Interview with actor and producer Zachary Quinto
Photography by Nicholas Prakas. Styling by Benjamin Sturgill. Images seen in the issue “Are You There Alone”
My first encounter with Zachary Quinto was, in fact, a very physical one. I was an undergraduate at Harvard University when he was in the American Repertory Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie, and my roommate and I would snap photos of him when we saw him walking around Cambridge. It was a game of cat-and-mouse that, of course, Quinto was not privy to, but, I like to think that he’d be flattered to know about it after all these years.
Always one for follow-through, I got a ticket to the show and went by myself. The experience transcended infatuation, as I had always had a passion for Tennessee Williams since I saw the 1995 TV movie of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Jessica Lange, as well as the 1973 film adaptation of The Glass Menagerie with Katharine Hepburn and a dashing young Sam Waterston. I always felt a strange attraction to Laura Wingfield’s painful shyness, her collection of oddities, and her heart-wrenching betrayal by both her brother and the man she loves from afar. I remember watching The Glass Menagerie with my mother and crying hysterically when Laura’s favorite figurine, a unicorn, falls off the table and is left without a horn. That Williams would base Laura on his sister, Rose, whose insanity led their mother to have her lobotomized, always seemed to me to be the most desperately poignant moment in American drama – a moment that transcends gayness and taps into a universal longing for familial and romantic love. Williams moreover based Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, on his own experience with beloved Rose’s schizophrenia, making Quinto’s flawless embodiment of the role all the more impressive and compelling. In Williams’s notes on Tom, he wrote, “To escape from a trap, he has to act without pity.”
Quinto is able to create a potent emotional resonance with every character he tackles. Even when he seems to act without pity as the sexy, homicidal Dr. Oliver Thredson in American Horror Story: Asylum, we find ourselves (perversely, perhaps) sympathetic to his desperate and impossible need for a moment’s contact with his mother’s skin. Quinto has also brought a newfound emotional resonance to the deceptively one-dimensional Spock, who might otherwise be played with a staid reliance on tradition. After finishing his current run off-Broadway in Smokefall at the MCC Theatre in New York, Quinto will once again explode onto the scene with the premiere of Star Trek Beyond this July and Snowden in September. I chatted with Quinto about his multifaceted sources of inspiration, while suppressing the urge to devolve into uninhibited apple-polishing.
WS: Your performance in The Glass Menagerie was truly one of the best things I have seen in my short life. I’m going to try not to be a fan boy, but I can only do so much!
ZQ: Thanks! [Laughter]
WS: I realized when I was thinking about this interview that there might be a connection between Laura’s glass menagerie and the life of a Trekkie. I was never into Star Trek, but I have seen every episode of The X-Files, and when you’re into stuff like that you collect shit, and it means something to you that looks strange from the outside, but it is so intensely meaningful to you nevertheless.
ZQ: It’s definitely an important thing for fans of the franchise and its multiple iterations, but I never had that kind of infatuation or fanaticism with pop culture. For Laura, it’s an escape, so maybe that’s what it is for other people as well.
WS: Well, what are you fanatical about?
ZQ: Oooh! [Laughter] In my life, what am I fanatical about? I like creativity. I like good theater and good television, but I don’t stay particularly attached to things.
WS: Maybe that’s why you’re good at playing so many different kinds of characters.
ZQ: Yeah, I try to use as much of my own experience when I am playing different parts. Wow, there’s some action outside my building. [Sirens blaring on the phone] Do you hear that?
WS: At least it’s not you!
ZQ: Totally, where were we?
WS: It just came to me that you are very skilled at playing characters that are fanatical, even though you yourself might not be.
ZQ: Interesting. Some of my characters have indeed been obsessive or fixated or unduly ambitious, but I don’t know where it comes from.
WS: An artist doesn’t always have to know. The magic just happens!
ZQ: [Laughter] Sure!
WS: Getting back to my favorite of your characters, if you were Tom Wingfield, what movie would you see when you want to escape your mother’s house?
ZQ: I’ve been reexamining my relationship to movies lately. I’ve been trying to watch more and see things that I haven’t seen. The most exciting or inspiring films for me are from any time after, say, the 1970s. I fell in love with film from a certain time and that’s where I derive my inspiration. I would probably go see something from the classic era, the generation of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Meryl Streep. Those were the films that, when I was growing up, allowed me to get lost in cinema. If The Glass Menagerie were about me, I would go out to see those films, but now you don’t have to leave your house.
WS: Has your unicorn ever been broken like Laura’s?
ZQ: That’s pretty bleak. I feel fortunate that I didn’t have as many cards stacked against me as she does. I was never as vulnerable as she is, but certainly we all get disappointed in our lives as we evolve, don’t we? It’s part of our journey.
WS: If you were Tom, would you have told Laura to blow out her candle, and is the world indeed “lit by lightning” as he muses at the end of the play?
ZQ: I think our world is increasingly lit by lightning. Nothing stays for long these days, right? There’s such a lack of depth of experience and substance in our modern day society. You have to look for ways to unplug from the distractions that we have all folded into our daily lives as we search for truth or a revelation internally. Tennessee Williams struggled his entire life with his sense of abandonment in relation to his sister Rose. I can’t imagine how difficult that would be, but at the same time I think he knew that he pursued something that would serve a purpose bigger than himself. He was true to that, and as a result we have these epic masterworks of theater and many volumes of writing in which he is trying to work this stuff out. Your question is more about Tennessee than it could ever be about me. That’s the journey he took as an artist – how to get over those feelings of guilt and regret.
WS: You’re also in a production of Smokefall while you prepare for the release of your new films. I’m wondering what the stage requires of you that the screen does not and vice versa.
ZQ: Being onstage requires a sense of discipline that comes from routine – showing up every day at the same time, rehearsing in a specific way, telling the story from the beginning to the middle to the end. It requires its own kind of stamina, and the lessons that come out of it are unique. With film and television, the energy is different. You are on-set for many, many hours at a time and you’re not necessarily always working on-set. There’s a lot of waiting around. You have to cultivate a sense of patience and a connection to your character that is able to sustain you. In your work as an actor, you have to stay connected to the journey of your character because oftentimes you are shooting out-of-sequence and beginning with the end of the movie or ending with the beginning. You have to track the journey of your character more than when you are doing a play, where you step on stage, the lights go up, and then you leave when it is over. Sharing the experience with the audience when you’re doing theater is also something unique and specific to that art form. It’s very rewarding, because I get a strong sense of my origins when I am onstage, since that is where I started.
WS: Even in this really short chat, it’s become clear that your approach to acting is simultaneously intellectual and introspective and emotional. How have you tapped into this unique mindset in your upcoming films?
ZQ: Every part is different – a different process and a different experience. I try to, as much as I can, be in the moment, as they say. As you mentioned, I’m in a new play, and it is my challenge and responsibility to serve this play as it is evolving and as we are evolving with it. It’s been a really interesting process. Beyond that, I’m taking a break and laying low for a bit. I have no immediate work plans right now and I’m really looking forward to some down time.
Art Editor – William J. Simmons
Photography by Nicholas Prakas. Styling by Benjamin Sturgill. Grooming by Asia Geiger. Photo Assistant Lauren Silberman. Flowers by Nicolas Cogrel
styling in order of appearance: jacket and shirt Christopher Kane, trousers Neil Barrett / total look Dior Homme / total look Dior Homme.