NZ Herald, May 10, 2009

Beam up the new Dr Spock
Cliff Taylor

It’s Thursday, so it must be Auckland. Actor Zachary Quinto is sitting on a sofa in a hotel room high above the city streets, staring out at the Sky Tower and the harbour bridge wreathed in grey rain clouds. He’s eating carrot sticks. The time is 1.55pm.

The weather is crazy, four seasons in one hour, culminating in a violent hailstorm that leaves the pavements white with ice. It could be a climatic system from one of the moons of Saturn – or something.

“It’s very unpredictable,” says Quinto, the sort of phlegmatic observation his alter ego, Spock, would utter in the new Star Trek movie, out now in cinemas. In fact, the weather is one of the few unpredictable elements in the actor’s existence just now.
As part of a global promotional campaign for the US$160 million ($275 million) film, Quinto belongs to Paramount Pictures with fellow actors Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) and New Zealander Karl Urban (Dr “Bones” McCoy), doing interviews every 20 minutes in rooms along the corridor.

Last month they were in Sydney, where the film was premiered at the Opera House. Then it was Dubai, then Kuwait to show the movie to United States troops. Then it’s on to Doha and Paris for the European leg of the tour. Everything is regulated.

“It does feel like a military exercise,” Quinto says. “It’s incredible. This is pretty big, for it to be my first feature.” He shrugs, a little wearily. “But we are having a blast. We know that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

The hype and expectation over the film has been enormous. So are the security concerns. After the internet leak of the new Wolverine blockbuster, a month before its official release, Paramount was taking no chances with its multi-million-dollar baby. At the previous night’s media screening, journalists were subjected to bag-searches and metal detectors and were monitored by cameras.

Despite starring in a string of high-profile television shows, including the roles of villainous Sylar in Heroes and Adam Kaufman in 24, Quinto has never experienced anything quite like this. “It’s crazy,” he says. But the 31-year-old, looking much slimmer than his Vulcan self, appears unfazed.

“There are a finite number of things in my control,” he says. “I have no control over how people will receive it, or how much money the movie will make. I just have to make sure I’m doing my best.”

Quinto’s peace of mind may be helped by the fact that he has his brother, Joe, along for the ride. The two share the same dark Italian/Irish features, black hair and eyes. They are so alike that there is a moment of initial confusion as to who is Spock.

Quinto is no Trekkie, which helps to explain his equanimity about playing the emblematic role of Spock. “I had seen it, maybe when I was flipping channels. But I wasn’t really a fan. I have seen the movies and I’m pretty aware of its place in popular culture history.”

How does it feel to be Spock, immortalised by Leonard Nimoy? “It feels … grand.”

Quinto actually shares screen time with Nimoy in the new film (it’s about time travel, don’t ask) and the pair have become firm friends, even attending a couple of conventions together.

So, 78-year-old Nimoy is still hanging out with Trekkies? “Yeah dude, it’s a cash cow for him.”

Much has been made of the physical resemblance between the two actors. “That’s undeniable,” says Quinto. “It was the first stage in me getting the job.”

He didn’t wear a wig for the role – that scary Vulcan fringe is all his own. “It was an awesome haircut.” And did he get to keep the pointy ears? He glances at his brother, with a mischievous grin. “We might have made off with a pair or two. Through unofficial means.”

Despite not being a lifelong fan of Star Trek, Quinto says it was always the character of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock who interested him the most.

Having the original Spock on-set could have been daunting. “I worked so closely with Leonard. He gave no advice that was unsolicited. He wanted this to be my experience as much as possible. I felt like I was in great hands and that decreased the anxiety. We became relatively close. I love hanging out with him. He’s a fascinating person. If I can be half as fulfilled as him at that age, I will be happy.”

The 11th Star Trek is a prequel, delving into the formative years of Spock and his future captain, James Tiberius Kirk.

Nimoy’s Spock was famous for his logic and lack of emotion, although able to hint at humour or disbelief with one quizzical twitch of an eyebrow.

Quinto’s Spock not only shows sadness at the death of his human mother, but is goaded into rage by an obnoxious Kirk and even gets the hots for a very young and slim Uhura.

“I think there was a misunderstanding about Spock,” says Quinto. “The Vulcan culture has chosen in its history to sublimate their emotions. In fact, they have deeply felt emotions, but it’s the expression of that emotion that can be restricted.

“It was an opportunity for me to make sure that my own life was constantly percolating, that I always had something going on beneath the surface. That’s the point of my Spock – that he is less in control of that duality than the Spock Leonard Nimoy brought to bear.”

Does he expect to be castigated by Trekkies for it? “I have no control over that,” he says. “I leave that to them.”

Quinto runs his own production company in Los Angeles and will return to Heroes after the marathon Star Trek commitment. He and the other cast members have signed for three Trek movies, boldly going into another incarnation of one of the longest-running franchises in Hollywood history.

Understandably, he stays on message throughout the interview, referring to Star Trek fans as “an admirable group of people”.

“The Star Trek community is unique. Worldwide it has existed for 45 years. There’s a deep abiding faith in humanity which exists in Star Trek.”

But there’s one issue that threatens to disturb his Vulcan-like demeanour, and that’s Captain Kirk – or rather, William Shatner.

The original Kirk was less than pleased to be left behind on this latest voyage of the Starship Enterprise, and he made his displeasure known.

During the press screening his presence was conspicuous by its absence – there was a feeling that Shatner could appear at any moment with a rousing “Switch phasers to kill.” Or even “Denny Crane.”

Quinto is having none of it. “Mr Shatner was pretty vocal about his disappointment at not being included. But it wouldn’t have made sense. It doesn’t serve the movie to have him in it, shoehorning William Shatner into the movie to play the role one more time. I hope Mr Shatner understands that.”

A young woman with a clipboard appears. It’s 2.15pm. Time’s up. Quinto shakes my hand. Somebody is talking to him about the lunch menu before I’m out of the door. That’s Hollywood.