A cavalcade of actors with baby-faces and wiry frames has swept through Hollywood in recent years, laying claim to some of the film industry’s most coveted roles and obliterating traditional notions of what it takes to be a leading man.
Anton Yelchin, 22, is one of those actors.
The slim star walks a trail blazed by equally off-beat top billers like Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, who proved that American audiences don’t always need to watch a prototypically fit and chiseled hero ooze coolness for ninety minutes. After being force-fed way too much of that, it’s refreshing to see a guy who can quip as well as he brawls, a guy who’s more likely to fall victim to a neurotic fit than a barrage of CGI bullets. In other words, an honest dose of male awkwardness has finally become bankable story fodder at the box office.
That’s a good thing for Yelchin, who shines brightest when he portrays quirky, atypical outsiders. His break-out performance came when he landed the titular lead role in 2007’s Charlie Bartlett, portraying an upper-upper-class kid who manages to eradicate his outcast status at a public school by dishing psychiatric advice and designer drugs to students from a bathroom stall. The scheme works so well that the degenerate who used to bully him becomes his reformed sidekick, he gains popularity with all his “patients,” and of course, he gets the girl.
Charlie’s success story could almost be said to mirror Yelchin’s own rise to fame as an actor. When he began performing as a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, landing minor TV roles on ER and Judging Amy, and appearing in the 2001 film Along Came a Spider, he may not have been the most imposing presence in town. It was his intelligence and unique perspective that set him apart from the dozens of budding Jake Gyllenhaal facsimiles who pass through Hollywood’s casting offices every day, the same traits that have won him steady work ever since.
Two or three sentences into our conversation, Yelchin’s sharp-mindedness had already become evident. Talking in a way that was both natural and remarkably articulate, he set a tone elevated rhetoric that bordered on philosophical dialogue, and he maintained that tone for the duration of the interview.
“I’ve always been interested in the effect of systems on people,” he said, responding to a casually-posed question asking what he’s into these days. “I also try to be conscious of history and the effect of history on our present condition; the socio-cultural context of any moment in time.”
Then, he paused. It could’ve been an indicator to move on to the next question, the next subject, whatever. But it was actually just a quick three seconds of mental gestation, after which he exploded into a twenty minute riff on those initial thoughts, his ideas growing more and more high-minded.
“I was reading about positivism and found out that positivism was promoted over Hegelism in the U.S.S.R. because Hegelism was considered a threat,” he said, gaining steam.
Yelchin went on to describe himself as an enthusiastic reader of history, which he considers a vital activity, and elaborated on his tastes in philosophy. “I consider myself a student of the Frankfurt school of thought,” he said. He also opined on capitalism and the effect of a capitalistic system on the well-being its people. “I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a Socialist, but I am curious about the way this post-industrial economic system is affecting us as human beings. The thought of people becoming objects in a system really intrigues me. Everything is commodified, and everything is reproduced, and the mode of reproduction is such that our understanding of the other, us and them, is affected in a very serious way.”
Yelchin didn’t form these sophisticated opinions about society on a whim, though, and he’s not just trying to sound smart. His parents, Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin, achieved celebrity status as the 3rd ranked pair figure skating team in their home country of Soviet Russia. They qualified for the 1972 Winter Olympics, but because of their religion, the Soviet authorities prevented them from participating. In 1989, the year Anton was born, they emigrated to the U.S. as refugees from political oppression. Early on, they instilled in him a deep understanding of Soviet regime and the profound impact the Socialist ideology had on their lives. “Fascism interests me so much,” he said. “If it’s possible to apply a blanket statement and call an entire government evil, I think a totalitarian government is probably one of the best examples of evil in this world.”
Yelchin’s parents also taught him about the value of hard work, a lesson that seems to have been well-learned, as the precocious 22-year-old already has a long list of impressive credits to his name. In 2009 alone, his output included a well-received turn as Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ exquisite iteration of Star Trek, and another as Kyle Reese, the teenage refugee in Terminator Salvation opposite Christian Bale and Sam Worthington.
On the subject of his career, Yelchin’s interest in large systems of control continued to guide the conversation. “I think the actor profession is sort of helpless in the face of the studio system,” he said. “You can only do so much. You can only exercise so much power in the final product.”
Then, he became understated for the first time. “I love what I do, and I want to keep doing it,” he said. “I care about what I do. I’m lucky to have been raised in such a way that my parents taught me to appreciate the opportunities I have; to not waste them. I dedicate myself to movies.”
The movies Yelchin has been dedicating himself to these days include The Smurfs, for which he did the voice of Clumsy Smurf, and the upcoming Fright Night, a 3D horror film he recently starred in alongside Colin Farrell. His current project is an adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel called Odd Thomas, also a lead role, and Like Crazy opposite Felicity Jones, a film that created a ton of buzz at this year’s Sundance festival.
“It’s been very interesting,” he observed, considering the latter, and seemed disinclined to elaborate, as if the subject of an impending blockbuster failed to inspire as voluble a response as earlier, more intellectual concerns.
“I think this was good,” he said, wrapping up. “I don’t know. Maybe not. But I don’t feel like that. I feel like we’ve understood each other.”