Two Young Experienced Actors Discuss What Makes a Good Film Director:
Behind the Scenes of LANDLINE
By Tom Snyder, Editor
MOVIEGUIDE® met up recently in Beverly Hills with Jay Duplass and Finn Wittrock, who play two of the three main male roles in the new independent comedy drama, LANDLINE.
LANDLINE is a story about two sisters in 1995 New York City who come closer to one another while dealing with family and relationship problems. It’s a movie for adults, but it does have some pro-family, redemptive moments and a hopeful ending.
Jay and Finn talked about working on the movie with Director and Co-Writer Gillian Robespierre, who developed the script with her current writing partner, Elisabeth Holm. MOVIEGUIDE® asked them why they decided to do the movie.
Finn said, “Good script, good people, good previous movie.”
Jay added, “The script was really good, really tight, but I also knew it was going to be. . . a lot of improv, and a lot of finding it as a group.
Jay said working with Gillian was “really great.”
“She and [co-writer] Liz [Holm] are great writers,” he added.
“They have a lot of confidence in their scripts, and they have a lot of confidence in their actors. They really encourage you to explore and find different colors and ways and words, or whatever you want to do. They’re just really wide open. You know where it’s going because it’s so well-written. They just want you to make it real. That’s such a great, fun way to work. A lot of times when you’re acting, as you’re proceeding through a scene, it starts from a very controlled and stilted place and you’re just really working … to make sure you delivered before they make you level. On the first take, I felt free and human and very natural right off the bat.
Finn said the first scene:
“That first rehearsal that you do is so awkward. ‘What am I doing here?’ And, then, it worked. Gillian just told a joke, and then suddenly it kind of like came to life, spontaneously. When a director just doesn’t seem worried, it sets everyone at ease. She felt confident and easy. So, we kind of felt free to play.”
“Yes,” agreed Jay. “There’s like a big difference when a director is trying to exact one thing from you, it’s very intense and all the time you’re just thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to do the thing that’s in their head?’ These guys don’t work in that way. They’re really [open to the idea] that anything can happen. They’re looking for the most inspired thing that can happen today. They’re not trying to like jam you into a box that they conceived six months earlier. Emotionally and tonally, they’re open if the scene ends up being really funny, that’s great. If the scene ends up being serious, they’re open to that too, as long as it’s authentic and feels right, in the moment.”
Finn grew up near the stage of Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts, where his father worked. Finn himself performed with the company when he was older. He made his Broadway debut as Happy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, directed by the late Mike Nichols (THE GRADUATE, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and REGARDING HENRY).
Finn discussed the difference between playing in something modern like LANDLINE versus Shakespeare.
“In Shakespeare, the words are king,” he said. “Most of your work is just trying to figure out how to make the words connect with your own psyche and make them be clear. And, also, hopefully, making it somewhat exciting and current to watch for a modern audience. Because so much of your work is sort of translating something that was written 400 years ago and try to make it relevant. To have to work on something that, literally, is just being written as you’re saying it is a very different place in your brain.”
Jay Duplass began writing and directing feature-length movies in 2005 with his brother, actor Mark Duplass. In recent years, Jay has also joined the ranks of young actors. Mark and Jay grew up in a Catholic home, but Jay admits his family wasn’t particularly super-religious.
…He said, he often plays a Jewish character because of his appearance.
“I did grow up in a tight-knit family, for better or worse,” Jay said. “That type of stuff is what I care about, personal dramas, family interactions. It is what I’m obsessed with and what I’ve made movies about.”
Jay said he didn’t consider himself an actor until people started talking about the roles he had started playing.
“I started waking up to the reality that I really like this,” he said of his growing interest in acting. “I’m really emotional in general and this is great! I really am the guy in my family where everyone’s like, ‘Can you stop having so many feelings, because you’re making us super-uncomfortable?’ And, now I feel like I’m getting paid to be that guy!”
“I caught the acting bug really young,” Finn said. “I would be the messenger boy in MERCHANT OF VENICE or the fairy child or whatever. So, I kind of grew up during the summers, sort of just sitting backstage and listening to the plays.”
Eventually, he attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where his daughter now goes, and went to Juilliard the performing arts conservatory in New York City. After graduating from Juilliard, he played Romeo at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C.
Both Finn and Jay said that being relaxed and at ease is key to turning in a good performance as an actor. Jay said that’s what he’s also looking for when he’s directing a movie.
“We’re all desperate, but don’t act desperate (when you’re auditioning for a role),” Jay said. “I always tell actors don’t try to do what you think they want you to do. Do awesomeness. Be awesome and be inspired, and, if you don’t get the role, they’re gonna like you and think about you in the future, and then you may get something else.”
“Making movies is like the junior high dating scene,” Finn joked. “Don’t try too hard. The less you care, the more they want you.”
Jay does some stage directing himself at a friend’s theater company in Los Angeles.
“It is helpful, I find as an actor, to know what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera and auditioning too, to be on the other side of a room,” he said. “It really takes the pressure off you as an actor. The few times I’ve been on the other side of an audition table, I’ve been like, ‘God, that guy’s so good, but he just doesn’t work for this [role]. He just doesn’t fit with everyone else. My brother and I keep a list of people we’ve auditioned.”
“There is an art to casting,” Finn added. “It’s who’s going to work well with each other, how do these two parts mesh. It’s a complicated art. Casting directors are the most underrated and talented people in this business.”
As an example of putting the best cast together, Jay mentioned the relationship between his character and the older sister, played by Jenny Slate. He said he and Jenny are so similar that she could be his sister, and that’s what had happened to the romantic relationship between their two characters:
“That’s what happens to couples over time,” he said. “They become family. That’s real and that’s great and that’s pretty much what needs to happen, but that was the inherent problem of their impending marriage. Somebody knew Jenny and me well enough that we would get along great, that there was a similarity there, maybe too much similarity.”
Both men enjoyed working with Jenny Slate.
“She was always very present,” Finn said. “Some actors are in and out. She was like always there.”
Finn, who starred in Angelina Jolie’s UNBROKEN as Bombardier Francis “Mac” McNamara, is scheduled to play in the next season of AMERICAN CRIME STORY about the assassination of fashion designer Gianni Versace.
Jay and his brother released the first episode of their HBO anthology series ROOM 104 just this week. He’s also engaged in writing a new movie script.
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