Meet Mr Spock
April 4, 2009
IT’S Thursday afternoon, July 26, 2007, at San Diego’s Comic Con, the largest comic and popular arts convention in the world.
J.J. Abrams, the director and producer of the latest Star Trek movie, leans into the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen [dramatic pause], Zachary Quinto is Spock.”
Quinto enters, to whoops, cheers, applause and camera flashes, his face carefully expressionless, save for the merest hint of a smile. He half-raises his right hand. This will be his first movie role. He is, he notes later, an eight-year overnight success story. He turned 30 the previous month.
Abrams, still playing the role of MC, continues: “It’s gonna be an amazing honour to get to say ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ to this gentleman. He’s gonna put the ears on one more time for Star Trek. Ladies and gentlemen, Leonard Nimoy! In the house!”
“There was a tremendous energy,” from the audience, Quinto says later. “I remember being washed over, sort of, by a wave of adoration of him and it felt like I was … I have this image of a child being led somewhere for the first time by their parents.
“There was a very protective, almost, sort of energy, like he was in his element and I was the little fledgling who was at his side. There was vulnerability that I remember feeling but he was so gracious and available and present, and has always been.”
The meet-and-greet ends, with Abrams promising the film “a year from Christmas”.
Three months after “a year from Christmas”, Quinto sits with his feet up on a Four Seasons hotel couch. His eyebrow stubble has grown out and they’re thick and flourishing again. The classic Spock ‘do, a precisely calibrated bowl cut, has long since been re-configured and his dark hair is gelled back in an extravagant pompadour. He will never go bald.
His voice is calm, without noticeable inflection, and the only way to detect emphasis is when he slows his delivery, as in “I really just don’t care about that stuff.”
“That stuff” is the meticulous planning, marketing and control of the re-launch of the Star Trek franchise, the first stage of which is this $US150 million ($218.5 million) movie, Star Trek, or, as Nimoy archly put it in an interview, “Kirk, When He Was Thin”.
Time and, especially, space are elastic in the movie world and when you run out of ideas for the forward momentum of a story, you retreat. Thus, the prequel.
This Star Trek imagines the crew of the starship USS Enterprise minted freshly from the Starfleet Academy, about to venture forth where no man has gone before.
The original Star Trek ran to three seasons totalling 79 episodes. It announced itself at the height of the space age as the US prepared to launch itself at the moon. It won fans on the rebound during an endless succession of repeats and remakes. (This is the 11th Star Trek movie). In the process, characters like Mr Spock were passengers in a cultural evolution – from Vulcan to icon, as it were – however much the guy who was Spock resisted.
Leonard Nimoy’s first memoir was called I Am Not Spock. “There were a lot of emotional crosscurrents operating for me at this time,” he wrote. “Obviously, the work being offered was coming as a direct result of my impact as Mr Spock. On the other hand, I was involved in something of a crusade to develop a reputation as an actor with some range.
“At this point I went through a definite identity crisis. The question was whether to embrace Mr Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realise now that I really had no choice in the matter.
“Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn’t anything that I could do to change that.”
Four decades later, Quinto doubts that Nimoy’s fate, wed at first unhappily but finally comfortably to the character of Spock, will be his.
“No matter how well this film is received and how favourably people take to my work in it, I’m not going to be credited with originating this role,” Quinto says.
“I also think the stigmas are diminished in this day and age. Science fiction doesn’t have the same associations that it did 40 years ago and I don’t think people have the same attention spans as they did 40 years ago.
“Those factors weighed in on Leonard’s almost inextricable association with this character as an actor. I don’t necessarily feel that will be the case.
“People are more eager to be distracted. People get uncomfortable with settling their focus on one thing for too long. Our industry is both an example of that and to a certain extent responsible for that.”
Quinto experienced this on his first day of shooting. Star Trek is a multimedia undertaking, from the online previews to the action figures of the primary characters. The element of surprise is essential to the success of that approach.
They were filming at a cemetery. Towards the end of the day, Abrams, the director, showed Quinto some images on his iPhone. They were long-range shots, taken earlier that same day, of the two talking – Quinto in his Spock costume – and then uploaded to a celebrity website.
Subsequently, cast members were ordered to wear costume-covering ponchos when walking to or from the set. For extended journeys from trailer to set, they would ride in a shrouded golf cart.
“It’s indicative of people’s insatiable appetite for what they want and when they want it,” Quinto says. “That wouldn’t have been a problem 15-20 years ago. It’s a relentless and insidious sort of energy.”
Pittsburgh-born Quinto would not ordinarily be the type to stray within the rangefinders of LA’s feral paparazzi hordes. He prefers small wine bars to large nightclubs and dinner parties with old friends to carousing with new ones. For relaxation, he hikes and camps, reads and writes. He enjoys solitude.
Which Abrams, the director, may have seen or sensed when he was casting for Spock.
“I was like: ‘Huh,”‘ Abrams mimes catching his breath.
“I was struck by his likeness to Leonard. It was his physicality and his eagerness to play this role, not from the standpoint of massive fandom but from appreciating the struggles of the character.”
The latest incarnation of Star Trek is an oddity in that its stars are all barely known – Quinto’s relative celebrity stems from his recurring and popular role as the villainous Sylar in the hit television series Heroes – and yet they are surrounded by names like Eric Bana, Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Shaun Of The Dead) and veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood in supporting roles.
The studio’s obsession with security had the effect of huddling the stars ever closer, given their restricted movements on set. That included socialising, and it was during this time that cast members Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) and John Cho (Lieutenant Sulu) noticed the extent to which Quinto and his character had begun to merge.
At this point, Quinto’s own hair was in the Spock bowl cut and his eyebrows had been shaved to allow for the pencilled-in Vulcan accessories, dark slashes running diagonally across his forehead. Cho remembers Quinto, quiet and withdrawn, wearing glasses with large horn rims to cover the missing eyebrows whenever they went out for dinner.
“Having to shave [the eyebrows] every day, having my hair in this horrible bowl cut, I felt sort of alienated from myself and alienated from other people,” Quinto says. “I never went out of the house without big chunky glasses on, and a hat. I tended to isolate a lot more during the process of the film.”
He gladly disconnected from Spock once filming had been completed.
“I remember letting it all hang out and thinking: ‘I look like such a dork.’ My hair was growing out, my eyebrows were stubbly and I didn’t care at all. It was an awakening, an emergence from something. I started going out more and having a good time.”
Star Trek premieres at the Opera House on Tuesday and opens on May 11.