For ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Terminator’ star Anton Yelchin, the future is now

April 22, 2009 | 7:01 p.m.

Nicholas White, one of the contributors now to Hero Complex, sat down with Anton Yelchin, who is one of the stars to watch this summer…

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Sipping hot tea on a recent Tuesday morning in Studio City, the Russian-born actor Anton Yelchin could have passed for one of the thousands of scruffy, out-of-work musicians who roam the Valley with unruly hair, an aura of angst and their “Repo Man” wardrobes. Yelchin, still eager to prove himself after almost a decade making feature films, was a practiced study in low-profile excitement.

“These two movies,” he said, “are special.”

Special indeed. Next month, Yelchin has an appointment with fanboy-film destiny. On May 8, he will portray Pavel Chekov, the “Star Trek” crew member first brought to life by Walter Koenig on the 1960s television series, and then on May 21 he plays memorable freedom fighter Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation,” the dark revival of the killer-robot franchise.

The early buzz on both films is strong and either may finish among the year’s highest-grossing films. That fact that is not lost on the actor who, despite his growing filmography, is just a few weeks removed from his 20th birthday. The confessed movie nerd logged plenty of hours watching Michael Biehn portray Reese in the original “Terminator” film and he also made an intense study of “Trek” in its many permutations.

“I got really lucky, and I am very happy to do them, but I look at it as getting better each time,” Yelchin says. “There is a sense of responsibility, but it’s just in capturing what people appreciate about the character. No one wants to lose what made [“Trek”] last for 40 years. But then again, it might go away right now if it’s not rejuvenated…watching [“Terminator”] over and over now, it’s fascinating, very intense, vulnerable. It’s a layered character work that Michael Biehn did. It’s an interesting character to take and adopt to say, ‘How did they act when they were younger?’ There are different paths to the same person.”

Yelchin was sitting in a gelato store but none of the parade of passersby gave him a second look; that’s really no surprise considering his released work to date has plenty of blink-and-you-missed-it projects, among them “Charlie Bartlett,” “Fierce People” and the panned David Duchovny-directed “House of D,” a trio of films with a cumulative domestic box-office return of $4.4 million. Even a cameraman stalking the sidewalk with a paparazzo’s photo lens ignored Yelchin.

“I just don’t think there is any reason for them to follow me,” he said with a shrug. “I haven’t really done anything for them to follow me. I really think that’s it. Now that I’m not going to school per se, I don’t go out much. I think it’s mostly when you think you are a big deal, you send out that vibe. Which is stupid. I’d rather you give me attention for the movies I do than walking out of some place. That’s not my job to me. It’s me.”

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His profile will likely be surging to new levels soon. Directors J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”) and McG (“Terminator Salvation”), both familiar with big-budget projects, have stirred the interests of fanboys with their separate of reinventions of classic, lucrative sci-fi franchises. At comic book conventions such as Wonder Con in San Francisco, each of the filmmakers was greeted with thunderous ovations by thousands of fans — the same fans who have moved the center of Hollywood’s attentions after the box-office heroics last year of “The Dark Knight,” ‘Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Wanted.”

Abrams has brought a glossy, high-adrenaline style to “Trek,” but at its core is the optimism and pioneer spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s original science-fiction TV series. The new “Terminator,” meanwhile, is coated in dirt and moodiness (it was filmed in the oven heat of New Mexico).

“You would look around the crew and they would be wearing goggles and wraps around their faces from the dust,” Yelchin said. “Everybody would be screaming and yelling and intense. Things are exploding. It’s an intense movie. It’s a war movie.”

Speaking of combat conditions, what about Christian Bale’s now-infamous rant from the “Terminator Salvation” set? The audio snippet pinged across the globe on the Internet and, to the chagrin of the filmmakers, became a sensation; if you missed it, the audio documented Bale’s extended attack on Shane Hurlbut, director of photography, who made the mistake of walking through Bale’s sightline during a shot. The tirade was mocked by “Family Guy” and remixed as as a club song, but Yelchin finds nothing funny in the topic or its persistence in pop culture. 

“I really like Christian,” Yelchin said with an unamused tone. “People don’t know how sets work, so it gets blown out of proportion. He loves his daughter, loves his wife and loves his job. That encapsulates how he lives his life. It didn’t affect anything. Christian apologized, and it was a heartfelt apology. Who could say it better than him? It’s a hard place to work, and it’s [crappy] that someone put something out there. How many times do people yell at each other in any job?”

Yelchin points across the street at Vitello’s restaurant (which happens to be infamous itself as the site where Robert Blake’s wife Bonnie Lee Bakley ate her last meal before she was shot to death on a nearby street).

“In Vitello’s restaurant, people yell at each other,” Yelchin says. “But no one is videotaping or recording Vitello and putting it out there. Can you imagine if a set stopped because a person yelled? It was five minutes, it went away and then everyone started shooting.”

Yelchin talks methodically and ambiguously about acting, using phrases like “really, really happy.” He tells stories of chit-chatting with veteran stars, such as Harry Dean Stanton, but while cheery and polite, the young Russian is clearly all business. Yelchin, who is single, notices an attractive brunet in a sundress who walks by not once but three times. He later describes her offhand as “smokin’ ” but at the interview’s end he practially sprints away like he’s on the clock – which he is, fumbling for quarters to feed the meter.

After taking a run at USC (he says he was accpeted but then had to change his plans due to shooting schedule for “Terminator” and “Star Trek”), Yelchin is now a full-time actor. If the roles dry up, it’s back to school for him, he says: “Honestly, if I didn’t have this job, [my parents] would be kicking my butt right now. I would be working, taking tons of classes, and I would have to be doing well, or there would be punishments. They would make sure I wasn’t a slacker.”

Yelchin’s big break came opposite Anthony Hopkins in 2001’s “Hearts in Atlantis.” It was the Oscar-winning British elder that had the biggest effect on Yelchin’s nascent career.

“He’s incredible to witness,” he says. “It’s a presence when he does something, because you’re consumed by him. For a moment, he creates something insane. It’s captured on film. I have had a pretty short career. I wish I could say the milestones. Everything is important to me. …. But then working with Anthony Hopkins is huge.”

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For “Terminator,” Yelchin investigated Biehn’s rage-filled Reese. For this younger version of the military man, Yelchin drew on some fellow middle-class San Fernando Valley residents. “He is freaking out a lot of the time,” he says. “I know some really angry people. How they react, how they overreact when they’re younger, I saw that. That is the more interesting force. He was really angry, and then he got some sort of control over that. There is still anger, vulnerability and leadership.”

Many of Yelchin’s scenes are with Sam Worthington, who appears next in “Avatar.”

“Me and Sam talked, two people meet, they’re not going to be friends right away in this environment,” he says. “It was interesting, taking that and applying that. I had this idea before we got to Albuquerque. We got the script, and there were changes happening to it. I felt like it was good for to me have a strong idea of what I wanted to accomplish. There already was a whole character.”

In “Trek,” Yelchin steps into the shoes of a character whom Yelchin called a “Cold War stereotype” in its early television days, complete with “wubba-u” pronunciation of his “v’s.” Much of the original Chekov will echo in Yelchin’s interpretation.

“With Chekhov, it was fun to capture the comedic aspects,” he said.“Naturally, he’s kind of funny sometimes. I adjusted it, but I wanted to be close to the [original version]. Certain things I took: the v’s to the w’s. He says wessels. He doesn’t say the v, which is an odd choice. It’s the kind of choice that they made 40 years ago when he was this Cold War stereotype. But it’s fine. It’s great.”

Yelchin was born in 1989 in St. Petersburg (then still called Leningrad), where he said he rarely returns, although he did make it back during the filming of “You and I” with Mischa Barton, directed by Roland Joffe. Both his mother, Irina Korina, and father, Viktor Yelchin, were champion figure skaters for the Leningrad Ice Ballet. The pair qualified for the 1972 Winter Olympics but did not find a place on the Soviet team and faced the challenges of that time and place that faced many athletes of Jewish heritage. They moved to Southern California in the late ’80s, when Anton was born. They continue to work in figure skating; Viktor is a trainer, and Irina is a choreographer.

In his free time, Yelchin doubles as a musician with a band of local friends in L.A., and has been recruited for DJ duty around town. He considers himself a cinema geek, watching old movies at the Egyptian and NuArt theaters. After his Summer of the Fanboy, Yelchin is looking through scripts for, ideally, a small drama. His aspirations may delve into the absurd: “It would be nice to live off the land and fix cars,” Yelchin says. Instead of visions of Hollywood glamor, he waxes on about hiking the steep hills  in Tarzana, playing music, taking pictures and writing. The serious young man even has a notion that would make him look even more serious. “I want,” he said, “a Tolstoy beard.”

– Nicolas White

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Photos of Anton Yelchin by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times. “Temrinator Salvation” image courtesy of Warner Bros.


UPDATE: An earlier version of this post suggested that Yelcvhin attended USC. He was accpeted there, he says, but did not attend the university.

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