Science-fiction fans can get touchy when you mess with their icons — and few characters are as iconic as Star Trek's Spock. The half-human, half-Vulcan character was played by Leonard Nimoy in both the short-lived original series and the series of movies that eventually followed, and when director J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009, fans worried about how he would handle Spock.
With the second Star Trek film out now, those worries are long gone. That's thanks largely to actor Zachary Quinto, who plays the famously rational bridge officer — with the blessing of his predecessor, who's since become a fast friend.
Quinto joins NPR's Audie Cornish to talk about his relationship with Nimoy, his Spock-ified eyebrows and why he went public about his personal life not long ago.
On whether it's easier to play Spock the second time
"It's more familiar the second time around, obviously. We have a great camaraderie among the cast, and we all came back together with a lot of enthusiasm. And it had been four years, so I think we were all ready to come back to it as well."
On whether he imagined a chorus of Trek fans waiting to judge his first performance
"I tried to avoid that cacophony. ... J.J. did such a great job bringing us all together and laying down the mandate that we were expected to really create these roles from our own perspectives. And I think that ... the fans were really supportive of that, and they really got behind the first movie and have built with the anticipation for the second one, which is great."
On befriending Nimoy and starring in a car commercial together
"He was in the first movie, and he had some consultation with J.J. when J.J. was casting the movie. So he was very supportive from the beginning, and we became incredibly good friends. And that Audi commercial that we did was really just an excuse for us to get together and have fun. I didn't even know how funny he was going to be in it, but he blows me away all the time. He's so full of surprises, which is very refreshing."
On handling fame and whether an iconic role comes with baggage
"A little, although times have changed. You know, I think when Leonard was originating this character, it was a bit of a different climate in terms of the entertainment industry. And attention spans have shortened, so I think there's a little bit less fanaticism. Or at least it's changed — it's sort of shifted online, and I can avoid it in a lot of ways.
"I think the way that Leonard has lived his life is really exemplary in that way. He's never allowed it to intrude on his personal experience, and that's something that I've always tried to maintain."
On Spock's physicality, and how makeup artists create those 'drawn-on old-lady' eyebrows
"They're not drawn on, actually; they are individually glued hairs on my forehead. I shave about three-quarters of my prominent eyebrows off my face when I'm doing the role. It's not a good look. It is not a good look.
"And then the incredible makeup team, they extend my eyebrows on the up angle. So it's an involved process. But that bonds us, and is a big part of my relationship with the character — because it gives me about three hours every morning to get into the mindset. And it actually helps me, in almost a meditative sort of way. Sometimes. When I'm not sleeping."
On playing a character who doesn't do a lot of emoting
"[Spock] has a wider range of emotion in this film. The first film, in a lot of ways, was about, for Spock, grappling with his humanity. And in this film I think it's about accepting it. And rising up and allowing himself to be vulnerable, and to be witnessed in that vulnerability, and learning how to be accountable to the people that he loves and cares about and is responsible for. And then again there is this meditative depth that he occupies and that he contains, and I think that's part of his duality as well.
"And so it really is about creating a well that I can go into, rather than express, in a way. Aand it's sort of counterintuitive for an actor, on some levels, although I feel like it strengthens and deepens an inner life which serves me in other ways. And I'm constantly seeking opportunities to break out of that and do other things. And, you know, I go back onstage — I'm about to do a play again in New York [The Glass Menagerie on Broadway]. I've never done a play on Broadway before."
On whether Hollywood is still hostile to gay actors
"I feel like work didn't slow down [after he came out two years ago]. ... I guess on some levels [that perception] still exists in people's minds, but I also feel like that is changing. And it needs to change more, and the only way that it will change is for people to take responsibility and be visible in this way. It's about visibility.
"I don't imagine that there's anybody that's going to say, 'I don't want to work with this person because they're openly gay.' But, you know ... it comes back to the corporatized studio structure, which has its own set of rules, and historically there haven't been openly gay movie stars. There haven't certainly been openly gay action stars, and I feel like that's only a matter of time until it changes. And anybody that sees Star Trek: Into Darkness can identify that in terms of the work that I'm doing in that movie.
"I don't take any kind of credit for this, other than to say I reached a point when I had to be authentically open in a public way. For myself, for the young kids that are killing themselves and being bullied because of who they are, I felt it incumbent upon myself to stand up and make a declaration because of all of those things.
"But I don't know. There are so many people that came before me, that suffered more, that felt more limited than I ever would even if I didn't come out — that I give the credit to those people for paving the way that allows me to live that life that I'm living right now, for sure."