Actor Zachary Quinto

The talented actor of Heroes fame discusses his latest star vehicle, the feature Margin Call, which he also produced.

In a fairly short period of time, actor Zachary Quinto has established a reputation for versatility and depth. He's made a name for himself with a résumé of guest-starring roles, as well as recurring roles on the fantasy series Heroes and Fox' 24. He was also a young Spock in the reboot of the Star Trek film franchise. A Pittsburgh native, he began performing as a child, but his hobby evolved into a vocation, and he eventually studied at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Quinto's company produced his new indie film Margin Call, about the financial crisis.


Tavis: Zachary Quinto is a talented actor whose credits include the TV series “Heroes” and, of course, his role as Spock in the new “Star Trek” movie franchise. His latest project is called “Margin Call,” which he stars in and produces. The film opens in theaters around the country this weekend. Here now a scene from “Margin Call.”


Tavis: That’s the best you could do for your film? Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey? (Laughter) You couldn’t do any better than that?

Zachary Quinto: We didn’t even try to do any better than that. There’s no point. It doesn’t get any better than that. Those guys were – Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Penn Badgley. It’s an incredible group of people that I’m really thrilled decided to come together and work on the movie with us, for sure.

Tavis: We’ll get to the movie in just a second, but since you just ran that list, that is, to say the least, an all-star cast. What was it, or is it, about this project that allowed you as producer to pull all of those folk together around this particular storyline?

Quinto: I think it was the material, the caliber of the material, the way the material was written, which is just a different point of entry than a lot of stories that deal with the subject matter have been. There’s really no effort to pass judgment or rake anybody over the coals or lionize anybody as a hero against this kind of corruption.

It’s actually just examining the very human side of the impact that this catastrophe had on the people who were forced to make the decisions that ultimately led to it, because not all of them were complicit in that decision-making.

Tavis: We’re talking around what the film is. Let’s go right inside of what the film was about, after I ask this question, which is how propitious the timing for this project really is. You tell me, but I’ve been reading in preparing for our conversation that there were people telling you that the timing for this project is bad, and I’ll let you explain what that was all about.

But to my mind, the timing could not be any better. With that set-up, tell me what the movie is about and why the timing is so good.

Quinto: Well, the movie takes place in a 36-hour period in 2008 at the very beginning of the collapse of our financial system, really, and when we were raising money for the movie it was just before “Wall Street II” was about to go into production. It was just after the actual crisis happened in 2008, and people were really a little bit squirrelly about whether or not they wanted to invest in a movie that had to do with this.

Whether it would still be topical when it came out, whether it would still be relevant and obviously it couldn’t be any more relevant now with the Occupy Wall Street movement gaining momentum and spreading throughout the country and throughout the world.

So we could never have anticipated that or imagined that, but we’re certainly really grateful for it.

Tavis: To your earlier point, Zachary, of not lionizing on the one hand but not demonizing on the other hand, trying to get to the humanity of what these persons found themselves doing in this 36-hour period, raises the question for me why not lionize, why not demonize?

Because certainly the Occupy protestors, the occupiers that you referenced earlier have issues with Wall Street, they have issues with –

Quinto: And I think valid issues.

Tavis: Yeah.

Quinto: Not only with Wall Street but with our government and with the state of our culture and our society.

Tavis: So why not demonize in the film?

Quinto: Because I feel like that actually, that cycle is where we’ve been as a country and it’s where we continue to go in a lot of ways, and there’s a divisiveness in it that I think doesn’t really facilitate any kind of progress. It actually keeps us in a very narrow-minded and limited perspective on the fact that ultimately we’re all in this together as a society and it goes beyond ideals.

It goes beyond right or wrong or good or bad or left or right or liberal or conservative, and it goes to where are we taking ourselves as a society, as a species, as a race.

So for me to make a movie that just sort of drops a pebble in the pond and allows the ripples to generate a dialogue among the audience, that it requires something from the audience, it doesn’t take them for granted, it draws them in and it asks them to participate, and it’s almost a reflection back at them as to their degree of comprehension, their degree of awareness of what’s going on and how this is all affecting them.

Tavis: I love projects that get to the humanity of the characters. I think that’s how we as moviegoers and film lovers, and I count myself among them, get turned on by projects, is that something about the project speaks to the humanity in the character and we feel that in our humanity, so I get that part.

The thing that concerned me about the project, though, is by not – and I don’t want to even say demonizing, but by not just telling the truth, by not putting these guys on the hot seat, I’m wondering whether or not there is an empathy that we develop for the characters that they really don’t deserve.

I’m trying not to give too much away here, but these guys did some pretty devilish things here and you’re getting right into the humanity of who they are, and one guy – I’m not going to give too much away, but the dying dog – so I’m just trying to figure out whether or not we develop an empathy that they really don’t deserve. Does that make sense?

Quinto: It does. I think that when you really step back and look at how this all played out, there were a handful of people who were aware of and complicit in the decisions that led to all of this, but there were thousands of people who were affected by this that the only choice that they had to make was whether or not they accepted the job that they took at whatever firm they worked at in the first place.

From that point until all of this stuff really began in 2008, that was the only choice they had because they were a part of something much bigger and they were a part of something that was going to unfold in one way or another, regardless of their awareness of or willingness to participate in.

That’s what we’re really looking at with some of these characters in this film. There’s a handful of them that know what’s going on and are making the decisions, but then there’s a whole host of them that – and my character is really representative of that in this movie.

My character is a trained MIT graduate, a trained rocket scientist, an engineer, and he represents this whole swath of people who were recruited by these firms, making exorbitant amounts of money utilizing information that is highly, highly focused on other much more honorable pursuits, but just able to make a lot more money.

So they left these jobs, they came into these firms and they were just minor players and sort of this whole machination. Then when it all blew up they were left with not only nothing in their own regards financially or in terms of a career, but then imagine the contributions that they could have made to culture, to society, to the arts, to science, to whatever it was that they were working on – I guess maybe not the arts, but to science. (Laughter)

It was really one of the things that I’ve talked a lot about with our director in terms of my relationship to my character. So I hear you and again, we’re not celebrating anybody, we’re not – we’re literally just painting a picture –

Tavis: That’s fair.

Quinto: – and allowing the audience to determine the shades of gray that they see in response.

Tavis: To your point about the arts, though, the arts do need patrons.

Quinto: Yeah, they do, that’s true, that’s true.

Tavis: And Wall Street certainly has the money to give.

Quinto: They could have made a difference, that’s true, that’s true.

Tavis: So you weren’t that far off on that point. But you’re right about the fact – and I respect this about the film – that it does, by not being preachy, by not proselytizing, it does put us in a situation, in a position of deciding for ourselves what we make of these characters, the right, the wrong, the moral issues at play here, and I assume you wanted it that way, because one of the things that we have to decide when we see this is what we think of people who know better but don’t do better.

Quinto: Yeah, that’s a good point. That’s actually really true, and I think that’s the point that we’re at right now as a society. We are clearly seeing better now than we did three years ago, five years ago, but what are we going to do about it? What is our action going to be? I think Occupy Wall Street has a lot of validity, obviously a lot of momentum.

I’m really interested in watching how they define themselves, how they find their clarity, and frankly, how they expect to facilitate the change that they’re asking for. It’s one thing to demand change; it’s another thing to recognize the enormous amount of work that’s required to generate that change, and people have to ask themselves what they’re willing to risk and what –

Tavis: But it is fair to say, though – I don’t think you’re saying anything different – but it is fair to just acknowledge that they are not responsible, though, for writing legislation.

Quinto: Well of course, of course, but in terms of their relationships, and in terms of the larger question of our two-party system. It’s a whole domino effect, where we are right now, I think, and this is a starting point for those conversations. But how do we then forge relationships with our government to allow us to reconfigure its structure to a degree that we can all participate more, if that’s ultimately what we need as a society?

It’s obviously very complicated and very heavy, and I think we’re at a crossroads that could go one way or another, and I think the decisions that people are making and the sacrifices and risks that they’re willing to take will determine a lot of that.

Tavis: There is obviously a lot of power in this industry, films do have power, films can make a difference, films can launch conversations and investigations and a lot of other things if done right. Finally, do you think these protests, these occupiers that you referenced earlier, do you think that in the end something will come of this, or is this just a bunch of noise?

Quinto: Well, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. It’s obviously a pretty big political year that we’re going into and again, it’s about how people are having these conversations, because it’s like for every Occupy Wall Street protestor that there is, there’s a Tea Party member there to invalidate, to undermine.

It’s like the level of conversation is what needs to shift, and if this movement, I think, can find some terms, some clarity and some depth, then maybe we can start initiating conversations that are a little bit more substantial and a little bit more effective.

But I think that it remains to be seen, and I, for one, am watching closely to see how it unfolds.

Tavis: As we all are, and we’ll be watching your film as well.

Quinto: Thanks.

Tavis: It’s called “Margin Call,” starring and produced by Zachary Quinto. Zachary, good to have you here.

Quinto: Thanks so much, man, it was great to be here.

Tavis: Glad to have you here.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm