Ask any hardcore science fiction fan, especially one who was around before Star Wars – sci-fi is about weighty ideas and surreptitious comments on the state of society, not lightsabres and alien cantinas.
And one of the weightiest was TV’s Star Trek, which addressed themes from interracial relationships to third world exploitation amid the catchphrases and plywood sets. So there’s a sweet irony to the fact that the director most deserving of the mantle of later sci-fi (the ray guns and aliens type) revitalised Trek so thrillingly in 2009’s reboot.
But JJ Abrams – since named as the custodian of another famed science fiction saga – did something no science fiction movie has done for a long time. When even superheroes movies are dark treatises on loneliness, unbelonging and death, Abrams made Star Trek fun.
Like all the best movies – not just sci-fi – he remembered to make the 2009 blockbuster about people – specifically, on two friends finding their dynamic. So when TimeOut sat down with star Zachary Quinto in Los Angeles, we were keen to ask what the theme is this time.
“Spock’s learning the lesson of how to be a friend,” he says of his character. “He’s confronted with a series of situations that are rooted in emotional depth. Because of his sensitivity and intelligence he has no choice but to absorb that a little bit, and I think it has a natural softening effect.”
Spock must soften later in the movie, then. The night before, international press had been treated to a few opening minutes from Star Trek Into Darkness. As Kirk and Bones try to escape through the forest of an alien planet, pursued by the primitive locals, Spock airdrops into a nearby volcano to try and avert planetary catastrophe.
When Spock’s tether breaks and he finds himself stranded, he quite calmly orders the rest of the crew to collect Kirk and McCoy and get to a safe distance, leaving him. “Spock is committed to the rules, even to the point where he’s willing to sacrifice his life,” is how Quinto puts it.
It’s a position the 35-year-old actor must be the furthest from at the moment. Since rising to stardom in TV’s Heroes, he was personally chosen by Abrams to play pop culture’s most famous Vulcan, the casting blessed by original Spock Leonard Nimoy. 2009’s Star Trek was a smash, and critical acclaim followed in 2011’s taut financial thriller Margin Call.
Then in October 2011, he publicly came out of the closet to the world. The decision wasn’t rehearsed, cleared with his people or planned. He decided the night before to do so in an interview with New York magazine. Even though his family had known for a long time, Quinto said the decision was affected by a prominent suicide case in the US, where a gay teenager had taken his own life after protracted bullying.
Today he’s out and proud and in hindsight, one wonders if there wasn’t more to the role of Spock than there initially appeared. He’s the only true alien of the Enterprise crew, after all – an outsider if ever there was one. Did Quinto relate, even though nobody else knew?
“No, I don’t think it has anything to do with it,” he says. But he does mention the fact that Star trek is the ultimate statement for racial, gender and minority group diversity. “This franchise is built on a foundation of inclusiveness and camaraderie and acceptance and working together for the greater good,” he says.
We’re reminded once again of Abrams approach to his movies – the man knows that good old-fashioned fun is not a dirty word in Hollywood. That in turn reminds us of a time when Hollywood stars were aspirational clothes horses to read lines and then be seen and not heard. Does Quinto think his passion for his cause might be drowned out in today’s world where every celebrity is a walking political platform?
“Whether it’s in the work I do as an actor or my activist self or my political self, it’s something that I aspire to and want to encourage,” he responds. “I think all of us in this industry can encourage dialogue and discourse about socially and politically relevant topics. It’s incumbent upon us to do it to a certain extent.
“It’s really interesting when actors, directors or people in the public eye take flack for adopting a position. As citizens of the world we have a responsibility to ourselves and one another to engage each other in conversations about what direction we’re going in collectively.
“It’s a right and a responsibility to talk to one another and just because I can talk to more people at any given time, doesn’t make it any less important or less appropriate for me to do it.”