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Zachary Quinto: ‘There’s a tremendous fear around openly gay men in our industry’

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I hear Zachary Quinto before I see him. The voice of the actor who played Mr Spock in the rebooted Star Trek films comes thundering through the closed door of the central London rehearsal building – a repurposed church – as I sit outside waiting. He’s rehearsing the climactic scene from the play Best of Enemies, a restaging of the infamous Sixties TV confrontation between novelist and essayist Gore Vidal (Quinto) and right-wing TV host William F Buckley. “The play moves at a tremendous clip,” Quinto tells me shortly after. “It feels like you’re sitting on top of a locomotive, and you have no choice but to stay there.” Judging by the combustible force I overheard, it certainly sounds that way.

The rehearsal breaks for lunch, and I am allowed in; Quinto follows me up a steep flight of steps to a small platform at the top of the building. He may have sounded ready for the Noël Coward Theatre, but the vibe is still very much “come as you are”: a pair of overalls and a beanie hat. The 45-year-old Quinto joined the production after its Broadway run, replacing Charles Edwards. Buckley, meanwhile, is played as before by David Harewood, in an intriguing piece of race-blind casting. Speaking to The Independent last year, Harewood described Best of Enemies as “tough”, noting that it included “an enormous amount of lines”. It’s certainly chewy material, a change of step from the genre work for which Quinto is best known – HeroesAmerican Horror Story; the Star Trekreboot. Written by James Graham, the play fictionalises the real-life 1968 ATV debates between Vidal and Buckley – a vitriolic sparring session which culminated in Vidal calling his opponent a “crypto-Nazi”, and Buckley threatening violence and calling Vidal – who identified as bisexual – a “queer”.

The debate was, says Quinto, a portentous moment not just for the tenor of TV newscasting, but for the entire American political discourse.  “It was a revolutionary act in terms of the format of the news,” Quinto explains. “Consider what debate used to be, a generation or two ago: two people with different beliefs would have an opportunity to express their point of view in turn. Then look at where the last 55 years has taken us.”

He continues: “It’s just continued to deteriorate, to the point where now, debate has largely just become about people screaming at one another and saying, ‘I’m right; you’re wrong. Not only do I disagree with you, I hate you for your beliefs.’ I think television is the variable in that equation. It changed – and in many ways denigrated – the integrity of debate.”

We hear people clattering a few floors below us; Quinto scuttles his chair to the ledge and stares down at them. It falls quiet again; he scuttles back. “The liberal-conservative divide has completely taken over our political system in the United States, to a degree that I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to repair,” he says. “It’s the inciting of violence, the absolute intolerance for the other side’s position. And I think it will be the ultimate demise of our democratic system. Democracy was not created to survive this level of disrespect.”

Perhaps this kind of rumination is inevitable for a man descended from noteworthy Pennsylvania politicians. Quinto’s great-grandfather was union leader PJ McArdle, whose name would later adorn a prominent city roadway. His grandfather, Joseph A McArdle, once served as a congressman. But Quinto’s attitude to politics has curdled to disillusionment. “In recent years, I’ve become less inclined to get involved in politics because I do feel so discouraged by the landscape of it,” he says. “I’m not so interested in trying to change people whose minds are unchangeable.”

It’s no shock that as one of Hollywood’s most visible gay actors, Quinto identifies with Vidal’s liberal point of view – a radically progressive one back in 1968. Quinto describes the Myra Breckinridge author as a “hero” of his, explaining: “Gore wasn’t just an intellectual titan…  as a gay man, he was incredibly unapologetic about his point of view, and unafraid to unambiguously express those points of view at a time when they were absolutely radical.”

Debate class: David Harewood (left) and Quinto rehearse ‘Best of Enemies’

When Quinto came out back in 2011, following the suicide of gay teenager Jamey Rodemeyer, he framed the decision as a moral and political one, writing on his blog that “living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it” was “simply not enough to make any significant contribution to the immense work that lies ahead”. A little over a decade later, some things have changed, Quinto suggests; there has been an “incredible explosion of visibility” for LGBT+ representation in media, “particularly in the trans community”. But other things have not changed at all. “There’s still a tremendous amount of fear around particularly openly gay men in our industry,” he says. “There is this long-held and stubborn belief that to identify as an openly gay man on some level means you’re inherently less masculine, inherently less believable as a straight character. There are still actors who believe their careers are better served by not acknowledging their authentic selves. That’s their prerogative, but I think we’re part of a movement that is unstoppable.”

An assistant arrives, sandwich in hand. “What’s a… ‘ploughman’s’?” Quinto asks, with a faint sense of bemusement. Say what you will about British cuisine, but it could be worse: back on Heroes, the writers initially intended Quinto’s character – the superpowered serial killer Sylar – to eat his victims’ brains after bisecting their heads with a swipe of his finger. For the rest of our conversation, Quinto takes small, patient bites between each answer, pausing to methodically pick crumbs from his lap.

Heroes was Quinto’s mainstream breakthrough. While the series never really recovered from the turbulence of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike during its second season, it was, for a while, must-watch entertainment. It was also prescient: within a few years of its premiere, superhero fiction had metastasised into a full-blown global obsession. “Heroes was the last of a generation of huge American network shows that had an international impact,” Quinto muses. “Now we’re so used to streaming shows… I think Heroes was the last of its kind in some ways.”

Ali Larter (Nicky) and Quinto (Sylar) in ‘Heroes’

The immediate success of Heroes likely played a role in securing Quinto his first film role, taking over the mantle of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Between Spock and Sylar, Quinto has proved himself expert at inhabiting a certain type of man: intelligent, emotionally closed off, with a ruthless, robotic air. “There’s obviously something about me that lends itself to that kind of a role,” he says. “I think I have an ability sometimes to hold my experience in a way that’s internal. And I don’t necessarily always feel the need to give things away.”

I’ve learnt to only get excited about things I know are actually real. And there’s nothing about a fourth Star Trek movie that feels real right now

It’s clear from how he speaks about Vidal that Quinto does his homework when it comes to roles, but he’s no method actor. “I think method acting was born out of necessity, at a time when we were not as psychologically evolved as we are now,” he says. “That whole movement was necessary to evolve the craft, and it did wonders. But everybody has their own way of getting there. All that matters is that in the end there’s integrity in the work and it has the desired effect on an audience. I don’t think audiences are particularly interested in how actors arrive at a performance.”

Quinto reprised the role of Spock for two Trek sequels; reports of prospective fourth entries have circulated for years, including an R-rated pitch by Quentin Tarantino. “There were some whisperings that Quentin had an idea that he shared with [director JJ Abrams], but I don’t think it was ever really that tangible,” Quinto remarks. “At this point, I honestly have very little attachment to it. All of us would like to come back and make another movie, but I’ve learnt to only get excited about things I know are actually real. And there’s nothing about a fourth Star Trek movie that feels real right now.”

Nimoy no more: Quinto as Mr Spock in 2009’s ‘Star Trek’

In recent years, Quinto has increasingly shunned genre roles in favour of theatrical parts and indie projects like Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird and Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band. Perhaps this is why his return to Ryan Murphy’s pulpy American Horror Story anthology felt like something of a surprise earlier this year, nearly a decade after his last appearance. (The fact it was filmed in New York City, where Quinto lives, was a compelling incentive.) Quinto previously won an Emmy playing the murderous Dr Thredsom in 2011’s Asylum series; in this year’s season, subtitled NYC, he played another sinister villain.

Murphy has meanwhile been embroiled in an ethics row over his latest series, Dahmer: Monster – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, with the relatives of some of Dahmer’s victims condemning the series as “exploitative”. “I think Ryan is certainly a provocateur,” Quinto says. “It’s what makes him so successful. He’s unafraid to put things out into the world and when you do that as uncompromisingly as Ryan, you’re going to have different points of view and different reactions to things.”

Our time is more or less up; the ploughman’s sandwich is eaten. I ask how he’s been finding England. He’s been here less than two weeks, each day of which has seen headlines dominated by changing prime ministers and national upheaval.

“It doesn’t feel entirely unfamiliar for me to be in a place that’s experiencing political turmoil,” Quinto laughs. “But I still think you have the capacity to communicate political beliefs with a little bit more restraint and respect than we do across the pond.” You don’t need to see Best of Enemies to know this is faint praise indeed.

‘Best of Enemies’, previewing at the Noël Coward Theatre from Monday (14 November), will open on 28 November until 18 February 2023

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