A month shy of his 11th birthday, the late Anton Yelchin was featured in a sixth-season episode of the popular medical drama ER. This led to a seemingly endless stream of increasingly higher-profile television and film roles — everything from the argumentative adolescent magician in Curb Your Enthusiasm, to a 13-year-old version of David Duchovny’s character in The X-Files star’s feature directorial debut, House of D. The range this Russian-born American actor displayed in his body of work was already impressive before he even turned 16.
Flash forward a few years to the 2006 film Alpha Dog, a based-on-a-true-story crime drama in which Yelchin’s performance as the, per USA Today‘s Claudia Puig’s review, “heartbreakingly endearing” Zack Mazursky earned him high marks from numerous critics. In the thick of the movie’s drugs, dysfunctional family dynamics, and violence, many pointed to Yelchin as “the film’s emotional center.” So too did director Nick Cassavetes, who described Yelchin’s portrayal of Zack as being “confused with no longer being a kid but not yet a man.”
To some extent the same could be said of the actor’s revival of Walter Koenig’s career-making Star Trek role, Ensign Pavel Chekov. Like colleagues Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and John Cho, Yelchin was tasked with the impossible when he boarded J.J. Abrams’ franchise reboot. This was, after all, Hollywood’s latest attempt to take a beloved property — and one with an obsessive, vocal fanbase — and convert it into something capable of generating cash courtesy of a brand new audience. But it worked, for the movie, which earned generally strong reviews and $257 million in the U.S. and $385 million worldwide, making it the most financially successful Trek film ever.
This was due just as much (if not more) to the cast’s reinterpretation of classic characters as Abrams’ direction and Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s writing. After 50 years, William Shatner’s James T. Kirk or Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock had become inescapable figures in pop culture. And while Koenig’s Chekov wasn’t as instantly recognizable as theirs, his was still a beloved character with a distinct personality, familiar quirks, and instantly recognizable vocal mannerisms. Yelchin couldn’t just do a Koenig impression, so he treated the role like previous challenges — despite the overwhelming odds against him. He pulled it off, too: A Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness without his Chekov would be no Trek at all.
Not that many people seem to notice. The then-20-year-old Yelchin was hardly ever mentioned in most of the reviews published at the time. From The New York Times to Roger Ebert, it seemed the only characters (and performers) worth referencing were Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock. This made a certain amount of sense since both roles had achieved an iconic status over the decades. Sure, others garnered praise here and there — especially Karl Urban’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Saldana’s Nyota Uhura and Cho’s Ikaru Sulu. But Yelchin’s Chekov? Virtually nichego.
That’s a shame since, aside from providing Abrams’ Star Trek with some of its lighter moments, Yelchin’s take on the Russian Starfleet ensign is one of the best parts of the movie. Not only was the young actor’s take on the kid crew member good for the occasional laugh, he helped bring a character rooted in the past into the present. Why? Chekov’s reasons for being — the Cold War and The Monkees — belong to another era.
Depending on who you ask, Chekov was created for the original series’ second season in response to international criticism of the show’s capitalist and pro-American tendencies, or in order to attract younger (and female) viewers. Creator Gene Roddenberry and executive Herb Solow boasted that the new addition was in response to an editorial in the Soviet Union’s Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, Shatner dismissed these claims as a publicity stunt. As for garnering a younger audience’s attention, Solow and Justman suggested it was thought a younger presence like Koenig might draw comparisons to The Monkees’ Davy Jones, whom he resembled.
Neither of these mattered in 2009: The Cold War had been over for 20 years and wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. As for luring the eyeballs of a key demographic with sex appeal, the 2009 had no shortage of such this already — especially Pine’s Kirk and Saldana’s Uhura. So what, the implied question goes, was the point of even including Chekov? The first, and most obvious answer is fan service, as anyone willing to see the reboot (even those who thought it’d taint the originals) probably expected every figure they’d come to know and love to have a place in the new film.
The second: Despite an all-around younger cast than the original series, Star Trek still needed a kid to provide a point of identification for the film’s younger viewers. Like Yelchin, Chekov was a child thrown into the middle of a grown-up world. Yes, he was ridiculously intelligent, and yes, he’d earned his right to be on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, but he was still under the drinking age. And for anyone around that age or younger, who wasn’t entirely sure what was going on in Star Trek but knew they waned to keep watching, Chekov’s innocence provided them with an easy point of entry.
In Yelchin the film had an actor perfect for the role. Like Chekov, Koenig and Yelchin’s families both hail from Russia. For all its gimmicks, the accent — pronunciation and comprehension gags alike — was a core feature of the character. While doing press for Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Yelchin discussed his accent with reporters who kept asking questions about it. Those conversations also hinted at his fascination with, and decision to focus on, the youth of a character he fondly referred to as the “weirdest guy.”
When comparing his Chekov to Koenig’s in 2011, he emphasized age above all else:
“I just think that I tried to capture as close as possible all of the great qualities that Walter brought to his Chekov. So I hope there’s a continuity. I don’t know if it’s necessarily an evolution, but I hope there’s a continuity where you can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I buy that person being that age.'”
For both men, the main point of Chekov’s place on board the Enterprise was to convince audiences that someone so young deserved to be there. They had to bring to life a believable character in an unbelievable situation, surrounded by starships and aliens, who was more “confused with no longer being a kid but not yet a man” than the fantastic story he was a part of.
Yelchin might have faced a similar challenge — the repeated challenge of proving he belonged at such a young age — if his performances didn’t routinely shut down any such speculation, from comedy vehicles like Charlie Bartlett to Jarmusch’s wry vampire riff Only Lovers Left Alive, to his many turns in featured and supporting roles. It didn’t matter if it was an action spectacle like Terminator Salvation or a romantic drama such as Like Crazy — Yelchin proved time and time again he belonged on the screen as much as anyone else, even when his partner was someone as experienced and celebrated as Patrick Stewart in Green Room — an otherwise hyperviolent movie that required strong performances to stand out from the bloodshed.
It’s heartbreaking to think of all the performances an actor so promising never got a chance to deliver. Yet there’s a moment in Star Trek Into Darkness that nicely captures the Yelchin we did get to see, and the promise of a performer coming into his own and ready to take on whatever challenges he met. When asked to take over as the ship’s chief engineer by Kirk, Chekov stares off camera for a beat with with a look of dread. Despite the ominous soundtrack, however, his glazed eyes betray a hint of excitement, swelling pride and a confidence unbounded by the stars.