Anton Yelchin: A Critic's Appreciation

Fred Hayes
Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in 'Like Crazy'

The actor's range was quite extraordinary, and we can only contemplate the performances he might have gone on to give in years ahead that were brutally stolen from him.

The news of Anton Yelchin’s death in a freak accident hit me hard, partly because of the loss of an important young actor and also because I had met him on a few occasions and was impressed by his honesty and humility, as well as his talent.

I first became aware of Anton in Scott Hicks’ movie, Hearts in Atlantis, in which he played a lonely boy befriended by a mysterious stranger played by Anthony Hopkins. The interplay between this Oscar-winning icon and a gifted newcomer was surprisingly evenhanded. Yelchin kept you watching him, even when Hopkins was declaiming.

In 2005 I hosted a screening of House of D, the feature directorial debut of actor David Duchovny. The film was something of a self-indulgent muddle, but with an interesting cast that included Robin Williams, Tea Leoni (who was married to Duchovny at the time) and Frank Langella. Duchovny played a writer trying to make peace with his past, but the bulk of the film consisted of flashbacks in which Yelchin played the main character in his teens. After the screening, both Duchovny and Yelchin took part in a Q&A. Duchovny affirmed that he could not have made the film without Yelchin, and Anton took the praise without any airs, speaking honestly and enthusiastically about the excitement of working with Williams in particular.

The following year, I interviewed Yelchin and a few of the other castmembers from Alpha Dog, which was having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. He played the teenage victim of a gang war in the San Fernando Valley, and he spoke quite movingly about his sense of responsibility to the true story. He seemed to be an actor who relished challenge, and he also enjoyed collaborating with the other young castmembers of that movie, including Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Justin Timberlake.

During the next several years I watched Yelchin graduate to more mainstream films like Terminator Salvation, the remake of Fright Night and the revamped Star Trek series overseen by J.J. Abrams. But he never lost his commitment to independent film, and I interviewed him again just last year after a screening of 5 to 7, a witty romantic comedy in which he played a young man drawn into an affair with a married French woman. He joined our panel discussion after the movie, along with writer-director Victor Levin and co-star Berenice Marlohe. Anton remembered our earlier meetings; he said he felt fortunate to be able to go back and forth from studio franchises to meaningful, smaller films.

Yelchin was blessed with a distinctive, slightly gravelly voice that made you listen attentively to everything he had to say, both onscreen and off. Critic Stanley Kauffmann once wrote that an actor could never make a truly strong impression without an expressive voice, and that was certainly one of the most striking gifts in Yelchin’s arsenal. He also exuded intelligence, which is no doubt why he was cast as the brainy Chekov in Star Trek. But that made him ideally cast in many other films, including 5 to 7, in which he showed he was one of the few actors of his generation who could deliver carefully calibrated, literate dialogue of the kind more frequently found in comedies of the 1930s and '40s.

It also explains why he was perfectly cast in a movie like Charlie Bartlett, a droll gem in which he played a high school student who inadvertently becomes the amateur psychiatrist to all of his fellow students. Probably Yelchin’s most memorable role was in the Sundance prizewinner Like Crazy, in which he played a college student caught up in a hopeless transatlantic love affair with a British exchange student (played by up-and-coming actress Felicity Jones). He caught the lovesick intensity of the young man without shortchanging the character’s intelligence.

Yelchin’s range was quite extraordinary, and we can only contemplate the performances he might have gone on to give in years ahead that were brutally stolen from him.

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