This interview first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 5 May 2013
It’s a hive of activity at the press junket for the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie, as publicists brandishing clipboards and stop-watches bustle about a plush hotel on Sydney’s waterfront. We print journos get the after-lunch slot, so by the time Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine enter the business suite, they’ve been performing for a full morning of filmed interviews. Zachary apologises for being sick (a cold caught on the plane from LA a few days prior) while Chris, more handsome in real life but less light-hearted than his character, perches on his seat with a slightly furrowed brow.
Compared with the rather low-key actors, director J.J. Abrams is a bundle of energy, gracious to a fault. “Thankyou, thank you so much, I really appreciate it” he says when I tell him that on the strength of what I’d seen in Into Darkness, his next project seems to be in safe hands. (Abrams is set to direct the latest Star Wars, amongst similarly high expectations from a zealous fanbase.)
We’re at the beginning of the Star Trek Into Darkness world tour, and in a few hours the talent will be attending the Australasian premiere before heading off to Russia, Germany, LA and ultimately London for the biggest shindig. More of the stars will jump aboard as the tour circumnavigates the globe, but Abrams, Quinto and Pine (along with New Zealander Karl Urban) are in it for the long haul.
Star Trek Into Darkness takes us to a time when Star Fleet is under terrorist threat, and the crew of the Starship Enterprise must set off on a voyage to right some wrongs. Pine reprises the role of ladies man Captain Jim Kirk, with Quinto returning as his right-hand man/Vulcan, Mr Spock. (At this point it is probably worth mentioning that while Pine looks just like his onscreen persona, Quinto is mercifully unrecognisable without the pointy ears and thick glossy fringe. I decide not to tell him though.)
Portraying characters who have been around for decades and are protected and revered by particularly fervent devotees takes some guts. How fine a line had to be walked between doing impersonations and creating one’s own take on the genre?
Abrams’ commitment to maintaining the essence of a legendary franchise is evident. “The approach to everything – look, design, casting, props – was to take the spirit of what was done nearly 50 years ago and do our version, but be true not to the letter but to the spirit,” he explains. In casting younger versions of such seminal characters, he gave his actors free reign. “I tried to cast people who were in the realm, but then say to them ‘This is yours – do not try to copy what he or she did, do your thing’.” Abrams compliments Pine’s ability to combine his “natural, wonderful swagger” with an appreciation of “the [William] Shatner vibe”. “It was a very careful tightrope walk but they all did it beautifully”, he says proudly.
Pine agrees that the freedom to interpret their roles provided a great sense of fun. “Because it [is] this alternate, other-dimensional universe, prequel situation, there were fantastic opportunities to nod and wink, to give especially the long term fans of the franchise these moments of connection and resonance and ‘Oh my God, I can see Shatner there, DeForest Kelley there’ – and I think that’s the fun of it.”
In the 2009 film Quinto’s role was all the more challenging for his having to act alongside his predecessor, Leonard Nimoy. Far from being intimidating, however, he says it actually helped. “We spent a lot of time together, and subsequently became incredibly close. He is such a magnanimous person that I only ever felt supported”. Acknowledging that Nimoy had consultation rights on the casting of the younger Spock, Quinto adds “It was comforting and reassuring to know I could use him as a resource that none of the other actors necessarily [had].” Then, sounding like his onscreen persona: “But there are certain qualities of the character that cannot be ignored or denied”. He says it was a challenge bringing his own experience and perspective to the role, helped by J.J’s clear mandate that this should be a fresh interpretation.
Both leading men are full of praise for their great leader, but you can’t help believing that someone with Abrams’ guileless enthusiasm really would be great to work with. Quinto describes him as “one of the foremost directors of our time. I think people will look back at him as a filmmaker who helped shape the direction of storytelling in this particular era, which is a unique convergence of technology and expectation of audiences, so to balance those two things requires a very talented and uniquely possessed individual”.
Indeed, Abrams comes across as the typical movie-struck lad who came to work in Hollywood and is making the most of every opportunity. However, Star Trek may seem an unusual offering to someone who didn’t grow up a fan. “With all respect to Trek” he admits, “I never really connected with it as a kid, and part of that might have been that I wasn’t sophisticated enough – I had friends who were very smart who loved it… There was something very talky and boring, frankly, for me”. However, in being given the project he was adamant he still wanted “scenes of real conflict and debate, so we have that in the movie but I didn’t want to do a drawing-room film in space”. He doesn’t see his renditions as a sci-fi project, but as a “movie about people who made me laugh, who I connected with, who happened to be on this crazy journey, this massive adventure”. He is therefore creating an experience as much for the ordinary filmgoer as the fanboys.
Despite his embrace of the technological and aesthetic opportunities of modern-day filmmaking, at the heart of all Abrams’ work is a yearning for connection – between his characters and with his audiences. Into Darkness sees people thrown into emotional turmoil, and the archetypally unemotional, such as Spock, forced to confront real human feeling. I note that at one point in the film Spock seems to give all men an “out” for not expressing themselves when he says “You are assuming that because I choose not to feel, I do not care”. Quinto says playing such a character, for whom emotion has to be pared down, presented both a challenge and a gifts. “Spock’s choice [not to feel] is reinforced by his genetic history and his culture and civilisation, and unfortunately human men don’t have the same shield to hide behind.” But there are various “triggers” in the story that bring about a need for Spock to confront aspects of himself he would have previous avoided. Certainly, these make for some of the more amusing, honest and touching moments in the film.
With all this touchy-feely stuff going on, viewers may be relieved to know there are still a few baddies to keep things dark. Notably, Benedict Cumberbatch, star of TV, stage and silver screen, appears as the (inevitably?) British-voiced villain, John Harrison. Cumberbatch would be a revelation if we didn’t already know he is incredible in everything he does, but it seems Abrams came late to the BC fan club, having a tape of Sherlock sent to him by his producer. Once he had watched it, however, the director knew he’d seen a star. “He’s off the charts”, Abrams enthuses. “He is so talented, and his work ethic I respect so much…His being around, everyone just had a slightly straighter back – it was amazing, you feel it, he’s like an alpha thespian, he comes in and you’re like “whoa”. He elevated every moment”.
Far from Hollywood-speak hyperbole, Abrams is right – Cumberbatch is utterly captivating, delivering a punch to what is already a terrific blockbuster adventure of the highest order. J. J. Abrams clearly takes his work seriously, and we can be glad he knows how to follow-up a hit with a wallop.
At the end of our interview, Quinto apologised yet again for being snuffly so to put him at ease I told them both about Brandon Cronenberg’s new movie Antiviral, where in a not-too-distant future celebrity culture has gone so mad that fans purchase and are willingly infected with a celebrity’s illness. Both livened up on hearing this, and found it a fascinating conceit. I felt pretty chuffed to be able to tell people in the film industry about a movie they should see.
Nearly two weeks later, I’m still battling a cold.