Sometimes the biggest challenge is playing roles that are closest to you because then you just have to be yourself and you have people telling you you’re doing it wrong.
It’s that time again! We’re packing our bags and getting ready to descend upon the picturesque mountain getaway that is Park City, Utah for what is without a doubt one of the essential landmark celebrations of independent cinema. The Sundance Film Festival is a proving ground, a place where films like Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Little Miss Sunshine, Precious and last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene first made their mark. There’s a lot of history there. For all intents and purposes, for us writers, filmmakers and stars, it’s very much about seeing what’s to come—the future. We have a lot of exciting coverage planned, but in lieu of spoiling everything, we’re starting a day early to direct your attention to a fantastic gem in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On chronicles the emotionally and sexually charged journey through the love, addiction, and friendship of two men. Documentary filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and closeted lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) meet through a casual encounter, but find a deeper connection and become a couple. Individually and together, they are risk takers fueled by drugs and sex. In an almost decade-long relationship defined by highs, lows, and dysfunctional patterns, Erik struggles to negotiate his own boundaries and dignity in order to be true to himself.
Anthem caught up with the film’s two lead stars in advance to Sundance in New York City.
How did you get involved with this film? What was attractive about it?
Thure Lindhardt: I was in Europe shooting a movie when I found out about this project, so I put myself on tape for the audition. Ira [Sachs] offered me the part after that. My character was supposed to be a Jewish New Yorker, so he obviously tweaked that once I came on board. [laughs] I was very grateful for that. I only had three weeks to dye my hair and become comfortable with the New York accent. Also, what fascinated me was the desperation, love and frustration of my character Erik. The love these two characters share, despite everything that happens, is really beautiful. It’s a very universal story. To me, being European, this isn’t a gay, New York story. It’s a story about finding yourself.
Zachary Booth: I read the script and really responded to it. I wanted the opportunity to say the words that were on the page. The character on paper seems like he’s the antagonist, as if he’s the core problem, so the challenge was to find something sympathetic about a person who’s like that. It’s a challenge that I wanted. I was interested in figuring out how to play a drug addict who’s pulling apart his relationship, but still lovable at the same time. Ira told me to make an audition tape for him. When I did, I got this email from him saying, ‘I really wish I didn’t ask you to make me a tape.’ [laughs] He didn’t like it, but he hired me anyway, thank god.
Both of your characters deal with compulsions and addictions, be it sex, drugs or something less pronounced. What kind of research did you do to play these parts?
TL: You just constantly talk to people, read books, think, reflect on your personal experiences and try to investigate as much as you can. What is abuse? What is it? My own abuse is extremely boring—cigarettes and coffee. Still, we all understand the concept of abuse or addiction.
ZB: The behavior is the same whether it’s a bag of potato chips or a bag of crack. If you think about it in those terms, it’s easier to access for an actor. We brought in a recovering drug addict on set and he walked us through the details of physically packing a crack pipe. It was about getting into the mindset of a drug addict and tapping into the feeling of craving something—it could be potato chips or ice cream—in the moment. When I’m high on crack and a hustler comes to visit me while my boyfriend is in the same hotel room, what am I going to be thinking about?
TL: I played a drug addict many years ago. I met this guy who lives in Copenhagen and he told me something that I never forgot. He told me there’s a center in our brain that controls both our desires for food and drugs. But the craving for heroin is a thousand times bigger than our craving for food, as you might expect. We all know how it feels to be to really, really hungry. It can get to a point where it almost feels like an addiction. It’s about filling up the hole… [laughs] But it’s not about the hole; it’s about filling up the emptiness…
ZB: [laughs] I’m so sorry you went there.
Were you at all concerned about your obligations to this project in terms of the nudity and all that?
ZB: The first draft was really graphic. It outlined things that I wasn’t comfortable doing. When Ira offered me the role, I was curious to know why he decided to write the screenplay in such a graphic fashion and I asked him that. He basically said he intended to show everything in a tasteful way, but knew that if he didn’t write it really graphically and pull it back during the shoot, he would never be able to get what he really needed. If he had written it timidly and then asked us, during the shoot, if we wouldn’t mind having sex—mime it—we would tell him that’s not what we signed up for. So it was certainly a concern. I needed him to explain why he wrote it like that and then I felt fine with it. We were also concerned about making everything look as authentic as possible. It was always a question of how to make everything look as real as possible.
TL: I saw Shortbus a year before shooting this and thought, “Is this how they make movies in New York?” [laughs] I loved the movie, but it just scared me, the whole sex thing. But sometimes you just have to go there. I felt really safe doing the sex scenes. When it serves the story and you get into your character’s mindset, the fear goes away.
ZB: You can’t tell the story of this relationship without showing the sex because there’s an immediate intimacy that’s created between these two guys even before they get to know each others’ first names. You can’t show all the different sides of their relationship without showing that physical side. At times, that was the only thing that kept them together, you know? Those instances where they’re unable to communicate verbally, but they can physically.
There’s really no point in taking a role that won’t challenge you as an actor, right?
TL: For me, it’s pretty simple. I need to be a part of something that moves me in some way. I think the projects that I really feel proud of are always the ones that I chose based on intuition. It doesn’t take much thought to say yes to something when you have a strong feeling that it might be special. I’m not very strategic when it comes to mapping out my career. I certainly have dreams and hopes, but I can’t really control it.
ZB: I have no control over it either. I’ve only had to make a few choices in my career. It’s still at a point where I don’t feel comfortable saying the word “career”. You make a couple of movies and just hope that you get to keep doing it. It’s about what comes along. I wouldn’t do something if I thought the people working on it didn’t seem to be on the same page or didn’t seem like collaborators. It’s important to know that somebody doesn’t think what they’re doing is too precious. They also need to know that I don’t think what I’m doing is too precious so they’re unafraid to be totally honest. So, the people involved are really important. A film doesn’t necessarily have to move me. The character has to be a new person for me in my body of work. It doesn’t matter if the character feels close to my real self or far from me. He just has to seem like a new guy and then I’ll decide if I can play him. Sometimes the biggest challenge is playing roles that are closest to you because then you just have to be yourself and you have people telling you you’re doing it wrong.
TL: I tried that once and it was so difficult. I was thinking too much instead of just doing it. I think there will always be this desire to work with good directors and opposite good actors, so it’s a question of what your values are in life. How do you see yourself? How do you see other people?
What are your thoughts on straight actors taking on gay roles and gay actors taking on straight ones? Why do people get so fixated on stuff like this?
ZB: I have no idea. It seems like that sort of sensitivity will lessen as long as more films like this are made. The more people are exposed to these types of stories, the less they’ll be concerned with labels like that. It’s just actors playing roles. You have to give actors the opportunity to explore different characters.
Weekend is another good example. Did you see it?
ZB: I did. People watch that movie and they don’t think they’re watching a gay movie.
ZB: That’s an important shift. I think that’s an important thing that Keep the Lights On accomplishes as well. This movie is accessible to anyone who is loved, wanted to love or ever had a relationship. When I first read the script, I thought it was a gay, drug movie, but Ira told me it’s a relationship movie. I was just looking at it from my character’s perspective. I hope things continue to change and people stop looking at “gay films” as “gay films”. The Kids Are Alright was a family movie. Obviously, a lot was made about the couple being gay, but straight people were able to access it because there are so many human scenes in it.
I love how Keep the Lights On takes place in New York, but Ira doesn’t spoon-feed viewers the kinds of backdrops we consider quintessentially New York. We see you guys in hotel rooms, dimly lit apartments, cramped restaurants—real spaces that New Yorkers more commonly associate their lives with day in, day out.
ZB: It gives the film its intimate quality for sure. There’s a lot of authenticity in the backdrops.
Can you tell us about the production itself? How many people were on the crew?
ZB: I’d say between 25-40 people on set at any given time, including the office.
TL: It was a great crew and we all felt like we were part of a family. Everyone was very respectful and it was a very intimate shoot. We felt very safe.
ZB: Everyone seemed very eager to create. There were some really accomplished people there, but they didn’t have any egos. Ira walked in one day and said, ‘You know more about this. You’ve spent more days on a film set than I have.’ I was like, “Dude! You’re Ira Sachs! What are you doing?” [laughs] That sort of humility trickled down to everyone. We shot in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. We shot on University Avenue between 9th and 11th for the argument scene and there was 45 feet of dolly tracks lying on the sidewalk.
TL: That was so cool!
ZB: I was stressing out and whining, “I don’t want to do this!” and Thure yanks me back to reality. He goes, ‘Do you know what’s happening right now? We’re in the middle of New York City making a movie!’
Is the heckling kept down to a shout when you shoot in New York?
TL: People just want us to move out of their way. They’re just trying to get to wherever they need to go.
ZB: They don’t heckle, but they certainly don’t respect you at all. [laughs] We also had some Europeans that would pass by yelling, ‘Is that Toure?!’
TL: This really funny thing happened one day with the line producer.
ZB: He was the AD, assistant director.
TL: He would tell people, ‘No, it’s not Robert DeNiro. You can keep on walking!’ [laughs]
ZB: I haven’t shot so much outside of New York. It’s different when it’s an independent film. When they shoot a TV show, there’s like 10 trucks and teamsters everywhere, so the crowds tend to huddle. With a small film like this, people literally walk right in front of the camera and you can see it! It’s in the movie. [laughs] They don’t notice it, but I do! A guy just walked right in front of me with headphones and it’s like, “Oh, after you!”
Have your acting goals changed since you first started out? What do you hope to accomplish?
TL: I just want to keep getting better at it and continue telling stories with great people. I want to meet new friends. Maybe get an Oscar—two!
ZB: ‘Two.’ [laughs] I like that ‘two.’ You have enough awards Thure. Look at him. He’s thinking, ‘But there’s always room for more! I built this shelf and now I need to fill it!’
TL: [laughs] The whole shelf!
ZB: In my first acting class, I realized that acting should be taken seriously. I thought it was fun and I might be good at it, so it seemed like a safe decision. Then life happened and I was suddenly a working actor. I would just love to keep doing what I’m doing. There’s always the fear that the gig’s going to be up. When you have a good life, it’s always the fear that someone’s going to find out that maybe you’re not as great as people have been telling them that you are. [laughs] I want to mature emotionally so it becomes less and less about what people say about what I do and more about what they learn from the stories I’m telling them.