Thirty-five years later, as the touchstone film directed by Rob Reiner from Stephen King source material reopens in theaters this week, Wheaton shares with Yahoo Entertainment how his own painful family situation informed his breakout role.
“I didn’t want to be an actor when I was a kid. My parents forced me to do it, my mother made me do it. My mother coached me to go into her agency and tell the children’s agent, ‘I want to do what mommy does,’” Wheaton tells us in a new interview (watch above) about growing up in Burbank, Calif., with mother Debra, an actress, and father Richard, a medical specialist. (Yahoo was unable to reach Wheaton’s parents for comment.) “And through a combination of an incredible emotional abuse from my father and a lot of manipulation, using me, from my mother, it really put me in that place.”
Wheaton, now 48, and estranged from his parents, says the distress he endured at the time fueled his performance of a kid dealing with emotionally distant, negligent parents reeling from the death of his older teen brother (John Cusack).
“[It] put me in exactly the right place to play Gordie,” he says. “Because Gordie’s experience very much reflected my experience. We’re both invisible in our homes. We both have a brother who is the golden child. We’re both the scapegoat in the family. So when I watch Stand by Me now, I cannot ignore the unbelievable sadness in my eyes. And I cannot ignore the reality that it was that sadness, that isolation that I think gave me what Gordie needed to come to life and I think Rob Reiner saw that.”
After Stand by Me, which arrived in theaters on Aug. 22, 1986, Wheaton went on to star in projects like 1991’s Toy Soldiers and memorably played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He now focuses on writing (yes, just like his character Gordie), narrating audio books and hosting the Star Trek after-show The Ready Room.
Despite the strife that Wheaton faced at the time of filming, he still looks back (mostly) with love at the experience of working alongside costars River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell and at the lasting legacy of Stand by Me.
“One of the reasons I believe Stand by Me is so enduring is that Rob cast four young boys who were our characters,” he says. “Corey was such a pain in the ass and I said to Rob, ‘Why did you cast him?’ And Rob said, ‘There was no other actor who was as angry as Corey was. And Teddy is filled with anger and rage.’ And I went, ‘Oh my God, that totally makes sense.’ River is smarter than all of us and wiser beyond his years than any of us are. And that’s exactly who Chris is. And Jerry is unbelievably funny, and really easy to get along with, and is guileless. ‘Oh my God, that’s Vern.’
“I guess I want to be a writer so that makes me Gordie. I never realized until I was in my 40s that I was Gordie because I was Gordie.”
Stand by Me returns to theaters May 23 and May 26. Get showtimes from Fathom Events.
—Video produced by Jon San and edited by Jimmie Rhee