This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Jack Huston has to play the superego to Jeremy Irons' raging id in Steve Clark's “An Actor Prepares.” Irons plays Atticus, an outrageous, narcissistic actor of whom straight-laced son Adam (Huston) is seethingly resentful toward. In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Huston talked about the best part and biggest challenge of the role: having a front-row seat to Irons’ flamboyant performance and trying not to spoil takes by laughing at it.
Your character has to show a lot without saying very much and I was very impressed at how expressive you were able to be. I lost count of how many different ways you found in this movie to look exasperated.
I’m going to take that as a massive compliment. Adam is exasperated, I’d probably say, for about 90 percent of the movie. Actually for the entire movie, even to the moment where he’s having a bit of a rager. Adam is going through his own troubles when you first meet him. His estranged father is an Oscar-winning actor and Adam has the almighty task of to driving him across country while dealing with his own troubles. He can’t bear it because they can’t stand the sight of each other. The exasperation comes, I guess, because he ends up the father and Jeremy's character acts more as the son in many ways, an out of control son who having, as we say in England, a full-on tear.
Jeremy Irons is so wildly outrageous in this film. Was it hard not to laugh?
There were a lot of times where we couldn't help but just break down in tears of laughter. It was such a fun experience. Jeremy was already attached to the movie when [co-writer/director] Steve [Clark] approached me to come play Adam. And I read it and as a fan of Jeremy Irons, I basically said, “As much as I want to play this part, I even more want to see Jeremy Irons play that part.” So I got to see it all firsthand and it's such an outlandish, brilliant performance. I mean he's the last person you think of. Jeremy is known as this just wonderful stage and screen actor, dramatic, with that voice that is sort of God-like and this is him like you've never seen him before. He's out of control. It was so great because it was such a wonderful, creative, collaborative experience. The writers and director just wanted to have fun and push the barriers like, “Go all out.” So yeah, it was it was pretty hard to keep a straight face because we were constantly trying to get each other.
One of my favorite things in the film was the hilarious names of the various movies that Atticus was supposed to have been in, from very plausible titles sounding like real-life awards candidates to the silliest like “Cops and Slobbers.”
They get more and more outlandish, right? “Throwdown at Bitch River!” And when he says “Slobbers, great actor, wonderful dog.” The amount of names that just kept coming! They were coming up with them on the fly and it was just like, “Can we try to outdo ourselves with the next one?” They would just throw another one in because Atticus is constantly saying, “Oh, it reminds me of the time I was in that army movie” or some other movie he had been in. Some of them didn't even make it into the movie because there were too many. Every other take we thought it would be funny to throw in a new name.
There was that prison one that I quote to him in the movie. My character pretends he hasn’t seen any of his father’s films because he never gives Atticus the satisfaction of showing he is interested, until he does the worst impersonation of the one in the prison cell. Atticus sees that his son has followed everything he’s ever done and knows it all word for word.
At one point your very straight-laced and internal character takes ayahuasca. What was it like to film that scene?
It’s a weird one because there wasn’t much written and I just said, “Listen, the way it’s going to work is let me go and I will just come up with things in the moment.” And that was lovely because we had lovely Will Patton in the scene going along with it and Atticus in the back with his guitar going along with it, too.
If we were doing the trip for real, you say the strangest things that feel completely genuine to you at that time. So there’s a moment where I’m looking at Will Patton after we had been talking crazy and I look him in the eye and I go, “Oh, am I in your seat?” Which is the strangest comment. And then I say, “Do I need to sign for something?” like asking for the check when you’re leaving a restaurant. It's the things that come to your mind, trying to be genuine in the time. You know I think you've got to go for it, especially in something like this because as soon as you go half-ass, then it falls flat because drug-taking scenes are sometimes silly in movies. So you've got to go all out in a sense. That was what was fun about these guys as they were like, “Go further, go further, and go further.” So we were we were laughing a lot at the end of it.
I liked it because it was very much in character. Even tripping he was pretty under control and civilized.
That’s the thing. He was almost polite in moments. Adam is fighting with himself to let go and that’s what everyone, Will Patton's character is trying to shame and push him to let go, to let it out, and he’s sort of trying to and it is still excruciatingly painful for him to let go. All this baggage is in there so it’s very controlled, it’s very internalized and moments were bizarrely polite in the end. It was almost zombie politeness. And he's regressing into childhood and getting all those demons out, which if one wants to do ayahuasca I would assume that would be the purpose.
There’s some humor in the film about Adam’s profession, which is feminist film scholarship. What about his experience growing up led him to choose that as his focus, in one sense related to his father’s work but in another very far from it?
The rift between Adam and his father came about when Atticus thought that Adam snitched on him to his mother that he cheated on her. And I think the one thing that Adam felt from that moment on was that he wanted to be a feminist. He stood up for women everywhere. That is sort of a reaction but it's not genuine. He went into a profession in the strangest way which was very similar to his father but also a way to counteract or contradict his father's lifestyle. His entire adult life has been almost trying to contradict everything his father has done out of this hurt, out of that sadness. Deep down, he wanted to be an actor. He wanted his father’s profession. But he was so jaded by all that happened between the two of them that he ended up going against what his natural instincts would have been.
It is kind of the saddest thing possible when you look as Adam’s career. Yes, he is a documentarian who's been making these movies and he's a feminist and in the teaching profession. But you can see this has weighed down on him all these years. I think that's quite true of life itself sometimes. As far away as you want to get from your parents, if you do have some kind of rift somehow you sometimes find yourself doing something bizarrely similar, even if you consider it very different.
What's the best advice you ever got about acting?
Best advice: No fear. Try it. No fear. When I say “no fear,” I mean usually you should be filled with fear and that’s probably always part of doing it but don't be afraid of fear. You can't let fear control you. So I've always found it fun to play a vast variety of characters, none which I would say was in any way similar. I kind of pride myself in doing very, very different eclectic sort of roles. It's meant to be fun and you're meant to explore and you should enjoy yourself.
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