Zachary Quinto on Heroes, Star Trek

Of all the colorful characters on television today, not many have rose to pop culture royalty as quickly as the character of Sylar, the big baddie of NBC's fan-favorite show, "Heroes." This is due in large part to the work of the actor who portrays him, Zachary Quinto.

The success of Sylar is no small feat when you consider that Quinto didn't even appear in "Heroes" as the brain-dissecting, super-powered serial killer until episode eight of the first season. Since then, Quinto's joined the regular cast and has been the breakout star of the show. Next summer, he will be seen on the big screen in another iconic sci-fi role, taking over for the legendary Leonard Nimoy as the USS Enterprise's Science Officer, Mr. Spock, in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek."

With fans' anticipation for the film growing by the week and the new season of "Heroes" -- entitled "Volume Three: Villains" -- beginning on September 22, CBR News caught up with the busy star to talk about "Heroes," what's next for Sylar, and what it's like to go from killing heroes to wearing the famous Vulcan's pointy ears.

CBR: Did you have any idea, when you took the part of Sylar, how important the character would be to overall story of "Heroes?"

Zachary Quinto: Absolutely not. I don't think there is any way to predict how things are going to go. But as colorful as this show's been for all of us involved and for the audience, when you get involved in it, it's something that sort of takes you by storm a little bit. There's really no way to predict it and obviously I'm most grateful that it did happen. But I had no way of telling when I signed on.

In what ways do you think your theatre training prepared you for the role of Sylar?

I feel really grateful to come from a theatre background because it sort of solidified my relationship to the work from a little bit of a different perspective. There are a lot of actors that come from a theatre background. So many of my friends actually working in Los Angeles now got those jobs that brought them to L.A. [while working] in New York. So for me personally, I feel like my training allows me to look at things from more than one perspective. It allows me to have a little bit more of an oversight. I understand where a character lives in my body, where a character lives in my voice, and then how to modify those understandings to fit the format that I'm working in.

I remember when I was in school teachers would always argue about whether there was a different technique applied to television and film than is applied to theatre. I think there definitely is. I think that coming from a theatre background, it allows me to sort of bring things down rather than going from a small medium to a large medium. It's much easier to fill whatever size of screen your working on, if you can fill a seven hundred-seat theatre. For me, that training gave me a really great base from which to work and I continue to learn about the technique and the tools that are necessary to work in television and film. I feel really fortunate to continue to have these experiences that teach me those new lesions.

Did you ever think that you would have a career so strongly rooted in the science fiction genre?

I never imagined that my experience would lead me so deeply into the comic book and science fiction world as it has. Again, it's something that I'm incredibly grateful for. Harkening back to the question about my training, it makes sense when you look at it from that perspective. I think there is something very theatrical about those worlds. Obviously the world of "Heroes" is incredibly heightened and there's something very theatrical about it. While I never really expected it, it doesn't necessarily surprise me now that I've become emerged in it.

It also has a really excited group of fans, so I feel like that's something else that is an added bonus to the whole thing. It's probably the most ardent group of people that you could ever be working for, in terms of fans and their enthusiasm for the stories that you're telling. So I'm happy to be here. I definitely look forward to exploring other areas of storytelling, but I'm so grateful hat this one has brought me to a point where I'll be able to do that.

Can you talk about how "Heroes" helped you get your role in "Star Trek?"

This whole year for me has been a blur of good fortune and there was very little of it done by design. I feel like my experience on "Heroes" and the world in which it's rooted lent it's self to the attention that led me to be part of the movie. I don't really think of it in terms of how I use "Heroes" to get movie roles or how I use "Heroes" to get other jobs, I feel like I remain as grateful to be on "Heroes" now as I did when I first started. It's so fulfilling, creatively and professionally.

I think you can't get ahead of yourself because no amount of success, exposure or opportunity is going to really matter, or be ultimately fulfilling unless you can be totally present in what your doing right now. That's sort of the way that I've gone from one thing to another. There were so many fortuitous moments that lined up in almost a magical way that you could never even begin to conceive it, unless it was happening to you. Also it helped out that the timing of the movie happened during the Writers Strike. So I feel like I couldn't be in a better spot and I couldn't be happier to be where I am.

What are some of the differences in playing Spock as opposed to Sylar?

I think there are elements of the characters that echo each other but I think they echo each other from very opposite ends of the spectrum. Each of the characters employ a stillness and a sort of a rich internal point of view that informs the way they behave and the way they relate to people around them. It's great fun to have characters that are rich, full of challenges and full of rewards. Both of these characters are clearly that. So as an actor, I don't really approach a character as whether or not he's good or bad. I just approach a character by looking for where it lives in me. And I think for numerous reasons both of these characters find very different life in me. Both of these characters are very contained and very controlled.

For me, it was like coming home when I came back to work on "Heroes" after going away on a new and uncharted experience. The movie was different for me because of the scale and size of the franchise and the iconic nature of the character I was stepping into. There was a tremendous sense of completion when I finished the film and a tremendous sense of familiarity when I came back to work on the show.

What's your approach to playing Sylar this year and how are the scripts that you've seen for Season Three?

I think that the scripts for this season are just more exciting, more action packed and more dynamic than ever. I think they just keep getting better. You know, every time I open a script it's really a thrill. In terms of my approach, it is always the same in whatever I'm working on. It's to serve the text. I think we're really fortunate to work with incredibly creative, imaginative and consistent writers that bring surprise to the scripts. Sometimes when I open a script for Season Three, it's just hard to keep track of exactly where I'm going. There are so many different aspects of this character's experience that are drawn upon this year. So my approach really is to just sort of serve that and keep track of it at the same time. I think people will see what I mean as the season unfolds.

In the episodes for the third season that you've shot so far, how has Sylar developed and what are some of the acting challenges for you?

Well, this is the longest time I've spent playing one character on a show and I think there are unique challenges that go along with that. The idea of being on a show and playing a character in an open-ended kind of way, especially in the serialized nature in which we tell our stories, is very exciting for me. So for me, this character grows and evolves in so many ways this season. I think this season, he is put into situations and he is in some ways manipulated to employ kind of restraints against his instincts and impulses that we've never seen him have to employ before. And that's really been a fascinating journey for me as well as equally challenging.

There are certain aspects of this character in particular that people respond to and people sort of come to expect. There are a lot of unexpected turns this year for my character. Every time I open a script, there's just a different kind of challenge, whether it's a physical challenge in terms of a fight sequence, a stunt sequence, a special effect sequence or an emotional challenge he's coming up against in himself or coming up against outside of himself with the people that he's interacting with. I think the tapestry for that has been incredibly rich this year for my character in particular so it's been a ride for sure.

Would you like to see more of Sylar's past explored in future episodes and how evil would you like to see him get?

I'd be interested in learning as much about Sylar's background as the writers' see fit. We do go there again this year, at a certain point we'll revisit shades of that character as you first saw him. As far as how evil I want him to get, I feel like Sylar's evil is rooted in a great humanity, in a lot of smallness and a feeling of sort of emptiness. So I don't really look at it as how evil can he possibly get, I sort of look at it as, what he has in front of him and the choices that he makes in order to cease his opportunities. He's constantly, constantly wrestling with his desire to feel special, his desire to feel valid and the desire to feel viable. So I feel like those are the ways that I come at it, rather than thinking of him as evil because that is really just a means to an end.

Do you think that Sylar could ever be a good guy? What would have to occur for that to happen and do you think it would be fun for you to play the hero?

It goes back to what I was saying before about this character, I don't really look at him as absolutely good or bad. I think that he is constantly walking a line of ambiguity within himself and uncertainty within himself that defines the way he acts and the way he behaves. So I feel like there are colors of this character that are possible, that are maybe a little less violent and a little less dark than we've seen from him in the past. As long as it's rooted in a connection to the character's psychology because that's what's fun for me. I have nothing but faith in the fact that, that will always be the case no matter where the character is taken on the show and that's certainly been true so far this season.

With the new characters that were added last season and more new ones coming this year, is there ever a fear as an actor that you won't have enough to do?

I think our show does a remarkable job of tracking all the characters, sort of bringing them back around to one another and dovetailing the stories to each other. You know, for a cast as large as ours, I think all of my fellow actors would agree each of us gets a significant amount to chew on in all of the episodes we're in. There's never a feeling that one storyline is suffering in favor of another.

The first episode of "Volume Three: Villains" was premiered at Comic-Con this year. What was it like to be there and see the fans' reactions to it and how does what fans think about the show influence your work?

That's kind of a double-edged sword in a lot of ways because we are creating in a vacuum. We are relying on each other and relying on our instincts creatively as actors, as well as writers. I know for myself and my cast-mates, being at Comic-Con, sharing [with the fans] their experience for the first time with this volume and having sixty-five hundred people or however many there were in that hall, was incredible. It was exhilarating to see their response to it and be a part of their reaction. We all do really value that aspect of it too because we know that's why we do what we do, because people are responding as adamantly as those fans did.

Finally, it's been revealed that Sylar will clash with Elle this season. What kind of battle can fans expect and how did you enjoy filming those scenes with Kristen Bell?

Well, I just love Kristen all around. I love working with her. I love hanging out with her and I think she has a really great energy. She's a phenomenal actress, so anytime I get to work with her is a good time. Yeah, we have an epic battle. Some things go down that definitely have some specials effects elements to it. As well as there are some stunt elements and it's both personal and epic.

"Heroes Volume Three: Villains" will continue the fight between good and evil September 22 on NBC.

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