Oh, Seth Cohen, where have you been? It’s been many a Chrismukkah since the end of The O.C. and our regular exposure to Adam Brody’s charm. But great Sandy, he’s back! First up, he plays a mysterious college student leading a double life and wooing both Analeigh Tipton’s Lily and Greta Gerwig’s Violet in Damsels in Distress, the newest movie from Whit Stillman, director of the mannered classics Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. And he’s just finished shooting Lovelace, in which he plays porn star Harry Reems, and has a smaller role in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. He spoke with Vulture about dancing, studying Whit Stillman, and the infuriating slow-motion poker game that is landing acting parts.
There’s a line-dancing sequence and a big musical finale in Damsels. Did you do all of your own dancing?
I did all of my own dancing. I don’t think it was particularly impressive. I do think I’m a capable dancer; I just didn’t have the time. It was on the fly. I think I could dance my ass off if given proper sort of training.
Did Whit want you guys to dance well? It didn’t seem like that.
No. I think some of the scruffiness is part of the charm of it. I don’t think he was overly concerned with us being professional dancers.
Was that you singing in the finale?
I was … and then Whit — I, I don’t know. I’m not at liberty to say, unfortunately. Ask Whit.
Like, literally, you’re not able to say?
I’m very open with the process and Whit has put a few restrictions on what I’m allowed to talk about.
It sounds like Whit has a lot of rules. Greta Gerwig was saying no one was allowed to curse on set.
He’s got rules for what he likes in his world. It’s very chaste. It’s very almost virginal. I think he doesn’t like a lot of public displays of affection but he loves affection. But those rules are more in his script than in actual life. He abhors cursing and vulgarity. He’s not a vulgar person. I like to be occasionally and that’s where we differ, but I think it’s a pleasure to sort of be in his universe. The truth of the matter is we were so under the gun with time and budget and I think he cast it very carefully, specifically, and then he wrote it very specifically and then you were sort of left to your own devices. Most of his direction was purely technical: "Maybe a little faster here. Drop the spine. Maybe don’t put your hand here. Don’t touch too much. Hold your head up when you speak." I thought we were going to have endless philosophical discussions and emotional discussions and that wasn’t the case.
So you just didn’t think about your character’s inner life?
I thought about his inner life, but I didn’t overanalyze it, no.
Why do you think he’s living a double life as both Charlie and Fred?
I think college is a time when you can sort of reinvent yourself and I think we all kind of want to be idealized versions of ourselves. Morally, he’s in line with Greta’s character and most of the damsels in that he doesn’t really see a problem in coming up with a bit of a fictitious background and fudging some of your backstory if it puts you in a better light. I do think there is such thing as a good lie. It’s not really hurting anyone else. In Metropolitan, they play Truth or Dare and some really hurtful things come out and the main girl says, “There’s a good reason why people don’t go around telling everyone their inner-most thoughts.” If I can interpret Whit, I think he’s saying that manners and society are built on almost positive lies.
Are you a good liar?
I crack under pressure, so I don’t have the sort of will to carry it out. It’s not that I have high morals or anything. It’s just that I’m a bad liar. Like, I could never punk someone. I would go for two minutes and be like, “This is a joke.”
But isn’t acting a type of elaborate lie?
Yeah, but you all know the reality of it. You’re not pulling one over. I couldn’t work on the Daily Show and interview people and fuck with them. Acting’s also more intimate than I am in my real life in the sense of, you make so much more eye contact acting than you ever do in real life. You hold gazes in filming something that you never hold in real life and that’s so weirdly, oddly intimate and personal.
Do you know Whit’s other movies really well?
I do now. I was undereducated when I got the part, actually, but by the time I filmed [Damsels] I was, like, his biggest fan already.
How many times did you watch all of his other movies?
Probably seen them fives times each. Sure. At least four times each. Barcelona is my favorite.
Why did you watch them so many times? You just liked them that much?
Listen, I have a lot of time on my hands. And I loved the script so much, I was so excited to work with him — and he throws so many ideas and so much philosophy and so many authors at you in each movie, I find them imminently study-able. You know, they held interest for me each time. If I wasn’t getting something new from them each time, I wouldn’t have done it, but I really was. I was catching things and I was making connections every time and sort of getting an insight into his philosophy, which, again, he doesn’t sit me down and tell me [about]. You just sort of glean it from his scripts and then you know tidbits from spending time with him.
What did you mean when you said, “I have a lot of time on my hands”?
You know, as an actor I just — I shouldn’t say as “an actor,” I should say “newbian actor” — [I have] plenty of leisurely time, or time to study up.
Have you felt like between The O.C. and now there just hasn’t been a great plethora of roles for you?
It’s funny, everything I’ve done since [The O.C.], I’m actually really proud of and I think speaks to my personality, and I did them because I really wanted to or business-wise it made sense. But would I love to be busier? Yeah, yeah certainly. And I just think, I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s like playing poker in slow motion.
Yeah, and I don’t mean the act of acting, but the act of procuring work. You know, I think it’s very cyclical. It’s incredibly interesting. I wish I didn’t know who’s doing what, but I do. I’m well aware of the industry goings-on, more than I even like to be.
How is it like poker in slow motion?
You get a hand, you make a move, and then you wait a year, two years to see the outcome. It feels like a long process where you make a decision and the repercussions of that take a long time to even make themselves known. And not that every [role] is [so you can land] the next thing. The best ones are just for the actual joy of doing it and then some things are business decisions. I think I’m much less self-conscious now than I was even five years ago because I feel like I’ve done enough that one job doesn’t define me like I used to feel like it did.
You mean define you, as in being typecast?
Just everything. I’m not worried about being typecast. More like, if you’re a good actor, bad actor, success, failure, smart, stupid.
What do you want to do after this?
Jeez, I’d love to do another Whit Stillman movie. I was so flattered and pleased that he sort of plucked me from, if not obscurity, I don’t know ...
Do you see parallels between Whit Stillman’s world and The O.C., in that they’re dealing with privilege and class?
I think a misconception of Whit’s movies is that they really deal with privileged people. I honestly don’t feel that. Everyone talks like they’re so sophisticated, like they’re aristocrats from the 1800s in his movies — they’re Waspy. In Metropolitan, they’re wealthy kids, except for the main kid, who Whit identifies with the most, who’s from the wrong side of the tracks. That movie is about the decline of the bourgeoisie class and why is it such a bad thing? There are upwardly mobile citizens that benefit society. In Damsels, the college is somewhat grungy. It’s not an Ivy League school, and I don’t see any of them as coming from necessarily, like, incredibly wealthy backgrounds. And even when they do, he’s not Bret Easton Ellis and it’s not an exposé of the moneyed class. These are real people with real, high-minded ideas about how do we lead better lives and how do we find ourselves happy in love. Honestly, if you add it up, probably only half his characters come from rich families. I think his take is kind of sympathetic, whereas I think The O.C.–slash–Gossip Girl is looking more into the perhaps shallowness of the culture.
Whit’s world is also very East Coast–y. And you’re from San Diego. So how did you get into the East Coast–ness of it all?
You know, I just don’t say “dude” and I don’t say “you know” and it sort of takes care of itself. My parents are from Detroit, which I guess is the Midwest. They’re Jews …
Which automatically …
It gives you an East Coast feel. You get a little more neurosis, perhaps.