Jonathan Del Arco has an unassuming quality about him. Dressed in jeans and a grey button-down, raven-headed and youthful beyond his 54 years, he greets us with a firm handshake before rushing off to the bathroom.
When he rejoins us at the table of a stylish Burbank coffee shop, he smiles with anticipation. The rest of the patrons seem oblivious to his presence, which baffles us. As an actor with a resume spanning more than 30 years, Del Arco has appeared in Broadway theatre, television and film. His role as Dr. Fernando Morales on The Closer and its spinoff Major Crimes kept him employed for over 10 years. He also scored an iconic part as Hugh, the first Borg to accept individuality in two popular episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In addition to his artistic work, Del Arco has worked on the political campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as an ambassador for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which lobbies for inclusion of queer history in educational curriculum. In 2013, he won the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award. As an out-gay man, Del Arco has spoken at length about his personal journey as an Uruguayan immigrant, his loss of a boyfriend to AIDS at age 24, and his subsequent marriage to his manager Kyle Fritz. Del Arco also recently launched the political podcast “Hollywood Caucus,” opposite his close friend Tara Karsian.
Del Arco’s most recent role came as a shock both to him, and to Star Trek fandom. He reprised his role as Hugh more than 20 years later for Star Trek: Picard, which sees Sir Patrick Stewart return to his signature role as Captain Jen-Luc Picard fighting to save a galaxy on the edge of catastrophe. Trek vets Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and Jeri Ryan also return, though, in a surprising twist, Del Arco is the only Star Trek guest star to reprise his role.
We met up with Del Arco to discuss his career, his unlikely return to his most iconic character, and his work as a queer rights activist. Spoiler Alert! Plot points for the first seven episodes of Star Trek: Picard abound, so consider yourselves warned.
Star Trek: Picard streams Thursdays on CBS All Access.
You’re having a moment, to say the least. What has this ride been like for you?
It’s been mostly sweet. Some of it has been hard, but over all, it’s been a kind of miraculous, amazing thing that it happened.
How shocked were you to get the call?
I actually didn’t get a call. We were at the Hollywood Bowl: Jeri Ryan [who played another liberated Borg, Seven of Nine on the spinoff Star Trek: Voyager], Kyle & myself. Jeri has a box. Our mutual friend James Duff who produced Major Crimes and The Closer was working on the show at the time. It was his idea to bring the Borg back. He pitched it to both of us at the same time. I was very skeptical at the time. It was very early on; Patrick hadn’t even signed on yet.
At that time, they hadn’t told us that it was Patrick they were going after. They wanted to do a show in that period. If they hadn’t gotten Patrick, it probably would have been Jeri in the lead. There would have been even more Borg stuff. But it was a great full-circle moment.
How surreal is that, to have the other famous ex-Borg there with you?
I know. It’s been wild.
I have to say, that prospect—I was totally ready for Seven & Hugh: Space Rangers or Star Trek: Ex-Borg with the two of you. Of course, that’s unlikely given Hugh’s fate.
I’ve been reading a lot of things now. It’s interesting: as actors, we don’t really know the conversations in the writer’s room. With James gone—he’s not a part of the room anymore—I really didn’t have a sense of their thinking. I don’t know why they didn’t have me do a scene with her, nor do I know why the decision was made to kill him off.
Well, on that note, one of the major themes in the show is loss of a child. Picard has lost Data, now Hugh. Seven loses Icheb [a young Borg she adopted]. Data’s lost a child. Riker & Troi have lost a child. What’s that about? Have you discussed it with the writers or your other actors?
No, though I know Michael [Chabon, the series showrunner] lost his dad while we were shooting. I had no idea that was a theme.
I mean, other themes of it are broken people.
Broken people, displaced people, sure.
That’s such an interesting, if controversial, thing to do in the Utopian world of Star Trek. But you can’t have total utopia after a supernova destroys a whole empire.
Oh no. And it’s very timely.
You’re 20 years older and at a very different place in your life. Obviously so is Hugh. How does your approach to the character change as you do?
It was a little nerve-wracking because that role has been such a big part of my life over the years. Fans know that character better than I know him. I really wanted to get it right. I wanted Hugh to have grown as a human, but also have threads of who he was so fans could watch it and see that it was the grown-up version of that character. I’ve gotten some really great attention from the fans about it. It’s pretty gratifying.
You’re getting great reviews. Your Twitter following has exploded. And the amazing thing is you’ve played this character for close to 30 years, and he’s only in two episodes of the original show. Why do you think the character endures? Even some of the main characters don’t have such a following.
I just think the character always had something about him that was a finger on a pulse. I think it has to do with loneliness. Loneliness is something that the majority of human beings experience at some point or other, some repeatedly. Loneliness is a condition of being human. Having a relationship, having a partner die, suddenly you’re lonely. That’s where I was when we filmed it. My partner had died of AIDS and I was alone. He’s who I played, initially. I’ve talked about that before. So I think that investment on my own part as an actor, and the writers writing Hugh—I think that resonated with people. Where he’s at now, which is having pulled himself together to try and do right by his community, is kind of where I’m at too. Anytime you play something so fully, it resonates with people. That’s being an artist.
That’s certainly true. I remember responding to Hugh as a kid because I identified with his loneliness.
Yeah. Any gay kid would. I mean, almost any kid would.
Just about every gay guy I know that grew up and saw that episode had a crush on Hugh.
I know! I was very worried about him getting killed off and having the community be upset about it.
Well, I never thought of Hugh as gay. Did you?
No. He’s not. But because the community is protective of gay actors, I thought being a gay actor out in the spotlight, they’d be upset no matter what role he’s playing. As an actor, I love that I get to play a character that isn’t gay. I get to use my life. That’s the ultimate goal: to be equal to everyone else. And I’m glad we don’t [have backlash]. Just FYI. I want my work to stand on its own, and I don’t want my friends on the show to have to put up with any bullsh*t, so I’m moving on.
Still. I think a lot of us are hoping they find a way to bring Hugh back.
I know! But the writers and producers have to have a will to do that. There’s totally an audience for it. I have said often the time span between Jeri & I originally playing the role, and playing them now would make a great show. Whatever Happened to the Borg? It’d be wild & weird.
The other thing about Hugh is that he’s a total outsider. You know what it’s like to be an outsider. You’re Latino. An immigrant. A queer man. How does that translate into your interest in a role?
Yeah, look. I’m a light-skinned Latino. I immigrated to America when I was 10. Latino kids didn’t want to play with me because I looked white and was femmy. So I didn’t fit into the community the way I wanted to. I definitely didn’t fit into the white community because I had an accent and was an immigrant. And I was already an outsider because, like any kid who self-identifies that he’s gay, feels that way. I knew I wasn’t like other boys. It’s kind of like this old wound that gets constantly reopened. It very much connects to my own life.
So how does that change the roles you’re attracted to, or how you connect with a character?
It’s hard for me to play things that don’t connect to me personally. I like finding where I can bring myself to a part. It’s not always clear when you play a part; you just know you click somehow. Then, years later, you go that makes total sense, because I went through this. You just know. And those are the jobs I tend to get.
You’re someone who has been out most of his career. Obviously, the community has changed radically from the early 90s to now. Hell, it’s changed in the past five years.
Yeah. You know I played a trans character once.
Sure, on Nip/Tuck.
I would not be allowed to play that character now, even as someone in the LGBTQ community. I’m not trans, so that kind of part isn’t available to me. Being a Latino, gay man, I’m super respectful of the need for representation.
Well, the trans actors, writers, directors I talk to generally don’t have a problem with cisgender actors playing trans, so long as trans people are involved. And you would likely play a trans man, if you ever did play another trans character. The big push from people like Jen Richards is to get away from the idea that transwomen are men in a wig and a dress. But on those lines of representation, it’s patently absurd to think that only gay actors can play gay roles.
It is. Unfortuantly, some of the best gay roles are played by straight actors, often because they are more famous than we are. You look at a movie like Milk which was produced by friends of mine [Dustin Lance Black & Gus Van Sant] that are wonderful activists. And most of the actors are straight.
Is that an economic reality? In other words, that a movie—even a small one—can’t get bankrolled with gay actors?
Absolutely. I mean, maybe now. Years have passed. There are enough of us well-known in the industry. But in terms of a lead actor, I don’t think there’s a big A-List movie actor that’s out.
That sort of depends on how you define the A-List. The other frustration, as voiced by actors like Billy Porter, is to quit lauding straight men for playing gay characters as “brave.”
So why don’t we have more gay leading men in movies? We have women: Kristen Stewart. Ellen Page. Jodie Foster. Sarah Paulson. But why not guys?
I don’t know. I think it’s how writers write roles. I think it’s about our stories are diminished. I think people think that nobody wants to watch romance between two gay men. I think gay actors aren’t given great straight roles to play, and the fact is there are more great straight roles. It’s the double standard: when a wonderful straight actor gets to play a gay role he’s “brave.” We don’t get to play straight roles, so we’re not brave.
You know I talked to Rupert Everett about this. He said something interesting: that people assumed he couldn’t be comfortable or know what to do in a love scene with a woman.
Which is bananas! They’re not actually f*cking.
Well, and Rupert actually does f*ck women.
He’s probably really good at it.
Maybe I should have asked for a demonstration.
You should have.
It’s a weird thing. I do not know why we don’t have more A-List movie stars that are openly gay. With this—CBS All Access, Michael [Chabon], Alex [Kurtzman]–they cast me in the role. I was the only guest star from Next Generation that they brought back. They cast me, and to their credit, they didn’t make Hugh gay. They could have said “Well Jonathan’s a gay actor. Why can’t we make Hugh gay?” Why should they?
The Borg don’t strike me as a particularly sexual species. Though, the Borg Queen…she was pretty horny.
She’s the only horny one. But opportunities are out there. Things have changed. At least writers are writing gay characters. I don’t know that the pressure is that heavy to cast gay actors in gay parts. But, it’s opportunities. I don’t get asked to audition for many gay parts, so that messes with my job opportunities. Now I’m all about representation: it’s super important to have gay characters in a story. It’s also important for gay characters to have parts, even if you’re playing an alien. But don’t hire anyone because they’re gay. Hire them because they’re talented.
Ryan is the best at that. He cast me as Sofia on Nip/Tuck. I recently found out that the head of the network at the time hated my character. Hated it. I was heartbroken I was never asked back. I adore Ryan so much. He’s amazing. I thought he didn’t like me. Turns out, it was an executive who might have been transphobic. It was a great character & great storyline that should have had more life.
The point I’m trying to make is there are people making decisions in our industry. The majority of them are straight males. The majority of writers are straight males. They are writing the experiences they have. They don’t understand our community as much as someone who is part of it. That’s just reality.
That only makes sense.
And straight men are still in the power positions. We do have a gay man running Warner Bros., Bob Greenblat. So it is changing. But I think telling gay stories is not a high priority for a straight male. And there is a hunger for gay stories. Audiences want to watch things they don’t know everything about.
But that’s a good transition. Coming to Hollywood in 1992, as a gay man, how were you regarded?
I wasn’t out. I was out in my personal life to the degree that I worked at an AIDS clinic. That was my day job. I dated guys. I had Eddie, my first partner. I was a widower. I wasn’t in the closet, I just didn’t take boyfriends to a Hollywood party. If someone asked if I had a girlfriend, I’d say I keep my private life private. So that’s a way of being in that’s not super restrictive. It took until my 30s to say “I don’t give a f*ck. Here I am.”
So what effect does that have on your career? Do you feel like directors were reluctant to cast you? Do you think you lost out on roles?
Well, especially in your 20s when you’re young and hot and all that. It’s…awful.
You want to be out. You want to go to the party. You want to have a boyfriend and enjoy the perks of your job. I couldn’t do that. Back in the 80s and 90s, gay guys would not get cast as leading men.
That’s still an issue.
It is. And I wanted to work. And there weren’t many gay characters. I tested for Wilson [Cruz]’s role in My So-Called Life. It came down to three of us.
I think had I gotten the role, it would have been a sly way for me to come out.
So after coming out, did you feel like you had trouble getting cast?
Oh no, the opposite happened. But I never really came out. I just stopped pretending. I had a couple years of no work before I owned who I was. I wasn’t really famous, so there wasn’t much to do. Nobody cared. Then I got Nip/Tuck. James liked to work with me. He was gay, and then created The Closer and Major Crimes and brought me back. The character was gay, and when we learned that about his personal life, it was an opportunity to talk about my own life.
This is a fickle business. You’ve been very honest about the fact that you had to wait tables after Trek to survive. You were an action figure, and you were waiting tables.
I know. There’s a total misconception about this industry, and what fame means. You can do a couple Star Trek episodes and become an action figure, but that doesn’t pay anything. It doesn’t pay the rent. Conventions paid my rent. I love the Star Trek fans. I’m loyal to them and they’re incredibly loyal to me. They’ve helped me maintain my career. They’re the reason I was able to buy a house, or end up on Picard. But it’s not pretty to be in LA and have had some success and get to say “Can I take your order?”
But it happens.
How do you keep that from breaking your spirit?
Tenacity. Foolish hope. You don’t become an actor because you’re dealing with a deck of cards of reality anyway. Actors like to imagine, so it’s not hard to imagine success. And you just keep believing that until you don’t. In my early 30s, I actually couldn’t even get hired as a waiter because I had too many good things on my resume.
What do you mean?
They’d look at my resume and see I worked at an AIDS clinic, that I did all these things. Why would they hire me to be a waiter? They thought I’d leave in a month for something better. So that was when I actually took my first political job working with Chad Griffin [political strategist and former HRC chairman] and Rob [Reiner, actor, director and activist]. He was my immediate boss and wasn’t out of my closet at the time. But we bonded really quickly and he gave me work for quite a while. And I love that as well.
You’re still known as an impressive activist. Working with GLSEN. Winning the HRC Visibility Award.
Yeah. It’s very much a part of my path. I wish I could remember that. Now that Star Trek is done for all I know, I have an animated series in development with the producers of Rick & Morty based on my childhood. A Latinx gay series. Fantastic concept.
Oh, that’s wonderful.
And I have my podcast. But neither of those things are making money right now. So when I go into panic mode, I say you’re going to be fine. It’s a very cyclical weird thing.
You mentioned losing Eddie, your late boyfriend to AIDS. You were 24.
How does something like that change you? How does it change the way you approach your work?
I was in New York, and quit acting. We had no money. I was at home a lot with him when he was sick. It is a very reality-creating experience. Being an actor is make-believe. You shouldn’t rely on your acting career to give you a sense of value. Life and death, real life and death things like who will live and who will die, that’s where it’s at. That’s the well that is created when the love of your life is dying. So feeding into that just sped up my human growth. I know a lot of people that became bitter when they lost their partners. I did not. I became more emotionally open and vulnerable. And I put that in my work.
That’s wonderful. And very healthy.
I had a very healthy response to that death. Also, when you’re that young, I think you’re much more able to heal. The equation of being someone isn’t that long in the context of your whole life. It was formative for me. It informed my sense of values. It was an intense time. I grew up very disconnected from my family, not through any fault of their own. I just had a high awareness that I was different, and the potential for rejection was very real for me. So rather than be vulnerable, I became very private. It wasn’t until that relationship when that changed.
You know…I was in my 20s. It was very hard for me to bond with someone at that age. But his illness made everything very real for me. About a year in—I was maybe 22 at the time, when he got sick—I was making decisions about someone’s death and life. Talking to a roomful of doctors at a hospital in New York, saying “I want this for him.” I had to be an assertive caretaker, which is a weird position to be in at that age. All my friends were out partying, getting drunk and high. And I was home changing diapers. That was my reality. And at that time, I didn’t have the freedom to tell people. We both worked for a catering company. People would get fired from jobs like that if they were sick or their partner was sick. Rich people in New York didn’t want you touching their food. So we didn’t tell people. And you’re going through things on your own.
Your partner is dying. You’re on your own, in your early 20s. Can’t tell many people. You don’t have support. You’re in isolation. It was a dark, dark time.
This is something I talk to a lot of gay men of a certain age about.
It’s terrifying. It’s not good. You inevitably think it’s going to come for you. And for a lot of gays, it did. It didn’t for me. Being a survivor of anything—war, diseases—changes who you are. And in a way, that’s who Hugh is. He’s a survivor. He’s been through Hell. He has to watch horror happen.
Wow. So in lighter discussion: when did you meet Kyle?
I met Kyle pretty quickly—a year and a half [after moving to Hollywood]. We started dating around the time I did “I, Borg.”
And you’ve been together since?
Yeah. 28 years.
That’s impressive. How does finding love after so much pain change you?
It’s hard in the beginning. When someone dies like that, and you’re that age, and you’ve experienced love, you’re sure that can’t possibly happen again. When it does, you’re skeptical in the beginning. Early on, I think I was a little overly-possessive and jealous. But we grew together as a couple. We both had our own path, but we had a good friendship. That was the key to us being together so long.
So, in sum…you’ve had a long, varied career. You’re on a roll right now.
I think I’m more popular than I have ever been.
When does that gratitude manifest the most weight?
I could just cry. I feel so loved and happy. I feel acknowledged. I feel grateful to fans who have watched the shows I was in. Definitely with social media now, communication with fans is more fluid. I have a great relationship with this unknown group of people…
The Collective! I feel a great love for them, even though I don’t know them as individuals.
So you have a Podcast. You’ve had Picard. You have an animated series in development. What’s next?
I don’t know. I shot my last episode in July. I’ve been around the world touring with this show. I had to wait for that episode to let it go. Fans are still writing me about it. They’re upset and sad. And I say, “I didn’t want to die either! You’re talking to the wrong guy. Send me puppy videos!” And then they did. But it’s all good. I love puppies.
Well that’s a relief.
I don’t know what’s next in terms of acting. I assume I’ll go on the road for Biden, or whomever the Democratic nominee is. I did it for Obama, I did it for Hillary. I love doing that. I want to be part of change. I hope a role comes up I love. In the meantime, I’m writing my own things and doing my podcast.
Now go save Hugh!
Hey, it worked for Spock.
Star Trek: Picard streams on CBS All Access Thursdays.