Leonard Nimoy tells us why he came back to Star Trek

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his most famous role in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek, told SCI FI Wire that he's pleased to return to the franchise that at one point seemed to be done with him. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

"I don't think I ever said that I was done with Star Trek," Nimoy said in an exclusive interview a few weeks ago. "I think that Star Trek was kind of done with me for a while. I acted in the first six films. I directed two of them. I wrote story for two of them. I produced one of them. I was very, very active in the first six films. When the next film came [Star Trek: Generations] along, there was no role for Spock. And they killed Kirk. So one would have to ask the makers of those films, and the next few, why I was not involved. I was never offered anything that was like a Spock role. I was asked to direct the seventh film. I didn't think much of the script, and I passed."

But Abrams came to Nimoy with more than a cameo role, and it was enough to entice Nimoy out of semi-retirement. "In this particular case, they came to me with an idea that really valued the Spock character, valued my presence, gave me a role to play that I felt was worth coming back for, and I came back," he said. "So I don't think I ever turned my back on Star Trek. I think I was just allowed to drift away."

In Star Trek, Nimoy plays an older version of the character—dubbed "Spock Prime" in the script by Transformers writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman—that goes back to the first meeting of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), young Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise.

We spoke to Nimoy exclusively about Star Trek. Following is the first part of our two-part interview. The second part posts tomorrow. Star Trek opens May 8.

J.J.'s been talking about the movie lately, and we wanted to know from your perspective what makes his movie a Star Trek movie, and how is it going to be different from what's come before?

Nimoy: Well, we haven't seen this bringing together of the original crew before. It's a story that's never been told. And I think it's told very, very well. ... I'm talking about the original crew members—Kirk and Spock and McCoy and Uhura and Sulu and Scotty—all coming together for the first time, coming out of Starfleet Academy and being assigned in various ways to various ships and ending up together on the Enterprise is a story that's never been told. How they all came together, how they came to be the crew of the Enterprise. And I think it's very well told, and I think the actors are doing a wonderful job, and I think the script really captures the essence of those characters and brings them together in a very entertaining, very exciting way. So I think that's all very new.

What specifically do you feel are essential elements to make Star Trek feel like Star Trek?

Nimoy: The crew is a wonderful mix of chemistries, and I think that's been captured in this movie. The relationships, the way these relationships are established, the different kinds of people that they are and the different functions that they serve and the way that they come together to become a unit. I think really captures the essence of what the original crew was all about when we saw Star Trek in the original series.

Roberto Orci, as well as J.J., have been quoted as saying that the new film will be a little bit more rock and roll. Do you know what they mean by that?

Nimoy: Well, it certainly is a larger production than any Star Trek movie we've seen before. More adventure than we've seen before, and on a larger scale. I don't know how else to describe it. It's a big adventure, a very big adventure. Very ambitious in its size. And I think that some of the previous films have had a certain amount of size, but this picture has a budget that allows it to go much further than any other previous film.

I think also they were speaking kind of about the pace of the film.

Nimoy: Yeah, that too, yeah. No question about it. Look, when you're on a smaller budget, you tend to stay on certain scenes longer, you tend to stay on dialogue scenes longer with the actors. You tend to stay in less sets. This picture has more sets, more action, larger [more] ships, larger experiences, larger adventures, because the appetite of the filmmakers is larger and they were given a larger budget to do it with. I think it's a wonderful movie. ... It's a very exciting film. ...

What was it specifically about the reappearance of Spock that brought you back?

Nimoy: The role is a functional role in the show. It's not a cameo. It's a role that's specifically written for Spock and for Spock's place in the Star Trek story. So that makes it attractive and worthwhile to me. I had not been offered a role like that since the first six Star Trek movies.

What do you think of Zachary Quinto, who plays the younger version of your character?

Nimoy: I think very highly of Zack Quinto. I think he's a very good actor. What I've seen of the movie, I think he does a wonderful job, as does the rest of the crew. I think they're all very, very good in their roles.

Do you see some of your performance in Zachary's performance? Or is it a different kind of interpretation of the same character?

Nimoy: Well, you know, it's the same character in name, but you must remember that the Spock that he's playing is a Spock that existed before the Spock that I played. He was younger, not quite so experienced, and therefore somewhat different. He's the Spock that arrives off of his home planet of Vulcan and goes to the Federation for the first time. And that's ... a somewhat different character than what you saw me play in the Star Trek original series. By the time we get into the series, my Spock was a little bit more mature, a little bit different. ...

One of the things that struck me about Zach's performance was that he is more volatile a character than we were used to seeing.

Nimoy: Well, that's interesting, that's interesting. I think you may be right, and I think that points to what I said before: that it hasn't quite arrived as the Spock that I was playing in the original series. He's younger than that, and not quite as seasoned.

Tomorrow: Nimoy speaks about putting the pointed ears back on and slipping back into the character of Spock.