If you see Zachary Quinto on the small screen, chances are something bad is about to happen. While Quinto is most widely known as the Star Trek franchise’s logic-driven Mr. Spock, his breakout role was in NBC’s mid-aughts hit Heroes as Sylar, a serial killer who tore out the brains of superheroes in order to steal their abilities. A couple of years after Heroes ended its run, Quinto played the quietly deranged Dr. Oliver Thredson on American Horror Story: Asylum, cementing his place in your nightmares. This Sunday, he’s returning to TV in AMC’s horror miniseries NOS4A2, playing a demonic drifter by the name of Charlie Manx. Though seemingly immortal, Manx is not ageless — as evidenced by Quinto’s shriveled appearance in the show’s trailer — and must periodically restore his youth by feeding on the souls of kidnapped children.
“I’d been actively looking for a role that would let me disappear,” Quinto said in an interview with Vulture at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena earlier this year. Based on Joe Hill’s best seller of the same name, the series follows Manx on a murderous road trip while also introducing the one girl, Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), who may be able to stop him. Ahead of NOS4A2’s premiere, Quinto delved into the liberation of heavy prosthetics, Manx’s unusually close relationship with his car, and the uncertain future of the Star Trek movies.
What appealed to you about playing an ancient, soul-sucking demon kidnapper?
I was a little resistant to the idea at first, because it had overtones of stuff I’ve done in the past. But when I read the script and started having creative conversations with our showrunner, Jami O’Brien, I felt like there was a lot of depth and complexity here.
Although the roles are pretty different, there were elements of Manx that reminded me of Sylar.
Right, it’s full circle in a way. I like that. I haven’t done TV in five years, so the idea of playing this type of role that people like to see me do was interesting to me. It feels like a bit of a springboard into opportunities I can create for myself that are a little more diverse, a little bit more varied. I figure coming back to something familiar that I know people enjoy is the first step in that process.
When he first appears in the show, Manx hasn’t fed in a while and is very aged, so you’re basically unrecognizable. Is it liberating to be hidden behind prosthetics?
It is. I’d been actively looking for a role that would let me disappear and really lose myself in the physicality of the character. When we broke the character of Manx down, we identified five different age phases, so the first one is closest to me and then they get progressively older. Everything that you can do prosthetically, we did. There really was no part of my face that was uncovered.
One of the first things I said to Jami and our producers was, “The only way we can make this work is if we get [Star Trek special effects artist] Joel Harlow to design the prosthetics.” I needed to know that I was in the hands of someone I could trust implicitly. He allowed my choices as an actor to translate through these layers of glue and silicon and paint.
Manx starts out as a diabolical, straight-up villain, but we soon start to realize that he really thinks he’s saving these children.
Yeah, he thinks he’s genuinely giving these kids a better life than the ones they have with their parents, who are neglectful or abusive or self-involved. Manx is also a product of his own trauma. He had a very abusive childhood, and it’s always important to go back to the source of that trauma and find the aspects of a character that are unexamined and unprocessed. We had incredible source material with Joe Hill’s novel and the tie-in graphic novel The Wraith, so I was able to dive into that stuff too.
It seems like Vic will be a problem for Manx, too.
She’s a bit of an obstacle. One of the interesting things about the show is the juxtaposition of this really emotionally grounded family drama with this heightened fantasy supernatural world. It’s a lot about Vic’s identity as a young woman who’s stepping into her own, struggling against the limitations of her family and where her heart’s really trying to take her. We spend the first few episodes cultivating those two worlds separately, and then throughout the course of the season, Vic and Manx start to do this little dance with each other that leads them to this ultimate interaction. Manx is at first curious about Vic, and then obsessed with her, so there’s this psychological element of infatuation that we explore too.
Still, Manx’s most important relationship is with his car.
[Laughs] Totally, the car has its own identity and its own energy. My ability to drive it, interact with it, and feel like I have this decades-long relationship with it was something that I spent a lot of time on. It’s an actual vintage 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, so it has a lot of quirks and little temperamentalisms.
There’s something that’s so classic Americana about it, the idea of life on the road where your car becomes your home.
Manx’s relationship with the car is a huge cornerstone of who he is. They’re inextricably tied. Manx is physically tied to the car, so if something happens to the car, something happens to Manx. I’m not really a car buff, but after spending four and a half months with that car, I understand why people are. They have personalities of their own.
You’re doing something specific with Manx’s voice: It’s a little bit period, a little British. How did you figure out the right way to go with that?
There’s a formality and a composure to him, because he’s out of time and exists from a different era, so the physicality and vocal choices are part and parcel with one another. He speaks in a little bit of a different rhythm and a different modality than other people. He is this immortal supernatural villain, but he’s also gotta get gas. What is that like? There’s actually a scene where he’s getting gas and interacting with the clerk, so there’s opportunities for some humor and levity in his relationship to the world around him.
Between Heroes, American Horror Story, and NOS4A2, you’ve played a lot of deeply unsettling TV villains. What draws you to these roles?
I’ve asked myself this and wondered why these dark characters have found their way into my experience as an actor. I don’t necessarily have a clear answer. I think, on some level, it serves an important cultural purpose. People need to escape from their lives, and if they’re interested in escaping into worlds that are dark, because they can go into that realm and feel safe and feel like it’s a fantastical way to do it, I’m happy to be a part of those stories. Playing a villain, you can be the receptacle for a lot of frustrations and angers and real-world fears that we’re not able to process as readily.
It’s been a few years since we last saw you play Spock. Is Star Trek 4 in limbo? There were at one point reported to be multiple scripts in play.
Yeah, I think there were like three. I don’t know what’s happening with that, and I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, will be the future for it. I feel glad that the franchise is having its own life continuing on [with Star Trek: Discovery] and my hope is that we’ll also get to go back and play those roles again. But there’s no telling right now if it’ll happen or not.