Anton Yelchin interview: 'His zest and love of movies were immediately apparent'

The up-and-coming actor died tragically at the weekend. Kaleem Aftab met him while he was promoting ‘Green Room’ and during production of the forthcoming ‘Star Trek Beyond’

Kaleem Aftab
Monday 20 June 2016 14:30
A leading light: Anton Yelchin
A leading light: Anton Yelchin

Anton Yelchin died in tragic circumstances on Sunday at the age of 27. A freak accident led to the actor being crushed between his car and mailbox on his driveway in Los Angeles. The actor was a leading light of his generation and is probably best known for playing Pavel Chekov in the recent Star Trek reboots, a role made famous by Walter Koenig.

I met the actor while he was promoting Green Room and during production of the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond. His zest and love of movies were immediately apparent as was the happiness he got from working in the profession that he loved.

In Green Room, his co-star was Patrick Stewart, who also had his fame catapulted by the Star Trek universe, when he appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Captain Picard, a role credited with resurrecting the franchise.

Co-stars Anton Yelchin (right) and Patrick Stewart at a Los Angeles screening of the film ‘Green Room’ (David Buchan/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock)

Yelchin first met Stewart at an event soon after he was cast in JJ Abrams’s reboot of the original characters. As the young actor chatted to me about the moment, his humour shone through, as did the sense that the celebrity side to Hollywood was hard for him to tune into. “We didn’t talk about Star Trek,” he said. “We met somewhere at a party. He’s such a gracious man that I don’t even know if he’ll remember this meeting, some people were, like, oh you guys should talk, it was incredibly awkward. It’s like a funny thing, what do you say to each other? Oh, look at how nice you are in your uniform.”

In Green Room, about a punk band who are booked in to play a concert at an Oregon roadhouse for white supremacists, they are quite literally on the opposite side of the door, with Yelchin as a punk bassist and Stewart gunning for him as a Neo-Nazi nut job.

“There is something fascinating about acting with someone who is behind a door,” said Yelchin. “Normally as an actor, you are studying someone’s body language, but here, all you have is their voice. I remember having meltdowns, his voice is so terrifying.”

It was a joy for Yelchin to land the role because it allowed him to indulge in his other passion, music. Yelchin jumped for joy when Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier approached him to become part of the on-screen punk band The Ain’t Rights, who are inspired by bands such as American punk horror outfit Misfits and Seventies Washington DC hardcore punk group Bad Brain. These are groups that inspired The Hammerheads, Yelchin’s punk band, in which he was a guitarist. “You don’t even need to play an instrument if you are in a punk band," he said. “I’m not very good at guitar, but I can play fast, sloppy songs and have a good time.”

Although The Hammerheads had disbanded when we met, he still had musical ambitions: “I would love to go to just play in Japan. I want to make a demo record in my garage, with only nine or 10 songs and play it in Japan. I love Japanese bands. I feel like there is a sense of the things that I like in Japan.” Yelchin then reeled off a list of obscure Japanese bands as if they were as recognisable as Stephen Spielberg movies. His interests in music and movies were not the mainstream, and he had a passion for discovery.

Yelchin saw the themes of Green Room as striking a chord with the moment when he chose acting over music: “The thing that I most felt when talking to Jeremy about the film is that he said the film is like him saying goodbye to a part of his life, his youth. Saying goodbye and having it come in this form, where he is losing his band mates and his best friends. That is really heartbreaking to me. I could feel that melancholy and sadness.”

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Yelchin was too young to remember his parents leaving Leningrad, where he was born. “They are figure skaters who loved movies,” he says of them. And it was movies rather than figure skating that they pushed him to pursue. “My parents built this wonderful background for me. They believed that if I wanted to be in films, so from a young age they had me watch Kubrick, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Fellini and Antonioni.”

One of the joys of talking to the actor was that he is so erudite about movies. He spoke passionately about the Romanian New Wave. But not everything was art-house or high-brow: “I also watched Emmanuelle a lot, when I was younger. I was so sad when she [lead actor Sylvia Kristel] passed away. That movie has influenced all the sexual fetishes that I have, whenever I think, ‘why am I into this?’ Then I remember, ‘oh, it’s because of Emmanuelle.’”

Raised in California, he started acting when he was nine. It was in 2007 that he made his international breakthrough in Alpha Dog, based on the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Then in 2009 came the date with Star Trek.

The third installment of the series reboot, Star Trek Beyond will be hitting our screens shortly, and is scripted by British comic Simon Pegg, who also stars as Scotty. Yelchin joked of his co-star, “I think the decision to pick Simon is really funny and smart. But in every single rewrite Scotty’s role is getting bigger and bigger.”

JJ Abrams, who directed Yelchin in two Star Trek films, led the tributes to Yelchin, writing: “Anton, you were kind. You were funny as hell, and supremely talented. And you weren’t here nearly long enough.” When Abrams decided to hand over the directing reins of the third Star Trek to Justin Lin of The Fast and the Furious fame, Yelchin didn’t question the decision, such was his respect of Abrams. “I really trust JJ. He would not put someone on the film arbitrarily.”

The Star Trek films were the anomaly in a career where his best performances were usually reserved for more edgy, independent fare, such as the excellent 2011 relationship drama Like Crazy, in which he played Felicity Jones’s love interest. He says, “I’m not a big sci-fi guy. I was a Spaceballs guy, growing up.”

An acting ambition he did harbour, but will never get to fulfill, is to act on stage. “I think I would love to, at one stage, to challenge myself to go on stage. I don’t know enough about theatre. Even when I read plays, the way I envisage the story is always as a film. I really love film. I would be a fool to slight theatre in any way, it’s just that I’ve grown up not going to the theatre, and going to the movies. There is not much of a theatre scene in LA.”

‘Star Trek Beyond’ will be in cinemas on 22 July; ‘Green Room’ will be out on DVD on 12 September

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