A lot of casting has to do with levels of fame, PR, politics, and connections. That's a hard pill to swallow when you're young.
“Nothing sounds as good as someone talking with food in their mouth,” according to no one who has said that ever. But we do know how important it is to get down to the truth of things that doesn’t require a magazine’s editorial calendar or press junkets set up by a movie studio to promote this or that movie. In this new Anthem series called This Course, our goal is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance with actor David Call over sandwiches and tea at Cafe Mogador in Williamsburg where we discuss a myriad of things about the film industry. You might recognize the 30-year-old from such TV shows as Gossip Girl, Fringe, and Smash. He has two films set for release in 2014: Gabriel and The Girl in the Book.
Should we get this thing started?
I’m just looking at your phone to see who you interviewed recently. You talked to Amy [Seimetz]!
She’s amazing. I love her. Did you guys first meet on Tiny Furniture?
I met her around that time. I just started running into her at festivals and stuff.
It’s only in recent years that I began to notice just how close-knit the independent film community is in New York. I also wrote a feature on Chris Abbott for Institute magazine.
Chris is a good friend of mine.
You’re both very much an extension of the guys at Borderline Films.
Those are some of my best friends as well. I did this piece with The Wall Street Journal and the writer talked about wanting to make a diagram of the people in the New York indie film community. I could easily walk him through it because the scene is so small. All the crew members are networked too. Jody [Lee Lipes], the DP for Martha Marcy May Marlene, also shot Two Gates of Sleep that I did with the Borderline guys. Jody shot episodes of Girls. I was actually supposed to do that show, but things fell through.
I remember reading about that. Drew Innis is also a mutual friend of ours.
I know Drew through Sean Durkin, who directed Martha Marcy May Marlene because they went to high school together. When I signed on for The Strange Ones, they needed a DP and I recommended Drew.
Drew has an amazing eye. I first met Drew at the Sundance Film Festival through Dominick Volini at Baron Wells.
I know Dominick. That’s the best part about festivals. It’s fun hanging out with people and getting to know them. I was just at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic with the Borderline guys. Even there, I got to hang out with friends and people I hadn’t known before. There’s such a strong sense of community. The people are all in it together for the right reasons. You go to Los Angeles and it’s all celebrities, publicists, and agents—bullshit.
Did you ever try living out there?
I did try on three separate occasions, but always wound back in New York. The longest that I stuck it out was for five months. A little over a year ago, I decided to go out for pilot season, which was brutal and disappointing. I was so set on at least trying it and making it work. I returned to New York to visit and grab my shit, but within four days, I had a change of heart. The idea of sitting around in L.A. as an unemployed actor waiting for an agent to call was unappealing. I just can’t smoke weed and play video games all day, pretending that everything is fine.
Is it true that you wanted to move to New York when you were just 15?
This is what happened… I was a hardcore snowboarder and skater growing up, but when I broke my arm, I couldn’t do that anymore and spent an entire summer in a full cast just watching movies. That’s when acting caught my interest. I grew up in a really small town and thought, I need to get out of here and move to fucking New York. I was really into the New York art scene from the 50s and 60s. I was into Beat poetry, the Jazz musicians—I played Jazz trumpet for many years—Coltrane, Miles Davis and so on. A lot of the actors that I liked came out New York like Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
So you were thinking about this long before deciding to attend NYU.
Well, I knew that the only way my parents would be okay with me going to New York was if college was part of the equation. As soon as I hit 15, I started calling NYU’s admissions office. I literally stalked the Director of Admissions. [Laughs] “How do I get in? What do I have to do?”
I admire that kind of tenacity.
I was extremely proactive about this. I applied for Early Decision. I actually secured the first slot on the first day of auditions. I got on a plane two days after my 18th birthday and made it out here.
Was New York everything you thought it would be?
For the most part, but there’s obviously a romantic concept of the city that doesn’t necessarily match up with reality. New York in 2000 wasn’t exactly New York in 1955 or whatever. I just knew that I wanted to come here, but didn’t have a frame of reference when it comes to living in a big city. It takes a while to come out of your shell and figure out how this whole thing works. Where are the places to go? What are the things to do? Where do these particular things happen? Stuff like that. After a few years, I was able to find my people and the places that I liked.
How did you land your first agent while still in school?
I took this class taught by a casting director named Todd Thaler. I was the lead in Spring Awakening, the play, in my senior year at NYU. My first agent came to see that on a fluke. He was planning on seeing another play, but when that fell through, he came to see this. His agency signed me before I finished school. They later dropped me and I didn’t have representation for about a year, but the casting directors who liked me kept bringing me in and I booked a lead in a movie. Then I signed with a different agency before going back to my original agent and I’ve been with him ever since.
Lots of shuffling around, which I guess isn’t uncommon. How has your perception on acting changed over the years?
You grow up watching these great actors and reading about their process, which makes you think that it’s all about the art and getting into character. The more you do it yourself, you come to realize how rare that is. Getting a part that you can really sink your teeth into is a pretty rare occurrence. Even when you get a meaty part, the chances that you’re going to get the time to properly prepare for it is pretty slim. It’s like, “We saw you on Thursday and you’re starting on Monday. We’re rewriting the script, so you’ll get the revisions on Sunday night. This actor was late today, so there’s no time to rehearse.” The pace is much quicker and the process not as romantic as you’d like, which is fine. You learn to adjust and roll with it. The vagaries of the business is brutal. Normally, so little about casting has to do with talent or an individual’s appropriateness for a role. A lot of casting has to do with levels of fame, PR, politics, and connections. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re young. Thankfully, your skin gets thicker as you go along and there are those times when things do work in your favor. You have to trudge through a lot of bullshit.
I guess it’s better to accept the reality of things right away.
Totally. If I were to go and talk to aspiring college students, I would tell them that 90% of the time it’s going to suck.
You’re friends with Brady Corbet. He seems so adamant about working with auteurs whenever possible, even if that means he’s broke for awhile. Yet, we all need to pay rent.
I have to pay my rent. [Laughs] I love Brady. He’s a dear friend of mine. Brady sort of has a skewed perspective because he started working with some of the best filmmakers in the world at 15. Those guys know who he is. He’s also much younger than you think and maybe he’s cool with sleeping on couches. I spent far too many years working shitty jobs and not acting. I worked those shitty jobs to get to this point and I’m not planning on going back. I feel lucky to have done a lot of TV shows because the money from those jobs enabled me to go off and make a lot of independent films. I get to travel with those films and promote them. It’s definitely a balancing act.
You have done a lot of TV work.
I just added it up and I’ve done fifty episodes of television.
Do you enjoy the pace and workload that comes with TV?
I’m not a regular on these shows and I’ve been lucky in that respect. If I get a recurring role, I work on like five episodes. TV generally has good hours and it doesn’t keep you up until 1 AM. I don’t know if I could take on a regular role, especially on a network show. I’ve come close to doing it, but that just takes over your life. They can own you for like eight months out of the year. You wake up at 5 AM and work until 2 AM, day in and day out. For an hour-long drama? Oh my god… You could potentially end up doing that for five years. Unless it was something that I really, really loved, it’s a pretty daunting proposition.
Not to mention the prospect of playing the same character for that long.
That’s the other thing! Look at the cop shows. You’re essentially doing the same fucking thing every week. “When did you last see this person? Take this to the lab. What were you doing Thursday night? Well, that’s not what John said!” Another dangerous thing about TV is that you might get really lazy and not care about the quality of what you’re doing, which I found to be true on certain shows I’ve been on. When the writers, producers, and directors aren’t that concerned about the quality of what they’re doing, the actors won’t either. What’s the point if no one cares? It turns into a cycle of apathy, which is horrifying. I’ve had that happen to me.
In terms of the politics, is it difficult for TV actors to crossover into film, and vice versa?
It really depends on the show. When you work in TV, your chances of going off to do a film is directly proportionate to the amount of PR you’re getting. It has little to do with the success of the show itself. Look at Girls or Mad Men. Compared to shows like NCIS and CSI: Miami, some of the most viewed shows in the world, they have a very small audience. Yet, actors like Lena Dunham and Jon Hamm have become such cultural forces. If certain directors and producers make a point of watching Breaking Bad every week and look at Entertainment Weekly when they walk into the office on monday mornings, it’s all about who’s gracing that cover. I’ve come to realize just how important PR is in this business. I’ve been on shows that get ten times the viewership of something like Girls and nobody could give two shits. I’m not resentful about it. [Laughs] Life goes on.
What are your thoughts when it comes to large-scale studio films?
I’ve done a lot of indie films and TV shows in New York, which carries a lot of weight here. A producer or a casting director will look at those credits and appreciate the quality of the work. In L.A., they will look at it and say, “Tiny what? What was their opening per screen average? What was the total gross? Did they grab any magazine covers?” The studio system is such an insular world. The thought of being in L.A. is always looming overhead if you think about stuff like this. I’ll probably end up in L.A. eventually, but trying to get a part in The Fast and the Furious 8 is not on a list of my priorities at the moment.
I’m not trying to bag on movies like The Fast and the Furious when I say this, but—
Don’t get me wrong, I think the The Fast and the Furious movies are amazing! When they drove a tank through the nose of a plane? That was fucking brilliant. It exploded the action genre onto itself. They drove a tank through a fucking plane… [Laughs] I can just see the executives sitting around a table going, “How far can we push this? We need to push this as far as humanly possible.” What are they going to do next? Fly a plane through a spaceship into an asteroid? We all want to rag on it, but it’s entertainment. Brady can actually give a good argument about why Michael Bay is one of our great auteurs and I think he’s right. No one makes movies like Michael Bay.
What kind of movies were you watching when you were at your most impressionable?
When I was young young, I watched movies that my dad liked. I watched a lot of westerns, war movies, Star Wars… When I was around 12 or 13, I discovered film and started thinking about it in a different way. David Fincher is a director who made me see things differently.
What’s the first Fincher movie that you saw?
I saw Seven when I was 12.
Jesus. You saw it when you were that young? That movie totally screwed with my head.
I had never seen a movie that dark before, but it also had so much artistry to it. Darius Khondji made me think about cinematography for the first time. It was such a huge cinematic experience. A few months later, I went to go watch a movie with my friends that happened to be sold out at the box office. When I turned around and saw the poster for The Game with the tagline, “From the director of Seven,” I convinced everyone to see it. That was another holy fuck movie. After that, I got into watching older films from the 50s and 60s. My mom noticed that I was into “weird” stuff and introduced me to A Clockwork Orange.
You have a cool mom.
I do have a cool mom! A Clockwork Orange blew my mind. Days of Heaven was another big one. Badlands, Francis Ford Coppola, independent films from the 90s… They all influenced me. I became so enamored by 90s independent cinema, but by the time I got to working, that whole model had collapsed already. The kind of career that those people had are impossible to have now. Then I got into Paul Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, and Michael Haneke. In college, I discovered the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Ridley Scott is another director that I always loved. I’m so psyched for The Counselor.
I get the feeling that you were drawn to the magic of cinema in general very early on. What made you focus on acting as opposed to directing, for instance?
Growing up, I found myself at this new school where I didn’t have any friends. One day in English class, the teacher had everyone stand up and read from Shakespeare. Considering the fact that we were a bunch of 14 year olds, everyone was shy. Since I didn’t have any friends anyway, I just said fuck it and went for it. After class, two girls that I’d never spoken to before came up and said, “That was really good. You should be an actor.” It was a light bulb moment. Artists get the girls! [Laughs] Since I had broke my arm and I wasn’t into football, doing plays became my thing. Acting allowed me to get outside of myself. It’s easy to feel confident when you have lines written for you, while you pretend to be someone that you’re not. In terms of directing, I made a couple of short films. I’ll direct a feature eventually, but I don’t feel ready just yet.
It’s so incredibly difficult to come back from making a bad first feature, not only in terms of getting people to trust you again, but because your confidence is tarnished.
Absolutely. The more time that I spend with filmmakers, the more I realize how little I actually know about making a film. Some directors have so much knowledge when it comes to the language of film, but I don’t quite have that understanding yet. I think I have to knock out a couple more short films first. Making a 90-minute piece, something that’s cohesive with strong visuals and emotional content behind it, seems like a big task.
90 minutes is a big undertaking.
It’s a big undertaking. I know I’ll do it at some point, but I see my own limitations right now. Like you said, when you do it and it doesn’t work out, you’re shitting on yourself as much as other people might shit on your effort. You’re going to stop trusting yourself. When you stop trusting yourself, you’re really fucked.
Just to use Fincher as an example again, he seems to has such a strong sense of what he wants. Do you think that kind of unwavering vision might affect your own process as an actor being on the receiving end of it?
I actually think that might be quite helpful, but if you’re going to work with somebody like that, it has to be someone that you really trust. At the end of the day, the actor is just another tool in the director’s toolbox. Although I’m hired for a reason and I’m expected to bring my own creativity to the table, you’re ultimately just one ingredient serving the story. If you’re working with someone like Fincher, you just trust that what he wants is right. If he wants to do something for the 80th time in a very specific way, you do it. It’s when you get a first-time director who thinks they’re Fincher that becomes a problem. Sometimes, especially with a young director, you’re met with a lot of insecurity and overconfidence, which can create a toxic environment. At the end of the day, my performance is out of my fucking hands anyway. I’ve had performances that I was quite proud of that became nothing after editing. I’ve also had performances that I didn’t think were that great that they edited to look better than they were.
I guess the separation anxiety that directors feel during post-production is something that actors can relate to with their performances.
Marlon Brando apparently used to do this thing on set where he would show up on the first day and give two very different takes. He would do one that’s over the top and ridiculous, and another with restraint and honesty, just to see what the director chooses to keep. If the director chose the former, Brando would mentally check out for the remainder of the shoot. That’s obviously a manipulative and arrogant thing to do, and I would never do it myself, but I understand the impulse to do it.
Is it common nowadays for actors to watch dailies?
It really depends. I think it’s more common when you’re shooting smaller films, which tend to be the stuff that I work on. The option definitely seems to be there if you want to look at the footage. In that kind of scenario, you’re all staying in this one big house anyway. If the DP is looking over something and I happen to walk into the room, I’ll look at it. I shot this movie called Gabriel not long ago and the editor was on set working. I didn’t really watch my own stuff, but it was more to see how they were shooting the thing and get a sense of the kind of movie we were all making. It can be helpful at times. On occasion, I will watch playback just to moderate what I’m doing, but that’s pretty rare. There are actors who want to watch playback all the time, which I totally understand. For myself, I just like being part of the filmmaking process. I don’t think of my contribution to a film as being any way more or less important than the DP’s, the costume designer’s or the sound mixer’s. If any one of us fucks up anything, we can’t use that one take.
What does it feel like to have these chapters of your life immortalized on film forever?
It’s actually really cool. I like that I’m able to have a tangible body of work in front of me. I don’t mean to sound so narcissistic… I’m an actor, I can be narcissistic. [Laughs] It sort of memorializes your life in its different stages. It’s not like I go back and watch my old stuff, but maybe I’ll want to when I’m 80 years old. That’s the amazing thing about movies. Movies have the ability to capture a time and a place forever. To quote yet another actor, Sean Penn said he’s most concerned with the legacy he will leave behind and I feel the same way.
What’s happening with The Girl in the Book?
I wrapped on that most recently. I think it’s going to be awesome. It stars Emily VanCamp from Revenge and Michael Nyqvist from the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s hard to sum up my character… I don’t have a logline in front of me. [Laughs] This was one of the best scripts I’ve read in a long time, honestly. It’s basically about this girl named Alice who, when she was 14, one of her literary agent father’s clients engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with her. That guy then wrote a novel about it. Flash forward to present day when Alice is in her late 20s at a publishing house working on the reprint of the book that has haunted her for so long. I play Emily’s love interest in the movie.
I’m such a sucker for psychological thrillers.
Yeah, man! The script was so fucking phenomenal. I wrapped on that before leaving for Karlovy Vary. The film is divided up into the past and present, so there’s this whole other movie I’m unaware of. Then I worked on Gabriel this past spring that I’m super excited about. The footage I’ve seen looks incredible. Lou Howe, the director of that film, just made Filmmaker magazine’s list of 25 New Faces, which is awesome. The thing is that we’re shooting for Sundance 2014, so I have to wait another six months to see it. I’ll be in L.A. in September. Hopefully, I’ll see it then.
There’s a lot of waiting around when you’re an actor. How do you fill that void for yourself?
There’s too much downtime. Hobbies, dude. It’s hard to keep things up because you have to be self-motivated all the time. I enjoy fly fishing. I got into making furniture recently although I wish I had more access to an actual woodshop. That’s another reason why L.A. is tempting because I could at least have a garage. I have this old truck that I’ve been fussing around with that I need to get rid of. I’m looking into buying a new, old truck. I like surfing when it’s warm enough. I like meditating, reading, and photography. When you’re on set, you don’t want to do something that takes up too much of your concentration. I’ve been busy with auditions lately, which can take up a lot of time and energy. I spent a lot of my time in my 20s not having hobbies before realizing I was going fucking crazy. Your brain starts eating itself. I’ve heard about actors and writers that need to keep office hours for their own sanity. I don’t have that discipline yet, but I’m working on it.
This is sort of an extension of my previous question. How do you cope with the unknown?
I’ve gotten so much better at it. It used to drive me crazy. I saw a shrink and that helped. My best friend from high school is a Buddhist monk in South Korea and I’ve had a lot of talks with him about mindfulness. I think getting older is also a part of it. There’s a lot of insecurity there when you’re younger. I’m starting to feel a sense that there’s a body of work that I’m proud of. It gives me a certain sense of security that I didn’t have when I was younger. That makes the unknown a little less daunting. I’m just going to keep making movies. I don’t know what I’m going to make next or where that will take me, but that’s part of the fun.