I think we have to come back to something that we are losing: how we value one another.
Justin Kurzel’s Nitram was destined for controversy. How could it not, probing a tender wound of a nation’s history that for some carries near incomprehensible trauma decades later? On April 28, 1996, a lone gunman murdered 35 people and wounded 23 others in the small Tasmanian town of Port Arthur. The worst single-shooter mass killing in Australia’s history, the atrocity would prompt sweeping gun reform across the continent. Pushed through Parliament in just 12 days, more than a million firearms were destroyed through federally funded gun buyback and amnesty programs.
Nitram takes its title from the derisive juvenile taunt that has stuck with its protagonist well into his adulthood, which is also the real-life perpetrator’s name spelled backwards (a backwards name for a backwards person). In a brilliant and vanity-free performance—which saw the Texan take home the Best Actor trophy at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—Caleb Landry Jones plays the titular loner, who still lives at home with his long-suffering mother (Judy Davis) and his no less miserable father (Anthony LaPaglia). But Nitram’s fortunes change, literally, when a tax lotto heiress (Essie Davis), an oddball herself, takes a shine to him and swiftly moves him into her crumbling estate, offering the troubled soul his first and only friend. For a time, life is sweet as the misfits find a fragile equilibrium. But then she dies, leaving Nitram rich but unmoored. From then on, the film marches unyieldingly towards the conclusion we all know is coming. In the end, Kurzel, and scribe Stuart Grant, don’t offer easy answers, beyond the obvious: we must keep the guns under control.
Anthem reached out to Jones to discuss his acting process, his big win at Cannes, and gun culture.
Nitram hits select theaters, Digital Rental, and AMC+ on March 30th.
Hi, Caleb. The last time we spoke, you had mentioned being scared about a role that you were about to go off and do. I understand now, and you set a really high bar with this one.
Oh thank you very much.
How did you end up celebrating at Cannes?
Getting a little drunk, and doin’ some things. I shouldn’t say too much… I got Maggie Gyllenhaal [a member of last year’s Cannes Competition jury] a water? [laughs] No, we were all together when the sun was coming up. And then we left a guy on the beach, asleep. That’s how it ended.
Did you have time to watch any movies?
No, no. I’m learning that’s becoming more and more of a joke the more and more I go to festivals.
Nitram explores a delicate subject, but it’s respectfully made and there is certainly a level of neutrality in your portrayal. I wonder just how immersive you wanted to get with all of this.
Well, it was the kind of thing where, in so many words, Justin [Kurzel] more or less explained that [Nitram] starts somewhere and ends somewhere else, and he wanted me to go through that. By the end of it, we found out what that was together. It meant pushing a big boulder over the hill and never saying no and lettin’ it roll until it stops. And then trying to get out of Australia as soon as you can or whatever. [laughs] So it really just meant starting something until it was finished. It meant carrying out these ideas, carrying out everything, until their end result. Justin gave me a really wonderful gift of shooting things, for the most part, in sequence. So I was able to work with Essie [Davis] in the first week. We were allowed to dip into this world where love is possible and jokes are possible and songs are possible and dance is possible. And then we would go to the world of mom and dad, where it’s very depressing, where I’m always doing something wrong. There’s something I’m not doing right, always—never getting away with feeling like you can exist or something. And then the isolation in the end with the dogs and the strangers. For me, as an actor, it was very, very good to be able to do this thing and lay in it and swim in it for so long, and then swim in something else for so long. It felt like we just kept pushing the character more and more and more. I remember the first day feeling like a week, going, “Oh no… What’s the second day gonna be like?” And then the second day felt like a week. I was like, “How is the whole week gonna happen if the first two days feel like two weeks already? I’m not gonna survive!” [laughs] But by the time you know it, you’re done suddenly and you have gone through it all. It was very challenging, but rewarding in many ways to work in the way that Justin works, which I guess was what was asked of me as well. I like being able to take stuff in. I like being able to try and make sense of it in some way by acting it out and seeing what the responses are and knowing where that is. And I like having a director that goes like this sometimes [Caleb clutches his face and twists it toward the window], showing me, “No, it’s this.” But then there’s a way for me to find it in my own way, too. I think for an actor this is a really, really special thing: to find the character for yourself as well as from the hand of a director throughout the whole project.
What felt most familiar to you when you were, as you say, laying in it and swimming in it?
The loneliness. We all know loneliness.
That’s a fact.
I think this is why we can identify with each other, because there are aspects to all of us that we’re able to understand on some level, you know? It was about finding out what that was or what those were, and Justin very delicately showed me what it was, I suppose.
When it comes to Justin’s work, my mind still careens back to The Snowtown Murders.
Oh I know. I didn’t think I could last through it. I thought, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. One evil is replaced by another evil? I can’t do this… There’s another whole 15 minutes left?!”
Justin explores a darkness in his movies that I think is at odds with how he comes across in interviews. He telegraphs a lot of compassion and sensitivity. Did you trust him early on?
I trusted him very early on. And sometimes I do and it turns out I shouldn’t have, you know? [laughs] With Justin, like you said, there was a sensitivity and a care. There’s something delicate about him, even though he doesn’t appear like it. There’s another filmmaker I worked with and it was something similar when I met them. They wanted to show me how serious this was, and I think they worried that I didn’t understand how serious it was. And then when you watch [the movie], you can see how serious they are. [laughs] There’s something about this that sometimes makes me go, “Hmmm, okay. I see. You’re really gonna…” I don’t know how to explain it except you know that they will push you far and maybe, hopefully, further than you’d even push yourself at times. For some reason, they believe that you can handle it or whatever it is. So there was sensitivity when Justin spoke about the project, when he talked to me about the seriousness of the film, and what it meant to Australians. I saw something in him that told me it’s something I’ve been looking for since I was 16: wanting to be part of a Kubrick film. An Antonioni film. Pasolini.
When Justin told me he wanted to make the most gentle film he’s made, I was going, “Yeah, right.” After week one, after week two, I still didn’t see how that was going to turn out. It wasn’t until I watched it that I realized it is a very gentle film. And it wasn’t maybe trust in him as a human but a trust in him in the kind of work he does and what filmmaking means to him. When I got to Australia, he showed me a video of Norman Mailer getting hit in the head with a hammer [a scene from Maidstone]. I’d seen this video before, and I hated this video because it’s one actor [Rip Torn] who has lost himself completely. And fucking Justin showed it to me going, “I think this is what art is to you.” I’m going, “You son of a bitch.” [laughs] But this is something I saw in Justin when I met him that attracted me to working with him as well. I just play a guy. He didn’t ask for anything like in this video. It just begs the question: what does art mean to you? How far are you willing to go with things? I’m a pretty fearful person, I think, in a lot of ways. I think film is tied to things I would normally not ever attempt to go about in real life because of insecurity or fear. It’s tied to parts of myself that I wouldn’t want to look at or know about. Film asks actors to explore those things and know those things a little better sometimes. That’s why its gotta be important to do it. It has to be worth it. And you want to be working with people like how I was getting to work with them on this film. People that are really giving everything and love making film. They really love making film. They’re getting tickled by the things we get on some days genuinely. It’s always beautiful when the people making it are into it and it’s not just down to one actor or something like that. It’s not some ego trip. It’s a real collection, you know? That is the best thing in the world. Germain McMicking [DP] and Nick Fenton [editor] are fucking incredible. We had the best team, down to grip and lighting to Alice Babidge [production designer] and costumes. I know people say this all the time, but it really was like a band. It was a beautiful, sometimes dysfunctional, band.
At the Cannes press conference, Justin seemed to make a really valid point that, even though it’s painful to revisit traumas, maybe the good that might come out of it could outweigh that hurt. Stuart [Grant] put it like this: “Evil ignored is evil repeated.”
I think so. I hope that is the case for many people.
In America, we obviously have a different relationship to mass shootings compared to other countries. It just happens so often that we’ve become desensitized. What do you think it will take to get a handle on guns in the States? We’ve already been through many peak horrors.
I think we have to come back to something that we are losing: how we value one another. I’d say we’re doing better than in the medieval days and life is worth a lot more than it was then, but if you would’ve told a 16-year-old me what would be going on right now in the world of 32 Caleb, I probably wouldn’t want to go on anymore. Because it’s happening everywhere. And in America, it’s become so common that it’s sickening, you know? It almost feels like watching violence from A Clockwork Orange where we’re being desensitized like McDowell’s character through the sheer amount of it. What’s going on right now [in Ukraine] is true horror. I think cinema has the power to communicate and to speak on something that otherwise seems impossible. Film allows us space to be able to do things visually and through the ear—to have things resonate inside and invoke possible change, even if it’s on a micro level. So I think it’s very important that, as filmmakers and as actors, we put time towards projects like this one: projects that truly mean something to us. Sorry, I know you asked about gun reform and I started going off on all this other stuff.
It’s all connected.
It’s a wild time, ain’t it?