The ability to create a beloved role in a Science Fiction series watched by millions of semi-obsessed fans? Check.
Learning how to handle a twist of fate that allows an actor to somehow become a strange alien kind of sex symbol for the female members of that audience? Check.
In hindsight, when director J.J. Abrams came to casting a new actor to replace the iconic Leonard Nimoy in the role of Spock, there was *ahem* a strikingly logical choice in the man playing Sylar in Heroes, Mr. Zachary Quinto. Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with Mr. Quinto to talk about his love of sci-fi, the pain of prosthetics and the formidable spirit of Leonard Nimoy.
Emmanuel Itier: Did you see the movie yet?
Zachary Quinto: I did.
EI: Did you like it?
ZQ: I loved it. I was very excited, actually, and I don't usually get excited about things I'm a part of, even if they're successful, so the thing for me was I was most proud to see the cumulative contribution of so many people that are the best at what they do. That's the thing that was the most gratifying and humbling -- seeing it all come together. I'm really glad I didn't see the movie until it was completely done, because it allowed me to really have that sense of...I'm just one little part of it really, and these are people are at the absolute top of their game doing what they do, and it reflects that, I think.
EI: You're not a little part -- you're a crucial part.
ZQ: Yeah, I'm a crucial character in the film, but I'm talking about in terms of how many people worked on this movie.
EI: Was this a part that you pretty much pushed for? Did you fight for this part? Did you know it was available and you went for it?
ZQ: I did, yeah. I was doing a lot of publicity for Heroes at the time that I found out they were making the movie, and so, in one of my first interviews with my hometown newspaper, actually, the journalist asks me if there were any roles I was interested in playing beyond Sylar, and I said, "Well, funny you should say that. I just found out they're making a movie of Star Trek; I would love to play Spock." Then that interview got syndicated, so subsequent interviews that I gave with regard to Heroes evolved to the point where journalists were saying things like, "So we understand that Spock is your dream role." I was like, "In fact, it is." So by the time casting came around, they had awareness of those interviews and we were able to send them press packets that included them, and it made it easier. I was the first person they saw for the role, and it fell together remarkably well.
EI: What's your dream role right now?
ZQ: Everybody's asking me this now. I'm not there yet. I've been so busy working on the show, I've had no time to entertain other ideas or other movies right now, so I'm just sort of taking it as it comes. I'm not in that zone yet. I'm sure I will be again. I'll call you when I am. You can write a special article about my next project.
EI: John [Cho] mentioned that the three of you went to boot camp...and I was like, "Spock's fighting?"
ZQ: In a manner of speaking. Well, it's funny -- originally in the film, there was a sequence that was...I think it was Spock against like six people, hand-to-hand, so I spent a lot of time learning this particular form of martial arts, and then literally, two days before we were shooting it, J.J. [Abrams] was like, "We're not going to do that. It's going to be a gun fight," and I was like, "Okay." It actually worked out better, though. J.J. is always with a mind toward balance, and I think he understood, in the context of the film, what it needed, and it didn't need that in that moment, so it changed. The other thing J.J. is so remarkable at is not being precious about what he likes, but rather being focused on what's the best story, and that's a tremendously important characteristic for a director -- especially a director as talented as him, because if you start to get precious about things, then you muddy the storytelling. When I saw this film, it was very clear to me the ways in which that didn't happen.
EI: What I remember from Spock is that hold. Why does he need martial arts?
ZQ: There might be some of that too. We'll see.
EI: Obviously, you knew the character fairly well. What did you bring to the role then -- your background, your knowledge of it? You're obviously restarting the role in a new way, but did you bring your baggage with you?
ZQ: Well, I think any actor brings they're "baggage." I think that's what we work with -- we work with our own understandings and our own points of reference, so certainly. I think I bring to it a very clear understanding of being split between my heart and my head. That's something that I can relate to personally, and I think everything else was really informed by this incredible script that was written by Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kurtzman]. As an actor, all of the answers should be in the script, and so I spent a lot of time really engaged in that and really understanding where this character was as we pick up with this iteration of the story.
EI: You met Leonard Nimoy. How was that?
ZQ: Leonard and I have become good friends through this process, and I value his presence in my life as a friend tremendously. I think he's an incredible man. I have a tremendous respect and affinity for him, and I often feel that if I could live half the life he's lived when I'm his age, I would be very content. He's a very formidable spirit. He's evolved from himself and emerged from himself many times over the years, and I think he dealt with a certain amount of restriction as an actor because of his association with this role, and it's been remarkable to see how he never held onto that. He just re-emerged as a director and a writer and a photographer and an art collector, and he's got this amazing life as a result. There are tremendous lessons in that for me. The more you can let go of your expectations and be open to what your life holds, I think the happier you'll be.
EI: Did that ease your worry, maybe a little bit, to take that role?
ZQ: Well, I don't have the same worry. We live in a very different time and there's not the same stigma attached to science fiction now as there was in 1967, nor is there the same attention span in our culture to have something stick so much as it did then. You can argue as to whether that's a good thing or a bad thing -- that our culture is so fractured from itself and disconnected from itself, we'd rather spend time connecting on Facebook than connecting in person, which is infuriating to me, personally, but everybody has different opinions about that, so I leave that to them. But I don't think it's the same climate and I don't think it's the same. I don't think I'll deal with the same adversity as he did as an actor, also because it's my goal not to, so I intend to work hard to make sure that doesn't happen.
EI: Sylar might be actually more limiting to you than even this, because it was sort of your breakthrough role.
ZQ: Yeah, maybe in a way. The thing is, whatever I do next, I think it should ideally not involve green screens or laser beams or superpowers. I would really love to explore what it is to be in a project about real people in real situations that are dealing with stuff that we can all relate to more easily than warp speed factor three to the launching system.
EI: It's very hard not to be aware of the impact of Star Trek as a whole over the years. Are you ready? I mean, you've already experienced it at some of the conventions and stuff. Are you ready for the impact on your life and how people are going to be coming up to you all the time and going, "Live long and prosper"?
ZQ: Sure, to a degree. This whole transformation is profound for me, and I don't take it lightly, personally or professionally. I know what my boundaries are, so I think as long as I enter into the world with that awareness and communicate them in a respectful way to people, my experience, so far, is that people will pay me the same respect. And if that changes, I'll have to reevaluate my tact.
But I feel grateful, and I feel that I wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for the fans of this franchise and the fans of Heroes and the fans of me personally, and so, to a degree, it's part of my job. But there's a line that I won't cross or allow to have crossed, and so it's just a matter of navigating that for myself in every different situation. I like to think I'm ready. Some days I feel more ready than others.
EI: Do you know the Javier Bardem story for No Country for Old Men? He had to wear that silly haircut, and he said, "Well, no sex for a year now." What about you? Was it real?
ZQ: It was real. The physical preparation for the film was extensive for me. I had to get that haircut and shave my eyebrows and shave my face every day, which is not something I like to do or do often, so it had more of an impact on me personally than I expected it would, actually. It really alienated me from myself and from people. I never left the house without big chunky glasses and a hat on. I didn't really go out very much. I spent a lot of time by myself. I laid a lot lower than I normally would, and ultimately, I think that had a profound effect on my relationship to the character, actually. The character is always dealing with that same sense of alienation, so I think it informed my relationship to Spock even more than if I didn't have to do those things, so I don't regret it at all, but it definitely surprised me, how much it affected me.
EI: What affected you more -- the eyebrows or the haircut?
ZQ: I think the eyebrows did, really. You could always wear a hat, or I could manipulate my hair in a different way, but the eyebrows -- you can't really get around that.
EI: Did you worry they might not grow back?
ZQ: There was that worry. It was quickly assuaged, though, when every day I had to repluck them or get the stubble out of there.
EI: For how long did you have to...
ZQ: Six months -- from November to April. It's a long time.
EI: We've talked with John and Zoe [Saldana] about how these are not the traditional sorts of characters that we know, of Sulu or Uhura and now Spock. How is your Spock different? He's essentially a slightly different character because of a certain plot, and that's something you probably can't get into right now, but just in terms of his character, how is he different?
ZQ: I definitely think we find him, in this iteration of the story, in a place where he's not as in control of the duality inside of him as much as Leonard was, certainly, and I think that's a big departure point for this particular version of him -- something that is supported by the story and then supported by the dynamics of all of us playing these characters this time around.
EI: Even though everybody is very young...like, we were all kids growing up and they seemed old, so that's what sort of struck me -- how young they are. What, Chekov can do that?
ZQ: Yeah, Chekov can do that -- he definitely can. The great part of all that is we include those trepidations in the movie -- we have them about each other at certain points, so, I think it's smart in that way. But yeah, I don't know what I would think about us if I saw it as a kid. I would probably think we're old, but it's good.
EI: Obviously, Spock is not supposed to be very tight with Kirk just yet. We're seeing the original formation of that friendship. But how, as a cast, did you bond? John talked about you guys bonding over the training, but did you bond as a big team?
ZQ: Well, it's strange how many people I knew already. I had worked with John before, I knew Zoe before, and I knew Chris [Pine] before, so for me, there was a serendipity to the casting in that regard, and that made it a lot easier. But we genuinely all get along quite well, and there were a number of late nights after 18 hours in the Enterprise, where we ended up back at one or another of our houses just hanging out and, connecting until the wee hours of the morning, and I surely expect there'll be a lot more of that as we're traveling together for the next couple of months. But it's a great group of people -- great actors, great energies, great spirits. Everybody is enthusiastic, everybody is open to the experience... I really feel like that's a distinction that isn't always made when you're doing this kind of work, so I feel really grateful for that.
EI: How was working with J.J.? He's certainly an exceptional person in our time. How did you experience him?
ZQ: With a lot of awe. It's kind of unfathomable to me that someone could be so accomplished and so talented, and yet so affable and so down-to-earth and so present. He's responsible to so many people for so many different projects, and yet whatever is right in front of him is what gets 110% of his attention, and he's so adept at communicating what he wants and how he sees things, and I really respect that a lot and valued it throughout this process tremendously. In different hands, I think it could have gone in many different directions, and a lot of them are not as cohesive or as efficient as this one was.
EI: It never feels like he's spreading himself too thin?
ZQ: Not for a minute. And it never feels like we're making a hundred and whatever million dollar movie, whatever it is. Every day, what was important was what we needed to accomplish in that day. What was important was the dynamic between him and whoever was in that scene, and that never changed.
EI: How did you do auditions?
ZQ: I read for the role exactly once. I went in on tape for the casting director in April. Two days after that, I left the country for two months and went traveling. I was in Europe backpacking, I was in New York, I was all over the place, and while I was gone, all of this stuff was happening that I didn't know about or care about because I was just gallivanting around on trains in Berlin and Barcelona. It was kind of remarkable 'cause then I got back to New York, and about a week before I came home to LA, I got a call from my manager at the time saying that J.J. had seen the tape and wanted to meet me, and I got back to LA on my 30th birthday. Two days later, I went in and sat down with J.J., and I think it was the next day or the day after that that I got the offer to play the role. As far as audition processes go -- especially for a film this big and a role this big -- it was not extensive. We spoke for 45 minutes. He spoke for 43 minutes; I spoke for approximately two minutes...because he was so clear about what he wanted, which was great. Then I took the role without reading the script. It was like, I trust this guy; I trust this storytelling team, and I think I was right to do so.
EI: Were you worried about the look when you went to do the audition? Did you do anything?
ZQ: Yeah, I wore a blue shirt and I didn't put any product in my hair so my bangs were down to here, and that's kind of what I could do that I thought was both appropriate and helpful. But that's all I did. I just sort of suggested it.
EI: You've been acting for 20 years now. You started as a child on stage. Has it been a straight path ever since? Did you always know you were going to do that for a living?
ZQ: Yeah...maybe not when I first started -- when I was nine or ten -- but as I started to emerge into a sense of autonomy as a person in high school, I knew it was what I wanted to do. Once I went to college for it, that set me on this path. I remember my acting teacher in middle school, like in sixth or seventh grade, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, always used to say that you can't call yourself a professional actor until you've acted for 20 years. Now we're there, so I think it's safe.
EI: Did your family have anything to do with show business?
ZQ: No. I have a very creative family. All the members of my family are or were creative, but not formally. My brother is a photographer by trade, but it's sort of peripheral in terms of show business, although he lives out here and shoots a lot of actors and stuff. But my parents were very creative. My dad was a hair dresser but also a musician and a photographer and a visual artist, so a lot comes from that. And a singer. He played the guitar with my mom and they would sing Peter, Paul and Mary in the late '70s, early '80s.
EI: Was there anything dialogue-wise you had trouble wrapping your mouth around? I know actors in the past have complained about Star Trek and quantum sporadic readings of such and such.
ZQ: No. I memorize really fast somehow. I was able to pull it all off, I think. I think the most interesting part of this character, for me, and one of the things Leonard and I talked about early on is he never speaks in contractions. So for me, in this time which is so colloquial and comfortable and familiar and lazy really, it required, like, wait a minute. I want to make sure I don't slip into that. There is no danger of that. But aside from that, I spent a year on 24. I don't think you can get much more jargon-y than that. And that combined with my theater training, I think made it okay.
EI: You said you had a lot of back and forth with Bob and Alex. Obviously, as producers, they were probably available quite a bit on set for you to discuss stuff with you and J.J. Was that a good situation?
ZQ: Bob and Alex weren't really that available, actually, because of the writers' strike. They weren't really allowed to be available, and so they weren't on set with us, unfortunately. They would pop in every now and then because they were producers, so they were able to do that, which was great, but in terms of dialogue, it really didn't change. It really couldn't change. They worked really hard up to the strike to get the script in precise shooting order, and they wrote in a couple of instances where there were maybe some questions about dialogue or questions about a scene. They wrote alternates before the strike so we could play with the scene with some other alternatives.
EI: There is still the actors' strike looming. How do you feel about that? Do you think it'll happen?
ZQ: I feel it would be a tremendous disservice to the industry and to the many people that earn their living, in this economy and social and political climate, for anybody to vote for a work stoppage. I'm 100% against the idea of a strike right now. I think it would devastate this community because you have to imagine, in LA, which is a one-industry town, a strike doesn't only effect the actors or the producers or the studios, it affects the caterers, it affects the drycleaners, I affects the makeup artists, it affects the crews, it affects the people who are the backbone of this industry who work the hardest, and I'm a firm believer that this whole situation with all the strikes and all the guilds was totally botched every step of the way. I think it could have been handled in a much different way that would have actually have put us in the position of having some leverage. We don't have any leverage right now.
When NBC pulls five hours of creative programming a week and puts Jay Leno on the air, what ground do actors have to stand on to say we need more? The conglomeratization of these studios and of these networks have made it virtually impossible for us to have any ground to stand on because NBC is now a piddling little money-hemorrhaging division of GE, and Paramount is owned by Viacom and ABC is owned... It just goes up the ladder to people who don't care about creativity. These are not creative people that we are negotiating with -- these are business people, and business people do not care. So my money is that we cut our losses for this time and we say that we didn't handle it as we could have and it will come back around, and hopefully at a time when there's more unity. Because what really fractured it was this lack of unity between SAG and AFTRA and the Writers Guild and directors, and it's unsettling. It's unfortunate and disappointing, but I think a strike would be the absolute worst decision anybody could make right now.
EI: Is that a very popular stance?
ZQ: I have no idea. I mean, I'm informed about what's happening and how it works. It's certainly popular among people who witness every day how people's lives are affected by this. People are losing their homes left and right in this town, and it's not even because of a strike. Imagine how that would affect it. It just terrifies me, and I care more about the investment that the crew and the support staffs make to this industry than I do about three more cents on a DVD. Granted, I'm in a different position than 98% of the membership of SAG, so I can talk about it differently, and that's a great privilege that I don't take lightly by any stretch of the imagination. But I just don't think it's the right climate. I mean, how can you... The Dow is under 7,000. How can you talk about a strike? It just freaks me out.
EI: Do you think SAG and AFTRA have lost touch of what's actually going on, since they're pushing?
ZQ: I really don't know. I feel like everything's sort of askew right now and everybody is scrambling to figure out what's going on. I think they lost touch at a certain point. Ultimately, it's a disservice to actors, because now there are more pilots this pilot season under AFTRA contracts than under SAG contracts because there's this cloud of uncertainly around SAG. And AFTRA benefits and health benefits and pension funds are not as substantial as SAG's, so now who suffers? Now we suffer. Now the actors who are doing SAG contracts don't get as much money? Don't get as much health benefits down the line? You've got to look at what you're really fighting for and see how it fits into things long-term, I think. Not to end on a political note...
The J.J. Abrams reboot of 'Star Trek' is in theaters now from Paramount Pictures