Zachary Quinto calls upon LGBT actors to ‘be who they are,’ talks marriage, James Franco and lack of gay action stars
By: Chris Azzopardi*/Special to TRT—
Zachary Quinto is aptly responding to the fact that, yes, despite establishing himself as an Emmy-nominated actor with versatility, out-of-this-world talent and some of the best eyebrows in the biz, he once starred on an episode of Touched by an Angel.
He isn’t reacting to being on the show, per se—he just can’t believe it’s been nearly 15 years.
Since then, Quinto has made major shifts beyond his transformation to leading man. After matter-of-factly coming out to the masses in 2011, he became an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community and has notably taken on subjects such as PrEP and gay teen suicide.
The 38-year-old’s sexuality is a non-issue when it comes to his meandering career on TV, in film and on Broadway, as his varied typecast-defying roles demonstrate: Sylar on NBC’s Heroes, Quinto’s breakout role; the infamous American Horror Story killer Bloody Face; James Franco’s lover in I Am Michael; and, of course, Spock, the Star Trek icon he brought back to the big screen, ears and all. (He’s currently shooting Star Trek Beyond, the reboot franchise’s third installment.)
Quinto’s latest big-screen endeavor is the video game-inspired Hitman: Agent 47, wherein he dials up the badassery as a CIA agent you definitely do not want to cross. A major studio-produced action movie featuring… an out gay actor? You better believe it.
As he swings open the door on a traditionally gay-less genre by breaking down Hollywood stereotypes, Quinto spoke to us about recognizing his unique place as the go-to gay when it comes to action flicks and how he “definitely” thinks the world is ready for a gay James Bond. Plus, why he believes, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage, our fight for equality is far from over.
Q. Hitman centers on an assassin who’s genetically engineered as the perfect killing machine. If you could be engineered to do anything you wanted, what would that be?
A. If I could just travel anywhere at any time and somehow my genetic modification allowed me to transport somewhere, I imagine that would be a pretty useful genetic modification that I would get a lot of pleasure out of. No jet lag!
Q. Heroes, American Horror Story, Hitman: You like being bad, don’t you?
A. Well, it’s just sort of the way it falls out sometimes. It was never something I set out to accomplish specifically, but I think Heroes set a certain tone, and that was the first time that people on a wider platform became aware of my work. Because of that association, other opportunities in that vein have presented themselves.
I’m playing an antagonist again in this film. I think, for me, I really consider it a really nice bookend actually, because I’m very interested in cultivating other experiences for myself creatively, so I feel maybe like I can actively hang up the villain hat for a little while and do some other stuff. I really am open to things as they present themselves. It’s a balance, you know? Making decisions every time an opportunity arises—I’m grateful and fortunate to be in a position to be able to do that.
Q. You were bullied as a kid, so I find it interesting that you take on all these villain roles. Do you draw upon those experiences when acting as the bad guy?
A. I’ve never drawn on those experiences creatively in that way. It’s a lot about imagination. When you’re in a world like this, which is stylized and heightened and has a sleekness to it, then it becomes about filling that world with the character that you’re playing and, for me, that’s all about rooting it in the imaginary circumstances – one definition of acting is truthful behavior in imaginary circumstances. So, for me, it’s a lot about connecting to that and connecting to the people that I’m playing and that’s a different process depending on what the style and the tone of the piece is. This one was so driven by physicality and by actual conflict and combat, and that kind of drove the character a little bit. I didn’t really have to dive back into my uncomfortable moments of childhood to connect with that necessarily.
Q. How strategic have you been with the projects you’ve chosen in order to avoid the typecasting some LGBT actors have said they’ve experienced?
A. I played gay characters, but I was never part of a gay-themed story until I did I Am Michael last year with James Franco. That was a specific decision; I felt really drawn to the story (of an ex-gay) and the nature of the story. My whole take on the potential perceived limitations is just to not engage them and not allow them to exist—to me that is a choice. I know what I am capable of and I know what my range is, and I know that’s not limited by or even affected by my sexual orientation. So, for me, it was just a matter of doing what I do and opening myself up to the roles that present themselves, whether they’re gay or straight, with a kind of creative integrity. That’s all I really feel is in my control and that’s the place I work from in terms of both pursuing work and engaging work.
Q. Do you think today—in 2015, post marriage equality—typecasting on the basis of an actor’s sexuality even exists?
A. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think it has anything to do with marriage equality—that victory has been won and has been a really profound advancement to the LGBT community. I think our real fights for equality aren’t legal; it’s about humanity and compassion and inclusion.
Even in the wake of marriage equality you’re seeing all these county clerks who are refusing to issue marriage licenses, which is despicable and illegal. Just a few blocks from my house, these two guys—the first gay couple to be married out of West Point—were harassed in the bodega (in SoHo). It’s not behind us. The movement toward equality is bigger than just one legal issue, and that’s amazing that the highest law of the land has supported our struggle for civil rights, but civil rights is only one aspect of being a minority of any kind. It’s much more about human connection and respect in the long run and in a very broader sense, and I think that’s the fight that continues.
Q. Seeing as though I Am Michael is your first gay-themed film, would you have taken on that movie earlier in your career before you became such an established actor?
It was a different time. I don’t know if that movie would’ve been made. It’s hard to say. I mean, it came to me at the right time and it was the right thing for me to choose in that moment, but I don’t know the answer to that question.
Q. What was the process of developing your onscreen chemistry with James Franco for I Am Michael?
A. For me it was just about relating to the guy. Franco has so much attention and he’s sort of this ubiquitous figure. A lot of people have opinions of him and a perspective on who he might be. For me it was just about cutting through all of that and getting to know him. I really enjoyed our time together and I respect what he was doing by putting that movie together and wanting to tell that story, so I was happy to be a part of it. I’m sure that kind of set the connection that we had in our work together.
Q. There is definitely a sense of intrigue regarding Franco’s persona.
A. Yeah, and that seems like that’s his public persona, that’s his relationship with the public. There’s no clarity, really, as an actor, as a writer, as a director, as an artist; I think he’s just trying to do as much as he can and put as much out there as he can, and I respect that. He’s a really hard working, ambitious guy and I thought that his energy behind this movie was interesting and part of what compelled me to do it.
Q. With the exception of yourself, there are not any big-name out gay actors getting lead roles in action movies. Not Matt Bomer, not Andrew Rannells, not Neil Patrick Harris. Why do you think there aren’t any major LGBT actors besides you getting top billing in major Hollywood action films? I mean, why can’t we have a gay James Bond? I mean, we can, right? I’d like to think so.
A. Sure. I definitely think that we can. Matt Bomer is one of my favorite friends. I’ve known him for 15 years – longer. I know Andrew. These are friends of mine. The fact that so many of my friends who are openly gay have flourishing, thriving careers is really exciting. That in and of itself is progress if you consider that 15 years ago, when I started acting professionally out of college, you couldn’t even count on both of your hands the number of openly gay actors in any form, television or film. It was a totally different issue 15 years ago, and that’s not a very long amount of time to have made such progress.
So, I do not disagree with you; I do feel like I occupy—not in any self-aggrandizing way—a space where I have looked to my peers and looked around me and said, “Well, who else can I look to?” And there isn’t anybody else. That to me is significant and personally gratifying as I consider my own journey to self-acceptance, but again, I just think, “Don’t let it slow me down.” And I don’t. I don’t create an issue where there isn’t one, and I think the more that we’re all able to do that, then the more diversity will present itself.
Q. What do you think of the LGBT community’s evolution since your coming out in 2011?
A. Look at the transgender movement: of course Laverne (Cox), and before Laverne, Candis Cayne, who was amazing on Dirty Sexy Money. And now with the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, everything is changing. We’re rapidly evolving as a society, and I think there’s a lot of celebration in that. I think there’s a lot to be grateful for. The more that people from diverse backgrounds can stand up with integrity and integrate who they are in an authentic way to their creative process then everybody benefits and we all move forward together as a result. So I see myself as one of many, many people who have had their own journey that has defined them and contributed to the larger goals of advancement and equality, and that’s something that I’m proud of.
But we can’t stop, and so I do invite any gay actor to be who they are and to stand up and fight for their capacity to play different roles and to do different things. The more people can do that and stand by it, the more we’ll see it continue as we already have.
Q. In 2010, before you came out, you told The New York Times, “Let’s talk about something that matters.” Do you think celebrities do enough to speak out about and act on issues that can make positive change?
A. Yeah—think about Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to the environment. Think about Amy Poehler’s commitment to the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. Think about Angelina Jolie’s work that she did in Cambodia to completely transform the landscape of that country. I do think there are socially responsible and conscientious members of the Hollywood community who stand up and fight for things they believe in. I think it’s important if you’re in a position to have a public platform that you at least, in some way, utilize it for the betterment of other people and the benefit of those who are less fortunate.