There’s a zone you get into, this pocket where you’re on set performing and there’s adrenaline and the energy of everything and it’s filling up the cup inside of you.

A college student’s quest for excellence provides the narrative engine of Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature The Novice, which picked up the top narrative prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Based on the filmmaker’s own experiences in collegiate rowing, Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) is an overachieving freshman for whom half-measures are simply not part of her lexicon. Like a female Gollum driven only by obsession, she strives to be the absolute best at everything she does. Calculating, Alex is determined to move up to the varsity team—and quickly!—despite not being particularly skilled on the water as a novice. To compensate, she trains until the sport curdles into something monstrous past her breaking point: She vomits from the exertion, and at one point passes out and wets herself in front of her teammates during practice. But none of this fazes her. She seems to relish in conquering tasks that are maybe better suited for somebody else—life is a collection of challenges to defeat after all. She’s no good in physics either, which hasn’t stopped her from majoring in it. When she does find time for a social life, even that comes at the price of self-placed obligations: She impatiently hooks up with a frat bro, a tick box that demands checking.

Entreaties to “have fun” and “relax” pepper the film, to the point of becoming the desperate plea of the people watching her implode. Thankfully, the story is gifted with a coach who is exceptionally kind. Pete (Jonathan Cherry) is her balm: He counsels moderation as Alex sheds sweat, blood and tears, wearing every stubborn stain of disappointment and every piece of spiteful fire on her face. 

Anthem sat down with Cherry to discuss his journey, from film school to The Novice and beyond.

The Novice is now playing in select theaters and available On Demand.

[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Hi, Jonathan. How did your audition go?

Good! Yeah, there are all these auditions happening right now. I’ve been busy. Zoom and taping, right? Because there’s no going into the audition room anymore. Some of them feel like these great opportunities and other ones feel like I’m just sending a pigeon out into Mordor. [laughs]

Were Zoom auditions common pre-pandemic?

They were doing it anyway when they had to, like if you got an audition and you couldn’t be there. In those situations, the self-tape is sort of great because they’re anticipating your tape and they’re going to watch it. But personally, I don’t like it this way. I love being in the room and exchanging energy. I feel like I get hired because maybe I give them a good vibe, like they think I might be fun to work with. With Zoom and taping, they don’t really get to see that.

Tribeca was fortunately in-person this year. Was that your first time seeing the movie?

No, I’m actually good friends with one of the producers so she had shown me the first or second cut of the film, which I did not like… I went to Tribeca thinking “Good or bad, we’re coming out of Covid. It’s New York. And when am I gonna see myself on a big screen again, if ever?” The movie had changed so much by then. The outdoor screening on the Hudson was separated into these pods and I was sitting with a clump of Novice people in front. I remember the moment I turned around and saw people really reacting to this movie. I was like “Oh man, there’s something here.” I had no expectations. I didn’t think we’d win anything. Well, maybe Isabelle.

It’s a great movie.

Oh it was phenomenal the second time. I wanted to shake the people near me like “Holy shit.”

How did this project come to you?

I lived in LA for a really long time and I’d just moved back to Canada when I got this email from my agent: “There’s a movie in Toronto. Make a tape.” It’s funny because that same day, the producer I was telling you about, Kari Hollend, one of my best and oldest friends, called me: “There might be a part in this movie for you. Make a tape.” I had no idea she was producing this same movie so it wasn’t nepotism or anything like that. Anyway, Lauren saw a bunch of tapes and chose me to be in it. And it’s pretty great because I’ve known Kari since I was 12. It’s our first movie together. It’s so cool that the movie is doing well and we get to share this experience.

Your character is so critical to this story: He’s the respite, the voice of reason. Calm waters.

I think he came at the right time. So I’ve always just been an actor, right? Since I started, I haven’t had a side job. I got success early on so it’s just been a constant thing. I’d been going hard the whole time. When I moved back to Canada, I took a break from acting for maybe half a year. In that time, I started teaching at Toronto Film School. I was able to bring this new me, this new thing I picked up, to the film. It’s a similar scenario in a way because I’m teaching people who’ve chosen to become actors and they’re all freaking out, right? They’re really nervous, anxious and neurotic. I’m almost there to tell them “You gotta relax. You gotta do the work, but also enjoy yourself. You can drive yourself nuts if you go down certain roads.” When I saw this part, I was like “This is perfect.” He is, as you say, calm waters. Isabelle is the momentum and he’s taking the coal out of her train that’s going full blast. As her novice coach, I’m there to show the audience that, if he’s not going to be the one to calm her down, if he’s not going to bring some humor and sanity to the whole thing, it’s just gonna get progressively worse for her.

I remember being so starry-eyed in film school. Do you sense that in your students?

I think my story is very similar to their story. I dropped out of university to go to Vancouver Film School with my best friend. We drove across the country together when I had no experience. I just remember blindly going “I’m gonna do this.” So it has come full circle in that way. I do tell them “Don’t lose that starry-eyedness because that really fueled me early on.” I looked at everything: “If this casting director auditioned so-and-so, perhaps he was in this room and looking into that camera.” I was super dorky about it. There’s an interview I did while I was filming Final Destination 2 where I’m talking about how cool it is that I’m in a movie produced by New Line Cinema because they also made The Lord of the Rings. “New Line Cinema!” My eyes were like this big. [laughs] I was being completely genuine, but the guy shooting the thing couldn’t help himself: “Wow, this is like New Line porn.” When I look back on that, well, that’s what got me there! I wish I still had it to be honest with you. So I tell students to never let go of any of that. I tell them to filter in what works, and make sure it’s fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. As long as you find fun in it, you’ll be okay. It’s not very Meisner or Stella Adler or any of those people.

It’s just real.

That’s what I try to do. I try to be as real with them as possible: “What a weird job this is, right? Go and do this weird job. I’m in the same boat. This is my outlook and it works for me.”

When I told you that I identified with this film and maybe it’s not something to broadcast, I was really thinking about ambition and drive taken to unhealthy levels. Are you competitive?

That’s a good question. I think I lie to myself or to other people when I say I’m not competitive. I think I’m crazy competitive. Going back to being starry-eyed, I would even study people’s cheekbones when I was first starting out. I’d meet someone and tune out the conversation and study their face if they were an actor. If someone got something, that affected me. It could ruin my day. I don’t operate at my best when I’m doing that. I think the best parts of me don’t do that.

I think competitiveness can be stigmatized. We’re told that it’s unbecoming. Even starry-eyedness gets a bad rap sometimes. But I’ve only ever viewed them as huge pluses.

It’s funny because whenever I’m on a set and I see people approaching it like “This is just a job” or even if they have other interests outside of what we’re doing, I can’t relate. I always think it’s so cool that we’re making a movie. I’m obsessed with the movie and I think everybody else should be obsessed with the movie too. This comes back to the whole New Line thing, and it’s really vulnerable to say this stuff because it’s so dorky. But at the end of the day, we’re choosing to do this, which is out of the norm. There’s gotta be love driving it. Expressing that should almost be celebrated, not looked at as “What a try-hard. Oh he’s just so keen to be here.” No, we all are. We all chose. I’m always sort of studying those people: Do they really mean what they say?

I geeked out immediately upon remembering you from Final Destination 2. Did you know there’s a YouTube clip that’s entirely devoted to your character from the movie? That’s love.

That is love!

Are you a fan of horror?

I always liked horror movies, but I was never like a horror geek. I’ve done my share of horror-comedies or culty horror, but when I met the fans of these movies, it was new to me. When I saw the first Final Destination, that to me was a teen movie. That’s why I’d watched it. Because I was thinking “I look sort of similar to these guys. They’re my age in these movies. I need to study these people.” I used to drag my poor friends to Freddie Prinze Jr. movies. I have one buddy who’s the artiest dude you’ll ever meet in your life. He’s a director now. His name is Jaron Albertin.

I actually know who that is. I’m a fan of his music videos for Emily Haines and Metric.

There you go! So he’s this super auteur type, right? Imagine me dragging that guy to Freddie Prinze Jr. movies. [laughs] What a good friend.

That is for sure a test of friendship, of a certain kind.

It’s just so funny when I see his work now—that he was humoring me.

You make a really valid point that these were teen movies too. And whether you think it’s teen or horror, they were never throwaway to me. I went to film school because of Scream.

I want to tell you something you’ll appreciate. I was supposed to go shoot an awesome action movie called Hounds of War in Malta in September. Lowell Dean, who I made the Wolfcop movies with, is the director. I had a great part. I was going to play Frank Grillo’s brother. Andy Garcia is in it and all these great people. Bucket list stuff. But the icing on the cake for both me and Lowell was that the bad guy we’re supposed to have a standoff with in the movie is Skeet Ulrich. Lowell and I were both like “Dude, we would’ve gotten to work with Skeet Ulrich!” It’s that geek from the late ‘90s coming out. Frank Grillo we were super excited to work with. Andy Garcia? Super excited. But there’s just something about coming full circle doing a movie with Skeet Ulrich.

What’s happening with the movie now?

It got postponed. I think something happened with the financing. I don’t know exactly, but they still plan on making it. Hopefully we get to do it, maybe somewhere else. But I’d love to do it in Malta. Maybe in 2022. It fell apart the day I was supposed to leave. I was heartbroken.

Did you always love film?

I always loved it.

What’s your earliest movie memory?

The Wizard of Oz and Grease. I was obsessed with Grease as a kid. I was terrified of The Wizard of Oz, because it’s a horror movie? [laughs] When I got to university, I had a two-week depression like “What am I doing here?” I had to look at myself and realized I always just loved film. But it never felt like something that’s accessible in any way. And Titanic kind of did it to be honest with you. The trailer came on and I saw this shot of DiCaprio at the end of this boat, this mega construction. I’d already heard about the budget because they were advertising it. It just hit me, this one shot of his face and the responsibility of that. I’d never looked at film that way before. I thought it was so crazy and wanted to be a part of that industry: “I would be really happy if I just hammered a nail into that boat.” And then I got real with myself: “No, I want to be that guy.”

I found an insightful interview from 2009 where you’re talking about your life and career while driving down Sunset Boulevard. It’s a true time capsule. About acting, you had said that your parents “would never let me do something like that.” How did you sway them?

When I was at university, I went home for Christmas break and told them “I don’t think this is me. I wanna be an actor. I’ve always wanted to do that.” So my mom got advice from her friend: “Let him follow his dreams or you’ll regret it.” She was onboard. My dad was not onboard. He’s awesome and I love him, but he called bullshit: “You just want to play the rest of your life. Any excuse to not pick up a book.” I read and speak for a living! He finally came around at the Final Destination 2 premiere. They got flown down by the studio, put up in a hotel and they saw me for the first time on a red carpet. These kids came up to me for autographs. It was a movie moment.

It must be mind-blowing to see your kid notch something so unattainable.

Seriously. They were always worried about me because I was never good in school. They used to take me for IQ tests. [laughs] They were like “What’s wrong with him?” I just wasn’t interested.

Going back even further to your first-ever gig, how did you book that Grinch and Sprite ad?

When I was graduating school, we were all in a panic: Who’s gonna do well? Who’s gonna do this, who’s gonna do that? We all went to this same guy to get our headshots done, and it was painful. I hated it. It was like going to the dentist. The guy hated it too. I asked him “How would you market me?” because that’s what my school told me to ask people. And he said “I don’t know, you have an okay look. I would never expect you to be on a movie poster. But, yeahhh, I think you’re okay.” This asshole, right? [laughs] I remember being so freaked out by that. And I’d paid a lot of money. The shots were awful. So I went back to him: “Give me some better shots.” Those were okay. And then I printed out my resume and started handing them out to agents. But I wasn’t getting any calls back at all. I was like “That guy was right. I’m not special. I’m not magical like these other guys.” Five months after that, an agent called me: “Are you Jonathan? I just wanted to let you know that we’ve been interested in you, and there’s a bunch of agents looking for you. The last digit of your phone number is smudged out.” So I had just been sitting there watching DVDs on the couch like “I’m never gonna do it.” Anyway, after that, one of the meetings I had was with this agent at this tiny, abstract agency. I walked in there and saw Brendan Fehr’s headshot on the wall. I recognized him from that show Roswell. I said “That’s the guy from that new show” and the agent goes “Yeah, I discovered him.” So I said “Can you do for me what you did for him?” That’s how I ended up working with the guy. He got me that audition. I booked it.

Naturally, I’m deeply curious about Uwe Boll as well. He’s a unicorn in film.

I had a lot of fun shooting House of the Dead. I felt like a kid playing in my backyard. It’s a terrible movie, but I got to star in a zombie movie, before The Walking Dead and the whole zombie craze. I wish I had appreciated it more. If I got to do it again, I think it’d be different. I didn’t get it then. I get it now. I started on that movie the day I finished Final Destination 2. The car crash was the last thing we shot and they flew me directly to Vancouver for a meeting with Uwe and some of the other cast. We did a table read and went on a walk in the forest where we were going to shoot. I’ll give you a quote that sums it all up: “Jonathan, the zombies are coming from everywhere. From the hills, the zombies are coming. I want you to look at your friends being eaten alive by the zombies. It’s D-day. Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. This is Saving Private Zombie!” I did my best. [laughs] I just thought Uwe wasn’t very into the story. I felt bad for the writers because he would take the script and go “This scene? Omitted! This scene? Omitted! More zombies! Shoot, shoot, shoot!” When you watch it, there are certain things that make no sense. Zero sense. And it’s like two percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but it still made money. I take some responsibility for sure because I was very green and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I ran into him in LA years later and he wasn’t that nice to me. I don’t know if he blames me, but I was happy to see him.

That’s disappointing. Did you know that he used to run a restaurant called The Bauhaus in Vancouver? It was highly praised—one of the top six restaurants in Canada sort of acclaim. He said “I had to open up a restaurant to get good reviews.” He’s self-aware at least.

No, I like him! He wasn’t awful to me. When I ran into him at the Arclight in LA, I guess he was in a meeting. I was all schlubby. He said something sort of rude to me, but he was nice enough. I would do another Uwe movie. Why not? He has also boxed his critics. You know about that?

No, but that doesn’t surprise me.

You have to Google that. Because they were tearing him apart, right? And he’s a boxer. He’s like in crazy shape. I don’t put anything past that guy. That guy can do anything.

So what is it about acting that keeps you coming back?

There’s a bit of regret because I got hot early on. I wasn’t ready. Back then, I didn’t really have to fight for it. Now I’m so much better and I’ve learned to fight for it. I’m sort of chasing that dragon still in some ways. This is going to sound so corny, but I wanna have that moment where I’m totally real. I’ve felt it here and there. There’s a zone you get into, this pocket where you’re on set performing and there’s adrenaline and the energy of everything and it’s filling up the cup inside of you. It’s that moment. And I love storytelling. I love films. Even when this business has given nothing back, where I’ve been running out of money or haven’t worked in a while, I’m always still watching movies and TV and trying to put myself in it, you know? I guess I’m still that inner geek. It goes back to people just looking at this as a job. I could be on the smallest movie or the biggest movie. Every time, I’m just thrilled by the whole thing. I’m just so thrilled to be there.

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