My morning with Anton Yelchin: ‘I have an overabundance of emotion’

In an interview conducted at Cannes last year to promote the acclaimed drama Green Room, the actor was in expansive mood, talking of his kinship with Russian literature, revulsion for Nazis and his favourite punk rockers

It was impossible not to be moved by the death, last month, of Anton Yelchin: a winning 27-year-old who clearly had so much more to give. Later this month sees the release in the US of Star Trek Beyond Yelchins most high-profile movie to be released posthumously. Next week, meanwhile, comes the DVD release of Green Room, one of the most critically acclaimed of the actors recent efforts, and a movie whose success he, happily, lived to see.

I met him in May last year, one sunny morning at the Cannes film festival, when he was friendly and funny, and perhaps a little fragile from the previous nights party. When he first greeted me, his voice had the raw rasp of someone who had recently been singing at the top of their lungs. Perhaps he had. After all, the cast had good reason to celebrate. Jeremy Saulniers drama a punkish follow-up to the directors acclaimed debut Blue Ruin had premiered in the Directors Fortnight to a riotous reception. In the film, Yelchin plays Pat, the bass player of punk band the Aint Rights, who find themselves trapped backstage at a neo-Nazi club as a gang of murderous skinheads, led by Patrick Stewart, lay siege.

Yelchin reported that the experience of working with the Trek elder was very inspiring. Not necessarily seeking advice from him, but just soaking in his being, he said. How he carries himself, what his values are at this point in life. Hes very gracious and very funny too … We talked about Russian novels.

Born in Leningrad, where his parents were acclaimed ice skaters, Yelchin was raised in the US, where they moved when he was six months old. At nine, hed landed his first movie role, despite his parents pushing me into sports Acting was something I genuinely always loved, he said. Its funny: when I have to be athletic for a film, I can do it. But if I go to play sports, I suck. My parents made me try and I was terrible. They tell me they saw me and said, Oh no.

Anton Yelchin, left in Green Room. Photograph: Altitude

Yelchin, a fluent Russian speaker, was eager to speak about Russian literature, to which he said he felt connected, to its mood, the emotional nature The things I read in Crime and Punishment, he continued, I dont know if its because its Russian, or because its Dostoevsky and everyone reads him and says Holy fucking shit!, but in terms of being proud of a cultural heritage, thats what Im proud of. There are certain things about the Russian culture and the Russian ethos that I can relate to. Its an overabundance of emotion.

The same, he said, goes for cinema, too. You can see that in Tarkovsky. No matter how cerebral the films are, at their core they are incredibly emotional. The emotion is shrouded in the magic and mystery of his film-making, but when I watch them I am so moved by them because, at their core, they are incredibly passionate about our being and our presence on this earth.

He sipped a sorely-needed coffee and puzzled at the thought. Its a very Russian thing to be incredibly cerebral, and simultaneously have this overabundance of feeling. I relate to that. My favourite composers are people like Rachmaninov. I listen to that and its like: Fuck! Thats too much feeling!

Extremes of emotion can also be found in the music of Green Room though not exactly Rachmaninov. Like his director, Yelchin was, he said, a passionate and knowledgeable fan of punk, playing guitar for a time in a punk band called the Hammerheads with Tom Pettys son. I love that music, he nodded with a happy grin. I love thrash, grindcore, Cowcatcher and hardcore. My band does a lot of 30-second songs, 90s, late-80s hardcore. It has more shifts. I love learning all that stuff on bass. And I love Dead Kennedys. Nazi Punks is one of my favourite songs.

Anton Yelchin performs with the Hammerheads

The song features in one of the best scenes of the movie as does a repeated question about desert island groups. Yelchin reported his as being the Misfits and Bad Brains as far as punk went, at least. He also professed love for BB King and Ray Charles I listen to all day.

For someone defined on screen by the sensitivity of their presence, and who took his work and that of others very seriously, it was encouraging how lighthearted Yelchin seemed in the flesh. For instance, he joked about being a skinhead in disguise, then nervously clarified that he was kidding, perhaps remembering the fate of the likes of Lars von Trier, declared persona non grata from the festival after a badly received gag about sympathising with Hitler. Ill get banned from Cannes! Yeah, seriously, I was kidding just then. Im Jewish for Christs sake!

In fact, proximity to the Nazi paraphernalia on the set troubled him deeply. Seeing all the images Jeremy [Saulnier] collected I dont like that. I think its important to consider the historical and ideological roots of that belief so we can understand it, so we can fight it and enlighten people as to why its so fucking ridiculous, but I dont go to seek it out. Some people fetishise that kind of thing and I dont. I find it really repulsive. Being around the props and the stuff makes you feel bad, seeing the swastikas every day its gross.

Watch a trailer for Green Room

Green Room is the kind of edgy, credible material in which Yelchin shone, light years from the blockbuster fame Star Trek delivered in 2009, as he entered his 20s. He spoke with affection of doing a tiny film, Porto, in Portugal earlier that year. One hundredth … no, sorry, one thousandth of the budget of a Star Trek. But there are certain kinds of film you cant make for a quarter of a million dollars. Star Trek would be a different movie if it cost a quarter of a million dollars. Itd just be us on a cardboard set.

Yelchin became most enthused about the franchise not when I brought up getting his own action figure, but when he spoke of the technical training he had absorbed just being on set. Its a good group of people. Id feel differently if it wasnt. If it wasnt JJ [Abrams], Id probably be less inclined to feel that way but I still think everything is something you learn from, even if it sucks. Especially if it sucks.

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