Zachary Quinto on 'The Chair,' 'The Slap,' and the Star He'll Never Work With Again

Zachary Quinto
Zachary Quinto

The two movies that sprung from The Chair — YouTube star Shane Dawson's Not Cool and writer Anna Martemucci's Hollidaysburg didn't set the box office on fire, but viewers and critics enjoyed Starz's making-of TV series, which gave two aspiring filmmakers the same script to revise and direct.

Controversy ensued. Dawson — who has millions of YouTube subscribers and a mass of crying, screaming teen fans — butted heads with anyone who offered constructive criticism. Though Dawson's raunchier film won the reality competition series, The Chair producer Zachary Quinto was so not cool with Not Cool that he took his name off of it as a producer. With The Chair hitting DVD this week, Quinto talks to Yahoo TV about the biggest mistake he thinks the series made, how he'll approach the competition if it goes forward for Season 2, and the future of his relationship with Dawson. The star of NBC's conversation-sparking drama The Slap also talks to us about that show's second episode, as well as his future with Heroes and American Horror Story.

The Chair ends up being a really nice primer on the movie business, especially the actual business of it. I binge-watched the series in two days, and it made that aspect of it more impactful.
I agree with that for sure. You realize that it's not… there's very little that glamorous about the process of making movies, especially independent movies. I think to be immersed in that reality, that perspective at the beginning, and then stay with it, it can be sometimes frustrating, sometimes uncomfortable, just the way making a movie can be. I think you're right. I think it's more of an accurate reflection of the experience if you're [watching] it that way.

What do you think ended up being the most successful aspect of the show?
The experiment worked as a series, as a documentary series. It just won a [Directors Guild of America] award for directing. I feel like the show itself works really well in terms of the examination of the process of a first-time filmmaker. The part of it that didn't work for me was the competition part. The lesson that I learned, and we all learned, was, how do you qualify what wins? One of the contestants has 13 million YouTube subscribers. The other one has maybe a couple thousand. There's an imbalance, and if you're going to say, "Let's let the audience decide," there needs to be more of a level playing field in that regard. You look at how many more people saw [Shane Dawson's] movie, but it was an inferior film to [runner-up Anna Martemucci's] film, and critically that was reflected in the way people responded to it.

If you're going to have a competition... there needs to be a panel of judges and people that are qualified to make determinations on the success or failure of each of the contestant's perspectives going through the process.

Related: 'The Chair' Exclusive: Shane Dawson Responds to Zachary Quinto Dissing His Movie

Do you think it even needed to have that element of competition?
No, I don't. But if having an element of competition makes it more interesting or appealing or viable as a television show, then let's structure it that way and let's have a level playing field where both of the participants are working with the same advantages and disadvantages in production. That was the whole conceit of putting them in this situation. They each got a script. They were able to do a rewrite of that script, and then, they had to shoot that movie that was a result of their work on the script with the same exact resources, schedule, budget, locations, and time. If you look at the competition aspect of it just by virtue of the fact that Shane has 13 million YouTube subscribers, that's not equal footing. That puts him at a clear advantage and when he made a film that was so infinitely and clearly to me not as good as the other one, then it's not fair.

You didn't like Shane's movie, and you weren't alone. But it was his movie, and he made the movie he wanted to make. The thing that was offensive about his response to criticism was the lazy defense that you just "didn't get it."
Yeah, exactly. That's a good point. I do think he really adopted a very lazy attitude toward the criticism and was able to call into question my taste or my artistic point of view or creative integrity on some level, which is ridiculous. The reality is, [Not Cool] is not a good movie. And on top of it not being good, it was offensive. I'm all for off-colored humor. I'm all for original voices that are designed to provoke, but there's nothing original or revelatory about the story or the way he shot it, and that was the thing that I took most umbrage with. If you're going to be distasteful, then at least be smart about it. Look, the reality is — and I'm sure Shane feels the same way I feel — I'm sure we'll never work together again, and that's fine. I wish him all of the best. He accomplished a dream of his, and no matter what you say about it, I had something to do with that, and I'm glad that I was able to give him the platform to find his voice. The unfortunate thing is the voice he found is one that I really never want to listen to. That's something that I have to be honest about, and that's part of the show.

Will you be involved if there's a second season?
We're talking about it now. I would certainly be involved. The schedule makes it difficult for me to be boots on the ground in the way that I would really want to be. I think my participation will probably have to be fleshed out, and we'll have to be really clear about what I'm able to commit to if there's a second season, but I think the main thing really would be the competition element of it. I think we [all] would choose the contestants or participants the next time around. Shane was brought on to the project by Chris Moore, [before my company] and myself as producers were on board. We didn't really have a hand in getting him or meeting him or talking to him about what his goals were before we got involved. I would want to be much more involved in choosing both of the participants next time. We had a man and a woman this time; what would it be, how would it be different, if those participants' qualities or their experiences are different than just their gender differences? How could we further the experiment and make it more engaging the second time around? Those are the kinds of questions that we'll be asking if we get to that point.

Moving on to your current TV project, The Slap. We found out a lot more about your character, Harry, the man behind the titular slap, in Thursday's episode. I still feel like we're missing some backstory that sheds light on why Harry is who he is. Will that unfold before the series ends?
It's definitely something I created around the character, the backstory, and something that I spoke with [Jon Robin Baitz], our writer, about, but I don't know that it's anything that becomes explicitly clear. I think the bottom line is that Harry is a character that's really struggling against a lot of unresolved emotional trauma and grief and sadness and resentment attached to traumas that befell him as a child. I think he just never really integrated them or examined those feelings, and they therefore erupt from him in a way… his ego, his temper. I know what those things are and have set them into my portrayal of the character, but I don't know that you ever necessarily get a real, clear immersion into that, if that makes sense.

Related: 'The Slap': 20 TV Kids We'd Like to Slap

There are some powerful moments for Harry in the second episode, though, and even some moments where we can have sympathy for him. Like when he goes to apologize to Rosie and Gary. Gary might have been open to talking, but it's clear that Rosie not only doesn't want to talk, she wants to villainize him, humiliate him.
Yeah, the shift begins. From the first episode, it's very black and white. He slaps someone else's kid. That is completely unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination. But beyond that, you start to get into these grayer areas about, like, Rosie is a terrible mother by a lot of estimations… the way she's disciplining her child is really ineffective and lazy. After it happens, Harry can't believe that his family is not coming out to support him. The Greek tribal mentality kicks in, and he's just expecting to be surrounded by his family, and there are enough people that he loves and that love him saying to him, "You can't adopt this stance” that he lets Hector [Peter Sarsgaard] talk him into, this ill-fated apology. And the moment about that scene that is the most moving to me is when he actually berates his cousin that he loves so much because he says, "You don't understand. Nothing gets resolved by talking, what are you thinking? These people are unreasonable. They're irrational. They're out for blood. You cannot try to solve a problem without taking action, and this is what your problem is in the world."

Harry's really espousing this worldview that he believes in firmly, and even though it's misguided, you have to respect someone that is fueled by their conviction and their beliefs, even if their beliefs are far away from your own. That's something that I think this episode shows a little bit about with Harry. That there is this true love for his son, and that he's just got misappropriated ideas of what it means to be a man in the world. I think you start to see a little bit more of that in this episode, and then, the table shifts because Rosie won't let it die.

How much does it shift?
Rosie is the one that has to then deal with consequences. She's really provoking and dragging the situation out. She's saying, "You're going to pay for this," Harry's like, "Well, I can pay for this, by the way. Let me go and get this lawyer that you couldn't even begin to afford, and I'll pay for it, and I will drag you through the mud, and I will come after you, and I will do anything I can to clear my name," because he doesn't believe he deserves to be punished in the way that he is.

There is no black and white in this world. You might think she is the victim in the first episode, but by the time you get to the sixth or seventh episode, you realize that she's made some real big mistakes of her own, and she needs to pay for it.

Harry is unlikable a lot of the time. Given that, what attracted you to this role?
He's unlikable, but I like the complexity of him. I like the idea of it being my job to find some cavern of vulnerability and some way to soften his hard edges and bring some depth to him. The writing was great. The ensemble of actors that were coming together, obviously, is really great. I just feel like there's a lot at play. It shoots in New York. It was just that the timing was really right. I was just moving here to the city and had a job that would allow me to settle in to my new life here and still be able to work. That was a great appeal. And I thought they were interesting, maybe not the most attractive people, because Harry is not the only unlikable character in this show. I felt like it was a real representation of people, certainly in Brooklyn and New York that I have encountered and experienced. I like that idea, and I had a great time working on it. I'm sorry to see it end, but I think part of its appeal was that it was it was a finite amount of time, a finite commitment that we could all dive into and then go on to other things.

Is there any chance you've changed your mind about bringing Sylar back for Heroes: Reborn?
No, I won't be back. I spoke to Tim Kring about it a while back when they came up with the idea of revisiting that world, and he was incredibly supportive of my feeling that it was just time to move on to other stuff. That was such a definitive experience for me, and I'm grateful that I had it, but I'm interested in creative outlets that allow me to diversify and examine other parts of the psyche.

What about American Horror Story? Any chance of seeing you in future seasons?
No, I don't think so. I haven't had any conversations with anybody about it, but I feel I had a likewise great experience there, and I'm interested in getting away from the genre stuff. I like the fact that Harry is the antagonist of [The Slap]. I've played a lot of antagonist and notable villains in my journey, but I'm willing and excited to, eager to move on from that and the genre world. I'm interested in other worlds. The Slap represented that for me. It's real people, real worlds, real issues, nothing heightened or stylized about the worlds in which these people live, and I like that.

Would you do a comedy?
I want to. I [guest-starred in] a couple episodes of Girls that will be airing in the next few weeks [March 1 and March 15]. That was a great experience, and yeah, I want to do more stuff like that. I'm constantly on the search.

The Chair is available on DVD from Anchor Bay Home Entertainment; The Slap airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC; Girls airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.