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Stepping back into the role of Mr. Spock for next month’s Star Trek sequel, Zachary Quinto boldly goes where he has never gone before.

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When Zachary Quinto first emerged from his trailer sporting the signature pointy ears of Mr. Spock in 2009, he was an unlikely candidate for the role. But director J.J. Abrams, a bankable magician, bet on Quinto and two other little-known actors-Chris Pine and Zoë Saldana-to reboot Star Trek, the beloved (if not a bit dusty) sci-fi franchise known for its devout fan base. And he clearly won that wager. Quinto and his co-stars passed the fan test with flying colors, and the film went on to gross more than $250 million in stateside box office dollars.

Brooding, commanding and with irony to spare, Quinto, as Spock, quickly struck a chord with both new audiences and Klingon-speaking Trekkies. But in the four years it’s taken to bring to life the second installment of Abrams’ baby, Star Trek Into Darkness, Quinto has fleshed out a complex career on both the stage and the big and small screens, moving seamlessly between them all. When Quinto is in character, you can’t look away.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., Quinto, 35, along with older brother Joe, was reared by his mother after his father passed when Zachary was 7. Active in high school drama, Quinto continued to pursue his passion for acting at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama. He moved to Los Angeles after college, bouncing around with one-off TV roles in such shows as Six Feet Under and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation while waiting tables at a neighborhood diner. Fox’s 24 gave him his first gig as a regular and catapulted him to his breakout role on NBC’s hit series Heroes, in which he played the role of serial killer Sylar for the show’s four-season run.

“I can get really impatient, wanting to make stuff happen immediately and not really seeing the long game of it,” Quinto says of those earlier years. But the most interesting moves—for Quinto and his audience—in his career trajectory chess game came after his first go at acting in a feature film, playing Spock.

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With that first film role behind him, Quinto retreated from L.A. to New York in 2010 to take on the lead role of Louis Ironson in an off-Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s iconic Angels in America.

The content of the show, a harrowing look at the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York, and its emotional fallout, had a dual impact on Quinto. The role in Angels in America lit a fire under media speculation about his sexuality that started during Quinto’s work on Heroes. Quinto chose not to comment. Then, in 2011 as the play came and went with positive reviews, Quinto publicly came out in the pages of New York Magazine.

That admission sparked Quinto’s heavy involvement in The Trevor Project, which offers crisis intervention to LGBT youth. He also began dating his current boyfriend, Broadway actor and Glee star Jonathan Groff.

The industry rewarded Quinto’s openness when Glee mastermind Ryan Murphy pushed Quinto to further challenge his personal boundaries with the role of Chad in his hit FX show, American Horror Story. After playing the campy homeowner who meets a grizzly end, Quinto returned to the anthology in American Horror Story: Asylum as serial killer Dr. Thredson, a maniacal shrink fond of skinning women alive then pontificating on morality in medicine.

Quinto was arguably the most engaging he’s ever been on camera, but the work was fittingly insane. The script called for major violence, hysterical levels of confrontation and included disturbing scenes like the one in which Quinto mimics nursing from the bosom of co-star Sarah Paulson.

Quinto jokes that he’d like to go in a new, less-gory direction for his next role. “I’d love to go on the record and say I’d love to do a romantic comedy,” he says. “I’m always looking for opportunities… when I’m focused on the work I’m doing in the moment, and when I’m grateful for it, more comes to me.”

Quinto returned to his first love, the stage, in Boston this spring for a production of The Glass Menagerie. “I’m really enjoying being around the creative energy of Harvard, and the play is endlessly fascinating,” he says. Playing the part of Tom Wingfield is another role in the string of projects that ties in to a professional renaissance.

Quinto’s Star Trek co-star Saldana agrees that his best work comes when he takes on complex characters. “What makes Zach unique as an actor is his confidence,” she says. “Zach isn’t afraid to play a villain, or a psychopath, or a ghost. Usually, these are the characters that scare actors because of the complexities they possess, that sort of layered psychological demeanor… But Zach approaches these characters with so much ease that you feel inspired when you work with him. He’s so talented, supercommitted to his craft… and funny as hell.”

Quinto admits he tapped into his comedic side with his peers and new cast addition Benedict Cumberbatch (of BBC’s Sherlock fame) while on set with his fellow Star Trek Into Darkness castmates.

“We were in Northern California for the last 10 days of the shoot at this massive, industrial government space. Me, Pine, Benedict and Pegg all drove into San Francisco and had a raucous evening until the wee hours,” Quinto says enthusiastically. “All of us had some really amazing experiences outside of those first films. I really genuinely love to work with them, to be with them and J.J.”

Memories also came flooding back from one particular set, the starship’s infamous Bridge—a central command of sorts—where Pine’s Captain Kirk and Quinto’s Spock call the shots. “It was a little bit like going back to a place where you used to live. Once we did that, it really took off… we all had to ramp up,” he says.

The film isn’t a sequel in the purest sense. It’s a standalone story that hangs on the franchise. In the first reboot, we met the gang, and in the new film, they fracture. “Everyone is sort of on their own, and in peril,” Quinto says.

And what was it like to step into the shoes of the role’s originator, the inimitable Leonard Nimoy? “The first time I did it, it was my first movie. I couldn’t really think about that. And, lucky for me, the second was just so demanding to film,” he says.

The film pushed Quinto physically. In addition to stunt training, wire harness acrobatics and green-screen awkwardness, Quinto discovered his inner athlete. “Visually, there’s a tremendous amount of action for Spock in this film. I had to learn how to sprint. You think just because you can run…” he says.

So, gadgets and girls aside, why do these films and other fantasy franchises like Marvel’s The Avengers and the now-fabled Dark Knight series thrive on overtones of isolation and bleakness? “This ultimately reflects our society,” muses Quinto. “There’s a lot of unsettled energy in our world. It’s interesting what we choose to watch instead of watching what’s really happening.” But Quinto also promises that audiences won’t be left too bereft. “This one ends with faith in humanity. It’s bigger, more absorbing, but really driven by an optimism,” he says.

As he prepares to turn the focus of his energy to three upcoming releases from his production company, Before the Door, Quinto insists there are no plans for him to join American Horror Story for its third season, widely speculated to tackle witchcraft across the country, in various time periods. “That’s the nature of the show,” he explains. “It’s OK to disappear and then show up again,” he says of the anthology.

That’s also the guiding principle for the life of an actor. He vanishes and then resurfaces as a psycho, ghost, villain, Mr. Spock, serial killer, or even a gentleman caller. Quinto disappears into the darkness of his craft, but his focus is his ticket back to the light.