Now that Michael Cera has been placed in Hollywood’s witness-protection program after a string of box-office bombs, Joseph Gordon-Levitt became a slick, gravity-defying ass kicker in Inception, and The O.C.’s lovable smart-aleck Seth Cohen is but a distant memory, a new contender has arisen for the title of geeky teen heartthrob, albeit from an unlikely place.
Anton Yelchin moved to America from the Soviet Union in 1989, when he was just 6 months old. His parents, Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin, were stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet, and had even qualified for the 1972 Winter Olympics in figure-skating pairs but were barred from participating by the Soviet government.
“I don’t exactly know what that was—because they were Jewish or because the KGB didn’t want them to travel,” said Yelchin in an interview with The Daily Beast. The family, which was quite well off by Soviet standards, sold all their worldly possessions—their home, their summer house, even their family jewelry, since the Soviet authorities wouldn’t let them take it—and immigrated to the U.S. as refugees who didn’t speak a word of English. Joined by Irina’s father, who had recently suffered a stroke, and Viktor’s mother, they eventually settled into a tiny apartment in West Hollywood.
“We were afraid for our son,” Viktor told the Los Angeles Times in a 1989 interview. “It is a very bad situation over there. I would get angry, too—I'd say, ‘Why should we have to buy things on the black market? Why should we have to stand in line?’”
“The move was brutal for them and very difficult,” Anton said. “But they did it so I could grow up here and have a better life than they did.”
The skating couple, who were barred for three years from competing in the States professionally by the Soviet government, took little Anton along with them to do shows in Atlantic City and at Knott’s Berry Farm. When he grew older, he tried following in his parents’ footsteps, but to no avail.
“I tried ice-skating and wasn’t very good at it,” said Yelchin. “I kept to myself and played with my toys a lot. Then a friend of ours, who is an actor, said [my parents] should take me to an acting class because I was very animated when I was playing with my Legos and action figures.”
His parents enrolled him in acting classes when he was 9, and that same year, he made his film debut in the independent 2000 film A Man Is Mostly Water. Just two years later, he won best actor at the Young Artist Awards for his role as a boy who forms an unlikely bond with a drifter, played by Anthony Hopkins, in Hearts in Atlantis. At 13, he had a memorable cameo on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as a sarcastic magician who torments the show’s miserly protagonist, Larry David.
“The fact that it was all improv, I was so stoked,” said Yelchin. “On screen, [David is] one person, and off he’s just very quiet. I remember him sitting in the corner reading Noam Chomsky and keeping to himself.” He added, “But I also remember making him laugh, and I felt so happy to make this comedy genius laugh out loud.”
He earned further critical raves for his heartbreaking turn as real-life victim Zack Mazursky in the 2006 drama Alpha Dog. The film, about a murder committed by middle-class drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and raised the profile of several of its young stars, including Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, and, of course, Yelchin.
While the smaller films brought Yelchin indie cred, in 2009 Hollywood finally began to take notice. The curly-haired, squinty-eyed actor was cast as Starfleet Officer Pavel Chekov in J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek film, and as Kyle Reese, the younger version of Michael Biehn’s rebel fighter in the first Terminator movie, in Terminator Salvation. Unfortunately, the film is probably best known as the one where Christian Bale had his on-set freakout—which is something that doesn’t sit too well with his younger co-star.
“It’s extremely disrespectful of the sound mixer to turn that in and not stop recording,” said Yelchin. “He’s a very nice man and a quiet family man, and I felt like it was such an invasion of his being. It was kind of gross.”
When asked about the status of Abrams’ highly anticipated Star Trek sequel, Yelchin said, “Hopefully [we’ll begin production] sometime in the new year, but I don’t know when we’re going to do it or what the story is or anything. The first one was top secret and we had to go to Paramount to read the script, and J.J. is brilliant in keeping everything on the down-low, so I can’t imagine this one would be any less secretive.”
Last year he starred as Mel Gibson’s son in the dark comedy-drama The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster. Gibson’s character, after attempting to take his own life, finds salvation in the form of an imaginary talking hand puppet. Despite receiving mostly positive reviews, the film grossed less than $1 million in North America.
“I think a lot of what happened to that film wasn’t so much the Mel thing, which is what you would think, but people found it too dark or not relatable,” said Yelchin. “I think Mel did a really brilliant job in the film. Obviously he has things to take care of, but it’s a sad fact of our culture that people’s personal lives become fodder for the press and sometimes overshadow their performance.”
Now, after over a decade of film roles, the 22-year-old Yelchin is ready to take center stage. He’s the lead in Like Crazy, a beautiful indie film coming out in October about the long-distance relationship between a British girl (Felicity Jones) and an American boy (Yelchin) that won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Drake Doremus, the film was made with a crew of only 10 people, and, as with Yelchin's earlier experience with Curb, the dialogue was entirely improvised. Yelchin decided on his own to pack on 15 pounds for the role because he felt it would suit the character.
“It’s not Hollywood shit,” said Yelchin, who actually relived the film’s plot. “I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and part of it was because she went to school in Boston and I was working, and it puts extra strain on relationships when you’re young.” He pauses. “It definitely adds that strain.”
He’s also the main character in Fright Night, director Craig Gillespie’s (Lars and the Real Girl) deliciously fun remake of the 1985 cult classic in which a young boy living in the suburbs discovers that his creepy neighbor, this time played by Colin Farrell, is a vampire who has his sights set on the boy’s girlfriend (Imogen Poots), the hottest girl in school. The role hit very close to home for the guarded young actor.
“There’s only a handful of people I trust completely, and I know who they are. Other than that, I pretty much don’t trust people,” said Yelchin. “It’s just how I am. The film industry itself—the ‘industry’ and business side of it—just sucks and is really demoralizing, so it’s added to my general paranoia.”