Everyone at Comic-Con knows what redshirt means. In the original “Star Trek” series, the crew members in red shirts were (1) unnamed and (2) killed early in the story. Think of them as a sci-fi version of “Hamlet’s" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are not like Goose in “Top Gun,” the DBTA (dead by third act) character whose death is a growth opportunity for the hero; the red shirts are killed in the first act just to let us know how brave our heroes are for not running away. In an interview, Jason Matthew Smith says that he was originally intended to be a red shirt in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot. He didn’t have a name. He was listed in the credits simply as “burly cadet.” And he was decapitated by a Klingon—at least that was how it was filmed. But that scene was cut from the movie, which was very good news for Smith. “Wait, I’m still alive!” He waited for the DVD to check the extra scenes. “It’s official! I’m still alive!"
He was not only cast in the second film, “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” his character had a name. Well, it was Cupcake, but it was a name.
He didn’t die in that film. But he didn’t appear in it, either. His scenes were all cut. “But I’m still alive!” he said. He emailed co-writer Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) to ask about being in the third, and Pegg replied warmly, “We’ve got to get the band back together.” He was cast in “Star Trek: Beyond” and spent three months filming in Vancouver. It wasn’t until the premiere that he discovered that once again, all his scenes had been cut. He spoke to Abrams and Lin who said, “The good news is, we just can’t kill you! You are the indestructible redshirt. You’re like some sort of glitch in The Matrix!” They said they could not imagine not including him in the fourth film. “And maybe they’ll kill me and not show it again, and I can keep riding this."
Having been there for the filming of all three of the current series, he has a lot of insight into what makes it so enduringly popular and the impact of director Justin Lin, taking over from Abrams. “The standard for excellence has been set by J.J. with the first two films. But having Justin step in brings a new perspective to ‘Star Trek.’ Having Simon Pegg co-writing, someone who is a big fan of the original series, it felt like an old-school, throw-back episode, with a little bit bigger toys. The original series was great but they didn’t have the technology. We are fortunate to live in a time when we can make it real. Justin did an incredible job of making the action sequences look spectacular but yet he kept the real heart of the story. Any movie can have explosions and lasers and special effects. But what the real challenge is is to have a real story people can identify with and characters and relationships.”
It was “Star Wars,” that made him want to become an actor. He wanted to be Han Solo, “the Fonz of outer space,” and have a Wookie sidekick. “I actually had a Wookie stuffed animal as my teddy bear and it was with me all the time until I decided to give it a bath. He was not waterproof.” And then “Rocky” gave him an “electrifying” experience. “People in the theater stood up and screamed for him to get up.” He wanted to tell stories that would move audiences that way. “I consider myself a working class, blue collar actor. You get these two dimensional roles that you have to make memorable somehow. I tend to over-invest, using the training I have had to flesh the character out as a real person. I take it as an opportunity. I’m sorry you only get to see five seconds of it, but in those five seconds you see someone who is a real person, with hopes, dreams, loves, all right there.”
His first professional acting role was as a singing Sam Malone in a “Cheers” musical in a theme park. “We had the real set from the show. Paramount owned it, so when the show ended they sent it to a beer house in an amusement park.” They did six shows a day. And his first film was the rollerblading teenage love story “Airborne” with Jack Black.
What he loves about “Star Trek” is the “hope for humanity, that vision that Gene Roddenberry set forth of something for all of us to aspire to, a bullseye for us to aim for, this is what we can do if we all work together. It’s an optimism and a hope that’s so essential for all of us."
You won’t see him in “Star Trek,” but you can see him in “Sons of Anarchy” as Ule and in “Six Gun Savior” with Eric Roberts.