Welcome to Anton Yelchin's summer. At 12 years old, the Russian-born child actor could list Morgan Freeman ( Along Came a Spider ) and Anthony Hopkins ( Hearts in Atlantis ) as co-stars; by 18, he was a leading man—a brave, smart and utterly guileless young actor who anchored the critical successes Alpha Dog and Charlie Bartlett. In May, the 20-year-old Yelchin will vault into blockbuster stardom with two iconic roles. Up first, he blasts off as Pavel Chekov in J.J. Abrams' jump-started Star Trek, and then Yelchin closes out the most major month of his career as Terminator Salvation 's teenage Kyle Reese, a hotheaded rebel destined to go back in time and father his idol, John Connor. B OXOFFICE caught up with Yelchin to learn how he put a fresh spin on two classic franchises.
How did you react when you heard you got cast as Kyle Reese?
I was overjoyed—I'm so very lucky. I was also oddly touched because I realized I was going to be playing a character that I really look up to. The old movies influenced me a lot when I was a little kid. They were so cool, and they felt so epic to me. I would always run around pretending to be the characters. The idea of revisiting that universe in a totally different way—on the opposite end of the screen for future young kids to be influenced by—it was just touching every day. Especially, too, with the Stan Winston puppets, to be participating in something that had such a profound impact, and to be around these puppets that I had action figures of and now are 7 feet tall. I was really happy and excited to take on the challenge of playing this character, but there was also this oddly personal element.
We met Kyle Reese 25 years ago. What new things do we learn about him?
I'd seen the original a bunch of times, and then of course, I was rewatching it all the time during the process of filming it. All the intensity and ferocity and passion—the complexity of the character—it was so powerful to watch. And I think traditionally, the hero's story—the becoming of the hero—is the arc of a weaker character who hasn't found their inner badass being, then goes through a series of things and then becomes a hero. I just thought to take that approach to the character would have underestimated him: No one wants to see a Kyle Reese that's not the hero. I also think it's not entirely accurate. Yes, people do find things in themselves, and they develop. But there are intrinsic qualities that sometimes are bigger when they're smaller, and get toned down as they get older. That was the approach I wanted to take: to amplify certain aspects of this character. Perhaps he gets a little too angry sometimes, or is more emotionally compromised. He's not easily emotionally compromised in The Terminator. The only time you really see weakness is with Sarah Connor when he tells her he's in love with her. I think when you're younger and you're a teenager, you have a lot going on as it is. To add the Apocalypse and everything involved with that means you're still going to be going through the same processes that you were going through hormonally and as a human being, but your life has been totally shaped by these events. So how does that affect the regular processes of a human being? How does that structure a human being? My idea—and one that McG and I talked about in bringing into the scenes—is that sometimes he doesn't react as economically as the army, or military, or part of the fighting forces would do. Perhaps he's still more emotionally involved, and less direct and less like the military because he hasn't fought with a unit yet. So he's a little more vulnerable and a little more angry—more emotionally unstable before he finds this core of behavior and a path that he's directly following. So I wanted a scene where Reese is captured and they take him to the police station and he's screaming. You see the intensity of the character, the almost psychotic potential he had, but it's geared in that scene towards the understanding of the imminent death of all people in the world if they don't listen to him. His reaction is emotionally intense, his dedication to all things, the way he is.
Tonally, how does Terminator Salvation compare to the others? Is this a different moment for a Terminator movie?
I think the first film was a horror film. The second one was … it was a lot of things. The first one was even shot like a horror film with the slow motion and the backpedaling. Tonally, it's a lot darker than all the other ones. Darker even literally in the look of it. This one, in comparison, is a war movie. It's the apocalyptic future that people have only seen glimpses of. Our film is a war film; it looks like a war film, it feels like a war film. It's got the grit and the dirt and the philosophy of a war film. [Director James] Cameron's first two movies, the second one wasn't a horror film. It had a little bit of the buddy-movie aspect, but it's hard to think what genre it was. Sam Worthington divided it up really well, but it's not coming to mind. [Laughs.] The point is, each Terminator movie has a particular feel. This is a war movie, but nonetheless, it's a very Terminator war movie. McG and the cast and crew wanted to achieve a similar emotional state to the originals because regardless of the genre that they're structured as, there's still a particular Terminator-ness, and we really wanted to be loyal to that: loyal in the way the Terminators look and in not making it cheesy, to make the stakes feel as high as they felt in the first two films, treating it seriously and with respect—and admiration as a fan.
The franchise has always seemed to exist in a separate class from other long-lasting blockbusters. What is that “ Terminator -ness”?
Well, I think the first one is f***ing scary, and you're also insanely emotional about the struggle of the characters. It's about how brilliantly the first two films set everything up; you immediately begin to sympathize with the people you're told to sympathize with, and you're scared to s**t of the monster. The root of it is a very simple story: a waitress that's not doing too well, a little kid puts some s**t in her apron, she messes up an order. It's all very overwhelming. That night her date skips out on her. You really feel for her, and then they bring in the hero that's supposed to protect her—and the killer—and you're emotionally involved enough to believe in it and all the technology that you learn about later. And the world that you've penetrated is an insanely dark one. The stakes are so high because we're talking about the f***ing Apocalypse. In the second one, he continued that structure: a boy without a father figure, a world teetering on the edge of Apocalypse. A machine steps into the father-figure role for this insanely [sympathetic] boy protagonist, and you also sympathize with the machine. Regardless of your feelings from the first movie, he one-eighties on you. It's just so well structured and emotionally involving—and also, the Terminators are really cool-looking. Those elements are well balanced, the psychological aspects of it and the spectacle aspects of it, and that's why the first two are really great and people love them. That's what all the great movies do. Star Wars does it, Spielberg's movies do it, James Cameron's movies do it.
Were you relieved that you didn't have to fight Arnold Schwarzenegger?
I could have taken him.
How did you prepare for the physicality of the role?
I did a lot of gun training. We talked about the shape this kid would be in. There's not much to eat, you know, so I wouldn't be very big. It's the Apocalypse. I remember having this conversation of, “We want you to work out, but we don't want you to bulk up.” Because what would he be eating? There's no McDonalds, there's no protein shakes; they're just coyotes fighting and scavenging for scraps of things. I would work out, but not try to become very big. Not that I'm huge myself. At the same time, I'm wearing so many layers in the film that you just see a moderately sized individual that runs around like an animal. But most of it was gun training, making the shotgun an extra limb.
With Pavel Chekov in Star Trek, you're again starting over a famous character.
It's really interesting, that challenge. Usually, you have the script and whatever info you can get to research. Here, you have a whole other performance. And with Chekov, it's not a performance that's in one movie; it's in two series and however many Star Trek films. With Kyle Reese, it's a very different character, but it's a similar idea: You have a whole performance to work with. Finding what you feel the essence of that character was and certain recognizable traits—emotional traits, physical traits—and bringing those to these characters is really a challenge and a lot of fun. Finding how you can reinterpret what's already been done. I was going to say it's almost like making a remake—it is making a remake—on a micro-level that adds to the major level. It's really great. Both characters are so vibrant and have so much to them. I stripped off the layers I wanted to take off of them, and then glued them back.
hits theatres on May 21.