He’s played the iconic Vulcan Spock in two Star Trek flicks and some seriously scary guys in Heroes and American Horror Story: Asylum. But Zachary Quinto’s latest role is a bit of a departure for him.

In NBC’s eight-part contemporary ensemble drama The Slap (Thursdays at 8/7c beginning tonight), based on a novel and an Australian series of the same name, Quinto plays a hothead named Harry. When he strikes another couple’s misbehaving kid at a barbecue, it sets off emotional fireworks that divide his family and friends—including Thandie Newton, Peter Sarsgaard, Uma Thurman and Melissa George.

Quinto discussed his roles past, present and future when we caught up with him recently in L.A.

“I like to provoke, I like to hold a mirror up to the audience. And I like for them to take responsibility for their feelings and their thoughts and their beliefs.”

What drew you to The Slap?
I was thrilled to get the opportunity to do this. I’ve known Robbie [Baitz, the series’ writer] for years. I’m a big admirer of his work. And I was happy to come back to NBC in this capacity. It feels kind of full circle in a way, and something that I could really sink my teeth into. I’m drawn to things that invite an audience in, and light a little bit of a fire to generate some discourse, dialogue, debate. It doesn’t give the audience the answer. There’s no clear-cut point of view with this story, and I like that. I like to provoke, I like to hold a mirror up to the audience. And I like for them to take responsibility for their feelings and their thoughts and their beliefs.

As the perpetrator of the slap, you set the story in motion.
Yeah, it’s the inciting incident, but there’s so many other things that are happening, so many other levels of complexity in each of these characters that they all have their own epicenter of disaster in their lives. And the slap might seem like the most controversial action here, but it’s not necessarily. There are other really complicated emotional and behavioral decisions that these characters make. The event is a launching point, but what you’re going to see is very little black and white and a lot of gray.

You’ve done science fiction, with Spock, and played some pretty evil guys on TV. Does that influence what you choose next?
I really make declarations about what I want to do based on what I’ve done. To do Heroes and have this very archetypal villainous, supernatural genre world and character was a great thing, and it sent me on this kind of trajectory, which was then reinforced to a certain degree by playing Spock. And then I wanted to get away from the genre landscape, so I started to cultivate opportunities like Margin Call. And then American Horror Story brought me back to that a little bit.

So it’s an ebb and flow for me. Obviously, Harry is arguably the villain of this series, but in a very human way. It’s a world that was not elevated or supernatural or science fiction. This is a very human world. Now that I’ve had the opportunity do that, I feel a sense of closure on this villainous aspect of my persona. So I’m really looking forward to a future of varied opportunities. Some lighter fare.

I Am Michael, which is about religion and homosexuality, isn’t exactly light.
No, but I really liked the script. I really liked writer-director Justin Kelly’s perspective, and I liked what the character that I play represents in the film, which is integrity and grounded-ness and authenticity and acceptance of who he is. And those are all qualities that I strive for in my own life, so I thought those parallels were apt.

What about Hitman: Agent 47?
We shot that movie primarily in Berlin, which is arguably my favorite city in the world. So the fact that I got to work on something that was really dynamic and exciting and also be in this place that is really unique and inspiring to me was probably the coolest part of that experience.

Do you think you’ll get back to American Horror Story at some point?
I don’t think so. There are certainly no plans as of now. But we’ll see.

What’s the latest on the next Star Trek?
It’s coming, but I’m focusing on other things until I know exactly when and where and what we’re doing.

Do you want to direct too?                                                                        
I do, yeah. I’m trying to find the right project. I’ve got to figure out what I want to say. I have ideas. I’m working on all that stuff.

What are you proudest of so far?
I’m proudest that I get to do what I love, and that I have found a real foundation of happiness in my life and fulfillment, surrounded by people that I love. I feel fortunate all around.

Photo by Jeff Riedel/NBC