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.
Like many actors whose first experience is on the stage, Quinto expects his career will take him to New York to work in theater. He is surprised in his senior year when he receives a better response to his Los Angeles showcase performance than the one in New York. Through the Los Angeles showcase, a regular component of drama students' Carnegie Mellon education, he lands an agent and manager and moves to Los Angeles in 1999 after graduation.
His first on-camera job comes a month and a half later: a commercial for Surge, a now-defunct citrus soda. Other commercials follow as he auditions for roles, waits tables between gigs, and lands an occasional TV guest spot, what he calls "a very traditional acting experience in your first years out of school."
Then his agent calls with the kind of news that should end his days as a waiter. Quinto landed a recurring role on an NBC series called The Others, starring 1994 Carnegie Mellon drama alumnus Gabriel Macht. But the euphoria turns into heartbreak not long after: The Others is canceled, and much of Quinto's work is never aired.
Better luck follows, though, when he is cast on the Fox hit 24. Quinto, jubilant for his next big break, plays a tech agent. The part, initially slated for just a few episodes, lasts a full season.
On a roll, he next has a choice between acting in a WB sitcom pilot, Twins, or starring in NBC's So NoTORIous, where he would play the gay best friend of the show's lead, Tori Spelling. The enthusiasm of the So NoTORIous producers wins him over. But disappointment follows: NBC makes the show's pilot but opts against making it a weekly series; Twins, meanwhile, receives a series order. Quinto worries he may have to return to waiting tables. He's saved from that when VH1 orders 10 episodes of So NoTORIous after NBC passes, keeping him employed. But there's a catch. While he waits to see whether VH1 will commission a second season, he can't audition for other opportunities because of his contract with the show.
VH1 ends up canceling So NoTORIous, but by the time that happens, Quinto has missed out on auditioning opportunities for the upcoming season. Jarred by his misfortune, the unemployed actor descends into a funk, even growing a scraggly, rabbinical beard.
After six months pass, he gets word of an audition for a recurring villainous role on NBC's critically acclaimed drama Heroes. "I definitely went into the audition for Heroes working with what I had at that time, which was a lot of unhappiness and frustration and uncertainty about where my career was at that point, where I'd come from, where I was going," Quinto recalls. "I felt, as many actors do, that I was meant to do more than I was given the opportunity to do."
That dark place serves him well. He lands the part of the evil Sylar, with one request from producers—shave the beard. "You realize, as you look back, that everything falls into place exactly as it was meant to," he says. "You can't see it always as it happens, but with perspective and time you realize that So NoTORIous was absolutely the show I was meant to do at the time I did it."
The Heroes character, Sylar, had been envisioned by producers to only appear in the first season and then, most likely, be killed off. But viewers and producers embrace Quinto's portrayal of Sylar. As the forehead-slicing, power-stealing character gains popularity, producers elevate him to a series regular. "I've really fallen for Zach Quinto, and I just think the character is so much fun," Heroes executive producer Tim Kring told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January 2007. "I just like the idea of him being around for a while."
Wadsworth, who helped coach Quinto for his college auditions and remains a mentor today, says he brings the aggression of his youth to Sylar, but the maturity he's gained since then imbues the character with greater depth. The Heroes writers latched onto that and in the show's third season explored the notion that Sylar might not necessarily be the villain viewers initially suspected.
Not too long after those dark days of bearded joblessness faded away, Quinto receives an email from a friend. A new movie is in the pre-production phase, the latest installment in one of Hollywood's biggest science-fiction franchises. J.J. Abrams, mastermind behind TV's Alias and Lost, is set to direct a Star Trek movie with an all-new cast playing the familiar characters. The email Quinto receives directs him to a Web site where fans have listed a dozen names of actors they think should be considered for the iconic role of the pointed-ear Vulcan. Quinto's name is on the fans' casting wish list.
He attends a party later that night. Sitting outside, drink in hand, he declares to a friend, "They're making a new Star Trek movie. I think I'm going to play Spock." He acknowledges, in hindsight, that kind of certainty seemed unfounded, but at the time he simply decides to set a goal of landing the role. He does more than just wish for the part; he creates the opportunity by talking openly about his desire to play Spock—a move his friends and former acting teacher say shows business savvy. He doesn't hold back his interest in playing Spock during media interviews, which leads other journalists to ask him about the role.
Six months later, Quinto gets his chance to audition, but because of secrecy surrounding the new Star Trek, he isn't allowed to take home script pages for his audition scene. So he goes to the casting office to study the script. "They let me sit in an empty room for 45 minutes," he says, "during which I surreptitiously copied the script into my journal so I could work on the dialogue at home before my audition."
The extra work pays off. He lands the role and is the first cast member named to the film, months ahead of his co-star, Chris Pine, who plays Captain Kirk. In addition to his rubber band regimen, Quinto prepares for his role in conversations with the original Spock, actor Leonard Nimoy, who also appears in the movie, and with college friend Corey Moosa, a longtime Trekkie.
Today, with his Star Trek and Heroes body of work, Quinto hopes to capitalize on his cachet by adding to his artistic endeavors as a producer. Teaming up with Moosa and Neal Dodson, both 2000 graduates of Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama, he recently formed Before the Door Pictures, a production company named after the school's acting exercise. Before the Door is developing movie scripts, proposed TV series, novels, and Web-based content.
"We wanted the name to reflect our shared experience and how long we've known each other," Quinto says. "Before the Door is the first creative endeavor you embark on in your time at Carnegie Mellon. We thought it was appropriate we would name our first creative venture in the larger marketplace accordingly."
Quinto also looks forward to some stage work. He sees his move to Los Angeles as a means to an end. Even in his most difficult jobless days, he says he told himself that working in TV and film offered an eventual route back to his first love—the theater. For now, though, stage roles will have to wait. Between his day job on Heroes and his current duties promoting the Star Trek film, his routine is the antithesis of that unemployed actor with the rabbinical beard.
Boldin, Quinto's college roommate who now is a Pittsburgh-based professional singer, has remained in touch with Quinto and says his friend has learned to handle the limelight with aplomb, both when it comes to Hollywood dealmakers and everyday fans. He says he's been in a car with Quinto when the actor is on the phone with his agents—he's all business, Boldin says—but Quinto is relaxed with fans.
Last fall, during Quinto's return to Carnegie Mellon for Homecoming—in which he co-emceed the university's Inspire Innovation gala—he met Boldin for some drinks at a downtown Pittsburgh bar. A college student saw the pair chatting and approached Boldin after Quinto left the table for a moment. The student, unsure whether Quinto would mind him saying hello, asked Boldin for advice. Boldin assured the fan that Quinto wouldn't be upset. About 15 minutes later, after a conversation with Quinto, the student walked away with a star struck smile on his face.
"I remember the kid saying he just wanted to get an autograph, but Zach really engaged him in conversation, showed him pictures from Star Trek on his iPhone," Boldin says. "He's very inviting like that and comfortable doing it. It's a very typical gesture."
Quinto—later dining at a restaurant, just a few miles from campus and that windy Schenley Park road—says it was no big deal.
Rob Owen is author of the book Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place, a former president of the Television Critics Association, and the award-winning TV editor/TV critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Watch "Training Spock" -- Drama alumnus Zachary Quinto (A'99) talks about the training he received at Carnegie Mellon University.