Last year, when Zachary Quinto was starring in the Signature Theatre’s restaging of Angels in America, he would find himself at Cafe Mogador, near the place where he was staying in the East Village, imagining what it must have been like when, say, fifteen of the 40 people in the place were skeletal and dying. “Doing that play made me realize how lucky I was to be born when I was born and to not have to witness the decimation of an entire generation of amazingly talented and otherwise vital men.” He’s saying this on an Indian-summer morning at a café on West 12th Street, just a few blocks from another of that play’s touchstones, the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital—a place where many of those men died. Quinto, who had arrived in ambi-seasonal Silver Lake camouflage—brown wool cap, patterned T-shirt, dark jeans, New Balance trainers, ball-chain necklace, facial scruff, and aviator sunglasses—is in a reflective mood.
Physically, the actor is most recognizable for his boldface em-dash eyebrows, which have been supporting actors in the two roles for which he is best known, his soul-searching, high-fidelity rendition of Spock in J. J. Abrams’s high-velocity rendition of Star Trek and his breakout role as psychopathic killer Sylar in Heroes. In the past two years, Quinto, 34, has been demonstrating his breadth in a series of less Comic-Con-friendly roles. There was his acclaimed stint in Angels as conflicted but self-involved Louis Ironson, who abandons his AIDS-stricken boyfriend, Prior Walter. His role as intimacy-impaired vegan boyfriend to Anna Faris’s unlucky-in-love singleton in What’s Your Number? was less wrenching to watch.
Quinto seems to see himself in transition. He asks if he can record our conversation, for, he explains, “archival purposes … I just find that there’s something about looking back on interviews, whether for purposes of remembering what I said about something or if it’s for posterity when I’m 75 … I find that communication as an actor and person is an important part of who I am … and I’m really drawn into the psychology of those dynamics.”
For one thing, he’s willing to unambiguously talk about his sexual orientation. His eight-month role in Angels was both “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as an actor and the most rewarding” he says. Having to inhabit that terrible lost world, if only in his mind, took a toll. “And at the same time, as a gay man, it made me feel like there’s still so much work to be done, and there’s still so many things that need to be looked at and addressed.”
Quinto has played a series of gay roles, including on Tori Spelling’s TV show So NoTORIous, and on the new FX series American Horror Story, where he plays the kinky dead owner of the haunted house, and has been outspoken about gay-rights issues. Last year, the Times, in profiling him for Angels, noted that “the blogosphere is rife with speculation about his sexuality” but that “he prefers not to feed the rumor mill with either substantiation or dismissal.” That has changed. A little while later in our conversation, speaking of the cultural bipolarity that can see gay marriage legalized in New York in the same year that yet another gay teenager, Jamey Rodemeyer, was bullied and killed himself, Quinto says, “And again, as a gay man I look at that and say there’s a hopelessness that surrounds it, but as a human being I look at it and say ‘Why? Where’s this disparity coming from, and why can’t we as a culture and society dig deeper to examine that?’ We’re terrified of facing ourselves.”
Quinto, who lives in L.A., came to town to promote his film Margin Call, a financial-crisis thriller in which he co-stars alongside Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, and Jeremy Irons and the first feature for his production company, Before the Door Pictures, formed with two school friends from Carnegie Mellon University. With hundreds of protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park under the banner Occupy Wall Street, “the timing couldn’t be more impeccable for us to try to create a dialogue, which is exactly why we made the movie in the first place,” he says between bites of an omelette.
As a producer of Margin Call, which wrapped just two days before Angels began rehearsals, Quinto had a hand in everything from casting to raising the $3 million needed to make the independent film. “But my assertion has always been that if you’re going to make a movie about the financial crisis, you should do it in a fiscally responsible way, so I’m glad our budget was low.” For the seventeen-day shoot last June, the cast and crew took over the entire 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza, near Madison Square Garden, which had recently been vacated by a trading firm. To get ready for his role as Peter, a laconically intense young risk analyst who is the first to spot the rot that could bring down the massively overleveraged Wall Street bank where he works, Quinto spent time with analysts at Citibank, observing their work but also spending time with them outside the office. “It allowed me to see the humanity of their job, the ways in which their jobs affect all aspects of their lives. It was a valuable insight to me to see how rigorous that life can be, but also how alienating and lonely.”
While here for the premiere, he’s hoping to go visit the Wall Street protesters (his Margin co-star Penn Badgley has been photographed there). “As a left-leaning Democrat, I feel a sense of resonance with their position,” he says. “But as a citizen of this country, I feel deeply unsettled that people are rising up in movements against each other. It feels like we’re missing the mark … The bottom line is we’re all fucked, and we’re all in this together.” And in fact, though a screening of the movie in Zuccotti Park might seem like a no-brainer, one of the film’s achievements is its avoidance of facile moralizing. “I don’t know that it would satisfy the people down there,” Quinto says. “The point of this movie is not to judge or to vilify or to place blame on any one company or individual. It’s really to examine the emotional impact that the decisions these people had to make along the way had on them.”