Chris, could you just talk about your own relationship with ‘Star Trek’ because you were born way after the TV show?
Way after the TV show. Growing up there were re-runs on television and I’d watch those occasionally. And my grandmother was a big William Shatner fan so we’d watch ‘T.J. Hooker’ and old ‘Star Trek’ episodes. So it was on my radar but I wasn’t a fan.
Have you met Shatner?
I have not. I wrote him a letter early on in the process and just introduced myself. I just wanted to let him know that I was going to do my best to bring to life this part of Kirk’s journey and do justice to the wonderful job that he had done for 40 years. And he wrote me back very promptly and said, “Thank you so much.” “I wish you all the best of luck and let’s grab some lunch some time soon” which we have not but he’s a busy guy. Actually my father, who’s also an actor, did a Priceline commercial with him about two or three weeks after I found out I had the part; so ironic, strange. And he’d also been on ‘Star Trek’ too, my father.
For someone who has never seen ‘Star Trek’, how would you describe James T Kirk?
James Kirk is angry, arrogant, brash young punk who is masking an incredible amount of insecurity and fear. He came from a broken home and is searching for something to do with his life. It is clear what he wants but he also isn’t sure if he wants to contend with the great shadow his father has cast over him. The interesting part of the journey is his learning how to harness all of the emotions born from this conflict, from this misguided young man into the focused confident commander that he later becomes. He is no superhero but rather an everyday kinda guy faced with a tremendous challenge. And even though he gets beat down he always picks himself up again.
How did it feel to be in this huge big adventure?
I’m very excited and I have all the confidence in the world that it’s going to appeal to fans and non-fans alike. It’s overwhelming and its totally daunting but the great thing about J.J. making it is I don’t think any of us ever felt the pressure on set to live up to any kind of expectations. Even though it is like 150 million dollars and it’s this mega, mega, mega tent pole film, he was always concentrated first and foremost on the relationships between the characters and making sure that those were meaningful because he realized that without meaningful relationships, all the effects in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans.
But as actors sometimes its interesting not only what they say yes to but what they say no to versus how fate works out. I think we actually talked about this before, that you were about to do this George Clooney movie too and it was which one are you going to do and the offers were coming in and for whatever reason you chose to do ‘Star Trek’ and the George Clooney movie fell apart.
Yeah, right. It was like the best times and the worst of times. That one week I happened to have the opportunity to work with George Clooney or do ‘Star Trek’. I mean in a matter of a day my world had completely changed and it was a difficult choice with which I was faced. I mean here I love Joe Carnahan who was going to do ‘White Jazz’ and the prospect of working with George Clooney was awesome.
So why ‘Star Trek’? Why was that?
Because in that week I really tried to do my due diligence and figure out what was more meaningful to me. On the surface my inclination is naturally to go to Carnahan and do the character part because I get to play this incredibly strange person. I mean this guy’s a psychopathic latently homosexual homicidal maniac.
This is the James Elroy movie?
Just like awesome. It was just a great role. And then the James Kirk thing came to me, which on the surface is like the classic leading man and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that. But really upon looking at it further, I felt like for me that was actually the more challenging role. It was actually safer to hide behind the make-up and do all that fun ‘character’ stuff. The challenges posed by playing James Kirk, by the prospect of doing a big budget movie, by all the pressure, by the fact that I’d be facing all this scrutiny, I mean not really pleasurable things to think about but it also made it exciting. It’s like high stakes poker or something. It’s like you can either win really big or you can lose really big but that ride is really fun. It’s the drug you know. It’s really fun.
Was it difficult to get the role in ‘Star Trek’ the audition process?
I auditioned once in the spring of ’07 and had the worst audition you could ever ask for, and didn’t think anything about it, and just thought another audition that went down the drain. It was fine. I was then asked to come audition for it after the summer and had no interest in going back in again but my agents said you should probably meet J.J. which was the smart move clearly because J.J.’s reputation in the business is held in pretty high standing. So I went and met J.J. For anyone that knows, the audition process sucks. You go in and it’s like they either like you or they don’t. Period. Your forehead’s too big or you’re not this or that or whatever it is. You could tell immediately in the room that J.J. was a great guy. And he is passionate, and positive, and fun, and likes to make movies. He’s really just a great guy. And I auditioned with a couple of scenes and then he threw the sides down, and pushed the chair away, and we started improvising. When J.J. gets really excited he’s like a big eight-year-old kid. It’s so fun to be around people that love what they do, it’s just intoxicating.
Why do you think you did so badly in the first audition?
Who knows? I was doing a play at the time. My energy was focused elsewhere. It’s difficult. It’s not brain science but when you’re asked to talk about photons and torpedoes, just to get a sense of reality of doing that is hard sometimes if you’re not focused and ready to do it. It’s like I auditioned for ‘Avatar’ and for ‘10,000 B.C.’ and it’s when you’re like in a hot room in Burbank and you’re asked to crouch on a seat and pretend you have a loincloth and a spear, sometimes you can either buy yourself doing it or not. I just didn’t at all.
The whole essence of sci-fi is dealing with things that really aren’t there. How easy is it for you as an actor to access all of that?
Well it’s one thing when it’s a hot stuffy room in Burbank and it’s a different thing entirely when you’re on a ten million dollar stage with the best looking set of all time and great actors. I mean then its just cake. Its action and then, boom, you’re in it.
But the stuff where you’re supposed to be beamed from one place to another and you’re supposed to do all this other stuff?
It’s very interesting how the imagination works. It’s like once you just let go, you do just that-you let go. But that’s not to say that after a really long day and you’re doing some intense scene, and I’d be looking at Zach and here he is with his bowl hair cut and pointy ears and yeah, sometimes it’d be a little ridiculous. But for the most part, I know it’s so trite, but it’s like being a big kid in a really big expensive playground and your imagination just says yeah, let’s do it.
Do you think the show really lasted because of the milieu it was set in? Outer space is still the last great mystery.
What made it interesting and so brilliant about the original series is that because it was in outer space, they could take liberties with class, race and investigate questions that couldn’t have been tackled had it been set in, let’s say, Manhattan at the time. During civil and social unrest and an unpopular war, this show created this utopian soceity where everyone works together In this future state. The enemy weren’t the Russians or the Viet Cong. It was the Romulans and the Klingons. The setting of outer space allowed them to investigate issues that they couldn’t have done. Now with more unrest, economic downturn and wars, this film is another vision of the future that shows hope. It is a wonderful escape and a wonderful vision of humanity.
Have you ever stopped to really comprehend the phenomenon that has become ‘Star Trek’? Outside of James Bond, I cannot think of any film characters that have lasted as long.
I didn’t grasp the epic scale of the fan base and sense of protectiveness that the fans have until I started watching the series. I still don’t quite understand it. When we went to WonderCon, I saw people dressed as characters of the show and I think for these people, the show presents, clearly, this opportunity of escape. There is this strong, strong sense of community.
What are they saying about you?
It runs the gamut. They are very protective of the people who created the show and, look, I would be wary of this 28-year-old kid coming aboard. I want to do this job well and add to what is already there. I am taking nothing away from William Shatner. I am merely telling one specific part of this character’s journey.
Unlike superhero characters, these people have no super human abilities. They do get to rely on high technology to help them but they still have to face each other in usually very humanistic terms.
That is a great point. What is appealing to people is that you are not watching Batman or Superman, with their perfectly sculpted hero suits and cool gadgets. This is about the camaraderie amongst brothers who face life and death circumstances. Through all the turmoil and obstacles, you succeed triumphant only by working together. Just because it is set in the future, it is no different than, say, Band of Brothers.
When you first put on the uniform and you look in the mirror, do you remember what you thought?
I hope I don’t look like a jackass. No. The first thing I asked J.J., even before I got the part, I was like please don’t make me put on a stupid costume. But it wasn’t really putting on the outfit for the first time as much as being on set with everyone that was so cool. I remember the scene when I sat down in the captain’s chair. I’m not a diehard fan, so it doesn’t hold the same kind of… It’s not as sacrosanct for me as it is for someone else. But you can’t help but smile. It was a pretty big moment.
How did it feel to be looking at Zoe Saldana?
Not bad at all. Zoe, poor girl. It was like a fraternity on set between all the guys and then J.J. and all his producing partners. It was Animal House without the togas and keg stands. But Zoe is a strong woman so she knows how to handle herself around men and she’s a perfect combination of beauty and brains and great talent and we had a grand old time together.
There is a lot more sexual chemistry between Uhura and Kirk than other episodes of this saga have ever told.
There is an undercurrent. I don’t think it was any specific choice of JJ to shake up the canon of “Star Trek” folklore. I just think it makes a more interesting story when you add that dynamic. If you are stuck in space and there is a beautiful woman on deck, that certainly doesn’t mean your libido is going to die. We will see how it progresses if the films continue but there is a romantic component to this one, yes.
Zach said that because of his physical appearance, he didn’t feel comfortable in social situations and so he found himself socially beginning to withdraw and I was wondering if you noticed that in him and his character that over the course of time?
You know I didn’t but that’s really interesting. I had probably the easiest job in the book. I mean Kirk isn’t exactly reserved. Compared to Zach who’s got to take the spectrum of emotion and then just by nature of who he is as a character he has to suck it all in, in order to convey emotion. I don’t envy that position at all. And even J.J. was saying how when he’d cut together scenes, Zach would be doing stuff that he never saw while he was watching him do it on set. He would convey something just by a look or a blink of an eye. That’s a credit to how good Zach is. I mean that is a deceptively difficult part I think to do because people just think you have to look logical, calm, and collected and it’s not that at all. I think to make the character interesting you actually have to take all the breadth of emotion and just distill it.
But he had that advantage per say of the look of Spock then audiences immediately knew him. Were there characteristics of Kirk you could use, because you have this wealth of TV shows and the first six or seven films? Were there little mannerisms that you thought as an homage to add that or something?
Yeah, there was a conversation with J.J. about what bread crumbs to leave along the way and I think we came up with a couple things. And also when I got it I began watching the episodes and I think just by process of osmosis, just watching it, there were things that I just enjoyed about it. His performance in the original series is really interesting to watch because he’s operating on many different levels. The original series, there is a camp factor to it that’s very fun. It’s that same sense of humor that he brings to ‘Star Trek’ that you see him many years later, and clearly at more of an extreme level, bringing to “Boston Legal.’ I think that people sometimes may not appreciate the cpmplexity he brought to the original series because with their modern sensibilities can’t get over the cheesy effects. He was a Shakespearian actor so he’s bringing all of that projection, and carriage and presence to bear on the part. There’s a way he moves on the deck of the Enterprise, which is almost balletic and there are certain ways he sits in the captain’s chair that are so clearly, and have become so identifiably, Captain Krik. But in terms of making a list of Kirkian attributes, no, I didn’t do that. What I had to do was given to me in the script. The script gave me everything that I needed to play the part.
How physical was the role for you?
When I read the script, I would just kind of skim over the action stuff and get to the character stuff, and what I failed to realize is there’s like four pages that take about four seconds to skim through take about a month, month and a half to shoot the actual thing. I had no mental preparation for that. I had all the physical preparation where they gave us a trainer, and the best stunt guys in the business. I just wasn’t prepared for the fact that instead of twelve hours a day thinking about the love scene or the talky dialogue scene, it’s like a day of running pretending you’re being fired upon or being chased by something. I had no concept of that and I haven’t sweat that hard in a long time. But it was fun because it’s a different kind of Zen. When you’re using your body that way, like from that scene you saw in the bar, there are these big stunt guys who want to do a good job so they have their mean faces on. So when a big 200 pound Asian cat’s coming at you like with his arm drawn like this, it can be pretty scary. AMking sure you’re hitting your beats and taking good care of the choreography centers you in an incredible way. I did, however, end up breaking a stunt guy’s nose. These stunt guys are so tough. I accidentally broke his nose and it wasn’t like I really got him, it was just like a knuckle. And he goes off to the side with all the other stunt guys in this, like, fraternal huddle. They go off to the side and they get a cold spoon and they set it and he’s like “I’m back”, “I’m back”, and then there he is, he’s doing the scene again, no crying, no nothing. I can imagine it’s like what western stunt guys would’ve been.
Did you know at the time that you’d broken his nose?
Oh, I felt so bad. It was awful. I’ve never gotten into a fight in my life. I just felt awful but he was good sport and he was a good guy. Interestingly enough we got to talking because I took him outside and was like “Dude I was not trying to impress anybody in there, I just don’t know what I’m doing you know.” He comes from a long line of stunt guys too. I think he’s a third generation stunt guy so we were talking because I’m a third generation actor. It’s an industry town. We don’t make steel or coal we make movies. And that sense of history is very cool.
How specific do these fight scenes have to be?
That opening fight scene that is in the film took over two months to rehearse and two days to shoot. I was so bummed that after watching the film, it is only on screen for a minute, if that. You have to learn to turn your body on B line then throw a punch on C line. It is all very specific. I have way more respect now for the Tom Cruise’s and Jet Li’s who do action films. It is using a whole different muscle. I only had four of five big action sequences to do but I was exhausted. I cannot imagine what those other actors do it all action films. I really had to get in better shape and really work on the lungs so I could breathe through all the scenes. There were some moments when I was in the corner just trying to catch my breath (laugh).
How were you with the wirework and wind machines? The fight scene on the drill was impressive.
Well, I’m not going to tell you the magic of that because I know that J.J. wants to protect as much of the sleight of hand as possible. But even after watching it I’m blown away what the folks at ILM can do. It’s extraordinary what they can do. Between camera tricks and post production the magic you can create is ridiculous and I really hope they don’t in the behind the scenes show how they did everything. I think J.J. really wants to, as much as he can, protect the magic of film making is lost when they start bulking up the bonus packages on the dvd’s. It’s too bad, it really is.
What really is appealing about Kirk is his sense of humor. How much did that evolve in the filmmaking process and how much did you improvise on set allowing that to occur?
JJ wanted to invite fans in and it was important for him to strike the right tone. I think for those non fans, the skeptical critic, to be able to laugh with these characters also forces the guard down and I think makes it easier to go along with the ride.
How much did your vocabulary have to increase?
I had mouthfuls of military jargon. I just had to clamp down and and put on my best serious and urgent face.
As a third generation actor, were you ever not going to be an actor or was it just inevitable?
You know I wanted to be a baseball player. I wanted to be Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’. When I was a kid I wanted to be a garbage truck driver. Yeah, I think I was so close to it that it never entered my mind that I would actually do it. I remember visiting my dad on the set of ‘Quantum Leap’ because he had a guest star part and seeing Scott Bakula eating craft service and there went the magic of ‘Quantum Leap’. Going to the ‘Murder She Wrote’ set and there was no romance to it. It was work. So he’d come home, we’d all sit around the table and have dinner, and we’d talk about what happened on set just like a family of doctors would talk about a surgery or something. Then when I got to college I kind of got more into acting, and I just oddly enough found my way there on my own and realized that it was something that I was better at than anything else that I was trying to do with my life so I might as well give it a go. It’s odd how it happened I think.
What about your grandmother? What movies of hers have you seen?
Her IMDB list is like 120 films. She was a beauty pageant winner in Waco, Texas and she moved out to L.A. in the 30’s and got under contract at Universal. In fact the first that I did was at Universal I think on the same stage that she worked on in her career. She did the ‘Dick Tracy’ movies and serials and ‘Abbott and Costello’ movies, she played Michael Douglas’s mom once and the last thing that she did ‘Adam at 6:00 a.m.’ in 1964. She did television. She was all over the place. She worked with Lon Chaney Jr.
As a kid were you curious about her stories or not?
Unfortunately as I was kind of becoming an aware young adult, she’d had a stroke. She was out actually at the motion picture home that has recently, unfortunately, suffered a great deal financially and has resulted in the loss of their medical wing, a place where my grandma spent much of her time. But all I can say is what was wonderful about going out to the motion picture home, which is a retirement community for people that are in the business, is that you’re going out there and here’s my grandmother who was a B movies actress in the 30’s and 40’s and the gal in the next room was a costumer at Warner Brothers during the hay day of Warner Brothers. And then there was a script supervisor from MGM. I mean it’s a very cool thing. It was just a very cool thing. I don’t know what to say about it but she was a wonderful lady and I miss her a lot.