J.J. Abrams might be the hardest-working man in show business.
In addition to his myriad television projects past and present—Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, to name just a few—his production company Bad Robot, and his direction of the Hollywood blockbusters Super 8, Star Trek, and now its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, he also has partnered with the nonprofit organization the Mission Continues, founded by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens to help military veterans transition back to civilian life.
Abrams’s new film, Star Trek Into Darkness, meanwhile, sees the crew of the Starship Enterprise, including Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the gang, facing a new threat—terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). The crew must travel to the faraway Klingon home world of Kronos to capture Harrison, whose vendetta against Starfleet is deeper than anyone knows.
The Daily Beast spoke with J.J. Abrams about the the Mission Continues, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Wars: Episode VII.
What’s the “mission” of the Mission Continues?
The goal is to acknowledge that there are more than 2 million post-9/11 veterans returning to this country, and the brilliant thing that Eric Greitens recognized is the one thing these people want to keep doing is to serve. The Mission Continues’s goal is to provide these veterans with opportunities to return to their communities as the civic assets they are and to help their communities. It’s not a charity case—it’s a challenge. They’re providing veterans ways to challenge themselves to serve their communities as they’ve been trained to.
How did you get involved in the Mission Continues?
After the first Star Trek movie was made, my wife, Katie, and I talked to Paramount and said, “What if we went to Kuwait and showed the troops the film?” They could’ve easily said no, but they said, “Great!” We got to go to Kuwait and showed the film to the troops on a number of different occasions there. What was incredible was it was the first opportunity the cast and me had to see firsthand men and women serving our country overseas. It was a really emotional, inspiring thing. When I got back from the international tour for Star Trek, Katie and I were trying to find ways to continue to help troops and their families, those who were making this significant sacrifice. We met Eric and we learned about the Mission Continues and did our due diligence and checked around, and they were far and away the most exciting organization that we found, working with veterans in a way that respected them, respected their goals, and respected their skills.
And the Mission Continues has partnered up with Star Trek Into Darkness, too.
The idea of service, the idea of sacrifice—these things felt very much in line with what Star Trek was about. So when the sequel was being discussed, Katie and I schemed a way to have the Mission Continues form a partnership with the movie in a way that I don’t think movies had done before.
Historically, it doesn’t seem like the powers that be in this country make it easy for veterans to transition back to civilian life.
You’re exactly right. I would say that there are heartbreaking sets of examples one could point to to see how not to welcome back those who have sacrificed and served our country overseas. What the Mission Continues does, in simply recognizing the individual, is to see that these veterans aren’t looking for charity, to be pitied, or even to be treated as heroes—they’re looking to serve and continue to help. Whenever I’m working on a story and working through a set of problems, the best answer is one that solves two problems at once. What I love about it is it takes an often-maligned group of people that should be revered and respected, a group that is looking for their continued purpose, and it pairs that with communities that are often looking for leaders and people who know how to respond to problems. The Mission Continues serves as a bridge between those two.
Are there any war movies that you feel have done a good job of depicting the plight of the soldier?
For any one movie I would mention I’d forget three critical ones, but Paths of Glory is amazing. The first thing that comes to mind is Saving Private Ryan. Then there are movies about the heartbreak of war like The Deer Hunter. It’s hard not to think about Apocalypse Now when you think of war movies because of its crazy genius. Then there are movies that don’t really grapple with the truth of war, or the emotional heartbreak of it, and really just use it as a background for action, like Bridge on the River Kwai, which I still love.
Are we ever going to see a J.J. Abrams war film?
One of my many problems is that I’m so completely wide open and such a fan of so many different types of movies. If there was a script that happened to be set during wartime or involved war, of course I’d make a film about war.
One of the things that binds Star Trek to the Mission Continues is the series’ and the movies’ sense of camaraderie, diversity, and humanity. It’s a very integral part of the franchise.
Our movie was meant to be its own thing, since we were trying to reach a broader audience. But one of my favorite things about Star Trek—as someone who was never a fan growing up but who’s come to love it—is what Gene Roddenberry created nearly 50 years ago, and at the time it was a groundbreaking idea, but to have all of humanity, plus some non-humans, all working together in the spirit of exploration and peace. It was a groundbreaking thing. Whether it was sex, politics, race, or religion, to have all these people assuming these distinct roles and going out into the great unknown together was a powerful idea. It’s easy to write this off as fantasy, but if you’re in a unit and you’re doing a tour of Afghanistan or Iraq, that’s what it is—you’re there with people you don’t know who have different backgrounds who are sacrificing everything for this country. And those are the people who, when they come back, are not given the opportunity or respect they deserve.
One of the big themes of Star Trek Into Darkness is terrorism, and it’s what a lot of soldiers abroad are battling right now. The villain, John Harrison, is a terrorist, but he’s not a black-and-white character. Why did you decide to take on this theme?
The idea was, as much as we could, to tell a story where the bad guy was not just larger than life and not just terrifying but also oddly resonant and relevant. We didn’t strategize from the outside in to depict something that was actually happening, but we felt it feels like something that is scary to us. This was something that made us uncomfortable. So, approaching this from the view of creating a bad guy that somehow connects to the life that we live was the thing that was one of our guiding principles. [Harrison] clearly has a hyper-real backstory, but the unfortunate reality is that we’re living in a time when it’s not entirely clear where the next threat will come from and where the next act of violence will take place.
It’s also not as black-and-white as some think.
Once you get into it, you find yourself questioning not just the agenda or motivations of the person, but you find yourself questioning larger things like “What are the rules? How far should we go to prevent things like this? When do we become as dangerous as those we’re trying to stop? What happens when the rules you need to follow are immoral, or at least questionable?” There are a lot of themes that come up about loyalty, responsibility, and family in this film, and that was really interesting to me.
Speaking of responsibility, you’ve got a pretty big one coming up with Star Wars. What are your biggest fears about taking on another iconic franchise?
One of my biggest fears is talking about it prematurely, because there’s so much that’s yet to be done. But I’ll say that it’s far more thrilling and exciting than it is scary, though I’m well aware of—and feel included in with—the fan base of that series. I’m very excited about the path we’re on.
Can you be driving both the Star Trek and Star Wars cars at once?
I don’t think you can drive two cars at once, but you can appreciate other cars when you’re driving around in one car. [Laughs] In terms of Star Trek—I’m going to drop the metaphor—hopefully we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve demonstrated what the world looks like in this incarnation, and to change the metaphor, I do feel like it’s this home that was built many years ago that we’re the current tenants of and are very excited to be here. We may remodel the home a little bit, but it’s a home that we are grateful for and acknowledge that it preexisted us by decades.
Between the Mission Continues, your films, and all your TV projects, do you ever get any sleep?
The answer is yes: I’m an enormous fan of sleep. I’m not very good sleep-deprived, so I do my best. It’s much harder getting the sleep you want when you have three kids, but it’s something that we thankfully don’t have a problem with!