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Anton Yelchin has a stomach ache.
“I’ve been taking these vitamins, I’m trying to put on weight and I’m taking these supplements and eating cheeseburgers all the time,” the actor explains over dinner at the Smyth Tribeca Hotel in New York. “I’ve just spent the whole day today sh-tting out my ears.”
It is the first thing he says other than a greeting and it feels like a chess move, as if he’s gauging squeamishness or finding a threshold for vulgarity. He’ll be fine, he finally explains, no need to reschedule, let’s get it over with.
At 22, Saint Petersburg, Russia-born Yelchin looks young for his age. He is slight and pale with large, light eyes and dark hair that he claims is receding. (“I’m Russian; all Russians are bald eventually,” he says. “My mother’s bald.” She isn’t.) His parents, Viktor and Irina Korina Yelchin, were celebrated stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet for 15 years and now live in California, where they moved after Yelchin was born.
“I don’t feel any connection to Russia,” the actor says, though he later extensively lectures about the nation’s propensity for violence, stating, “I have strong feelings about [Russia]. Every Russian is going to have strong feelings about it. One way or another.”
Yelchin attended primary school in Tarzana, Calif., and loves Los Angeles. He has a small, drawn mouth that tightens when he’s uncomfortable. He is precocious but adorable, a thinking man’s kid, all big curious eyes and hollow cheeks. Once seated, he waxes rhapsodic on topics ranging from pornography and gender to film and political theory. He spends the first half of the interview seemingly in character as someone much more jaded and suspicious than himself, as he voices desires to be “a cobbler…a noble profession” or to “get fat, really fat and alienate the viewer by taking fat jokes to an uncomfortable, too-far place. To be a movie terrorist, who just ruins films by ignoring the director and taking over.” He spends a good 20 minutes trying very hard to be unlikable, or at least to be above caring.
Yelchin has been consistently working as an actor since childhood. He starred opposite Anthony Hopkins at age 11 in 2001’s “Hearts of Atlantis,” and spent his adolescence navigating the film industry. He’s appeared in large-budget fare such as “Star Trek” and “Terminator Salvation,” as well as smaller films like “Fierce People” and “Charlie Bartlett.” Last summer, he provided the voice of Clumsy in “The Smurfs.”
His latest film, “Like Crazy” opens Friday. He stars in the tiny-budget, huge-hearted indie love story as Jacob, a devoted romantic in the throes of an obstacle-ridden trans-Atlantic love with co-star Felicity Jones and, in some scenes, a more local one with Jennifer Lawrence. The actors improvised their dialogue with a 52-page outline provided by director Drake Doremus. In a phone conversation, the director explains the process was focused on “emotional beats.”
“We were supposed to have a 30-minute coffee…we ended up staying for three hours,” the director says of his first meeting with Yelchin. “We were just a good match for each other from the start. He was the only actor I met with. He’s delightful, he’s talented, and he’s a really good person.”
“Like Crazy” won the grand jury prize for drama at the Sundance Film Festival in February, and should help Yelchin along on his present upward trajectory, the consequences of which he still seems to be feeling out. When the young actor sighs or sniffs or sneers at a question, it’s easy not to take it personally.
The Anton Yelchin with the irritable digestive tract and the annoyance toward an industry that expects him to tell reporters about the clothes he buys, and the actresses he’s kissed, and the films he likes, is so completely at odds with the Anton Yelchin who arrives 30 minutes early to his photo shoot the next morning that one wonders whether his seamless traverse between this dichotomy of affable and offensive might say more for his acting than anything else.
On set, he is charming and pleasant, goofy and eager to please. He takes time to admire the clothing, to speak with the stylist and assistants, to name his favorite brands. (Dior and Balenciaga for what it’s worth, though he’s “on a preppy kick at the moment.”) He gets on all fours to joke with the photographer and roars. The corners of his mouth twitch upward when he succeeds at making the crew laugh, like when he throws a sour-lemon pout over his shoulder.
“It’s fashion,” he purrs, his take on “Zoolander.” “Fashion!”
There is no mention of his bowels.
And at dinner the night before, after a considerable amount of deflection, Yelchin does warm up. Despite his stomach issues, he orders grilled chicken and brussels sprouts. He puts on an above-average Christopher Walken impression. He grins and giggles and jokes. He curses for emphasis and not for shock value. He praises his favorite film, “Taxi Driver,” and mentions a dream to write a bunch of B-movies, “like B- and C-level thrillers.” It’s clear that Yelchin’s appreciation for moviemaking goes beyond acting.
“I started writing a film six years ago about Valley kids and this sort of bisexual culture that we have, of constantly self-objectifying and objectifying others…about the exchange of people as sexual objects as well as the exchange of objects,” Yelchin offers. “That’s what consumer society does. You look at something and you see yourself as being consumed, as having that thing.”
“Like Crazy” was shot over 22 days on a budget of $250,000 and a Canon 7-D camera. Yelchin is especially pleased by all of this. Doremus never really cut during filming, the actor adds, but he knew what to pull out from the film, and that’s part of what makes him such a “phenomenal actor’s director.”
“I’m going to be honest,” Yelchin goes on. “It’s nice talking about a movie that you’re proud of, that was made in such an interesting way — I like to preach about how important it is how we shot it, I want that to sink in with people, because that means if you have 10 people who really want to make a movie and you have a camera that costs $1,800, you don’t need anything else. You can make a movie. That’s huge. If you want to make movies you need to think on a micro-micro level and figure out how to make them for nothing with people who really care about your movie and really want to make it. Without all the other bullsh-t.”
“The bullsh-t” is a frequent touchstone of Yelchin’s. It boils down to his frustration with the machinations of the industry: being on tour with a film for months on end, hotels and room service, and Q&A sessions in darkened cinemas full of strangers and reporters and photographers, and the dreaded step and repeat.
“I get exhausted from talking about the relationships involved in this film over and over again,” he says. “On the other hand, I’m proud of this movie and I want people to see it. But it’s exhausting. I can’t sit here and say it’s not exhausting.”
He relates an anecdote about the press junket for “Charlie Bartlett” during which he and Robert Downey Jr. spent half an hour giving nonsense answers to the international press.
“But then I had to sit on the phone for two hours later straightening everything out, actually giving answers,” he says.
Late for another Q&A session uptown, Yelchin wraps up dinner and reveals plans to have a hamburger and a chocolate mousse later, stomach troubles be damned. “I think it’s gone away,” he shrugs. He then offers a parting suggestion.
“You should go down to that OWS [Occupy Wall Street] party, write about that,” he says. “That says something, that’s great and a funny thing to write about. How even good movements can be adapted against the will of the collective.”