Published May 17. 2013 4:00AM
Say this much for the new films in the long-running "Star Trek" franchise. They're real "share the wealth" exercises. It's not just about Kirk, Spock and Bones and a couple of red shirts boldly going while everybody else sits idly by.
"A good filmmaker with a great team of writers who acknowledge that they're trying to make something truly an ensemble piece will go to that trouble to give everybody enough to do," says Zoe Saldana, who plays a much more layered version of Lt. Uhura than the classic "Trek" ever allowed. J.J. Abrams and his team, Saldana says, followed up with juicy roles and good scenes, and didn't "just stop with casting good people."
Her colleague, Simon ("Scotty") Pegg, is amusingly less diplomatic: "I think that's because Chris Pine is a little less of a camera hog than Bill Shatner."
In "Star Trek Into Darkness," Mr. Sulu tastes command for the first time, Mr. Scott has a crisis of conscience and Lt. Uhura is shaken by those she loses or might lose in a deadly confrontation. This democratization of the Enterprise is something fans and critics have picked up on. The Hollywood Reporter raved about the extra "human dimensions" and character "undercurrents" that rarely showed up in previous incarnations of "Star Trek."
Abrams had a number of advantages in that regard. Self-described as nothing like a die-hard fan of "Star Trek," he feels free to take liberties with characters and storylines. And unlike the TV show, he cast established actors in many key roles. Saldana, 34, already was a movie star, and Pegg, 42, is something of a brand name in modern British comedy.
"J.J. hired me because he knows that I just feel," Saldana says. "You provide me an arc, you explain the situation and where I start, emotionally and where I'm supposed to finish, and I just feel. I'm a minute to minute kind of person, and that's how I approach acting.
"If that was the reality and I was really on board that ship, I would be so stressed. Sad to be losing people, scared to death of losing Spock. I'd be angry if the person I was in love with was taking great risks. If he (screws) up, he's dead. We're done."
Pegg, star of "Shaun of the Dead" and the comic relief in the "Mission: Impossible" movies, was brought in to be funny. He's fine with that. But the new film turns Scotty the engineer into an action hero, of sorts. A funny one.
"I had to get fit. Really fit. Lots of training. I was staying in Santa Monica (Calif.), where there's a great set of steps - 100 steps, mind-blowingly tiring. You have to be prepared for anything - hanging from something for take after take, running, full out, take after take. You have to be fit to go into space."
The "Trek" folks are earnestly avoiding talking about the plot and character twists of "Into Darkness," which drew its (loose) inspiration from the 1980s "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," one of the most beloved films in the "Trek" canon. But one surprise Saldana is happy to speak of is the return of Starfleet's original "sworn enemy," the Klingons. And since in this "Trek" they don't speak English, well, the Enterprise's linguist and communications officer is who they must converse with.
"For this version of 'Star Trek,' a lot was riding on that first person to speak Klingon on the screen. Uhura. Me. I was just this happy-go-lucky actress, 'Yeah, of course I'll speak Klingon. My character's a linguist! I was in 'Avatar!' I spoke Na'vi.' No problem!
"Come to find out, this mattered. I'd be the person whose Klingon would be sort of the model for all Klingon speak to come. Scary."
With this emphasis on ensemble meaning that every actor now is crucial and all of them have burgeoning careers outside of Trek, and the fact that director J.J. Abrams is the keeper of the "Star Wars" flame for new films he'll be doing for Disney, might this be the last "Star Trek" we'll see for a long while?
"Actually, I think the gap will be shorter now," Pegg says, hopefully. Time demands on every actor - even the leads - will be shorter, and with Abrams otherwise engaged, "I'm guessing he'll just produce it, and find somebody else to direct the next one. Just a theory, but it makes sense to me."