Director Drake Doremus had a strong belief about what made Anton Yelchin so different from many other actors, and people.
"It's almost like he had the heart of a child, he was so present in everything he did," a distraught Doremus said by phone Sunday afternoon, hours after news broke of Yelchin's death in Los Angeles. "The thing that was special about Anton is if anyone around him got serious or frustrated, he could come up with a way to make them laugh. He was always having fun, and he wanted everyone to have fun. He never let anything get to him, even in a super-pressure-packed environment like a movie set. He was pure — what you see is what you get."
Of the many directors who worked with Yelchin over his prolific career, few had the relationship with the actor that Doremus did.
The two collaborated on "Like Crazy," the 2011 relationship drama in which principals worked off a short outline and improvised much of the film. In an unusual bid for authenticity, Yelchin and co-star Felicity Jones would travel all around Los Angeles and London, Doremus and a camera crew in tow, developing their real-life dynamic in tandem with their on-screen one.
"You could go to school for an entire lifetime to learn all the techniques and still not have what Anton had," Doremus said. "There's a moment when we were shooting in London at an old cemetery — it's strange to think of that location now — and the camera just followed them for 20 minutes. Anton didn't say a word. He didn't have to. You just knew what he was getting across."
Yelchin died after what appeared to be a freak car accident in his own driveway. The news shook Hollywood, which, though no stranger to loss, was jolted by the specter of a 27-year-old in the prime of his career suddenly gone.
It especially shook people like Doremus because of Yelchin's talent and, maybe more important, his likable and down-to-earth manner, a characteristic widely known to reporters who covered the film business too.
Doremus and Jones spoke earlier today, the two trying to come to grips with the sudden death of their friend and collaborator. They had come to know Yelchin well as they explored the film's characters and its themes of lost love. "Like Crazy," which is as much about regrets and hard-won wisdom as youthful passion, was very much a reflection of Yelchin's sensibility and thoughts, a feat made more impressive given that he was just 21 when he made it.
"Anton had so many different ideas. He was such an old soul," Doremus said. "I felt like there was a 50- or 60-year-old person inside him who had lived so much life and had such an understanding of love and relationships and was able to attack it from such a mature angle."
The director added, "He allowed himself to be vulnerable. Whether he failed or succeeded, it didn't matter. It wasn't about the end product. It was about the exploration."
Doremus and Yelchin enjoyed a close relationship long after their work together stopped. The pair spoke as recently as last week. Often, after Yelchin had seen a movie, he would want to share his enthusiasm and would email Doremus. "He'd send me these page-long or even two-page-long email messages that would break down what he saw and how he felt about it. It was so exciting to get them, though you'd feel dumber because you didn't see all the things he saw."
Doremus also described a feverish work ethic that he speculated might have come in part from Yelchin's status as a first-generation immigrant. He said that roles such as "Like Crazy" and posthumous releases including "Star Trek Beyond" and the New England-set family drama "We Don't Belong Here" would help people understand what was lost.
"Anton will always alive through everything he did," Doremus said.
Then realizing anew that he was talking in the past tense, Doremus choked up.
"It's just impossible to imagine he's gone, with so many great performances still in him. He changed my life in so many ways; I'm a different person today because of him. How many people have that power?"