I can’t emphasize enough how seldom it is in this line of work that you meet a bunch of people that you come to call family.
Braden King’s 2020 Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition entry, The Evening Hour, is a thing of dualities. Adapted by Elizabeth Palmore for the screen from Carter Sickels’ 2012 novel of the same name, it is a tale imbued with a dueling empathy and sobering hardness, the natural beauty and industrial decay of its backdrops coexisting, and this wisdom: Even the kindest of intentions have a way of souring into sadness. In the tapped-out Appalachian mining town of Dove Creek, West Virginia, the proliferation of opioids has blurred the line between a helping and a hurting hand.
Cole (Philip Ettinger) is a sweet-natured aide and caring presence at a local nursing home, who safeguards his uneasy equilibrium. Caretaking the old and infirm, he also pilfers excess painkillers as he moonlights as a supplier in the local drug trade to supplement his humble income. To justify his actions, Cole has concocted a certain moral code about what he’s slinging: For one thing, he doesn’t dare stoop to stealing product from the facility’s stockroom. He routinely checks in with townsfolk who are being prescribed opioids they don’t need and, in exchange for money, ferries the pills to those who do need them, whether it’s neighbors healing their chronic pain or tending to the town’s many vulnerable addicts. In his mind, what he does partly corrects the harmful patterns of a broken health care system. Also, to him, these “customers” are in a bad way and, in helping them score, they won’t have to rely on the area’s major-league pusher, Everett (Marc Menchaca). He then uses the proceeds not on himself, but to support his grandparents. This operation, of course, goes to shit once two important figures suddenly reappear after many years in absentia: His wayward mother (Lili Taylor), and Terry (Cosmo Jarvis), Cole’s perpetual screw-up of a high school friend. The latter arrives with a cockeyed plan of siphoning money from Cole’s cashflow.
There’s not a bad performance in this winning ensemble, which also includes Stacy Martin, Kerry Bishé, Michael Trotter, and Ross Partridge—but particularly in Jarvis, an English actor who slips in unnoticed as a damaged denizen in the ebbing coal-country culture of the Rust Belt. The actor, who broke out with 2016’s Lady Macbeth, has a lot to carry on his shoulders as Terry, who is a conflicted foil and another duality: A brooding troublemaker tinged with a stunted innocence.
Next up for Jarvis is Persuasion, a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel, in which he stars opposite Henry Golding. Also on the docket is the TV miniseries Shogun, based on the James Clavell novel of the same name, which co-stars Hiroyuki Sanada. This guy is primed to explode.
The Evening Hour opens at IFC Center in NYC on July 30, and goes virtual on August 13.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
I understand you recently wrapped on Persuasion. How did that go?
Well, we finished it. [laughs] I guess that’s what counts. I think it was cool. It was different from other things I’ve done. I have no idea what to expect—how it’s actually gonna be. I got on with our director, Carrie [Cracknell], a good amount. There were some real good people working on it.
There are certain actors where you look at their filmography and you just know that they set very high standards for themselves. Are you particular when it comes to choosing projects?
Yes, sometimes to my own detriment. I usually try and look for things that have a uniqueness to them. I mean, sometimes it could go years and I would be in danger of not doing anything. I was very much spoiled by having the opportunities to work on some really great scripts—The Evening Hour being one of them. I also had the opportunity to be a part of a film called Calm with Horses and some other things. I’ve been spoiled by projects with some very watertight ideas.
What was it about The Evening Hour that clinched it for you?
A couple of things. Firstly, just from the sides of the audition, the characters read so well. Through the language employed to represent their speech styles, you could really get a grasp on the tone of everything so clearly. The language choices were very deliberate and conveyed so much about not only the place but each individual person’s place within that world. The scenes were filled with honesty and a good balance of serious stakes and the lighthearted humor that accompanied high dramatic tension shortly after. Those are usually the most honest pieces of work, where you can’t have one without the other. It wasn’t something that took itself so seriously or alleviated all humor from itself and I appreciated that. The second thing is, I had a meeting with Braden [King] on Skype and he just seemed great. He seemed like a very genuine dude. We talked a lot about various things: music and the place and people. I just really wanted to do it.
* * *
Terry is a complicated person, isn’t he? Was he familiar to you?
Yes, in a strange way. I understood the opportunism, the going-a-million-miles-per-minute, and the big statements. At the same time, he’s fairly lost. He’s kind of overcompensating with a machismo and a grandioseness. The gears are always turning for the next opportunistic front. I understood that he might be overcompensating for what is a very lost situation in his life at the time we meet him. I guess I’ve met so many people like that and I think everyone is a little bit like that in some ways. But other people aren’t as reliant on their outward facade as Terry is.
Terry is summed up so well even in the way that Cole looks at him. Cole seems both drawn towards and repelled by Terry at the same time. You’re this troublemaker, but also an embodiment of charisma and childlike innocence. He’s fragile as much as he is threatening.
I know exactly what you mean.
How difficult was that for you to unlock?
To be honest, a lot of it just made sense to me because of the situations. It didn’t even appear to me like Terry was thinking very hard—or at least in a three-dimensional, detailed, long-form format—whenever he suggests any of these things. So it felt right to me that he was somebody who pretty much exists only in the scope of the moment he’s living in. I mean, Cole has his routine in the way that he survives in this place and I don’t think Terry is capable of that, despite being married and having a family of his own. That was the glue for me, I guess. He doesn’t give any sort of insight to the people around him about how he’s really feeling beyond his aims—beyond his schemes. That was totally clear and that’s totally down to Elizabeth’s [Palmore] writing and Carter’s [Sickels] writing as well. I thought the motivations were all very clear so there was actually a lot of room to just explore within the realm of that. That’s pretty much what we all did.
At Sundance, you told IndieWire that you never read the source novel. I wondered about that—not so much about why you wouldn’t read it, but if that might’ve actually helped you in the long run. Because Braden went on the record to say that you weren’t how he had imagined Terry initially. You clearly showed him something that felt right and unexpected.
That’s interesting. I mean, look, I was just really glad for a job. I was glad that this man in charge of this kind of material—that I, especially as an English actor, had often only dreamed about being involved with—had responded well to the tape I did. And I didn’t read the book because I just felt that the script had everything that was needed in it. Also, we were very blessed to have Carter there on set. I could talk to him about what he thought at any time throughout the production. I could ask him all these questions about Terry. So even though I didn’t read the book, I had the mastermind close by at all times. I did my best to let him know that if there was anything—if I wasn’t doing something justice—he should tell me, you know what I mean?
What did you put on that self-tape?
I think it was the first scene in the diner where Terry meets Cole for the first time in a long time. I think another one was the talk at the bar, but I may be wrong on that one. And I don’t think what I did on that tape was what Terry actually ended up being like in the movie. He definitely evolved after that and it was a starting point for me. Once I realized that Braden had responded well to the tape I did, that just gave me a really solid platform to set off from and explore. Braden is the most nurturing director ever. He’s so quiet in his note-giving. He’s so helpful. He gives you so much space. He’s very clear without ever overburdening you with information. I mean, I remember one time he gave me this note: “Just look at the trees.” I was like, “Okay.” [laughs] I looked at the trees. It was just to bring it back to the place and the surroundings. It was great.
I know Carter echoed Braden’s sentiment: he was captivated by you, even though you were not the Terry he had originally envisioned. I think that’s such an amazing compliment. I don’t know if you’re aware, but Carter actually kept a blog during the making of this movie and I found that really insightful. For instance, I learned that you stayed in your accent the whole time, on and off the set. You had the cast and crew fooled for a long time, didn’t you?
Well, that’s the only way I’m able to do these things. As soon as I touched down in this place, I made an effort that began in the car ride from the airport to the hotel where we were staying at, talking to the guys that were kindly driving me. Then you hone in on other people throughout the production. There was one guy, Jesse Brock, the location assistant, who was very much a product of that part of the country and I would just talk to him. I guess it just makes logical sense to me that the longer you stay in the vocal aesthetics—or any other aesthetic—of the character that you have the privilege of portraying, you will more effortlessly carry them. For me at least, if there’s anything that happens that isn’t scripted or planned with improvisation or whatever, you will be able to embrace those moments and react more effortlessly with those vocal sounds and accents. You just won’t have to think about them as much. Also, I wanted to do the place and the people justice. I would hate to be from a place and then see a portrayal of that same place in a fictional movie where it’s not done correctly. I guess a lot of that comes out of fear in a way because you don’t wanna piss anyone off. But they were such lovely people anyway. There were so many people from Harlan [in Kentucky] who were constantly around and they were the nicest, most friendly people I’ve met in my life. They were always up for talking with me.
In speaking about vocal aesthetics with The Guardian last year, and specifically about your Irish accent in Calm with Horses, you had said: “From a logistical point of view, it helps you with consistency.” It makes sense that consistency helps you, that it might help the cast and crew, and also when you’re just commiserating with the locals on location. Because as soon as we become “other,” we’re treated differently. I just chalk that up to human nature.
Absolutely. Sometimes we don’t think about it, but people do treat you differently. Also, looking at how the majority of the population speaks in that area, you can feel the imprint of the environment in their voices. The geographical location of a person is totally evident. I know that, yes, in many ways human beings are interchangeable from one place to another and we’re all the same stock. But at the same time, with an accent, there is a character or an attitude of the people that is so unique to a place. I’m just fascinated by all of that stuff. I don’t think this movie would’ve been possible had we shot it in any other area because we had so many locals totally informing us all the time and embracing us into how they live. And I don’t think they were consciously doing it to make the film a good example of where they’re from. I think they were doing it because they’re great people. It was such a rich area for exploration, through everybody that I met.
I wanted to ask you about the depiction of masculinity as it relates to this frayed but intimate friendship between Cole and Terry. I’ll be honest: I sensed a romantic undercurrent between them, especially in that bonfire scene. But in thinking that, I also felt that maybe I’m just—still!—not used to seeing that kind of intimacy and tenderness shared between platonic male characters on screen. Maybe it got magnified for that very reason. Did you and Philip [Ettinger] play it in any particular way that would allow for some loose interpretation?
That’s an interesting one. I guess it was a case of reverse engineering in terms of what goes down in that scene and about their level of companionship, which superseded for me your average school-buddy friendship. It was clearly something deeper. And even though it was never nailed down absolutely, because of how that scene plays out, I think it was clear to everyone—and definitely clear to me—that, like I said, it superseded your average school-buddy friendship. It’s interesting because I knew I had to carry that through all of their previous interactions. In a weird way, whatever happens in that scene was the magic key to unlocking how all of their interactions transpire in the way that they do leading up to it. It’s difficult to say without spoiling it, I guess.
* * *
A decade ago, at the start of your career as it were, you wrote, directed, and starred in The Naughty Room. Using that as a place marker for the beginning of your career, what had you imagined for yourself in the manner of dreams and where you wished to end up creatively?
Well, at the time, I was from a very rural area, which is one of the reasons why I found The Evening Hour resonant in that way as well, you know? I’m not a city boy and there weren’t any real opportunities for unconnected, I guess, wannabe actors. I suppose that film was the only way of making a movie for me, and it’s not that I did it so I could end up one day working in this industry. It was a final attempt to—against all odds—make something as a stepping stone into whatever. Because I had no knowledge of how the industry actually worked. I mean, I still don’t. [laughs] I have no knowledge of the intricacies of how one becomes an actor. But I now know that it was a necessary first step for me, even if I didn’t necessarily think that I would be making my living doing this. I never thought it would lead anywhere if I’m honest with you because there’s a lot of people out there making films at all levels. There are so many great—and I’m not saying my movie was great—independent filmmakers out there. As we speak, there’s probably somebody somewhere, an independent filmmaker, making a groundbreaking piece of work that is in danger of never being seen by anyone. That’s just the nature of the beast. But I did always want to be an actor. It’s just that, where I came from, it didn’t seem like an entirely plausible dream to follow.
You’re really doing it now, Cosmo, and your next steps are looking as promising and bright as they had been when you first broke out with Lady Macbeth. You have Persuasion and Shogun on the horizon. These are more adaptations. I noticed that’s like a theme with you.
[laughs] I think it’s just the way things turned out. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, with an adapted piece of work, it has already gone through the mental process of another being who wrote it. They already pursued those characters and imagined them and realized those worlds in a way that would be perceivable by others who want to consume fictional works. Sometimes when I read something, it’s dripping with intention and just richer in terms of its aspirations. You can smell it. Sometimes there are scripts you read where it’s already there: it already supports the amount of humanity that you would want to put into it because the character is so rich in the way that they were painstakingly written. I’ve been very lucky with that. Definitely.
I more often watch movies for performances. I’ve always had such great respect for actors.
It was totally crazy that, just before The Evening Hour script came to me, I had seen First Reformed in my bedroom. I didn’t know who Philip Ettinger was. I was so taken aback by the performance he gave in that movie. I was blown away. It was just so weird then to be able to go work alongside him, pretty shortly after watching him, you know? That was the craziest thing. I can’t emphasize enough how seldom it is in this line of work that you meet a bunch of people—cast and crew and everybody involved—that you come to call family. I know people say this all the time, but it was a family. It was the best in terms of that dynamic.
That’s got to be one of the great joys in what you do, right? It’s the best-case scenario.
Oh yeah. Big time.