Zachary Quinto seems to have been raised on humble pie. The usual Hollywood formula for rising stars is simple: add attention, and watch heads grow. As the world strains to glimpse the meteoric career arcs of the cast of Heroes, the show's bona fide super villain is busy in the corner, quietly counting his blessings.
'I look at my good fortune in the last nine months and I'm staggered,' says Quinto from Los Angeles. His voice is a soothing tenor. 'I couldn't be more humbled by it, or more excited.'
This unusually grounded attitude, generally lacking within the cliques of instant-hit shows such as Grey's Anatomy and One Tree Hill is something Quinto attributes to the large ensemble Heroes cast. He says in the face of all the attention, his fellow actors have maintained a sense of who they were before the show became a hit. It seems important to him that his peers care more about the work than they do the hype.
'There's a certain insidiousness about the publicity aspect of what we do. You hear a lot of stories about shows and actors and tempers and egos that eventually get fuelled in the tabloids,' he says. 'There's no cause for that in our group. It's a group of people who are all aware of their good fortune, and are grateful for their experiences.' Being level-headed might turn out to be the best strategy, especially for a show that's built on defying expectations. Creator Tim Kring recently revealed his own doubts on the prolonged popularity of his brain-child in an online interview with Entertainment Weekly. The creator says, 'The shelf life of shows seems to be getting shorter and shorter ... if you do something totally unexpected one week, the expectation is that you're going to have to do it again the next. The danger is that some of these ideas may seem less interesting than the year before.'
As a cast member, another good reason for pragmatism on Heroes might be the frequent character deaths. Essentially, no-one is safe, which keeps viewers guessing and glued to the screen. Kring's strategy to keep the show's high level of energy and suspense, also serves to keep the actors on their toes. Quinto's co-star Adrian Pasdar - who plays Nathan Petrelli, the literally high-flying politician, once joked that he thought he'd signed up to do a show called Heroes, and ended up in a show called Survivors.
For Quinto, surviving wasn't so much of an issue until the end of the first season in May this year. From his debut as the creepy watch-repairer in the eighth episode to the three-part season finale, Sylar was doing all the killing. 'The character of Sylar has shattered expectations from the beginning,' he says about the villain, whose costume was a hooded sweatshirt, faded black jeans and Converse high-tops. 'He's built up to be this over-bearing, really dark shadowy presence, for the first few episodes. Then you meet him and he's this meek, nerdy mild-mannered watchmaker. I think he had all the right ingredients of nuance, and complicated humanity mixed in with his pursuit of power.'
Tonight, Quinto, as Sylar, will be judged by the toughest of critics for the honour of ultimate small screen baddy. Sylar has been nominated in the Teen Choice Awards 2007 for Choice Villain in Television, along with Michael Rosenbaum who plays Lex on Smallville, Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina on Ugly Betty, Michael Emerson as Ben on Lost, and Robert Knepper as Theodore Bagwell on Prison Break. Teens across the world will decide, by online vote, who they love to hate the most. 'That's a pretty honourable distinction. I'm sure it'll all be in good fun,' says Quinto.
Sylar's disappearance down a manhole at the end of season one points to his return next season. 'I don't expect to corner the market in villainy on this show for its entire duration,' he says, refusing to disclose future plot details.
He has another important project on the horizon - his first big screen role as the young Spock in the 11th Star Trek film.
Quinto's modest demeanour slips somewhat at this point. 'It's quite a jump but I don't think I would have gotten the job if I wasn't ready,' he says.
Director JJ Abrams' decision to cast Quinto might have had something to do with his resemblance to actor Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his role as Mr Spock in the upcoming film.
Interestingly, despite his success in the sci-fi realm, Quinto was never a big fan of the genre. As preparation for the role kicks into higher gear, he's enlisted the help of a friend from university, who is 'a very well-versed Star Trek aficionado'.
'I come from a background of theatre, and I think there's something almost Shakespearean about the Star Trek mythology. Heroes also has powerful elements of heightened reality. That's something I definitely relate to my training on stage. But in terms of a career trajectory, I wouldn't necessarily have predicted it for myself when I packed my bags and moved to LA.'
Quinto grew up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and started performing when he was nine years old, in school plays and in a local youth performance group. After school, he went on to study drama at Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating in 1999, he moved to LA, where he waited tables for 18 months before getting his first break - a role on the short-lived TV series The Others in 2000. When the show was cancelled, he was back to square one until he landed a part in an episode of Six Feet Under.
Over the years, Quinto appeared in small roles in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Lizzie McGuire, Charmed and Kring's Crossing Jordan. He had a recurring role as Adam Kaufman on 24, and also appeared as Sasan in So NoTORIous - a 'reality' show based on the life of Tori Spelling. Then Heroes came along last year.
Three weeks ago, Quinto celebrated the eighth anniversary of his move to LA. When he looks back, he sees all the hard work he put in, not the overnight success people seem to think he's enjoyed. Quinto readily cuts the hype surrounding Heroes down to size.
'You can never predict the course that an audience is going to take over the journey of a show's life, that's just something that happens when new seasons start and new characters are added. People have reactions to that. When a show is as successful and accessible as Heroes has proven to be in the first season, it's hard to imagine that it won't continue for at least a few more. Hopefully, I'll be a part of it.'
This summer, while his fellow cast members head for Asia (Masi Oka, Ali Larter, Greg Grunberg and Sendhil Ramamurthy will be in Hong Kong on Wednesday) and Europe with the Heroes World Tour to promote the next season, Quinto is giving the international media ballyhoo a miss, sticking close to home and taking the North American leg. 'You need to preserve yourself and be gentle with yourself, because it's gruelling and a lot is demanded of you,' he says.
'I have a pretty rich personal life in terms of keeping myself grounded. I have a dog, I go hiking, I do yoga a lot, I meditate, I go to therapy - basically I do all the things that normal people do to stay sane in a very insane world.'
Normal - that's a pretty interesting choice of word from someone who slices heads open for a living. Wait, that's Sylar. So, if Quinto could choose a super power, what would it be?
'Invisibility,' he says. 'I want to live a normal life, be a normal person. Sometimes being invisible - maybe that would be the solution.'
Heroes, TVB Pearl, Tuesdays, 10.35pm