Before inheriting from George Takei the role of Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek franchise, John Cho was best known as Harold in the Harold & Kumar trilogy of films. In addition to a smattering of stage work, Cho served as a regular on the TV series Go On and FlashForward, and appeared in the films Identity Thief, Solaris, Total Recall (2012), American Beauty, and American Dreamz, as well as the American Pie series. Alice Eve's credits include Men in Black III, The Raven, Starter for 10, and She's Out of My League, as well as originating the roles of Young Esme and Alice in Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll. Simon Pegg first came to prominence as the star and co-writing creator of the Britcom Spaced, then became a film star with the "rom zom com" Shaun of the Dead and follow-up Hot Fuzz, all under the direction of Edgar Wright. He has written an autobiographical book (Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid ); guested on Doctor Who, I'm Alan Partridge, and Black Books; and starred in the films Paul (which he co-wrote) and Run, Fatboy, Run, along with two Paramount franchises: Mission: Impossible (specifically Mission: Impossible III and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and the latest Star Trek films, in which he has taken over the role of engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (from the late James Doohan). These three stars of Star Trek Into Darkness sat down for chat with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So it's good to have you back here at Starfleet Command.
Alice Eve: That's right.
Simon Pegg: Yeah.
Groucho: One of the things that I found unexpected and loved about the movie is that it seemed to me to be sort of the science-fiction-action answer to Zero Dark Thirty, in a way.
Simon Pegg: (chuckling) Yeah. The hunt for—.
Groucho: What did you think was the moral of the movie?
Alice Eve: Well, I mean, the moral of the Star Trek universe is the good of the many over the good of the few. And that's the Gene Roddenberry message that kind of is reiterated in every episode. And obviously, J.J. is remaining true and honoring that tradition, but at the same time he's modernizing the storyline. And you know, daily we live with the threats of terrorism and the enemy being within. And so I think that he was able to take the original Star Trek message and also make it current for an audience that ostensibly lives in a fear culture.
G: Yeah, I appreciated the idea—it seems very Roddenberryesque to me—that we can all be better...
John Cho: I like that. I like that. We can all be better.
G: A core idea. So when you get this script, I imagine you get it in a hard-copy format you have to squint at, with watermarks all over it. Is the first thing you do to start at page one and read it, or is it to flip through and find "Okay, what's Sulu doing in this movie?"
AE: That's an interesting question. I think Simon has the best script story.
SP: I tend to flip through and see what Sulu's doing in the movie. (All laugh.) Yeah, no, I got the script in exactly that way. One of our producers brought it to me. I was doing a press tour for Mission Impossible. I was in New York. He met me in New York with the script and said, "This is it." And I went up to—I thought I'll go read the first page—you know, just see where it kicks off—and I was sucked in immediately. And I read the whole thing, not looking from Scotty's lines. We're very much an ensemble—the piece is an ensemble piece, and I was excited to just see what happened to us next, you know. It wasn't—my first instance wasn't "What do I get to do?" It was like "what happens to us?"
AE (To Simon): What about your Christmas shopping?
SP: Oh, and I was going to go Christmas shopping, but I decided not to. I phoned down after one minute of reading and said, "I'm not coming Christmas shopping. I've got to read this." I was literally bouncing around the room I was in, screaming. I'm a bit of a fanboy anyway. This kind of stuff appeals to me. So to read—to see what happens in this script and see the adventures we get into—the scope of it—I was genuinely thrilled to the point where I think the person in the projection room thought I was being murdered. (All laugh.) Horribly.
G: So John, you get to be Acting Captain Sulu in this movie. And diehard Star Trek fans know that George Takei always advocated for a "Captain Sulu" series.
John Cho: Yes.
G: I wonder if—at this young point for you guys in your franchise—if you've ever had the opportunity to advocate for your character, or the need yet to advocate for your character?
John Cho: I don't feel that need, and I feel like my idea would probably ruin the movie. (Chuckles.) I'm sure I would come up with something that would poison the movie, and the franchise. So no, I don't particularly—I don't myself do that. I have heard George advocate that to myself and others.
G: Alice, can you talk a little bit about how you got the role, how it's been historically played, and how your version is a variation on that?
AE: I got the role in the traditional way. I was called by my agent, and I was asked to audition, and I did, and it was an audition that I enjoyed very much. And, you know, I felt that J.J. and I had a good working chemistry. And then I obviously went back and watched the 1982 film in the original [Star Trek film] series, and in the 1982 film, Bibi Besch played Carol Marcus—Dr. Carol. And the thing with that for me which was liberating was that she was more mature in that film than I am at this stage. And she had a grown son: David Kirk, who was, you know, a teenager. So obviously she went on to invent the Genesis Project and was a very serious woman, but what I took from her was her essence, which was—there was a real determination to not only tell Kirk what to do but to, you know, achieve her goals as an advanced physicist. So I enjoyed investigating Carol.
G: What would be a typical J.J. Abrams direction?
AE: Energy, Energy, Action!
SP: (Laughs.) Energy, energy, aaaand action!
JC: Intensity, intensity!
G: When I watched some of the footage from the first film on the blu-ray, everybody's pumping their arms and dancing on the set. Is that a kind of a thing of the production to keep the energy up?
SP: I remember when I first came onto Star Trek seeing Chris do press-ups before a take. I'd never seen anything like that before. You get down and do fifty press-ups, and I, a slightly podgy Englishman, coming—like, just thinking, "What's this all about?" But by the time I got to the second film, I was down there with him.
AE: No, you weren't.
SP: I was.
AE: No, you weren't!
SP: I was. We used to do—we would do press-ups together—with the music from Rocky III in the background. Because you have to kind of use—this film requires this sort of mad energy, this higher level of consciousness, which you kind of—you've got to get into. These guys are in constant peril. And they're in a job which is like—I guess that the time and age for a Starfleet officer really should be about fifty. Because—which is—I'm getting close to. (Alice and John laugh.) But it's one of those things that you just have to do. You have to be on board with J. J. If you're along for the ride, you've got to be match fit, and that's a hell of a fun thing to do in the end.
G: And I think in this film, you might have the greatest cardio challenge.
G: You seem to just run like mad in this film, don't you?
SP: I did. I ran a lot. I ran—I think that one scene, it was about a hundred-meters sprint—and full-on open sprint—like proper fast-as-you-can running—or someone's gonna die. And I did three takes of it in less than fifteen minutes, which I don't think an athlete would be happy to do. And it did lead to me being sick. (All laugh.)
G: Your role in this sequel puts you into conflict with Kirk.
G: And interestingly—I don't know if it was intentional on the part of the writers—but it seems to sort of voice a conflict that the fans might have with the requirements of an action-cinema version of Star Trek versus an ongoing TV series—
G: When you say, "I thought we were explorers."
SP: Yeah, yeah.
G: Was that something that was in your mind at all?
SP: Yeah. I think it's—and also...this film we join Kirk in the very infancy of his captaincy, which he got very young, and he got at a point when he wasn't really ready for it. And we see him making a bad decision 'cause he's being—there's a whole scene in the first movie about how officers are supposed to stand down if they're emotionally compromised. And Kirk is emotionally compromised from the start of this film. You know, he's driven by something other than sense. He's driven by vengeance. And Scotty really is absolutely right to stand up to him and thinks that Kirk will agree with him to the point of calling his bluff and resigning, but [Kirk] doesn't. And so I think the "darkness" in this film is less some sort of misplaced sense of kind of broody, po-faced seriousness and more to do with Kirk's kind of indecision and inexperience and inability to know what to do. At one point in the film, he says, "I don't know what to do." That's what the "darkness" is. It's Kirk's kind of "What am I? Am I a soldier, or am I an explorer?"
G: Yeah, that dark night of the soul is the "darkness" in this one, I guess.
SP: But not with a "K." (All laugh.)
G: Yeah. (Laughs.) Right. So I'm running low on time, but I think I'll ask for the three of you, what might an average viewer of the film or a fan of Star Trek be surprised to know is happening on the set between takes, or when the camera is off? There's so many unique acting challenges with Star Trek, with the "button acting" and [to Alice:] like you have—your father is a major character you play with in the film, but I assume you're looking at a blank viewscreen. You probably were never acting with Peter Weller on the set.
AE: You know, J. J.'s pretty good about that. You know, you do look at a screen, but he will try and have the actor present even if you can't look in the eyes, which is obviously the ideal situation. You at least have the energy of your locuter there, and that's as much as you're going to get on a movie of this size. But most of the time, J. J. creates an environment where you're able to do the scene, and then you watch the movie back, and you're surprised at how big the movie stands because actually it sometimes feels very intimate—like a, you know, smaller movie, and then it becomes this epic.
SP: Peter was always there as well, and it's a wonderfully professional thing for an actor of his sort of experience.
SP: Robocop: "Thank you for your cooperation."
JC: [admiringly:] "Locuter."
SP: I know. Isn't it lovely? So yeah, when we were doing the scenes with Kirk talking—and before—when there's a conference between the two characters, Peter was on a chair off set, like, slightly elevated.
AE: A really high chair, wasn't it?
SP: Doing his lines like he was on his day. I love him for that.
G: All right, well, thanks very much.
AE: Thank you.
JC: Thank you.
G: Hope to speak to you again some time.
SP: Yeah. I hope so.
JC: Right on.
SP: For the next one.