Death never makes much sense to the living, but Sunday’s sudden, tragic loss of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin stung with particular shock and melancholy. Those who knew him personally, and the legions more who watched him grow from a child actor into one of Hollywood’s most promising young talents, expressed the same sentiment at his untimely death, at age 27, in a freak accident: another light gone out too soon.
Yelchin, an award-winning actor and critical darling, had just starred in A24’s Green Room in April and was set to reprise his role of Chekov in Paramount’s Star Trek franchise next month. His passing sent a shockwave through Hollywood as filmmakers, co-stars, fans, and friends reeled from the news, including his Star Trek family and director Guillermo Del Toro, with whom he’d been working on the upcoming Netflix animated series Trollhunters.
“All of us at Paramount join the world in mourning the untimely passing of Anton Yelchin,” the studio said in a statement. “As a member of the Star Trek family, he was beloved by so many and he will be missed by all. We share our deepest condolences with his mother, father and family.”
J.J. Abrams, who directed Yelchin in 2009’s Star Trek and its 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, posted a handwritten memorial online. “Anton – you were brilliant,” Abrams wrote. “You were kind. You were funny as hell, and supremely talented. And you weren’t here nearly long enough. Missing you…”
According to police, Yelchin was killed in his own driveway when he was pinned between his car and a brick mailbox pillar at his San Fernando Valley home. Friends had arrived to check on him after he’d missed a rehearsal, according to TMZ, and found Yelchin dead around 1 a.m. early Sunday morning, his car in neutral with the engine still running.
The randomness of such tragic circumstances makes Yelchin’s senseless death feel even more surreal. He was unconventionally handsome with a preternatural intensity in his eyes and curly hair framing his boyish features, a gifted performer in possession of an uncannily present aura, whether playing a young boy who befriends Anthony Hopkins (Hearts in Atlantis), a kidnapped teenager trusting in the wrong small-time thugs (Alpha Dog), a high school pharmacist (Charlie Bartlett), a lovelorn student in a long-distance relationship (Like Crazy), or a wide-eyed young officer aboard the USS Enterprise (Star Trek).
Yelchin turned 27 in March but he’d been acting professionally since 2000, when he guest starred on the sixth season of ER as a young boy whose parents are killed in a car accident. Working all through middle school and high school in Los Angeles, he racked up over 50 screen credits in movies, television shows, and short films, including a stint on Showtime’s Huff and studio franchises Terminator Salvation, Star Trek, and The Smurfs.
He starred most recently this spring in director Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed punk thriller Green Room, a movie in which you’re rooting the entire time for him to survive. “Anton was a dream,” Saulnier told Indiewire Sunday, describing a patient and generous spirit. “He was kind and sharp and as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known. Our collaboration on Green Room was our first and, until the devastating news of his passing, wouldn’t have been our last.”
By the time of his death, Yelchin had been acting for more than half of his life. But he always seemed destined to give the world many more years of increasingly complex characters, of becoming an acting legend in his own right. He spoke often of plans to step behind the camera and make his own directorial debut, worshipping cinematic heroes from Dziga Vertov to Martin Scorsese.
Yelchin was born in St. Petersburg on March 11, 1989, to Soviet figure skating celebrities Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin. The duo were successful pair skaters in the Leningrad ice ballet who’d qualified for the 1972 Olympics, but were forbidden to compete by the government because they were Jewish. Six months after Anton was born, the family fled for the United States with his grandmother and grandfather in tow, and settled in California without speaking a word of English.
In a profile of his parents published in the Los Angeles Times that year, Korina and the elder Yelchin explained why they immigrated to America where they received refugee status, from the homeland where they faced religious persecution and bleaker economic prospects. Their answer: “Anton.”
Settling in Southern California, the Yelchins expressed hope for the future their son would now have. “A woman came up,” Korina said, “saw Anton, and said, ‘He’s beautiful. He will be actor.’”
Speaking to the Jewish Journal while promoting his 2015 romance 5 to 7, Yelchin described his parents’ plight with appreciation, as he always did whenever interviewers brought it up. “My parents didn’t want me to grow up in a Russia that was falling apart; they knew it was all going to shit,” he said. “But imagine not understanding anything that anyone is saying to you, and going to a culture that is 180 degrees opposed to your own. There’s nothing that I will ever do that will be as tremendous or profound as what my parents went through.”
He credited his mother, who worked as a choreographer once the family moved to California, with enabling his dream of acting from childhood, taking him to auditions after her own training sessions. “I owe her everything, just for believing in me,” he told Tavis Smiley last year.
Yelchin’s breakout role came opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in Hearts in Atlantis when he was just 11. He described being on that set as a life-changing experience that made him fall in love with movies.
“I was overwhelmed by this cinematic thing that I was experiencing and the magic of seeing them do their work really opened my mind to just what it meant to be making movies,” he remembered of the crew and cast in an interview for The Talks. “And from that moment on it has become this very intimate thing for me that is incredibly bizarre at the same time.”
Struggling to make sense of the loss, we piece together clues to the person Yelchin might have become by collecting fragments of his past revealed in his films, his interviews, even the photographs he shared on Instagram, where he frequently posted his startlingly sensual portraiture. His last Instagram post was a sun-soaked selfie shot on 35mm, and posted with the cheeky hashtag #egoist.
Yelchin had amassed an impressive body of photographic work, collaborating with model and photographer Kate Parfet on a recent series for Autre magazine that blended “trash aesthetics with a flair for glam and Area 51.” He also played in bands and, like any dedicated L.A. cinephile, was known to stalk the movie palaces frequented by the city’s most devoted movie geeks: the Egyptian, the Nuart, and the New Beverly.
At the age of 17, not yet grown into adulthood, Yelchin was profiled for Interview by the actress Diane Lane, who played his mother in 2005’s Fierce People. His intelligence then still leaps off the page, even as the pair discuss everything from Russian literature to high school dating to Andy Warhol.
“I love Andy Warhol! My friend Ian and I were just talking about how we wanted to move to New York and start our own version of the Factory,” Yelchin enthused. “Ian’s dad is Mick Cripps, a guitarist for L.A. Guns, and Ian works for the Warner Bros. record label, so we were thinking about starting an art gallery-cum-rock club, à la Warhol’s Factory.”
Later, he’d explain that he started writing his own scripts around the age of 18. Applying to colleges like other kids his age, he at one point planned on attending USC for film but devoted himself full-time to acting as his career took off.
His turn as the trusting younger brother of a Jewish neo-Nazi in Nick Cassavetes’s slept-on true crime thriller Alpha Dog is still a testament to the range and naturalism he had in his arsenal. “I think any emotions that he feels are pretty much similar to most teenagers,” he said in a 2007 interview. “I’ve felt them; I think everybody feels them. I think it’s like they say you always want to push against what everybody’s telling you, even though it may not seem like the most rational thing to do. But it just seems like people are trying to convince you of things, just because you’re your age.”
He followed Alpha Dog with a starring role opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Charlie Bartlett, playing a Ferris Beuller-type teen who starts dispensing therapy in the halls of his high school in order to become popular. Shortly thereafter, 2009 brought roles in two summer blockbusters: Terminator Salvation, playing a young Kyle Reese, and Star Trek, as the Russian prodigy-navigator Chekov.
Even then Yelchin was perennially unassuming and down to earth, unbothered by the looming shadow of celebrity or fame. A 2009 Los Angeles Times profiler described the scene as paparazzi ignored him altogether as he sat in a gelato store on the eve of a two-franchise summer. “I just don’t think there is any reason for them to follow me,” he said. “I haven’t really done anything for them to follow me. I really think that’s it.”
It wasn’t until 2011 that audiences glimpsed Yelchin’s real potential as a charismatic leading man. In Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy, he played a college kid who falls in love with a British exchange student (Felicity Jones) only to face the emotional fallout of their long distance relationship. Ten days after wrapping the $250,000 film, he was shooting his next studio movie, the horror remake Fright Night.
“I feel lucky to be part of anything that I’m a part of,” he told Indiewire in 2011, acknowledging his knack for bouncing between tiny indie projects and bigger-budget studio fare. “I look at it, and if I like it, I do it. The amazing thing about this job is that you get the opportunity to play so many different characters and have so many different kinds of experiences and do so many different character studies, whether they’re in such a broad, generic format or a very specific genre format or a genre like a dramatic romance. My favorite thing about this job is doing all these different things.
“I’m not so much interested in producing as I’d love to direct and write, and of course keep acting,” he continued. “But if someone needed a couple grand to make a small movie, I’m all for it. I’m just a huge supporter of this universe of filmmaking.”
In a 2015 interview with The Talks, he described being moved by everything from Terminator 2 to Bicycle Thieves, and that he’d been particularly taken by the work of early 20th century silent and experimental filmmakers.
“Man with a Movie Camera is just about life and the ability of the camera to show you life and reconfigure life and that’s always been a big thing for me,” he said. “So I feel like if I’m going to make movies, I want them to move in that direction, at least right now.”
He had a beautiful way of philosophizing on life through the lens of his films and the characters he played. Speaking with Tavis Smiley last year, he described the power of his romantic drama 5 to 7, in which he played a young writer in a relationship with a married Frenchwoman.
“For me it’s a film about accepting that things… you can’t hold onto them,” he said. “He wants to hold onto this woman, he wants to hold onto the love that he feels, and he can’t. But that does not mean that that is not something profound that he will hold for the rest of his life. That’s how I see the human condition, is that we have these profound things happen that just don’t last, but we have them forever in an inanimate form.”
“In the face of the unknown and the horror of existence that we have to deal with,” he once said of the medium he loved, “the goal of cinema should be to acknowledge and indulge the dreamlike nature of existence, but never mythologize and offer answers.”