Everyone’s assumption is that he’s not that intelligent. Just because he’s different, that doesn’t mean he’s of any lesser intelligence. I think that’s really important as a general societal thing.
William, directed and co-written by Tim Disney—who was born into Hollywood royalty as the son of Roy E. Disney, making him Walt’s great-nephew—is a coming-of-age tale of the first Neanderthal to walk the earth in 35,000 years.
William—played at different ages by the cutest assembly of child actors imaginable—comes to life courtesy of two star academics, Dr. Julian Reed (Waleed Zuaniter) and Dr. Barbara Sullivan (Maria Dizzia), who hatch a plan to extract DNA from a Neanderthal bog body for the sake of science. Ignoring all ethical and medical concerns, not to mention the directive of their university bosses, they decide to have Barbara carry the resulting embryo to term. When William is successfully born, their detractors weigh in on the Mary Shelley-esque nature of what they have done.
Needless to say, this scientific feat comes at a great cost. Shadowing William from birth through his formative years in high school, we watch him learn to coexist in a world where he’s the ultimate outsider with “other” physical features and a unique way of thinking that set him apart and provoke fear in many as he struggles to find love in a hostile world. For the identity-confused, late-teens William (now played by Will Brittain), life is anything but easy. He’s the object of ridicule in school and bullied by fellow students. Subjected to endless aptitude and IQ tests all his life, William is now a reserved, shy, and “on the spectrum” type. We find touching moments in William’s rejection by a pretty girl at school. We see the rift that opens up between his parents as his identity crisis continues to hit him, as it does any teen—only harder.
Yet, as in life, we also see glimmers of hope. By the time William is 18, he’s somewhat popular in school. He stars in a musical at school and befriends his co-stars. He exhibits a higher learning acumen than other boys his age, as well as a highly developed immune system. He has trouble with abstract ideas like metaphors, but not because he doesn’t understand them—“It feels like something is being taken away from me,” he says. He’s a beacon of nonconformity.
If this all sounds like some parody of Planet of the Apes, you should know William is strikingly thoughtful and humanistic, in great part due to Brittain’s captivating performance, which anchors it all. The 28-year-old actor first came on Anthem’s radar in 2013 with Hannah Fidell’s acclaimed and controversial A Teacher, about a high school teacher’s affair with one of her students.
Brittain also has two films world premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this month in the U.S. Narrative Competition: Lara Gallagher’s Clementine, and Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down. Be sure to watch this space for our upcoming festival coverage.
William is now playing in select theaters.
You were telling me that you’re on a shoot right now.
Yeah, I’m shooting this film called Let Him Go in Canada with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. We’re out in “Big Sky” here outside of Calgary. It’s just gorgeous.
That’s a great cast.
It really is.
I really enjoyed William. First of all, the name synergy is awesome. How lucky.
Oh man, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
I’ve been very intrigued by you since I watched A Teacher many years ago. That was your breakout role, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that was sort of the first big feature I did.
I saw that you signed with Paradigm after the movie and ended up auditioning for Divergent and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. The way you spoke about the film festival experience to Indiewire all those years ago, it sounded like you were super green going into it. Were you studying acting at the University of Texas at the time? Give me the whole enchilada.
I was studying acting at UT, getting a Bachelor of Arts in theatre and dance. I had an agent in Austin at the time and they sent me a submission for A Teacher. I had never auditioned for a film before so I didn’t really know what that was gonna be like. I showed up and Hannah Fidell was actually the casting director for the film as well. I didn’t know that she was the director at the time. I was just ignorant about the whole process. So I auditioned for her and a few weeks later, she called me back to read with Lindsay [Burdge]. Lindsay and I read, and we really clicked. Then I didn’t hear anything for like a month. I was like, “Man, I guess I didn’t get that.” Then Hannah called me one day: “Hey, you got it.” I was like, “Woah, that’s awesome!” We shot it in Texas. I was in school at the time and I had a part-time job so I was sort going to shoot after class at night and on weekends. I remember at a certain moment asking Hannah, “What happens with indie movies? What can happen with this?” She was like, “Oh, you know, the best scenario is to get into Sundance and do well.” I was like, “Oh cool. What’s Sundance?” I was just so naïve to everything about the independent film world at the time. I only really knew theatre. I didn’t have any experience with the film industry. I’m kind of grateful that was the case because I think it took a lot of the stress and anxiety away like, “Will I do a good job?” and “What’s gonna happen with this film?” and all these things you get once you know a little bit about what’s going on. It just took all that out of the way and allowed me to focus on the character and have fun and film a movie with some cool people, you know?
And quite a controversial movie. Was that intimidating for you?
Yes and no. I didn’t think of it like that. I had a girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife. That was really the main concern. I had all these sex scenes with this other girl. Lindsay had a boyfriend as well and—you know Lindsay—she’s the coolest.
Just being respectful of your partner, although the realities of acting doesn’t allow for that comfort sometimes.
Bianca, my wife, was very understanding about the fact that this is sort of what she signed on for, in a way, and really supportive. So that was really the only thing that was kinda intimidating about it. A lot of it was sort of learning on the fly: “Okay, what are we doing now? Okay, so you’re gonna change the camera?” We were filming the scenes out of order so it was about figuring out how to do stuff like that. I was very new to the whole thing so I just went off my instincts the best I could.
Let’s talk about William. It has so many poignant and thoughtful moments. I was very delighted to find that out. One of my favorite scenes is when William is sitting by the campfire and the girl, almost tearing up, asks him, “Do you want to go back—to your time?” That’s sort of William’s conundrum, isn’t it? Then later in the film, William is so revealing: “I believe that I’ve been forced into a less advantageous habitat by your superior members.” Is that the kind of beautiful writing that’s rare to come into possession for actors?
That’s definitely what intrigued me about this script and that’s sort of the crux of this character. Once I read the script, it didn’t feel like, “We’re making some clichéd caveman movie.” It was like, “We’re making a movie about a guy who’s, most of all, a normal guy in terms of who he is and what he likes to do.” He’s a kid trying to get into a good college. He wants to hang out with his buddies. He has a crush on a girl. He wants to please his father. He’s just trying to live a normal life. It’s just a pretty average story in terms of what he’s going through. The X factor is that he’s a Neanderthal and there has never been one before. He’s the only thing in the world of his kind. He’s probably the only thing that has been who he is and only thing there will ever be, you know? So you can’t really wrap your head around the meta-aspect of the thing. It’s not really something you can play, in a way, as an actor. It’s just the reality of what’s going on with this guy in any given scene. I thought that was really interesting. I was also intrigued by the physical aspect of the character and being able to embody that. You have to imagine the way a Neanderthal might move and speak. That’s definitely what drew me to it in the first place. Like you say, seeing those nuances in the script made me really excited about the project.
Like you’re saying, the Neanderthal exterior is what makes him so different to all the characters you’ve played, but at the same time, it’s all so relatable and universal. It’s a coming-of-age story. I like how Tim Disney described the movie as, at its core, a family drama. What were your chief concerns in portraying William? What did you want to convey, and what did you not want to convey about him?
I definitely wanted to convey his intelligence. It’s in the script, obviously. Everyone’s assumption is that he’s not that intelligent. Just because he’s different, that doesn’t mean he’s of any lesser intelligence. I think that’s really important as a general societal thing. Just because people don’t have the same education or don’t think the same way, it doesn’t mean they’re any less intelligent than someone who has a formal education and is sort of out there in the world. Obviously, the concern and some of the stuff we wanted to be careful about was his physicality. You have to have some of that—you want to. He would move differently. He would have a different muscular physique and a different skeleton that would change the way he moves. But you don’t want it to be a cliché. You don’t want it to be silly. The same goes for the voice. So the main concerns for me in playing William were trying to find those things and explore that without it being something the audience watches and goes, “Aw, come on!” You look at a role like The Joker, for instance, and that role has been done a few times with different actors. Jack Nicholson established the base of that character like, “Ok, this is the guy,” and you kind of build off that when you’re approaching him, but with William, you have Encino Man. You don’t want to do that. That’s not the movie. It’s about trying to draw the line between making him seem like he could be a Neanderthal and maybe he could be a normal guy, too.
You engineered this very cool, believable gait for William. That’s one of the first things I noticed. I would imagine that’s the fun stuff to figure out for an actor. At what point in your preparation does the body come into play, and when does the psyche come? Is that all jumbled together?
It’s all sort of jumbled together, and it all sort of informs each other. You do all that before you show up and then you put the prosthetics on, which was designed by Stephen Bettles—it was just incredible. Then all of a sudden, all the work that you’ve done comes to life. We did a screen test and it was at that point I was very eager to actually see how William was reading on the screen. This is not something I would normally do with acting, but I think it was important to me to get behind the monitor and see how it was reading. Maybe it feels right for me, but how does it look on camera? Of course, Tim was very supportive of that and he also had my back the entire time in the filming process. He would go, “Take it down a notch” or “Maybe a little more” or whatever. So yeah, in terms of designing the look, it was just all jumbled together and evolved organically over the course of a couple months or so.
Did you get a chance to walk around off set with your make-up on to see how real people would react to you?
I totally did. I went with two of the producers, Bill Haney and his partner Amar [Balaggan], and we went to a shopping mall. We just walked around, got coffee, shopped for some clothes, and observed people’s reactions. It’s similar to how, if you saw someone who maybe had a bad scar or something like that, you have the same reaction to people. They glance at you like, “That guy is different.” But they would be quiet. They wouldn’t stare. Some people didn’t seem to notice at all, you know? Some people didn’t seem to think it was out of the ordinary. That was a lot of fun.
I like how the science element is important in this movie, but it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative. William is a Neanderthal, but it’s not like he inherently knows how to hunt or has superhuman strength. Tim said he looked for a really long time to find the right actor who was both good and also had the right physical characteristics. You always seemed fit, but did you have to ramp up your training for this?
I definitely did. I put on about 20 pounds of muscle when I got the job and by the time we started shooting. I just wanted him to look thicker and denser than the average person, but not look like a guy who lifts weights or body builds. The way he looks is the way he looks naturally. He doesn’t workout. Well, he does in the film actually, but it’s more of letting off stress for him instead of looking in the mirror and seeing how big he can get his biceps, you know what I mean? So that was important to me. I’m sure there will be people who watch the film and think, “Neanderthals are way more powerful,” and there will be people who won’t care. But for me, I wanted to look like an 18-year-old kid. He just happens to be really strong.
I read that you’re also a personal trainer. You must have a lot of discipline, which is just advantageous in general in life.
Yeah, I’ve been personal training since I was 21 years old so it’s been 7 years now. I love it and I’m really passionate about it. It’s something that I’ll always wanna do, no matter where my career goes because I just enjoy helping people reach their fitness goals. I love the life-changing, interactive aspects of that. It’s really touching a lot of times. It’s really an emotional thing a lot of the time with people. I love that connection. The clients I have in L.A. I’ve had for 4 years now. They’re some of my closest friends and just wonderful people. It definitely helps with acting with all of my characters, being able to have this scope of knowledge in terms of how exactly I can maybe change my posture, gait, body weight, or whatever in a physiological way. It’s really cool for me as an actor in every role. It’s a lot of fun for me. It’s something I definitely look for when I’m researching a character.
I couldn’t help but notice how much you’ve surrounded yourself with female filmmakers over the years. You reunited with Hannah Fidell on The Long Dumb Road. You have two movies in the U.S. Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival this month—Clementine and Blow the Man Down—both helmed by women writer-directors. Do you analyze something like that or is it simply how things have worked out?
It’s how things worked out organically. I love working with female directors. But that doesn’t mean I love working with male directors any less. I’ve been so blessed to get to work with great directors in my career so far. It’s an interesting thing because, in my opinion when it comes down to it, it’s not a whole lot different. A good director is a good director. The directors that I worked with on Blow the Man Down and Clementine are just wonderful people and really close friends. I’m really grateful that I got to work with them and I’m also really grateful to have worked with Richard Linklater. I guess it’s cool to be a part of those projects because I know it’s a little tougher for female directors to get their work out there. I think that’s changing. Hannah’s been sort of part of the tip of the spear, I think, and it’s been cool to have been part of her career from almost the beginning and get to see her evolve. Now A Teacher is going to be made into a TV show on FX and I have friends texting me, “Hey man, do you think you could help me get an audition for it?” I’m like, “Dude, that’s great you’re auditioning for a movie that I filmed in Austin 5 years ago.” It’s a really cool thing to see her career and how it has evolved.
Of course, you’ve worked with great male directors like Richard and Jordan Vogt-Roberts on Kong: Skull Island. Just to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, are you allowed to reveal the director you’re currently shooting with?
I’m currently working with Thomas Bezucha.
What is that experience like and how is it different from your previous shoots?
I’ve only filmed a couple of days, but he’s been wonderful. I really love working with him. He’s a very, very kind and talented man and a lot of fun on set. He’s very upbeat and just a joy to be around. I mean, that’s all I can say on this experience so far because it has only just begun, but I’m really enjoying it.