I got into acting because I feel like I’ve been acting my whole life. I’ve always had to put on different faces for different people.

It’s been two years since Anthem first met up with McCaul Lombardi at the Cannes Film Festival while the fresh-faced 26-year-old was on the Croisette in support of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, about a rag-tag group of itinerants youths vibrating across the open road selling magazine subscriptions. Anchored by Shia LeBeouf doing Shia LeBeouf, the movie was a breakout opportunity for Sasha Lane, a different turn for Riley Keough, the evolution of Arielle Holmes post-Heaven Knows What and, of course, the launchpad for new-kid-on-the-block Lombardi. The following year, Lombardi starred in Patricia Dombrowski’s Sundance success story Patti Cake$, which garnered massive buzz and emerged victorious with an insane $9.5 million offer from Fox Searchlight. With a tidy seven features to his name, including the upcoming We Are Coyotes by co-directors Marco La Via and Hanna Ladoul, the purveyor of good taste is on a winning streak.

In his first leading role, Lombardi explores the realities of readjusting to life after prison in Matthew Porterfield’s Sollers Point. Set against a blue-collar Baltimore suburb, Keith (Lombardi) is completing his probationary period of house arrest and chafing under the watchful eye of his pestering father (Jim Belushi). Meanwhile, his ex-fiancé (Zazie Beetz) wants nothing to do with him. We’re never told what his crime was, but after his anklet is removed, his occasional run-ins with a local gang speak to his familiarity with pastimes of at least borderline legality. Keith looks for help from anyone who’s willing to spare him a moment of their time, but redemption proves out of reach. The slice-of-life drama unfolds in a series of encounters with an unstable addict, flirtations with an adrift art student, the pseudo-philosophizing of a drug dealer, the tough-love of a grandmother, and brief visits from a distracted sister who has her own family to worry about.

Sollers Point opens in select theaters on May 11.

You’ve gone down a particularly artful path with American Honey, Patti Cake$, and now Sollers Point. With just seven titles, your filmography is tidy, too. You seem particular.

Yeah, I guess that’s one way you could say it. I’m very particular. I wanna make sure that my body of work is reflective of what I believe in. I’m not one to take jobs just to do them. I have to believe in the project to really make it my own. I kind of live by that. I’m not one of those people who can get an audition in no matter what it consists of.

We met up in Cannes before American Honey even premiered so I’d be curious to know what happened in the wake of that movie. Did you find a lot of doors opening up?

When you work with a director like Andrea Arnold and you have A24 backing your film, a lot of doors do open because it gives you some credibility to your name. It wasn’t a bad start to have my first film be a Cannes award winner. So American Honey did open a lot of doors and I think Sollers Point is opening up a lot more doors because I’m carrying a whole film on my back, which is something I’ve been ready for. Patti Cake$ helped as well because you got to see a different flavor of me as an actor. It’s all a process. With each project that people are seeing, more and more doors are opening up, thankfully. I’m really grateful for that.

Not long after we met, I remember flipping through a magazine and seeing your Ermenegildo Zegna campaign with Robert De Niro. I got excited. How did that even come about?

Honestly, I don’t even know how. I just remember getting an email and a call from my manager saying, “Do you wanna do a campaign with Robert De Niro?” and I was like, “Uhhh, yeah, sure.” [Laughs] It was probably one of the most random things that ever happened to me. Obviously, I’m not like a model. I’m definitely an actor, and so was he. So it was really interesting to have Zegna email my manager and ask him about me. I guess they had seen my images in another magazine and liked it, then my manager hooked up the deal. Next thing I know, I’m chilling with Mr. Bob for like four days in the Hollywood Hills.

That’s a sweet deal. But you had modeled before that, right? Weren’t you scouted on the street in New York before these movies came along?

Yeah, but I try to separate myself from that now because I didn’t really do anything. I was more looking for anything to latch onto. Obviously, modeling is something you can sort of jump into. I wasn’t successful at it, if that’s what you’re asking. I had an agency, but they didn’t do much for me. I had an agency looking for a way to break into acting and I guess it worked because my manager saw pictures of me somewhere. When he found me and emailed me and said, “Have you ever thought about acting?” I was like, “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.” [Laughs]

It worked out.

It worked out. I do count my blessings every day because I have a truly awesome team around me. My manager and I have this very bee-lined outlook on how we want my career to go. I’m really choosy and he’s just as choosy.

Sollers Point is a great showcase for you. I learned that the film’s producer, Alexandra Byer, first brought you to Matthew Porterfield’s attention, which led up to your first meeting at a diner. Matthew went on the record to say that he knew you were perfect for the role immediately. What did you guys bond over initially?

We initially bonded over text messages when he asked, “Where should we meet?” and I said, “How about the Bel-Loc Diner?” It was the kind of place that we both knew growing up and it was about to close down. It was kind of a staple in Baltimore before it got torn down. That was the first thing because it was the most random place that I could’ve ever suggested to meet up at. Then after reading the script, I had known, and do know, a lot of people just like Keith. I went in there with the approach that this is my role already. I already had a lot of Keith’s backstory there and shared that with Matt and where I thought this guy is coming from. I feel like in the hour and a half of our meeting, he kind of knew that he found the Keith with the story that he didn’t have.

If we can boil it down, Keith is impulsive, reckless, and self-hating. He’s really good at sabotaging himself. Were those qualities recognizable to you? How did you relate to him?

Just from previous experiences in life, I guess. I feel like my teenage years were a lot of self-sabotage, which is common to most other people in high school and stuff. I kind of built this around a kid who got trapped in an environment and never really grew up. I did a lot of character study. I spent a lot time in the streets of Baltimore growing up, including the specific streets where Keith lives. I met with a whole bunch of prisoners that had just gotten out of prison in Maryland and picked their brains. So I had a lot to go off of and to build from and use. I really took silence as a character of its own as well and not try to over do anything and just let the energy of the environment play its own role. I just became a part of the environment, which is all too real there.

What was it like returning home to Baltimore to shoot? That’s something special.

Returning to Baltimore was beyond special, especially for my junior film. For my third film and being able to have the blessing to go to Baltimore, explore Baltimore again, and knowing that my actual parents are less than five miles away—it was really surreal. That’s so cool. Who has the opportunity to do that in their hometown outside of Los Angeles or New York, or Atlanta in some cases? Yeah, it’s still mind-blowing to me that I’m about to have the Baltimore premiere of the film that filmed in Baltimore, my hometown. It’s weird, man. It’s really weird.

That’s pretty wild.

Yeah, man. I remember one day we were filming a car shot in the neighborhood and I saw this truck coming. I had the whole camera crew in the back of the pick-up truck filming me. So I look at this other truck and I’m like, “Holy shit. That’s my dad!” They were like, “Belushi?” and I was like, “No, my dad dad.” He had his kayak because he was going fishing right where we were filming. He had no clue that we were also filming there. That was special. It was cool to see my dad rolling up on a forty-person film crew out of nowhere unexpectedly. It was too surreal.

I don’t think this is explicitly stated in the film, but Sollers Point is a street in Baltimore?

Yeah, it’s a little area in a place called Turner Station. It’s basically a street.

Were you familiar with Sollers Point already?

I knew of Sollers Point because there’s a school there and I knew of the area. I hadn’t spent much time there but, again, it’s five miles away from where I was born.

You have great chemistry with your co-stars Jim Belushi, Zazie Beets and Lynn Cohen, and because of that, your world feels very lived-in. Did you also work with nonprofessionals?

We didn’t work with too many nonprofessionals. But the kid playing Marquis [Brieyon Bell-El] is actually a Baltimore rapper who goes by Breezy. He’s my best friend in the film and he was a Baltimore local. Me and him hit it off the moment we met so that chemistry was there. With all the “non-actors,” you would never think they’re non-actors. Everybody was very prepared and we did rehearse a little bit. I can’t even tell you who was a non-actor, besides Breezy only because he’s a Baltimore-native who’s also a rapper.

What was it like to have Jim Belushi playing your dad?

Funny! He’s an awesome guy. Again, I go about filming in a sort of method way so the whole time he was dad to me. Belushi and my father are very similar people. It was all very organic. He looked at me like his son because he has a son right around my age. I feel like he used his son as a reference for Keith and I used my dad a reference for Jim playing my dad. It was awesome.

When you went to visit a state prison with Matthew for research, what kind of information were you hoping to retrieve? What did you need in order to play your character properly?

A bunch of things. I wanted to know what got them in the situation they’re in. I wanted to figure out, if they got out today, what would be the hardest thing for them to adapt to. I wanted to know what it’s really like in the prison. I wanted to know how much time they have to think about just everything and how they feel now after being locked up for five-plus years.

Do you feel like a very changed person after each film? Do the films color you differently?

A hundred and fifty percent. Coming out of American Honey, I needed two, three months to decompress. Not so much with Patti Cake$ because I only had a week and a half of filming on that. You just come out more aware of other people’s situations. Every filming process, whether it’s a month shoot or a four-month shoot, is a giant growth process. You’re figuring out yourself, and a whole different person inside of you to put on the screen for the world to see. It’s a lot of pressure to embody a different human being that isn’t you. That’s a world of pressure. Every filming process is definitely a self-growth journey.

What kind of character did you slip into for your next film, We Are Coyotes?

I play a kid named Jake who is a Chicago-native. He decides to drive across the country with his girlfriend to pursue her dream. I play a really supportive and loving boyfriend who is down for the ride. That’s going to Cannes this year.

I saw that. Are you heading back to Cannes?

I won’t be because I’ll be filming in Sicily, Italy. But you should go see the film!

Are you allowed to discuss that project?

I am. I’m filming a movie called The Winemaker’s Son and I play the winemaker’s son. My dad in it is being played by Richard Dreyfuss so it will be another film where I’m getting to play the son of, basically, a legend. It’ll be a cool two-month shoot. I’m really excited for it.

Let me ask you a different kind of question. I know an injury dashed your goal of becoming a pro athlete early on. It’s strangely a common tale with actors. What’s the connecting thread between competitive sports and what you do? I would love to unravel that mystery one day.

[Laughs] I mean, I got into acting because I feel like I’ve been acting my whole life. I’ve always had to put on different faces for different people. That’s why I thought I could do this acting thing. With sports and acting—I don’t know. It’s not like when you’re making a movie you’re competitive, even though I’m extremely competitive. I don’t know what draws athletes to want to become actors. Maybe the desire is to have something new regularly, like you want to have a new goal for each game that you play or each season that you come upon. I guess I look at every movie like it’s a new season in which to improve and get better and wow people. Maybe it’s because you’re always going through revolving doors into something new.

That makes more sense than anything else I’ve heard.

If I ever think of something more matter of fact, I’ll make sure to let you know.

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