The actor discusses his spiritual excursions.
By Allan Richter
During high school, Zachary Quinto was as immersed in his religious life as he was in acting.
While attending Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, Quinto served as a lector, cantor and Eucharistic minister. At the same time, while still at school, he won Pittsburgh’s Gene Kelly Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the Major General in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Quinto, now 38, went on to conquer television, film and theater in a range of roles. On the small screen he played the sinister Sylar in the science fiction series “Heroes” and a geeky computer analyst in “24.” On film he succeeded Leonard Nimoy as Spock, the role for which he is perhaps best known, in the “Star Trek” franchise reboot. And, earlier this year, Quinto took to an Off-Broadway stage in “Smokefall,” an offbeat comedy-drama about several generations of an eccentric family. In a review, The New York Times said Quinto, among a “first-rate” cast, brought “a grave simplicity to his role” as a narrator of sorts, and observed that he played two other parts “with equal finesse.”
But while Quinto stayed with acting, his devotion to religion, heretofore a “familial” obligation, gave way after he left high school to what he says is a more spiritual journey. That expedition was the subject of a March program on the brain and spirituality at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. At the discussion, in which Quinto was interviewed by neuroscientist Heather Berlin, PhD, it became clear that the actor’s search for spiritual meaning is a work in progress.
Asked by Berlin to define his spiritual worldview, Quinto said, “Well, I don’t know entirely, which is partly why I thought it would be interesting to come here and have a conversation with you about it. I think it’s evolving, and I think I’m still enormously curious about it and really interested in defining it for myself. As I get older, it changes, and so I don’t know that there’s one particular answer.”
In his mid-20s, Quinto studied Shambhala Buddhism, a secular stream loosely based on Buddhist principles that aims to enlighten practitioners, and cultivated a discipline in meditation. “I was at a time in my life where I was in some real, not crisis, but deep questioning about my path and my commitment as an artist and as an actor and my ambition and the ego versus the creative world,” Quinto said, “so I sought some comfort and some solace in this practice, which it certainly provided for me.”
He had been practicing meditation daily and studying three times a week for seven months when he reached a pivotal point in his career by landing the role on “Heroes.” That success “then eradicated my commitment to Buddhism or meditation,” he said. “Go figure.”
Still, he credits the meditation with, in his terms, quieting the self-criticism bordering on self-loathing he sometimes felt. He began to advise himself to do what he could, not what he thought he could—an important distinction. “It was like, ‘Do the three minutes instead of the 30 minutes if that’s going to make the difference.’ So I started to cultivate more compassion for myself through meditation, and that informed my journey creatively and personally since then, and I still meditate occasionally, but not as often as I should.”
Visits with Shamans
Quinto is curious about Transcendental Meditation, but the “cornerstone” of what he said is his current spiritual perspective is based on his travels to Peru, where he has worked with shamans and the native plant medicine ayahuasca, a mind-altering brew made from a South American vine that the Amazonians believe offers spiritual revelations when consumed. He has found a kind of self-acceptance through his Peruvian journeys similar to what meditation gave him, but here, too, Quinto said he will not be pigeonholed.
“There are so many shortcomings that I feel in myself and so many ways in which I still crave a more reliable sense of discipline in my spiritual practice and spiritual path,” he said. “So I’m fascinated about it, and I’m fascinated about how to do it and how to live in this chaotic world that we live in, how to live and work in this chaotic industry that I work in and still cultivate a sense of real commitment to deepening and improving a sense of quality of life and spirituality.”
Quinto was seven when his father died of cancer, a trauma that sparked his interest in acting, which is both a vehicle for his spirituality and a source of the angst driving him to pursue it. He was in part prompted to make his visits to Peru by his performance in New York five years ago in “Angels in America,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the AIDS crisis. Quinto, who is gay, played Louis Ironson, a character who leaves his AIDS-afflicted partner, Prior Walter.
The play was “a very challenging emotional landscape to chart every night,” Quinto said. “I just felt like I was at a moment of real internal transition. I could feel my own limitations, and I felt like I needed to break through them somehow.”
After the “Angels in America” run, Quinto found in his well-received 2013 performance as Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” a perspective that helped free him from some of the constraints he was feeling a few years earlier. Wingfield is a shoemaker who fulfills his dreams of escape by joining the Merchant Marine.
Playing the part prompted the actor to explore an escape of another sort. He began to reflect on the destiny of talent when a human being no longer embodies it. “I don’t believe that it just evaporates,” Quinto said. “I believe that it finds other vessels, and as an actor, I believe really strongly that that’s part of what we do. We are embodiments for spiritual energy and for energy that has existed long before we came into being and will exist long after we depart from the world.”
Berlin, the neuroscientist interviewing Quinto at the Rubin Museum, explained the fluid nature of creativity as a “flow state” that scientists are just learning more about. During artistic expression, she said, patterns emerge in parts of the brain that deal with self-awareness, and sense of time and place. “The filter part of your brain that normally says, ‘Okay, you have to conform to social norms,’ is turned down.”
At the same time, Berlin said, the part of the brain relevant to the generation of ideas, the medial prefrontal cortex, is turned up. “So it allows for the free flow of this information that’s coming from within, internally generated without this filter system,” she said. “Anything goes, and it allows for novel associations between ideas, and with that, that means that you are making unique contributions in whatever form it takes, whether it’s painting, or writing a poem or creating a play, that you are having an impact.”
“You are leaving your footprint, and others can then be affected by it, and you can, in a way, live on that way,” Berlin continued. “I feel like Shakespeare is just as much alive today when you read his work and his genius, and that gives you, in a sense, some sort of immortality. The mark you leave on the world, you’ve changed it somehow, even if it’s just about your interactions with other people and the lives that you’ve affected.”
Exploring Other Worlds
Quinto’s most famous role, Spock, the no-nonsense Vulcan first officer of the Starship Enterprise on “Star Trek,” provided fodder for an examination on how the brain functions and the role of emotions in decision-making. Quinto played the character he inherited from Leonard Nimoy, with whom he was friends until the actor’s death in 2015, in two films: the 2009 “Star Trek” re-launch and 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Quinto reprises the role in a third installment, “Star Trek Beyond,” due in July.
Spock had two distinct characteristics: one alien and rational—the character’s more dominant persona, at least as played by Nimoy—and the other human and emotional. But Spock may have been better served by embracing a bit more of his human side, at least according to research cited by neuroscientist Berlin.
The research shows that people make better decisions, Berlin said, when they’re informed by emotions. “So the idea of a Spock-like completely rational character I would say completely just being guided by their prefrontal cortex and no amygdala input, actually, those people make less adaptive decisions,” Berlin said. “Spock was a pretty smart guy, so, in my mind, he must have been informed by emotions.”
In fact, emotions seep into Quinto’s Spock in a much more discernible way than they ever did in Nimoy’s classic interpretation.
Quinto said he and Nimoy often discussed the differences between each portrayal of the character. “My intention was always to embrace the emotional side and create a version of the character who’s less at ease with the duality that exists within him and, in the first film anyway in 2009, still wrestling with the power that the emotion has over him.”
In the second film, the actor said, his Spock was “a bit more settled, but also unable to deny or avoid the power of that emotional demand of action when his tribe is threatened.” For this summer’s installment, Quinto promised a completely different level of “emotional exploration” in the character. “For me, it is the easiest flow between the two versions of himself that we’ve been able to carve out,” he said, “but you can be the judge of that.”
As Quinto explained it, Spock learned how to integrate his emotional side with his logical self. The character is aware of his emotional inner life but is not “completely beholden to it or at the mercy of it, like a lot of human beings can be,” Quinto said. Nimoy’s Spock, he added, was a “bit more all business, all logic,” while he and J.J. Abrams, director of the 2009 film, chose to blur the lines between the character’s emotions and logic.
Most Trekkies know that Nimoy drew on his Jewish roots to develop the Vulcan salute in which he holds his hand up with a gap between his third and fourth fingers. The gesture forms the Hebrew letter “shin,” the first letter in a word describing God and used in a priestly blessing in Orthodox Jewish prayer services. Neuroscientist Berlin, however, saw in Spock’s emotional and rational divide a Buddhist dynamic—the ability to acknowledge emotions without acting on or engaging them.
Quinto agreed. “That’s certainly a cornerstone of those teachings in certain ways,” the actor said. “I don’t know if when Gene Roddenberry and Leonard were creating the series in 1965 whether that was something they explored consciously or not, but I think it’s also part of what makes the character so resonant for so many people—he kind of represents this ideal of communication and compassion, but also evenness and being grounded, and those are all cornerstones of Buddhism as well in a way.”
It is the mysterious and the search for answers to the grander questions of the universe, more than the answers themselves, that excite Quinto. “There’s this notion of surrendering to the mystery,” he said. “We don’t know, and that’s part of the beauty and also part of the anxiety of being human, is that there are so many questions that we could just never know the answers to, and for me, there is great comfort in allowing that and sitting with that. It’s part of the struggle in our lives.”
“There’s just something really nice about being able to sit with the unknown and be in the discomfort and trusting that our journey will take us where we need to go, whether it is a construct of our mind or we’re actually tapping into some other spiritual realm. It’s not about having the answers, really, I don’t think so much as it’s about asking the questions.”