Do I Look Like a Ghoul to You?

Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

Anton Yelchin has some issues with capitalism. In a way, it saved his life. But it’s a beast all the same. Like his fellow millennials down at Zuccotti Park, the 22-year-old spends a lot of time thinking about corporations and co-optation. Unlike them, he’s part of the one percent, the star of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy, one of this year’s most promising indie films. Though, naturally, the word indie makes his skin crawl.

Indie symbolizes that you are not a dominant order? Bullshit!” Yelchin says. The worst, he adds, are “those fashion stores in L.A. that have a music section and a DVD section—everything a cool person should know. Some Godard because he’s French and that’s cool. But not Fellini’s films. Why?

Like Crazy by writer-director Drake Doremus, opens October 28; it’s a long-distance romance about young lovers who find out that their entwined fates have been star-crossed by immigration officials, since he’s a Los Angeleno and she’s a Brit without a green card. At Sundance, critics heralded the discovery of Felicity Jones, the pouty-lipped realistic romantic. But it was Yelchin’s performance as a driven furniture designer who juggles the affections of a hometown bombshell (Jennifer Lawrence) and his overseas dream girl that might have an even bigger impact.

Consider it Yelchin’s debut as a grown-up leading man and, possibly, one of our next heartthrobs: At a time when the nation faces a dearth (see here) of up-and-coming Big Male Actors, a situation whose gravity doesn’t quite rival that of American declinism but—just maybe—dovetails with it, Yelchin represents promise. Continuity. A new dawn. At the very least, girls will swoon. Which is great, right?

Well, maybe, except whom are they swooning for? “When you meet people who are just the exterior, I think, You fucking suck. I want to terrorize you,” says Yelchin. “I fucking hate photos,” he adds. “It makes me so self-conscious because the whole goal is to look attractive and sell the clothing. My friends always laugh at me because I’ll send them pictures from the studio and they know that I’m such a fucking ghoul.”

Sprawled out on a park bench on an unseasonably warm fall day near the University of Toronto campus, where he’s ogled by the occasional co-ed, Yelchin is no longer the cute little kid from Hearts in Atlantis, the precocious teen from Charlie Bartlett, or even the voice-cracking Chekov from J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot. His sharp, angular features are coming into ever-starker relief. He can still play the teen lead in a movie like Fright Night, but unlike Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire, he won’t be able to for long: Yelchin’s thin frame has stretched up to nearly six feet to fill out his zip-up sweatshirt and long black jeans. Similarly, he’s bursting at the seams with opinions and theories.

“I’m fascinated by how ethnic communities have assimilated into massive capitalist environments,” says Yelchin, reflecting on our walk through junk-filled dollar stores in Toronto’s Chinatown and comparing it to Blade Runner. When Yelchin was 6 months old, his Russian-Jewish parents, Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin, stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet, moved to California. “There’s no one I respect as much or love as much,” he says. “What they went through? Standing at the edge of an abyss: You don’t know the language, the country; you don’t know if you’re going to get a job because you have this weird profession. You’re an ice-skater! And they just did it, because they didn’t want me having a shitty life.”

The guilt factor was huge. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer or doctor—“that standard Russian-Jewish thing”—and Yelchin says that he became an actor so young in part because he wanted to pay his own bills. “Now part of my guilt is already taken care of.” He loves acting and loves the independence, but he’s troubled by celebrity. “I don’t hang out at trendy Hollywood bars,” he says. Yelchin pals around with Lawrence and Kat Dennings and Christopher Mintz-Plasse—all film-set friends—but is more at home with his civilian childhood pals. “We’re just nuts and freaks.”

Still, how do you oppose the mainstream and star in Star Trek? (His idols Brando and Nicholson managed it, but they both went crazy in their own ways.) Growing up on film sets, cocky and curious, and never going to college, Yelchin’s an autodidact whose tastes lean toward the defiantly obscure: “early Norwegian death metal” and lo-fi YouTube cult videos. Plus Harmony Korine and David Lynch. For a while, he raged in a punk band and devised and abandoned his own graffiti tag.

But all the while, capitalism continued its snake dance. It even found its way into Yelchin’s sexual desires: At age 16, he wrote a script about a guy who had erotic visions of mannequins. Now Yelchin worries about how attracted he was to his ex-girlfriend’s clothes. “Why am I more turned on by her hipster dresses than an Ed Hardy shirt? I’ve been programmed. I seek out weird sexual things just to negate that.”

Yelchin as Chekov in Star Trek.Photo: Paramount/Bad Robot/The Kobal Collection

To process all these conflicted feelings, he’s shot dozens of hours of footage for an experimental film that mixes documentary scenes with fictional sequences. For the film, he’s interviewed homeless people, crosscut that with interviews of teenage mall-rat girls, and taped auditions with young actresses who later play his characters. He plays himself, a fictional version of himself, and a documentarian. There’s a homeless man named Ass Man, who wears a giant mask and speaks through the mask’s anus. He admits some of it came out “extremely chauvinistic”—like the time he asked an actress to “read this dialogue about wanting to suck the Ass Man’s cock. I thought it was fucking hilarious, but that’s so not cool.” The goal, he explains, was to explore the clash between commodification and identity—something a star has to think about a lot—“since the most important commodity in our culture is image.”

He has plans to enter the film in festivals. “It’ll be weird because it’s completely 180 from what anyone knows about how I think about things,” he says, but mostly he’s using the film to process the kind of obsessions that give him occasional paralyzing panic attacks. “I’m so paranoid,” he says. “I don’t trust people—partly because of my beliefs about this culture that everyone wants to be objectified and in some way consumed by someone else. It just freaks me out.”

He stops talking for just a few seconds, looks around this beautiful day, the college kids lolling in the grass, reading books, reordering playlists on their iPhones. “I mean, you see all those young, pretty girls,” he says. “At least one of them has some crazy, deep-dark weird shit that’s being contained by this capitalist façade. If you just crack through it, it becomes a sea of complete and utter darkness and just chaos. Which is what we are as people, I think.”

See Also
David Edelstein on Like Crazy

Do I Look Like a Ghoul to You?