'Diversity is key' – Zachary Quinto on Star Trek and Snowden

Star trek Ent

When Zachary Quinto, who plays Mr Spock for the third time in Star Trek Beyond, visits London in the spring, we find ourselves in a strange position.

The movie is still three months from release and neither of us has seen it. Had it been ready in time, it would have been nice to ask him how this came to be the most melancholy entry so far in the rebooted franchise, what with Captain Kirk wrestling with ennui and daddy issues while Spock breaks off his relationship with Uhura due to an existential crisis. Why not just go the whole hog and call it Star Trek Manopause?

Detailed questions about its contents, though, can be neither asked nor answered on the morning we meet, while the revelation that Sulu is gay in the new film — which prompted the original Sulu, George Takei, to complain publicly about the screenwriters tinkering with the character’s back-story — is still some way off. So too is the death of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, who plays the perky Enterprise crew member Mr Chekov.

But there is already a disconcerting seriousness about the 39-year-old Quinto. It may be attributable to him having just made his first Star Trek movie without Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock, who died in February 2015. Or perhaps he is wondering what he is doing on a Sunday morning in a hotel room more than 3,000 miles from the Manhattan loft he shares with his partner, the model Miles McMillan, trying and failing to discuss a film that isn’t even finished yet. Or maybe he’s simply a sombre sort. There has always been a severity to his handsomeness: the unsmiling mouth, the thick, inky slashes of his eyebrows. He is dressed today in a charcoal grey jumper, black trousers and black boots, with an impressive galleon of black hair piled high. Framed against a vast black sofa, he seems at times to be nothing but a giant floating head.

The solemn air isn’t helped by his tendency to speak about his craft with a loftiness that would see any British counterpart quickly branded a “luvvie” – there are references to “journeys” and “emotional landscapes”. It should be remembered, though, that acting was his childhood sanctuary. His father, who was a barber, died from cancer when Quinto was seven years old, so it’s understandable that he would cling to its comforts and cliches. “When I discovered acting, it was a real refuge,” he says. “It made me feel supported. My whole friendship circle was built around performing.” He was born and raised in Pittsburgh and describes himself as a precocious child. “Probably if I met my teenage self now, I would really try to teach myself meditation. I had a lot of energy. I was all over the place. I thought I knew everything.”

One thing he didn’t know was whether he was gay. “The question of when I knew I was gay and when I accepted I was gay are two very different conversations. I suppose I knew what was going on. I just wasn’t ready to look at it.” I ask when that time came. “I don’t know.” He gives an unmistakable “This again?” sigh. “In college, I’d say. Once I broke free of the expectations of my upbringing, my socioeconomic exposure to …” He trails off. “I grew up with a pretty suburban, Catholic upbringing. I feel once I was able to create my own life and explore my own path … um … then I started to turn my attention to fully understanding and accepting who I am.”

That acceptance led him to come out publicly, and casually, in an interview in 2011, although he was already out to his friends and family. Three years later, Out magazine anointed him its “artist of the year”, an honour that some commentators thought he rather abused by using it as an opportunity to lambast the gay community for its “laziness”, “irresponsibility” and “tremendous sense of complacency” in being “much less fearful” today of the threat of HIV. In the ensuing fallout, Quinto wrote a Huffington Post column insisting he had been misconstrued, but that didn’t stop Mathew Rodriguez in Advocate likening his blame-mongering to Bill Cosby, who used to chastise young African-American men for wearing saggy jeans with their underwear exposed and behaving in a manner he perceived as apathetic.

I try to ask Quinto what he was like before he came out. Where did he look for gay role models? But it turns out he isn’t in the mood to talk about that today. While I’m speaking, he rises to his feet and pads over to the other side of the room to fetch a carafe of water, then takes his time about coming back so that I have to swivel round awkwardly to face him while I finish my question.

“I feel like – I guess I don’t – it’s interesting. I don’t know. I guess part of me feels like my sexuality is one aspect among many aspects of my personality and I’ve integrated it over time. It has never occupied for me a space where I needed to aspire to some other version of myself other than who I was. I denied it for so long that I didn’t really allow myself to … um … to fully inhabit that part of my life. I just … I don’t know.” He looks suddenly peeved. “I don’t even know why we’re talking about it so much.” I tell him I was merely asking if there were any representations of gayness that struck a chord. “I guess. I don’t know. I didn’t really ever … My experience of myself was not about that.”

Perhaps Spock is safer ground, conversationally speaking. What did it feel like making a Star Trek without Nimoy there to advise and support him? “It was important to me early on that we figure out how to acknowledge it in the story. Now that we’re without him I feel the legacy of the character and him becomes even more important.” He and Nimoy hit it off from the start. “Our conversations about the character started to be informed by our friendship and vice versa. The lines got blurry real quick. He talked to me about how playing Spock had affected his life. I don’t think he ever expected the role to be as defining as it was.”

Taking my cue from him, I mention that Nimoy never really escaped the character – he called his 1975 memoir I Am Not Spock, but 20 years later titled the followup I Am Spock. Quinto stiffens. “Leonard was a seeker,” he says, as though correcting me on a point of fact. “He was always curious and interested in humanity and his relationship to the culture at large. He was able to create a life for himself that wasn’t defined by that character but was very rich and diverse and well-rounded. We should all be so lucky.” I feel vaguely reprimanded and not a little confused.

Even Quinto can surely agree with me that the new Spock allows more room for manoeuvre. “My Spock, I feel, is always aware of his humanity and somehow in touch with it and a little bit OK with it, do you know what I mean? He’s still figuring himself out, or he was in the last movie. He’s got a bit more of a handle on it now. But it’s an interesting journey to play a character where you have to express quite a bit without being able to express very much.”

He looks unlikely to suffer from the same pigeonholing that Nimoy did. Before Quinto was cast in Star Trek, he was best-known as Sylar, a shape-shifting serial killer, in the NBC series Heroes. “Diversity is key, which is why I want 100% to cultivate opportunities for myself outside that genre. I was thrilled to have the chance to do Heroes and Star Trek but these are both highly stylised, science-fiction roles. I also make indie movies. I also do theatre. I do all these other things.” Under the heading of “other things” comes his production company, which has produced two JC Chandor dramas—Margin Call, which got to the financial crisis before The Big Short and featured Quinto among its starry cast, and the Robert Redford one-hander All Is Lost.

His work in two series of American Horror Story didn’t take him far from the fantasy genre, though he was a gas in the first as a gay homeowner murdered and turned into a kvetching ghost soon after moving into his swish new house; and sinister in the second as a sadistic doctor. But as if to prove how determined he is about putting some distance between himself and the sort of TV and movies that pack out Hall H at Comic-Con, he will next be seen in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, in which he plays Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist who brought Edward Snowden’s NSA whistle-blowing to the world. He didn’t meet Greenwald—“Glenn has his book, Nowhere to Hide, set up as a [movie] project, too, and I wanted to respect that”– but he enthuses about his work.

“I found his intellect and his journalistic point of view really informative. To me that was the engine of this story. He’s so fucking exciting. In the film, Glenn’s really fighting for the integrity of the journalistic process.” Fighting is also synonymous with Stone, who has been known to clash with his actors. Quinto laughs knowingly. “I would say he’s mellowed. He has a much calmer perspective on things now than the stories of his past might suggest.”

Calm seems to have settled in Quinto’s life, too, if paparazzi snaps of him and McMillan smooching and shopping and walking their dogs are anything to go by. How must it feel to venture online and see your most footling errands documented? “It’s weird. If people wanna take pictures of me picking up my dog’s shit, that’s up to them. I’m really happy and grateful for all the opportunities and experiences I’ve had on this journey so far and if that means some creepy dude is going to stand across the street and take pictures of me, well, then that’s fine.” On his birthday six weeks later, he posts a long-lens picture of himself and McMillan to celebrate “an incredible day full of gratitude and creativity and love”. Even creepy dudes, it transpires, have their uses.

He tells me he is relieved to have grown up before the internet and mobile phones were the dominant forms of communication. “I’m much saner and probably better adjusted than I would have been had I had the technology as a kid. We’re more fractured as a society than we’ve ever been. We carry these devices round in our pockets and stare at them every 30 seconds. It’s a slippery slope.” Hmm. Quinto and McMillan’s combined 800,000 Instagram followers, who comment excitedly on the pictures the couple post of themselves in bed or in the bath or blowing out their birthday candles, may feel very differently about this. If we were able to ask Spock, he might even consider the contradiction highly illogical.

Star Trek Beyond is released tomorrow.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ryan Gilbey, for The Guardian on Thursday 21st July 2016 17.48 Europe/London

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