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Sitting in the Undefined: Philip Ettinger on The Evening Hour

With a timid smile, Philip Ettinger searches for the proper words to articulate the profound longing that shapes many of the men he’s played. An actor on the fastback to stardom since his showstopping performance in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” as a pessimistic environmental terrorist, Ettinger radiates unpretentiousness and friendly warmth teeming with curiosity.

He can take the part of a seemingly unremarkable everyday man and imbue him with behavioral details and intimate wounds that turn words on a page into flesh and blood. That’s precisely what he does in the independent drama “The Evening Hour,” a Sundance Film Festival 2020 selection from director Braden King adapted by screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore from the novel by author Carter Sickels.

Ettinger projects his humble complexity onto the role of Cole, an aide at a nursing home, devoted grandson, caring boyfriend, and prescription medication dealer in a small community in Appalachia. ”You can be two things at the same time,” said Ettinger about his character’s many lives in convergence within this narrative, one where religion and loyalty are active participants.

Ravaged by the opioid crisis, but with few means of escape from it, the people around Cole are all directly or indirectly being benefited or affected by the illegal consumption. When his lifelong friend Terry (Cosmo Jarvis) returns to town and begins to stir up trouble, the quiet leading man’s livelihood is disrupted. Simultaneously, Cole’s emotional stability is shattered as his estranged mother reaches out to rebuild their broken bond. A storm brews for him on all fronts.

“It's easier for me to play someone who has insecurities or strong personal struggles or who has a hard time expressing themselves,” explained the actor about his predilection for embattled souls instead of traditionally valiant warriors. In this recent interview, Ettinger considers Cole’s motivations and his interest in stories of reexamined masculinity and relationships that defy classification.

Being originally from New Jersey, did you find the part of the country where the movie takes place, Appalachia, distant from your own experience or were there points of connection that helped you understand the social dynamic you were portraying?

The thing that I related to was Cole. I feel like he's got a big heart and he has a lot of things to say, but he holds them inside, which is, I think, part of the culture over there. He's someone who's just kind of filled with so many questions and maybe not so many answers. Although I grew up in a very different place, I understood his heart and his emotional core. I understand what it is to feel like you have to protect yourself and be a survivor. I understand what it feels like to have a lot to say, but having a wall of protection between how you feel and how you come off to the outside world. I'm from north Jersey, so it was a very different kind of environment. But I feel as human beings we're all more similar than we are different. I went there, felt the speed of the place, put on the clothing, and sat with the people who live there. You have to understand and respect that stuff. Cole just happened to be born in that place during that time, like I could have. That could have been me.

He definitely defies whatever preconceived notions one may have about men from this communities, even if he is still abides by the culture of suppressing his emotional needs.

What I love that was in Carter's book is that it showed a different type of masculinity, what it means to be the man of the house or his relationship to Terry, which I feel was very fluid. Cole is such a seeker in a way. He's not really sure who he is yet. And I thought a lot about it when we shot it and reading the script. You don't really know who you are until you leave the place that you come from, if that makes any sense. He's got this yearning to understand who he is and what he wants. I just loved how things weren't defined in the script. He's just got a relationship with all these different people. He's got a lot on his shoulders and he's trying to get through one day at a time. In researching or watching movies that deal with this part of the country, so much of it is just so stereotypical. They clearly have problems going on and I feel like they've been left behind a lot by this country. So I love the fact that in the script no one is good or bad. Cole, for example, buys and sells prescription medication, but he's not some villain. He's just trying to survive. They're all real people and there's just a kindness to the area and to the story that I thought was really unique and beautiful.

Cole is also a multifaceted character, and his personality depends on whom he’s talking to. It’s almost like he has multiple personalities. But in the series “I Know This Much is True” you actually play two different characters. Did you find any parallels between these two experiences? Not sure what you shot first.

Soon after finishing “The Evening Hour” I shoot “I Know This Much is True.” That's interesting. I didn't even think about that. What I will say is that Cole is such a receiver. He has a hard time expressing himself. It was so amazing for me to work every single day just taking in the actor in front of me, even beyond the script and just take on their energy and absorb them. It's a beautiful thing when you're the lead of a movie, especially with an internal character, to show up and get to sponge every different type of person who comes in and let that flow, wherever that leads. In something like playing Dominic and Thomas, it's interesting because Thomas is someone who I think can't hold in how he feels. That was such a nice catharsis to just fully be able to express my gut with Thomas after just having to contain everything with Cole and ground it in a culture that doesn't really speak their emotions. They don’t hold their emotions on their sleeves all the time. It was definitely a nice release for me to move from that to the other one. It's so funny because in every single job that you do, you pick up certain pieces and carry them with you. I would have done “I Know This Much is True” totally differently if I hadn't just done “The Evening Hour” beforehand.

How would you describe your approaches as an actor? Do you want to transform into someone completely different or do you find pieces of yourself in the character you are playing?

I can be pretty insecure and in order for me to fully engage with something, I have to be as present as possible and just try to be a vessel. I need to find something that has purpose. In going down the rabbit hole of things, I work more in the subconscious than the conscious I work with dreams often. I try to find physicality to the part. But for the most part, I don't know why I approach something. It approaches me and there's something in me that I need to express. Often I don't even understand why until I finished. “The Evening Hour,” “First Reformed,” “I Know This Much is True,” all of those were so important to me on an emotional level. I feel like I am all three of those characters. As an actor, you get to lean into a part of you that in my everyday life sometimes it's hard to do. I give myself permission to go to places, to really dive into an emotion, or see what it would feel like to be in a different scenario.

What I get from what you're saying is that in playing those emotions, that perhaps in your day-to-day life are difficult to pinpoint, through these characters they become clearer.

You're searching, man. Every job is an experiment and you get a whole bunch of people who have an idea of how they feel about the script, which is great. You have those conversations and then when you're in it, you're just creating. And hopefully everyone involved is learning on a deeper level why they're even there, like what it all means anyway, that's to me the best part. Working with someone like Braden or Derek Cianfrance, they're just seekers and they just want to discover a moment. It's all about trying to represent emotions that are truthful enough so that if anyone watches and relates on any level and there's that connection, that's what it's all about, man. I grew up going through my own stuff and anytime I watched a movie and it looked like something that I was feeling, it made me feel less alone in the world. It's funny, even doing press for this thing; I'm meeting you over zoom. We're separated from each other and I do this to feel a connection between everyone. What's the point of being here other than trying to connect, feel less alone, and find a common ground?

On that note, spirituality seems to run deep in “The Evening Hour.” Not only in how often bible verses are quoted throughout, but also in the way it’s shot, with the bright light of day washing over the land. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person and do you recognize that spirituality in the film?

I definitely consider myself a spiritual person. I believe in the connection between all of us. We shot in Harlan County, Kentucky where you get a 360 view of the Appalachian Mountains around you. It's beautiful. Time is slower there. The colors are a little brighter. People look you in the eye and everyone's just a little more present. I just tried to absorb that as much as possible. There's a scene in the movie where Cole walks into his grandfather’s church and he gets emotional in that moment. That’s a real church. It's been there for a long time. I walked in there, and it wasn't even a scripted thing, and just felt the energy of that the space. It moved me, man. Those are the cool things as an actor. That was unplanned and it was such a beautiful experience for me because I was really opening myself enough to feel the energy in the room. The movie deals a lot with religion, but I love the fact that spirituality can be deep rooted and it's a beautiful thing. There are parts of that to which he really connects to and then there are things that he has to do that maybe go against his faith a little bit. In the whole script everything is present, but nothing is judged as good or bad. I felt like a really special, spiritual production. We were all letting it speak to us in a way.

Thinking about that I’m reminded of your character in “First Reformed,” Michael, who is on the other extreme side of the spectrum when it comes to faith. Did playing him challenged or made you reconsider your own beliefs? It's such a scene-stealing performance.

Thanks, man. I had that long scene, it was like 18 pages when we shot it with Ethan and it's crazy because I look back on that time and it feels like a memory of a real conversation. I love playing these characters, like Michael in “First Reformed.” He has so much love inside of him, but also walks the line of what it feels like when you've exhausted your hope and you've fallen into despair. I love these complex characters. The things that Michael does you can judge in a certain way, but it's very rare that any of us are bad people. We're all just trying to find connection and love and meaning in this world. And it's complicated. Cole also does things that he compartmentalizes in his brain, but he knows it's not good, but also he's just trying to find a way and life just gets complicated. It's not so cut and dry, sometimes there's so much grayness to it. It's interesting for me because I have more questions than answers in my own life, so it's cool that I've been able to play roles that have help me try to seek purpose and understand why we're here. Not to get like too deep. I don't know about you man, but there are relationships or family members or people in my life that I may have had resentments towards, but as you get older you realize everyone is just trying to do their best.

Could Cole and Michael have an interesting conversation if they met? 

That's so interesting. I wonder how much actual dialogue would go on between the two of them, but I feel like they would have a really nice time sitting together, being in a space together. That's really nice to think about.

You mentioned it briefly earlier, but I wanted to dig deeper into the relationship between Cole and Terry. The friendship between these two men is very tender, in a way that’s not often seen in films depicting their environment. The ways they express their affection is also very physical, which surprised me.

That was such a beautiful thing to read in the script. It was so subtle and nuanced. I love the fact that his relationship with Terry is undefined. Cole was just trying to figure out who he is and find love. I don't know if he knows who he is or how he feels yet. That makes me think about Carter, who wrote the book and his whole story. I don't know how much you know about Carter, but he transitioned. He is a trans man and he wrote this book, “The Evening Hour,” where the lead character is this male figure who has an undefined relationship with a friend of his and also relationships with women. I love that it's a different take on masculinity or what a male relationship is, especially in that environment. I was watching a YouTube interview with Mark Rylance, from not too long ago, and he talked about how he rarely sees movies or plays where people are living in confusion. So often we're going through life and we're not really sure how we feel sometimes, I love the fact that there's a lot of history in this movie and Cole is trying to figure out how he feels about stuff. In those scenes between Cosmo and I there’s what we're saying to each other and then there's the story beneath all that stuff. I just played with him and let myself get out of my own ideas and how society wants to label everything, and just be present with this person in this moment with all this history and see how we both feel. I don't know if I'm making any sense with what I'm saying, but it’s rare to play a relationship that sits in a space of grayness. It was really beautiful.

Do you have any thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy,” since it’s another recent book and film that portrays this side of America? Personally, I find “The Evening Hour” to be a far superior take.

I appreciate that. I didn't see it. But at Sundance we had a bunch of people from Harlan who came out and supported us, and I think they have a more strong opinion on the subject matter. Someone I worked with on “One Dollar” who was from that area, I actually sent him the script, and he said the same thing. He felt that it was more real to life and to the heart of the place than “Hillbilly Elegy.” But I haven't read the book or seen the film, but I appreciate him saying that. For me, the major thing was that they embraced us and a lot of them are in the movie. Braden definitely spent a lot of time over there and made connections. Everything was done with a lot of love and respect, so I hope it was so exciting for so many of them to come out to Sundance when we premiered and to get their approval and that maybe they feel a little bit more seen. If we were able to tell a story that felt truthful to them, then that’s an awesome thing.

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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