The Past, Present & Future of Mr. Spock
In this exclusive interview, Star Trek Communicator and Official Fan Club founder Dan Madsen talks candidly with the Star Trek legend about his role in the new JJ Abrams hit film and his 43-year history as Star Trek’s most popular character.
DM: Leonard, when you heard for the very first time that there was a new Star Trek film in the works and they wanted you to play Spock again, was there a part of you that said inside, “No, I’m done with that character?”
LN: There certainly was hesitation because I was very comfortable, after so many years away from it, with the idea that I would not play Spock again. I just didn’t think of myself in terms of doing that role again. But I thought at least as a courtesy I should go and listen to what they had to say. I had a wonderful meeting with JJ Abrams and Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman. My sense of them was very different from the experience that I had had in the previous 12 or 15 years relative to Star Trek. I felt, frankly, that I was a sort of an outsider looking in for many years. My conversation with JJ and the others really gave me the sense that they were looking at Star Trek the way I looked at it from the earlier years on the original series and some of the better films that we did. They were very much in touch with my feelings about what made it work and they were particularly in touch with my feelings on what had moved me and excited me about being Spock. So I thought, “This feels different than the experience that I had been having with Star Trek for some time.” It felt very different. I thought this could be worth looking into. They had not had a script at that point, they were just considering writing something but they made it very clear that they intended to write a script that would importantly involve the Spock character. So they needed some sense that I would at least consider it because if I had said flat, “No” they would have to find a whole new direction. I didn’t say flat “no” and I did say, “I think you guys are interested in the things I am interested in. I will look forward to reading the script.” And that’s the way we left it.
DM: Do you feel a sense of completion with the Spock character after this film or is this the beginning of a new era for you and Spock?
LN: Both! I don’t know about me and Spock. It certainly is the beginning of a new era for Spock! It is impossible to predict about me and Spock. I have no idea where they want to go next and I feel very comfortable either way. I feel very gratified that I have been able to have some kind of closure. If this is the closure, then I am very comfortable with it. I was not happy at all with the closure that was imposed on the Spock character some years ago when Spock was just simply abandoned and Kirk was killed all in one fell swoop! I felt both were great losses to Star Trek. There was no reason to kill Kirk and there was a neglect of the Spock character. It seemed intentional. It seemed as if someone was saying, “Well, we have to put a stop to that and start with a whole new era here.” Having had this movie and this experience as Spock and seeing Zachary Quinto in the role now, I feel the character has a potentially wonderful, new life and certainly the success of the movie is just so terrific! It is so wonderful to see this happen and to see Star Trek have a chance of a reinvention and a revival. It was certainly in need of a revival.
DM: Can you describe for me, from your perspective, how Spock has changed over the years, from the first pilot to this latest film?
LN: In a lot of ways I feel closer to Spock personally than I ever have.
The Spock that I played in this movie is closer to me, in my personal life condition, than he has ever been before. It was a “performance” during the series years and during the film years because I was far more human and emotional, in the broadest terms, than the Spock I was playing – now that doesn’t mean that Spock had no emotions; as we all know, Spock had his own inner life. But what I was playing was a very logical, very cool, rational Spock. In this movie, my Spock has come to terms with himself in a very comfortable way. So I see myself up there as Spock now whereas Zachary did a wonderful job bringing us a Spock character before the Spock that I played in the original Star Trek series. And, finally, at the end of this movie, we see him arriving at the Spock that I played during the original series.
DM: Wasn’t this quite a risk relaunching the original Star Trek with an entirely new cast? The chances of the public not accepting new actors in these classic roles was quite real. What inspired you to move forward with this project despite that risk?
LN: Well, I actually wasn’t taking the risk, JJ was! It all comes down to whether it works and whether you do it successfully. I think he has done it extraordinarily well. If he had not done it well, it could’ve been a disaster. But that’s true in any art form or any risk you take. If you are not taking risks you are becoming boring. When I first put on pointed ears many years ago – that was a risk!
DM: I would imagine the very first time you were put into makeup for Spock, back in the 60′s, and you looked in the mirror, you must’ve wondered if this was going to work?
LN: I did wonder! I thought, “This is dangerous! This could be a joke!” I took my acting career pretty seriously. I was doing okay, I was making a living as an actor and doing some pretty decent roles and this Spock character was a risk. So it becomes a question of whether or not it works. If it works, then you’re a hero. If it doesn’t work, you’re a disaster!
DM: I remember very clearly throughout various times in Star Trek’s history when there were rumors about bringing Star Trek back on the big screen or the television screen and recasting the original roles. I even remember one time, I believe prior to Star Trek – The Motion Picture when it was rumored that Robert Redford was being considered for Captain Kirk and Clint Eastwood as Mr. Spock and the fans were outraged!
LN: I can understand the outrage at that kind of casting but we are in a different time and a different place now. I think the fans, in general, understood that we needed some kind of a fresh, new approach to Star Trek – a new vision. That is what happened with this movie. It is a fresh vision and very successful
DM: Did you initially have any reservations about this alternate timeline idea and the destruction of the planet Vulcan?
No, I thought it was a very exciting and a very inventive way of dealing with some very serious problems that had to do with protecting the canon. It was a way of saying, “Look, we must free ourselves of those shackles, otherwise we are stymied at every turn of events with every character element, etc.” Everything we do or say, people will say, “Well, that doesn’t fit with the canon!” So they had to find a way to give themselves a fresh start and I think they did it brilliantly!
DM: I absolutely loved this film, but I have to admit that there was something bittersweet about it for me, as a fan of the original series, in that I realized my cast (the cast I grew up with and loved) was truly going away now and this new, younger cast was having the torch passed onto them. Do you have any sense of that?
LN: Yes, of course I do. But if we cannot accept the future we are in trouble. Ben Cross is playing Spock’s father. Mark Lenard has passed away. Winona Ryder is playing Spock’s mother and Jane Wyatt has passed away. Simon Pegg is playing Scotty and James Doohan is gone. DeForest Kelley is gone. Majel Barrett is gone. We have to be real about this. I am a nostalgic guy – I love thinking about the past. I think about it often. I think about the great times I have had and the difficulties and the exciting moments. But I think it is healthy to live in the “here-and-now” and deal with the reality of the present. I see it, not as a negative thing but as a positive thing. These beloved characters are being given a whole new life. I am very proud of the fact that these characters are worth dealing with again. We have established such wonderful characters that it is worth making a new investment in them and to go and watch them now and see them in a new light. I think that is very exciting!
DM: Don’t you feel that this movie was almost a necessity to keep the Star Trek franchise flame burning bright as it seemed Star Trek had lost some of its luster over the last several years?
LN: I think it was absolutely necessary to keep Star Trek vibrant and moving forward. It was the same way as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan put Star Trek back on the map in 1982, this movie is doing the same thing many years later.
DM: Was the last line you said in the film, “Thrusters on full,” a symbolic passing of the torch?
LN: Dan, I am so delighted you are asking me this question. No one has asked me it before. That line was not in the script. We had shot the scene and were done with it and I said to JJ, “If you give me one more take, I have a thought I would like to inject here and see if you like it.” We shot it again and I said, “Thrusters on full.” It was kind of a blessing and a passing of the torch. It was an absolutely on-the-spot idea I came up with and it was not in the script. Then JJ called me sometime later and said that he was amazed at how it fit into the next scene on the bridge because then they start talking about the thrusters! So there was a connection almost as if it had been designed that way. I wasn’t thinking about the bridge scene, I was simply thinking about saying to these young guys, “go ahead. Take the torch and go!”
DM: Describe what it was like for you to see Zachary Quinto playing Spock for the first time?
LN: I loved it! I think he is terrific. I admire the way he approaches his work. He is a very well trained, very serious actor in the best way. He is intelligent. They sent me some footage of him when he was being considered for the role and they asked me to take a look at it. I called them immediately and said, “Not only does he look enough like me to make it work, he also has an inner life. There is a mind at work – you can see it working. I think that is vital to the character and I think he will be wonderful.” I think he has done some terrific things with the Spock character.
DM: Wasn’t the first scene you shot for the film the moment where Spock Prime and young Spock meet face-to-face?
LN: That is correct.
DM: Was it at all odd to see another actor in front of you playing Spock?
LN: We had met a number of times before so it wasn’t the first time we had been in each other’s company. It was the first time for the characters but not for the actors. We had spent hours together at various times over meals and at my home and looking at Star Trek footage together and discussing the philosophy and the make-up of the Spock character. When it came time to do the job I felt quite comfortable working with him. I just think he is a terrific actor. He makes me proud and I have told him so.
DM: What was the most important piece of advice you passed on to Zachary Quinto?
LN: I can’t honestly say that I advised him in any way. It wasn’t really the process of an advisor. I didn’t say, “Think about this” or “do that” or “don’t do this.” It wasn’t that kind of conversation. It was about the philosophy of the character, the origins of the character and how he evolved, what the make-up problems were and how that evolved. I was just giving him a little history so he had some roots from my experience to draw from. There was no guidance or advice. He is a very well trained and intelligent guy. He knew what to do.
DM: If you could travel back in time, like Spock, what advice would a 78-year old Leonard Nimoy give a 30-something Leonard Nimoy as he was stepping into the role of Spock for the first time (and a lifetime role in Star Trek)?
LN: (Laughter) I would say, “Just be aware that things change!”
DM: Was this movie a “make or break” for the franchise? In other words, Star Trek was beginning to lose some of its popularity over the last several years – was this film, and the way it was done, absolutely essential to the future health of the Star Trek franchise and its ability to continue as an ongoing entertainment franchise?
LN: Yes, I believe that is true. It is very clear now that the movie is a gigantic success and there is a whole new generation of fans coming onboard. I think we are going to find a very interesting surge in sales of the original series because a lot of fans who are seeing this movie will say, “Gee, I’d like to go back and see what this was all about to begin with.” So the original series, which is now out on Blue-ray, will get a wider audience. I just got the discs a couple of days ago and haven’t had a chance to look but I understand that they are beautiful! I believe there will be a tremendous interest in the original series again and I think that is wonderful.
DM: Do you believe there was a Star Wars influence in this film?
LN: I am sure that is true. I think, not just Star Wars, but also a sort of contemporary sensibility to what an audience looks for in a movie these days. What this film accomplishes is to bring Star Trek into a contemporary look and feel, as far as an adventure film is concerned, but it also, uniquely, has a great heart at the center of it. A lot of the gigantic effects films that we are seeing these days don’t have that heart. You go away feeling empty. You’ve seen a tremendous amount of dazzle and display and adrenalin rush but you miss the heart! This Star Trek movie is an emotional film. It is amazing that JJ was able to build in so much emotion into this gigantic scale action movie.
DM: It seems that the last film to reach out to a wider audience of non-Star Trek fans was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
LN: I think that is true. Isn’t this great what this movie is doing!
DM: What do you believe is Spock Prime’s future after this film?
LN: My sense is that he has some work to do. He talked about establishing a new Vulcan colony and I think he will be very involved in that. If we never see him again that is what I would imagine he is doing. He is busy rebuilding the Vulcan story.
DM: There has been a lot of talk of President Obama being an admirer of Star Trek and being compared to the Spock character. He even said he saw the new film and really liked it in a recent Newsweek interview and he mentioned the Spock connection. Have you ever met the President and discussed Star Trek with him?
LN: I met him twice. We didn’t actually talk Star Trek but the first time I met him he gave me the Vulcan salute when he first saw me! My wife and I were at a luncheon for him a long time ago. It was just at the very earliest stages of his beginning to campaign for the nomination for the Presidency. He came through a group of people – it was a small crowd – maybe 60 or 80 people and he saw me and raised his hand in the Vulcan gesture and said, “They told me you were here.” I gave the Vulcan salute back to him and that was the beginning of our relationship. I understand he grew up watching Star Trek.
DM: What kind of reaction have you received from your fellow original series cast members on this new film?
LN: I haven’t had a chance to talk with them but I have seen them all quoted as saying that they admire the movie.
DM: Do you believe this new Star Trek cast will have Star Trek follow them through their careers as it has for you and your fellow cast members?
LN: I think that is going to be interesting to watch. I couldn’t predict that. I think all of these people, obviously, have futures as actors. They are all so good. Zachary still has work to do on Heroes. Chris Pine is obviously going to be a leading man star. I think Zoe Saldana is already at work on another movie. They will all get career boosts from this movie because they are good. They are professional, talented people and they deserve it. They will all get career boosts I am sure.
DM: Do you think Gene Roddenberry would be happy with the state of Star Trek these days?
LN: Oh, I am sure he would enjoy what is happening today. I believe he would enjoy it a lot. It is just too bad that he and Majel are gone and can’t see this amazing revival of their original idea.
DM: As it stands right now, what do you foresee for the future of Star Trek?
LN: It is very clear that Paramount is interested in making another Star Trek movie. I think, at least a month ago, they had already authorized a script to be written and that means a financial investment and an expectation that there will be at least a script to look at. My understanding is that it will be written by the same guys, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman. They are probably at work on developing a story right now. I think that there is very strong interest in the next Star Trek movie coming from audience and studio alike. Beyond another movie, who knows? The future is wide open.
DM: I assume as well that you are very open minded to appearing as Spock again should they ask you?
LN: I have no illusions on whether or not they need me. They decided that they wanted to make this film using Spock as kind of an anchor for the story, which I think worked very, very well. They don’t have to do that again. If they decide they have a role for me to play I would be very interested in talking to them about it. But I have every reason to believe that they have established a whole new set of characters and they can sail very well without me and that’s fine. Either way is good with me. I am very gratified that this has happened.
DM: Fans love to hear about the beginnings of the Star Trek legend. We have heard how you came up with the Vulcan salute but can you recall for us when the spark of the idea came to you and how you presented it to Gene Roddenberry and the others for the first time? Did they know it came out of Jewish tradition?
LN: No, Gene wasn’t really involved. It sort of happened on the spot very much like the line, “Thrusters on full.” It was the Amok Time episode and I was very much in touch with the idea that we were seeing Vulcan and Vulcans for the very first time. Other than Spock, we had never seen a Vulcan before. We had never seen two Vulcans meeting each other before. On the spot, I said to the director, “We should have something special that Vulcans do when they greet each other. Humans shake hands, Asian people bow to each other. He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, how about this?” And I did the Vulcan salute with the fingers parted right on the spot. Believe me, I wasn’t thinking of it in advance. It just occurred to me when that procession arrived with T’Pau in the sedan chair I thought, “What a great opportunity for some secret Vulcan thing!” That’s how I came up with it. Gene wasn’t there. I think he must’ve seen it in the dailies a couple of days later and then the writers started introducing it into the scripts the same way they did with the Vulcan nerve pinch. That happened right on the spot as well. I was supposed to come up right behind Bill Shatner and hit him over the head with the butt of a Phaser. On the spot I said to the director, “This doesn’t feel right. It feels wrong for me to hit him with a gun.” He said, “What would you like to do?” So I said, “Well, how about I do this and Bill reacts and drops to the floor unconscious?” And that’s the way that happened. You wait for these moments of inspiration to hit you.
DM: It must give you a sense of pride to know you were the first to introduce that because now you can do that sign all over the world and most people know it as coming from Star Trek and it is a greeting of peace?
LN: Yes, it is. It is in the culture now. It is great. I get it from kids, I get it from bus drivers, I get it from police, and I get it from waiters in restaurants. It is great and I love it!
DM: How did the phrase “Live Long and Prosper” come about?
LN: That was written by Theodore Sturgeon and was in the script. That was a very beautiful script by the way. It was a lovely story and was one of our best. Theodore Sturgeon wrote those words, “Live Long and Prosper.” And, of course, that got into the culture, too.
DM: What is your proudest moment associated with Star Trek?
LN: There have been so many moments of gratification. My friendship with Bill Shatner is very important to me. We are still very close friends. We still see each other and I feel very warmly towards all of the actors that are still with us. I really do. I love them all – Nichelle and George and Walter. I care about them. I am interested in what is happening to them. I don’t get to talk to them very often. I see them occasionally at a Star Trek gathering but I care about them. I guess I am very human in that way! This means a lot to me. But there have been so many extraordinary highlights. I remember the very first convention we went to in New York when they expected a few hundred people and thousands showed up. We were suddenly rocked back on our heels with the reaction. My first time in Germany about four or five years ago when I went to a convention in Bohn and there were 3,000 German fans in the audience screaming and stomping and cheering! It was like a rock festival! Then there were some more quiet moments where you introduce a touch into a character and you find out that people care about it and it reverberates. These are all great experiences. I feel like I am a very lucky guy.
DM: You have built a real legacy with Star Trek. 100 years from now people will remember Leonard Nimoy.
LN: (Laughter) That’s a sweet thought!
DM: How do you spend your time these days? What do you do for enjoyment and relaxation?
LN: I have a great personal life.
I am married to a wonderful woman. We are celebrating our 20th year together in marriage.
We just really enjoy each other tremendously. We do a lot of traveling. We collect contemporary art. That’s a great passion for us. My photography is terribly important to me. I am very proud and excited about the fact that next year I am going to have my first solo exhibition in a major American museum. It will be at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It is a major, wonderful museum and they have agreed to do a show of a project that I am completing now. I call it my Identity Project. It is on my website. If you go to LeonardNimoyphotography.com and click on photography and then click on the Identity Project you will see 25 images, which are the heart of this expedition. There is also a video in connection with it – it is a video of my conversations with all of these people who came to this photography session where I shot portraits of each of them. The deal was, come as who you think you really are. If you have a hidden identity or a fantasy self, bring that and I will photograph you. We got some wonderful results, some were very funny, and some were very touching. They were all so terribly human. I am very proud of this exhibition.
DM: As a photographer, what is your opinion on digital versus film?
LN: This project was shot digitally. It is in color. It is my first major project in color. I have been working in black and white for years. I have also done my own printing for years but this project was shot digital and in color because it called for it as you will see when you look at it because of the nature of the work. The color needed to be seen, I have really stepped both feet into digital with this project.
DM: Are you going to be a regular on the TV series Fringe now?
LN: I have committed to at least two episodes for next season. That’s the beginning. Then we will see how it goes. The character I play on that show is just being given birth so we’ll just have to see how it evolves.
DM: Have you ever watched the TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory?
LN: No, I never have.
DM: Are you familiar with the fact that they make a lot of references to you and Star Trek on that show since the lead characters are all die-hard Star Trek fans?
LN: Yes, I am. Is that the show where the guy had my napkin?
DM: Yes, that was in one episode and it was given to him as a gift because it had your DNA on it and he went crazy. It was very funny!
LN: Yes, I am aware of that! I saw that piece and I thought it was wonderful! Very funny. I actually did give them a napkin or a handkerchief of mine.
DM: That you wiped your mouth on so it had your actual DNA?
LN: (Laughter) Yes, that’s correct!
DM: That’s very funny. Leonard, before we end this interview is there anything I have left out that you would like to talk about?
LN: No, Dan, as usual you’ve done a great job. It has been a pleasure to talk to you again! I’ve enjoyed it.