Zachary Quinto: ‘I have lost some faith in the American system’ | Zachary Quinto

When uncompromising American writer Gore Vidal invited people to dinner, he often played old tapes of his televised debates with conservative William F. Buckley. In the depths of his old age, he sat guests down with a drink and watched, obsessively, recordings of his own younger face. Recently, Zachary Quinto he has also begun to watch them obsessively.

The 45-year-old actor and staunch Democrat is best known for playing Spock in the most recent Star Trek movies. Now, he’s taken on the role of the “real, immovable, complex” Vidal in James Graham’s West End transfer. best of enemiesalongside David Harewood as Buckley.

Based on the 2015 documentary by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the award-winning play immerses us in Buckley and Vidal’s snarling, twisted debates in 1968, which “irrevocably changed the future of what became news,” says Quinto. What was previously neutral and strictly factual morphed into witty and ruthless conversation, skewed by personal opinion. Commentating nightly on the Republican and Democratic national conventions, Buckley and Vidal’s bout became a sensation.

With slicked-back hair and square glasses, Quinto is impeccably poised for his second day of rehearsals in London. Having enjoyed competitive debates in high school, although he claims to remember some of the skills, he doesn’t say “um” or “er” when he speaks, and his unflinching gaze has added authority thanks to the definite eyebrows from him

David Harewood and Zachary Quinto at Best of Enemies rehearsals.
David Harewood and Zachary Quinto at Best of Enemies rehearsals. Cinematography: Johan Persson

But the artist, who recently appeared in revivals of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the boys in the band, admits that he is still finding his place in his latest role. Follow the West End production of Best of Enemies a sold out race at the Young Vic, where British actor Charles Edwards played the role of Fifth. “I never got into something that already had a production,” he says, rolling down the buttoned sleeves of his shirt. The cast and crew previously had a week-long rehearsal in New York, but everything still feels new in London. The experience is similar, he says, to being the new kid in the class, when everyone else started the previous term.

Quinto has often played creepy antagonists on television and in film, including multiple serial killers, from Sylar the superpowered thief, on sci-fi series. Heroes to the terrifying Dr Oliver Thredson in the bizarre anthology American Horror Story, which earned him an Emmy nomination. But he considers theater to be his calling, and he has long expressed a desire to perform in the West End. “He’s wanted to live and work in London for a long time,” he enthuses. “I’ve seen a lot of great theater here over the years. To get a chance do the theater here is really exciting.”

A decade before Quinto’s birth, 1968 was a turning point for the United States. Amid increasingly frequent protests and growing divisions in political thought, it was the first time that political party nominating conventions had been shown on television in full color. Faced with the newsrooms with larger budgets and audiences, ABC – “the channel in the making,” says Quinto – wanted to find a way to increase its meager ratings. Rather than place a camera in front of the event and report on it neutrally, ABC chose to feature two political commentators going head-to-head after each day.

Facing Buckley and Vidal was an immediate success. “You have to remember,” Quinto says, “there weren’t dozens of channels when you turned on your TV. People only had three options. On CBS or NBC you are seeing what you have always seen. Then you switch to ABC and you’re seeing two people expressing their own diametrically opposed points of view.” They were two boxers in a ring. “You want to see which one will win.”

Quinto speaks of Vidal and Buckley as if they were rare birds of prey, beautiful and vicious at the same time. “They were more impressive than a lot of the politicians of the time that were in the script,” he says. “Their verbal acrobatics set them apart.”

Vidal’s refusal to bow to the mainstream was part of what drew Quinto to the character. The author said that it was as natural to be homosexual as it was to be heterosexual, a quote that Quinto smiles and says that he loves. “He had a very complex relationship with relationships,” he says thoughtfully. “He suffered a great young loss in his life, when a child he opened his heart to was killed in the [second world] war. I think she calcified it in some way.”

Zachary Quinto photographed in London for The Guardian.
Zachary Quinto photographed in London for The Guardian. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

At a particularly passionate moment in the debates, Vidal lashes out at Buckley, calling him a “crypto-Nazi,” and a bewildered Buckley calls Vidal a “faggot.” “The word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed,” says Quinto, who first spoke publicly about being gay in the early 2010s, “but in 1968, this was right before the Stonewall riots, right before the the gay liberation movement will really explode. To come out and say it,” he hesitates, considering the shock, “I think it’s a moment neither of them got over for the rest of their lives.” The unusually impulsive attack hit Buckley harder than Vidal. “I think Buckley considered the moment one of the biggest failures of his professional life. But Vidal, if you see him, smile. I think he saw it as a victory.” The country was scandalized, but Vidal reveled in the scandal. “He knew the fire they were playing with.”

That fire was what made these debates so – Quintus growls a low, slow hum, finding the right word – ‘dynamic’. But the ferocity of him and the brazen nature of him seeped into the mainstream. “The news used to be an objective and impartial expression of the facts”, considers Quinto. “It has become this quagmire of echo chambers, ideological culture wars, and opinion that, in many ways, can be traced back to these debates. It was the birth of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s no other way to look at it.’ That polarization has only intensified in the last 50 years.”

Looking at our current political situation, he identifies a kind of absence. “I think we’ve lost the grace of communication in the modern world,” she says. “Social media has undermined it, and the formation of partisan news channels has lowered the bar on how to talk to each other. We have lost respect for each other, in many ways.”

Growing up, Quinto was surrounded by active participation in politics. His mother was involved in local politics in his small town of Pittsburgh, his great-grandfather was on the city council, and his grandfather had been in Congress. As an adult, Quinto supported Barack Obama in both elections, answering the phones at Obama’s campaign headquarters and touring the country for him.

Since then, however, the actor has found it increasingly difficult to find hope in politics. “I’ve lost some faith in our democratic system, to be honest,” he leans back in his chair, resigned. “It’s been pretty bleak in our country.” He sticks a hand out the window. “I’m sure a lot of people here can relate. It appears that the pendulum has swung in one direction so far and is occurring in a global sweep. I don’t know if or how we can repair the damage that has been done in the short term.”

But this desperation was part of what drew him to Best of Enemies, with its caustic intelligence and forceful insistence that talking to people with opposing viewpoints is education as well as entertainment. “There is a grain of hope in the repetition of history,” Quinto says determinedly. “As years, 1968 and 2022 are similar in a way, right? There was a tremendous social upheaval then, as there is now. One of the things that came out of that time was radically new thinking. I think that is also possible now.”

Vidal once wrote that change is both the nature of life and its hope. Looking to the future, Quinto clings to something similar. “I’m hoping he can take us in some kind of salvageable direction.”

best of enemies it’s in the Noël Coward Theatre, London, from Monday November 14th until February 18.

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