Playing serial killer Sylar on Heroes and Spock in Star Trek, Zachary Quinto invested two potentially soulless roles with head-turning depth. This week sees the premiere of Margin Call, an independent thriller about the financial crisis that he stars in and co-produced. Benjamin Wallace talked to him about the serendipitous timing of a fi-cri movie dropping at the same time as the Occupy Wall Street protest, and how starring in a revival of Angels in America impacted him "as a gay man."
Do you think you'll pay a visit to Occupy Wall Street while you’re here in New York?
Yeah, for sure. I'm really interested in going to the 9/11 Memorial, which I haven't been to yet since it opened, and I'm really interested in going down to the protests, so I'll probably tie those into one visit at some point this week.
For a role like this role, how did you prepare? Did you meet with some Wall Street guys?
Yeah, I spent a couple afternoons with some guys at Citibank. I spent days on their desks, listening to their conversations, listening in on trading calls, getting to know them, having lunch with them, which was actually the most interesting part of it for me because it allowed me to see a little bit more of the humanity of their job. I think, for me, a real big factor of this film is the exploration of humanity and not so much the reliance on the minutiae or the details of the incredibly complex financial models everybody's working with. For me to be exposed to these guys and their personalities, their camaraderie and their relationships, to see the ways in which their jobs affect every aspect of their lives, because they're so all-consumed by the responsibilities, it was a pretty valuable insight for me.
Had the guys who you were hanging out with at Citibank been affected by the crisis?
Well,they were still there, you know what I mean? They were survivors. Many of the people that we spoke to knew scores of friends who had lost their jobs along the way, but the guys that I hung out with obviously were able to avoid that fate.
Do you remember where you were during the meltdown?
I was in L.A. And I just remember the onset of bleakness that descended around everyone. I wasn't really personally affected by it, so my relationship to it was much more filtered through the media and through friends and through a general sense of despair that seems to be lingering even now.
You weren't on any projects that got cut back because of the economy or anything like that?
I think in one way or another, most projects that any of us have been involved in over the last few years have been modified, scaled back, because of the economy, because of the corporatization of studios, but I wasn't on anything specific that suffered as a result of the financial crisis. We started raising money for Margin Call in the pretty immediate aftermath of it, so we experienced a certain amount of challenge and resistance in trying to raise $3 million for a tiny, little independent movie. But my assertion is always that if you're gonna make a movie about the financial crisis, you should do it in a fiscally responsible way. So I'm glad our budget was low and we were able to find somebody who believed in the story enough to finance it.
I was a Heroes watcher, so I want to ask: When your breakout role is such a strongly-defined villain, have you made any conscious effort to diversify so as not to be typecast?
I always make an effort to do that; that's just an ongoing process. If another villainous character comes along that has dimensions, I certainly wouldn't pass up the opportunity just because I've done it in a different context.
Right. How much do you encounter projection personally based on the roles you've played?
Tons and tons and tons. I think because both of the characters I've become most associated with tend to be pretty iconic in nature, archetypal, there's a lot of expectation that comes from people. Those projections are really just — they have nothing to do with me, so it's been an interesting road to navigate. I was on TV for four years and I was coming into peoples' homes, so there's a familiarity that people tend to have, which can sometimes be jarring or borderline off-putting to me because I'm not really — I'm a pretty low-key person in general, so sometimes I get jolted out of my own path or my own thoughts by someone on the street.
You lived here when you did the play Angels in America, right?
I was here for a year. We did Margin Call, I wrapped Margin Call, I started rehearsals for Angels in America two days later. It was incredible. It was the most challenging thing I've ever done as an actor. And the most rewarding, hands-down. I had not been on stage in six years and so for me to do my first play in New York and to have it be this epic masterwork that, you know, went right to the heart of so many matters that were and still are circulating both in society and in my life personally, it was an enormously rewarding and terrifying journey for sure.
What was terrifying?
Just the sheer scale of the play to begin with. And then I just think revisiting that work and revisiting the themes of that work at a time when the political and social climate of the country is shifting so dramatically and so irreversibly, to really come up against the echoes of that hatred and that bigotry and that fear that still exists in our culture, just in a different context now — you know, I feel it was just a really interesting exploration for me.
Doing that play made me realize how fortunate I am to have been born when I was born. And to not have to witness the decimation of an entire generation of amazingly talented and otherwise vital men. And at the same time, as a gay man, it made me feel like I — there's still so much work to be done. There's still so many things that need to be looked at and addressed. The undercurrent of that fear and that, you know, insidiousness still is swarming. It's still all around us. To revisit that world at all, it took a toll on me. It definitely was an incredible experience but it was really daunting at times.
What do you think is gonna happen with Occupy Wall Street? Do you think it’s gonna fizzle or grow week-by-week?
As a left-leaning Democrat, I feel a sense of resonance with their position, but as a citizen of this country, I feel deeply unsettled that people are rising up in movements against one another. It feels like we’re missing the mark. I just think it’s all broken. I think our financial system, so many aspects of our social connections, seem fractured. And I think it’s a really tenuous time for our country. I don’t know what will happen going into this election year. It seems like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street — there’s such tremendous disparity right now. It’s like, you have the legalization of gay marriage in the state of New York and three months later you have Jamey Rodemeyer killing himself, yet another gay teenager bullied into taking his own life. And, you know, again, as a gay man, I look at that and say there’s a hopelessness that surrounds it. But as a human being, I look at it and say, “Why? Where is this disparity coming from and why can’t we as a culture, as a society, dig deeper to examine it?” We’re terrified of facing ourselves, we’re terrified of what we’ll find and so, instead, we seem to waste time and energy with small-mindedness and intolerance and with bigotry and with hatred and with fear. And those things are just gonna — no matter if it’s Occupy Wall Street or any other social or political or financial issue, we’re hurtling towards something that is really scary to me. And I feel like Occupy Wall Street is indicative of that. But also it’s potentially valuable as a platform for people to really look at these issues. But it just feels like another opportunity for intense divisiveness and, you know, it feels like potentially another receptacle for right-wing Republicans and neo-conservatives to just undermine and invalidate and get absorbed in the quagmire of idealistic, ideological debates. The bottom line is, we’re all fucked, you know what I mean?
You guys should do a screening in Zuccotti Park.
Totally. Could you imagine? The thing is, though, I don’t know that our movie would satisfy the people enough who are down there.
It’s not demonizing enough.
It’s not. The point of this movie isn’t to judge or vilify or place blame on any one particular company or individual. It’s really to examine the emotional impact that the decisions that these people had to make along the way had on them. And it’s at the same time not lionizing or celebrating any particular institution or individual, either. There’s an ambiguity to the nature of this film that hangs over it in a good way, for me, and that’s partly why I wanted to make it.