Zachary Quinto: Star Man

9.12.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

He's played superheroes and pointy-eared space travelers, and would die to step into transgender rock star Hedwig's knee-high leather boots, but Zachary Quinto's greatest role is just beginning.

It may also have been the moment when Quinto, who had grown up an archetypal Catholic kid -- an altar boy, choir boy, all-round goody two-shoes -- began to shift his devotion from the church to the theater. He recalls learning to mimic people as a way of learning how to respond to his father’s death. A few years later, in fourth grade -- when he was getting his first inkling that he might be gay, “a little awareness that I staved off at the time” -- his music teacher, Miss Smith, sent him home with a note for his mom. It contained a newspaper clipping promoting auditions for a performance group associated with Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. “It was like a singing and dancing group for kids, so my mom, looking for an outlet for me, was, like, ‘Let’s see,’ and I was, like, ‘I want to do it,’ ” he says.

At the audition -- “comprised of kids who had done, like, every production of Oliver! in a professional theater in Pittsburgh” -- he sang “America the Beautiful.” “I think they were so gob-smacked that I was so clueless,” he says. “They were, like, ‘Great job, do you want to come back and do a song from Broadway next week?’ ” Quinto returned, sang “Consider Yourself,” and scored the part of a munchkin in that summer’s Civic Light Opera production of The Wizard of Oz.

From Munchkin to Vulcan is a long journey, and there were times when Quinto wasn’t sure he would find the breaks to match the scale of his ambition. He remembers hitting 27 and feeling his certainties fall away. An amateur astrologer, he attributes his crisis of self-doubt to the return of Saturn, a harbinger of change and disruption, but says it was likely compounded by his tendency to mistake impatience for ambition.

“I had gone without working in years, and I was really, just, down,” he says. A role as a gay Iranian-American in Tori Spelling’s So NoTORIous showed promise, but the series was cancelled after 10 episodes. Then, as he approached his 30th birthday, several things happened in quick succession: he got a call-back for a role on a new NBC show, Heroes, that was blowing up; and, days after his 30th birthday, he scored a career-defining role as Spock in J. J.Abrams’s Star Trek reboot.

For millions of Americans, Quinto was being entrusted with one of sci-fi’s most cherished icons. He didn’t let them down. Quinto’s performance as Spock was pitch-perfect, almost uncanny, with unexpected grace notes of fallibility. A global smash for Paramount, Star Trek gave new life to the 40-year-old franchise and propelled Quinto into the first rank of celebrity. A highly anticipated sequel, set to open next May, wrapped this summer. Quinto says the new movie is more physically challenging than the last, although one suspects that Spock’s stunted emotional range could feel limiting for an actor of Quinto’s expressiveness.

“Tell me about it, man,” he sighs. “Whereas other actors will be doing scenes, and will be given, like, 25 takes, after I do five takes with that character, it’s, ‘OK.’ ” He claps his hands with finality.

 

SLIDESHOW: EXCLUSIVE IMAGES OF ZACHARY QUINTO

One unexpected and happy consequence of playing Spock has been Quinto’s relationship with Leonard Nimoy, who had a cameo in the 2009 film. “I have such deep admiration and love for him,” Quinto says. “He’s an incredible man, and I’m so grateful that not only did I have this amazing creative experience, but that I developed this relationship with Leonard and his wife, Susan -- we go to dinner, we hang out, we go to the theater, we spend time together.”

There’s something endearing in the specter of Spock the Elder taking Spock the Younger under his wing, and I’m reminded of a line in Star Trek, when Nimoy offers his young doppelgänger the sage advice to “put away logic, do what feels right.” It sounds like the kind of dictum that Quinto has taken to heart, both as an activist stumping for Obama’s re-election and as an actor who is making increasingly interesting and eclectic choices.

As a young trader in last year’s Margin Call, the absorbing, claustrophobic ensemble thriller about the banking crisis, starring Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons that Quinto produced and helped cast, he showed a flair for the kind of quiet understatement and internal conflict that distinguishes a subtle performance from an overwrought one.

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