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Zachary Quinto Isn't Taking 'Star Trek' For Granted

'I have a lot more appreciation for those [tough] times,' he says of his struggling-actor days.

BEVERLY HILLS, California -- This weekend, 31-year-old [url id=""]Zachary Quinto[/url] can be glimpsed on the big screen wielding the pointy ears and razor-thin eyebrows of one of the most iconic characters in pop-culture history. On the small screen, meanwhile, a polar-opposite portrayal continues to fuel the superheroic hit "Heroes." But how has he gone from aspiring star to science-fiction icon in three short years -- and where does he go from here?

"I've been acting since I was a kid, actually," said the affable [article id="1609732"]"Star Trek" actor[/article] when we caught up with him recently. "I started when I was 11 in Pittsburgh, and then it evolved from a hobby to a serious interest to something I studied a lot to application. I've been at it now for about 20 years."

Like so many "overnight sensations," Quinto's background is littered with dozens of educational -- if long forgotten -- appearances in shows both large and small, from "Touched by an Angel" to "Six Feet Under" to the failed "Dragnet" reboot of 2004. He even portrayed an overly earnest TV director in an episode of Hilary Duff's "Lizzie Maguire."

"This is not easy," Quinto said of a career in Hollywood. "I definitely feel my level of appreciation for what's going on in my life right now is directly commensurate with the fact that it took 10 years to happen. There was a long period of time that was building something. I was balancing waiting tables with auditioning and trying to scramble a career together, and it wasn't so evident that it was leading me anywhere."

Where it did lead him, of course, was a breakthrough role in 2006 as the evil Sylar. "I pretty much think 'Heroes' changed it, in terms of exposure and identifiability with one particular role as a result of that experience. The timing of it, and how it came together, was really specific and unique," Quinto said, adding that when he landed the series he was simply hoping the producers would make him a recurring character. '"They didn't tell me [he would be the main villain for the life of the show]. There was definitely some sense he was meant to hang out for a little while. But there was a convergence between me and the writers and the audience that made it more sustainable than they expected it to be."

Based on that success, Quinto got himself into the mind of J.J. Abrams and landed the chance to live long and prosper in this weekend's eagerly anticipated film. "The [first time I heard of 'Trek'] was definitely as a kid. I remember seeing the original series in my house, flipping through it and being like 'What is that crazy [Spock] guy?' " he laughed. "Then, seeing 'Wrath of Khan,' I remember that left an indelible mark on me. It scared me, with the ear slugs and the whole deal.

"Now I have a lot more appreciation for those [tough] times and the challenges that forced me to define myself and define what I wanted to be," Quinto said, reflecting back on the days before he became a science-fiction icon. "And I always appreciate waiters. I always leave big tips -- even before any of this stuff happened. I think that is just common courtesy."

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year's ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It's up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

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