Bruce Horak's Hemmer Is More Than a Simple Engineer on 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds'
Hemmer is an Aenar, an alien race whose members are canonically blind.
Throughout Star Trek's long, long journey from an odd little sci-fi show in the 1960s to the cultural phenomenon it is today (there are currently six ongoing TV shows and persistent rumors of a new movie on the horizon, plus conventions, cruises, LARPs, you name it), there has been one guiding principle by which even the installments fans like the least always follow. Star Trek is, first and foremost, a positive, comforting, and aspirational vision of the future. Spaceships are led by captains nearly parental in their wisdom and poise who manage crews of enthusiastic pilots and researchers and caregivers whose mission is to bring the galaxy closer together.
Because the universe of Star Trek is so vast and ripe for exploration, there is room in every iteration for more: more characters, more alien races, more complex story lines, more representation for those who would otherwise be marginalized. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds introduces Hemmer, the gruff yet charming chief engineer aboard the USS Enterprise whose character is foregrounded during the tense action of the show's fourth episode, "Memento Mori."
Hemmer is a member of the Aenar, the paler, more peaceful inhabitants of the icy moon Andor (home of the militaristic, blue-skinned Andorians). Introduced into Trek canon in three episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, the Aenar are considered an elusive subspecies, possessing telepathic and precognitive abilities. They are canonically blind, their other senses having evolved to compensate. Hemmer is played by the Canadian actor Bruce Horak, who is legally blind, a trait Paramount was looking for when casting an appropriate actor for the role.
Horak, who is funny, thoughtful, and candid about his varying connections to his character, spoke to Thrillist about his love for Star Trek, delving into the details of a mysterious alien race, and which aspects of Hemmer hit closest to home.
Thrillist: You're part of the Starfleet family now. How cool is that?
Bruce Horak: There's been a lot of tears. It's been tears of joy. It's been a real dream. I started watching Star Trek when I was a little kid. My dad was a high school English teacher, and he wrote a thesis on creating a high school course for science fiction. That was just his absolute passion. So when the Star Trek: The Original Series reruns were on, the whole family would gather around and we'd watch it and do our Shatner impressions. I really got into it when Next Generation came out. My dad had just retired from teaching, and so we just dug right into it. When the call went out, I couldn't say no. I didn't even have to think about it—I just said yes right away. Are you kidding? Star Trek?
What were your thoughts on Hemmer when you first read the script?
When I first heard about him, I got really excited that the call was looking for a blind or visually impaired performer specifically to play a blind alien. I had watched Enterprise a couple of years before, but I'd sort of binged it, so it was a bit of a blur. So, I went back and watched the Aenar episodes. You know, there's not much about them. Memory Alpha [the official Star Trek Wiki] doesn't have a whole lot about them. So, I got really excited because I thought, well, absolutely everything that he says about himself is going to be true. We're basically putting new footprints into the sand of the Star Trek universe. That's just absolutely thrilling. There's lots to draw on from the characters—the Andorians, and the couple of Aenar that we know, and engineers in general. It just felt like I was given a great big, soft ball of clay and given the chance to go, "Okay, let's build this thing." What a thrill.
The first thing I read, that I auditioned for, was the introduction of him with Uhura at the dinner party [in Episode 2]. I loved it. I loved that it's his first scene, and they get right into impairment and the idea of impairment and abilities, and the fact that he's superior. I read it, and I was like, "Oh my god, he's Daredevil. He's a superhero. He's got these powers. And I want to do that. I want to be that guy." It's aspirational. Even if it's just on the screen, I want to be able to just catch a carrot that's thrown at me without me even knowing it's coming.
Hemmer is far and away my favorite Star Trek character type, this very gruff working man who is very professional and not about to let anyone upstage him. His character is built on who he is and where he comes from. You have a great bunch of scenes in Episode 4 with Uhura where you guys are stuck in the cargo bay, and he has to allow her to help him. Which he seems really not happy about.
It's very, very close to home. I lost 91% of my eyesight when I was a baby to retinoblastoma cancer. I grew up in a pretty big family with three older brothers and went to a regular school, and I really struggled and I fought to keep up with the world. I was told at a pretty young age that, you know, this is a sighted world, and you've got to figure out how to live in it, to fit in and to possibly excel. But just to keep up with the pack, you're gonna have to work twice as hard. That was frustrating, sure, for a little kid with 9% vision, just trying to keep up and finding ways to adapt. And then the technology started to come along, and I got a little telescope, so I could sit at the back of the class and read the chalkboard, and I learned to type really fast, so I could type faster than anyone else could handwrite. And I got large print books, and I learned to speed-read large print so that I was able to keep up. All of these adaptations that I was making went hand in hand with the technology as it started to advance. I feel like this is what the last maybe five or 10 years has been. I don't need to ask somebody, "Can you read this for me?" I just pull up my phone and I use the magnifier and there it is—I'm able to do that. It gives me confidence and autonomy. And I'm able to move about the world in a way that is keeping up with everyone else.
That being said, it's difficult sometimes to ask for help. It's difficult to come up against a limitation. And life has been about, for me anyways, coming up against those limitations and finding ways around them. Oftentimes I find a way on my own. The lesson, certainly from that scene, is there's other people who can do this and you actually grow stronger together. If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. I just think that's such a beautiful sentiment. And I think that's embodied in that particular scene—and in Star Trek in general. That's one of the themes of it! We gotta figure out a way to go together, because if we just try to go alone, we're going to run into a burning ball of star gas. That's my engineer talk right there.
Yes, very technobabble.
[Laughs] Yeah, that's right.
You have a really beautiful line in this episode, where you tell Uhura, "Pacifism is not passivity." It's not a weakening thing, this is a strengthening thing.
That just struck home for me. I've often tried to practice being a pacifist, and it certainly gets dismissed often as kind of lazy. I think the lesson in a lot of the Star Trek episodes and in the canon is that there's another way, there's another solution. It's not just sitting back and watching. It's not just fighting. There's got to be a third option. Looking for that is active, and it requires listening and compassion and empathy, all of those very difficult skills. Oftentimes it requires taking a risk, and being the risk-takers and those great captains and Star Trek history. We have this firm rule, and we're not going to break it, and then they take a risk to go beyond it and they find another solution. It can't just be, "We're gonna blow them out of the sky." We've got to find another way to do it. It makes perfect sense to me that the engineer, the one powering the ship and moving it through the cosmos, is one who's dedicated to the principles of Starfleet. [Uhura] asks him what his life's purpose is, and he says, "To fix what is broken," which is classic engineer.
I have spoken to a few people in the past, actors and writers and directors of this sort of thing, about how science fiction, especially current-day sci-fi, is by nature very inclusive, in a sense that there's so much more possibility in the genre for all these different character types, all these different people to be in it. Do you also get that feeling?
I do. I think not only in the genre itself, but also in, as I was speaking about before, the technology, and how I've been using it to advance and keep up. It's going at such an exponential rate now, what they can do with CGI and with all of that post-production stuff. I was always very self-conscious looking at myself on camera, because it doesn't lie and you can tell that my eyes are messed up, and I kind of got warded off from doing camera work very young because I just couldn't stand looking at myself on-screen. And then the first time I saw Hemmer, and what they have created not only in the prosthetics—I mean, the prosthetics I've got to wear every day and they're just incredible, and I could see those—but then in the post-production with what they actually did to my eyes. Those aren't contact lenses. That's CG. They've given me new eyes.
Just seeing Daniel Day-Lewis transform himself into Christy Brown in My Left Foot, I was convinced, I'm like, "Oh, of course, that's Christy Brown." And then I saw Daniel Day-Lewis go up and accept an Academy Award and I'm like, "Wait a minute! That's not the same guy!" But he transformed himself. He did that through hair and makeup and acting. Now we can go in with CG and digitally remove an arm or a leg or whatever. And I thought, well, what's the next phase? The next iteration of it is you can take a disabled performer and make them able-bodied. Amazing to see someone in a chair and say, "Well, yeah, I was totally convinced that he was dancing, or she was dancing." We can do that now. If we can make somebody fly, if we can give someone new eyes, the possibilities are infinite. I love science fiction, because I like dreaming about the future. But a lot of what I'm seeing right now is, wait a minute, we're living in the future. I mean, the fact that you and I are Zooming together is like, yes, this is great. This is 2001. This is Star Trek.