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.