this?”

Oh, so many. But the first day that I went to set, I was met at the entrance by an assistant who stayed with me the entire day. They offered an arm when I walked into the dark areas, told me where the cables were, told me, “Look, it’s eight steps to this point.” Then the first AD said, “Here’s your mark. And the camera’s over here, and we’re going to be moving this way.” Just the incredible amount of care that was shown to me as someone with a visual impairment.

I was so nervous to go. These are hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that I’m walking in the middle of, and I don’t want to wreck any of it. And my apprehension about messing its up was gone because I was just given such confidence because I knew that there was always an arm, there was always a hand to help.

They had your back.

They had my back and you know what, then I can just get to work and not have to worry about that. It just made it so comfortable. Actually, then it gave me the confidence to embody the confidence of an engineer.

New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds airs on Thursdays on Paramount+.

Amy Ratcliffe is the Managing Editor for Nerdist and the author of A Kid’s Guide to Fandom, available now. Follow her on  Twitter and Instagram.

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