I Am Spock: film legend's grandson takes on iconic TV role
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I Am Spock: film legend's grandson takes on iconic TV role

In the realm of performance, it would be perfectly proper for an actor embarking on a role such as Hamlet to sit down and watch the work of preceding masters: the film performances of Laurence Olivier in 1948 and Nicol Williamson in 1969, or from the stage, Jonathan Pryce in 1980, or David Tennant in 2008.

To study the intricacies of the actor specifically, however, is a more complex question.

In the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, 32-year-old actor Ethan Peck is taking on one of popular culture's most iconic characters, the half-Vulcan, half-Human science officer of the USS Enterprise, Mr Spock.

In the minds of many the character belongs to actor Leonard Nimoy, who played him on Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series and a half-dozen film spin-offs between 1966 and 1991. Nimoy also appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the rebooted Star Trek franchise films from 2009.

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Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, plays Spock in Star Trek: Discovery.

Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, plays Spock in Star Trek: Discovery.Credit:Rodger Cummins

"Hamlet is such a iconic masterpiece, you know, and it's been played by so many people and you look forward to different interpretations," Peck says, easing into a chair in a New York hotel room. "What's great about being the third guy [to play Spock] is that someone's already done it once since Nimoy; Zachary Quinto [who starred in the rebooted franchise] obviously did such an amazing job."

"So in a way, it kind of takes some of the pressure off," Peck says. "There's definitely not an effort to imitate, because that would just be, I think, a disaster. But I've absolutely done my best to internalise the spirit and interpret what I've seen him do, and understand what he's doing and make my own discoveries about it."

Nimoy himself wrestled in his relationship with the character, documented in his first autobiography, 1975's I Am Not Spock, and later, in a second, more conciliatory instalment, 1995's I Am Spock. Peck has read both books in preparation for the role, and made a point of meeting with Nimoy's family to earn their blessing.

"Having read I Am Not Spock it seems like I've made some similar discoveries that he made, which is really exciting," Peck says. "I feel like I'm on the right path and I made a good choice. But even now when I'm preparing for the week, my material, I'll sit down and I'll watch some original episodes ... I watch very closely and diligently and then take some time to process afterwards."

Saurian officer, Linus (David Benjamin Tomlinson) aboard USS Discovery in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery.

Saurian officer, Linus (David Benjamin Tomlinson) aboard USS Discovery in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery.Credit:Jan Thijs

"There are limits that we can't really go beyond," he adds. "But I think that everybody I'm working with, the directors, have really pushed me to places that are going to be surprising, but also with deep respect and reverence for where he will ultimately go, which is to the Enterprise, to Nimoy's Spock."

In Star Trek: Discovery the audience will meet Spock as a young man, a few years before Nimoy's first performance of him in the Star Trek pilot The Cage, which was filmed in 1964.

Ethan Peck as Spock in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Ethan Peck as Spock in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.Credit:MICHAEL GIBSON

To borrow a line from the master himself – that "logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end" – it follows that the Spock we will meet is very much unformed, and struggling to come to terms with himself.

"He's at the beginning," says Peck. "I think logic leads him to understanding himself and within himself there is emotion. He's always regarded as the logical one but he's half human. He's deeply human. And I think [he] has a deep emotional depth.

"In the Original Series he chooses to behave as a Vulcan and to execute his days logically," Peck says. "But ultimately he's got a great big empathetic heart and space in himself for emotion. What makes him such a great character is that he's constantly tacking down emotion and speaking logically, with an emotional understanding.

"So I think where we are with this Spock is the beginning of understanding that is the way to be, that is the ideal," he adds. "That is the most optimal version of himself, is to embrace who he is. And I think that's such a great lesson for everybody."

While the middle-aged Nimoy's Spock was very physically present and had strength of consistency, and the older Nimoy's Spock was defined by a more tangible sense of serenity, Peck says his Spock is "pocked but also kind of languid".

"He's kind of loose but also very upright, and there's a stern stolidness about him," Peck says. "I think that there's something explosive beneath the surface, [that's] how I describe him physically. There's something loaded and anything can happen."

In part Star Trek's cultural power is drawn from the physical structure of its work – the now-iconic starship designs, the gold, blue and red Starfleet uniforms, legendary props such as communicators, tricorders and phaser guns – much in the same way Doctor Who's London police box or the mansion Tara from Gone with the Wind survive as powerful relics.

"These objects they've created on the Star Trek shows are so special, they're like masterpieces," Peck says. "It's like looking at fine art. It really is. The amount of thought and imagination, creativity. I don't think there's anything else like it in the world and in our industry.

"There is a kind of language. That's really the DNA of Star Trek, these objects and these talismans. There are different iterations over the course but they all represent this far-reaching ideal, right?

"This future of peace and of unity and of understanding and of exploration. That's what Star Trek is really about, is embracing one another and looking outwards into the universe and, 'What is this, where are we?'"

For both character and actor, there is a ghost in the room. Somewhere in the shadows behind Peck's Spock lurks Nimoy's iconic representation of the character. And somewhere in the shadows, behind Peck himself, lurks the legend of actor Gregory Peck, his grandfather.

The elder Peck, who died in 2003, was one of his generation's finest actors, winning an Oscar for his performance as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. He had a raft of now iconic films to his name: Roman Holiday (1953), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cape Fear (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Omen (1976) and The Boys from Brazil (1978).

"When I was younger, I wasn't too close with him for whatever reasons, unfortunately," the younger Peck recalls. "But there's an amazing body of work and presence he left behind. I have so many questions for him now and I wish he could be a mentor to me now. But the gift of that is that I have to find my own answers and dig deeply and use, invent new tools to find them.

"In the same way there's a congruence occurring here, Leonard is not here to talk to me," he adds. "And in a way I have to really investigate deeply what he did and what's going on, you know? And so it's just kind of an amazing challenge."

Both on and off screen, Peck concedes comparisons will be inevitable: "When I was younger I think I felt kind of overwhelmed by it but now that I'm a little bit older I think, how incredible, how incredibly lucky. People are going to compare me and that's fine.

"To me it's ironic because I feel such distance from my grandfather in a lot of ways. I'm sort of his namesake [the elder Peck's full name was Eldred Gregory Peck; Ethan's is Ethan Gregory Peck] and I'm doing what he did.

"Now it just feels like an incredible situation to have been born into. All you can do is embrace who you are and then build from there and build who you will be."

WHAT: Star Trek: Discovery

WHEN: Netflix

Michael Idato is entertainment editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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