[This character] tested me more than any of the rest. I left a large piece of myself in Montana. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that piece back, but that’s where it belongs.
“Everybody gets cancer in Anaconda,” one character matter-of-factly observes in Annabelle Attanasio’s confident debut feature Mickey and the Bear. For a long time, the small town of Montana (where the film was also shot) had a mineral-processing plant generating hazardous waste, and cancer simply became a fact of life. In Anaconda, it’s also not unusual to see military veterans stumbling out of the town’s two bars at an ungodly hour. The unbearable pain that many veterans face from their wartime past, nor the scars people carry with them after losing loved ones to cancer, isn’t hard to imagine, but it’s rendered terrifyingly real in James Badge Dale’s devastating portrayal of a man soaked in tragedy.
Part coming-of-age drama, part inherited trauma study, Mickey and the Bear is the story of a fractured yet codependent father-daughter relationship spiraling out of control. Mickey (Camila Morrone) is about to turn 18 with high school graduation fast approaching. She yearns for her hard-won independence, too long tethered to the responsibilities of taking care of Hank (Dale), her alcoholic, opioid-addicted, war veteran father struggling with PTSD. To make matters worse, Mickey’s mother succumbed to cancer some time ago, which weighs heavily on both of their minds. She’s now accountable for taking care of pa every time he’s arrested or when he passes out from drinking himself to oblivion. She shoulders their financial burden with a part-time job at a taxidermy studio, maintains their double-wide, tends to Hank’s night terrors, and moderates the OxyContin that keeps him on an even keel, if you can even call it that. It’s a sampling of all that Mickey tolerates, and all that she has sacrificed. He’s an unbearable weight upon her. Hank, in his inebriated fogs, has even begun to mistake Mickey for his late wife. She is, among all her other roles, a toehold on reality for Hank. Mickey is encouraged to save herself by Dr. Watkins (Rebecca Henderson), a sympathetic Veterans Affairs psychiatrist who fears for her future given Hank’s deteriorating condition at home. Mickey also senses some liberating potential in the presence of new classmate Wyatt (Calvin Demba), a Brit émigré who sparks mutual romantic interest and soon becomes her main confidant. She dreams of seeing the ocean for the first time, and although she has applied to college in San Diego, it’s a prospect she considers far-flung at best. “I’m not going anywhere,” she insists, a fathomless ache burning in her eyes. Any such move would have to be weighed against the impact on Hank, who’s totally unequipped to manage without her. No easy redemption or pat melodrama is to be found in Attanasio’s movie.
The always reliable Dale is perfectly paired with Morrone, making Hank alternately frightening and pathetic, harmless and self-harming. His mood swings are arbitrary even beyond the effects of the cocktail of substances he has last abused, and although his hair-trigger belligerence is becoming his default mode, we see glimmers of his megawatt charm. It’s to Dale’s credit that such a poor parental figure should earn our empathy. Maybe Mickey can start a new life somewhere else, somewhere close to the ocean, somewhere she can forge a new path, somewhere Hank won’t be. Separately and together, Dale and Morrone piercingly convey the ways a father and daughter can love each other and lose each other—and wish there were some other way to live.
Mickey and the Bear opens exclusively at Film Forum in NYC on November 13, at Landmark’s NuArt in LA on November 22, and in theaters nationwide on November 29.
It feels like a few lifetimes ago since we last talked. At the time, you had been shedding a lot of weight to play a cancer patient in Flight. I remember you telling me you’d been eating like a bird, and quite miserable.
Yes, I’ve recovered. Thanks for asking. [laughs]
In that movie, you talk to Denzel’s [Washington] character about luck versus fate, God, being present in your life, and how we take things for granted. Your character from Flight should share some of that wisdom with Hank in Mickey and the Bear. He could use it.
Oh man, I totally I agree. I think they would have a wild night together.
Annabelle [Attanasio] has repeatedly talked about how we, the viewers, are experiencing Hank’s trauma and addiction through his daughter, but you’re obviously playing him—living it. What was your entry point? He has a lot going on.
Annabelle wrote a very complex script. The dynamic between Mickey and Hank is very full and it goes in a lot of different directions. When you lose a parent in a household and it becomes two people, there’s this strange role reversal that begins to happen. Hank obviously becomes very unstable and is continuing to do so. Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, Hank is my worst fear of what I could become or my family members could become or friends of mine. There’s a lot of personal experience that I think we all try to bring to our work, and also in the history of the work that I’ve done I’ve worked with a lot of people in the military. I’ve worked with a lot of guys who’ve had certain experiences and are dealing with head injuries when they come home to the United States.
Speaking of the role reversal that happens between Mickey and Hank, I think I was most struck by that: Their respective oscillations between traditional masculine and feminine roles. Because their circumstances have changed and due to their codependency, they allow each other to cross certain boundaries where Mickey becomes the wife and mother to Hank’s husband and son. As strange and perhaps disturbing as that might seem, it’s not hard to imagine why and how that happens.
It absolutely happens. I think the beauty of what Annie wrote is that it happens organically. I don’t think anything’s been pushed, you know? There was this kind of, I don’t want to say a magical element to it—the script was alive. Then when we got on set, everything just started between Cami [Morrone] and I very naturally, very organically, and it started to take on a life of its own. I think for all of us, the entire crew included, it just became a special film to work on.
Mickey is on a constant tightrope and we never know when Hank will cut the cord again. In terms of your approach to conveying that suspense on screen with Camila, do you sometimes want to surprise your acting partner without going over all the choices you intend to make?
We played around a lot. Here’s the thing about Cami: She’s so well prepared, and then she shows up to work and throws it all away. She has the ability to play very vibrantly. She’s very impressive. I like to play around so sometimes I wouldn’t tell Cami what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t tell Annie what I’m doing. I might rehearse it one way—actually, I don’t even like to rehearse. Look, roll the camera through rehearsal. Why even waste a moment? Something magical might happen. You just never know so it’s a constant exploration. I might sit in it and do two takes one way and then do another take another way and then throw Cami a curveball on the fourth, and she would do the same thing to me. Our scenes never dropped. It was one of the best acting experiences I’ve ever had. That girl is a professional and she can swing with anybody.
I was wowed by her, and this was the first time I’d seen her in a movie. She’s really incredible and I think you guys played off so well together. There’s this moment in the movie where Mickey asks the psychiatrist, “Is he ever gonna get better?” and she replies, “No.” We’re so used to hearing something encouraging, even if it’s a lie. But there’s no hesitation there. Her answer is firm. How did you feel about that kind of death sentence being thrown down on your character?
It’s a really hard thing to hear, but that’s the way that all of us wanted to approach it. This is not the story of like, “If she stays, it might all work out and he gets better.” What she’s dealing with is a circumstance where he’s not gonna get better. For me, I wanted to set up this world where he’s had a certain amount of brain trauma. This is beyond just his opioid addiction and his alcoholism. There is a world of him just going to a rehab and sobering up and everything’s gonna be better with him, but he’s also suffered traumatic brain injuries. If you look at the world of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], you see it in our men and women in the service and we see it in athletes. The brain is very, very soft and it’s a delicate instrument. It can only take so much. So that doesn’t get better. The emotional problems that come after that is scary and people need to talk about it a little bit more.
What’s so heartbreaking about it, too, is that Hank is totally aware that something isn’t right with him. He wishes for things to be different. This line is potent and powerfully played when Hank snaps in the most volatile way imaginable, screaming, “Where is my fucking life?!” It’s so tragic. Where does this character fall in the wide spectrum of dark characters you’ve portrayed in your career?
[laughs] I do have a bit of a wide spectrum of ‘em, you have a point. Hank tested me more than any of the rest. Hank taxed me more than I ever imagined. I left a large piece of myself in Montana. We all gave a lot to this film. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that piece back, but that’s where it belongs. I love this job. I love filmmaking. I love storytelling. I love going in and giving to it. So you give that piece up and go off and try to recreate yourself. This honestly has been one of my favorite filmmaking experiences of my life.
I was unfamiliar with Anaconda, Montana prior to Annabelle opening a window to the place. It’s my understanding that there’s a dense veteran population out there. What observations did you make about the place and the people there that maybe tied back into the film’s central themes and also informed your character more specifically?
Yeah, we shot in Anaconda and everyone stayed there. I made the choice to go about 45 minutes up more to the mountains to a town about 800 people. I needed the isolation. The place where I stayed had a very high veteran population and I got to know a lot of them. Those were my guys. Everyone else would get off work and go hang out together as a film crew, but I would go back to my town and hang out with my guys: ranchers, bartenders, veterans… Really, what I found they were looking for was some peace in life. They were struggling with this internal thing, this mental thing. This is from the people that I’ve hung out with in Montana: “Listen man, we have the highest suicide rate per capita.” Veterans moved there en masse because of the freedom, because of the quiet, because of the isolation. There is a level of beauty there and peace that they’re afforded, and this could be anywhere. This could be upstate New York, this could be Texas, you know what I mean? It’s not a Montana problem. The winters can be really rough. The time alone can be really rough. Also, it’s that feeling that it can’t get any better, if we go back to that question of, can you get better? I also just want to say, it’s a rough moment in this film. This is just Hank’s situation. A lot of people can get better. I can get better. You can get better. Tyson Fury, the heavyweight champion of the world, who has come out in the last three years and talked about his struggles with mental illness, his struggles with depression, his struggles with drugs and alcohol abuse, is inspirational. He’s out there and talking about it. He’s a living example that if you go out there and put in the work, yes, you can recover.
The dichotomy between familial obligation and self-preservation is something we can all understand. Without spoiling anything, how do you personally feel about the way the film leaves us in the end?
[laughs] I’m sorry I’m laughing, it’s because that was one of the hardest moments of filming this. Listen man, I come to work and try to keep things light. I do take work home with me and the circumstances of this film could be dark and wears you down. So when I show up to work I don’t want to stay in that place. You’re fighting to keep it light. You’re fighting and Hank is constantly fighting to get out of his head. So you do the antithesis, go in the other direction. Cami was always fighting to make it work. Mickey is always fighting in this movie to make it work, to make it work, make it work. But the circumstances have been written, the script has been written. So as much as we’re there every day trying to keep it light and make it work and make these people connect, the words that are coming out of your mouth and what is going to happen at the end of that scene is what is going to happen. We shot the climax of this film for, I think, three or four days. We scheduled it out so that we could shoot the climax basically in order. The last day of filming we shot completely in order until 4 AM, and it was on that last day of filming where I was sitting there and realized just how dark this is. We experienced it in realtime.
It must be a great gift to be able to shoot the climax last so there’s an organic build up in the preceding days, weeks. I bet you’re rarely afforded the opportunity to do that.
Never. I’d never seen that before. It’s one of the rarest things. It doesn’t happen like that.
The last time we talked, you told me how even when you try to go after the lighter roles the dark ones seem drawn to you. Do you still find this to be true all these years later?
Yes. [laughs] I’m trying though, man! I haven’t given up the fight. I’m still trying. The truth is though, I just want to make it clear, I have a lot of fun at work. My reputation is not someone who shows up to work who’s dark and gloomy, you know? I show up to work and I have a good time. Maybe there’s an animated film in my future.
Back then, you had been wanting to do a western and about to dive into The Lone Ranger, which would tick that particular box. Is there anything as specific as another genre that you’re keen on exploring moving forward?
I can tell you what I don’t want to do: Movies on submarines. That sounds like a nightmare to me. I like to be outside. I like to do different things. I’ve been doing this for so long, I feel like I’ve done so many things that I really dreamed about doing. I was a huge fan of Star Wars growing up… You almost get into this world where you just want to work with interesting people and good people, and walk away with that experience. I just wrapped a film last week. I don’t know what’s next. We’re going to open up Mickey and the Bear and I’m gonna take some time to really sit down and think about what I want to do next.
Like most great actors, you have a theater background as well. Do film or TV sets ever replicate the feeling of theater where everything’s very centered around performance, or do they always feel distinctly divorced from each other? I’ve also come to learn that Annabelle comes from the world of acting so maybe she invites that kind of environment.
Film and theater are completely different because film is a visual medium. The closest I’ve ever come to just the element of what happens on stage on a film was when I worked on Steve McQueen’s Shame. It’s when you get into these positions where he would just lock off a camera on a lot and he would come up to me and [Michael] Fassbender and be like, “Improv the whole thing,” and we’re doing a seven-page scene. He’s like, “No, I hate this dialogue. You do it.” You don’t have the benefit of a cut point. You don’t have another camera there. There’s this thing in film where if you and I’m going and I mess up or you mess up, we can stop and take a beat and go back because it’s all edited together. What Steve McQueen was doing was this thing where it’s not edited. What you see is what you get. Then he’d come up to you the next day and it’s completely different. Then another day he now wants something completely different again. So that had a bit of that live performance feeling to it. You always want to be present with the other person, you’re always trying to play, and you’re always trying to find this moment that is original. Annie really tried to do that on this film. We really played with this element of an unpredictable nature. Cami really has that ability to be unpredictable, and I’m a maniac. I’m all over the place, man. I’m a script supervisor’s worst nightmare. But Annie trust us and let us play. Annie is a fantastic actress, too. You should see this short she made. This is why I wanted to do this film. I had seen this movie she did called Frankie Keeps Talking. It’s a short film she directed, wrote, and acted in. She was fantastic. This woman is a very special talent.
Since you bring up Shame, you had gone out of your way to make Michael Fassbender laugh on that movie. This goes back to you talking about bringing some levity to a set pervaded by dark material. That’s important to you.
Yeah, and I want to be clear about it: I was trying to crack him while we were filming. I wanted to make him laugh on camera because his character was so stoic. It’s like, could I do something that he did not see coming? Could I pull it off where I can crack this guy on camera? That’s not to ruin the scene, that’s almost making it so alive, you know what I mean? Can I be that unpredictable? That happens in a scene and you just gotta laugh at it. I’ve seen it in other actors who’ve done it to me where you’re just sitting there and you’re doing the scene and you just watch this totally unplanned, instinctual moment unfold. I burst out laughing in the middle of the take just out of pride for that other actor for doing that. At the end of the day, I really do love actors and I love what we do and I love the vulnerability it takes to actually put yourself in that circumstance.
It’s like those rare moments where people break on SNL. It’s live, you roll with it. One person breaks, everyone breaks. Those are the funniest moments you’re ever gonna get on that show.
Right? Yes! Absolutely. You totally get it. You totally get it.