Zachary Quinto: Mr. Spock And The Boys In The Band

Oct 9, 2020

Zachary Quinto is known for playing characters who keep things close to the vest. On the hit NBC show Heroes, he played the insidious serial killer Sylar, and on the AMC series NOS4A2, he plays Charlie Manx, an immortal creature who feeds on the souls of children. As Mr. Spock in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, he was tasked with maintaining the legacy of Leonard Nimoy's stoic character. Quinto and Nimoy worked together on the film and developed a close friendship.

In 2018, Quinto joined the cast of the Tony-winning Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band. The play broke ground half a century ago for its portrayal of gay life at a time when homosexuality was scarcely spoken about openly on stage. Now, the play has been adapted for a film on Netflix, starring Quinto, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, all openly gay actors.

As a native Pittsburgher, he grew up with a bit of a regional accent, before he went to Carnegie Mellon to study acting. We put Quinto's knowledge of other famous Pittsburghers to the test with a game about celebrities who hail from the Steel City. (Had this been a two-player game we could have said the contestants were "Pitt" against each other, but you gotta play the hand you're dealt.)

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On being an amateur banjo player in his spare time:

I've been playing for about seven years. My brother bought me a banjo for Christmas one year, this was probably ten, eleven years ago, and it handsomely decorated my living room by leaning against the wall, and I never picked it up. And then, taught myself via, you know, the internet, and then found a teacher in Los Angeles. I usually find a teacher wherever I go, like if I'm working on location, I look up a local teacher and work with somebody for the time that I'm there.

On keeping his Spock ears:

(On Wait Wait Don't Tell Me in 2008, Leonard Nimoy revealed that he kept a pair of Mr. Spock's pointy ears as a keepsake from his work on Star Trek. Turns out, Zachary Quinto did the same thing.)

I have a few pairs of ears. I think it's probably in the ballpark of a dozen, because we've made three films now, and it was a new pair of ears every day on the movie. So, you know, it's not like they were going to miss them. And at the end of the day, they just cut them, they just shredded them and threw them away. It's not like anybody, so I was like, "Yeah I can just keep a couple of those."

On playing Harold in The Boys in the Band, who was based on playwright Mart Crowley's best friend:

It is based on a real-life man named Howard Jeffrey who was a very successful choreographer and dancer in New York, and was Mart Crowley's best frenemy. They had a very volatile but intimate friendship, and many of the interactions between Michael and Harold in the play and film are directly lifted from the relationship between Mart and Howard in real-life, which I loved. It's not my nature to have such a vitriolic relationship with anybody, let alone somebody that I love and care about. And so it really kind of helped me wrap my mind around how they could be so vile toward one another in one breath, and then so unwaveringly committed to one another in the next breath.

On his dog barking during the Zoom call:

River, there's no need. We're having a very civilized conversation. I appreciate your alertness.

Heard on: Zachary Quinto: Spock-tober.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. Let's welcome our special guest. He's an actor who plays Spock in the "Star Trek" reboot, and his new film, "The Boys In The Band," is available on Netflix now. It's Zachary Quinto. Hello.

ZACHARY QUINTO: Hello. How are you?

EISENBERG: Very good, thank you.

QUINTO: Happy to be here.

EISENBERG: So I saw on Instagram that you're a very good banjo player.

QUINTO: Oh, thanks. I don't know if I would classify myself as very good, but I certainly love playing.

EISENBERG: Yeah. How long have you been playing?

QUINTO: I've been playing for about seven years.

EISENBERG: OK.

QUINTO: Yeah. My brother bought me a banjo for Christmas one year. This was probably 10, 11 years ago. And it handsomely decorated my living room by...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

QUINTO: ...Leaning against the wall...

COULTON: Sure.

QUINTO: ...For years...

COULTON: Well, it's a beautiful instrument.

QUINTO: ...And I never picked it up. Yeah, it sure is.

COULTON: (Laughter).

QUINTO: And I never picked it up, and then taught myself for the first few months via, you know, the Internet, and then found a teacher in Los Angeles. And I usually find a teacher wherever I go. Like, if I'm working on location, I look up a local teacher and work with somebody for the time that I'm there. There it is. You can see it over there in the...

COULTON: Oh, yeah.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah, right.

COULTON: (Laughter).

QUINTO: Our listening audience can't see it, but...

EISENBERG: Now, of course, you played Mr. Spock in the "Star Trek" franchise reboot. I read that Leonard Nimoy was part of the casting. Did you know that ahead of time?

QUINTO: That's a good question. I don't think I knew that ahead of time. I don't think I knew it until after I got the role that he had...

EISENBERG: OK, so he wasn't in the audition or anything like that?

QUINTO: No, no, no. No. My audition process was actually shockingly low-key for such a significant project...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

QUINTO: ...And such an iconic character. I had one audition with April Webster, the casting director. And based on that, you know, I went on tape. And based on that tape, I had a 45-minute-long meeting with J.J. Abrams. And we just chatted, and then I got the job. So it was, like, pretty for me...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

QUINTO: I was like, wait, what's happening? Shouldn't there be more hoops to jump through here, guys?

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: This is a pretty major decision. Are we all on the same page about making it? I guess they were, though, so it all worked out.

EISENBERG: Yeah. OK, so when Leonard Nimoy was on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! many years ago, he said that he kept a pair of the pointy ears he wore when he played Mr. Spock. Did you also keep the ears?

QUINTO: I have a few pairs of ears.

EISENBERG: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Like, are we talking three, five?

QUINTO: I think it's probably in the ballpark of a dozen because, you know, we've made three films now. And it was a new pair of ears every day on the movie.

COULTON: That's nice - fancy.

QUINTO: So, you know, it's not like they were going to miss them.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

QUINTO: And at the end of the day, they just cut them - they just shredded them and threw them away. It's not like anybody - so I was like, you know, (unintelligible) couple of those.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: I'll take some ears. So now you have like a...

QUINTO: (Unintelligible) special...

COULTON: You have the casual, kicking-around ears. You have your formal ears, your...

EISENBERG: Sport ears - you got to have your sport ears.

QUINTO: I do have sport ears.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: I have ears from a scene in which Spock was bleeding. And so I have a pair of ears that are speckled with green blood.

COULTON: Oh, excellent.

EISENBERG: Wow. Yeah.

QUINTO: You know? So, that's...

EISENBERG: For the Peloton.

QUINTO: For the Peloton.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: Exactly.

EISENBERG: In 2018, you costarred in the Broadway revival, "The Boys In The Band." And this play revolves around a birthday party - a group of men who gather for a birthday party. And it was, of course, just so groundbreaking for its portrayal of gay male life.

QUINTO: Mmm.

EISENBERG: And now - the play originally debuted in '68...

QUINTO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Revival 2018, and now it's a film.

QUINTO: Mmm hmm.

EISENBERG: And your character, Mart Crowley, that basic character...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

EISENBERG: Oh, is everything OK?

COULTON: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness.

QUINTO: There's nothing - there's no need...

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: We're having a very civilized conversation. I appreciate your alertness.

COULTON: You know, you mentioned the medium of film, and I think it...

EISENBERG: That's right.

COULTON: ...Probably riled him up, right?

QUINTO: It jarred him. It jarred him.

COULTON: Not my favorite medium, he said.

EISENBERG: That is a good guard dog.

QUINTO: Indeed.

EISENBERG: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: Indeed. Yeah. He is a good guard dog, it's true. It's very true.

EISENBERG: That was amazing. But - and you play Harold, who was based on "The Boys In The Band" playwright Mart Crowley's best friend, right?

QUINTO: Yes. It is based on a man - a real-life man named Howard Jeffrey, who was a very successful choreographer and dancer in New York and was Mart Crowley's best frenemy.

EISENBERG: Frenemy.

COULTON: (Laughter).

QUINTO: You know, they were very - they had a very volatile but intimate friendship. And many of the interactions between Michael and Harold in the play and film are directly lifted from the relationship between Mart and Howard in real life, which I loved. And I - it's not in my nature to be so - to have such a vitriolic relationship with anybody, let alone somebody that I love and care about. And so it really kind of helped me wrap my mind around how they could be so vile toward one another in one breath and then so unwaveringly committed to one another in the next breath.

EISENBERG: Right. In the original cast of the 1968 production of "The Boys In The Band," some of the actors were gay, but not all of them.

QUINTO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: In the 2018 production, everyone is an openly gay actor. So...

QUINTO: Right.

EISENBERG: ...How was that for you as an actor?

QUINTO: Yeah. The whole experience was more - there was - it was freer, right? I mean, there was a shorthand. I mean, first of all, I went to college with Matt Bomer. I did a movie with Charlie Carver. I play with Brian Hutchison. I've known Jim Parsons and Andrew Rannells socially for years. Joe Mantello and I had known each other for almost 20 years. So there was a lot of...

EISENBERG: Hanging with your friends.

QUINTO: Yeah, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: There was a lot of pre-existing connectivity. And then it was just - and then, you know, Tuc and Michael Benjamin Washington - Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington and Robin de Jesus I had never met before, but it was an immediate - it was like an instant family.

EISENBERG: And can we just have a moment to speak about your hair in the film?

QUINTO: Yeah, sure. What would you like to say?

EISENBERG: Is that a perm or a wig?

COULTON: (Laughter).

QUINTO: It's a hard wig. It's a hard wig.

EISENBERG: Oh, it's a hard wig.

QUINTO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Great sideburns - your sideburns?

QUINTO: Yeah. It was all - there were, like - there were separate sideburn pieces and, like, a back piece. It was - it was an intricate wig, actually.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

QUINTO: Yeah, the - you know, in the play on stage in New York, it wasn't as intense, I would say. But that's another thing I loved about it. Like, in New York, I got myself ready every night for the play. I put my own wig on. I had to put, you know, prosthetics on my face and paint my pockmarks and do my whole - like, that was my responsibility. And it was a huge part of the process of me getting ready every night. And, of course, you know, when you move to a film production, there's a whole team of people who do that for me. And so it just sort of enhance the experience.

EISENBERG: Right. It's like taking it up a level, kind of.

QUINTO: Yeah, for sure. I mean, and same thing with the costumes. And everything becomes more about detail when you're in a film, you know? Lou Eyrich, who's the amazing costume designer - you know, when I showed up to my first fitting and she just unfurled these bolts of jewel-toned velvet and was like, which one do we want, you know? And I was like, well, I guess emerald green, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: Just like, you know, the level of detail to the actual period - and then the tie clips and the cufflinks and the boots and the glasses and all of it was a really fun process that allowed me to kind of completely slip into this alter ego in a way.

EISENBERG: Mmm hmm. Three-piece wig - three-piece wig.

QUINTO: Three-piece wig. Yeah.

EISENBERG: That's what I have to say.

COULTON: Yeah.

QUINTO: For sure - three-piece wig.

EISENBERG: All right. Zachary, are you up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

QUINTO: I am ready for it. Let's do something. What are going to do?

EISENBERG: OK, so you were born and raised in Pittsburgh?

QUINTO: I was, yes.

EISENBERG: Did you have a bit of an accent?

QUINTO: I did have an accent.

EISENBERG: Oh, really?

QUINTO: Yes.

EISENBERG: OK.

QUINTO: Oh, yeah. Growing up, like, I have videos of myself as, like, prepubescent, like before my voice dropped. (In a high voice, imitating Pittsburgh accent) And I was totally talking like this, you know, like, doing the Pittsburgh accent, but, like, with the high voice and stuff. It was real cool.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: It wasn't - that's a little exaggerated, but it was definitely there for sure. They whipped that out of me at Carnegie Mellon right quick.

EISENBERG: Oh, really?

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: Yeah, for sure.

EISENBERG: Yes. Yes, I - when I - I moved to New York from Canada, and I remember people just made fun of me so badly that I was like, we're working on this immediately.

QUINTO: Yup.

EISENBERG: Yup.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINTO: You learn what works and what doesn't pretty quickly, right?

EISENBERG: That's right. All right, so you're from Pittsburgh, and so in this game, every answer is a famous Pittsburgher...

QUINTO: OK.

EISENBERG: ...And a word or phrase that ends with pit.

QUINTO: OK.

COULTON: OK, so for example...

QUINTO: Yes?

COULTON: ...If I said this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is famous for his Pittsburgh cycle, and he loved Georgia's state fruit, you would answer peach Pittsburgher, August Wilson.

QUINTO: OK.

EISENBERG: All right. So here's your first one. This "Singing In The Rain" actor got his start on Broadway singing and dancing to music played in an area in front of the stage where the musicians sit.

QUINTO: The orchestra Pittsburgher, Gene Kelly.

EISENBERG: Yes.

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yes.

QUINTO: I'm good at this. Who knew?

EISENBERG: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: You are good at this. Right on it. Fantastic. All right, here's another one.

QUINTO: OK.

COULTON: This Pittsburgher won an Emmy for "Pose." He also hosted the 2020 Oscars Red Carpet...

QUINTO: Yeah, he did.

COULTON: ...Where this other actor won for "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood."

QUINTO: Brad Pittsburgher, Billy Porter.

COULTON: You got it - exactly right.

QUINTO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yes.

QUINTO: My dear friend, Billy Porter. We did a play together. I love Billy deeply.

EISENBERG: What play did you do together?

QUINTO: We did "Angels In America" together...

EISENBERG: Oh.

QUINTO: ...At the Signature Theater in 2010. Yeah, he played Belize, and I played Louis.

EISENBERG: Oh, wow.

QUINTO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Look at that.

QUINTO: That was a magical time.

COULTON: All right, here's another one. This rap star's song, "Black And Yellow," is a tribute to his hometown, not a tribute to a burnt ear of corn from the outdoor area where food is grilled.

QUINTO: Oh, my gosh. Hold on. I know this. I just am blank. Is it - is it barbecue Pittsburgher, Wiz Khalifa?

COULTON: Yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: It absolutely is.

QUINTO: Oh, thank God.

COULTON: Wow.

QUINTO: Great.

COULTON: I'm so impressed. I saw you work on that one.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

QUINTO: I really worked on that.

COULTON: You worked all the way through it. It was great.

QUINTO: (Laughter).

COULTON: Very exciting.

EISENBERG: All right. Here's your next one. This one is not easy.

QUINTO: OK. OK, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: This poet, art collector and author of "Tender Buttons" was friends with Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Had they been around in the 1980s, you'd see them at a punk rock concert dancing in the section where fans intentionally slam into each other.

QUINTO: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Mosh Pittsburgher...

EISENBERG: Mmm hmm.

QUINTO: Mosh Pittsburgher - what's the - say it again. The poet, art collector...

EISENBERG: And author of "Tender Buttons."

QUINTO: Oof. Yeah, this is a tough one.

EISENBERG: I'm - let me think. What's a - I don't know if this helps you just geographically, but she was born near the current location of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. I'm sure there is a...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...Plaque there.

QUINTO: Thank you so much. That's...

EISENBERG: She only lived there for six months, so I'm not sure how fair this question is, to be honest.

QUINTO: Yeah. That's tough.

EISENBERG: I'm going to give you a really specific hint.

QUINTO: OK.

EISENBERG: At my college, the cafe that we had was named after her, a nickname. It was called Gerdie's (ph).

QUINTO: Oh, OK. So Moshpittsburgher Gertrude Stein (ph).

EISENBERG: Yes. Yes. Yes.

QUINTO: Wow. I didn't know Gertrude Stein was from Pittsburgh.

EISENBERG: Well, I guess, yeah, she...

COULTON: She was for six months.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But there is a plaque there. There is a plaque there.

QUINTO: Great. Fantastic. I'll look it up next time I'm home.

COULTON: Totally counts. All right. This influential choreographer of "Frontier" crafted a signature modern dance technique that is taught around the world. Her technique is based on the opposition between contraction and release and also a useful skill for fighting your way out of a room full of colorful plastic spheres.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: What are you talking about?

QUINTO: Fighting your way out of a room with colorful plastic spheres?

EISENBERG: It's mostly for children.

QUINTO: Ball pits?

COULTON: It's where you dump your children. Yes, that's right.

QUINTO: Ball Pittsburgher Martha Graham (ph).

COULTON: Yes, exactly right. Wow.

QUINTO: Wow.

COULTON: You are very good at this. I have to say, these are really hard.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

QUINTO: I'm so glad I'm good at it. That makes me happy. My internal competitor is pleased.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: OK, your very last question.

QUINTO: OK. Let's do it.

EISENBERG: This beloved children's TV host was also a Presbyterian minister, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him standing behind this church lectern.

QUINTO: The Pulpittsburgher Fred Rogers (ph).

EISENBERG: That is correct.

COULTON: Clean sweep. Look at that.

QUINTO: Almost. Gertrude Stein hung me up, but then we got it in the end.

EISENBERG: Yeah. It's all great. You did amazing.

QUINTO: Good. Thanks.

EISENBERG: Thank you so much.

QUINTO: It was a pleasure.

COULTON: Such an honor too to meet you in any form. So thank you so much.

QUINTO: Great to meet you. Thanks for having me. Stay safe and well. And hopefully next time we can do this in person.

EISENBERG: That'd be great.

QUINTO: Be well, everybody. Thank you.

COULTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.