Anton Yelchin‘s career in Hollywood still resonates with fans on what would have been the actor’s 31st birthday.
Yelchin, who was born on March 11, 1989, and tragically died in June 2016 at 27, had memorable roles in the Star Trek franchise as well as independent films Like Crazy and The Beaver.
The actor’s parents, Irina and Viktor, have kept his legacy alive with the 2019 documentary Love, Antosha, which featured some of his former costars such as Chris Pine, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence and Zoe Saldana remembering Yelchin.
The Yelchins spoke to PEOPLE about the loss of their only child in August 2019, revealing they began each day in the same way: by visiting their son’s grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
“Our days start from Hollywood Forever,” Irina told PEOPLE at the time. “Victor goes first, then I come and switch.”
Anton died in June 2016 when his Jeep rolled backward and pinned him to the driveway gate of his Los Angeles home.
Irina also admitted that while they have “better days, when I’m not crying as hard,” she said, “no day goes by when I’m not crying.”
The Yelchins say that they are always on the lookout for signs from their son. “Anton sends us signs, truly,” Irina said. “He always drew hearts and there was a cloud shaped exactly like one of his hearts in the sky two days ago. But he is with us absolutely, when we see something like that, or birds singing through the night in the dark, [those kinds of] signs.”
Anton was born in Leningrad, Soviet Union, in 1989, roughly two years before the city became St. Petersburg, Russia, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. His parents were famous pair figure skaters who reached celebrity status in Russia as stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet for 15 years.
But despite their popularity and relative wealth, Irina and Viktor fled Russia to make a better life for their son. When Anton was 6 months old, his parents left Leningrad with his maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother and relocated to Los Angeles, where they stayed with his uncle, Eugene.
Asked why they left their home and careers behind, both of Anton’s parents told The Los Angeles Times in unison: “Anton.” Viktor then elaborated, “We were afraid for our son. It is a very bad situation over there. I would get angry, too – I’d say, ‘Why should we have to buy things on the black market? Why should we have to stand in line?'”
The Yelchins, who are Jewish, also faced religious oppression in Russia. In 1972 they qualified for the Olympics as the third-ranked pair team in Russia but were not allowed to participate because of their religion, according to the L.A. Times. Years later, when Eugene moved to the United States and married an American woman he had met in Leningrad, the skaters were not allowed to perform outside Russia.
Moving to the United States, the Yelchins were able to find work performing, but they soon realized their Russian star power was not translating to the States. “We were stars in Leningrad, but that did not have the same meaning as here,” Viktor explained.
But their son would start down the path to fame in his family’s adoptive country from a young age. In fact, his parents had an inkling about his future career before Anton was even old enough to speak.
“Everyone here wants to make movies. My brother studied at USC and wants to direct an independent film,” Irina told the L.A. Times. “A woman came up, saw Anton, and said, ‘He’s beautiful. He will be actor.'”
Skating was never Anton’s strong suit, but his love for TV and the movies was apparent from a young age. After landing a role opposite Hope Davis and Anthony Hopkins in 2001’s Hearts in Atlantis at 11 years old, he became serious about making a career in film.
He found early success in the indie scene, appearing in films like Fierce People and House of D before landing a breakout starring role in 2007’s Charlie Bartlett. Not long after, he landed an iconic part in J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot playing Pavel Chekov.
Speaking about the transition from indie films to summer blockbusters, the actor told PEOPLE, “It’s bizarre. My past experience has been working on movies that take a month and a half to shoot. Then, suddenly, I’m there for six or seven months.”
And Star Trek was not the only mega-franchise Anton would join that year. Also in 2009, the young actor starred alongside Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation as Kyle Reese.
“I look at them as really interesting, great characters,” he told PEOPLE at the time. “Both of these characters – Chekov and Kyle Reese – are challenges because they have been these iconic, previous characters and previous performances that were great, and that established this legacy.”
One of those previous performers, Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in the TV series, offered Anton some advice. “He came on set after I had, thankfully, finished most of my scenes. I was so paranoid to do them in front of him,” Koenig explained. “Walter said, ‘Don’t let this become your life.'” he added. “That’s perfectly understandable. With me it’s always a desire to work with different characters. This is just another character It happens to be an iconic role.”
If Koenig was worried Yelchin would become consumed by Star Trek, he needn’t have worried. The actor had too much nervous energy — something he described as “an intrinsically Russian” paranoia — to become preoccupied with any one thing.
After finishing the first Star Trek film, he told Flaunt Magazine he started a punk rock band called The Hammerheads to pass the time between scripts. “I’ve been playing music because I love what I do so much, and acting is incredibly important to me – just the involvement in it, and the sort of mental and spiritual involvement in it – when it’s not there, I need to do something that at least sort of mirrors that. Music does that in a way,” he told the magazine.
Since his death, his parents have settled a lawsuit against the makers of Jeep and are fully dedicated to honoring Anton’s memory. In addition to their participation in Love, Antosha, they started the Anton Yelchin Foundation, which supports young artists with disabilities or debilitating diseases, and Irina says she hopes to write a book about Anton in the near future.
“We have another project, a book I want to write a book about him,” Irina told PEOPLE. “A kind of memoir or biography.”
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