For a talent whose career was cut short by an accident at the age of 27, Anton Yelchin leaves behind an unusually long list of credits. Of course, it helps that he started young. Yelchin was only 10 when he made his TV debut on “ER.” It was a role that’s chilling to revisit in light of today’s tragedy, considering that Yelchin played a boy who survived a deadly crash. With scrapes on his face and his arm in a splint, Yelchin listens as Goran Visnjic delivers the news that his parents died in the operating room, and in a moment far more adult than his age, he asks to see their bodies.
In that first screen performance, we see the paradox the persisted for the rest of Yelchin’s career — that mix of uncanny maturity and childlike vulnerability, characterized by soulful, saucer-like eyes; the sort of face whose cheeks cry out to be pinched; and a voice that was forever on the verge of breaking, whether he was 10 or 27 at the time. (Just last week at the Annecy Animated Film Festival, director Guillermo del Toro unveiled Yelchin as the lead voice actor in his upcoming DreamWorks Animation series, “Trollhunters.” The troll hunter’s age: 15.)
Some directors recognized Yelchin’s uniquely paradoxical qualities as an actor and cast him accordingly. In “Charlie Bartlett,” for example, Yelchin looks hilarious dressed in his boarding school blazer and tie, like a baby in a business suit, but he’s the most articulate actor in any scene, talking circles around Robert Downey Jr.’s principal Gardner. In “5 to 7” (my personal favorite of Yelchin’s performances, and the closest we’ll ever get to seeing him in a Woody Allen movie), he plays a callow 24-year-old New York novelist who falls for a married woman nearly a decade his senior. She towers over her earnest suitor, and yet Yelchin convinces us that his character sees himself as her equal.
The fact that Yelchin always looked so much younger and more vulnerable than nearly anyone else on screen defined him. As Chekov in the J.J. Abrams-directed “Star Trek” reboot, he comes across as a space-age prodigy, the runt of Starfleet Academy, yet the only one capable of solving the mission’s most complicated math puzzles. Tapping into his own Russian heritage for the accent, Yelchin (who immigrated to the U.S. before his first birthday) played Chekov as younger than his own age, and we never questioned it. I remember spotting Yelchin a few months ago in Paris. It was during Fashion Week, and he looked so tiny on that street corner, like a child playing dress-up in his grandfather’s clothes.
In Nick Cassavetes’ “Alpha Dog,” he’s a mere pup among his peers, a kid who doesn’t even realize that he’s been kidnapped, so eager is he to prove himself to the older thugs around him (among them Justin Timberlake, Shawn Hatosy and Emile Hirsch, a quite-different actor for whom Yelchin was often confused). Compared to his hard-edged older brother, played by a near-feral Ben Foster, Yelchin’s fate is heartbreaking, from the moment his character, Zack, begins to whimper with the realization of what they have in store for him.
“Alpha Dog” was a turning point in the careers of nearly its entire cast, debuting at Sundance five years before “Like Crazy,” the movie that took the festival’s grand jury prize and ultimately revealed just how far Yelchin might go as an actor. Prior to “Like Crazy,” it seemed that he might follow in the footsteps of fellow child actor Elijah Wood, who seems never to have grown up — and only made his physiognomic limitations worse by playing a hobbit.
The story of two lovers who meet in school but are forced apart when Yelchin’s lovely British obsession (played by Felicity Jones) overstays her visa, “Like Crazy” calls for its young cast to tap into a completely adult set of emotions. It may well have been the first time we saw the actor’s brow furrow. Behind it was a man, vulnerable and entirely relatable, wrestling with real-world problems too big for him to control.
That was the moment we knew for certain Anton Yelchin would be a star, that he had the chops to translate the career he’d begun as a child into something of substance over the rest of his life. The evidence was there as early as 2001’s “Hearts in Atlantis,” in which he co-starred with Anthony Hopkins. In that film, very loosely adapted from the Stephen King novella, Yelchin played the curious, warbly-voiced, 11-year-old version of a character who grows up to be played by David Morse, a couple years shy of 50. It’s hard to imagine Yelchin — so gentle, so vulnerable — evolving into the sort of confident physical presence embodied by the relatively massive Morse, but it’s an incredible loss to know that we won’t ever get to see the kind of actor, and the kind of man, that he might have become.