It felt like the floor had fallen out and there was this new dimension of film. There was this obnoxious, pre-teen feeling of excitement.
Stephen Dunn’s coming-out/coming-of-age drama Closet Monster is a deeply personal film that, while not entirely autobiographical, nevertheless proved cathartic for the Newfoundland filmmaker. “It was inspired by a sense of fear that I developed in St. John’s. I wanted to tell a story about internalized homophobia after being in that place for a time,” reveals Dunn. “The title Closet Monster is derived from my interest in making a horror film, but not in a conventional way.”
We meet Oscar Madly (Jack Fulton) as he’s about to face two life-altering events: The breakdown of his parents’ marriage—leaving him stranded at home with an emotional black hole of a father and an absent mother who goes onto start a new family—and more unsettling for the boy’s nascent sexuality, bearing witness to schoolyard bullies sodomizing a fellow classmate with a metal rod. “That’s why I keep telling you to get rid of this hair,” Oscar’s father explains, drowning our feet in the powder keg that is the young boy’s home environment, and sewing the seeds for a thorny bout of sexual confusion that’s sure to haunt any queer yearnings he might later entertain in life.
During this time, we also meet Oscar’s talking hamster, Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), who remains his confidant years down the line when we rejoin the teenage boy (now played by Connor Jessup) on the cusp of adulthood. The talking rodent is crucial to Oscar’s development. Buffy’s nurturing, if not weird, voice of reason shows how a repressed kid might want to dream up his own idea of parental support. Things come to a head when Oscar falls for a male co-worker at his hardware store job. As his sexual fantasies deepen, so do his severe psychosomatic symptoms—like visions of a metal rod violently pushing out from his gut at any hint of sexual activity.
To take us inside Closet Monster for the latest edition of This Course is the film’s 22-year-old Canadian star Jessup. The main objective of this ongoing series of food and talk is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over a late lunch at Aroma Coffee & Tea in Studio City. The fast-rising actor most recently starred in season two of ABC’s American Crime and will return to the acclaimed anthology’s upcoming third season in 2017.
Closet Monster will open in New York City on September 23 and Los Angeles on September 30.
I noticed that you’re in the middle of directing your own short film right now.
Yeah, it’s called Lira’s Forest. It’s my third short. It’s sort of a proof of concept and we’re getting our funding through a program in Canada that’s specifically set up for shorts that relate to features. It’s a self-contained short, but it’s also, hopefully, a proof of concept for a feature.
Do you see yourself abandoning acting down the line to pursue a directing career?
Not anytime soon. Acting has been kind to me and I really enjoy it. Acting introduced me to a lot of people and opened up a lot of doors. Also, I’ve been on sets since I was 10, which has given me a basic understanding of how movies work, what people’s jobs are, and just the mechanics of it that film school wouldn’t. That’s been really valuable. I also find acting increasingly lonely and isolated. I’ve acted hundreds and hundreds of days in my life and I’ve directed for like nine or ten, so it could be that directing is very shiny and new. In five or ten years, I might feel differently or go more into one for a period and come back. I don’t know… I don’t think I’ll ever abandon acting.
What do you find “lonely and isolated” about acting?
It’s just psychology, really, and self-examination. It’s a lot of sitting in rooms at night, looking at words, and trying to figure it out. You’re part of a machine and you have to do your job well and contribute to a whole. But as an individual part, it can sometimes feel a bit isolated—not when you’re in the scene and acting, obviously, but in general. It’s intangible and you often feel like you’re grasping at smoke. You often feel like the line between doing what you want and not doing what you want is so thin and impossible to see. So I find that it can get a bit frustrating. Maybe this will change, but I self-flagellate a lot when I’m acting, a lot more than when I write or direct.
You start shooting the next season of American Crime next week, right?
I start shooting on Monday. I want to do great things, and then within five minutes you’re like, “I just don’t want to be the worst part.” [Laughs] Every night you go home, you’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that went so badly. All I want is for tomorrow to go better.” There are very few moments in acting where I come home and lay in bed and smile blissfully as I look up at the ceiling, whereas that happens—not all the time, but it does happen—when I’m writing and directing. I’ve been very lucky in acting with the jobs that I’ve had and the people that I’ve worked with. It’s been so amazing. It has added so much to my life and to me, so I can’t complain.
This is an anthology series. Season three is being kept under wraps. What can you reveal?
Pretty much nothing. I can only reveal what’s been said, which is that I’m back. I look different now, as you can see. Every season is about multiple themes and this one’s no exception. I’ve read the first couple of scripts and they’re really terrific. My character in particular is used to explore the opiate epidemic in the country, especially in the South right now with drugs like oxy and fentanyl. So that’s all I can say. It’s a very different character than I’ve ever played before.
When is this set to air?
Sometime between January and March next year, I think.
What’s going through your mind right now? Monday is coming up fast.
I just want to be specific, you know? Last year, my main goal with Taylor was that he didn’t come across as another checklist of a victim. I wanted there to be more to him than that. Without revealing anything, I sort of want to do the same thing this year. And being specific is hard and overwhelming. The first week is always tough because you’re trying to get into the groove. A lot of what the character ends up being sort of emerges as you do it so there’s only so much you can plan.
How do you deal with the unpredictable nature of your job, which I think would be fair to say is extremely pronounced in acting? You don’t really know where you’ll end up.
It’s simultaneously very scary and very exciting. Sometimes people invite you to things like, “Can you come to our wedding on November 15, 2017?” and you’re like, “I’d love to?” [Laughs] If I knew for sure what I’d be doing in six months, I think it’d be a little boring. But what you take in exchange is the anxiety and fear because I could have a really good year and then have nothing for five years. There are actors that I know who are much better at it than I am, who have done everything that they’re supposed to do, and just can’t get a job. Or, when they do get a job, it’s just the worst thing. I’m learning more and more every day. You sort of have to give yourself up to it.
How old were you when you were on the show The Saddle Club?
I was 12 or 13. That was one of my first professional gigs—my first long-term job. I had done commercials and guest spots and a play. There were a couple of years with a little thing here and a little thing there until The Saddle Club, but that was every day for six months on location.
You were cognizant that acting is work at that age, right?
Oh yeah. There’s a big difference between being 12 or 13, and 7. You put it right, though, because The Saddle Club was the transition between acting kind of being a hobby and incidental—going into an audition once every couple of weeks, and a day here and a day there—and a job. The Saddle Club was like, “This is my life for six months,” with a new group friends on location and very intensive, time-wise. That was the first one where I realized what the job actually entailed, if broadly. I think it’s where I started to transition from “This is a fun thing to do on my route to doing something else in my life” to “This is what I want to do with my life.” It happened somewhere around there. Also, it was around that time I started to really fall in love with movies.
Do you know what’s funny? It took me maybe two or three swipes on your Twitter feed to convince me that you’re a cinephile. I was like, “This guy is legit obsessed with movies.”
Then you scroll five more times and you’re like, “And nothing else…” [Laughs] I’m such a boring person. Most of my friends are actors or filmmakers, so when I have family dinner or something with people who aren’t, I realize how boring I actually am. I can’t talk about anything else.
How did you discover arthouse, the classics, and foreign films?
I didn’t come from a particularly “art-y” family. I mean, I wasn’t deprived of movies. My mom loved movies. We watched the same movies everyone watched. I grew up with The Wizard of Oz and [Steven] Spielberg. It was the standard—I guess, North American—influences. When I was around 13 or 14, I started getting into cameras, the technology of cameras, and the idea of cameras. Video stores and the Internet helped a lot. I went to this arts camp in Ontario called Centauri where you can specialize in poetry or mime or musical theater or whatever. I specialized in film and that was my introduction to arthouse, watching clips of [Michael] Haneke films and the French New Wave. It wasn’t anything radical, but it was like, “Here’s a guy named Apichatpong Weerasethakul!” Since I came from a family where that wasn’t a thing, it felt like the floor had fallen out and there was this new dimension of film. At that age, it feels like you’re the first person to discover it and that’s very exciting. There was this obnoxious, pre-teen feeling of excitement. That’s when I discovered Criterion and their commentaries educated me throughout my teenage years. A lot of people have similar stories, but that’s how I came to the movies—to cinema.
How did you get your start in commercials?
I was a restless kid. I was really bored. I couldn’t play sports. I didn’t play the piano. I didn’t do anything. I just had a lot of energy to burn and I was very theatrical. My parents didn’t have career ambitions for me, but they thought a drama club would be a nice way for me to burn that energy. A few kids in that group had agents. They were doing Doritos commercials and stuff, and I thought that sounded super cool. I think I had just seen The Matrix, so the word “agent” was super cool, even though I had no idea what it was. I was picturing men in suits, like, “That sounds so rad!” Then I spent a year trying to convince my parents to find me an agent. They didn’t think it was a good idea and thought it sounded silly, but they finally did. They’ve always been incredibly supportive. But they were never the driving force. I met a lot of kids when I was young—I still meet a lot of kids—whose parents’ are the ones driving and very rarely does that end well.
It must be such a trip to look back on everything with your parents now. It all worked out.
So far! But who knows? By the time this comes out, it might all fall apart.
How did Closet Monster come to you, and how did you and Stephen [Dunn] first meet?
My Canadian agent sent me the script in 2014. Normally, when you get sent a script, it comes with additional information like, “This is an audition. This is what you need to know,” or, very rarely, “This is an offer. Here’s what you need to know.” This one just had a lack of information. I was traveling at the time and I sort of forgot about it. I’m terrible at my job. [Laughs] I guess it was one of those things where they had been waiting for three weeks to hear back from me. So I finally read it after someone badgered me to and I immediately said, “Yes.” The movie that you see is the script in tone and feel and everything. I didn’t know anything about Stephen except that this was going to his first feature. I hadn’t seen any of his shorts. I met him for the first time over Skype. I was in Hong Kong at the time, hungover. I missed the first meeting, and when we did have the meeting, I had my sunglasses on. I’m such an asshole. He was probably like, “Who is this fucking prick?”
Does he know now what happened?
He knows. I think I told him right away, like, “I’m so sorry! I’m not a huge douchebag! If you saw my eyes right now, you’d be very scared.” I think that was the most hungover I’ve ever been in my life. I woke up that morning on the floor of some hallway in an apartment building in Hong Kong on the other side of the city from where I was staying. I still don’t know how I got there or whose apartment that was. Some old Chinese woman was poking me with her foot.
Remember that time, like ten minutes ago, when you said you’re the most boring person?
What happened was that, I was staying in a hostel and went on a pub crawl. I was mixing all kinds of stuff and it was terrible. I was with a group of people—hostel friends, so not like real friends—and I guess they just left me somewhere. I’m like the most reserved person in the world. This is the only time anything like this ever happened to me. I had two thoughts when I woke up: “I feel like shit. Oh my god, I missed my Skype meeting.” We rescheduled for later that day or something, but we had an amazing conversation and I said, “Yes.” When I was back in Toronto a couple of weeks later, Stephen and I had dinner, we talked, and he gave me books. When I read the script and met Stephen, it all made sense. I wasn’t surprised that the person is very much like the movie.
What did you think might be the most challenging thing for you going into the movie, and what ended up being the most challenging looking back on the experience?
I’ve never been asked that before. Let me think—I don’t have a prefab answer for that. There are a few scenes in the movie that, on paper, looked intimidating. The whole party sequence (the low point in the movie) ended up being, not easy, but shot so fast that we didn’t have time to think. We shot that in the first week, too, so it was over before we knew it. So I guess that was more painless than I thought it was going to be. The stuff that I always find the hardest are the less intense and more conventional stuff. There’s this section in the middle of the movie where it hasn’t gotten totally dramatic yet and it’s conversations. For example, there’s a scene where I’m driving in the car with Wilder [played by Aliocha Schneider]. It’s this very innocuous scene and it killed me. I didn’t know how to approach it. It’s the “normal person” scenes that are the hardest I find—always.
Why do you think that is?
As an actor and a filmmaker, I think it’s easier to emulate emotion than to sit and be “normal life.” The screaming and the crying and the heartbreak and all of these things—it’s not easy, but at least you’re aiming for something. Creating normal conversations is hard.
Do you think you’re more self-critical than the average person?
Well, I don’t know how self-critical the average person is. I’m probably more than some, less than some. I don’t think I’m neurotically self-critical. I’m not, like, Woody Allen. [Laughs] But I do find that it’s what keeps me going. You can only stay satisfied with yourself for about 30 seconds and that’s the frustrating thing. That’s a good 30 seconds, but then it will take you another six months to get another 30 seconds. That’s what you’re working towards. If you come home every day from work like, “This is so good. I’m so happy. I’m doing such good work…”
You’re fooling yourself?
Any time I talk to someone who really likes their own work, I know it’s bad. There has never been a case where it wasn’t bad and that says something. It’s a major red flag. There’s a difference between self-promotion, which some people are very good at doing, and that.
It’s also hard to know if you’re being self-critical in the right way. You can sometimes use self-criticism as a defense mechanism by getting there first. If you say all the negative things about yourself before someone else calls you out on those negative things, then it doesn’t hurt as much. It still hurts, but not as much. Everyone knows the things that are wrong with them and it’s not those things that scare us. What scares us is the thought that there might be things wrong with us or in our work that we don’t realize. Maybe other people know and they’re not telling you.
Are you particularly drawn to the dark, heavier roles? Certainly, we’ve been talking about Closet Monster and American Crime, but you also played a troubled guy in Blackbird.
Not really. Things come to me. Maybe there’s a part of me that I don’t see. I mean, I think I’m a pretty chill, happy guy. It’s also my age. Most of the things I’ve done are coming-of-age stories, and most coming-of-age stories have to do with identity crises, pain… Another thing that was important to me about Oscar was that he didn’t come off like a morbid character. I didn’t want him to seem depressive, you know? He’s like a nice kid. He’s not unhappy. He has friends. I didn’t want him to be another emo, faux-suicidal kid. I didn’t approach Oscar from a place of darkness.
Do a lot of young people, especially in the LGBT community, reach out about Closet Monster?
A little bit, yeah. Closet Monster, despite the fact that it premiered a year ago, has only just started to come out. It’s been playing at film festivals, but the audiences at festivals are obviously so small compared to general audiences. But yeah, people approach you after screenings and send you messages on Twitter and stuff. It’s nothing compared to the exposure we get for American Crime.
It was interesting to hear Stephen talk about screening Closet Monster in South Korea.
At Busan [International Film Festival].
Right. He said it was super quiet during the movie, but then people approached him quietly afterwards to talk about their own experiences. It’s still very conservative over there.
He told me about that. If I hadn’t been shooting, I would’ve gone. I love South Korea and I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about Busan. It’s a cultural thing, you know? Everywhere the movie plays is different. Toronto is different from Palm Springs, and Marrakesh is different from London or Busan. I think this would be true of any movie, but especially for something like Close Monster because of the subject matter. Some audiences are incredibly reactive whereas other ones are much more subdued, even with North American audiences that I’ve been with.
What kind of filmmakers do you feel very precious about these days?
In the last five years, I’ve become incredibly invested in East Asian cinema, and Japanese and Taiwanese in particular. Edward Yang is huge for me. Hirokazu Koreeda is huge for me.
I saw that you recently met Koreeda.
One glorious evening. [Laughs] Apichatpong is big for me. Hou Hsiao-Hsien… I’m a really big fan of Ira Sachs and Andrew Haigh. I’m stuttering because this is endless. Who doesn’t love Paul Thomas Anderson? I went through a two-year period of almost exclusively watching Golden Era Japanese cinema, so people like [Mikio] Naruse, [Kenji] Mizoguchi, and [Akira] Kurosawa. I went through all of [Yasujirō] Ozu’s available films. Shohei Imamura… I went deep down the hole with those guys. I’m a huge fan of Kelly Reichardt. I’m a huge fan of Jim Jarmusch—some Jim Jarmusch. I was a huge fan of Only Lovers Left Alive. I could talk about all these people forever.
I’m fascinated by New Taiwanese Cinema from ’81 or ’82 until the late 80s/early 90s, depending on how you define it. There are fascinating people who came out of it. There was a restoration of A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang in 1991—a four-hour opus— and it’s mind-blowingly good. It’s fascinating to watch a movement where you can almost see the films’ limitations: You can see the financial and technical struggles, and the fact that there literally were not enough crews and actors in all of Taiwan to make these films so they had to train people as they worked. It’s sort of like any new wave, I guess—you feel the times in the movies. It’s really compelling. And, of course, they’re beautifully made and genius. These are some of the best films ever made.
You’re really impressive, Connor.
The one place where my education is really lacking weirdly is classic American cinema. I ticked the main boxes, but I need to watch more, like, John Ford and John Houston movies.
What did you find striking about Stephen on Closet Monster, through sheer observation?
I come from the background of TV and that defines most of my experience as an actor, so the first thing I realized working with Stephen was just how much he cared on a deeply emotional level. It’s not just on the level of, “I want to do this right,” but the level of standing behind the monitor for every shot of every scene and putting himself into it. You feel that stuff as an actor. You feel it so hard and it’s so rare. That gives you this enormous, energetic confidence because you feel like you’re a part of something that someone wants to be doing. That’s Stephen. He’s one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. He’s been touring with this movie for a year and he still like, 75% of the time, tears up. [Laughs] And not in a disingenuous way! This movie is still active inside of him. You can imagine, if he’s like that now, what he was like in the beginning of this journey.
How autobiographical is this film exactly?
I don’t want to answer for Stephen, but it’s obviously a very personal film. It’s very personally felt. Some things are similar to Stephen’s life like a lot of first features tend to be, and you see that coming. But it’s not autobiographical. It’s not like this all happened to him. I think its autobiographical in the way that it should be, which is in the details. He was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and is a huge Buffy fan. He did not have a talking hamster. He’s a great guy.