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By: Rob Owen
It's September 2007, and just as he has been doing for the past couple of months while driving around Los Angeles, Zachary Quinto grabs a rubber band from the cup holder in the center console of his Toyota Prius. He wraps it around the ring finger and pinky of his right hand, binding them together. His left hand remains on the steering wheel. His right hand is now in rehearsal.
The actor is accustomed to doing whatever it takes to prepare for scenes—accents, intonation, attitude. His latest role requires muscle training, but not for bigger biceps. His ring finger and pinky need to stick together while parting from his forefinger and middle finger, which also must remain close. When done properly, the four fingers form a V. It's an essential part of the arm-raised, palm-out Vulcan salute, a signature characteristic of Mr. Spock, the character Quinto plays in the upcoming motion picture Star Trek.
The science-fiction franchise has already spawned 10 feature films and six television series dating to the 1960s, not to mention inspiring millions of "Trekkies" around the globe. Naturally, there has been plenty of hype for this Star Trek reboot, which revolves around the initial meeting of Spock and Captain Kirk. Months before advance screenings and the May 8 release date, New York Daily News movie critic Joe Neumaier picked the film as one of the "best bets on movies for 2009," and Toronto Star movie critic Peter Howell named it one of the "12 must see movies for '09."
If Star Trek turns into one of this summer's blockbusters, then the well-established television actor on NBC's drama Heroes will in all likelihood become a big-screen favorite, too. Quinto, whose fingers finally did get the hang of the Vulcan salute, seems nonplussed by it all. The work itself sustains him, he says while dining at a restaurant near the Carnegie Mellon campus. It's the kind of work he's been heading toward from a young age.
The fourth-grade music teacher can't help but notice the outgoing, social, and musical nature of one of her students. She sends a note home to his mother, suggesting that her son audition for the CLO Mini Stars, a well-respected western Pennsylvania performing group for young actors. He does audition, and by age 11 he is on stage at the Benedum Center, the 2,800-seat cornerstone of Pittsburgh's Cultural District, playing a munchkin in a Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of The Wizard of Oz.
The acting work with the Mini Stars provides structure and perhaps a welcome distraction for the youngster. When he was 7 years old, his father died of cancer. Quinto says his father's death caused him to become unusually independent at a young age. It also encouraged his imagination, he thinks. His first acting instructor, Jill Wadsworth, remembers him as more mature than other students, helping around the office, showing up to rehearsal with a bunch of flowers for his widowed mother on her birthday. But she also remembers him as aggressive and somewhat blunt with other students, an impulse she knew he had to channel to be successful in anything. "If he didn't like you, he could be rough on you," Wadsworth recalls. "He knows what he wants and goes after it, but he's developed into an extremely sensitive, open person who is willing to accept people and work with them freely."
By the time he reaches high school, Quinto is still acting in plays and musicals, but more as a hobby than a career aspiration. He receives the Gene Kelly Award, a local high school theater prize, for his role as the Major General in his high school's production of Pirates of Penzance. His stage work seems to point him toward an acting career, but it isn't something he has seriously talked about with his mom, teachers, or anyone else.
On a cold December night during his junior year of high school that serious conversation takes place. Quinto is driving—perhaps a bit too fast—with some of his friends in his mom's car. It's the first time she allowed him behind the wheel on his own. As he steers through Schenley Park's twisty Serpentine Drive, which borders the Carnegie Mellon campus, the car slides out of control on some black ice. The vehicle comes to a halt well off the road. No one is hurt, but one of the car's axles is broken. Quinto's mother arrives on the scene just as a flatbed truck tows away her car. She isn't happy.
"It was not a pleasant moment," Quinto recalls.
A three-hour, sometimes heated exchange ensues. She tells her son she is concerned about the recklessness of the accident and wants to know whether he is headed down an irresponsible path in life as well. Having no choice but to bare his innermost thoughts, he explains to his mom what motivates him on deeper levels, culminating in his declaration to her and to himself that he wants to become a professional actor. The pronouncement helps defuse the situation.
A year later, in an advanced-placement English class, Quinto catches himself staring out the window at the nearby Carnegie Mellon campus, daydreaming about attending the school's conservatory-style drama program. The daydream becomes reality.
Not long after his acceptance to the program, he arranges to room with Rob Boldin, a vocal performance major. The pair first met at a choral festival in high school and stayed in touch. Once at Carnegie Mellon, the roommates rarely see each other before dark, but they decompress in the evenings, sharing details of the day's activities. Boldin tells Quinto about the intensity of the conservatory environment and the incredible talent level of his classmates. Quinto relates his theater experiences, including Before the Door, an exercise in which freshman drama students act out preparation for opening a door that will lead to an intense situation.(Continued …)