Zachary Quinto Navigates the Celebrity Activism Minefield While Promoting ‘NOS4A2’
How do you promote a TV show during a historic civil rights movement? How do you amplify change without being an obnoxious celeb? The “NOS4A2” star invites us into his approach.
It is an unspeakably awkward time to be promoting a TV show.
On the one hand, hundreds of people work hard on any given series. That work deserves to be recognized and publicized, so that audiences actually watch the damn thing and those people can stay employed.
At the same time, how can an actor justifiably giggle through stories about backstage shenanigans and what it’s like putting on prosthetic makeup to play a 135-year-old vampire when there are pressing, life-or-death issues in the world that demand the media space that they might be taking up?
So Zachary Quinto laid some ground rules when it came time to promote season two of NOS4A2, the dark thriller currently airing Sunday nights on AMC, the actor’s first regular role in a drama series since his breakout on Heroes.
There’s plenty to talk about when it comes to series: the labor-intensive prosthetics he dons to play the decrepit demon Charlie Manx; why he was eager to play a role that would allow him to disappear, literally; and what it is about him that lends himself to darkness: a return to TV accompanied by a return to villainy, after a superhuman serial killer on Heroes and the potpourri of dementedness on American Horror Story.
But also, he read the room.
“I was pretty clear with people up front like, I’m not going to promote the show on my social media platform,” Quinto tells The Daily Beast, speaking the week after NOS4A2’s season premiere aired. “The only thing that I feel comfortable promoting on my social media platform now is stuff related to Black Lives Matter movement.”
“I feel very protective of that space right now,” he continues. “I totally understand the need to do press and give interviews and do talk shows. I just think if we are going to talk about the work itself, it can only be in the context of talking about the other things that are happening in the world right now.”
But even with that stance, there are the optics. There are always optics, after all, and they’re always complicated.
How do you talk about those important, though arguably heady things—for example, speaking at length about “forward positive change and integration” and quoting spiritual teacher Ram Dass as a guiding principle—and not come off as insufferable, well-intentioned as you may be?
Quinto’s thoughts about the current state of the country and his own activism come a mile a minute, capsule theses delivered like speed-round TED Talks about his own efforts and commitment to meaningful education and action. But it somehow all skirts ego or traps of do-good narcissism. It’s clear that any instance of “me” or “I” is in service of passing the mic—what he can do to bring attention to what really needs to be said.
He mentions his social media platforms and the long, careful considerations he’s given to how to use them often enough to risk sending a flare to the tsk-ing older generation eager to pile on about how preoccupied millennials and celebrities are with their social media. But his concerns aren’t borne from a delusion about his Instagram’s importance.
Society has both delivered to celebrities strict marching orders to use their platforms for good, whatever that may mean, in the wake of a global pandemic and historic civil rights movement, while at the same time shaming them for tripping over hidden landmines.
Trite singalongs? Grave PSAs? Black squares? Photos of your sideboob to demand justice for Breonna Taylor? What were you thinking? You need to be doing something, but not that. But if not that then...what?
Since he publicly came out as gay in a 2011 interview, Quinto’s activist efforts have run in tandem with his rise as a celebrity—playing Spock in the Star Trek films, joining the Ryan Murphy televerse, starring in the Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band, which is soon to be a Netflix film—and his social media accounts have been a natural tool in those endeavors; calls for action alongside on-set selfies and cute snaps of his dogs, Skunk and River.
The Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter movements intersecting with Pride Month marked a natural time for Quinto to activate and engage publicly through those outlets. But by the same token, at a time like this what is a white cisgender actor supposed to say? What value is there in his voice?
These are questions layered with uncertainty, expounded to the power of public risk.
“We do have a platform that people are plugged into and take notice of,” he says. “With regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, it became very clear to me pretty early on that it was incumbent upon me at some point to engage. It wasn't enough to just be aware. I needed that awareness to be vocalized, and to be given amplification.”
He went through different phases in the first weeks of “the revolution,” as he calls it. “Examining myself and my position in this and really holding up a mirror to my followers, and people in general. That was effective because it sort of awakened in me this connection to the notion of silence is violence or complacency.”
Quinto had just returned to Los Angeles from the Hamptons, where he had been quarantining since the shutdown in March, when the Black Lives Matter protests started happening in full force. He attended the birthday remembrance for Breonna Taylor, which he credited for a shift in his thinking.
“I realized, yes, this requires participation, but the surest way to participate is to really step back and be a little bit reflective and a little bit self-curious,” he says. “I don't need to be dancing as fast as I can to promote certain points of view on my social media platform, until such a time as I've been able to examine them within myself. That's something that you can't do publicly.”
That meant listening to other activists. Paying attention when others were “passing the mic.” Reading White Fragility. Watching movies that were recommended to him. After we speak, he is planning to Zoom with a friend of his who launched an initiative called “Difficult Conversations With My White Friend.”
“I think I'm a little bit less self-involved at the moment, and so I'm happy to talk about what we're here to talk about, but we have to talk about the things that are undeniably gripping the consciousness of our country right now,” he says.
“If after a long day of fighting for what they believe in and standing up against institutional systematic racism, people want to unplug and they want to sit in front of a television, that's understandable. And the fact that I'm a part of something that maybe gives them the opportunity to do that, all the better—but that's not the primary focus of the conversation.”
To that end, there is NOS4A2 to talk about.
The series is based on the 2013 novel by Joe Hill, a creepy horror thriller in which a young girl discovers she has a supernatural connection to a serial killer named Charlie Manx, a seemingly immortal demon who feeds off the soul of children.
Quinto plays Manx aged to 135 years old, drenched in prosthetics to make his skin look like melted candle wax and sporting claw-like, rotten teeth, reminiscent of the classic monster Nosferatu the series’ title references. But flashbacks and the logistics of the show’s supernatural elements make it so Quinto isn’t shrouded in unrecognizable makeup the entire time.
Yet even then, the tone and circumstances of the series lend a menacing nature to the actor’s handsomeness, especially thanks to the character’s accentuated widow’s peak hairline. “Doesn’t my husband remind you of the Nosferatu?” Manx’s wife asks at one point in a flashback.
While not suggesting that Quinto himself looks like a festering demon, the line does hit on a recurrent theme of his career: There is something about his aesthetic that has made him well-suited for projects that require an actor with a certain kind of mystery and, potentially, darkness.
“I have a swarthy complexion and intense eyes, and I sort of hold my space and hold stares,” he says, attempting to diagnose the perception. “And I don't often back down energetically from things or from people in situations. So sometimes there's an intensity to me that people comment on that carries over in the way that I relate to the world as a person and as an actor.”
A collateral benefit of being cast in genre projects like this one is the ways in which its themes lend itself to broader cultural discussion. Season two of NOS4A2, for example, introduces resonant talking points about toxic masculinity and misogyny that Quinto and the show’s creative teams were excited to discover and explore. Even the supernatural world needs to dismantle the patriarchy.
Given a certain allergy he has to the superficial, he’s been grateful for these conversations. Junket slogs with questions about pranks on set and whether the cast felt like a family are rescued by the tendency to meander into more meaningful topics of discussion, owed to the nature of the projects he chooses. It’s not something that was ever a conscious decision for Quinto, but which he’s certainly noticed after the fact.
“Star Trek is an example of that, I think,” he says. “I think more than that is the vision that [creator] Gene Roddenberry had for the potential of humanity. He had a great faith in our ability to come together and focus on what unites us more than what, you know, separates us. Those are allegories for a reason. Sci-fi is specifically structured in that way to kind of represent certain social movements and perspectives and question them and explore where they could take us if we follow them through to an extreme point.”
Similarly rewarding are the experiences he’s had starring on stage in two of theater’s seminal gay plays, first playing Louis in Angels in America off-Broadway in 2011, the run during which he publicly came out, and then in the Tony-winning 2018 revival of The Boys in the Band, which made history for featuring an entire cast of out gay actors, including Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, and Matt Bomer.
The Boys in the Band, which first played Broadway in 1968, was revolutionary for the frankness with which it put the lives of gay men on stage, eventually becoming a lightning rod within the community for the ways in which portrayed gay self-loathing and demeaning tropes.
Its 50th-anniversary revival, in which Quinto’s portrayal of birthday boy Harold was so viscerally flamboyant and bombastic, audience members would reflexively (and loudly) react to him from their seats, meant an occasion to revisit those conversations from a modern context. The upcoming release of the Netflix film adaptation, which reunites the Broadway cast and its director, Joe Mantello, will mean the opportunity to have that discussion on an even larger scale.
“Doing that play 50 years after it was first performed in New York and on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the gay rights movement, it was and is a very kind of meaningful cycle,” Quinto says.
Quinto just saw the finished movie for the first time and, despite loathing watching his own work, found himself feeling incredibly proud. It should also come as no surprise that he is incredibly eager to engage in those discussions.