Anton Yelchin
Photo by Nicolas Guerin

Anton Yelchin: “There are no real answers”

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Short Profile

Name: Anton Viktorovich Yelchin
DOB: 11 March 1989 (d. 19 June 2016)
Place of birth: Saint Petersburg, Russia
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Yelchin, what is the ultimate goal of cinema?

In the face of the unknown and the horror of existence that we have to deal with, the goal of cinema should be to acknowledge and indulge the dreamlike nature of existence, but never mythologize and offer answers. I think the most dangerous thing is when we construct a mythology to give answers and to dictate meaning and existence, and then we offer these images as being accurate in order to mitigate the terror that we feel. It seems like in our culture the goal is to make us feel less terrified and more confident.

There is no doubt that movies are a form of escapism for many.

But that ultimately just leads to greater confusion as we realize there are no real answers and that we can’t just control things. So cinema should be a tool in which we explore the nature of our existence as human beings on this earth and should never really answer questions. It should provide questions and speculation and allow subjectivity instead of a cinema that is purely manipulative. For me it’s sort of a mixture of the philosophical awareness and the emotional. I think those are the sort of films that I’m most drawn to.

When was the first time you cried in the cinema?

The first time I cried was watching Terminator 2 on TV, when Arnold’s thumb comes out and he’s saying “I’ll be back” and he’s melting. I think that was incredibly effective, manipulative cinema for a little kid. So that was the first moment I really remember weeping. And I cried in Disney movies all the time. I mean Lion King still shreds me. If I were to watch it right now I would break down. The first time I was really profoundly affected emotionally at a more significant age when it wasn’t just about Schwarzenegger and lions was probably seeing Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. and Midnight Cowboy.

How old were you when you discovered those films?

I saw them all around the same age, around the age of 13. But those films, like the Italian neo-realist films, the new American cinema of the ’60s and ’70s, those films really affected me when I saw them. Midnight Cowboy still breaks my heart. But at the same time Tarkovsky movies really affect me, like beyond just the evening of weeping, because they are not like outright crying movies, but they have a kind of profound heaviness about them that you can’t get away from. It just sort of seeps into your soul and sits there for a year if you like. But the moment where cinema really came together for me, where I realized this sort of incredible and odd and surreal aspect of taking all these elements like light, sound, performance, camera movement, and just manipulating space to create an image – that really came together on this film I worked on called Hearts in Atlantis when I was 11.

What was so special about that experience?

I just remember seeing the way the light was being conditioned by the DP Piotr Sobocinski to create an image, and the way that Anthony Hopkins would literally create, in a similar way, this space with the magnitude of his acting ability and power. And then the director Scott Hicks was there to really kindly and sensitively guide me in this new terrain that I found myself in. 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. And from that moment on it has become this very intimate thing for me that is incredibly bizarre at the same time.

After that were you confident that you would make it in the industry? Not many people co-star a film with Anthony Hopkins before they get to middle school…

I’m still not very confident that I’m good enough. I don’t know that I’ll ever be confident in that. When I started working I felt like, “Okay I’m working. I should just do this because it’s what I love.” I more or less worked all through middle school and high school so the thought that I should stop working and do something else just wasn’t on my mind. And I always kept going. Good? Bad? These things I find very confusing when it comes to my own work.

You seem to be sincerely interested in movies, so a logical consequence would be to start directing or writing your own films.

Yes, definitely. I have been trying to write screenplays since I was about 18. I have four or five in circulation that I’ve been working on over the years and new ideas come to me all the time. But I want it to be a thorough investigation of what that thought process is, or what I’m thinking and feeling, and I want all of that to be on the page. I have given scripts out too early and have been embarrassed afterwards because in my gut I knew that they weren’t streamlined, you know? And so now I’m very careful about that. I only want to put things out that are exactly what I want them to be. I don’t want to have any gut feelings about it being wrong.

What kind of films do you want to make?

I have been watching a lot of silent and experimental films from the ’20s and really early cinema from the first decade of the 20th century and the last decade of the 19th. I am really interested in how silent films work. Their own formal logic follows with philosophy embedded in the emotion of the images. I’m drawn to this experimental and avant-garde cinema and the beauty of images. Dziga Vertov is one of my favorite filmmakers. Even Eisenstein was complaining that Vertov’s films don’t make sense, that they have no point, but Vertov’s movies really affected me because they are images talking to one another without exactly telling you what to think. It is this kind of beautiful cinematic collage. 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. So I feel like if I’m going to make movies, I want them to move in that direction, at least right now.

Your parents emigrated from Russia to the United States as political refugees right after you were born. Do you believe you would still be in the movies if you had stayed in Russia?

I’m very fortunate to live here because my parents made sure that I would live a comfortable life even when it wasn’t easy for them. I’ve been very fortunate to have certain comforts, and one of those comforts was being able to go to the cinema and being able to have VHS tapes and then later DVDs and things like that. In Russia, I don’t know what my parents would be doing, I don’t know how we would live, I don’t know whether the cultural climate of post-Soviet Russia would have been comfortable enough for them to show me what they wanted to show me. But I also may be wrong. There is incredible cinema, like Andrey Zvyagintsev, Sergei Loznitsa, and Konchalovsky. They just have a much harder time, you know? They are welcomed on the festival circuit, but they are not welcomed in their own country. And I don’t know how I would have felt about that, how that would have affected me. It’s hard to speculate.

How much do you identify with your Russian heritage?

What affects me is the Russian cultural history. Tarkovsky’s films, Dostoyevsky’s novels, Rachmaninoff’s music. All of those really affect me. Because I think there is a heaviness to the thought process, a kind of emotional heaviness. I’m not going to call it depth, as to imply that there is greater depth in it than other things, but there is a kind of heaviness about it. Like you are not necessarily meant to enjoy yourself all that much, you’re meant to be burdened by the emotion of it. I think that is a kind of Russian thing I can relate to. You listen to Russian Romantic music and it’s captivating in an incredibly heavy and serious way, as is the literature. The thought processes are quite different from the French or the Italian. The French cinema is so beautiful, Italian cinema is so extraordinary, but there is this special something in the Russian vision I described... Maybe it’s just a darkness of vision that is pervasive, and I feel that in myself sometimes.