Ohen hard-nosed American writer Gore Vidal entertained people for dinner, he would often put on old tapes of his televised debates with curator William F Buckley. In the depths of his old age, he would seat his guests with a drink and watch, obsessively, the recordings of his own younger face. Recently, Zachary Quinto also started obsessively watching them.
The 45-year-old actor and staunch Democrat is best known for playing Spock in the later Star Trek films. Now he has stepped into the role of ‘authentic, unwavering and complex’ Vidal in James Graham’s Best of Enemies West End transfer, opposite David Harewood as Buckley.
Based on the 2015 documentary by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the award-winning play immerses us in Buckley and Vidal’s snarling and hilarious debates in 1968, which “irrevocably changed the future of what the news became”, says Quinto . What was once neutral and strictly factual turned into a witty and unforgiving conversation skewed by personal opinion. Commentating on the Republican and Democratic national conventions nightly, Buckley and Vidal’s fight became a sensation.
Slicked back hair and square glasses, Quinto is impeccably dressed for his second day of rehearsals in London. Having enjoyed competitive debates in high school, despite claiming to remember few skills, he does not say um or er when he speaks, and his unwavering gaze is given added authority by his defined eyebrows.
But the singer, who recently appeared in revivals of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Boys in the Band, admits he’s still finding his feet in his latest role. The West End production of Best of Enemies follows a sold-out run at the Young Vic, where the role of Quinto was played by British actor Charles Edwards. “I’ve never set foot in something that already had production,” he says, tugging at the buttoned sleeves of his shirt. The cast and crew previously had a week-long rehearsal in New York, but everything still seems new in London. The experience is akin, he says, to being the new kid on the block, when everyone started the term before.
Quinto has often played macabre antagonists on television and film, including several serial killers, from superpower thief Sylar in the sci-fi series Heroes to the terrifying Dr. Oliver Thredson in the bizarre anthology American Horror Story, which earned him an Emmy nomination. But he sees acting as his calling and has long expressed a desire to perform in the West End. “I’ve wanted to live and work in London for a very long time,” he says impatiently. “I’ve seen so many great theaters here over the years. Have the possibility to Craft the theater here is really exciting.
A decade before Quinto was born, 1968 was a turning point for the United States. Amid growing protests and growing divisions of political thought, it was the first time that political party nominating conventions were broadcast on color television. Against newsrooms with bigger budgets and bigger audiences, ABC — “the fledgling channel,” Quinto points out — wanted to find a way to boost its meager ratings. Rather than sticking a camera in front of the event and reporting it neutrally, ABC chose to feature two political commentators clashing after each day.
Pitting Buckley and Vidal against each other was an immediate success. “You have to remember,” Quinto says, “there weren’t dozens of channels when you turned on your television. People only had three options. On CBS or NBC, you see what you’ve always seen. Then you go to ABC and you see two people expressing their own diametrically opposed views. They were two boxers in a ring. “You want to see which one will win.”
Quinto talks about Vidal and Buckley as if they were rare, beautiful and vicious raptors at the same time. “They were more impressive than most of the politicians at the time who were on the script,” he says. “Their verbal acrobatics set them apart.”
Vidal’s refusal to bow to the mainstream was part of what drew Quinto to the character. The author said it was as natural to be gay as it was to be straight, a quote Quinto radiates and says he loves. “He had a very complex relationship with relationships,” he says thoughtfully. “He suffered a great loss young in his life, when a boy to whom he opened his heart was killed in the [second world] war. I think it calcified him in some way.
In one particularly heated moment of the proceedings, Vidal lashes out at Buckley, calling him a “crypto-Nazi”, and Buckley, taken aback, calls Vidal a “faggot”. “The word ‘queer’ was co-opted,” says Quinto, who first spoke publicly about being gay in the early 2010s, “but in 1968 it was just before the Stonewall riots, just before the gay liberation movement really explodes. Come out and say it,” – he hesitates, given the impact – “I think it’s a time that none of them have really recovered for the rest of his life. The unusually impulsive attack hit Buckley harder than Vidal. “I think Buckley considered that moment to be one of the biggest failures of his professional life. But Vidal, if you look at him, he smiles. I think he saw it as a victory. The country was outraged, but Vidal reveled in the scandal. “He knew the fire they were playing with.”
It’s that fire that has made these debates so – Quinto growls a low, slow hum, finding the right word – “dynamic”. But their ferocity and brash nature have spilled over into the mainstream. “News used to be an objective and unbiased expression of events,” Quinto believes. “It’s become this quagmire of echo chambers, ideological culture wars and opinions that in many ways you can trace these debates. It was the birth of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s no other way to see it’. This polarization has only intensified over the past 50 years.
Looking at our current political situation, he identifies a kind of absence. “I think we’ve lost a grace of communication in the modern world,” he says. “Social media has reduced it, and the formation of partisan news channels has lowered the bar for how to talk to each other. We have lost respect for each other, in many ways.
Growing up, Quinto was surrounded by an active involvement in politics. His mother participated in local politics in their small town of Pittsburgh, his great-grandfather was a city councilman, and his grandfather had been in Congress. As an adult, Quinto solicited Barack Obama in both elections, manning the phones at Obama’s campaign headquarters and traveling the country for him.
Since then, however, the actor has found it increasingly difficult to find hope in politics. “I’ve lost some confidence in our democratic system, to be honest,” he leans back in his chair, resigned. “It’s been pretty dark in our country.” He waves a hand out the window. “I’m sure a lot of people here can relate. It’s as if the pendulum has swung so far in one direction and it’s happening in a global sweep. I don’t know if or how we will be able to undo the damage that has been done so soon. »
But that desperation was part of what drew him to Best of Enemies, with his caustic intelligence and forceful insistence that talking to people with opposing views is both education and entertainment. “There is a kernel of hope in history repeating itself,” Quinto says determinedly. “As years, 1968 and 2022 are similar in some ways, aren’t they? There was a huge social upheaval then, as there is today. One of the things that emerged from that time was radical new thinking. I think it’s possible now too.
Vidal once wrote that change is both the nature of life and its hope. Looking ahead, Quinto is clinging to something similar. “Hopefully this can take us in some sort of salvageable direction.”
Best of Enemies is at Noël Coward theatre, London, from Monday November 14 until February 18.