Interview: J.J. Abrams and the Star Trek Crew

Star Trek Into Darkness - Premiere - JJ Abrams Zachary Quinto Chris Pine

Space. The final frontier. These are the words that one normally associates with the opening lilt of any Star Trek narration, and it’s once again time to heed the call with this week’s opening of Star Trek Into Darkness. For the second time since the highly successful 2009 big screen re-boot of the franchise, director J.J. Abrams has assembled a cast and crew of trained professionals to boldly go where no one has ever gone before.

With mostly everyone reprising their roles from the first film both in front of and behind the camera, Into Darkness follows the Enterprise on the most dangerous mission faced by the once again relatively rookie crew yet. Travelling beyond the safe boundaries they know, they become a part of a military operation designed to kill a terrorist and fugitive (played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch) that seeks to destroy everything Star Fleet stands for. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) the always logical Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of their crew are the only things standing between Earth and total chaos.

Here now are some thoughts and comments from director J.J. Abrams and actors Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldand (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scotty), and Karl Urban (Bones) about reuniting the cast, working together, their characters, the new threat to the Star Trek universe, shooting in 3-D and IMAX, and what they hope audiences gain from the film.

On reuniting the cast:

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J.J. Abrams: It was a thrill! One of the first things that I felt excited about and one of the reasons I wanted to be involved in a sequel was to work with these people again. The cast is wonderful and the crew is equally wonderful, so to be able to work with these friends again was a no brainer.

Finding the right actors is not a binary exercise. You have to really think about what the group looks like, how everything works as a whole, their interactions are key. Also, audiences need to see something in a certain way, so if there’s any visual overlap, people can get more confused than you think. It’s weird how confused audiences can get. As a filmmaker you think “There’s no way they’re gonna get these two actors confused” and you hear these things anecdotally that people couldn’t tell.

I did the show Felicity and I remember years ago when they tested the pilot that people said they couldn’t tell the difference between Ben (Scott Speedman) and Noel (Scott Foley), and I was, like, “WHAT?!? They look so different! What?” But I do think that we were so lucky with April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg, who were our casting directors. They helped us find the greatest actors for the roles, and we were very lucky to get them to come in and reprise their roles for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Zoe Saldana: It was so exciting, and I’ve felt so much joy because we did get along very, very well the first time we met and doing the first movie and we sustained a great friendship together over the years, which culminated in all of us coming back this time. It felt like we were on this long, extensive vacation and we were finally reunited with our favourite teacher.

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It felt like you were going back to a familiar territory and playing a character that you had played before and working with the same people, so you felt safe to just be yourself and try anything because you were going to be guided well.

Karl Urban: I constantly had people coming up to me and asking me when we would be making another Star Trek, and when I finally heard for sure that we were doing another one, I was thrilled. Just getting to be back on board the Enterprise again made me feel like Obama getting elected again. (laughs) It was great to be back with everyone else at the same place at the same time. It was just like going back in time.

Simon Pegg: It was a joy because we became such good friends on the first one. It felt like we were doing something important together. It was an ensemble and it forged us together and lasted for the full four years between movies. Even though we weren’t all hanging out, we were emailing each other and occasionally we’d see each other and eventually we were back together again as that family unit, but with a few new people, which was nice. It was what I was looking forward to most. Just seeing everybody again and being in a room with them.

Karl Urban: I just think that J.J. is supremely good at getting groups of people together that he knows are going to work well together and if you ever look at his history from his TV shows to today, you know that’s what he does.

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Simon Pegg: That’s all part of what makes him special. Casting is an intricate part of the process and casting is difficult. He’s very good, or at least his casting people are very good, at picking the right people.

On welcoming Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch as new faces to the set and to the Star Trek extended family

J.J. Abrams: First of all the cast is full of incredibly warm and kind people, so I wasn’t ever worried that the new people were going to be treated like the new kids. Alice and Benedict are both so witty and so smart, talented, and hard working, that the best was seeing how quickly the cast appreciated what they were doing. That’s what a dream cast like this does. Whenever someone shows up and wants to bring their A-game, it challenges everyone to bring theirs again. It was a nice way to remind everybody that while it’s a lot of fun to make a movie like this that we’ve really got to think everything through and make it as good as it can be for the audience.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto on their relationship both on and off set.

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Zachary Quinto: I think Chris is really intelligent as an actor and makes really smart choices. I trust his instincts and he’s really confident in his perspective and his process. I think his Kirk reflects that. He’s really generous and easy to communicate with, and because we’re friends and because we have a history, there’s a shorthand that comes into play that allows us to know where the other one might be at any given moment and what the other one might need in any given moment to do the best work we can do.

The great thing about working with Chris is that we really always check in with each other creatively and personally. We’ve both been through a lot of stuff since the first movie and it’s been great to be able to connect with him on things like that and bring it to work. There’s an implicit trust there, and I think something that happened to both of us on this film is thatwe both came to realize the impact that this franchise is going to have not just on our careers, but on our lives. It’s a blast and he’s an incredibly hard working actor. He’s enormously talented and very serious about what he’s doing. He’s really able to bring the bravado of this character and the complexity of it to life.

Chris Pine: For Spock it requires a tremendously confident person to go into a character like that and just by the sheer definition of that character express himself in the way that he wants to. You have to have a certain level of trust in your abilities that I don’t think I would have. Zachary has that in spades and it’s quite incredible to watch. There’s a moment in the film, and it’s actually a comedic moment, where Kirk is desperate for him to say “I’m your friend.” All he wants to hear is “You’re my friend, too,” and Zachary has a comedically beautiful moments where he just kind of tilts his head and acts like he’s going to say something, but he doesn’t. It’s just great fun to watch him play with his character and to use that economy of movement and stillness to his benefit.

Zachary Quinto: It’s a real honour for me to get handed a character like this who is so widely regarded as a beacon of intelligence, logic, and compassion, and I think Spock teaches me every time I come into contact with him, either through my playing of him or through my on screen and off screen interactions with Leonard (Nimoy). Integrity is one of the things that’s most important as we go on through our lives, and as a part of the Star Trek franchise, particularly under J.J.’s direction I’ve learned a lot about that and it’s value and power. And also to laugh and to know that at the end of the day people will hopefully enjoy what we’re making.

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Chris Pine: You have Spock and you have Kirk. Spock is kind of colder and on the side of reason and you have Kirk who’s a man of passion and emotion that follows his gut whether it’s right or wrong or whatever. In the beginning, though, Kirk displays a selflessness that sort of runs against this self-serving side of him that says he can get away with whatever he wants or that he can win. There’s a need to win inside of Kirk And the journey of these two characters is special because neither character can exist without the other.

 Star Trek Into Darkness - Chris Pine Simon Pegg Zoe Saldana Zachary Quinto

On working with J.J. Abrams

Simon Pegg: I love J.J. and that’s not an understatement. I think he’s just an inspiration. He’s just such an engine to be around for a shoot. He really does drive the whole thing. It’s his particular brand of enthusiasm and positivity and his inventiveness that keeps everyone on their toes and keeps it fun. And it should be fun. We’re making a film. We aren’t curing anything. It’s a fun film and it should be. J.J.’s all about that. He’s incredibly gifted. His mind seems to be processing multiple things at once all the time. He has a fantastic eye and it’s great to see him work a shot out. When he explains it to you it actually does make sense in your head. He has this clarity and understanding of the craft that’s put him where he is.

Benedict Cumberbatch: I emailed J.J. and one of the first of many compliments I had for him was to thank him for the generosity he showed, not just to us as actors and artists, but to give us the time to develop these characters and frame us and shoot us beautifully. The whole thing is just bedazzling to us, but also to the audience. This is really sophisticated storytelling with a lot of rich themes that sew a thread through the narrative. It’s not all in-your-face and “look at how clever we’re being”. There are a lot of big, grown up questions being asked.

Karl Urban: J.J. is unique. It’s rare that you get to work with a director that has all the elements of filmmaking at their fingertips, and he truly does. He knows about art, imagery, music, sound, comedy. He knows about lenses and how to direct actors from beat to beat and moment to moment through a scene. And what he’s really brilliant at is how he deals with problems. When something isn’t working in a scene, he’s super quick to come up with a scene or a line that’s funny, smart, or irreverent and he makes it all work. There are very few directors that I’ve worked with that have that capacity.

Zachary Quinto: J.J. is obviously such a gifted filmmaker and storyteller, and I think a big part of that has to do with hoiw he places emphasis on humanity and character. It’s what sets him apart in a lot of ways. He doesn’t just do things by the book, and that’s one of the things that draws me to him not only as an actor, but as an audience member to his stories.

On the look and feel of this movie this time around.

Karl Urban: It was really cool that they’re expanded the Enterprise. Being there it feel like a complete environment. It’s not just the bridge, but that connects to a set of corridors and atriums and med-bay rooms and transporter rooms. It’s just really cool.

Zachary Quinto: What (production designer) Scott Chambliss is able to create is incredibly rich and multi-dimensional environments for us to play within and be supported by. It’s not just the Enterprise and the ships that he’s built, but also the volcano set that they built and everything else. They just make things happen out of nothing and it’s just astounding. Then you have someone like (costume designer) Michael Kaplan who has just so much vision and integrity in his work. For us as actors it almost becomes like fabric, or at least that’s the word I always thing of. It’s about how much fabric do we have to stitch together our performances and become a part of our environment, and when you’re in a sci-fi story, where things are quite often left to the imagination and special effects, the more tangible information is great and these guys just give us tons and tons to work with. It’s really pretty remarkable.

On the decision to make the film in 3-D and IMAX

J.J. Abrams: When I was approached by the studio about doing this movie in 3-D, I was hesitant because I thought it was a gimmick. I had seen so many movies that weren’t well presented in 3-D and it felt like it got in the way for me at times when I was watching the film. So we did some tests and we took the first movie and we converted some scenes, and it was very hard to deny how cool it looked. Then I kind of got it: seeing the ship at warp and seeing the ship go through debris in these action sequences… even just being on the bridge; that dimension was admittedly cool. I knew we were going to shoot all of the exteriors in the movie in IMAX, which is this massive format with a huge negative and the image quality is just that much better. If there’s ever a movie that could benefit from both 3-D and IMAX it was Star Trek Into Darkness because we had these massive set pieces, great action sequences, things that could just translate beautifully. And because I was shooting the film anamorphically with these anamorphic lenses, it meant we were going to be shooting in 2-D and we knew we were going to be doing a conversion. So I got to make the 2-D version that I really cared about and then do an “icing on the cake” version in 3-D IMAX and make it like nothing anyone had ever seen before. So I got to do what I wanted to do and give the movie kind of an added jolt and value and making it a little bit more of a rollercoaster ride.

 Star Trek Into Darkness - Premiere - Chris Pine Zachary Quinto Benedict Cumberbatch

On Benedict Cumberbatch’s mysterious villain

Benedict Cumberbatch: It was very speedy. It was almost overnight. I got a call saying they were considering me to play the baddie in the next Star Trek film. I went, “Ooooooh, nice.”

I said “Can I see a script?”

“No.”

“Can I see something else?”

“No.”

“Well who am I playing?”

“We can’t tell you” (laughs)

When I finally did see the script I was hooked from the first read.

J.J. Abrams: Casting Benedict was a lot like shooting the movie in IMAX. Theoretically, you know how impactful it’s going to be and how incredibly cool it’s going to be, but until you’re actually in the theatre looking at that frame and seeing how much better it looks, it’s like being on set with him. He’s doing his things and elevating everything and just blowing your mind with how good he is. You can’t know beforehand what you won’t know until you’re there and he’s like that. He’s absolutely beautiful.

Benedict Cumberbatch: With regard to Harrison, my character, there’s a very ambiguous relationship to someone who can so obviously be seen as a bad guy. Yes, he is kick ass and powerful and devious and manipulative and extremely adept at doing what he does, but when you discover his motivations, you should have an empathy shift. He’s got a moral core and a real purpose. He kind of has that married to Kirk’s in lots of ways.

A big part of me wants to talk about the psychological workings of the character, but there’s also a huge 10 year old inside of me that just wants to go “YES!” (laughs) Because you’re running through plates of glass and you’re running while on this rig that’s taking you up a wall on a wire. You’re doing these fight scenes where you’re learning how to sell all these punches and kicks. It’s all just so great to learn a new skill set and so enjoyable to perfect it all with a really expert group of filmmakers and with J.J. at the helm, it’s just a pleasure, man. He’s a genius without a doubt and a polymath and those are two words that I don’t use very often, and I don’t think many people do. He just owns those titles. He can turn his hands to anything and he’s a professional within a second. It all comes not just from this infuriating furnace of his Spock-like brain, but also from an incredibly Kirk-like heart. The man is brimming with human intuition and feeling. He’s very generous with both of those things which allows him to make spectacle, create complex plots, and jeopardy and excitement, but amidst all that you’re invested because you care about these characters and there are all these universal themes about family and loyalty and friendship and what that all means.

Karl Urban: Benedict’s fantastic. It’s really wonderful to have a character who you can give pages and pages of dialogie to and just be enthralled to hear him say it. He has a wonderful stillness to him and an eerie presence that’s just formidable. I loved doing scenes with him and being around watching Chris and Benedict work together because when they do sparks literally fly.

Chris Pine: Benedict went at it like he had a scalpel. His performance is so precise. The scene that pops into my head immediately is what I like to call “the exposition scene” where it’s just, like, “cue Benedict’s monologue.” It’s so rich. I think it’s such dangerous territory to do something like that, be he just took all of this information and just shaped it and he just stood up ramrod straight and he would tilt his head and his body in all these precise angles. It was just so much fun to watch.

Zoe Saldana on Uhura getting to get a little more physical this time out:

Zoe Saldana: I had to train a little bit harder with the stunt team this time out and learn some choreography they had established for my character. It was great because I just felt that this was a really natural trajectory for Uhura. The first time you see her is when she’s just graduating from the Academy and she’s having a romantic little relationship thing with one of her teachers, and then she was just so shy and eager to try her best. This time around she’s much more comfortable in her own skin, so much so that if anyone ever needs and extra hand, she does feel prepared and confident enough to fill in those shoes.

Star Trek Into Darkness - Premiere - JJ Abrams Zachary Quinto Chris Pine Karl Urban

Karl Urban and Simon Pegg on their roles as Scotty and Bones:

Simon Pegg: Karl was an inspired choice for this role and the moment I heard him as Bones, I got chills because it was just a “WOW” moment, and I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting right there.

Karl Urban: I think J.J. cast Simon because he fit the costume. (laughs) Simon’s fantastic. He has this wonderful sense of humour that he brings to the character and there are moments of just sheer comedic genius when I watch this film that just have me and the audience in stitches. What I love about Simon’s Scotty is that he has this firm moral centre and he stands up for what he believes in and he acts as another voice of conscience for Kirk and I think that’s brought out more in J.J.’s iteration of Star Trek. I think it’s another strength. And Simon does such a wonderful job.

Simon Pegg: I think both of us play characters that could be mistaken for comedic characters, but they aren’t. They’re serious characters that they both have it in them to be funny and it’s interesting and sometimes difficult to pull all that off.

It was very exciting to get to play Scotty again because we are a crew now and we’re all back together. The first time out it was all about getting us together and that time was bringing us all together and now we’re a team from the start. I was there from day one this time and I got to hang out a bit more. I love being with these guys. It’s just so much fun. We’re a fun bunch of people and we enjoy being together. It was nice to be Scotty from day one this time and be around for everything. It’s also nice to see them all knowing each other a bit better now. But not too well! Scotty still calls Chekov “wee man”. (laughs) He’s also still not that sure of Spock. Kirk is kind of his oldest friend out of all of them and he still doesn’t know him that well. Playing that was fun.

We did a number of camera tests before we jumped into anything. I think it was me and Anton Yelchin on set just playing Chekov and Scotty and just knocking around, then Zack and Karl joined us, and when we did the scene where we’re all on the bridge and all of us were in wet suits it was just like being thrust back in there all over again. It’s really special to be on the bridge of the Enterprise even if you aren’t a sci-fi fan.

Karl Urban: Bones is obviously the doctor on the Enterprise and he’s, on the surface, some what easily aggravated and cantankerous, but beneath the surface, he’s a true altruist with a considerably degree of empathy and passion for all living things. There’s nothing that he won’t do for his friends and I really like that as a character.

On what they hope audiences get from the film:

Zoe Saldana: Whether you’re a fan or not and you go to the movies wanting to be swept away into an amazing adventure, this film has a complete package of it. The plot is so suspenseful and the characters are so rich, and what they’re going through is so deep that you go through it with them. You have a film that caters to all of your senses.

J.J. Abrams: The thing that was always more of a balance in terms of making the film is also the thing I am most excited for the audience to experience and that was always the massive scope and scale and action and adventure that can sort of parallel with the heart and comedy of the character. I want people to really appreciate these really sweet, big hearted interpersonal relationships with this insane, intense, crazy, hyper-real sequences. The threat to the Earth, the chases in San Francisco, all the stuff in London, the action sequences on different planets, these space battles; there are all these moments that are just so much larger than life, but at the core of all these sequences are these characters that I think really do make you fall in love with and laugh with. I just want audiences to really experience those two things.



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