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"I'm tea-ing it up," Anton Yelchin said, bobbing a bag into a cupful of not-quite-hot water. It was a September morning, we were in a hotel meeting room, and his usually sweet, piping voice had been reduced to a rasp by a round of interviews, parties and dinners to promote his new film, Like Crazy, which opened in select cities on Friday.

There was a lot to talk about. Yelchin and his dewy British co-star, Felicity Jones, had improvised their dialogue in the film, with the help of their writer-director, Drake Doremus, and his co-writer, Ben York Jones. They'd started with a 50-page outline and an intense week of rehearsals, and followed it with four weeks of shooting. Their only parameters were the characters themselves. "Everything you say, you have to be sure it's your character and not you," Yelchin said. "In scripts, there's words on a page, with commas and periods – there's always someone else in there, telling the story with you. Here, you have to be that person."

Doremus, an old hand at improv – his mother, Cherie Kerr, co-founded the Los Angeles-based improvisational troupe the Groundlings, where he'd put in some time – kept the atmosphere intimate and the crew small. His director of photography shot on a Canon consumer still camera with video, which allowed him to tuck himself into corners or scurry after the actors as they roved without marks or lighting cues. Many of the takes lasted for 20 or 30 minutes, and the actors often ended up in quite a different place emotionally than the one they'd expected.

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The buzzword for their generation (Doremus, Ben Jones, Felicity Jones and Yelchin are 28, 27, 27 and 22 respectively) is authenticity, and both the low-tech process and the sharply observed story – Jacob, a Californian, and Anna, a Londoner, meet as students in Los Angeles, fall in love, slam into visa problems, and try with mixed success to keep a long-distance relationship alive via texting and Skype – were engineered to generate as much of it as possible. The bittersweet result won the Grand Jury Prize at the last Sundance Film Festival, and Jones earned a Special Jury Prize for acting.

By the time we met, then, Yelchin had been literally talking about Jacob for a year. But so earnest was his enthusiasm about the project, and so round his blue eyes as he scratchily discussed it, that it was all I could do not to throw him into the nearest bed. Not to ravish him, lord no – just to tuck in the covers, put a cool cloth on his forehead and bring him chicken soup.

I'm not alone in responding to him this way. Yelchin has been acting for half his life, since he was 11, and except for the rare TV guest spot when he played a bad seed, he's mainly cast as an innocent around whom the nastier world swirls. The combination of his angel face and affectless manner makes him a symbol of sweetness, not unlike Natalie Portman at the beginning of her career. Now he's transitioning to more adult roles, but even they tend to be nice guys – Chekov in the Star Trek reboot and its upcoming sequel; Mel Gibson's suffering son in The Beaver; the hero who knows that Colin Farrell is a vampire in the recent remake of Fright Night. He has even – God love him – voiced a Smurf, Clumsy, in this year's animated film The Smurfs.

"I think my hardest transition was from early to late teens," Yelchin said, sipping tea. "When I was 16, I didn't know how to be around women, or maintain eye contact even. I remember hearing the word 'edgy' all the time, like, 'He's not edgy enough.' I was like, 'I don't know what the eff that means.' As I got older I realized, it's confidence."

Now he loves jumping from role to role, gaining weight for Like Crazy, dropping it immediately for Fright Night, which he began filming 10 days later. "That was a mind trip," he said. "Suddenly there were marks, dialogue, 100 people instead of our 10." He did Star Trek and Terminator Salvation back to back, and considers it "the biggest compliment" that many people didn't recognize him in the latter. "I'd rather you think I'm not in a movie than think, 'That guy's the same in every movie,' " he said. "But it's the worst when you see people trying to play-act their real life. I've never had any desire to do any transforming outside of my work. I like being myself."

Yelchin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and raised in California's San Fernando Valley. His parents, a former figure-skating pair turned skating coaches, "were of the opinion that your child should be busy doing something," Yelchin said. "They tried sports with me, but it didn't work out." A friend suggested an acting class. Yelchin loved it, and soon his mother was driving him all over L.A. to auditions. "My parents sacrificed part of their lives so their kid could do what he wanted, which is really nice," he said, quickly adding, "Not just nice, it's so many things. I'm so grateful."

He sure has the bug. When he's not making movies, he's watching them, reading about them – he toyed with becoming a critical-theory student at the University of Southern California – or making them. He's been editing a project he shot on digital video, "a sort of documentary-slash-fiction, still untitled," he said. "It's a study of the effects of postcapitalist culture on people and their interactions – as consumers, and with one another – and the effects it has on your psyche and stability as a human being," he said. "Well, specifically on mine, as a person in the 21st century."

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He sees Like Crazy as an inherently 21st-century tale, too, in both the ubiquity of long-distance relationships – he recently ended one – and the fruitlessness of trying to replace human contact with the virtual kind. "It's such an easily crumbled world," he said. "Interactions crumble, understanding one another crumbles. That surrogate interaction is so shallow. Video chat is the biggest tease. You can see and hear your girlfriend, but she's not there. The worst feeling is turning video chat off, wondering, 'Have you even hung out?' "

What interests Yelchin most about Jacob's plight, he said, is "how love can deteriorate when two people are trying to recapture an ideal that's not there any more. The Greeks introduced the concept of the ideal, and it's the most dangerous concept out there, because it doesn't exist. Happily ever after is a lie. You have to work on it. Because people are not one thing. They're not simply their honeymoon-period selves, when they seem perfect. It's about being able to understand." Tea and empathy? Told you he was a sweetheart.

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