Anton Yelchin’s sudden death in a freak accident involving asphyxiation after being crushed by his car at his home in California is as tragic and unexpected as the recent passing of numerous astonishingly talented actors – Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014, Paul Walker in 2013 and Heath Ledger in 2008. His passing also places him in the infamous 27 club; Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and the late Amy Winehouse. Yelchin joins a plethora of ill-fated artists whose sobering deaths are rendered all the more despondent due to the widely-shared sentiment that, sadly, their early deaths could have been somehow avoided.
An impressive, young actor of profound sensitivity and deep warmth, over the course of his eclectic yet sadly cut short career, Yelchin has played roles in over twenty films and television productions. The crime-drama Alpha Dog (2007), based on the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz over a drug money feud, proved to be his major breakthrough film, followed by his role as Pavel Chekov in the hugely successful reboot of Star Trek (2009) and its follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) which propelled him into crazed, cinematic heights.
After having immigrated to the United States from Russia with his renowned figure-skating parents when he was just six months old, Yelchin started acting at the age of nine, starring in the TV medical drama ER (2000) at the age of ten and a year later featuring in a small string of films including Hearts in Atlantis (2001), in which he co-starred with Anthony Hopkins – all of which earned him the 2002 Young Artist Award for Best Performance by a Leading Young Actor. Yelchin retains a diversity in his body of work, as demonstrated by a constant flux in his artistic desires, wavering between partaking in indie and mainstream films.
The logic of his cinematic choices may derive in part from the diverse nature of his tutelage – both artistically and athletically. His parents, Viktor and Irina, were stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet for fifteen years, both of them qualifying for the 1972 Winter Olympics and his grandfather was also a successful professional soccer player. Yelchin’s uncle Eugene is an illustrator, a character designer and a novelist and including many other vocations. Yelchin describes his parents as “figure skaters who loved movies” and often relates how he never felt particularly pressured to follow in their path, instead describing their attitude towards his zeal for acting as a gentle coaxing: “They believed that I wanted to be in films, so from a young age they had me watch Kubrick, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Fellini and Antonioni.”
At the same time, however, Yelchin also describes his struggles grappling with his cultural background in the former USSR: “Russia is very complicated […] It produces Dostoyevsky and Rachmanioff and then it produces Stalins and Lenins. It is such a strange combination. The nature of of these cultural and societal tensions often translated into his attitude towards his acting, the contradictory manner in which Yelchin alternated between starring in both successful blockbuster movies to as well as independent works exemplified this fact.
Despite the catalogue of stellar independent films in which he has starred, including the irreverent romantic drama Charlie Bartlett (2007) in which he plays the wealthy and troubled eponymous protagonist and his role of Ace Zuckerman in the Japanese-language romance drama Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (2010), he has often been pigeon-holed as the young, Hollywood hunk, ranking number twelve on Moviefone’s “The 25 Hottest Actors Under 25” in 2008 and one of People magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People in the World” in 2009.
However, the Star Trek films – which familiarised him as an actor to the public – were an anomaly in his career, his best performances often given in the independent works; the intense romantic drama Like Crazy (2011) in which Yelchin plays Felicity Jones’s doting love interest acutely displays the deep sincerity and zealous passion of his acting. His impassioned zeal in life did not only manifest itself in his career as an immensely touching actor; a lover of books and an avid chess player, his love for acoustic music translated into the formation of his punk band, The Hammerheads, in which he was a guitarist.
In an epiphanic juncture when art coalesces with life, Yelchin posits Green Room (2015), a horror-thriller in which he plays a member of a punk-rock band who battle murderous white supremacists, allowed him to adopt the cathartic role of mimicking the sentiments he felt during the pivotal moment in his life when he chose acting over music. At the same time, Green Room allowed him to indulge in his lasting passion for music, playing in the onscreen punk band The Ain’t Rights, inspired by the American punk horror band Misfits and the seventies Washington punk group Bad Brain: “You don’t even need to play music if you are in a punk band,” Yelchin stated in an interview. “I’m not very good at guitar, but I can play fast, sloppy songs and have a good time.”
A true artist, even after his band disbanded, Yelchin’s musical zeal, desire for exploration and zest for experimentation all cement the figure of a fearless young virtuoso who did not allow the fact that some of his artistic passions diverged from the mainstream to prevent him from fulfilling his cinematic aspirations.