TORONTO - The art of improvising is what grabbed Anton Yelchin as a boy in his first acting class. He gets back to improv in his latest film, "Like Crazy," a rare drama whose dialogue was made up by the actors as they went along.
Yelchin, known for a string of acclaimed performances in independent films, along with his role as navigator Chekov in the new incarnation of "Star Trek," found that making things up came to him naturally when he started to study acting.
"I loved the improvisation part of it the most, because it was a lot like just playing around with stuff," Yelchin, 22, said in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Like Crazy" played ahead of its theatrical debut Friday. "There was something about it that I just felt completely comfortable doing and happy doing.
"My parents were like, OK, our kid is happy doing this. This is great. They were figure skaters and grew up going to school and skating, so for them, a person needs to have things to do. They don't just sit around the house watching TV."
Before long, people were watching child actor Yelchin on TV and then his breakout big-screen role opposite Anthony Hopkins in 2001's "Hearts in Atlantis."
Yelchin's career over the past decade would be the ideal of almost any child actor trying to make the transition to adult roles. His credits include impressive parts in such indie films as "Alpha Dog," ''Fierce People" and "Charlie Bartlett," along with a role in the short-lived TV series "Huff."
The last two years alone, Yelchin's resume ranges from "Star Trek" and another huge sci-fi franchise with "Terminator: Salvation" to the vampire romp "Fright Night" and a voice role in "The Smurfs" to personal stories such as Mel Gibson's "The Beaver" and "Like Crazy," which earned the top prize at last winter's Sundance Film Festival.
"What's great about him is he can do anything. He's a chameleon. He can do bigger movies or smaller, more intimate ones," said "Like Crazy" director Drake Doremus. "There are a lot of people who can't, who can only do one or the other. And he's only 22 years old. That's what blows my mind."
In "Like Crazy," Yelchin stars as Jacob, an aspiring furniture designer in southern California who falls into a passionate romance with Anna (Felicity Jones), a Londoner studying at the same college.
The two are an ideal match, but they're forced apart after Anna overstays her student visa and is unable to return to the United States. Years of on-again, off-again long-distance romance follow with Jacob's occasional visits to London. The two take up with other lovers and build professional lives 6,000 miles apart, all the while trying to figure out how to reunite for good — and whether they'll still be suited for one another if they do.
Aiming for authenticity, Doremus and his co-writer prepared detailed back stories on the characters but did not do a conventional screenplay, leaving the dialogue to develop naturally among the actors through a week of rehearsal and improvisation during the monthlong shoot.
Jones had seen none of Yelchin's previous work before, and she was glad for that once they began filming.
"For this type of film, I didn't want to have too many preconceptions about him, and so as I'm meeting him as Felicity, so are Anna and Jacob just getting to know each other. We didn't even meet before we were cast," Jones said. "So it felt we as the actors were going on a journey as the characters were."
The result is a heartbreaking chronicle of stymied love filled with moments of raw honesty that are very specific to the characters, yet represent emotions universal to relationships.
"Even I could relate to it, watching it myself," Yelchin said. "I remember with my ex-girlfriend, when we broke up, you remember the first time you slept together, you remember the first drink you had together. You remember the dinners you had, seeing your first movie together.
"You remember everything and it's just perfect, and you look at yourself now, and you look at the other person now, and they're just not there anymore. There's all this baggage and weight on this relationship, and if it's at the point where it's about to crumble; it's just like a different universe that you're in. The movie has so many of those moments that ring true to people."
Yelchin stars as a clairvoyant short-order cook in the upcoming Dean Koontz adaptation "Odd Thomas," and he's preparing to reprise his role as Chekov in a "Star Trek" sequel.
"What, when and where, I have no idea. They pretty much keep you in the dark until it's time to make the movie," Yelchin said. "Whatever it may be, I'm looking forward to being with those guys again."
Yelchin shares Russian ancestry with "Star Trek" counterpart Chekov. The actor was born in Russia, where his parents were skaters before coming to the United States when their son was an infant.
He had a brief flirtation with skating lessons himself before moving on to acting class.
"They were very quick to understand that I wasn't very good at it," Yelchin said. "And they weren't going to make me do it if I wasn't good, so it automatically reverted to me being a doctor or lawyer. Because, we're Russian Jews, so naturally, what does your kid do? He goes to law school or he goes to med school."
He said it took his father a little time to accept his career choice. "He still wanted me to apply to college and stuff, and I did. But this is what I wanted," Yelchin said.