Meet Bruce Horak, Star Trek's first blind actor, playing Hemmer on Strange New Worlds

Legally blind since he was infant, the Calgary-born actor is joining the cast of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds after decades of theatre work.

The Calgary-born actor will appear as Hemmer on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

In Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Bruce Horak plays Hemmer. He is the first legally blind actor in the Star Trek franchise. (Marni Grossman/Paramount+)

When new Star Trek cast member Bruce Horak was in grade three, the Quest Theatre company came to his school in Calgary touring a show called "Zeke and the Indoor Plants." At the end, the students were given pencils. The experience would be life-changing for Horak. That day he went home, pencil in hand, and told his mom: "I want to write stories like that. I want to write stories about kids like me." 

Horak has worked in theatre for over 25 years now. This year, the Calgary-born actor is playing Hemmer on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, as the first legally blind actor in the franchise's history. 

When he was 18 months old, Horak was diagnosed with Bilateral Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye. The treatment of his condition left him legally blind.

"My right eye was removed completely," Horak says. "And my left eye — there were three tumours on it. So that was blasted with radiation and left me with about 9% vision."

Years after his first introduction to acting, Horak ran into Duval Lang, one of the co-founders of Quest Theatre, at Mount Royal College. The pair hit it off and Horak began to tour with the company. Since then, he's acted in and created numerous theatre productions, including an award-winning turn in Evil Dead: the Musical and his original one-man show, Assassinating Thomson, in which he creates a painting live on stage.

Born in Calgary, Bruce Horak's first starring role in television is in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. (Terry Manzo)

Even as he took to the stage, however, Horak says he faced lingering self-doubt stemming from his disability.

"I was very self-conscious about being considered visually impaired and/or blind, and that was somehow going to exclude me in some way."

Despite these initial doubts, though, Horak says he persisted through theatre with the support of mentors and a willingness to challenge himself. Now he is heading to a new frontier in his acting career, with a role in the latest series in the long-running Star Trek franchise, Strange New Worlds.

But for Horak, this role is particularly poignant, as he makes history as the franchise's first legally blind actor.

"They put out a call," Horak says. "They were looking specifically for blind and visually impaired performers. When my agent sent that to me, I thought 'okay, that checks off the box.' And then when it was Star Trek, I was like, 'okay, that's a no-brainer, go for it.'"

Celia Rose Gooding (left) as Uhura and Bruce Horak as Hemmer (right) in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. (Marni Grossman/Paramount+)

Strange New Worlds is his first main TV role, following a guest spot on Warehouse 13 and some independent film work. Partly, Horak says he stuck to the stage due to feeling self-conscious about his physical appearance.

"When I was in college at Mount Royal, I took a film and television class," he says. "We'd learn scenes and then we'd film them and then we'd watch them back, and I got really self-conscious about the way I looked on camera. The safe place for me was doing theatre, because the audience was so far away."

Visual disabilities have been a part of the Star Trek universe in the past, perhaps most famously with the character of engineer Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Like Geordi LaForge, Horak's character of Hemmer in Strange New Worlds is also a blind engineer, but in this case, the character has other natural senses to see and interact with the world. Hemmer is a member of the fictional Aenar race, a subspecies of the Andorians, one of the founding races of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. All Aenar have telepathic abilities and are naturally blind.

They also have antennae, pale white-blue skin and white hair, which required Horak to sit still for a three-hour makeup application before heading to set. But while the process was long, the actor says it actually allowed him to overcome anxiety about his appearance on film.

"They've got an explanation for my strange-looking eyes in Strange New Worlds," he says. "When I saw what they had created, and how the digital effects team had gone in, frame by frame and they had altered the eyes … they've given me the eyes that I could only dream of."

Bruce Horak created and performed the one-man show Assassinating Thomson. Playing himself, he explores the mysterious death of one of Canada’s greatest artists and unofficial 8th member of the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson. (Supplied by Bruce Horak)

Strange New Worlds' first season is now running until July 7 and is available for streaming in the US on Paramount+ and in Canada on Crave. The series has already been renewed for a second season, though it's not yet been confirmed if Horak will be involved. 

In the meantime, he says he is continuing to pursue stage projects, as well as visual art. But for Horak, playing the role of Hemmer has been a unique thrill.

"It means so much to me that I've been given this opportunity," he says. "When I watched episode one, and there was my name right beside the glowing engine … I cried. 

"It's a 55-plus-year legacy that Roddenberry began, and we're the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren now who are learning about this wonderful vision of unity and inclusivity and progress, and all of that encompassed in a single, one-hour show."

Season one of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' running until July 7 and is available for streaming in Canada on Crave.