I had the great pleasure of interviewing director David Gordon Green and Tye Sheridan about their film “Joe”, which opened the 38th Annual Atlanta Film Festival. “Joe” is about Joe (Nicolas Cage), a solitary man who owns a company that specializes in killing trees for reforestation. He hires Gary (Tye Sheridan), a young man who lives with his homeless family. Soon, Gary and Joe strike up a friendship but that friendship is threatened by Gary’s alcoholic dad (Gary Poulter) and a troublemaker named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins). Photos from the Atlanta Film Festival Red Carpet
Tye, this is the second year in a row you have had a film at the Atlanta Film Festival and the roles were similar with last year’s film “Mud” and now “Joe.” What attracts you to these roles? Roles where the teens that are very adult, that have been through a lot already.
Tye: Well, for a while the only thing I could get cast in was a Southern drama. I think, because I have an accent. I was auditioning a lot, but these seemed like the only roles that I would be cast for. But, you know, I really like these films because I was born and raised in Texas. I have a lot of family from the South. I feel like I represent my family well and they like to see me in these types of films. It’s been fun.
David, what was it like directing that type of role?
David: Well, as a director I am always drawn to youthful roles. Most of my films have young characters in them. It’s always been appealing to me. When I first saw Tye’s appearance in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” it really caught my eye. I knew this was someone to really watch out for. My favorite part of that movie was that it was grounded by the spirit of youth. I really loved what Tye did in that. I was in the editing room on “Mud” when Jeff Nichols was putting that together and I thought that Tye was becoming a real strong young actor, that he had taken that next step. So we brought Tye in to talk to him, not only about his acting ability, which is nice to have but I don’t need it on my films. I have spent a lot of my career using actors that are non-traditional performers. Formal acting training and experience means very little to me, but finding the right face and the right voice means everything. There were hundreds of kids that came in to audition. What Tye has is the physicality, the life experience, the accent, and really understood the core of this character. He could relate to not only the region this character came from but also, how these threads of domestic situations would affect a kid of that age. That’s so important to me, that you want an actor to bring value and ideas, rather than just memorize the script and tell you what you want to hear. Scripts are great blueprints and this is a story based on the legendary Larry Brown novel and is a wonderful piece of literature. At the same time, a movie is a movie, and we are trying to find the naturalism. We are trying to breathe life into the words that are spoken and the images that are shot. Tye did a wonderful job of bringing Gary Jones to life.
Is there an extensive rehearsal period with you since you are dealing with a lot of non-traditional actors?
David: I would be interested in doing extensive rehearsals if I was going to do an adaptation of a Shakespeare play, especially when there is a value to those words. But for me, the process is to find the value in these characters. So my rehearsal process is to go out and get pizza and beer. And introduce Tye to Nicolas Cage. Well, Tye wasn’t drinking beer, he was drinking Pepsi. But you know, loosen up, lighten up and get to know each other. Find out what makes us tick and make it so that I have the psychological tools to do my job and pull what I find is natural and comfortable from an actor. So, it’s not memorizing lines or looking in a mirror, or figuring out how we are going to block a scene. I want those things to be intuitive and instinctive in the moment.
So there’s a bit of improvisation in your movies?
David: There’s a substantial improvisational aspect to my movies. The whole sequence with Tye and Nic, as they are driving around looking for Nic’s dog was improvised. Nic had this idea to do something with his lighter and then he told him about his “cool” face. All that stuff was the humanity of Tye and Nic working together. Some of my favorite lines in the movie aren’t in the script. It’s just two actors who know how to riff and have fun doing it.
I wanted to ask about the late Gary Poulter. Is it true that he was homeless? How did you find him?
David: My casting director met him at a bus stop in downtown Austin. He had been without an address for a number of years. He originally auditioned for a small part of a guy cutting up a deer. He auditioned and I said “Great, that’s awesome!” That’s a one day role. Do you want try for a two day role of the guy that runs the convenience store? “Sure.” Gary comes in the next day and he nailed that audition too! So then I said “Do you want to read for the third largest part in the movie? It’s a role that we are talking to some big named stars about.” He said, “Sure, let me read for the heavy.” He came into the audition and just nailed it. He brought an electricity to the room that we just couldn’t deny. It became a real opportunity for him. And we did have some concerns about him. We wanted to make sure that the guy was happy, healthy and in a good situation, in his life. We discovered that he had made amends and was making smart decisions about his life. He wanted to work hard and redeem himself, and yet, come bring some of his demons to the part. It was a real positive experience working with him.
Tye was that intimidating for you having to work with a non-traditional actor?
Tye: I wouldn’t say intimidating, but it certainly kept you on your toes. Improvising has always been a passion of mine. David mentioned a little about that we would throw each other ideas and improv a little bit, feeding off of each other. That’s one of the coolest things about acting.
David: Yeah, when Gary and Tye are in the scene when Gary’s character is doing the break dancing, where Gary is popping and locking. That’s all just Gary and Tye improvising in front of two cameras.
Tye, it’s been said that it’s about being the character. How to you prepare for a role where you are playing a homeless kid that is abused by his father?
Tye: I think preparation for a role is different every time you do a film. I remember that after I read the script a couple of times, I just loved it. I felt really in tune with what the story was and what the characters were. I didn’t really mess with it until I got in rehearsals with Nic and David. Then we started figuring out the characters. I don’t think you can figure out the characters until you’re fully into the character, where you’re in his clothes, in his house, doing things the character would do. You fully can’t get into character until you are on set.
David: We started the production with an intense scene between Gary and Tye’s character. It was an interesting initiation into my process in a weird way. To let Tye and Gary, on the very first day of production, get into the most difficult scene in the movie. It was important for me to use it as the foundation of how the characters connect with each other. So, lets experiment with that, let’s get to know what that feels like. Again, the film was loosely scripted but it’s really heightened by the gusto those two performers brought to it. And because of that, we could always refer back to that scene throughout the whole movie. When we were in the lighthearted scenes, we could say “Yeah, remember that scene in the living room where we were kicking up dust?”
Did you and Nic really go out and do location scouting?
David: Yeah, for “Prince Avalanche”, yes we did. So when I was starting to think about making the film, I wrote him a letter and sent him the script. I wanted Nic from the get go, because Robert Mitchum has passed away and Nic is the only guy who could fill his shoes. Nic has that kind of charisma, the humor and dramatic ability. Nic called me three days later. He had already read the book twice and was pumped. He said “I am getting on a plane to come see you” And I said “wait, wait. I have to do location scouting for this other movie.” And Nic said “I’m coming! Get the baby seats out of the back of the car because I coming and I like to lay down.” So he came out and it was so much fun driving around with him. We got to know each other and talk about the movie and get to know each other. We would talk about the novel and wander around in the trees. We would be off on a day hike and we would come across some workers re-seeding the forest and it had burned down. And Nic would just walk up and ask some of the work crew questions about what they were doing. He would ask “Hey, tell me what’s going on around here?” And they would turn around and you could see the stunned work crew! It was amazing!
David, what made you want to get back to your dramatic roots? You have made some big comedies, why go back to doing smaller dramas?
David: I actually go back and forth. I’ve done a few movies but also have had a nice run with our HBO series “Eastbound and Down.” So I can do a movie, then a season of TV, then a movie, then a season. In going from comedy to comedy, I get drained. I always have to dig for new comedic material but with drama, it seems like I have wells of emotion and stories I want to make. So I use comedy as a way to recharge because I don’t want to be stuck in a gloomy, melancholy world. Nobody does. You know, you into it honestly and sincerely with the dramatic films, then you lighten up with some absurdity. If that’s jumping into a “Pineapple Express” after “Snow Angels” Or jumping into “Eastbound and Down” after “Prince Avalanche.” It’s just a fun way to do it. It’s important for my sanity to keep a healthy balance.
Tye, what keeps you grounded? I’ve never seen you in the tabloids or on TMZ.
Tye: No one really cares about me. I’m just being honest. But really it’s my family. I live at home with my parents who are both really supportive of my career and what I want to do in life. They’re my backbone.
Tye, I look at your career and compare it to Jodie Foster’s. Someone so young that did so many exciting big projects. As a young actor, who are some of the actors out there that you look up to?
Tye: I got into film when I was really young. I was at an age that I wasn’t really interested in film. I think the first couple of actors that I looked up to were the ones that I was working with. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain.
That’s a pretty good list!
Tye: Yeah, Jessica Chastain became my second mom after I shot “Tree of Life” with her. We remain really close and she is a good friend of mine.
Are there any actors you have wanted to work with?
Tye: Yeah, I have always wanted to work with James Franco.
David: Well, that will be any day now.
Yeah, since he works so much, you will.
Tye: Yeah, we have been close but just haven’t had the right schedules. But we will see, because he is doing a lot of stuff. I just think he is a real interesting person and a bit of a mystery.
Tye, what was it like working with Nicolas Cage, because you had great chemistry on screen with him?
Tye: I like Nic a lot. I think he is a brilliant actor, very talented and a really funny guy. He has such a great sense of humor and is fun to be around. We were just at SXSW and we went to a Snoop Dogg concert together.
David: I fell asleep, so I didn’t go.
David, you just made a film with Al Pacino. How was working with him?
David: I loved it. I was just talking to him on the phone last night. It’s so funny when you get a phone call and all of a sudden it’s him talking, saying “Hey, Dave.” We had a blast making the film. One of the things I really love is taking actors who have been so vital to my appreciation of film like Pacino or Nicolas Cage and try to create roles for them. I met him a couple of years ago, so I decided to write a role for him. The film was all shot in Austin, Texas. It’s so funny to tell Al Pacino, I wrote this role for you and we got to get working on it. And then he tells you “I’ll be there.” It’s so great to work with someone so gung-ho to take on a passion project that’s not enormously lucrative.
Alright, thanks so much and good luck with the film.
“Joe” opens in Atlanta on Friday, April 11th.
The Atlanta Film Festival runs trough Sunday, April 6th.