Created by Gene Roddenberry and reintroduced by J.J. Abrams in 2009, the Star Trek franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, as the next installment, Star Trek Beyond, sees the U.S.S. Enterprise and her intrepid crew exploring the furthest reaches of uncharted space. With director Justin Lin at the helm, they encounter a mysterious new enemy who puts them and everything the Federation stands for to the test.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film with Doug Jung), Karl Urban, John Cho and Zoe Saldana talked about paying homage to 50 years of the franchise while also telling a story that can stand on its own, the new character interactions, honoring Leonard Nimoy, the evolution of these characters, including the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage,” Justin Lin’s approach, the uniforms, adding more strong females, the tragic loss of actor Anton Yelchin, and the future of this franchise. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Question: This is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, so what were the challenges of paying homage to the original while also making a movie that you could see without having seen any of the previous incarnations, including the first two with this particular cast?
SIMON PEGG: Yeah, that was very important to Doug and I, and Justin, going in. We wanted to try to create a hybrid of an episode of the original series with a spectacular cinematic event. The Star Trek movies have always been event films. In a TV series, you get time to spend with the characters. It’s a longer game. In the film, you have to hit it. It has to be very self-contained. It has to be memorable. So, the thing was to try to make sure everybody that’s been here for 50 years gets what they deserve, in terms of a good Star Trek film, but for people who have never seen it before, and who perhaps aren’t as familiar with Star Trek, then they’re welcome, too. This is an interesting universe, in every way. Not just fictionally, but factually.
This film pairs Spock and McCoy together a lot. Zachary and Karl, how was it to spend a lot more time together and further explore that dynamic of these great characters?
KARL URBAN: I feel like this is probably the most fun that I’ve had making a Star Trek film. I think what Simon and Doug were able to do was present the most well-defined, well-rounded version of the character. It certainly gave me a lot of material to work with. I had an amazing time working with Zach, and I have a huge amount of respect for him and his approach. It was just great to have those two characters, that are so diametrically opposed to each other, be forced into a situation where they have to depend on each other to survive, and through the process, come to a deeper understanding of who they both are. It was obviously a great opportunity to explore a lot of comedy, but it also really deepened the relationship between the two. And I think that by the end of it, they were able to go back to their respective corners with a bit of inside knowledge. For long term fans, it’s a rewarding direction.
ZACHARY QUINTO: I couldn’t agree more. Karl and I had a great time working together. In a movie franchise where we’re used to spending so much time together, with all of us on the bridge of The Enterprise and in many of our adventures, it was actually really nice to have so many days where it was only Karl and me together. I think we got to know each other and appreciate each other more than we already did, which was already a significant amount. And from a character standpoint, I really echo the idea that these two characters, historically in this franchise, come at things from entirely different perspectives and points of view. There’s nothing more fun for fans of the original show to see that dynamic, unmitigated by Kirk, who usually manages to get between them. In the same way, Bones really saves Spock’s life in this film, and I think there’s a deep appreciation for that, obviously. They end this film in a much better place, as a duo, than I would say they begin it.
Since he’s not super excited about being a Starfleet captain, at this point, where is Kirk at, three years into this mission?
CHRIS PINE: I always have the most fun on these films when we’re laughing or talking, and then usually shit blows up and we have to do the shit blowing up acting. I think I spend the majority of the film saying, “Let’s go! Can we do it? I don’t know.” I do a lot of just breathing heavily. I talked a lot with Simon about how to nuance what Kirk’s trip was, in this whole thing. Once we landed on the idea of him growing out of, or moving out from underneath his father’s shadow, that made a lot of sense. To do that scene with Karl was great fun. That scene made us giggle and have a good time, and hopefully people will appreciate that.
The film has such a lovely tribute to Leonard Nimoy. How did you figure out the way you wanted to pay homage to him, and was there initial expectation, earlier on in the process, that he would be part of the film, before his passing?
QUINTO: Leonard died on February 27th. I think, if Leonard was well enough to be a part of this film, I’m sure he would have been. And I know that there were early conversations with him about that possibility, but true to his incredible self, he knew himself well enough to know that wouldn’t be possible, at a certain point. And then, it became important to all of us to figure a way to honor his legacy. I thought Simon and Doug did a beautiful job of incorporating it into the narrative of the film. We all carried him with us through this production, for sure. It was definitely a different kind of feeling to make this movie without him, for me in particular, but I think he was very much a part of it, in spirit. He will be a part of anything we do, moving forward, for sure.
PEGG: We wanted to make it part of Zach’s Spock arc, and not just a reference to Spock Prime. We wanted to have his passing be something which inspired our Spock to move on. And so, it became an integral part of the story, and not just a nod in Leonard’s direction. That felt more right.
Simon, Justin Lin said the main reason he wanted to tackle this project was because his childhood dream was to blow up The Enterprise, and then bring it back together. Was that a collaborative effort, or was that all his idea that he presented to you, and then you guys developed it in the script?
PEGG: I hated the idea at first. I was shouting at him, “We can’t do that! You can’t destroy The Enterprise!” My problem was that we’ve seen it before. It happened in “Search for Spock.” It happened in “Generations.” But Justin was very, very determined. And as we spoke about it, I realized what he was doing, brilliantly, was not only taking out a main character, but he was removing the physical connective tissue between the crew to see what happens when you take away the thing that physically bonds them together. If you take away that thing that necessitates their being a unit, do they dissipate or do they come back together? That was the genius of that. You take it away very violently and dramatically, and then you wait and see if they all come back together to be this family, which is essentially what they are. And of course they do. When I realized that, I backed down immediately and said, “Yeah, you’re right.” I do occasionally do that, but not always. In this instance, I realized it was a brilliant idea, but I was initially opposed to it.
Simon, what was the decision behind using the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage”?
PEGG: We just love the idea of them foiling a technologically terrifying threat with something very analog and old, like VHF. The initial idea was that they fired an old radio into the middle of the swarm. It took many shapes as we wrote it, but we realized that there was no sound in space, so we had to abide by physics. We just liked the idea that Jaylah discovered this old ship that had an archive of music, and she discovered rap music and liked it. She likes the beats and the shouting. “Sabotage” was a song we used in ’09. It’s part of Kirk’s childhood. All these things linked back to his past and his dad, with the motorbike and the song. It’s all him letting go of these things and moving on as a man, as well. It’s important for Kirk’s character, but it’s just a kick-ass song. If anything’s going to blow up a swarm of spaceships, it’s going to be the Beastie Boys.
Zoe, where is Uhura at now and how do you view her feelings for Spock, in this movie?
ZOE SALDANA: She’s tired. I think she’s homesick. The one thing I appreciated the most about what Simon and Doug did for this installment was that they made us human, and just homesick and sad. Being overly worked, and being away from home and all the things that keep you grounded, can put a strain, not just on the intimate relationships that you may have, but also the professional ones. I thought I would never see the day where I would walk into The Enterprise, and we’re not that excited to see each other. I thought, okay, this is a great place to start because I can only imagine where we’re going to end up. We literally end up in the opposite direction. We’re dying to be close to each other. We’re dying to save each other to get back together. I thought, okay, that’s brilliant. And the relationship with Spock and Uhura felt so normal and human to me. It’s those consequences that may occur when you decide to love your co-worker in a lovey-dovey way. Sometimes the professionalism can get in the way of the spirituality, and I feel like that’s what happened between both of them.
Is the Uhura/Spock relationship doomed, or do you have hope for them?
QUINTO: I think it ends on a really hopeful note, don’t you? Yeah, let’s go with hope.
SALDANA: If he were to walk in with some other Vulcan girl, shit would go down.
Zoe, 50 years since Star Trek began, how do you think Uhura has evolved?
SALDANA: I think there’s a beautiful – and I hate using the word – sprouting, but it’s true. Women are becoming very, very independent, not just in the workforce, but also in their personal lives. There’s something about realizing that you should want to be a part of something, but you don’t necessarily have to be a part of something, in order to be validated or respected or appreciated or considered strong enough. I feel like the break-up that Uhura and Spock have is amazing because she fell in love with her teacher. He came as this figure that represented responsibility and safety and maturity and wisdom, and now I think that she feels strong enough on her own. There is a parallel universe situation that’s going on with Uhura and women these days, where there’s no longer this animosity or this resentment to prove who you are. You just want to be left alone to find out who you are because you’re interesting and you’re curious. I like this autonomy that’s happening with women, right now. I like when a battle is fought just with a spoken word, and nothing that feels tense or violent.
JOHN CHO: One of the questions that we were asked, maybe for giggles, on the tour, in either Sydney or London, was “Which timeline would you choose to be in – the original series or ours – if you had the choice?” And I did say, if forced to choose, that I would choose ours. Roddenberry did set up a world that was incredibly progressive, but it was tempered by the social mores of the era. I feel like we can go further in 2016 than he was able to do, at the time. I feel like our version is able to give more to the women and the people of color in the cast than Roddenberry was originally able to.
PEGG: Not because he didn’t want to, either. He absolutely wanted to.
John, how do you feel about how Sulu has evolved? When did the idea come up to show his family life?
CHO: The idea came up when, I believe, Simon pitched it. Then, I was told of it through Justin, pretty early on, when he had set up at Paramount. We went in to have a chat and get reacquainted, and I thought it was a beautiful idea. I had concerns about how it would be received by George [Takei], and I had some other concerns, but the handling of it was the most important to me. Having seen the film, I think it’s nonchalant posture toward it is the best thing about it, and the fact that it’s normalized. It’s news now, but if you re-watch the movie in ten years, you won’t think anything of it. It’ll just go right by you. That’s the best thing about it. There’s no music cue. There’s no close up.
SALDANA: The one thing that I guess has taken a secondary position is that it wasn’t just that we revealed that he’s gay, but we revealed that he’s a father. None of our characters have families that we’ve ever talked about. I actually feel quite puzzled that, in 2016, we’re having a bit of a fit over who he fathered a baby with. I’m happy he’s a dad.
PEGG: What we wanted to do was put somebody we care about in Yorktown, so when Yorktown was under threat, that made the threat tangible. We knew that Sulu’s family was there, so it wasn’t just a bunch of faceless Federation people. It was somebody that we cared about because we care about Sulu. That was really important. The nature of that relationship wasn’t an issue. By the way, that whole thing with George, people like to make things into a spat. George and I email, all the time, with big, long, lovely discussions about it, and we’re on great terms. We were never shouting at each other, or anything like that. And it’s a great discussion to have. I’m really happy with the way that it’s been talked about and responded to, and I’m still a huge fan of G.T., for sure.
Simon, what would your character from Spaced like and dislike about this movie?
PEGG: For those of you who don’t know, I started out on a sitcom in the UK, and it was about a nerdy guy. I don’t know what I was talking about, and it wasn’t me at all, but there’s a line in Spaced where Tim says, “As sure as eggs is eggs, as sure as day follows night, as sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit…” And I wrote that in 1998. And then, here we are in 2016, I’ve written an odd-numbered Star Trek movie, and I’m happy to say that Tim is wrong. It’s an incredible thing to look back on the circularity of that, and of having grown up a fan of Star Trek and science fiction, to now be participating in it, in such an active way. I tried to make the kind of Star Trek movie that Tim Bisley would like. That’s what Doug and I did. And when I say Tim Bisley, I’m talking about the people that have been with Star Trek for a long time. Star Trek must have been doing something right because it’s been around for 50 years, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, we wanted to embody the original show and instill it with what made the original show great, but also frame it in a big movie way, which is a luxury they never had, back in the day. That’s why the series turned into such a great thing. Necessity was the mother of invention with that show. They had to make these wonderful little teleplays. They couldn’t rely on special effects. Now we can do both, and it felt like I was always thinking, “What would Tim Bisley think?”
What was is like for all of you to be in space and fight in a foreign land?
SALDANA: I like being on the ship. There was dust everywhere. Helicopters were flying really low. I was like, “Put me on The Enterprise. It’s cleaner.” I’m more into comfort.
CHO: On the upside, it was cool to be paired off with Zoe, even though she was having a miserable time.
SALDANA: I was so happy that I was complaining with John.
CHO: Typically, as characters, you’re relating on the Bridge, and everyone’s relating to Kirk, so there’s less talking to one another. And so, just getting that opportunity brought out some different colors and vibes, so it was good.
Simon, what’s it like to live your dream and get to tell people in Star Trek what to do?
PEGG: I ask them nicely. I think the business of writing a good story and making sure the plot works superseded any kind of wish fulfillment. We had to start with that, really. The whole splitting up the crew into different little interactive groups was nice. I love the relationships in Star Trek, and it was nice to pursue those a little bit more, specifically with Bones and Spock, and as the scene with Kirk and Bones, in the beginning. Getting the keys to that kingdom was a real joy, and it was nice to be able to write our signature underneath the hundreds and hundreds of signatures that have gone into writing the Star Trek universe, over the years. It was nice to put our little stamp on that, and fill it with little Easter eggs that only we know about.
What was the dynamic like, working with Justin Lin, compared to J.J. Abrams?
QUINTO: Justin has a different energy about him. I’d say he’s a little more internalized, just as a person. He’s a little quieter, but he’s no less confident. He’s incredibly gifted, as a visual storyteller. And I think he’s really sensitive to character dynamics, as well. He brings a balance of both of those extremes. He came in on an already moving train, in a lot of ways. He didn’t have a lot of time to prep for this film. And I think all of us were incredibly impressed by his sense of leadership and vision. It was also really great to have Simon in a position of creative influence on this film because he was a tremendous conduit for us, early on, before we formed our own relationships with Justin. But all in all, he was a really welcome addition. I would say he was very different from J.J., but also really exciting and really unique, in his own ways. It was reflective of this experience, which was different and new for us, to be away from the past and the configuration of the last two films. We all had a great time working together, and we really enjoyed him. Seeing what he was able to create, in the final product, is really exciting for all of us.
How were the uniforms, this time around?
PINE: The pants were fantastic, this time. There was so much movement, and a lot of space in the hips, which I appreciate. This was like the retro-super-future version of Star Trek, so it’s looking way ahead into what Star Trek can become, and also has very specific nods to the past. One of the very small things that’s layered throughout all three iterations of the film, so far, is that there’s been a lot of discussions about the colors of yellow for Kirk’s shirt, and the cut of the shirt. This one is a very specific nod to the original series. It’s not the bright, fantastic yellow of the first and the second. It’s this lovely Kirk-ian mustard green.
URBAN: Our costume designer, Sanja [Milkovic Hays], did an extraordinary job. One of the things I was most proud of was the fact that, unlike the previous two films we got to do with J.J., the women in the Starfleet uniforms in Star Trek Beyond all had ranks on their uniforms. That’s a fantastic thing. I thought she did a great job. It was a throwback to the costumes, but also made them slightly new. I had massive envy for Chris Pine’s survival suit.
What was it like to add Sofia Boutella to the mix, as the very kick-ass Jaylah?
PEGG: Sofia’s incredible. Because she’s a dancer and she’s physically so adept, she was very up for the physicality of it. It’s funny, in the writing room, Doug, Justin and I wanted to create this very independent female, who was a very resourceful character, on the surface. We didn’t have a name for her, so we used to call her “Jennifer Lawrence In Winter’s Bone.” That was her long name. It was, “And then, Scotty lands there and suddenly ‘Jennifer Lawrence In Winter’s Bone’ comes out and she fights these guys.” It started to get tiring calling her “Jennifer Lawrence In Winter’s Bone.” It’s a long name. So, we started calling her J-Law. And then, she became Jaylah. So, she’s named after Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. But, there aren’t enough girls in Star Trek. Zoe has a lot on her shoulders, so we wanted to increase that. And also with Commodore Paris, as a figure of extreme authority. We all love Sofia. She’s a nutcase, and a golden addition to this group. She’s awesome.
This film is bittersweet, with the loss of Anton Yelchin. What was it like to work with him on this?
URBAN: First of all, it’s devastating to lose a family member. We’re at a point where we should be celebrating, not only this film, but this beautiful, talented man. For all of us, it’s almost incomprehensible to be at a point where we have to talk about him in the past. The pain of his loss is still very raw. We went and spent time with Anton’s family, and we know that they’ll be very, very proud of his contribution to the film. This film will probably forever be the most special experience for all of us. It represents the golden period of when our family was fully together, for the last time. It really was the best summer of our adult lives. We love him so much, and we miss him terribly.
PINE: He was just a good guy. He was very sweet. He’s very beautifully, authentically Anton. There was not much of a sensor on the boy. I remember one of the first times I met him, like nine years ago or whatever, he was 17. I invited him back to my trailer to play guitar, because I knew he played guitar, and he played guitar really, really, really well. And he said, “I can’t, man, I’ve got to go back to my trailer.” I was like, “Okay, why?” He was translating an esoteric Russian novel into English, just because that’s what he wanted to do. Eight or nine years later, I talked to him and he was still translating it. And he was reading a book on physics that this French philosopher had written. And he was still trying to get all of us together. We’d be in Vancouver and he’d want to see some German neo-expressionist film that none of us had seen, and he would talk about as if everyone has or should have seen it. He was a great guy. He was just totally fearless. I think you try to grasp onto something that’s a positive, out of losing such a good guy, and it’s just to be fearless, creatively. He was always working on stuff. He had music projects and photography projects, and he was going to direct his first film this summer. He was just spectacularly interested in life, in a really great way.
The original Star Trek relied on social commentary reflective of the time to propel their story forward. In this day and age, what is the message now?
QUINTO: I think the message is the same as it was when it began. It’s just that we have more room to explore and express it than they did, at the time. It’s shocking to me how divisive our culture has become, and I feel like Star Trek maintains a position on inclusivity and unity that is as resonant today as it was in the late ‘60s. This film, in particular, explores that idea, one side of that being about the unity and inclusivity, and the other being about breaking that apart. I think that’s really reflective of the society that we live in today. It’s troubling to me, on such deep levels, that we’ve gotten to this point of unwillingness to see varied points of view or feelings or opinions or perspectives. I think Star Trek remains, in a landscape of popular culture entertainment, something that is a beacon of inclusivity and progressive thinking. I think it just takes on different forms now than it did 50 years ago.
PEGG: I think the film is actually even more apt today. It’s become more so, even since we shot it. The message of this and the social commentary in this iteration of Star Trek is that we’re better together. It’s about collectivism. And in this era of Brexit and talking about building walls in certain places, now more than ever, we should be thinking about the value of collectivism, about cooperation, and about unity. That can be and is our strength. The more fractured we become, the less secure we all feel.
CHO: In the Star Trek set-up, you’re going into space and seeing so many different kinds of species. It does become comically apparent, when you look around the planet Earth that we live on, that we do have so much more in common than we don’t. So, the little things that seem to divide us here, in our present time, seem even more exaggeratedly small after seeing an episode of Star Trek.
PEGG: We’ve all got one head, do you know what I mean? Let’s live together.
How far do you see the franchise going, with these characters?
PEGG: Well, I hope it goes on for another 50 years. We’ll keep going for as long as we can, until we’re old and inappropriate. Some of us already are, like me. I hope it goes on. There’s a new CBS series starting. I love that the universe is a boundless place, and there are so many adventures to be had. As long as we have this idea, where we might actually become slightly more enlightened and slightly more tolerant beings, Star Trek will live forever.
Star Trek Beyond opens in theaters on July 22nd.