You stop when you start hurting other people. You stop when you're putting your own life at risk.
Scott Haze’s infinitely-curious mind and lack of inhibitions are bringing to the fore his down-for-anything reputation, particularly when it comes to his exploits with longtime pal and frequent collaborator James Franco. For Franco’s recent experimental art project The Animal, the pair and a crew of models stripped naked, slathered their bodies in paint and played dodgeball. This August, Haze takes on the role of Lester Ballard in Child of God, Franco’s film adaptation of the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel. Playing a violent, feral pariah living far outside the social order in rural Tennessee, Haze graphically defecates onscreen, nearly bites the head off a live quail, and repeatedly beds a female corpse—he goes there. Having methodically prepared for the role by spending over three months in self-imposed isolation inside a cave while losing 45 pounds subsisting on apples and fish, this is a performance signaling the makings of a megastar.
The Dallas-born, 33-year-old thespian honed his skills primarily through stage work writing, directing, and acting in shows at venues like L.A.’s Playhouse West, where he studied with Franco. In 2006, Haze founded and built North Hollywood’s Sherry Theater, which he named after his mother and shaped into a home for daring, offbeat productions. The theater is giving him, a rising talent himself, the unique opportunity to foster other up-and-comers. Meanwhile, Haze’s career is action-packed enough to rival Franco’s own indefatigable habits. He previously starred in Franco’s directorial translations of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, he’ll appear in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special opposite Michael Shannon, and with what little time he has left, Haze trekked through Kenya to complete a documentary on Charles Mulli, a rags-to-riches humanitarian who’s helped more than 7,000 street kids, many of whom lost their parents to AIDS.
When this material first came to you, were you more fearful or excited about what would be expected of you?
Both came at different times. I felt introspective, asking myself, what am I getting myself into here? When I first read the novel, I weighed about 200 pounds in muscle. I’d worked hard to get strong for this last movie I did. I had a shaved head. I had to lose a lot of weight and go through this whole process, but I knew this was my story, the story of Lester Ballard. I think a lot of me not wanting to drop the ball anywhere informed my decision to leave Los Angeles for Tennessee. There was no way I’m preparing for this role in Los Angeles. I took an actress out there to work on massive amounts of the novel while the scripts were coming in. I shot every scene at least three times. I learned how to shoot a rifle, how to talk like that, and how to sit like he sits. And I didn’t think I would stay. I didn’t think I would go isolate myself, but it was in me now. I had several free months because the shoot got pushed back. This was winter during Christmas time, so I stayed in a cabin, but then realized caves are warmer. That’s why people stay in caves during times of war. As this kept evolving, I stuck to my diet and wondered, what if this was my life?
Where do you draw the line? When does it become all too real?
You stop when you start hurting other people. You stop when you’re putting your own life at risk. I don’t think you need to do drugs to play a drug addict. I don’t think you need to cut your own body to play a cutter. I don’t think you need to start throwing up to play a bulimic. I believe that there were only certain instances when I was in real danger in the cave and those were when animals were around.
Did you ever want to stop?
[Pause] There was one night. Two nights… There was an animal outside and I didn’t know what it was. Then you get scared.
You obviously kept going.
It’s crazy because what if I wasn’t awake then? There was something big outside.
When you go to such lengths for a role, taking this plunge into total darkness, is it difficult to shed the character once it’s over?
This one was really hard because I’d never committed half a year, or even longer, to doing so much. When James yelled “cut!” there were those days where I’d go, we can’t do reshoots. There’s no way I’m going back to that and giving that performance. I could do it, but it wouldn’t be the same. To come out of it, I would just have to order pizza, watch basketball, and chill. I’ve had enough. I’d think, please, God. Don’t lose those files. Don’t lose that film, please.
How involved was James during your crazy prep? He’s a friend and a fellow actor so he might understand what you’re trying to do, but he’s also your director.
He didn’t know what I was doing! He actually tells stories about the first time he saw me at the hotel. He says he opened the door and felt like there was Gollum in there. [Laughs] He was completely shocked. He had this smile from ear-to-ear, but he was also dumbfounded. He was staring at me like I’m a creature in this dark hotel room. When I put the teeth in, he went crazy.
Reading about your past, not exclusive to your climb up the industry, this down-for-anything attitude is a constant. Where did it come from?
That’s one thing I want to think about, even 10 years from now, if I talk to people or if they meet me. Kee, like you! Anything you want to do, I believe that you can do it. Life is short, so why not go after something fully and commit to it wholly? If you want to be an actor, director, whatever, just go. Figure out a way to make it happen. Just get it done, man. That’s what my theater affords me now. If I want to do anything, I can do it. Your dream is real and you’re important. You don’t want to act? Amazing. Have the family you want and love it, and love life. We’re only here for a minute, then we’re dead and gone. What really matters is how we choose to live our lives and the impact we can have on others. That’s hopefully what cinema can do in a big way, or at least make us feel connected to something. With Child of God, everybody knows what it’s like to not belong. Everybody has felt judged. I know I did. There are certain things about Lester I immediately related to. There are things about Lester that’s so far over there that I went to Tennessee.
You and James seem like-minded. He seems free-spirited and puts his hands on everything.
He has changed a lot. When I first met him, he was a very serious actor. We became really close friends 6 or 7 years ago, but we’ve known each other for over 10. We were acquaintances the first few years where I saw his work and he saw my work, and we had mutual friends. I was kind of crazy back in the day. I know he thought I was really crazy. [Laughs] He thought I was a wild man, while he himself was disciplined and strict. He evolved into what he is now. He wasn’t happy with his life and did something about it. He said screw everything and went to school because that’s what he wanted to do. Now he does whatever he wants to do and I think he’s happy. There was a time I know he wasn’t. I know he’s happy now and it’s good to see that. I’m happy now, too. You don’t have to somehow think that being an actor is about being a tortured artist. I think it’s the complete opposite of that. You don’t need to do that stuff. So, becoming Lester wasn’t about that stuff, it was just what this role needed. For me.
You’ve certainly gone on the record to say that James helped you out of a dark time in your life. Do you ever go into the details surrounding that?
There’s not much to say other than I was going through a hard time and he was the friend that was there for me. He was the guy that I called who picked up the phone and we talked through stuff. In fact, James was a friend that stepped into my life and impacted my life in a way that changed it forever on a personal level. More than anything, when I say I’m grateful for James, it’s on a personal level. It has nothing to do with this other stuff. I’m thankful for our collaborations and his faith in me as an actor, but, as my friend, he’s the guy who was there for me.
When you’re that close as friends, how does that affect the working process?
It’s cool because it’s all about, where can we go together now? We do this movie, we do a play, we have other movies coming out, we do an art project… We just do a lot of stuff and there’s an excitement about that. We’re going back to the concept of group theater where acting is literally done in groups, except we’re doing it in cinema. I trust James and James trusts me. He knows I’ll work hard and I know he’ll work hard. He’s an actor too, so he understands the actor’s situation. He did 127 Hours, so he’s been alone and he’s had his arm lopped off. Those are moments where he gets me, you know? Sometimes it’s like, dude, this sucks. This director has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s all about his shot and he has no idea that the actor needs a second to walk into it. And I’m a director, too, so I know where James is coming from. We both get it.
What else is going on at your theater in L.A.?
I’m planning on teaming up with a theater here in New York called the Rattlestick. We’re gonna start developing plays in Los Angeles that we’ll bring to New York when they’re ready, so we’ll get bicoastal. We also put on film festivals where aspiring artists are given the opportunity to have their works seen. I’ll bring in a jury of agents, managers, distributors, and people in general so that these young filmmakers who don’t normally get the opportunity to be seen have the exposure that I’ve been able to have. They’ll get their shot, man.
There’s this cool quote I stumbled on recently. Kevin Spacey said, “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.” That’s essentially what you’re doing.
That’s a great quote!
The theater was named after your mother. Has she seen Child of God?
Yeah. She’s from Texas and she lives there now. She didn’t come out to Venice or Toronto, so she came up when the movie went to the Austin Film Festival.
What was her reaction?
She was just blown away. But she was concerned when I was living alone and nobody knew where I was. She’s like, “Oh my god… What’s my son doing now?” [Laughs]
From what I know about you, you were a cinephile before the acting came along. What were some of the movies that got your attention and the actors that you gravitated towards?
You know what’s funny? Travis Bickle was one of the major roles that I loved as a kid. De Niro and Taxi Driver were huge influences on me. Do you remember the scene in Child of God where I shoot the stuffed animals? That was all done improv in one take. It’s not in the script or the book, and we did it because I developed a relationship with the stuffed animals. James was like, “are you ready for the ‘you talkin’ to me?’ moment?” I was like, what are you talking about? James goes, “you’re going to kill your friends now. You don’t have any lines. You’re just gonna do it because you don’t trust them anymore.” I lived it up and that’s what you get. That whole sequence made the movie. I loved playing Lester. I love it all, man. I don’t take any of this for granted, which is why I want to take “the elevator back down” to the people back home.
Ultimately, what did you take away from Lester? How are we supposed to feel about him?
On a core, fundamental level, we’re all alike. You and I’m really no different. My father died young. Lester’s father died young. Imagine and go back to the days with no cellphones, where you have no money, no way of meeting people because you’re living alone in the woods. Then you come across this beautiful dead girl. Environmental circumstances affect the brain differently. When you’re isolated, you still need stimuli, which is why you talk to yourself. I don’t know what people would do in real life, but at least, maybe, they’d stop and be like, “that’s a beautiful girl.” What you do next, I don’t know. This is someone who doesn’t ever see girls around. Nobody’s ever loved him and he just wants a friend. I think those are the things to take into consideration. I think that’s what everybody can connect with. That’s one thing I wanted to get across.