Anton Yelchin in His Own Words: 'How Many Different People Can I Play?'

The actor, who died Sunday at age 27, spoke at length with THR's Scott Feinberg in 2011 about his early years, influences and breakthrough movie 'Like Crazy,' which was then just being released.
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Anton Yelchin in 2011

Anton Yelchin died suddenly and tragically on Sunday at age 27. Five years ago, as he was promoting Drake Doremus' magnificent 2011 movie Like Crazy, in which he and Felicity Jones play a young couple struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship, we sat down for an extensive conversation. Yelchin spoke about his life and career up to that point — from the way he got into the business as a kid, to the actors who most influenced him, to the intense collaboration he shared with Doremus, Jones and Jennifer Lawrence.

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Did you go to the movies as a kid? And if you did, were there any films or actors that were particular favorites or influences on you?

Well, as a kid when I went to the movies themselves like, at the theaters, Arnold Schwarzenegger was probably the biggest influence on me because Arnold put out so many awesome '90s cheesy action flicks, like specifically Last Action Hero. I remember seeing [it] and just being obsessed with [it]. And of course, T2 and stuff, but The Last Action Hero came out I think a couple of years after that and I remember seeing it. Yeah, I think they didn’t really inspire me to want to be in movies, but I just loved them. I remember seeing a movie with Jake Lloyd and Arnold Schwarzenegger — Jake, I got to know later — [in which] Arnold and Sinbad had to go get the same toy for their kids [1996's Jingle All the Way], and I just was obsessed with it. I have distinct memories of coming home and going, “Oh, I want that toy or I want to be the hero.” And then, Space Jam definitely was a profound influence when I was younger. Then, when I was like 11 and 12 my parents started showing me [other movies] — because I started working, and they were like, “You know, if you want to do this, we’re going to start showing you good movies just so you don’t think Space Jam is —”

— is the peak, yeah. 

— is the peak of American cinema. So, they showed me a film shot by an extraordinary DP named Michael Chapman, who did Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. And I started watching all those and, like, Clockwork Orange and Deer Hunter. But prior to that, it was just, like, '90s, the awesome '90s experience.

You mentioned at around 9 you started acting yourself?

Yeah.

What was it that motivated that? Were you encouraged to do it? And when did you then know that it was something that you wanted to continue to do?

I went to an acting class when I was like 9 — yeah, about 9 maybe, maybe 8 or something, because I was very shy and a friend of ours suggested my parents take me to an acting class because he saw that I was really shy, but really animated by myself. And my parents are athletes, so they really didn’t know anything about that world, but they were of the opinion that they wanted me to be doing something. They tried to get me to figure skate and I was terrible. They tried to get me to do karate, I was terrible. I did soccer, I was terrible. So I did all these sports and was bad at them. And they took me to this class just to take up my time. And I loved it, and I specifically expressed that to them, that I loved it. And my mom was particularly supportive because she said, “Great. If you’re going to do this, if you’re going to go every week and study the lines they give you, then it’s something that I’ll take you to every week.” And she took me, and then the acting coach suggested I go on auditions. And she wasn’t quite sure, but she knew that I loved it so much, so she took me to those and it kind of went from there. I’m just so grateful to her because she really supported me. She took time off from work to drive me around and take me to this stuff because she knew I loved it. And then, at a certain point I told her that just ‘cause they were all commercials I just didn’t want to do that. That wasn’t something that I felt was what I wanted to do. And she was like, “Fine. We’ll find out if there’s something else you could be doing or you won’t do this anymore if this isn’t what you want to do.” I ended up getting an agent and ended up doing TV and movies and all that, but that’s kind of how it started.

As you look back, what was the thing or things that began to take it to another level of seriousness?

I was very lucky. When I was 10 I worked with Albert Finney on a film called Delivering Milo, and even though I wasn’t very conscious of what I was doing, I remember watching him and thinking how great he was. But the biggest, biggest thing that was quite significant and affected me profoundly was doing the film Hearts in Atlantis with Anthony Hopkins and Scott Hicks directing and being around the late Piotr Sobocinski, who was an extraordinary DP, and seeing them work and collaborate — working with them and being influenced by them was tremendous. That was just the first time that I realized that there was a lot going on in this cinema world and a lot of magic can be accomplished. [It was] the only time I’ve ever been on a set when there was pure silence. Sometimes you’re doing a scene and a grip will be talking here or there, but the only time I’ve ever experienced just complete silence where you could hear a pin drop was when Anthony Hopkins was doing this one scene, and everyone, everyone was mesmerized. His energy just silenced everyone. And I realized how powerful the experience can be. And Scott Hicks was so instrumental guiding me and guiding my own emotional journey and exploring certain kinds of emotions. So, that was really the first time that things kind of opened up for me.

From Alpha Dog to Charlie Bartlett to Star Trek to Terminator Salvation, the public’s consciousness of what you’re doing has increased a lot. Is that the way you perceive it?

I’ve had more opportunities — Alpha Dog was another one of those experiences. That character was just so heartbreaking. And I think after a certain age, things just got to be a lot more serious and a lot more emotionally taxing in different ways. Not that they weren’t before. Like, Hearts in Atlantis was a very dramatic film and it was extremely emotionally taxing. And then I did a couple other movies and House of D and Fierce People were also really emotional. But something happened after Alpha Dog where it was like I really consciously, consciously, consciously started working on characters more than I had before, because I’d always map out characters and I’d map out obviously how they were doing emotionally. But then, specifically with Charlie Bartlett I was like, “All right, this job is about creating characters and exploring characters and figuring them out.” I think more consciously than I had realized before. That’s sort of been the guiding factor in everything with me since then. How do I take something and make it specific to what we’re trying to accomplish? And how can I disappear into that world. And that’s sort of the guiding factor of how I look at things. How many different people can I play, and how different can I make them every time.

Have you ever had a role that you were as invested in as Jacob in Like Crazy?

I’d like to think that I’m extremely invested in every character, you know? For example, The Beaver, I was particularly invested in because a lot of the issues brought up by that character were really heartbreaking to me. They hit a little closer to home in terms of that character. But this experience [making Like Crazy] was unlike any other because of the improv and because of the intimacy and because of how much I believed in the filmmaking, in the idea that we were just getting together to pour our hearts and minds into something for no money, just to make it. The emotional journey that Felicity and I went on was unlike any other experience because we never left these characters by virtue of how we were making the movie, because we were shooting six-day weeks, really long days. We didn’t know when we were rolling, we didn’t know when we were cutting. We just stayed in that world. I was so intensely involved in it and after that month, it felt like I’d spent years making this film. We both felt that way. This character also is really different for me. He’s very passive — and not passive, but kind of internalizes everything. It takes a whole movie for him to vocalize how he’s feeling. It takes years of a relationship for him to actually say what he’s feeling as opposed to just retreat. And studying someone that was so quiet and reserved was completely different from other characters that I’ve done, especially [in] Star Trek or Charlie Bartlett where they were so huge. So to retreat into a world that is so small and subtle, and explore someone [who] is a quiet, reserved sort of intense human being was really amazing for me. I [had] experienced [improv] with Robert Downey [on Charlie Bartlett] because Downey never sticks to what’s on the page, and Downey is one of the most free actors I’ve ever worked with. And I realized when I was on set with him that there is nothing that you can’t do. You can do anything and everything when they are rolling, as long as you know who the character is and it’s in the parameters of who that person is, you have total freedom. But [on Like Crazy], it was a given that we had total freedom, that once we knew what the situation was and once we knew who the characters were and how they responded to the different situations, then we had total freedom to explore those moments to their core and to exhaust basically those moments in the processes of exploration. And that was really, really affecting and exciting.

And had improv come up as well with Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Yeah, but Curb is such a different kind of experience. I mean, with Curb, you go on the audition and you pick a scenario out of a hat and then you go in the room and there’s like 10 execs there and Larry David and you just improvise a scene with Larry David. And I basically did it, and then when I got it, they were like, “What you said in the audition, what you did in the audition, that’s what the scene’s going to be.” Which was great, I mean, I had a blast making that, but this was obviously kind of a different emotional level.

Producer Jonathan Schwartz suggested director Drake Doremus meet with you for Like Crazy

Drake wanted to sit down with me, and I sat down with him, and we were kind of on the same page about all of these things and about the characters and about where filmmaking was at and what we found interesting in filmmaking. Drake gave me the outline and I read it as soon as I got home. Pretty much an hour later I called him and said, “I’m in.” It was such a beautiful piece of — just a beautiful story because it was just an outline.

Was that jarring? Or is it in some ways nicer, because I gather there’s a lot of background given that might not be in a script that’s just dialogue?

No, it was amazing because Drake, not only did he give me the outline, but he gave me a CD with music on it. And the outline had certain notes in terms of moods that were based on the tracks on the CD. And then he gave me pictures, just sort of visual references. So it was an emotional experience. The best scripts are emotional experiences that you sort of lose yourself in. And this outline was like that. It was like, every moment you could feel. Everything that Drake was talking about you could feel and you could feel like how he was going to do it. And having seen [his film] Douchebag — the quieter moments of connection or disconnect between the brothers are, for me, the moments that really affected me. And so I kind of knew where Drake was coming from and how I thought it was going to work. I was on board right away, I thought it was an amazing opportunity.

I’ve read that you also in some ways had gone through a similar experience to that of the movie in your own life with forced separation. Is that true?

This is specifically Drake’s experience. I mean, Drake has had an intense relationship of this sort and it’s based on that relationship and others. I think inevitably with my job, every one of these relationships becomes long distance because you leave for four months at a time. So certain things you can really relate to and understand, like the "last night" feeling, the "I’m not going to see you for four months" feeling, the "I haven’t seen you in a long time, how do I take this moment" feeling. But it’s more based on Drake’s experience and who we figured out this character was.

Since you were the first on board, how involved did you get with the decisions to cast Jennifer Lawrence and Felicity Jones?

Jen and I had worked together on The Beaver, and I thought she was awesome. Schwartz asked me if I thought Jen would be interested. And I said, “Well, it’s a really interesting project. I’m sure if you told her it’s an improv film, she’d be down.” And she was. And Jen was signed on second after sitting down with Drake. [For Felicity's role,] Drake had read with four other actresses, and I could see that he just didn’t feel like it was right. And then, he called me one day and he’s like, “I cast the actress. She sent in a tape and she’s perfect.” He sent me the tape and I trusted Drake. He’s the captain. Felicity’s tape was really interesting because it was very subtle and very small and you got it. And compared to the other actresses, it was the most subtle tape by far than the others. And, you know, it was just kind of like, we got together and it worked out. I’m sure Drake was a little nervous because it just happened to work out.

How soon did you know that it was going to work out? Was there a scene or a moment when you guys knew you clicked?

Well, we connected pretty much right away. We had dinner at El Cholo in Santa Monica and I was at the bar having a tequila and Drake came in and we were kind of sitting there and Felicity came in and there was that awkward “Hey, we’re going to, like, embark on this really intimate journey” moment. And then we were just sitting there and I felt like I could make Felicity laugh and I felt like suddenly things were getting easier. We hung out the next day before rehearsals. We had dinner and the next day we were in the intense rehearsals. But, before rehearsals, I picked her up and went to a bookstore and just hung out. And in the rehearsal process it got more and more and more intimate between the three of us because we’d meet at 3 and go until 3 in the morning. And you could feel us learning about one another, us learning about Drake, Drake learning about us. And most importantly, us learning everything about these people and learning exactly how much we were willing to share with one another as these people and the comfort level and the trust that we had to have for one another. And the lines just disappeared. It was like suddenly we transformed into this world, and then from the rehearsal period on it was Jacob and Anna and we didn’t leave, you know.

Do you keep a line between you and your characters, between Anton and Jacob in this case?

I think the thing is you disappear within those people, and those people are madly in love, you know? You literally leave your own life for that period of time. I was dating someone at the time and I saw her once that whole month. And when I saw her, I remembered what I loved about her and what we had, because I just wasn’t in my life for that month, and it wasn’t like Anton was living a love story, it was just that Anton had left, checked out and gone to be this other human being, and that human being was going through something for a month, that was actually years condensed into a month, so it was very intense. So it was like there just was no me. I didn’t see my friends. I didn’t see my girlfriend. I lived at home, but I barely saw my folks. I’d have a quick bite to eat and go to bed. So I spent all my time as Jacob. And Felicity also, being completely disconnected from her life in England, spent all her time as Anna. And we were just these two people, because Drake could be rolling at any time. Some things that are in the movie are just us being us, but it’s really us being these people. So it was like, as opposed to the lines being blurred, that line wasn’t there because I wasn’t there anymore.

Was the movie shot chronologically? 

By virtue of the budget and the way everything was structured, it wasn’t shot chronologically. Luckily, we shot the dating, that honeymoon period, their first dates, Santa Monica, their very first date, their meeting pretty much in the first week, which was the best because we got to get that out. And then everything else, but we had mapped everything so intensely in terms of where they were each year. It helped us tremendously because we would map out each year in terms of physical and emotional changes very specifically. So we could then jump back and forth.

You put on weight for the part?

I did, yeah.

Why? What was the motivation behind that?

You know, it’s funny. I remember one of my first meetings with Drake, we went and had breakfast and I just said to him, “Look, I think I want to put on weight.” And he said, “Sure.” And I said, “Just because I want Jacob to feel as real as possible,” and Felicity is so stunning, you know, that to have her be with someone that just feels not actor-y. The visual perception of actors in Hollywood is they’re all in shape. Most movies require actors to be that way. But this wasn’t that kind of a film, and it allowed you to transform. And also, showing him aging, showing him getting tired and, you know, the hair, the physical changes are as much a part of depicting the emotional changes as anything. I think when you meet him and you see that Jacob is not Simon. Simon’s kind of the perfect guy with the perfect body and haircut and clothing and everything. And Jacob is just this human being that she is madly in love with regardless of that sort of superficial perfection, that just felt very kind of real to me. And part of it was also I think indulgent just that I wanted to do that and Drake was okay with it. And I justified it that way. 

So what, you ate a lot and you just put it on?

I just ate a lot. I put on. When we did the film I was close to 160, but I probably am usually around 145 or less, so I put on 15 pounds, almost 20 pounds, and it’s there, especially if you watch the scene where it cuts [to] us sleeping and I have my shirt off. There’s me, then a gut, then Felicity and it’s my favorite thing about it. That just felt very real to me somehow. It just felt like that was who this guy was.

I read that some of the letters and the gifts were actually your own creations.

Well, Felicity wrote her poetry, the essay. Everything that is written is written by Felicity. I, unfortunately am not a chair maker, so I can’t do that. I’m not a designer, but I did my notebook and all my sketches. I took some of the pictures — because during the rehearsals I had my camera and I’m very into photography, so I took a couple of rolls and I gave those to Katie Byron, the designer. And so, they were the pictures in our apartments and in the books and stuff. But I have to give credit to the artist that does the chairs, his name is Dakota. He works in Los Angeles, and he is basically who Jacob was, who I based Jacob off of. He’s very reserved, very quiet, powerful presence, and talked about connection and permanence, and that was like Jacob. Jacob is a person who doesn’t have a family, his only connection is to his art. He meets Anna and then gives her his art and his love in one package, which is that first gift. But yeah, everything we could do, we did. Katie Byron, our wonderful set designer sent us a list of questions, “What’s in their bedrooms? What do their bedrooms look like? Where do they sleep? How do they treat their environment?” Everything was collaborative, everything. It was like the camera went where we went. 

We’re now 10 months out of Sundance, where the film debuted, and it opens in 11 days. As you look back on this whole experience with this movie — going to Sundance, winning the Grand Jury Prize and now putting it out into the world — what are your thoughts? And also, what's next?

It’s great. We made this movie because we just wanted to make it. All of us thought it was an amazing experience. Drake needed to tell the story for his own I think sanity and for where he was at emotionally. And we wanted to help him do that. You can only make films [with] this tiny budget, with this kind of equipment, if you have people that all they want to do is dedicate their lives to that project at that time. Of course you want people to like your movie. And you want to have your movie shown. But because of how special the experience was, everything that has happened since then is kind of an icing on the cake. I was so stoked that we got picked up by Paramount. That was amazing, but what was amazing was — the first kind of amazing thing was hearing how many people could relate to the story when we went to Sundance. It was like, we had our screening, and suddenly all these people were telling me that this was their story, and that was really exciting to hear. You know, and then we got picked up by Paramount, and then we win, and people are really liking the movie. It’s all amazing, but it wouldn’t be nearly as great if it wasn’t such a special experience to begin with. You know, if I hated making this movie, if I didn’t feel it inspired me in any way, it’d be nice, but it would be perverse in a weird way — but this felt so special and interesting and I was so passionate about it and I was so proud to be a part of it and proud to have had the experience and proud and happy with the film. I’m so happy with the way the character turned out and the film turned out that all of this is kind of great. 

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