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Peter Weller on Star Trek, Getting His Ph.D., and Defending J.J. Abrams

Peter Weller. Photo: Donna Ward/Getty

If you saw Star Trek Into Darkness this weekend and couldn’t quite place Peter Weller, the actor playing Starfleet Admiral Marcus, allow us to refresh your memory: Weller starred in two of the biggest cult films of the eighties, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and RoboCop, as well as in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch. He’s also had supporting parts on 24, Dexter, Fringe, and House. And if that weren’t enough, the man is currently finishing up a Ph.D. in art history. He talked to us recently about his stint on Star Trek, his diverse career, and his professor’s problem with J.J. Abrams.

How did you get this part?
I had done an episode of Fringe, and I had a meeting at the Bad Robot offices about some directing work. And afterward this young guy follows me into the parking lot and starts talking to me. Turns out it’s J.J. Abrams. I told him about why I’d taken the Fringe role: The character was a guy who has an argument with his fiancée in a car and he gets out of the car and his fiancée gets killed. My wife and I, when we were engaged, we had a similar argument, so there was this strange parallel with my life. My wife said I had to do the part. J.J. and I talk. Four hours later, my agent calls up and says, “You know, Bad Robot wants to hire you.” “Yeah, for what show?” “Well, it’s not for a show. J.J. wants to hire you to be one of the nine stars of Star Trek.” I got so overwhelmed that a guy followed me out in the parking lot and four hours later they were calling me up to say they want you to be in his movie.

A lot of die-hard Trekkies aren’t crazy about the J.J. Abrams version. They feel it takes away from the morality-play-like quality of the originals, and makes it more like Star Wars. Have you followed that debate at all?
Yes, I have. I didn’t realize this debate until I started shooting the movie. I’m a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA in Italian Renaissance Art History and Ancient Roman History. One of my professors, Kathryn McDonnell, a very gifted teacher on Roman art, she said, “How could J.J. do this? Vulcan can’t be destroyed.” She went on this whole diatribe. She said, “Listen, I’m a Star Trek fan from the get-go, and you can’t make alternate universes when you’ve already been established for 35 years …” So I was debating her over coffee. I said, “Well, I think it’s more fascinating that J.J. and his writers created a parallel universe.” J.J.’s conception and the writers’ conception of the 2009 film was fantastic. They do it with sophistication. I find it very touching: That in one universe, this happened; in another universe, this happened. There’s an actual dialogue between the two universes, so it’s not just a gimmick. That whole dialogue between Zach Quinto and Leonard Nimoy [who played Spock in the original Star Trek] in this film is just one of its best parts. Especially Zach, with his particular sensitivity and how vulnerable this particular Spock is, despite the fact that he doesn’t want to be. I get weepy watching that scene of him trying to explain how not to feel. He pulls off a new Spock who is bewildered at the fact that he’s living in a different time and a different universe.

Here’s a spoiler-y question about Star Trek. I think they ask this in the film, and I know some viewers have also wondered: Why would your character Admiral Marcus go and revive a madman like Khan, even to use as an ally in a secret war? When you prepare for a part like this, do you think those questions through in your mind?
Absolutely. Think: In the sixties, during the Cold War, most of the United States supported the making of plutonium weapons — and that’s waking up the past, that’s waking up nuclear energy and storing it, which is devastating. Then you see a movie like Fog of War, a terrific documentary by Errol Morris, and in it Robert McNamara looks dead at the camera, talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he says, “We were that close. That close to pulling the trigger on an all-out world plutonium war that would have destroyed everybody.” Curtis LeMay had eighteen nukes stored on his own that he didn’t tell the NSC or President Kennedy about — because he didn’t deem them knowledgeable enough about war. That is unbelievable arrogance! So, Admiral Marcus is basically like LeMay. I’m looking at this touchy-feely egalitarian nice guy in Kirk: Is this really the guy that’s gonna buckle up, saddle up, put on the guns and fight the Klingons, who are encroaching on our airspace, in our territorial infinity? No! There are military leaders now in the United States who feel that, for instance, Obama’s a wimp. So it’s very simple to step inside that skin. Could this all go wrong? Yeah, but on the other hand, he’s trying to protect his country, his nation, his universe, his infinity. He’s a patriot.

You’re a very recognizable actor, and yet you’ve steered clear of big action or blockbuster films. Even after RoboCop, you went and did risky stuff like Naked Lunch and The New Age.
I did RoboCop despite the fact that my agent and other people were saying, “You know it’s a movie about a robot …” They thought it was silly. But Paul Verhoeven was directing it. I’d seen all of his films. I’m not so much a sci-fi guy, but I love morality plays. I love stories that have to do with some particular person’s resurrection or redemption. And Verhoeven does nothing but that. He does these small personal stories with huge operatic backdrops, like Soldier of Orange. So, I read RoboCop, and it was funny and brilliant, and also ultimately sad. It was really about identity theft in the name of progress, and big business. It’s so far ahead of its time, and so absolutely gifted in its vision. This thing just absolutely seared me. As for Naked Lunch, I chased that. I grew up with that book and think it’s one of the great pieces of twentieth-century literature. I wrote Cronenberg a letter. And The New Age is absolutely one of my favorite films that I have been a part of. I still think that it’s one of the great morality plays about Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, a banker friend of mine said, “When I saw The New Age, I wanted to pack everything I owned into a U-Haul and move to Omaha.”

When is your dissertation due?
I file it in October, but one of the most beautiful days I ever had in my life was the other day, when I had to present 45 minutes of my dissertation in front of most of the European history department at UCLA, on the very day that Star Trek premiered. I had to take the day off from directing an episode of Longmire and fly in. Thank God for Paramount, ’cause they sent the car early to take us to UCLA first. My presentation is 50 pages of the dissertation — 45 slides. This is a very nerve-racking thing, because they can fry you. The bureaucracy of academia makes the movie business look like Mary Poppins, man; the movie business by comparison is cream cheese. So, I stand up, my beautiful wife is there. And I have a Star Trek white light experience before I start talking. All the pressure lifts. It’s like I’ve been lifted into a parallel world. I do this thing, and it’s fantastic, and the questions afterward are fantastic. I go out, on cloud nine, right to the Star Trek premiere. Now, I’ve walked a red carpet, I’ve been nominated for an Oscar, and I’ve been in that theater, you know? But I’ve never seen an opening like that. I’ve never seen one where all of Hollywood Boulevard is the red carpet. They’ve got podium after podium. We turn the corner and get out, and there’s like thousands — galleries of fans. Bandstands of fans, man. My wife says to me, “It’s Star Trek. It’s part of America. It’s been around for 45 years, Peter.” And we had a ball.

Peter Weller on Star Trek and J.J. Abrams Haters