Interview: Chase Masterson of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on Bullying, Mental Health, Star Trek and Beyond

Chase Masterson speaking during the The Future is Female: Women’s Representation in Star Trek panel at Star Trek Mission Chicago 2022. Photo: Marielle Bokor.

If you’ve spent any time with Star Trek growing up or now as an adult, you’re probably aware of its central themes. Going back all the way to the original series, there’s always been an emphasis on the duty we have to each other, inclusion, and understanding. It’s baked in to every episode, and Gene Roddenberry designed the world of Star Trek around it. As one Trek fan told me at a collectors convention recently –  ‘Star Wars is the fantasy world – and Star Trek is the world we aspire to.’

Concepts like IDIC – Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations – drove everything about Star Trek and still does today. Star Trek has never shied away from social issues, taking on big topics like racism, religion, war, women’s rights, cultural differences, LGBTQIA issues and more than that, creating a community of actors and fans that believe that they not only can make a difference, but that it’s their job to. As a result, the larger Star Trek community is full of activists for every cause, and represents family to many people who feel unwanted, excluded or other in some way. 

This has long been one of my favorite things about the Trek community, and it’s one of the reasons I was most excited to cover Star Trek: Mission Chicago last weekend, and why I was so excited to get a chance to speak with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s own Chase Masterson (who DS9 fans will know as Leeta). Masterson has long been an activist, working extensively with a gang intervention program called Homeboy Industries out of Los Angeles, and, as it turns out, was inspired by the message to take it even further, founding the Pop Culture Hero Coalition, a program that teaches “real-life heroism and mental health skills” with the help of pop culture icons, like the ones seen in Star Trek, Star Wars and beyond. 

First off, thank you for sitting down with us, Chase. We are huge Trek fans and love the work you’re doing. We want to ask a few Star Trek questions, of course, but first we’d love to know more about Superhero_IRL and the Pop Culture Coalition. 

Was this initiative inspired by Star Trek at all? Where did the inspiration for this campaign come from?

So throughout my entire time on Star Trek, I had seen the fans be so wonderfully inclusive and really truly care about real world issues, and early on my fan club supported charities such as Caring for Babies with AIDS which is a house in LA where kids lived and some other really powerful causes.

I also mentored kids coming out of gangs at a place called Homeboy Industries in downtown LA. And I really saw how much the world needs messaging of IDIC and that if we truly teach IDIC, we will be able to end bullying, racism, misogyny, LGBTQ+ bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of injustice.

So, I did a TED talk about this, but I’ll give you some background here too. I heard about a little girl named Katie who was bullied for carrying her Star Wars lunchbox to school. Her mother, a brilliant author whose name is Carrie Goldman, wrote a blog piece on it asking for people to stand up for her daughter and to give her some support. 

Carrie wrote Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to End the Cycle of Fear. She wrote it out of her experiences with Katie being bullied and then she did a huge amount of research and studied and she’s really brilliant and so in 2013, we partnered to use everything that we have learned to end bullying and then soon after that we realized that the root of bullying lies in mental health issues. 

People who are mentally healthy don’t bully each other. They don’t treat each other with marginalization or hate in any way. They uphold, and support, and actively stand for each other’s human rights. 

And so we put a mental health program together with some brilliant psychologists and we created this program that Carrie is the curriculum director for. It’s called The Heroic Journey. In 31 lesson plans it teaches kids how to have a healthy identity and how to care about themselves and how to care about other people. 

That’s so necessary. I feel like that’s something we didn’t get ourselves growing up.

Yeah – those are messages society doesn’t teach, and so it’s so important that someone do that. 

The best way to kids’ minds and hearts is to teach them with – in ways they can relate to. So we use stories – we use Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Avengers, Wonder Woman, Batman – and it’s working. Kids are excited about making their lives better and the lives of people – of other people – better.

That’s so exciting. I know for me and my husband growing up – we were bullied for the things we liked. I was a Star Wars fan, I loved to read – I was super nerdy. Did you experience bullying growing up, or what brought this issue close to your heart?

I did experience bullying growing up – I had some very serious issues as an adult as well. 

So yes – a lot of this is born out of my own experience. A lot of this is out of my own experience with depression and anxiety and the fact that I didn’t know how to navigate these issues and now I do.

There are tools that are useful, that are relatable tools, that are evidence based, and the studies show they really can help, and so that’s part of my passion. Now that I know there are ways to navigate these issues, I want to help other people with them too. 

Taking a bit of a turn for Star Trek fans for a moment, if we can – can you tell us what some of your favorite moments on the show were? Were there any guest stars who you loved to work with?

I really loved working with Max Grodenchik. He is not only an incredible actor but he’s a really exemplary person too. He’s sweet, humble – and I think that’s part of what makes him such a good actor. And so, I had an especially great time with him. 

As far as episodes – I loved the episode Dr. Bashir I Presume, just from my own personal point of view. Dogs of War – so many other important episodes were really powerful and profound and I’m excited and happy every day that I am a part of this legacy. 

Were you a Trekkie growing up too?

I do remember the original series. My boyfriend before I was on the show was such a Trekkie that I was only allowed to call him during commercials, so… who’s sorry now?

Seriously!

So –  I watched the show a bit so that I could see when the commercials were and it was then that I started realizing that the stories were really important, and I gained a lot of respect for the show. 

And you got to be a part of another legacy too, with Doctor Who!

Yeah I’ve been doing the audio dramas for Doctor Who since 2012 and they transformed my character into my own show which is called Vienna, and Vienna is an impossibly glamorous mercenary assassin. We’ve done 4 seasons and now I’m working opposite Eric Roberts as the Master and it’s a blast. 

Vienna has fantastic stories and if you love Star Trek I think you’ll really love Vienna because of the intersection it has of profound, important stories and fun. 

Vienna has a cheeky sense of humor as well as saying really compelling things about the world. There’s an episode about the falseness of so much religion, the use of child soldiers, the falsehood of the beauty industry – there are a lot of real life subjects. 

How can people support your efforts and the efforts of the Pop Culture Hero Coalition?

The way that we support the work of the coalition and our work in schools and communities is our Be Kind campaign, and we’re selling merchandise here at the convention and online for it.

We have wonderful actors take part in it, including George Takei, William Shatner, Nichelle, many of the cast of Deep Space 9 and many of the current cast including Sonequa, and Ethan Peck, and we really are making the point here with this merchandise that more kindness is needed in the world – and it’s also a wonderful way of crowdfunding our work and getting support to take this to more people.

People say we’re saving lives, so we really appreciate everyone who worked on the campaign, the tshirts and the merchandise.

Find out more about the Pop Culture Hero Coalition and how you can support their work here.

Get information on The Heroic Journey for your classroom here.

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Marielle Bokor