Zachary Quinto on His New Reality Show The Chair and Becoming Buddies With Lena Dunham

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Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

This past Saturday, Starz premiered The Chair, a new series from Project Greenlight producer Chris Moore. The ten-episode competition takes the formula that helped make the 2001–2005 show a reality hit (having Ben Affleck and Matt Damon involved also helped, of course) and adds in a great twist: Two aspiring directors go head-to-head making their first films from the same script. And the directors couldn’t be more different. He’s a YouTube star; she’s a screenwriter who has come up through the indie film trenches. Serving as producer and mentor is actor Zachary Quinto, whose production company produced the Oscar-nominated Robert Redford film All Is Lost. We caught up with Quinto earlier this summer during the Television Critics Association press tour to talk about his new show and getting to hang with the cool kids on HBO’s Girls. (Unfortunately, this chat took place before Lena Dunham hinted he *might* be getting naked on the show.)

You were skeptical about doing this show. Why?
When I was first approached about doing “a reality show,” that was my trepidation. The delineation between a documentary series and a reality series is a hair-thin line, and I was really, really adamant about wanting to stay on the documentary side of that line.

Do you not watch any reality TV?
I don’t.

None? But you’ve been on Watch What Happens Live. What did you and Andy Cohen even talk about?
Luckily, I’ve never had to field any questions about those shows. I just don’t watch them. I can’t even think of ... I guess I watch The Voice? I find that kind of interesting. If it’s gonna be a reality show in that regard, it has to be something that I could never do, and the idea of getting up and singing in front of tens of millions of people is something I would never do [laughs]. If I’m gonna watch TV, which isn’t a luxury I have very often, then I want to make sure it’s something that inspires me in a different way.

In what ways did you think you’d be a good mentor?
In the same way that Matt and Ben were involved in Project Greenlight. When Chris came to my company, I think that was what he was looking for. Someone with some visibility, someone who’s been down the road of producing and been around first-time feature directors, someone to just be there as an encouraging force. That’s what I tried to do.

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you gave the directors?
I believe a producer’s job is to create an environment for a director in which they feel safe, in which they feel protected, and in which they can execute their vision. I hope the most valuable thing I could do was let them know whatever they needed we would help them take care of. Beyond that, I would give them my advice and my perspective, but I was always very clear about, “Take it or leave it. I won’t take it personally. It’s your movie and your vision and your reputation.”

In the second episode, you’re talking to one of the directors, Shane Dawson, about his reworking of the script and the amount of gross-out humor in it. You had concerns. Do you personally not like raunchy comedy, or was it just not funny?
Probably a little bit of both. I don’t know how I would have responded to his material when I was 20 as opposed to now. I’m 37. I feel like maybe I’m just sort of getting older and have maybe a more refined — dare I say — a more refined sensibility? But again, my position was, “These are my feelings. If I’m going to be an EP on this movie, I just want you to hear from me.” I had concerns with Anna, too. She wanted to create this world outside of Pittsburgh, and my question to her was, “Why would you do that? That’s confusing. Pittsburgh is a big part of this. We’re here.” But it’s all a process. The minute you hold on to anything as a producer, or a filmmaker, you’re digging your own grave. You have to let things evolve. You have to let things flow and find their own rhythm.

We see you briefly in the show doing some fund-raising. What did that specifically entail? I guess I assumed your company and/or Starz were financing the whole thing.
No, no. We completely independently funded the series and both the films. Chris was really the engine of the financing aspect. I went to Pittsburgh early on to help because I’m from Pittsburgh, which is another huge part of the reason I was really excited about the show. I went to lend my hometown visibility to the project and to legitimize it to whatever degree my involvement would legitimize it for Pittsburghers to feel more confident about putting money into it. That’s part of the show, too: Will the money be there? It’s an incredibly stressful part of the process in real life. You have to begin preparations for a certain start date before the money’s in the bank. If it’s not, then you have to push the date, then you risk losing the schedules of actors, department heads, DPs, everything gets thrown out of whack.

Do you want to try directing a feature?
Yeah, and my experience here was totally encouraging. To watch both Shane and Anna arrive at their potential and tell these stories and get it done — I mean, they both have finished feature films. They’re no longer not feature film directors! It was really inspiring, actually. I’m proud of them.

Would you work for either of them?
As an actor? Oh, yeah. Sure. If it was the right material. [Laughs]

Some pictures of you and Lena Dunham in blue aprons on the set of Girls leaked a little while ago. She seems to cast all her friends on the show.
Well, we weren’t friends. We had met before. Now we’re buds, thank goodness! I’ve always been a huge admirer of hers and I watched Girls from the beginning. So the way I got involved was I was literally just walking down the street of New York about a month and a half ago and I got an email that she wanted me to come on down. I couldn’t believe it. I was so thrilled. Actually, every time I’ve watched that show over the years, I’ve been like, If only I was cool enough to be on that show …

Come on.
Seriously! Those are like the cool kids in high school.

How long did you get to hang?
A few weeks. I did a couple of episodes. It was perfect.

Did you get to work with all the ladies?
In some capacity or another. Zosia Mamet and Allison Williams, I didn’t have much to do with. But I got to work with Adam Driver, who I’ve known for years. Adam and I both did the same production of Angels in America. He took over me! So we’ve had a little bit of history, and I’ve been so thrilled for his success. I think he’s amazing.

I was thrown by the photos of him without facial hair.
Totally, totally. Indeed. [Laughs] Me too.

Any plans to go back to American Horror Story?
I wasn’t able to do Coven because I was doing The Glass Menagerie, and then I got pulled in a couple of different directions right around the time they were casting [the upcoming] Freak Show. I’m bummed I haven’t been able to go back, but the thing that I love about the show is that it is a repertory company and you never know when Ryan Murphy is gonna come a knockin’. And I’m very excited to see my girl Sarah Paulson with two heads. Two Sarah Paulsons are much better than one. I was like, “Oh, girl, that is double trouble!”