J.J. Abrams is responsible for some of the most beloved entertainment of the past two decades. He is the writer/creator of the television dramas “Felicity,” “Alias,” “Lost” and “Fringe.” He directed the feature films “Mission: Impossible III,” starring Tom Cruise; the apocalyptic thriller “Cloverfield”; and, opening Thursday, the latest installment in the science fiction franchise, “Star Trek.” Abrams is also a prolific screenwriter, whose early credits include “Regarding Henry,” “Forever Young” and “Armageddon.” He talks about his romantic side, what he has in common with Judd Apatow and why success hasn’t changed him.
Jewish Journal: What is the week before the release of ‘Star Trek’ like for its director?
J.J. Abrams: Lots of this. Lots of talking about ‘Star Trek.’
JJ: Forgive my gender jab, but I’ve always wondered how a man could create ‘Felicity,’ television’s most thoughtful female coming-of-age story.
JJA: The idea for ‘Felicity’ was really something that I thought about for a while. I loved the idea of a character who was such a romantic that she would follow this crazy sort of capricious whim and change her whole educational plan. The thing I loved about her had nothing to do with her gender. It was her romanticism.
JJ: Does this mean that you’re secretly a romantic?
JJA: I don’t think [it’s] secretly at all. My favorite movies are incredibly romantic movies and funny movies.
JJ: You may be the only person in Hollywood who has both ‘Felicity’ and ‘Star Trek’ on your IMDb profile.
JJA: Actually, I wonder if that’s true. It’s not: John Cho who plays Sulu was in an early episode of ‘Felicity.’ And Greg Grunberg’s voice appears in ‘Star Trek.’ Scott Chambliss, our production designer, also worked on ‘Felicity.’ There is that sort of ongoing group of actors and people who I’ve been lucky enough to work with again and again. It’s part of the familial experience of making movies. I try to work with the same people as much as possible.
JJ: Is that how you avoid Hollywood’s notoriously crazy characters?
JJA: There are good and bad — people who are incredibly trustworthy and those who are incredibly duplicitous, those who are kind and philanthropic and selfless, and people who are insanely myopic and self-involved, you know, ‘Machiavellian.’ It is exactly what high school is. Obviously you just try and find the people who not only do great work, but who are great to work with.
JJ: There are already 10 ‘Star Trek’ movies in existence, plus something like a half-dozen variations on the TV series. Why does the world need another ‘Star Trek’?
JJA: Well, as someone who is not much of a fan of ‘Trek’ to begin with, I frankly had no idea there had been 10 movies. I lost track of ‘Star Trek’ so long ago as a moviegoer — and I never really cared much about it either way. Quite frankly, it felt like something that had become so diffused in terms of its meaning. So when I was asked if I wanted to be involved, my reaction was ‘Oh, that’s a cool challenge.’ Let’s go back to the beginning and answer the question that I never felt was sufficiently answered, which was, ‘Why should I care about these guys?’
JJ: Isn’t this just recycling old material, rather than coming up with something new?
JJA: I’m not particularly precious about where ideas come from, as long as they’re good ideas. I never in a million years thought I would go back and do another sequel to a series of films based on a TV series. But when ‘Star Trek’ came up, I showed the script to my wife and she read it (not a ‘Star Trek’ fan), and she said ‘You have to direct this movie.’ And just for complete certainty, I also showed the script to Spielberg.
JJ: So you have a relationship with Spielberg?
JJA: Obviously he’s my idol, but he’s also become my real mentor and confidante.
JJ: Some people think you are a geek ‘starmaker’ in service of sci-fi, the way Judd Apatow is for comedy. You both tend to use the same talent over and over. Any thoughts on this comparison?
JJA: I’m a huge fan of Judd Apatow. Obviously I think he’s insanely talented and clearly he has this group of people that are loyal to him and to whom he’s loyal — in that regard, I completely relate to and respect what he does. In terms of being a starmaker, I know that a lot of times in life you have to work on what you need to do in order to do what you want to do. And, having been lucky enough to do what I’ve wanted to do for a while, it’s been a terrific thing getting to cast people who are right for the part.
JJ: In March you signed a five-year development deal with Paramount. Last week, Variety reported that as a consequence of the recent William Morris-Endeavor merger, your agent, David Lonner, would leave William Morris. Does this mean you’re officially homeless?
JJA: It’s complicated, because I have more than one agent, but I’ve been with David Lonner for more than 20 years. I’m not sure what he’s going to do or what’s going to happen.
JJ: In the trades you’re described as a ‘multi-hyphenate’ which means you wear so many hats people don’t even know what to call you. That’s a level of success in Hollywood most people only dream about. What do you still pinch yourself over?
JJA: The amazing thing is you work for years trying to write stuff that works, and then all of a sudden you get paid to do that, and what I realized was that nothing changes. I’m exactly the same goofball, I’m still sitting in the same room, I’ve got the same computer, the same thoughts in my head. I always thought when I was a kid that if I got my name on the screen I could die happy. And I think there’s a certain level of truth to that. But there isn’t a day when I don’t feel disbelief that I get to do this.
JJ: What’s been your most recent epiphany moment?
JJA: We just came back from this world tour for ‘Star Trek,’ and we went to Kuwait and showed the troops the movie. I will tell you, every country we went to, every city we were in, was another insane, impossible and surreal experience. It was a wonderful perspective shift, because I was reminded how incredible it is to get to do something that is ultimately as trivial as creating entertainment — and I’m not undercutting or demeaning the experience of making movies, I understand it’s important to people — but when you go to Kuwait and you see these people and realize what they’re doing, it’s amazing how trivial everything you do becomes.
JJ: It’s interesting that you say ‘nothing changes’ with success because there’s this strange cycle in the industry where everybody starts at the bottom and works their way to the top, but when they get there, they treat the people at the bottom pretty poorly.
JJA: I always feel like success, especially in Hollywood, just magnifies the core of who that person is. Meaning, if you’re philanthropic and you have ten dollars to give and you do, when you suddenly have a million dollars, I think that you will give commensurate with your success. I don’t think success changes people; I think success maximizes the truth.
JJ: You sound pretty levelheaded. What keeps you grounded?
JJA: Whenever I need a reminder that I’m just a lucky schmuck who gets to make movies, my wife is there to nudge me or slap the back of my head.
JJ: I don’t want to make any assumptions — because being Jewish in Hollywood means lots of different things — so I’ll just ask why people think you’re Jewish.
JJA: My name is Jeffrey Jacob Abrams — it’s a tough one to get around. My family wasn’t very religious, but I’m very proud of my heritage. My wife is Irish Catholic and it’s a fascinating thing having married someone who’s of a different religion, because you get to understand and see and respect another way of growing up and believing. That to me is interesting and healthy. I do consider myself Jewish, and I take my kids to services on holidays because that is something really important to me.