In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Star Trek is known for its many memorable roles by child actors, from the original series episode “And The Children Shall Lead” to Deep Space Nine’s “Children Of Time.” One of the best, though, is “Reunion,” a Next Generation episode that aired in 1990 and introduced the fan-favorite Klingon character Alexander Rozhenko—the young son that Worf never knew he had. Jon Steuer was 6 when he played Alexander in “Reunion,” but it was far from his first time in front of the camera. At that tender age he’d already racked up an impressive filmography (under the names Jon Steuer and Jon Paul Steuer) that included made-for-TV movies such as By Dawn’s Early Light with James Earl Jones; the big-screen outing Thanksgiving Day with Mary Tyler Moore; and the shows The Wonder Years and Homefront.
Following his lone appearance on Star Trek, Steuer was replaced in the role of Alexander by a succession of actors, including his friend Brian Bonsall of Family Ties fame. From there Steuer appeared in more films, including Little Giants and Amityville: A New Generation. But his biggest job came in 1993, when he landed the part of Quentin Kelly on the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire. It lasted until 1996, when he quit the show following a slew of allegations surrounding the erratic behavior of the show’s troubled star, Brett Butler, including rumors that she had bared her breasts on set while Steuer was present. Steuer did more than leave Grace Under Fire, though: He retired from acting at the grizzled age of 12. Now 31, he sings in punk and pub-rock bands (previously The Soda Pop Kids, currently High Horse) and just launched his first restaurant, the vegan eatery Harvest At The Bindery, in his adopted hometown of Portland. Steuer spoke with The A.V. Club about his career, how “reverse aging” helped him play the littlest Klingon, and why his brief time on Star Trek was one of the high points of his youth.
The A.V. Club: How did you get into acting as a kid?
Jon Steuer: When I was about 3 and a half, I was just watching TV, and I started pestering my mom about being on TV. My mom had been on the U.S. ski team, so she knew something about success and notoriety. She wasn’t really turned onto the idea, but I kept pushing and pestering. Then I had a friend who did little fashion shows when they used to have those at the mall in the ’80s. Like at Nordstrom’s, they’d have these little ramp-modeling things. I went to a couple of those events in San Diego where I’m from, and one time they were short a kid, so I hopped up and did it. I hammed it up. There was an agent there in the crowd, and he came over and talked to us afterward. I hopped right on that, and my mom was kind of backed into a corner. She kind of had no choice but to let me try acting.
AVC: Agents were actually patrolling the malls of Southern California, looking for children?
JS: Yeah. Especially at that point in time, before the Internet. They were actually on foot, actively pursuing kids. It was a different world.
AVC: What were some of the roles you had before Star Trek?
JS: I had done several things before that. One of the first interviews I went on, I got a job. My first job was when I was 4. I was on a show called Day By Day. I was on that with Thora Birch. We were both about 4. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus was on that show. I did an episode of that, and an episode of The Wonder Years.
AVC: What do you remember about those early jobs?
JS: I remember them putting a bowl on my head to give me the bowl-cut hairdo for The Wonder Years, and not being particularly thrilled about that. [Laughs.] My memories of a lot of those early jobs are a little vague, since I was so young, and I was mostly doing one episode here and there. They weren’t recurring roles. I would definitely say that Star Trek was one of the first and most concrete memories I have of acting, where the experience really solidified in my mind.
AVC: How did you get the role of Alexander Rozhenko on Star Trek?
JS: It started out like everything else. I went to some interviews, and I’d gone through several rounds of callbacks. But what that role really came down to was the makeup. I was the only kid up for the part who could sit down at that age—I think the casting process started when I was still 5—and sit still long enough to have a plaster cast made of my face. They needed to do that to make the molding for the Klingon prosthetics.
AVC: What was that prosthetic process like?
JS: They completely mummified my head. They stuck two straws up my nose, one in each nostril, so that I could breathe. It was lights out. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t move. I sat like that for, I think, three and a half hours while the cast set.
AVC: That was all part of the interview?
JS: Essentially, yeah. At that point it was down to me and one other kid. I was the only one who could handle it. I kind of went into this weird, Zen-like, meditative state. I don’t know if I’d be able to do it now. [Laughs.]
AVC: At the age of 5 you’re supposed to be bouncing off the walls.
JS: I know. I think I have reverse aging or reverse maturity or something. I just sat in complete isolation and darkness, without moving, for all those hours.
AVC: What was your awareness of Star Trek going into those interviews? Were you a fan?
JS: Yes, absolutely. I’d seen the first series, and at the time The Next Generation was still a new thing. It had taken off to great heights pretty quickly, especially compared to the first series, which had more of a cult following. So I was definitely aware of it, and I was definitely excited about it. At that age I was mostly intrigued by the idea of acting in horror and science fiction. Not for the content, honestly, but for the makeup. I just loved that fantasy element. Being a child at that age, I just gravitated toward that.
AVC: There are some heavy moments in that episode, including a scene where Worf forces you to stare at the body of your mother, who had just been murdered. Was any of that difficult to handle as a 6-year-old?
JS: Well, I was playing pretend. The suggested situation is there, though, and you do fall into that. One of the toughest challenges as an actor, though, is how sterile the set is in reality. The brightness of the lights is on you, and there are 60 strangers standing around you. You’re in the thick of it. What you see on the screen is totally different than how the set looks during filming. You’re seeing the props. Two-by-fours are exposed everywhere. Still, because I was a child, they handled me more delicately. They had me watching the application of the fake blood on my mother, so that I wasn’t scared. To an extent, they have to be mindful of those sorts of things. I was involved and engaged in the scene, but I wouldn’t call them truly emotional for me. That’s the nature of acting, really. The reality of what you’re standing in the midst of is not what’s projected into a screen.
AVC: You actually do some subtle emoting through all that makeup, though.
JS: Because of that excess of makeup, it kind of placed me into the character automatically. It really transforms you. Michael Dorn [who played Worf] puts on such a persona when he puts on that makeup. His voice in real life doesn’t sound anything like Worf’s voice. He’s very tall, but he’s a very slender man, small of frame. I remember they had to put him in a padded suit, otherwise he would have looked like a bobblehead. Obviously they didn’t put me in a prosthetic suit, but if you watch the episode, my head is way out of proportion to my body. [Laughs.] But Michael had such a huge, commanding presence, so I just watched him.
AVC: What was your relationship with Michael Dorn like?
JS: He’s a super sweet, kind man. He’s just a really good person. I would say that of most of the cast. They had a really unique sense of community, and they were really casual and laid-back. I think they appreciated how lucky they were to be in that position, to be on a show like that with an almost guaranteed long run and cultish following. From the Star Trek conventions I’ve gone to, they seem to have maintained that rapport. It was pretty amazing going to those conventions for the first time. They all remembered me. They joked about working with me, and how after I left the show they didn’t have as good of an experience with some of the other kids who played Alexander. [Laughs.] They really are a good bunch of people. Patrick Stewart is an incredibly kind man, very down-to-earth.
AVC: Did you keep in touch with any of the cast over the years?
JS: There’s this weird thing when you’re in Los Angeles, when you’re in that circle. People gravitate toward industry locations to go out to eat and stuff, and there’s this legendary old place in L.A. called Jerry’s Famous Deli, kind of a New York-style, Jewish delicatessen. They stay open 24 hours a day, so given the odd hours you have to work in the industry, it’s quite a hangout for actors, directors, producers, just anyone who works on set. I used to see the Star Trek guys there all the time when I worked across the street filming Grace Under Fire. So I saw them for years afterward. They’d always come over and talk to me. It was pretty cool.
AVC: Why didn’t you reprise your role as Alexander in later Star Trek episodes?
JS: The character was really popular when they introduced him. I guess the fans were really vocal about it, how much they liked that dynamic being introduced to the character of Worf, since he was so stoic. It gave another element to him. The show called me back a just a few months later to play Alexander again, but I’d only grown half an inch or something. The line of questioning was, “How tall are you now? How much do you weigh?” Klingons are this powerful warrior race, so they wanted me to be dramatically larger. They also wanted a deeper voice out of me. But I was still 6. [Laughs.] Brian Bonsall was a couple years older than me, so that’s basically why he got the part. But they kept bringing the character back, and they went through a few different actors as he got progressively older. I absolutely would have gone back in a heartbeat, but that was the reality of the situation.
AVC: How did it feel to lose a popular role that you’d helped create?
JS: I was totally crushed. I was really bummed out about it. But that’s the nature of the beast. That kind of stuff happens all the time in acting, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your ability as an actor. It’s a matter of physical stature and things like that.
AVC: Did you know Brian Bonsall?
JS: He and I were friends already, since we’d see each other at interviews all the time. We’d always joke around about how people would ask him for autographs then hand him a picture of me, or vice versa. That definitely happened when I started going to Star Trek conventions, too. People would say, “I loved you on Family Ties,” and I’d say, “That isn’t me.” [Laughs.] A lot of people were blown away when I told them that five different actors played Alexander.
AVC: When did you start appearing at Star Trek conventions?
JS: My first one was in Las Vegas in the summer of 2014, then I did San Francisco and Seattle last year. Those are the three I’ve done so far. After I retired from acting I shied away from it in all regards. I felt like I’d closed that chapter in my life, and it was time to focus on everything that came after rather than reliving and reveling in the glory days or something. I’d always been sort of averse to the idea—probably more like strongly opposed. But I kind of softened, and some friends pushed me toward giving it a shot.
AVC: What was your first impression?
JS: It was insane. Something like 30,000 people were there at the Vegas convention. I was like, “Holy shit.” It was pretty awe-inspiring, to say the least. The reaction I got from people, especially after all these years, was amazing. It was also the 25th anniversary of The Next Generation, which was big. There were people from all over the world. I had hordes of people coming up for my autograph and to talk about the role I played. It was definitely a trip down memory lane. It made me a little homesick for my childhood, in a way. I got to talk to all the core members of the cast again. It was a total trip—this weird, bittersweet thing. It made me nostalgic for acting again. It was also hugely humbling, and a reminder of how unique my past was.
AVC: What was the most memorable interaction you had with a fan?
JS: Hands down, the most profound interaction I had was at the Seattle convention. I feel terrible that I can’t remember the name of this guy right now, but he was the nicest guy. He had just lost his leg; I believe he was a loader for a grocery store or some kind of big-box warehouse store, and a forklift had rolled on him. He was a huge fan of Star Trek, so he was going around and talking to everybody. He came by my table two days in a row, and I ended up spending half an hour or so with him. We took some pictures together. His story and his approach to life, and what the show meant to him, was just a lot to take in. It definitely had me choked up, his overall positivity and energy. He was so excited he was able to interact with us. It clearly had a life-changing impact on him, and on me as well.
AVC: After Star Trek you ended up on Grace Under Fire for three years. Did you retire from acting soon after you left that show?
JS: Immediately after.
AVC: Why did you quit?
JS: I’d done a lot of made-for-TV films and miniseries and things like that. I worked with some really cool people. I did By Dawn’s Early Light with James Earl Jones. I did a movie with Gary Cole [When Love Kills: The Seduction Of John Hearn]. I did one with Suzanne Somers, playing her son in the story of her life [Keeping Secrets]. I really liked doing films, where I got to engage with this certain group for three or four months. It was a really intensive process, then that wraps, and you move on to the next project. Regular TV series are almost like being on a school-year schedule. And then, when everything kind of hit the press with Grace Under Fire, all those negative stories [about Brett Butler] started being spread. It was pretty barbaric. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without people staring and pointing at me, because I was on the cover of every tabloid at every checkout stand.
AVC: And you were 12 at the time?
JS: Yeah. It was really overwhelming. I had never really gotten into acting for the stardom or the fame or the attention. I did it because I liked acting. That show brought a lot of press and attention around me and my personal life. I was right on the cusp of puberty, going through that awkward stage. To be put under a microscope like that is kind of a bizarre addition to your life that obviously not a lot of other people can relate to. I wanted to forge on with acting after quitting the show, and I went out on a few interviews. But even then they’d turn into question-and-answer sessions with casting agents about Grace Under Fire. I was kind of blown away by how unprofessional people inside the industry were. It really soured me. I didn’t want that kind of attention. I’d always loved the idea of being a character actor, where you’d be identified in roles, but people didn’t necessarily know your name or recognize you beyond the roles you play. It was a culmination of all those factors. I just put my hands up in frustration and went, “You know what, I’m still pretty damn young.” [Laughs.] “I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me. I’ll find something else.” I don’t have any regrets.
AVC: Do you still get residuals from Star Trek and your other roles?
JS: Sure, sure. I get checks for that one Star Trek appearance, especially since The Next Generation is on heavy rotation on BBC right now. The dollars and cents are worth about as much as the stamp itself. [Laughs.] More than anything, it’s just a headache come tax season.
AVC: Looking back, what’s your favorite memory of being on Star Trek?
JS: Definitely the highlight of the whole thing was hanging out with LeVar Burton. Reading Rainbow was actually way more important to me than Star Trek when I was that age. I was flipping my lid about being able to hang out with him. On set, he would sit me on his lap and read books to me. Actually, when I did my first Star Trek convention, I hadn’t seen LeVar for 25 years, but I walked up to him—me, this 31-year-old-man—and I said, “I used to sit on your lap, and you used to read me books.” I said it in front of a bunch of people, and he didn’t know how to take that. [Laughs.] I said it so eagerly. Afterward I realized how awkward that must have been for him, but he handled it really well. I’m sure I weirded him out, though.