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SXSW interview: 'The Wilderness of James'

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SXSW interview:

By Cody Villafana

AUSTIN, Texas -- Even though he is only 17 years old, Kodi Smit-McPhee could certainly be considered a seasoned actor. Breaking out in 2009’s “The Road,” Smit-McPhee has shown ability to act beyond his years in films like “Let Me In,” and the upcoming “A Birder’s Guide To Everything.” His latest indie venture, “The Wilderness of James,” which is a story about a boy exploring a city and new people in the wake of the loss of his father premieres at this years SXSW festival in Austin. I spoke with Smit-McPhee about dark themes in his movies, the difference between working in indies and studio films, and a quick fascination with sharing the same name.

Publicist: Cody, You’re on with Kodi!

KSM: Hey Cody!

Hey Kodi! How ya doin’?

(laughs) Good, dude. I’m gonna interview you today.

Oh…that would be awesome.

(laughs)

So I’m going to start off a little dark, if that’s okay with you.

No problem. I’m used to it.

For such a young actor, a lot of the films you have done have had some dark themes in them. Does getting to act in those types of films appeal to you?

Definitely. I always try to choose quality stories that pull strings within me or ones that I know will make an audience think or go to different places. I think most of the dramatic stuff is in that area. I just love the feeling of being able to go there within a movie and not having to obviously go there in real life. Then everyone in the audience gets to go on that emotional adventure. I’d definitely like to spread it around. I want to do some comedies and stuff part of the time.

Kinda staying on the same thing, I’ve noticed that in “The Road,” “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” and now “The Wilderness of James” your character has had a parent who has died. Is that difficult to tackle? Where do you draw your inspiration for that?

Interesting thing you picked up there. It’s such an interesting thing, acting…literally having to pull something out of nowhere that you’ve never experienced before. Especially horrible things like that. Really it’s just the same kind process every time. I just read the script as much as I can and I try and choose all of the information out of it as possible and try and get as much thoughts from my character out of the script. From there, I’ll create the character myself and start pulling things out of the box. I think it’s within just knowing the character so well and jumping in and out of it that you can go to those places. It’s just after getting the wisdom of the character that you get that freedom.

Were you able to use anything you learned in those previous movies to help understand James as a character?

James is a very different character. I’ve never really played one like it. All of my characters have been inside themselves and thinking a lot, but James is that times a million. He’s really created a world for himself and it’s just about him going about his normal life while trying to live this crazy one that he’s created. The film also captures Portland and the vibe of Portland so it’s a real mixed feeling. It’s cool.

In the film, James has a morbid fascination with death that we see. Did you take that as a way of him coping with the loss of his father? What was your take on that?

Definitely. I think what’s happening James’ life is going extremely deep and I think it may happen all around the world when people deal with these things. I think he took on that horrible vibe of what he saw his father do and that was his only way of dealing with it. Being obsessed with death and keeping that with him, because that’s all he knew of his father, kind of. It’s the last thing he left behind. As he says in the movie, that’s his wilderness, not his own. So James needs to move on. So that’s what its all about. How he dealt with it and how he let go.

Along those lines, he has sort of a rebellion in the movie. He’s hanging out with some people who probably aren’t the best influences. Do you think that continues on the theme of not having the best coping skills?

Definitely. I think after that happened to him when he was younger, it had an extreme domino effect on his life and how he interacted with people and I think he got extremely comfortable within himself.

What about building James as a character? I know you said that you like building your own characters. How much input did you have on building James?

What was prominent in the script was that it was extremely explanatory of James’ thinking and it really gave me a lot to think about. I think the script described him really well and then when I got to talk with (director) Michael [James Johnson] and got to talk about his point of view on the character and I was grateful that he let me do my thing with the character and take it to different places.

What about the relationship with Evan Ross’ and Isabelle Fuhrman’s characters? One of them isn’t really the best influence on James, but James also seems pretty isolated. How did you see those characters interacting with and impacting his life?

I think that it’s a mirror image of real life. It shows you have to go to different places out of the box to then come back and change things. It just shows how he starts leaving the house and following the sound of the wilderness. Exploring Portland with those kind of character misfit characters. I think it’s really showing that life was trying to get him back on track and that was the only way to do it. To let him be himself.

You’ve brought up Portland a few times. A lot of times you’ll hear people describe cities as characters in movies. Did you feel that way about Portland?

Oh, absolutely. I totally think Portland was such a big character in the movie. Even just when I’d have meetings with Michael…I’d only been to Portland once, for “The Road,” and we were shooting in totally different areas so I didn’t get the feel of real Portland. Michael had such a love for his hometown and he would always explain it to me and I was like “Man, I can’t wait to get there.” It’s one of the coolest experiences of my life. It’s such a cool, young, hip town and I totally think it played a big part in the movie.

Did you ever get the feeling that James was in over his head, so to speak? Like he was taking on things that he shouldn’t have been doing considering his age?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I think obviously after what happened to his dad…that’s an extremely serious thing, but he then created a whole negative vibe within himself and created a cockiness and a thing he had to portray every single day of his life…just going deeper and deeper within the rabbit hole until he hit a wall and he has to split off and go through his town and meet crazy people to be free and go back to being normal. That’s awesome that you picked that up. I totally agree. He created a horrible, cocky characteristic for himself.

I think the scene that sticks out to me the most is towards the end of the film where you’re having this really emotional scene with your mother in the film, Virginia Madsen. At this stage of the career, do you enjoy having these roles where you’re in every scene and you have the responsibility of carrying the emotional weight of the movie. Do you see that as a challenge? How do you approach that?

I always see those little parts in the script as like…you get a feeling of like…that day is going to be something different within me and that’ll be a bit of a challenge but it’s kind of like you can only control it within the moment. I think that’s what all acting is about. Once you get the wisdom of the character, and once I know it so well…and usually you do those things at the end of the movie, once you’ve been on the whole journey with the character. We did that by the end of it and I knew James so well and I was so ready for that moment. I do like that. I never really think of that as holding the emotion upon my shoulders but just another moment that will connect things together and have people feeling a lot of emotion. I really like that.

The last couple of movies of yours have been smaller independent films. On the horizon looking forward, you’ve got a lot of bigger budget studio movies coming up. I’m sure you like them equally, but what is the difference between the approaches for those two types of movies?

They definitely are two different kind of worlds and processes. I feel like indie films, the process itself is always really fresh and finding itself and always such a fun, kind of youthful adventures. It’s usually a first director, or shot in a small town where every one knows each other. There’s always quality stories running through the veins of indie films. But also, there’s some really great studio films out there. The first studio film I did was “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and that was definitely a different experience. There’s so many people and it’s everything times a million. It’s also the same great people and great experience. I love both and as long as there’s quality stories between both genres, that’s totally cool with me.

I saw “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” at Austin Film Festival in October. I liked it, I thought you were really good in it. Is there anything that sticks out to you about that film? Was it one of the first films that you felt that you were in charge of emotionally? Or what was that like for you as a milestone as an actor?

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything” was exploring different bodies of characters I could do. Also, working with Sir Ben Kingsley was insane. That was amazing. I think that was a film that reminded of the nostalgic “The Breakfast Club” and “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me.” I love those films so much. So to kind of create one of those in a new generation was a really cool thing to do. I think that character was something I’ve never played before. Kind of nerdy, still vulnerable and something horrible happened in his life as well. It’s about growing up and dealing with things.

You’ve been acting for most of your childhood and you continue to do so. Do you think that there’s a key to transitioning from child actor, to teenage actor where you are now, to eventually going on to be an adult actor? Or do you think it’s a natural progression?

I think it’s a bit of both. It’s obviously natural because we’re going to change and the roles have to evolve and change with you. It’s always a little bit of a tough transition but it’s really about the team and choosing quality things that are smart to do. It’s kind of a game to switch to the transitions. But I think I’m really happy with what I’m doing and I think the transition worked out really great and I’m still changing and doing different things. I still have to show people my comedy and I’m really enjoying myself.

***

Academy Award nominated actress Virginia Madsen plays the mother of a James, (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a boy who explores the city of Portland while dealing with the death of his father. With our phone interview taking place the night after the Oscars, I spoke with Madsen about her awards run with the film “Sideways” as well as discussing the aspects of parenting a teenager, and working with Smit-McPhee.

Since we had the Oscars last night, I wanted to see if you had any favorite memories from the awards run you had with “Sideways,” which was almost a decade ago.

Oh, I have so many wonderful memories of that. That was everything I dreamed it would be when I was 5 years old. It was a perfect day from the moment I woke up and I think Estee Lauder sent me this massage with a bath of rose petals and I had a Versace dress. I stepped on the red carpet with all these actors that I admired and I was with all these people that I made a movie with. It was an extraordinary experience and even down to when they open the envelope and you have the loser cam in your face. It was really hard not to laugh because you always wonder what that’s going to be like when they’re filming your reaction. I was quite certain that Cate Blanchett was going to win. I was 99% sure that she was going to go home with the gold statue so I was really happy for her. I loved her performance so much and she’s an actress that I’ve admired so much and I thought she should have gotten the Oscar for “Elizabeth.” Even that was perfect. I loved that whole experience. It was a wonderful ride and a wonderful film. I made it to the big dance! I got to be Cinderella! And I didn’t have to be home at midnight.

Switching gears to “The Wilderness of James,” how did you become involved with this film?

Well this was a standout script. It was very well written. It was a beautiful story and most of my work has been in small independent films. This was a tiny, tiny budget with a first time director. I knew Kodi (Smit-McPhee) as a young actor.  But it was the script that brought me to this project. Everyone was passing it around because it was so good. I’m always drawn to good writing. I was looking for material and new filmmakers. I wanted to work with first-timers. That’s exciting to me because they are so passionate.

The film is largely about James having some difficulties dealing with the loss of his father. How did you feel that your character was dealing with the loss of her husband?

That’s such an interesting question because that was something that we didn’t really have the time to illustrate. We didn’t have too much time to tell my story. She’s obviously a very capable woman who sort of moved on because she had to. She had to take care of this very special, sensitive child. I think she put all of her focus into that and not her own grief. That’s what you do as a mother. You don’t think about your own business. You think about them. She has a successful business, this wasn’t a woman in grief. This was all about her son.

We do see her often drinking wine and it’s even something that James brings up. Did you see that as hinting towards your character not having good coping skills?

We wanted to be very careful with that because we didn’t want to make it seem like his mom was an alcoholic. But mom is spending way too much time alone. Both of these characters are spending way too much time alone. They’re not moving on. So that was the one place that I got to illustrate her dysfunction. She’s alone at night, he’s asleep. That was her routine. She drinks too much. But during the day she’s functioning. She wasn’t a drunk. But that’s when you saw the chink in her armor. Women who do that in secret, when their kids become teenagers, they know that’s what you’re doing. So it’s very obvious to him what his mothers problems were. I thought that was very revealing.

It almost feels like there’s a couple of losses going on in the film. You have the obvious physical loss of a father and a spouse but you also have your character who seems to be losing control of James. Can you talk about where you felt your character was as far as her mindset of trying to keep James in line or did you feel like she was losing him at all?

That’s what happens when you have a teenager. You do lose. My son is grown, but I had just gone through that with him. I think in many ways, teenagers are teaching their parents to let them go. As parents, it’s a fine line between letting them have their freedom and still having the keys to the cell. You kind of have to be a jailer sometimes. You have to know when to hold them and when to let them have freedom. She was in this delicate place of trying to let him stick up for himself. But also, hoping he wouldn’t kill himself in the process. Because I had just been through that as a mother, I loved being able to play that. She’s a really good mother. She wasn’t hysterical the way I was in real life. (laughs) She was very together, trying to let him do his thing. But also, girls are very emotional and very hormonal when they go through that. Boys are full of secrets. Boys get quiet. But boys are reckless and they do things that endanger their lives. And sneaking out is a part of that. So much of what they go through at that age, we know nothing about. Any parent who thinks they know all about their teenager is lying to themselves. They are in a huge amount of denial. And I loved his whole secret world that he discovers and how as a young boy he discovers himself. A parent can’t do that for their child. When they are at that age, they are still a child, but they are becoming a young man. So I loved the story of what a boy goes through during that year. When they come out the other end of it, it’s not usually with one cathartic moment, but they are better for having gone through it. It’s hard to see them do that as a mother, but they have to. It’s a vision quest, in a way. We don’t live in a time when a man would go to battle or go on a walk about. We live in modern, urban settings, so the boys have to go through it internally and they have to act out in all kinds of crazy ways. You see all the kids in the movie going through their own version of that. Whoever said that high school was the best years of their lives is a sad, pathetic person. (laughs) It’s the worst time! It’s the hardest part to go through! I loved that they investigated this story not as a bad kid or not as “let’s play rock and roll and do some ecstasy!” It’s far more complicated. It’s not just rebelling against your parents, it’s finding yourself. They rarely show that in movies. They show a lot of adults having a “coming of age.” They don’t tell those stories very well with teenagers and I thought this movie did that so beautifully.

I interviewed (co-star) Kodi Smit-McPhee last week and he talked a lot about really loving shooting the film in Portland and how it was a character in the film. Did you feel the same way?

I loved being there. It was cold and very rainy. It’s a very unusual place. It has it’s own personality as a town. It’s a very young town. Their motto is “where young people go to retire.” There’s a lot of artists running around. There’s food trucks everywhere. You feel like you’re living in this big artist commune, in a way. Our filmmakers were from Portland and we felt like we were in our own little bubble. We had the keys to the city and the town was so glad to have the film there and I think there’s some things in the movie that are certainly universal when it comes to this teenagers tale, but there’s also a lot of things that are specific to Portland.

Close to the end of the film, there’s a really emotional scene between you and Kodi that is great.

Isn’t he wonderful?

Yeah, both of you are so great in it. What was it like working with Kodi in that scene in particular?

Kodi’s got more than talent. Kodi’s got a lot of skill and he knows how to access his emotions quite easily. He’s an actor who arrives with all his lines memorized. He comes to work having done a lot of homework and that’s very unusual for a young actor. Sometimes they think that they need to behave badly in order to be a good actor and bad behavior has nothing to do with acting. Kodi comes to work with everything worked out, man. But he’s very, very open to direction. So we had a very quiet set and Kodi just sat there and simply told the story. He didn’t put frosting on it. He didn’t put too much emotion into it. I just sat there and listened. It was so simple, what he did. It took me decades to learn how to be an actor like that, to keep it simple and tell a story. Kodi already knows how to do that, so that was really beautiful to watch an actor work like that, no matter what age. It was really beautiful to watch him and I sort of felt like his mom. I was so proud that he could accomplish that. It was like listening to someone read a poem. He’s really something.


“The Wilderness of James” premiered at SXSW 2014.

SXSW interview: 'The Wilderness of James'
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