Lou Taylor Pucci entered the cultural conversation with his breakout role as a 17-year-old thumbsucker in Mike Mills’ feature film debut in 2005. After picking up the Silver Bear at Berlinale and the Special Jury Prize at Sundance that year, the previously unheard-of actor, who admits to being more interested in characters than celebrity and prefers camping to traveling the party circuit, has continued to serve his time in the world of independent film. A chameleon in every sense of the word, the 25-year-old seems disinterested in exploiting a formula once it’s proven successful, which has allowed him to maintain a sense of newness over the years.
In 2011, Pucci makes another breakthrough with The Music Never Stopped, which unspooled for the first time at Sundance in January. Loosely based on the case study of “The Last Hippie” by Oliver Sacks, the film chronicles the journey of Gabriel (Pucci), a 37-year-old who wakes up from a coma in a near catatonic state and unable recall or form any long-term memories. It’s through the help of Dr. Dianne Daly (Julia Ormond) and music—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead—that he’s able to reawaken his past and reconnect with his father (J.K. Simmons).
The Music Never Stopped opens this Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Kansas City.
I’ve been following your career since Mike Mill’s Thumbsucker, but it’s proven difficult to really pin you down as an actor. You’re such a chameleon.
I just like to challenge myself because I think, “What the hell else am I going to do?” I have an aversion to bullshit, you know? I don’t want to take on parts that are clichéd or do something that looks really easy to do. I’m constantly looking for roles that really pique my interest.
Did you have any reservations about working with a first-time director on The Music Never Stopped or is that a non-issue?
I’ve worked almost exclusively with first-time directors, but I don’t do that intentionally. From what I’ve heard, it’s so much harder for directors to make their second movie because, when it comes to independent films, they’re always looking for a fresh face. People are more willing to give you money if they’ve never seen you do it before as opposed to someone who’s done it and their movie wasn’t a giant success. It’s ridiculous and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it’s the logic.
You very seldom get a second chance in film. That must be so much pressure.
It must be an insane amount of pressure. It seems so crazy to me. The thought that this one person is held accountable for every mistake and everything that happens with a movie… Whew!
I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but I heard that Brad Pitt was once attached to play your character in this movie.
I heard that! Isn’t that crazy? I just found that out recently. When I first got this script in the mail, I almost shit my pants. I was like, “Oh my god. Oh my god!” [Laughs] The very next day, I went to meet with the director. It was the first and only time that I ever sold myself to anybody. They asked me if I’d be willing to start in 2 weeks,” and I was like, “Yes!” I got to play 17 and 37 in the same movie, which is the coolest shit in the entire world, but my biggest question was, “How the hell are you going to make me look 37?”
Having seen the movie, I was taken aback by how young you look in person.
I look so young! If I shave my face, I can easily pass for 18. I guess you can sort of tell from the scenes where I play 17, but they just shaved my beard for that.
You were obviously very enthusiastic about taking on this role. The director must’ve been just as thrilled to find an actor who’s willing to go the distance.
I do think that’s what really sold me to him in a lot of ways. Life really works its way out to make everything happen in the right way. That script landed on my doorstep and I couldn’t believe it. Someone had dropped out of that role and they were giving other people tries and the opportunity to meet with Jim, and that was that.
How close would you say the film is to the case study it’s based on?
It’s very close in terms of my character’s condition, but very far in terms of the whole family dynamic. The family in the film was invented in order to turn the film into a story about relationships rather than a story about a disabled person. In the film, the father is the true main character and I’m in the supporting role whereas “The Last Hippie” doesn’t talk about the father or the family much at all. The case study is very scientific as told from Oliver Sack’s point-of-view. The study was on a guy named Gary who died about 8 years ago.
You have an amazing chemistry with J.K. Simmons. What kind of preparations did you guys do prior to filming?
J.K. doesn’t like preparation very much. I think the chemistry is great because we got along so well immediately. I met him in Los Angeles and we became friends instantaneously even though we’re of 2 different age groups. We share a very similar perspective on the business and he’s just a really fun dude. I don’t think I could’ve done this film if I didn’t have a fun spirit to begin with because the humor that’s on the page had to translate onto the screen. That was probably the hardest part about taking on this role because I’m awkward-funny in real life. Comedic timing isn’t my forte and it doesn’t come natural to me. I had to learn to be comfortable with cracking jokes as if it fell out effortlessly, you know?
As much as the film focuses on a father-son relationship, it also touches on the transformative properties of music. What have been some influential songs or bands that have defined your life?
My choices are weird because I don’t listen to music often unless it’s on the radio. I don’t own an iPod. Even when I’m in a car, I drive in complete silence. I’m the type of person who doesn’t have music going most of the time whereas I find that most people, at least here, usually have headphones on when they’re doing anything. I don’t know if it’s a form of escape or if it just makes them feel more comfortable doing what they do. For me personally, I think it has to do with being comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m totally okay with being the elephant in the room where I make no sense or crack really bad jokes.
There was a band that my dad introduced me to when I was 14 or 15 called Jellyfish. I think they were big in ’93, but grunge totally knocked them out. They were like Queen-meets-the Beatles-meets-Jazz. Every single song on their album meant something to me and “Sabrina Paste and Plato” reminds me of the first girl that I had a crush on. Tenacious D is another big one that reminds me of high school—it was a huge part of my existence. To this day, when one of their songs comes on the radio, I can’t help but sing the entire album. [Laughs]
Were you into the iconic bands that are so prominently featured in the film such as Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead?
I think I only knew of Bob Dylan because of his unusual voice. With the Grateful Dead, I couldn’t pick out a single song on the radio and be certain that it was them because their songs never sound like a “song.” To quote one of the lines in the movie, “They don’t play the music, they play the air”—that’s how I feel. It feels like a river flowing when you hear their music where it comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, you know? But it was so cool to learn about them and then to actually meet them when they played at Sundance in tandem with this movie’s premiere.
Have they seen the movie?
Oh, they’ve seen it. It’s part of the reason why they decided to endorse it and why we were able to get all the music for it. It was such a big deal to get the rights to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” for instance, which is so integral to the story. That song was written into the story. It was important to get people like Bob Dylan behind the film to make it all happen.
So did you shoot the 60s scenes first?
Yeah, we shot the 60s scenes first at the house. On the very first day, we shot the scene where J.K. tries to make my character burn the American flag. That was the very first day of the shoot and I was so incredibly mad because it was so hard. When you’re working on an independent film you don’t eat when you should be eating and you don’t sleep as much as you should be sleeping, you know what I mean? To do such an emotional scene right out of the gates was a lot of pressure.
Aside from starvation and sleep deprivation, what were the biggest challenges that you faced during the course of filming?
I had to learn some guitar, which was probably one of the most challenging things given that I didn’t know how to play and didn’t care to know. My dad is actually a really good guitarist. I was always intimidated by it because it looked like he was doing magic with his fingers. It’s really hard to mimic that when you can’t play.
I’d have to agree with that. I think it’s extremely difficult to fake something like that on film and make it look believable.
Yeah! I’m going to take that as a compliment. [Laughs] That was really difficult. Another challenge was keeping my cool under the independent film pressures like not having as many takes as you’d like to work with. Thankfully, we got more takes than I’m used to on this movie.
I also want to talk about Brotherhood. It seems like you had another set of challenges with that one.
I spoke to Jon Foster recently and he told me he put you guys through hell on that movie. Did you secretly harbor any animosity towards him?
Oh, it wasn’t a secret. [Laughs] But we got him back after he hazed us. We gave him vengeance soup. I remember him knocking down our door and making us chug beer one night. A few days after Jon hazed us, I didn’t say a damn word to him and it was funny because he’s a really sensitive dude. He felt really bad because he had to be this egotistical prick to me and show all the colors of himself that really sucks. It was kind of hilarious. [Laughs] At the same time, it was my job to be insanely degraded. One night, when I was drinking with Trevor, I put a pot on the stove and started heating it. I cut up a banana and put it in there and Trevor was like, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Vengeance soup.” Then we started to concoct this mess of shit with peanut butter, beer can tops, cigarette buds, and beans—it smelled like puke when we were cooking it.
Yeah, I know. [Laughs] We knocked down Jon’s door, counted to 3 and threw this hot mess all over him. He slept in it! He went to rehearsal the next morning with beer caps attached to his neck and peanut butter oil dripping down his body. He wanted to kill us. He was so mad.
You guys were obviously running on pure adrenaline on that movie. How exhausting was it really?
It was extremely exhausting because we were working nights when it was 100-110 degrees—it was August in Texas! We shot inside a frat house with, literally, dead animals inside the walls and no air conditioning or electricity. In terms of maintaining that energy with the performances, I think that was really the director’s job. We actually made fun of him because his only note for us was to “bring it up.” We were like, “Look. We’ve been ‘bringing it up’ for every fucking scene! Can we do a down scene for a change?” He was like, “No.” [Laughs] So, we’d just get all revved up and do it again. I remember Jon saying, “I can’t bring it up anymore!” and the director would be like, “That. That right there” and they would just go right into it. You just have to catch that stuff when the emotion is there, you know? My part was fairly easy because I’m basically lying there wounded and dying. It wasn’t that difficult to figure out and I had a steady flow of beer going. [Laughs]
Where do you see yourself in 10 years, both professionally and in your personal life?
I really don’t know. I have no idea. If I could imagine the craziest dream, it would be to work with directors like Terry Gillian and Darren Aronofsky. They’re my favorite directors, but I think they would be the hardest to work with as well. I don’t think Terry really goes for newcomers very easily though. It seems like he likes to pick the craziest looking people most of the time. Darren works with the absolute best, the crème de la crème of the industry. I would love to work with those two guys.
Geographically speaking, I just want to stay outside of any major city. I live in Humboldt County in Northern California right now and my girlfriend goes to school there. Maybe I’ll have children in 10 years. Who knows? I don’t really think of my life in terms of my career at all. I’m 25-years-old now and the idea of having a family comes into play around that time. I don’t think I want it right now, but I think it’s possible. I would love to continue making money and spend it on things that it should be sent on—the necessities and on life. I love going camping and having people around me that are nice rather than dealing with all the hustle and bustle of crazy New York or Los Angeles.