The Borg and the Beautiful: Jonathan Del Arco Travels Galaxies to Join Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Picard

Written by | Screen

Photography: Holly Parker

Star Trek fans went crazy when it was announced that the lead character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart’s Jean Luc Picard, would return to television in a new space adventure. Fans were frenzied trying to figure out who else from the original Next Generation cast would be returning.  Little did fans know, under the veil of CBS’ secrecy, that one of the series’ favorite guest characters would be returning 27 years after we first saw him – Hugh “Third of Five” of the Borg would once again warm our hearts, played by original actor Jonathan Del Arco (who looks damn good for traveling the galaxies for all those years).  Not only is Del Arco part of the Trek family and a fan favorite, but he is also part of the LGBTQ family as a fierce political activist and storyteller.

Jonathan’s love of acting started early on and growing up about 45 minutes from New York City, the theatre was his first love. As early as 16, he was taking himself by commuter train to see every play he could, take acting classes, and audition. Right after high school, he moved to the City and soon after was cast in the touring company of the iconic Torch Song Trilogy. Traveling with such an important show from city to city at such a young age would be only the beginning for Jonathan, but an experience that would shape his career.

I learned that I am really a gypsy at heart – I love to travel, and I loved the excitement of a new opening night every few weeks. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the circus, always wanted to join one, and being on the road with a show felt a little bit like a higher-end version of that… I mean I do not want to be pitching the tent but if I had to, I would! 

Jonathan hit the Broadway stage in several plays with his debut at the age of 21 in Milcha Sanchez-Scott’s Roosters.  Critics commented on his sensitivity through his character, a quality that made his Star Trek’s Hugh so memorable.  Part of the joy of theatre is the energy from the audience, part of the memories of theatre come from the onstage mishaps.

I remember I was in Torch Song where I’m supposed to interrupt the two leads as they are about to kiss… my dressing room was on the third floor of some gorgeous old theatre in Chicago and I was chatting with one of my castmates when I heard my cue over the loudspeaker. I flew down three flights of stairs and across a dark backstage, it was a disaster. Another memory was during dress rehearsal with an audience of a Shakespeare adaptation, where I a complicated bit of physical comedy that went awry…  I hurt myself and my mind just switched off in a panic and I completely lost my lines. I could not remember a word, so I said “Oh shit! Line!” and the director, one of my favorites, Bill Rauche, shouted my cue from the audience. Both experiences were SO humiliating! 

While he was enjoying an avid theatre career, the LGBT community was fighting a battle with AIDS.  The gay community and the theater community were losing loved ones every day, with a sense of terror current generations can only slightly resemble to our current pandemic.  The AIDS pandemic hit home for Jonathan; his partner died in the late ’80s.

I think the saddest thing for me is talking to young gay guys have who have zero appreciation for the battles we fought, what we lived through to get us to where we are today. When my partner was dying I could have been thrown out of his hospital room by the family, I had no rights, and I don’t think that’s something a millennial or Gen Z(er) can even wrap their heads around. 

Jonathan had come out to his friends after his performance in Torch Song Trilogy. Coming out to his family took years until he was in his first, real relationship.  He never did try to hide his sexuality in his career, although it was certainly not the popular choice.

I have too much respect for women to use them as props or worse, lie to them so that I could protect myself. What I did do, which really messed with my career momentum, was avoid a lot of ‘career events’ Like Hollywood parties, premieres, that sort of thing. I wish I had the courage at that time to just be myself, I would have been so much happier, and I think more successful. 

Television was calling and the move to Hollywood was inevitable.  Among guest-starring roles in Miami Vice, Sisters, The Wonder Years, and Blossom was his breakout role in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  His relationship with Star Trek was not a new one. Born in Uruguay, English was not his first language.

The original series in re-runs was how I learned English. Star Trek was one of a handful of shows I would watch as a kid. 

Del Arco would screen test for the role of Wesley Crusher but ultimately play Hugh – a human assimilated by the villainous Borg and turned into a robot being, part of a collective that was out to destroy any inferior beings in its wake. Hugh was rescued by Captain Picard and his Enterprise team and would form a memorable bond with the crew that taught them, and us as the viewers, a little bit about humanity. His performance was beautifully nuanced and though Hugh only appeared in two out of 178 episodes, he remains one of the most memorable guest characters. Why is Hugh so popular with the fans?

Well, that is a hard one to answer without sounding like an egomaniac, but the truth is that for some reason I was able to tap into something primal that was in that beautiful Renee Echivaria script. The thing is we all struggle with loneliness, it’s a part of the human condition and Hugh was the epitome of that feeling. I had just lost my partner a year before, so I was broken and lost and lonely, and I was willing to share that. 

Who would have guessed that almost three decades later, Hugh would be called back to duty?

If you had asked me this same question 10 years ago, I would say “no way in hell” would they bring me back, so overall the whole thing has been a very lovely gift. 

CBS’ Picard premiered on January 23rd, and it was the first time Trekkies saw some familiar faces among the revitalization of Trek on TV that included Star Trek: Discovery with the more recent animated series, Lower Decks, and plans for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (based on the mission of Captain Pike’s Enterprise) and Section 31 (a direct Discovery spin-off).  Long-time fans and new audiences have a lot to be excited about. Picard was not just a rehash of The Next Generation, it was something new, something uncharted, and a complete risk. The payoff was huge. New, pardon the pun, generations and original Trekkies bonded over the show that paid homage to The Next Generation while, at the same time, propelled the brand into the future.  What was it like returning to a character so many years after the fact?

Exciting, terrifying, challenging one of the bigger accomplishments of my career to come back and deliver something new that still had all the feels of the original. 

One of the biggest challenges Del Arco faced, being a bit of a social butterfly, was being confined to his trailer in the studio’s attempt to keep his character and his character’s new look a secret.  It worked. The unveiling of Hugh’s return was an exciting moment for The Next Generation fans, and his storyline (no spoilers here) would add an emotional and beautiful pivot that we remember from Hugh’s original story so well.

After his original Trek debut, Jonathan would experience a lull in acting jobs and while waiting tables, was recommended to work on an environmental campaign led by Hollywood’s Rob Reiner. This would lead to another passion of Del Arco’s, political activism. He has worked for several political campaigns, among which were three presidential campaigns, including serving as an Obama Celebrity Surrogate for the 2012 bid. He works to raise awareness for GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and has received the Visibility Award from the Human Rights Campaign. On the heels of our current political nightmare, I had to ask about present-day politics as compared to Jonathan’s first years as an activist.

Well, there was no social media at the time so the back and forth was not as swift, but people had a much more decent sense of what is beyond the pale. What used to be unacceptable, like the trafficking in crazy conspiracies, where never so front and center. Also, the advent of reality TV that made stars of people with no real talent opened the door to a President with no real talent… it’s really not a great time in terms of public discourse and so our politics are reflective of this idiotic cultural moment where you are valued by how many followers you have on Twitter or Instagram. The whole term “influencer” makes my skin crawl. 

Del Arco credits his political involvement for adding fervor to his acting. In 2003, he would once again make a splash on TV playing a recurring guest role on FX’s Nip/Tuck as Sophia Lopez, a transgender woman. Nip/Tuck, an early Ryan Murphy (Glee/American Horror Story/Hollywood) show, was a huge success albeit extremely controversial. Playing a trans woman, by a gay actor, on a hit show was a pretty daunting task.

I really wanted her to be a hero, not a victim. She wanted what she wanted and used all her charm and intelligence to get it. I really LOVED that character. 

Given our current conversations about the trans acting community playing trans characters in media, would he take on the role today?

I absolutely would, but I don’t think we are in that place anymore. I think it is important for trans actors to be given the first shot at playing characters that represent their community. Having said that, I am proud to have been a part of the trailblazing that Ryan Murphy initiated with Nip/Tuck on the issue of trans rights. 

Jonathan would go on to recur on The Closer as the openly gay Dr. Morales and continue that role on its spinoff, Major Crimes.  Theatre would remain a constant in his life and he was able to celebrate his Latin heritage by taking part in the Hispanic Playwrights Project at South Coast Repertory in Southern California for six seasons.  What is it about Latins and the arts?

Well, you might have heard that my people are pretty dramatic, so obviously I grew up in a family with a lot of humor and color lots of music and dancing. So, in terms of the Latino culture, it lends itself very well to the arts. 

With television and theatre both tugging at Jonathan’s heartstrings, which one is his true love?

Stage acting is like walking on a tight rope and there is nothing to replace the thrill of the ‘do or die moment’ when you are on stage in front of a live audience and no net. But what I love about film and television is the opportunity for intimacy and really using very small and detailed parts of myself. I really love them both equally. 

Writer’s Note:  I am going to admit that I am a uniform wearing (I have six different ones), Star Trek ring-toning, convention-going Trekkie.  Although I can get star struck when meeting or interviewing someone from the Trek world, I pale in comparison with some of the, shall we say, more aggressive fans out there.  I had to know, what was Jonathan’s craziest fan experience?

I had a fan who used to fly across the globe to see me at EVERY CONVENTION.  She would buy the same picture multiple times just to come to the table and talk to me and she had a really creepy stuffed doll made that looked just like me, down to the outfit I wore the first time she met me. That was a little creepy. 

If drooling over Jonathan’s Trekkie pics on his social media makes me creepy, so be it.  Beam me up!

You can follow Jonathan on Instagram @JonathanDelArco and binge-watch Season 1 of Picard on CBS All Access.

Photography: Viacomcbs

Last modified: October 6, 2020