Anton Yelchin may be “cynical” about fame, but following the acclaim of his latest movie, Like Crazy, the Russian-born 22-year-old actor may just have to get used to it. He talks to Steve Cummins about improvisation, paranoia and his parents, Olympic athletes, who were forced to flee Russia upon his birth.
Anton Yelchin looks like he’s ready to kill me. Lips pursed, his green eyes narrowing, he scowls when I suggest that signing-up to star in Like Crazy — a low-budget, largely improvised, indie movie— was, on paper, a risky move. Fixing his eyes on mine, there’s an intense stare as he seems to try and suss me out. And then it’s gone.
It’s a telling moment. Later, as we sit back in the sunshine during an abnormally warm day in Dublin, the 22-year-old actor will tell me of his cynicism; that he doesn’t trust people; that his core characteristic is paranoia; and that guilt is “a profound part of my personality”.
Such open self-analysis is at odds with other Hollywood stars of his ilk, but then there’s something different about the Russian-born actor. Dressed in a green Harris Tweed sports jacket over a checked shirt and navy jeans, he’s animated, candid and talkative, where others are guarded, when faced with questions on his personal life. Talk to him about his work methods — his obsessive note-taking and his ability to bring extraordinary depth to characters such as Jacob in Like Crazy and Porter in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver — and he becomes even more engaged, words whizzing from his mouth and hands moving around impatiently as he struggles to contain himself.
It’s when the conversation turns to his impending stardom, the surge in attention which roles in Star Trek and Terminator Salvation have brought him that the barriers go up. “I don’t give a shit, to put it frankly,” he admits, when pushed, as to the ever-growing glare of the spotlight on him. “I’m not the guy who goes to all the parties unless I really wanna get laid or something. That world is so far from what I’m interested in that it doesn’t concern me.”
Of interest to him or not, it is something he’ll increasingly have to deal with. Like Crazy, his 23rd movie, is about to make him one of the hottest actors on the planet. A no-budget film, the Drake Doremus-directed romance of two young lovers, whose relationship is tested by long-distance separation, was the standout hit of last year’s Sundance film festival. Winning the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, audiences wept, critics raved and Paramount paid out a reported $4million for the distribution rights.
To play someone so quiet is really interesting to me
“I’m really proud of that movie, like really proud of it,” he says a little bleary-eyed. “I’m proud of how the character came together because he’s very shut down. To play someone so quiet is really interesting to me.”
Having made his first movie as a nine-year-old, Yelchin signed up for Like Crazy on the back of the aforementioned studio movies. The decision then to take on an improvised indie flick helmed by a largely unproven director could have been viewed as a risk. Shifting in his chair, Yelchin scowls at the suggestion. “No,” he says after a calculated pause, “it actually felt like the complete opposite; it felt like a really amazing opportunity. The fact that it was an improv film just seemed extraordinary — and not a comedy, it was a drama. So the opportunity to do that, to create a character so completely and have such control over it… I really thought was amazing. I had no question in my mind that I wanted to be a part of it.”
Born on March 11, 1989, in Leningrad, Soviet Union, Yelchin moved to LA when he was just six months old. His parents, Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin, were stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet. They qualified for the 1972 Winter Olympics in figure-skating pairs but were barred from participating by the Soviet government because of their Jewish faith. Wealthy by Soviet Union standards, they gave up everything to come to America.
“I have tremendous respect and admiration for my parents beyond anyone that I’ve met or will ever meet, simply because they’re beautiful, strong people,” Yelchin says as his eyes dart around the room. “The amount of suffering that they went through in the Soviet Union and in the kind of moral, emotional, intellectual pressure and fear of coming to a place where you don’t speak a word of the language but you just know you need to do it.
“And a lot of the reason they did it is for themselves, but also, for me, y’know, because they had a little kid and they didn’t want me growing up there — or a baby — and they didn’t want me growing up there. And, eh, I can’t even begin to imagine what that feeling is, that fear. I almost think it’s like standing in front of an abyss and you’re just like “okay I’m going to leap in”. Especially my Dad, especially when he was a kid, he was I mean, beyond poor, I mean Soviet Union poor.
“But when they worked, they were pretty well off for Soviet Union standards, y’know. They had a summer-house, a car, an apartment, and they sold all of that — summer-house, apartment, car… all of my mother’s mother’s and grandmother’s jewellery and my grandmother was, eh, she was only one of two jews allowed to study at the Czar’s academy so she really had a lot of beautiful, beautiful things. They sold everything — everything they had and came out with $5,000, y’know? They have a lot of crazy stories and they are really beautiful people, so I always have a tremendous awareness of that.”
I’m sure there’s probably a lot of Russian things about me that are deep seeded
His parents’ experience has had a profound impact on the young actor. There’s a sense though that he bares an unwanted weight of his ancestry. If he could, you feel, he’d love to shake the tag brought on by his “very Russian-sounding name”.
“I don’t think I’m so much embarrassed as just…I was born there and moved when I was six months old. So when people approach me and so “Oh, you’re Russian” I say, “no, I’m American”. To say that I was moulded by Russia as opposed to the 22 years that I’ve spent in the United States, it’s kind of silly. I mean, I’m sure there’s probably a lot of Russian things about me that are deep seeded.”
Time spent reading Russian literature has helped him identify these deep seeded traits. “I’m a very paranoid human being,” he says. “Very cynical and paranoid. And then guilt: guilt is a profound part of my personality. I don’t know why. I don’t know if those are Russian characteristics, I mean that’s why I say, I mean there’s something deep seeded because there’s reasons for Russian people to be paranoid and cynical.”
There’s only pretty much a couple of things in my life that I love
He confesses to having trust issues, an experience that no doubt helped him mould the character of Jacob as he delved into “closeted jealousy, y’know, and suspicion that you don’t want to put out in the open because it’s bad”.
“It’s more about people…relationships with people,” he says when asked if his trust issues manifest in his working life. “I don’t see reality as concrete. Not in the sense of ‘am I real or not’ but there’s so many layers to what is actually happening everywhere and people’s motivations in terms of…not like because of the work I do, I just mean in general, in human contact.” Only, he says, on-set do any misgivings he has evaporate. Movies mean everything to him. “There’s only pretty much a couple of things in my life that I love,” he admits, “my family, movies and animals, there’s just nothing else that interests me, other than movies. Philosophy and history, cultural theory, all of that revolves around my interests in movies. I love fucking movies.”
Like Crazy is out now.
***This is a slightly edited version of the article that appeared in US magazine Nylon in November 2011**
© Steve Cummins.