Ethan Peck Prospers as the Latest Actor to Play Spock

Star Trek: Discovery Ethan Peck
Ethan Peck as Spock in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (Photo by Russ Martin © 2018 CBS Interactive)

Ethan Peck is part of two legacies, not just one. He is the grandson of the late Gregory Peck, the Hollywood legend who won an Oscar for his portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, an adaptation of Harper Lee’s seminal novel of the same name.

He is also Spock on Star Trek: Discovery, a role played by the late Leonard Nimoy and later Zachary Quinto.

Peck, 33, joined Discovery – which occurs almost a decade prior to 1966-69’s Star Trek: The Original Series – in its recently-ended second season.

He realizes Nimoy, as well as Quinto, are tough acts to follow.

“I was like, ‘They made a terrible mistake. I don’t know why they think I can do this,’” said Peck. “Yeah, it’s super-surreal, super-crazy.”

At the beginning of the audition process, Peck didn’t know he was reading for Spock.

“I was sent these really abstract set of scenes about an alien losing his mind in a cave,” explained Peck. “Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) comes in to shake him out of it.”

In his third and final audition, Peck realized he was reading for Spock.

“I was totally bowled over. I couldn’t believe it. I had a panic attack over the final audition,” he said. “I was like, ‘Even if I don’t get this, what an amazing achievement to come this far and to be considered for this role.’ Then I got it. I was reduced to a crumble of tears and excitement and overjoy.”

Spock 101

To the uninitiated, Spock is an alien with pointed ears from Vulcan. Vulcans live by logic, suppressing their emotions. Spock is half-human/human-Vulcan who becomes the first officer aboard the Enterprise, under the command of Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner).

Interestingly enough, NBC, the network that originally aired TOS, was concerned that Spock looked satanic. Ironically, after eight episodes of TOS’ first season, fan reaction to Spock was positive and NBC executives wanted more Spock, who became prominent on TOS. To this day, Spock is Trek’s most recognizable character.

Peck explained how his Spock – who has long hair and a beard upon his first appearance on Discovery – is different from Nimoy’s.

“It was a great confluence of factors. Spock, at this point, is undergoing an existential crisis. He’s been exposed to the Red Angel, who’s unlocked in him all these emotions he’s compartmentalized, and he now has to deal with them for the first time in his life,” explained Peck. “I felt I’d undergone a similar transformation a year or two prior when I made some changes in my life. It felt like a version of myself died and that’s what’s happening with Spock this season – this younger version of him is dissipating and he has to make space for the new Spock, the Spock we know and love in (TOS).”

Doug Jones, who plays Cmdr. Saru on Discovery, praised Peck’s performance.

“No one could’ve done a better job than Ethan,” said Jones. “He did such a fantastic job playing Spock. He gets to the heart and soul of Nimoy’s Spock because what he did would have to lead into what Nimoy did. Talk about an intimidating task, but he did it. He channeled Spock and brought some of himself to (the role). That’s kinda freaky in a great way.”

Meeting the Nimoys

A week after landing the role of Spock, Ethan Peck met Nimoy’s children, Adam and Julie.

“I was so frightened,” admitted Peck. “I’m driving over the 405 and I’m thinking, ‘I’m on my way to meet the Nimoy family. What is going on in my life right now?’ They couldn’t have been nicer.”

More than anything, the Nimoys were curious about Peck, according to the actor. To him, that felt like the first step in feeling worthy to undertake the huge task of playing this iconic character.

“They shared some stories. They obviously come from a legacy as I do. We spoke a bit about that, which is not something you can typically share with another person because it’s so unusual,” said Peck. “The biggest thing I took away from being with them was having curiosity about Spock, about Nimoy’s performance. They really didn’t point me in any particular direction. The best advice I’ve gotten for it is, oddly, they didn’t say to read his books.”

Yet Nimoy’s 1975 autobiography I Am Not Spock was a vital part of Peck’s preparation.

“Reading that book was huge for me. I realized I was making some of the same revelations (Nimoy) was making about the character in his preparation for it. It felt like I got to know him and he was with me in the process because I was so closely studying his words and his performance,” said Peck. “I would watch episodes of (TOS) while learning my lines and trying to pick up on the musicality of Nimoy’s Spock. (Trek is) such a magical world… I watched about 35 episodes and it felt like Spock was alive in me. (The role) started to feel like my own, so I kinda let go of (TOS).”

Star Trek: Discovery Ethan Peck
Ethan Peck as Spock in ‘Star Trek: Discovery (Photo by Michael Gibson © 2018 CBS Interactive)

The Challenges of Playing Spock

After getting the role, Ethan Peck was worried for two months that he’d get fired.

“I was like, ‘Is this okay?’ All of us actors are so insecure and neurotic. But I just did my best and focused on what was working. Every day, every moment was such a challenge playing Spock because it’s such a delicate balance between feeling and suppressing and being logical. It’s really a tight-rope walk every single day,” he said. “In the end, I really got comfortable with it – ‘Oh, I’m not fired. I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.’ When my first episode aired, I was wrought with anxiety. It meant so much to me. As diehard as a fan might be, this meant more to me – it had to be done with integrity and with respect to what’s been done before.”

At first, Peck was contracted for just five episodes.

“I thought, ‘Good for them to build in an escape route in case I fail miserably and things don’t work out,’ which is totally understandable,” he said. “Again, when you put somebody under this kind of pressure, it’s sink or swim. You could freak out, overthink it, and screw it up.”

He spoke about watching his first episode as Spock for the first time at a friend’s house.

“I was sweating, waiting for it to air. And when it came on, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m fine!’ My buddy was like, ‘Yeah, man, you’re fine. Why wouldn’t you be?’” said Peck. “I’m in such good hands. It’s really hard to do a terrible job when you’re surrounded by such amazing people, the cast and the crew. I was so intimidated to join the ranks (of this cast), but they couldn’t have been kinder and more supportive. I was very vocal about how terrified I was – ‘I hope this goes okay’ – and everyone has been just so helpful.”

A pivotal character moment for Spock was when he shaved his beard in Discovery. Peck was having dinner with Alex Kurtzman, Discovery’s co-creator and Trek’s current overseer.

“(Alex) was describing Spock going back to the Enterprise, tying it into canon, and putting a nice bow on it. It just gave me chills the way he was describing it – he’s so passionate about Star Trek. When I saw that in the script (Spock shaves his beard), it was so emotional for me. It’s been such an arduous, incredible journey,” said Peck.

When Peck finally saw himself as Spock clean-shaven and clad in science officer blue, it brought tears to his eyes.

“Seeing it for me, I was bawling because it was so emotional,” he said. “When I shaved the beard on set, I become this version of Spock and I feel like I’ve earned my way into Starfleet again. I’m still wrapping my hand around the whole thing. When I saw it on the screen, I blacked out.”

A True and Authentic Spock

When playing such an iconic character, especially in this day and age of social media, fans are very vocal and – in some cases – very negative. Case in point: When it was announced that Oscar winner Ben Affleck was succeeding fellow Oscar winner Christian Bale as Batman, fans were up in arms. Affleck stated in interviews that he stayed off the Internet for several days.

“I look at it a few ways. At the beginning, it was hard not to take a little bit of it personally because I can speak for everyone on the show that we just put our heart and soul into it, and it means everything to us that it’s quality and we’re creating something that’s greater than the sum of our parts,” explained Peck. “It’s hard not to take it personally, but it’s also out of my control. All I can do is my best, focus on what I believe is the true and authentic Spock… Of course, I want to be liked and to please everybody but that’s not possible, so I just focus on what’s working.”

One person who’s been invaluable in Peck’s portrayal of Spock has been actor/director Jonathan Frakes, who played Cmdr. William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the feature films Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis. Frakes has directed numerous episodes in the Trek franchise, including Peck’s second episode of Discovery.

“(Frakes is) an absolute joy. He’s been instrumental to figuring out Spock when he starts to come to and come out of his inner reverie,” said Peck. “He’s such a great mentor to me. I was so grateful to have him for that episode. He’s also what we call an actor’s actor. He really pays attention because he’s been on my side of the camera. A lot of directors haven’t. He understands the terror of being an actor… He’s so excited to be there. He’s so excited about Trek. Every time he gets a take that he really likes, he goes, ‘CUT! PRINT!’ – he’s so pumped about it.”

Family Ties

As mentioned earlier, Ethan Peck is the grandson of Gregory Peck (who died in 2003) and his first wife Greta Kukkonen (who died in 2008). His parents are Stephen Peck and Francine Matarazzo.

Peck admitted that being related to such a renowned actor is burden he feels he must live up to.

“My grandfather was so revered and such a noble force out in the world as an actor and as an icon. It’s crazy. It’s still crazy. It’s a situation I was born into… Then I thought how serendipitous that it’s me in the so-called shadow or in this legacy of my grandfather to then take on this other legacy. I felt like I’d been prepped for it in some way that I couldn’t have devised, it’s so out of my control. In that way, is he an inspiration? Yes.”

His grandfather didn’t offer much advice about being an actor.

“(It’s a) very complicated familial history. He was totally approachable – nothing I’m not afraid to speak about – it was just complicated, the generation before me. I just wish he was alive now because I have so many questions for him. The man had such an incredible life – it just blows my mind.”

Peck studied classical cello for six years and attended the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Some of his other roles prior to Discovery include playing a younger Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher’s character) on That ‘70s Show.

He appeared in 1999’s Passport to Paris, starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. In fact, he was Mary-Kate’s first on-screen kiss. In the 2008 independent film Tennessee, he starred alongside Grammy-winning singer/actress Mariah Carey.

“I started acting when I was nine. At that time, it just seemed like part of my life – who I am,” said Peck. “It was actually a few years ago, I had this moment of ‘Will I continue to do this? Is this what’s meant for me?’ I thought I’d stop acting and almost quit a year before getting (Discovery). I decided I’ve come this far. I’ve got all this training and experience. I might as well see where it goes another year or two. I never thought I’d ever end up as a part of this franchise.”

Being part of Trek has opened Ethan Peck’s eyes to a whole new world. He attended the Calgary Expo – his first convention – in April, where he met Garrett Wang, who played Harry Kim on Star Trek: Voyager.

“(Garrett) was so kind and welcoming – ‘We’re so happy to have you.’ It’s hallowed ground, all of it,” said Peck. “It’s like becoming part of this really special history, I’m just thrilled all the way around. Every moment I get to spend with somebody who’s seen the show and appreciates it is such a gift. It’s nice to know that the work we care so deeply can bring happiness and joy and acceptance in people’s lives.”