What can we expect from this 50th anniversary edition of Star Trek?
Well, I think it answers some big questions established at the beginning of the mythology. This is about a Federation made up of disparate peoples, and this asks the questions, ‘does it work? Is it meaningful? Where are we going from here? Are the same things that motivated us then still working for us now?’ So, they’re larger questions, which are grander in scale and very existential in form, and they make sense for the 50th.
Where do we find Kirk and his crew at the beginning of the film?
They’re three years into their five-year journey.
How do you get yourself into that kind of claustrophobic headspace?
We talked about the idea that on a submarine tour they go for six months under water. There’s a sketch called ‘Star Trek After Hours’, which is precisely some of the stuff we tackle in the film. On their days off when they’re not fighting evil, they’ve got to wash the floors and iron their shirts, and there’s a cafeteria, and they’re drinking coffee and going over the day’s plans, and get into interpersonal spats. It’s hard to be around the same people for that long! Anyway, I thought that was super funny.
So is Kirk restless by this stage in the voyage?
I think he’s restless in that his motivations have changed. What lit his fire before – this kind of living in his father’s shadow, living up to the legacy, and wanting to prove himself, to get the pat on the back to show how badass he was – that fire has dimmed. Now, with all that static gone, he’s quietly sitting down for the first time just thinking, ‘oh my god, what is this all for? It all seemed to make so much sense when I had all these demons to battle. I don’t have so many demons anymore, and I don’t really need to live up to my father anymore.’ So who is James Kirk without that? That’s big human stuff.
You mentioned the 50th anniversary. Does that add an extra layer of pressure for you?
No, not for me. My job is to fulfil the duty of the scriptwriters’ and the director’s vision, and I leave it there. Because once you start getting into that then you’re really screwing yourself. It’s the limitless blank space, and you just can’t fill it up; there’s no way to win.
Speaking of scriptwriters, does it make a difference that Simon Pegg both wrote the film and stars alongside you?
It brings a greater sense of collaboration, and in some ways it felt like the parents had left the house and we’d taken over the mansion for the weekend, and decided on what was the biggest, baddest party we could throw. Simon is a hell of a lot of fun. Doug [Jung] fit in easily, because he’s got a great sense of humour, which is the most important thing to me. I was always worried that with J.J. going, because he’s such a great lover of comedy, we’d lose that tonal element that we had in the first film especially. This is not super broad Guardians of the Galaxy humour, this is like 80s pop fun. There’s some big themes, and you cry, and you leave happy after you eat the bowl of popcorn and have a kickass time at the movie theatre – that is what we do really well, and Simon totally gets that. We’ve all worked long enough together now and know each other so well, and know our characters going into a scene. Simon was there all the time whether he was in the scene or not, so we could just confab quickly, and Justin [Lin] would get in, and we’d throw stuff away, add stuff, cut here, give you the line – it was great, easy, fast.
Simon said he asked everyone if there was anything they wanted written in. Did you take that opportunity?
No, because usually that never works out. Every writer will do whatever the hell they want to do! I’ve always wanted to go dark Kirk, evil Kirk, like in the first individual series, but that is yet to happen. Humour always was my big thing. I talked to J.J. about that, and Simon obviously knows where I come from. I just want to have the most fun that we can.
And did you get that?
Oh yeah, this film is, I think, right down the barrel of that, with the sensibility of the first. And I like both films, but it definitely has the sensibility of the first.
That humour was always there in Star Trek wasn’t it?
It’s all over the place. I think Shatner especially is one of the most underrated comic actors out there. I think some people just take it for who Shatner is, and perhaps it became part of the character after a while, but he’s doing a lot of funny stuff in there, and his interplay with straight man Spock is some of the best.
And how was Justin as a director?
Great. This got rolling a little late in the game, after some retrofitting of the behind the scenes people, so we only really had like four months to get our shit together. That’s a big task for a director to come into an established group with a script that’s not finished yet and to say, ‘don’t worry, I got it.’ I mean, that scared me more than anything – I knew we’d figure it out, but we needed someone who could handle that kind of pressure, and Justin, it didn’t even phase him. So with that aside, that alleviated a lot of my nervous energy.
Justin wasn’t the only newcomer. What about Idris Elba as the villain?
Idris is a phenomenal actor, but he also has a great, imposing size, which makes for a great bad guy. He’s 6’3, an incredible physical presence and very charismatic. I don’t know, I’d fit this character more into the likes of a Nero – there’s just a simmering rage within this man. It’s not the intellect, I’d say, of Khan; this is a man that is hell-bent to destroy. There’s obviously more nuance to it, but that’s the defining feature of this bad guy.
The Enterprise is spreading the message, and not everyone is going to be receptive to that. Does Elba’s character represent that opposition?
Again, the 50th anniversary ‘issue’ of Star Trek, deals with one of the main principles of the Trek universe, which is that it’s about a federation of planets and planetary systems and peoples. This movie asks the question, ‘does it work? Should we be moving together? Does this serve everyone?’ I guess it makes the case for any gigantic, imperialist nation – and there have been plenty in the past, and there are plenty now with no need to be named. Are they doing good? Are they doing right? Is this beneficial? That’s exactly it. And Idris’ character is definitely someone who’s not into it!
Was Idris good to work with?
Great, actually. He was fun, man. It’s like playing jazz with him – the way that he’s inhabiting the character was really fun to watch. He was explosive and trying new stuff every time, and a lot of it is the physicality of the character. It was great fun to watch.
Did you have many action scenes?
Action wise, the most fun for me was riding the motorcycle. I got a lot of time on the bike in this one, and got to learn from two guys that are like motocross champions. Any time you get to work with anyone who’s the best in their field, that’s a lot of fun, and really scary. I’ve ridden a lot, but I only really ride in movies. I’ve now clocked a lot of hours on motorcycles, so I know I may way around them a little bit.
Are you catching the bug?
I love them, I’m just too scared of them, I think. So that was the most fun for me. I do a lot of jumping, a lot of stuff on cables. There was another really awesome stunt – one where there’s an explosion and we run and then jump and they pulled us by these wires and we launch like 30 feet in the air. It was awesome, really cool.
Are those scenes something you look forward to?
Honestly, I’m the first person to tell you that when I read a script, I usually skip over the action sequences, unless they’re really engaging. First of all, I have a really difficult time sometimes even understanding what they’re trying to do, so I just kind of skim for the bare bones, which is the dumbest thing, as an actor, that you can do, because you fail to realise that those four pages you’ve just skimmed over will be about a month of your life at some point in the future. A lot of it is super monotonous, and they’re little tiny eighth-pages of, ‘And then Kirk looks up, and grabs for the hand.’ That stuff can be very tiring. But if you get very fun stuff like an intricate bike sequence, then it’s choreography, it’s ballet. You have a lot to keep in mind: ‘I have to go this fast, stop on a dime, look there…’ And I like when your focus becomes that myopic. It’s very Zen, especially in an extended fight scene, but unfortunately I didn’t get an extended fight scene in this. I haven’t really done a fight scene as fun as the one I did in the first film.
Does the film head into romantic territory this time?
There’s no time, to be quite honest. There never seems to be any time for any of that romance stuff in the films. Kirk flirts a little bit maybe, but not even in this one – we may have like ten or 12 pages of talking and then it just goes full bore, man.
What’s it meant to you to play one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history?
It’s not normal, I know! I guess I don’t think about it too much, because if I were to think about it, then there would be the pressure of living up to something. It is quite something. It is so diametrically opposed to what I ever thought I would end up doing, and it may be the most definitive part of my career. It’s so far from what I thought that it’s a laugh, man. I grew up watching the Harrison Fords of the world, and to be the rogue, to play that – it’s a dream, it’s a blast. It’s an absolute blast, and on top of it – and I really mean this, this is not hyperbole – to do it with such a great crew, to be able to get paid to have that much fun. You’re always looking over your shoulder and wondering like, ‘This has got to be a trick of some kind.’ But it’s great fun.
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