Star Trek Beyond's Mr. Spock Gets Used to Being an Icon

Like many movie stars, Zachary Quinto is attached to a blockbuster franchise—on July 22, you'll see him in Star Trek Beyond, the sci-fi series' thirteenth film overall and third since rebooting with a fresh cast in 2009. The film is a breezy joyride, as pleasing a summer popcorn flick as you'll find this season; reprising the iconic role of Mr. Spock, Quinto yet again manages to make a rigid logician totally likable.

But Quinto has an unusually diverse slate of other projects in the hopper, too—from playing the journalist Glenn Greenwald in the Oliver Stone-directed biopic Snowden due this fall to producing features like the upcoming Jon Hamm and Jenny Slate starrer Aardvark and a TV series about DIY bio-science called Biopunk, in which he'll also star. "And I really want to get back on stage," he says wistfully.

In conversation with TIME, Quinto talks about the enduring messages of science fiction, the fight for LGBT equality and what makes this Star Trek movie more timely than ever.

TIME: This is the thirteenth Star Trek film overall and the third installment with this cast. What gives this universe such longevity?

Zachary Quinto: It’s rooted in Gene Roddenberry’s vision. He had such a deep faith in humanity and optimism. People respond to the undercurrent of unity. And these characters are really vivid and unique and indelible— that's part of why it's lasted as well. But I really think Gene was so ahead of his time—he was just projecting into the time we're in now.

That makes this one feel particularly timely, given that the country—and the world—feels so divided.

Our adversary in this movie is a being who’s diametrically opposed to the Federation. He wants to destroy a place that’s a hub for different species and races—people from all over the galaxy coming together and inhabiting this one place. It’s weirdly parallel to what’s going on all over the world right now. There’s waves of nationalism and xenophobia and fear-based thinking and intolerance. It’s alarming. At the end of the day, this is a blockbuster summer popcorn movie—we’re not trying to delve into any of these themes explicitly—but what Star Trek represents is the idea that unity will always overcome hatred.

In the wake of the attacks in Orlando and Trump picking Mike Pence as his running mate, does it feel like a frightening moment to be a gay American? It does for me.

There are indicators of the pendulum swinging the other way right now in terms of the political temperature and the landscape of Trump. It's absurd to me, but I have to have faith that we'll endure and triumph. I have to feel like people will look at these two old white men, who represent everything that is negative in history, and say there are more people who want to go a different direction. I hope so. I am scared. I don’t take anything for granted. I have a lot of people in my life that think there's no way Trump will win. I don't believe that for a second. We have to fight with everything we have to continue the path that we've been able to gain such ground on in the last five to ten years. It’s just a bleak and dangerous moment in our geopolitical landscape right now. It’s unprecedented in our lifetime how precariously we’re all perched—not just here in this country but around the world.

Did you read Noah Galvin's interview with Vulture, where he talked very candidly about gay Hollywood?

I did.

Did you have a strong reaction to it?

What came through to me the most was that he's really green and of a generation that's more self-possessed and therefore, I think, potentially more arrogant. I don't think he gave that interview with any respect to the people who have fought on the road before him to allow him to be in the position that he's in, really. Colton [Haynes] is a good friend of mine and that upset me—the way [Galvin] spoke about that situation, which he knew absolutely nothing about. It really upset me. I almost responded to it publicly, but I thought, that's about the last thing I need to do. I'm not interested in that dialogue. I don't know this kid. I think that his experience will teach him what he needs to learn. There was such fear about being gay in this industry that the way he spoke felt like a regression. I thought it was shameful, frankly. Very misinformed and misguided. Hopefully he's learned better now.

You've talked about respect for past generations of gay men before—it's the same idea that sometimes come up in conversations about PrEP, which you've discussed.

Took some real heat on that one, didn't I?

You did. But there can be tension between the people who are old enough to remember the AIDS epidemic and the ones who are too young to have a personal point of reference for that loss.

You're much closer to the generation of people who don't have any point of reference. I'm 39, and I'm squarely in the generation who were close enough to it to have watched it happen but far enough away to where it couldn't have happened to me. I think technology plays a huge part in this diminishment of connection to the past because everything is about the next moment. How many followers can I get? How many likes can I get on this picture? As soon as you put something up you're checking it to see the feedback it gets. The instantaneous nature of our culture doesn't allow for as much space to connect to what preceded it. Everybody's focused on now, and then now is gone as soon as you refresh the page of likes. I think that's a huge problem. I feel grateful to have grown up at a time when all my experiences as a kid in learning to perform and growing up was based on the people that came before me. I spent a lot of time charting the journeys of the people who weren't allowed to be openly gay and had to live their lives in terrible self-oppression and torture and lies just to succeed. Kids today don't have to think about that, because so many of those people died. Now you can do what you want to do. That came at a cost. Honoring that cost is the only thing we owe each other.

In this film, it’s revealed that John Cho’s Sulu is gay. George Takei said he was “disappointed” by that, because he wanted to see a new gay character.

I get it. I really love George. He’s an incredible advocate. But I feel like the other side of it carries more weight. The idea of taking this already beloved character and adding another dimension is so powerful for young people, and so powerful as a gesture to the LGBT community, who has long advocated for representation in the Star Trek universe. One of Spock’s most famous sayings is, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It’s what I wanted to gently remind George of in that moment.

Snowden is out this fall—did your feelings about Edward Snowden shift over the course of making a film about him?

I went in feeling like what he did was immeasurably beneficial to society and that belief was only reinforced by working on the film. Once I started understanding more about the information that he disseminated, it was shocking how grievously it was an invasion of so many people’s privacy. We should be equipped with information in order to protect ourselves. Look—it’s complicated, but I feel like he was vilified in a way. If you look at the history of whistleblowers, it's not surprising that he's in the situation he's in now.

Now there’s a robot version of Snowden that travels around.

Yes—because of technology, he’s not limited in his ability to connect and still have influence and be a part of things. Hopefully he’ll be able to find his way back to normalcy at some point.

Your Star Trek co-star Anton Yelchin died unexpectedly in June. I was so sorry to hear about his passing.

It’s so surreal to have the promotion of this movie coming so soon after that abject tragedy. I don’t think it will be until after we’re putting this movie out that we’ll be able to settle in to the magnitude of the loss. I still can’t believe he’s not going to show up for the premiere. He was truly one of the most delightful and enchanting people.

Spock is driven by logic, but in this film there’s more of his love story. There’s a tension there—isn’t love inherently illogical?

Probably, but that’s what makes it so exciting.

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