Nobody in Hollywood today is as cool for so many uncool reasons as J.J. Abrams. A film and TV producer, screenwriter, director, designer, editor, composer and all-around geek god, Abrams is the bespectacled creative titan behind projects most likely to have fans sleeping outside box-office windows in itchy space costumes.
Star Trek Into Darkness, his second big-screen contribution to the unstoppable sci-fi franchise, arrives this month with a cast so young and sexy their parents barely remember the launch of the original 1966 series. A sequel to the 2009 prequel set when Kirk and Spock were still new to the Enterprise, this one brings the crew back to Earth to confront a force as devastating as a website full of Trek plot spoilers. A third feature film is already planned.
In the meantime, Abrams has another to-do item: reboot Star Wars. He will direct Star Wars: Episode VII, the first in a new series of Star Wars films to come from Lucasfilm, which Disney bought from George Lucas last year for $4.05 billion. At first the Twitterverse cried out that it was too much for one mortal to oversee both galaxies, but the blowback ended fast. Having helmed Trek, Mission: Impossible III and TV sensations including Lost, Fringe, Revolution and Alias, Abrams is probably better suited than anyone to juggle both phaser and lightsaber.
Jeffrey Jacob "J.J." Abrams was born June 27, 1966 in New York City but grew up on the glitzier side of Los Angeles, where both parents produced TV movies. At the age of 13, young J.J.—“Only my father’s mother called me Jeffrey,” he says—first operated a Super 8 camera and by the age of 16 earned the notice of Steven Spielberg, whose office asked Abrams to edit Super 8 movies Spielberg had made when he was a teenager. (Many years later they collaborated on an action adventure called Super 8.) Abrams sold his first script in college and later earned his cred writing Regarding Henry and Forever Young. Felicity made Abrams a TV giant, and the script for Armageddon made him rich; they also show an unusual range and a talent for crossing genres.
Playboy Contributing Editor David Hochman, who last interviewed Fox News anchor Chris Wallace for the magazine, was the first journalist to sit down with Abrams in the aftermath of the Star Wars announcement. The two chatted all afternoon in a Santa Monica office complex as decidedly geek-forward as Abrams himself. Says Hochman, “J.J. maintains a shrine of vintage knickknacks from entertainment classics like Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters and the original Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m starting to think the J.J. Abrams collectibles might be worth even more one day.”
PLAYBOY: Let’s begin with Star Trek. How the hell can this franchise still go where no man has gone before?
ABRAMS: Well, I haven’t seen every episode of every version of every Star Trek series, but I’m sure there are many more places to go. What’s great about doing another origin story is that it’s all about anticipating the Star Trek world we know is to come. You can play with who Spock and Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise were before they were Spock and Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. It’s a kind of tease.
PLAYBOY: Considering what a thrill ride the first movie was, Into Darkness sounds like a bit of a downer.
ABRAMS: The first film was very much about these disparate orphans coming together and starting a family. The next step has to be about going deeper and, yes, as the title indicates, getting a little more intense. We’re testing these characters in ways they deserve to be tested: Kirk being cocky to a fault, Spock being so Vulcan that it raises the question of how he can possibly be a friend or lover when he’s that unemotional.
I learned so much doing the first Star Trek—a movie. I’d never done any kind of space adventure before or anything on that scale. We knew the second one had to be bigger and not just for bigger’s sake. It was where the story was taking us. We got really cool glimpses of the Enterprise in the first movie. This time we get to see areas of the ship nobody’s seen before. And the villain is more complex now. In our first film Eric Bana plays a wonderfully angry Romulan dude, pissed off and full of vengeance. In this one, the bad guy is still brutal and fierce, but he’s got a much more interesting and active story. We have to grapple with many layers of his character. He’s essentially a space terrorist, and Benedict Cumberbatch, whom people know from BBC’s Sherlock, is fucking kickass in the role. Kirk and the rest of the crew are figuring out how the hell to get an upper hand with this guy. The darkness is real in this movie, and it’s incredibly challenging and terrifying, and it can certainly be lethal. You need that edge, partly because Star Trek has been so relentlessly parodied over the years.
PLAYBOY: It’s hard to be a Trekkie.
ABRAMS: It can be. The key in everything we did was to embrace the spirit with which Star Trek was approached in the 1960s. So the design of the props, the locations and certainly the characters themselves couldn’t be mockeries or impersonations but had to be as deeply felt as Leonard Nimoy felt and applied to his interpretation of the character in his time. Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, had to do his own version of that, just as we never wanted Chris Pine to do a Shatner parody. Audiences pick up on that stuff. Not only are we post–Star Trek the series and movies, but we’re post–Galaxy Quest, post–Saturday Night Live spoofs. We were coming at this post–Trek satire, so we needed to be earnest in the right places and funny in the right places or people would have made fun of us.
PLAYBOY: One of the things people make fun of is the sex scenes. Is there any interspecies sex?
ABRAMS: Star Trek has to be sexy. That’s in keeping with the original spirit of the series. In the 1960s they were limited because of the time, but so much was insinuated. Part of the fun of our first movie was playing with the idea that Uhura and Spock were a couple. This movie takes that further and asks how that’s possible. Why would she be interested in that kind of guy, and why would she put up with him? It’s obvious what he would like about her. I mean, it’s fucking Zoë Saldana.
And it’s always fun playing the womanizing card with Kirk and seeing him in bed with girls who might not be completely human—you know, green skin or whatever. Nobody’s going to force Kirk to be a romantic and settle down. That would feel forced and silly. Kirk’s a player. We like him that way.
We also have Alice Eve joining us; she’s an incredibly wonderful, versatile actress and definitely in the sexy category. She’s a great complement to Uhura. Hey, it wouldn’t be Star Trek if there weren’t some hot young actors, women and men, in various moments of either undress or flirtation.
PLAYBOY: Did Leonard Nimoy or William Shatner drop by the set?
ABRAMS: Leonard did. I love him; he’s always a joy. The cast and crew got to applaud him and give a fraction of the thanks he deserves. He’s just an absolute gentleman. Shatner? [sighs] I haven’t spoken with him in a long time, but I did read something where he gave me a fantastic underhanded compliment. Something like our movie was a fun action ride and maybe one day it’ll have heart. A great compliment only to pull the rug out in a way that only Shatner can do. I adore him.
PLAYBOY: It’s hard to explain the enduring love for this franchise that has been around almost 50 years. Is it true you screened an early cut of Into Darkness for a terminally ill Trek fan whose dying wish was to see it?
ABRAMS: Yes. That was such a tragic moment and so sad. It’s incredibly touching that the stuff we happen to be working on means enough to people that in those extreme, ultimate moments a movie like ours would even be a consideration. But it reminds you that these entertainments, these characters can and do touch people on the deepest level. Somehow their existence is made to make some sense or given an order they might not otherwise feel. You certainly don’t make movies for people who are sick or in real trouble. You just make movies. But people take these stories and characters to heart and believe they matter on some larger level.
PLAYBOY: Nothing matters more to moviegoers than the stories and characters from Star Wars. In your wildest, geekiest fantasies, did you ever imagine yourself helming the two biggest sci-fi franchises in the universe?
ABRAMS: It is preposterous. Ridiculous. Completely insane. It really is.
PLAYBOY: Star Wars and Star Trek are church and state in Hollywood. Can you really be loyal to both? Star Trek fans cried out on Twitter that you were cheating on them.
ABRAMS: I mean, I get it. The worlds are vastly different. Honestly, that was why I passed on Star Wars to begin with. I couldn’t imagine doing both. But when I said that my loyalty was to Star Trek I was literally working on finishing this cut. I couldn’t even entertain another thought. It was like being on the most beautiful beach in the world and someone saying, “There’s this amazing mountain over here. Come take a look.” I couldn’t balance the two, so I passed on Star Wars.
PLAYBOY: What happened between saying no and saying yes?
ABRAMS: It was a wild time. I was near the light at the end of the tunnel with my work on Star Trek. I felt I needed a bit of a breather, actually. But then Kathleen Kennedy [the new Lucasfilm head who oversees Star Wars] called again. I’ve known her for years. We had a great conversation, and the idea of working with her on this suddenly went from being theoretical and easy to deny to being a real, tangible, thrilling possibility. In the end it was my wife, Katie, who said if it was something that really interested me, I had to consider it.
PLAYBOY: There’s much to discuss, such as the rumors of old cast members returning.
PLAYBOY: Will this be a distinct new trilogy?
PLAYBOY: Can you do away with Jar Jar Binks?
ABRAMS: You won’t like this answer, but it’s so early it would be insane to discuss details or get into plot points about what this unfilmed movie will be. And I’m not going to give my opinion on the original movies or characters.
PLAYBOY: But as a lifelong Star Wars fan, surely you have broad ideas about what needs to happen going forward. Three quarters of planet Earth came down on George Lucas for practically ruining Star Wars in Episode I. The Star Wars universe revolted.
ABRAMS: Here’s the thing. I try to approach a project from what it’s asking. What does it need to be? What is it demanding? With Star Wars, one has to take into account what has preceded it, what worked, what didn’t. There are cautionary tales for anything you take on that has a legacy—things you look at and think, I want to avoid this or that, or I want to do more of something. But even that feels like an outside-in approach, and it’s not how I work. For me, the key is when you have a script; it’s telling you what it wants to be.
PLAYBOY: Star Wars needs to look different from Star Trek, certainly.
ABRAMS: As with anything, because these are very different worlds, they shouldn’t feel the same aesthetically. They can’t. You’re right. But again, I don’t apply aesthetics first and fit a movie into that aesthetic. If I had come into Star Trek with those eyes, I would probably have been paralyzed. The advantage here is that we still have George Lucas with us to go to and ask questions and get his feedback on things, which I certainly will do. With Star Trek it was harder because I wasn’t a Star Trek fan; I didn’t have the same emotional feeling, and I didn’t have Gene Roddenberry to go to. But I came to understand the world of Star Trek, and I appreciated what fans felt and believed about this universe and this franchise.
PLAYBOY: As recently as last fall you said that directing a new Star Wars comes with a burden of “almost fatal sacrilege.” Do you feel that?
ABRAMS: I meant if I viewed this from a fan’s point of view—and no one’s a bigger Star Wars fan than I am—or from a legacy standpoint, it would scare the hell out of me. But instead of trying to climb this mountain in one giant leap, I’m just enjoying the opportunity and looking to the people I’m working with. I’ve known Kathy for years. I’ve worked with the screenwriter, Michael Arndt, for a long time. I’ve known George for a number of years and he’s now a friend. Even if this wasn’t Star Wars, I’d be enormously fortunate to work with them.
PLAYBOY: How much of your personal vision can you put on this?
ABRAMS: For me to talk to you about what the big themes or ideas are before they exist is disingenuous, but naturally I have a big say in how this gets put together. When I get involved with something, I own it and carry the responsibility of the job.
PLAYBOY: Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible—you’re the king of the reboot. Don’t you want to make something original again?
ABRAMS: I have to say, as someone who almost to a point of embarrassment has associated himself with a number of projects that preexisted, I’m not looking to do another reboot. There’s one project, which I can’t talk about yet, that we are going to do in the TV space that is an exception. But the truth is, one of the reasons I at first easily said no to the notion of Star Wars was the thought that I had to do something original again. I mean, it’s what I’ve done on TV with Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe and everything else. It’s the thing I was looking forward to doing next. The best-laid plans, you can say—but when something like Star Wars comes along, you either roll with it or not.
PLAYBOY: What’s the spirit of an original project you’d want to do?
ABRAMS: I’m open. My favorite movie is The Philadelphia Story. I love Hitchcock movies. I’m a huge fan of Spielberg, and I love David Cronenberg. I’m all over the place in terms of stuff I like. There’s an amazing book called Let the Great World Spin that we’ve been developing with Colum McCann, the writer, and I’d love to do that. Not because of anything other than I feel the characters are beautiful and alive and have incredible heart and soul. But I’m open to anything.
PLAYBOY: How do you juggle your various responsibilities? In addition to the movies, you’re executive producer on Revolution and Person of Interest on TV. Earlier this year you wrapped Fringe after five seasons. You have a wife and three kids. You write music, you design things, you’ve given a TED talk. Presumably you eat and sleep too.
ABRAMS: I like to work hard, and I surround myself with people who are better at what they do than I am at what I do. And as much as we say yes to many things, we say no to almost everything. We’re very selective. We know how to get things done. For Star Trek it was Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, Bob Orci and me. With Jonathan Nolan on Person of Interest, he was someone we were dying to work with. He came in with a great idea, but he had never done TV before. He and [co–executive producer] Greg Plageman have been running that show beautifully. Eric Kripke is running Revolution. We had a team of talented producers on Fringe. So it’s not like I’m in the room and running operations on these shows.
PLAYBOY: So in the final days of Fringe you weren’t bounding into the writers’ room, yelling, “We have to explain who those creepy people chasing Peter were in the first season!”
ABRAMS: By the time we got to the fifth season my involvement was zero. It’s like with Lost. Damon and Carlton Cuse were running that show spectacularly and deserved to end the series as they saw fit. If I saw something really objectionable, I might jump in, but they knew what they were doing.
PLAYBOY: Were you satisfied with how Fringe ended? There were certain questions that never got answered, such as, if the Observers were wiped out, why was Peter still in our universe?
ABRAMS: Right. [Fringe co–executive producer] Joel Wyman and I had long discussions about points like that. But I don’t know of any movie, including Back to the Future, despite the clarity of that film, that deals with time travel or, in this case, an alternate universe and time travel, that doesn’t have issues with such paradoxes. And given the enormity of the issues Fringe was dealing with, it was an amazing finale. After everything that transpired in that last season, for Peter to swoop up Etta at the end and have that moment with her and see that couple with their kid, there was a kind of profundity and emotional satisfaction. Walter’s sacrifice allowed for his son’s and Olivia’s ultimate happiness to come true. That was a far more meaningful ending than explaining how the Observers work into that time frame. What exactly happened with amber, and does it make sense? These are questions you could ask, but I would hope the audience is smart enough to figure things out for themselves and allow for unexplainable situations.
PLAYBOY: Your biggest TV hit, Lost, got some groans at the end for leaving things open-ended. People are still arguing over it. What was the “sideways” world? Were the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 actually dead the whole time? Looking back, do you think Lost fans deserved a less ambiguous ending?
ABRAMS: No. I loved the ending. I thought it definitely provided an emotional conclusion to that show. There may have been specific technical things people felt they wanted to understand, like what the island was exactly or why it was. But it’s like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. If you show me what’s in there, I promise you it will disappoint me.
PLAYBOY: It’s like the mysterious pendant in Revolution that’s the key to explaining what disabled electricity on the planet.
ABRAMS: Yes. If you’re looking for the thing that ultimately explains what the answer is, or, let’s say, what God is, no matter what physical manifestation you see or hear, you’ll never be satisfied. Could our shows answer every question people have? Maybe, but I’m guessing the answers won’t be as satisfying as trying to figure out the answers.
PLAYBOY: Do you actually believe there are alternate universes?
ABRAMS: I’m definitely fascinated by the possibility. Whether it’s alternate universes or time travel, the idea that reality isn’t exactly what we assume it is is the sort of primordial ooze of any great out-there story, certainly in sci-fi and arguably in non-sci-fi as well. The idea that just around the corner something unbelievable might exist, that behind that door might be something you could never imagine. I’ve always been obsessed with the feeling that there’s another level of understanding in the world, whether it’s something as fantastical and fanciful as The Wizard of Oz, as dark and freaky as The Ring or as wild and thrilling as The Matrix. The idea that this world we know isn’t just this world we know but that a package might arrive at your door or a phone call might come in, and suddenly you’re in a portal to a different realm.
PLAYBOY: Paranoia also figures into your work. Do you really think the government or corporations are watching us in ways we should be concerned about?
ABRAMS: Oh yeah, for sure. I’m not saying in this instant they are. But I defy anyone who lives in any size metropolis to travel 20 minutes and not see a bunch of surveillance cameras. Those cameras aren’t there to ignore you; they’re there to see you, and all that information is going into banks of digital recorders and oftentimes facial-recognition software. We’re all being tracked. When you have a fairly average life and you’re not doing anything particularly interesting or illegal or wrong, why should that bother you? Well, it means we’re all being recorded, our activities are being watched, and our privacy is being compromised. I think that’s something to be aware of, at the very least. It’s the premise behind Person of Interest, which is a show about being observed. On the positive side, the heroes of that show are good guys, since it’s also a show about wish fulfillment.
PLAYBOY: You’re certainly cautious about sharing information. It’s not just Star Wars you don’t want to talk about. You famously withhold almost all spoiler information on your projects. What prompted that?
ABRAMS: That’s a paranoia I’ve developed since the Superman script I wrote years ago was reviewed online. I always had a sense of how I enjoyed entertainment, which was to sit down in front of a TV or inside a darkened movie theater and be surprised by everything that happened on the screen. It used to be that to get a spoiler you had to really seek it out. Now you have to work to avoid it. If something happens on Downton Abbey or Homeland, you practically can’t speak to another human being or you’ll hear what happened. The truth is, people don’t like spoilers. When we were doing Lost, fans would ask me what was going to happen. Before I could even open my mouth, often they would say, “Don’t tell me.” Would I have wanted to hear from Rod Serling what was going to happen on each episode of The Twilight Zone? No way! The buy-in with entertainment like that—or with any great thrill—is that you’re going on an adventure and you don’t know where you’re heading. That’s the stuff of show-business magic.
PLAYBOY: You grew up in a show-business family. How did it affect you to know from a young age that the magic of showbiz was fake?
ABRAMS: It wasn’t fake to me. It was real seeing Hollywood people do what they do. My father worked as a producer at Paramount. I’d go to his office and look at the call sheets of everything that was shooting on the lot. This was back in the day when shooting in Los Angeles was a given, so there would be a dozen things filming. It was the time of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. I’ll never forget seeing Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley and the whole cast of Happy Days with their scripts and Garry Marshall on the floor, rehearsing an episode. I felt a desperate, deep hunger to be on the floor with them. I was so jealous that their job was to put on a little play and figure it out.
PLAYBOY: What were some moments that left you saying, “Never meet your heroes”?
ABRAMS: Seeing Robin Williams being completely off-color freaked me out. It’s funny when you’re an adult, but it’s creepy and weird when you’re 12 and he’s dressed like Mork. Even weirder was going to the set of Eight Is Enough. I really liked that show, but I remember walking onto the set—again, I was probably 11 or 12—and seeing the mom, Betty Buckley, aggressively negotiating some deal for a commercial with her agent. That was strange. Then I went onto the bedroom set and there was Willie Aames lying in his Eight Is Enough bed, passed out facedown from, I’m sure, a night of insane partying. Then Adam Rich came skateboarding by and I heard people in the crew swearing at him under their breath after he passed. That was ugly.
My point is, there was a sense of creepy dysfunction that was the opposite of what you’d see on TV. So I knew it wasn’t all roses, but I also saw how fucking cool it was. If I were better at math, I might have gone to medical school. If I were a better artist or architect, I could have gone in those directions. But I knew from a young age I couldn’t do anything else than be involved in this crazy world I’m in.
PLAYBOY: What happens when you’re working on a production and someone is crazier than you thought they were in the casting session?
ABRAMS: That has happened on a couple of occasions. If it’s someone who’s in three scenes in a movie and they’re doing a good job but they’re nuts, you kind of think, Let’s just ride it out and we’ll deal with it. If they’re signed on for six episodes of a show and they’re making people on the crew cry, you have to address it and deal with it, but it has happened only a couple of times. For the most part you do your due diligence and get to know who you’re working with before the crazy happens.
PLAYBOY: What about Tom Cruise? What was your experience with him on Mission: Impossible III?
ABRAMS: Here’s what happened on Mission. Before I started, I called Cameron Crowe, whom I know, and asked him his advice, since he’d made two movies with Tom. He just said, “Brother, you are going to be spoiled.” I was like, “All right,” not quite knowing what he meant. I now know he was right. Tom is the hardest-working, most focused, generous, passionate-about-the-form collaborator I could imagine. He’s someone who gave me my first shot directing a movie. No one would have done that but him. It was a huge first movie to do, but I was never scared. I was always excited about it because I felt everything I had been working on was sort of preparing me for that. And Tom made it an amazing experience. I was a first-time feature director, and before we started shooting Tom said, “I’m your actor; you’re the director.”
I remember being warned by a number of very experienced people in the business that a producer-star with a first-time director gets really ugly, so get ready. I’ll tell you that there was not a day on that movie when Tom was not supportive, encouraging, collaborative, excited. He never mandated anything. He never insisted on things going a certain way. There was nothing I ever asked him to do that he wouldn’t do. There were things I asked him not to do because he was so willing to put himself physically in danger. I would be like, “There’s not a fucking chance you’re going through that window. If you get cut.…” But he was always about the better idea.
PLAYBOY: Then what are we to make of the Scientology Tom or the jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch Tom or the psychiatrists-are-evil Tom?
ABRAMS: He has never in any way mandated or tried to push any of that. You heard stories that there were Scientology tents and things on War of the Worlds. That never existed in my experience with him, ever. All I will say is that he’s got a huge heart, and he’s a generous and good guy.
PLAYBOY: What about Michael Bay? You co-wrote the screenplay for Armageddon. What are your memories of that experience?
ABRAMS: I know Michael’s a guy who can be abusive and crazy and all kinds of stuff. I remember hearing things like “Oh my God, he’s so intimidating.” But when I was driving over to meet him for the first time, someone called and said, “He went to Crossroads,” which is a private school down the street from here in Santa Monica. I thought, He’s a Crossroads kid? Growing up in Brentwood, I knew kids like him. I had never met Michael, but this idea that he was a Crossroads kid suddenly demystified him for me. I met him and immediately started giving him shit, and he was giving me shit. He liked me because I wasn’t afraid of him and I understood who he was, which was someone who was a little freaked out by how big he’d become so fast.
PLAYBOY: Who’s an up-and-coming director to keep an eye on?
ABRAMS: Rian Johnson. I love what he did with Looper, the scope of the movie and the emotion—and that moment when we discover who the Rainmaker is is one of the most chilling, awesome moments I’ve seen in movies in a long time. He has a big career ahead of him.
PLAYBOY: Your career is about as big as anybody’s in Hollywood right now. You’re as famous as many actors in your films and shows.
ABRAMS: First of all, I don’t feel I’m remotely famous. But secondly, with what I’m doing and what I’m involved in, I feel I’m obviously riding coattails and working on projects that are bigger than all of us. A by-product of that is sometimes some notoriety, but it’s all worthless if what’s being made isn’t of some quality. I certainly never wanted to become a director because I was looking to be famous. I look at people I know, certainly actors like Tom, who literally cannot go anywhere. That’s a miserable thing. I go out all the time, and people don’t recognize me at all.
PLAYBOY: So women aren’t throwing themselves at you? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when you get big in show business?
ABRAMS: It’s not happening. What’s that about? [laughs] What I usually get isn’t a sexual thing. It’s usually some dude with hair too long in the back giving me a Vulcan salute or, more recently, saying, “May the Force be with you.” I haven’t gotten a lot of the more appealing versions you’re referring to.
PLAYBOY: You went to Sarah Lawrence, which was traditionally an all-women’s college and still skews heavily female. As a straight guy at Sarah Lawrence, you must have been quite busy.
ABRAMS: The ratio was spectacular, I won’t lie. But I also got to be in rooms with a lot of women and, no joke, a lot of interesting conversations. It was almost like being a fly on the wall, where you’d actually get to hear and see what it’s like to be a woman. As a writer it was a cool opportunity. The rhythm of conversation. The way women are with one another in private.
PLAYBOY: Is that where Felicity came to you?
ABRAMS: Felicity really had nothing to do with my college experience; it was much more about my time in high school. A young woman who was in my class was an amazing artist. I had never really talked to her, but she did the posters for all the plays and stuff. At graduation I finally said, “Listen, we’ve been at this school for years together. I just wanted to say hi and say your work is unbelievable.” The look on her face was so incredible. Her face literally changed. She was so stunned and kind of awkward and then very sweet about it. For some reason her reaction stayed with me. I always thought that was a cool story, about someone who approaches someone at the very end of high school. There was another girl at the school, whose name was Felicity, and I always thought that was a great name for a character. That’s how ideas happen sometimes.
PLAYBOY: How did you go from Mr. Sensitive to action-movie guy?
ABRAMS: Look, all of it’s me. Felicity was an idea I was excited about. But when we were doing the show, what struck me was there were no bad guys. It was frustrating to do a show where the biggest threat was whether Felicity was going to get a D or be late to class or kiss the wrong boy. Lovely and romantic and fun, yes, but incredibly low stakes. What you’re always looking for on a TV show is the act-out, what makes you go “Ooh!” It was a hard thing to do because there were no murderers or vampires or villains.
So as a joke I pitched to the writers’ room: What if Felicity were a spy? It would be awesome because she’d be going off on these crazy action adventures and could come back and tell Julie what she’d really done. Or she has these bruises and she’d be lying to Ben or Noel about what they were. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy. Then ABC said it was looking for a show with a young female lead, and that was why I wrote Alias.
PLAYBOY: Jennifer Garner from Alias, Evangeline Lilly from Lost, Anna Torv from Fringe. You certainly know how to find gorgeous unknown newcomers and turn them into gun-toting badasses in supertight clothing.
ABRAMS: Well, I was in love with Batgirl as a kid. I thought she was the sexiest thing in the history of time. In the beginning of Batman, whenever the cartoon version of Batgirl would swoop through and you’d know she was in the episode, I’d be hugely excited, because she was so unbearably hot. And then, obviously, on The Avengers, Diana Rigg was just so completely…yeah. It’s a funny thing, because when I was growing up, usually men were the main characters and women were trophies. You know, the Bond girls were just kind of eye candy and fun. But I was always drawn to a different kind of woman, like Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run. There were certain women who made you go, “Oh, she was beautiful but also just as fierce as Logan.” Think about when Alien came out. There’s Ripley at the end in her underwear, getting into the space suit—rewind, please. Those are the women who grabbed me as a kid.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever have a wild-oats period?
ABRAMS: I’ve never done anything remotely serious in that regard.
PLAYBOY: Ever been arrested?
ABRAMS: Never been arrested.
PLAYBOY: Wrecked a hotel room?
PLAYBOY: Let’s see—the Dharma Initiative, the parallel universes, the mystery boxes, galaxies far, far away. Call us half-baked, but some of your ideas sound as though they came out of smoking pot. Maybe a little? Or LSD?
ABRAMS: I have to say, I’m not a big partier, though I don’t have anything against it. I’m kind of uncool.
PLAYBOY: When the Star Wars news broke, Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Disney didn’t just pick a beloved director: They picked a guy whose name is synonymous with the whole millennial rise of geekdom as a cultural force.”
ABRAMS: Here’s the thing: The pencil-necked geek guys with pocket protectors and tape on their glasses are the people who invented the iPod and the iPad and everything else everyone carries with them all the time. The digital age was foreseen by a group of short-sleeved, buttoned-down, white-shirted guys and their female equivalents who were designing the very stuff that’s now ubiquitous. It’s not that there’s this millennial rise as much as we’re incorporating into our daily lives the technology that is fulfilling our need for instantaneous communication and information. And there’s a general understanding that smartphones didn’t come from jocks.
PLAYBOY: What’s your favorite game on your iPhone?
ABRAMS: Right now it’s probably Letterpress, though Scramble With Friends is a close second.
PLAYBOY: How would your life have been different if you’d had an iPhone and a MacBook Pro instead of a Super 8 camera when you were starting out?
ABRAMS: I don’t know. It’s an age of insane distraction. The fact that kids are supposed to do their algebra homework on the same device that is a portal to every possible piece of entertainment—comedy and music and porn—is just bizarre. I don’t know an adult who, if I gave them a laptop and said, “Go do your algebra,” would spend more than five minutes doing their algebra. On the other end, you have things like the Khan Academy that are rocking the world and giving people access to learning like never before. The good definitely outweighs the negatives, but it’s weird. The other day I was walking with my iPad Mini and thought, When I was a kid, just having a flashlight would have been cool, let alone something like this. Then you get into things like Final Cut Pro and After Effects, and they rival what’s happening in big studios. We’re starting to see evidence of people making movies with these tools in ways that rival professional moviemaking.
PLAYBOY: What have you seen lately?
ABRAMS: Oh my God, so many great short films. There was one called Plot Device—very funny. A guy named Andrew Kramer has a site called VideoCopilot.net that shows people how to do visual effects and aftereffects. What he does is just incredible. I’ve since brought him over to my production company, Bad Robot. He’s a genius. He did action-movie effects that until recently you could do only with a huge budget and complicated technology and teams of people. And he was doing it on his phone.
PLAYBOY: Hollywood is now an app.
ABRAMS: Not completely, but the idea that you can put in a missile attack or a car crash or whatever using this—it’s all in fun. The point is, we’ve gone from Super 8 films, being limited to that frame, editing by hand, visual effects being zero—basically nothing unless you did back-winding on the film, and you were lucky if it worked—to literally making movies with an iPhone. So the question becomes, What are you going to do, since you can now do everything?
PLAYBOY: Do you think we’ll still be going to the movies in 25 years?
ABRAMS: I do. We have a house in Maine, and when we go to movies there, the theaters have the worst projection and sound quality you could imagine. So places like that will need to improve the sound and quality of the screen to justify the experience. I’ve said before that 3-D isn’t necessarily the answer. The best movies I’ve seen are so much more dimensional than 3-D. Having said that, I’ve seen some new 3-D technology that is impressive and could be fun. But like anything, doing it well is hard. To me, if every movie I got to do from this point on was not 3-D I’d be thrilled. Either way, I’m a big believer in the communal experience of seeing a movie, and that’s not going away. It goes back to the very first storytellers around a campfire. The truth is, we need that campfire experience now more than ever. People need things to do beyond looking at their phones or Twitter or Facebook.
PLAYBOY: Do you track what people say about you online?
ABRAMS: A little. With Star Wars I glanced at some things here and there just to make sure I wasn’t getting my ass kicked, and the response was kinder than I expected, which was nice. It’s a funny thing. I feel very analog as a human being, which is of course ironic because I love editing, sound design and visual effects.
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk sequels for a minute. Since you’re doing Star Wars, does that put you out of the running to direct the third Star Trek movie?
ABRAMS: No. I would say it’s a possibility. We’re trying to figure out the next step. But it’s like anything: It all begins with the story.
PLAYBOY: What about an Alias movie?
ABRAMS: We discuss it. In the right circumstance and situation I would definitely be open to it.
PLAYBOY: Cloverfield II?
ABRAMS: Part of me just wants to let it go, though we’ve had a couple of discussions about cool ways to do it. I’m looking forward to seeing Pacific Rim this summer. It feels like there are some really big monsters coming down the pike that could inspire something we do.
PLAYBOY: You’re brilliant with reboots. Is there anything else you’ve thought about remaking? A company perhaps? Maybe a country?
ABRAMS: There was a company called Infocom I actually tried to reboot. People coming out of MIT started it and created these interactive fictional text adventures—really clever stuff, wonderfully packaged. I went to see if I could buy it, but some other dude got it literally the week before. I was also sad to hear that Atari declared bankruptcy. Atari represented the excitement and potential of what video games could be when I was a kid. It had an allure and a sense of future-looking cool.
PLAYBOY: What do you see in your future?
ABRAMS: I know it sounds like bullshit, but I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten to do everything I’ve done that nothing immediately comes to mind. The closest thing is travel. I’ve never been to Israel or India or Africa. I would love to spend more time in Japan, certainly with my family.
PLAYBOY: And professionally?
ABRAMS: Would it be nice to work with Meryl Streep? Yes. Would it be great to work on a movie that was considered an important film as opposed to a big entertainment? Sure, I would love it. But I feel I’m still at an age when a lot of that stuff is within reach. Again, it has to be the right thing at the right time. I’m not good at planning five years in advance, but there’s still a lot I want to do before, you know.…
PLAYBOY: Let’s say it all ended tomorrow. What would you hope to find in heaven, or the sideways world or whatever you want to call it?
ABRAMS: Well, Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison would be in a huge wrestling match in the corner. Rod Serling would be smoking, writing a screenplay for something we all couldn’t wait to read. My grandfather would be around and driving my mom crazy. There’s an endless list of actors who would be fun to see in terms of creative people. And there would be a lot of art supplies and maybe paper and some pens in case inspiration struck.
PLAYBOY: You’d still be working in the hereafter?
ABRAMS: If a great idea hits me, yeah, why not?