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Tuesday

Anton Yelchin Interview: Films, Russia, Antisemitism, Punk

Anton Yelchin as Max in Burying the Ex
Sunday morning saw the tragic death of actor Anton Yelchin in a freak motor accident. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1989, Yelchin was six months old when his family moved to the United States. Starting as a child actor, he went on to appear in films including Like Crazy, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Green Room. Next month he will be seen playing Chekov, for the third time, in Star Trek: Beyond.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Yelchin at the Venice film festival, in 2014, when he was promoting Joe Dante's horror comedy, Burying the Ex. He was friendly, intelligent, and full of enthusiasm for the job he loved. Below is the full text of my unpublished interview.  

Before this you appeared in the remake of Fright Night. Is Horrror a genre you enjoy?

“Yeah. I think they're both films, to a certain extent, about films. But this specifically, the reason I was drawn to it was because of Joe. You know, you get a script and it's like, 'Okay, it's a film that Joe Dante would've made and he's making it', as opposed to some other guy who's making it and he's going to try to make a Joe Dante movie and it just won't be as good. So that is what I responded to.”

It looks like an old school horror film.

“Super old school B-film. It is at once old school but the difference is that it knows it is. Something Joe said at the press conference is he wanted to make a movie about movies because he likes making movies about movies because he loves movies. (I don't know how I got that out in one breath. Mm, what an idiot.) So the film, for me, what's special about it, yes it plays with all the elements of the old school picture, but it becomes a film – and I think a lot of Joe's films become about this – about identity and our identity as a spectator watching a film, and that vicious circle. You know, whether when we leave the theatre we live out genre films in our own lives, or whether we do things because we've seen them in movies, or movies do them because they've seen us do them. It begs a very interesting question about our identity and how to transgress being an object of a genre. That's what Max [his character] is. He's an object of the zombie movie but he's also the object of a zombie girlfriend, and he has to face both. He has to get rid of the zombie girlfriend and get rid of the zombie movie, and yet he's still in a movie! There's a lot of interesting things that are very Joe Dante.”

People have been saying it only took two weeks to make. Is that true?

“This film? I would say three and a half, maybe. It was really short. I would love to spin this myth we did it in two weeks but even three and a half or four is very short. I mean four weeks of shooting time is 20 days. Do you know what I mean? We don't shoot six-day weeks. Twenty days is like nothing. So it was tough.”

What does it mean for you?

“It means you don't sleep as much. You shoot eight or nine pages a day. You run around like crazy. I feel really lucky because I have made movies, or been able to be on sets, work on films since I was a little kid, and I love, like, film energy. Film people are so weird and I always look around and think, 'What a weird thing to be doing. And we're all so nuts. Like we've been here all day and it's probably like three in the morning but I'm inside so I don't actually know what time it is.' So just the shortening makes things crazier.”

Did Joe Dante talk about his work and movies a lot?

“Joe doesn't talk about himself or his film philosophy or anything. I'm like the irritating student that's trying to get him to say things.”

Did he get you to watch movies of Roger Corman, Mario Bava?

“Oh yeah! Joe loves Mario Bava. His favourite film is Lisa and the Devil. The way I watch movies when I try to study them, is I watch them by decade or by person or filmmaker or cinematographer. So it's going to take me a minute to get to Mario Bava. It's going to take me a minute to get to the '60s. I'm still in the '20s. But I love Roger Corman movies. I'm sure I'd love Mario Bava films as well, but I just haven't seen them. There's that great Corman film with Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff where I think he'd shot something and then he was like, 'Well we still have this set, so let's shoot this other movie.' Jack Nicholson retired after that to write screenplays, and then went back to acting. So that tells you something about the movie. It's a great film, The Terror.”

Vegas are seen as weird in Burying the Ex. What do you think of Vegans and Veganism?

“Look, I don't discriminate against Vegans. I think, though, in our culture there's this PC culture and you're told to behave and do certain things because that is the status quo. And the worst thing about it, I think, is the status quo used to be a thing that you could fight, because you'd say it's conservative, it's this, it's that. But now the status quo is Vegans and Toms [an ethical canvas shoe brand]. There's a great Slavoj Zizek lecture about Toms, and the bullshit of Toms. You're told to buy a $50 pair of shoes and one pair's going to go to some kid that likely needs better water, better education, and instead he's going to have a pair of trendy shoes. And that seems to me to be the biggest danger with Veganism, that it becomes not, 'Oh I actually care about my body, I care about the environment, and this is actually important to me', but it becomes, 'I want Veganism to become part of my identity.' Now the line is very blurry, I think, between the two. I think sometimes we think we're doing it for genuine reasons when we're not. So for me the problem obviously isn't Vegans. It's this PC Vegan culture where everyone's gluten free, everyone goes to Whole Foods. It's like do everything correctly, vote for Obama, be Left, be all these things, but at heart you're just as conservative and driven by consumerism as everyone else, and that is the problem.”

You have a lot of new films coming up. Is there one that you're especially excited about showing people?

“I get excited when I see all the different characters I've got to play. I feel very lucky to have been in all these different worlds. But in terms of showing someone something and saying, 'This is a film . . .', I don't ever really have much control over the actual film so I either like or dislike it, like or dislike my work. I go to work on the film but I don't see it until later. So I'm in the same boat as you and everyone else.”

You were in a Punk band, I read.

“Yeah, I had a Punk band. We sucked, which I think is part of being a Punk band. You kind of have to be a little shitty. But we were like a little too shitty. We were over-shitty. You can be shitty but sound good. We were like, 'These guys are just kind of shitty.' It was like that fine line between bad-good and just bad.'”

You play music in the movie Rudderless. Do you get something different from playing music and acting?

“Um, I don't take music as seriously as I do film. I take music seriously in the sense that sound is a part of film. At home when I play music I mostly am trying to work on sound designs and atmosphere. I'm not saying I don't think actors should also play music. My friend Chris [Mintz-Plasse] is very much into his band, The Young Rapscallions and tours. But I don't like saying I'm a musician because I think that then takes away from real musicians. I think they deserve the respect of saying, 'You're a real musician.' I like making music for fun. I've had guitars since I was a little kid. Always enjoyed it. It was very cool to be playing guitar in Rudderless. But at the same time I was next to Ben Kweller, who is a musician, and you know when you see a musician and a non-musician. Here's actors trying to play music and here's a musician.”

So how did you feel next to him?

“I just faked it, man. I'm an actor, I fake it. And I felt good. I felt comfortable in the sense I was telling myself to feel comfortable. Was I really comfortable, realistically? Am I as good a musician as the real guy in the movie? No. Should I be saying this? Are they trying to say we're all brilliant? I don't know. Maybe I just spoiled their whole publicity campaign. But the truth is it was a challenge and that's what was exciting. I had to pretend to be [a musician]. And not just pretend, because we recorded a lot of the parts, so there was a lot of sitting around learning the riffs, doing all the harmonies, the vocal parts and all that. It was really challenging. It was like really playing musicians.”

How do you work as an actor?

“A process that I am inspired by is becoming intimate with things that move you and you know are related to what you are doing. But they're not like fake emotions. I use films to help me understand characters, poems, anything. I draw from it and I'm getting more and more excited because of research I've done on Nicolas Cage, like when he was younger, especially, and the weird ways he would rehearse for roles. I remember reading he had an audition for something and he stared at a photo of Charles Bronson for a week, or two days straight, without leaving his room. I think that really helps and I've been using that more and more. Silent film performance. German Expressionist performances. Expressionism in general is very interesting. Painting. Anything. Everything is open to be drawn from and emulated in your work. I think it makes you more free and experimental. You might fuck up, you might go too far, but that's worth it. It's worth going too far. Vampire's Kiss is brilliant.”

You started as a child actor. What was the point when you realised that you could make it your profession?

“My parents are figure skaters, and they're incredible athletes, and I am, to say the least, the exact opposite of that. So they were trying to get me to do sports and stuff and it wasn't happening. I was trying my best, it just wasn't happening. And then I went to this acting class, because a friend of ours, Elya Baskin, said, 'Take your son to a class, he might like it, because he clearly isn't into sports,' and I loved it. It just went that way. I never intended it to be a career. I don't think my parents intended it to be a career, they just wanted me to be busy. They were busy from a young age skating, so they were like, 'You're not going to sit on your ass and watch TV. You're going to do something. Sports. Extracurricular anything.' And then I just kept going. Even though in senior year I had already worked at that point for almost 10 years, I still applied to college and went to college and sat my SAT's and tried to get good grades. It was sort of mostly like my parents saying, when I was little, 'Yeah this is okay that you're doing this thing. Just remember, you're going to be a lawyer.' I was like, 'Er, alright.'”

Did they drive you quite hard? I imagine that coming from the world of sport they'd have been disciplined people.

“Yeah, I think one of the biggest gifts my parents have given me is the discipline they have given me. It's like the biggest gift on set, I realised. Like showing up on time. Knowing what your job is and respecting your job. By virtue of your job respecting the people around you. And respecting yourself by knowing this is a thing you have to do. And there's a sort of odd thing between experimentalism and discipline. They seem to be at odds but they're not, really. I think Nicolas Cage is an incredible example. The man is extraordinarily disciplined - I was blown away by the man's discipline – but incredibly experimental. And the discipline allows the experiment to happen. So I'm so grateful to my folks that I was told, like, 'No, if you say you're going to do this you do your job. You work hard and you don't fuck off, basically, just because you think you can.' So I'm grateful for that.”

Would you like to work in any other areas of film?

“I've been writing for a while and I would like to make films, direct films. That is what I would ideally like to do. Tiny films so no one can tell me what to do. I really mean that. It's harder to make movies the less money you have but then less people are breathing down your neck. So I would just like to work on films. It would be amazing to direct. I think I would focus on how people understand themselves in the face of constructions that we live through.”

Do you feel as free on a big film like Star Trek as do on something small like Burying the Ex or Like Crazy?

“I do, actually. The character Chekov I play is such a broad, fun character, it's almost expected I'm going to feel free. After we did the first one I was saying, 'Oh alright, this is the kind of performance I gave.' So for the second one I was like, 'Well you've established it so now you can't just drop it, you have to keep up that thing.' So I do feel free. I feel like I got lucky that I got in a studio film that allows me to indulge the things I do anyway.”

Were you nervous about essaying such a well-known character?

“Sure. I respect Walter Koenig's work a lot because it's a huge part of pop culture and I want to make sure there is continuity between the old and the new, and dialogue between the two. And I'm fortunate because there's so much to have dialogue with.”

I know you hate when people call you a Russian actor.

“I don't like it much, I'm not.”

But you went there and made the t.A.T.u. film, You and I, and I wondered whether you felt any connection to the country?

“You know it's funny. I didn't really. I wanted to work with Roland Joffe and I wanted to go to Russia, so it seemed like a good adventure. But I feel a strong connection with the fact that this was a festival of Tarkovsky's first film it came to, you know? That I feel a real connection with. Part of me exists in that world. And I have been raised to think about certain things a certain way, and that I feel a connection to. Like I watch Tarkovsky films and I feel a connection. And that's probably just because Tarkovsky is incredible. And he is so incredible that we as humans connect to him and what he is putting out there. Whether you're Italian, German, Russian, Jamaican it doesn't matter. Tarkovsky's Tarkovsky just like Pasolini is Pasolini or Fellini's Fellini. You relate because they're amazing. 

"Also I do feel some connection when I read Russian literature like Daniil Kharms. Some of it has to do with I know a lot of the history from my parents about the Soviet regime, the effect it had on several generations. The generation of the Revolution, the generation after. My parents will be the fourth generation, they're from the '60s, my grandparents will be the war generation. So I feel a lot of connection and am moved by the knowledge of a horrible, repressive experiment that hurt so many people. I connect to that. I feel that.”

Your family's Jewish. Did part of your parents' decision to leave Russia have anything to do with antisemitism?

“Yeah, because they didn't want me to grow up being Jewish there they moved to the States.”

Jews had and often still have more limited choices there.

“Well I'd have got the shit beat out of me, realistically, as many children of my parents' friends did growing up. I don't know what the level of antisemitism is in Russia at the moment, I haven't been since we did press for Trek there. But that was a big part of why they left.”

I was there in 1980 and I spoke to a Jewish tourist guide who said her daughter couldn't go to certain schools, etc.

“Well the nationality on the passport would say Jewish. You'd get that, you'd feel that, and that's something I'm horrified by and hurt by and insulted by. Even though really, because I grew up in the States since I was six months old, in LA you don't get a lot of that. Sure, you get bigotry everywhere, but you don't get it bad. There's every kind of person on the face of the Earth in LA. I don't feel it but I am very sensitive to it as a result of that.”

Anton Yelchin, March 11, 1989 - June 19, 2016


1 comment:

  1. Despite being a very young actor and a truly rising star, Anton Yelchin was still a very professional, reliable and friendly star that was always ready for some good jokes and fun. Known for playing Chekov in the new Star Trek movies, Anton Yelchin was already a fan favorite and he managed to impress the people around him unlike never before. He managed to bring an entirely new, interesting and fun take on the coveted character and many people loved him quite a bit thanks to his charisma.
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