One of the best performances of the year so far comes from Josh Lucas, in the excellent, disturbing new film The Mend. In it, the actor plays the angry, rudderless Mat, who shacks up in his brother’s apartment after finding himself homeless. John Magary’s film avoids the pitfalls of typical odd-couple movies by playing with narrative and rhythm, and Lucas’s performance — alternating between aggression and avoidance — is a key part of the film’s unique effect. This is also an interesting development for the actor, who has had a career that spans big movies like Hulk, Poseidon, Sweet Home Alabama, and smaller ones like Undertow, Wonderland, and Hide Away. The Mend might be the smallest film he’s ever done, and certainly one of the most personal. He spoke to us recently about how he wound up in a microbudget movie, the challenges of doing such parts, and whether he’d like to direct someday.
So you’re a pretty big actor, and The Mend is a pretty tiny movie. How did you wind up doing it?
A director whose work I admire quite a bit — David Lowery, who made a film called Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — was making a movie that I wanted to do. It didn’t happen, but a year or so later, he called and said, “Hey, there’s another director making his first microbudget feature in New York. I think this guy is amazingly talented, and you should talk to him.” You don’t oftentimes get that call from a director talking about another director, and about a microbudget movie — I mean, take the smallest film I’ve ever done and divide it by ten, and you’ll get an idea of The Mend’s budget. I saw some short films that John had done, and they were really impressive. I read the script. And I must admit, I didn’t fully understand it. But I did understand that there was a tremendous, complex vision there. You could see this bizarre personal story that lives underneath the whole thing. I guess that was enough for me to be like, “All right, let’s just sit down and talk about this thing.” And when I met John and his writing/producing partner Myna [Joseph], you just got a vibe that was … I wouldn’t say it was ferocious, but you got a vibe like, “This guy’s got wicked talent.” He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film, and particularly of the kind of films that he wanted to make. He was referencing films that I also love, like Mike Leigh’s Naked, and early Scorsese. So then I was like, “Let’s do it.”
But since this is indie filmmaking, you probably had to wait a while to actually do it.
Yeah. It’s the process of independent film now: There was nothing there to even give the movie the most minor resources that it really needed to get off the ground. At the same time, that long process was probably a good thing, because it gave John the time to sit down and look at his film — as did I, and the other actors and crew. It was about six months of waiting, and during those six months, John storyboarded the film and got an even deeper understanding of it. So, when we started to actually shoot it, he was ready from day one. You just knew you were dealing with a director — he had the force of a vision, and he had total control over what he wanted to do in that movie. There is nothing improvised in that film. Everything was scripted. To me, he’s so impressive that way.
That really is surprising, and impressive, because the film feels so lived-in. I would have sworn some of it was improvised. What’s your favorite part of the acting process?
My favorite part of making a film is the research process. I love the process of how a character comes together inside your head. Mat was particularly interesting, because we had that period of time I mentioned, where I could just go through my regular life as myself, while in the back of my head I kept thinking, What would Mat do here? That was great. I understood that he would interact with the world in a radically different way from me. But I could feel it inside of me; I could feel it growing. There’s a sense of rage, of disrespect to authority, and all the things of day-to-day life — what I’ve been going through as a man in his early middle-age, with a young child, and divorce, is the exact opposite of all the things that Mat is going through. This rebellion against responsibility, and this bitterness … this boiling cauldron of angry humor pours out of him. I’ll admit it was fun to walk through the world and see it through his eyes, and to imagine if I could be that guy. It’s kind of fun to be the guy who doesn’t give a shit, who tells his boss to fuck off, to be the guy who doesn’t care what any woman thinks of him, and who at any given moment will throw a beer on somebody. And I had a constant conversation with John about the character being fun to watch. He couldn’t just be an angry, bitter man. There was great humor there, the same way I think about David Thewlis’s character in Naked. You really enjoy watching him.
You and Stephen Plunkett play brothers in the film. Your characters are a bit estranged, but did you try to get to know each other beforehand, to try and establish some sort of rapport, or shorthand?
Almost none at all. Not that we didn’t want to, but neither one of us really had the resources. Sure, we tried to go out and talk about the script and have a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label and relate to the characters in a “drunken night” sort of way. We actually did that. But in a way, I have to give credit to John’s script. There are a couple of great moments in the film when Stephen and I will look at each other, and you feel like, “These guys fucking know each other.” And you sense this ugly, long, layered history between them. All of this innate connection is there in the writing. But I do know that Stephen probably thought about it as much as I did. We really did have a lovely time working together. There was no Method competitiveness at all, which is actually rare. Actors can be very fucking competitive with each other, especially in situations like this, where there’s a bad shared history between the characters. It can turn into a bad tennis match. We had none of that.
The film leaves a lot unexplained. In part, that is its great charm. But, as an actor preparing for a role, did you want some of those questions answered?
I asked some of those questions, and I challenged John to give me answers. And sometimes he’d say, “No, you don’t really need to know.” Or, “No, there really isn’t as much behind it as you’re making it out to be.” A good example: I’d ask him, “What the fuck is up with this thing where we keep saying, ‘You got a hairball, bro.’” And apparently, it comes from this thing where he and his actual brother were up late at night watching TV. Do you remember that porn star that was on cable-access TV in New York in the 1980s? It was this weird NYC cable-access show where this woman would be half-naked, and she would interview people about the sex industry, and it was like early radical television. I remember because it was one of the first times I was in New York, and I saw that you could turn on the TV and there’d be a half-naked woman there. So one night there was an interview on there that John and his brother were watching. Some guy was like, “You got a hairball,” and somehow they incorporated it into years of their life. For years, every single time they would have a disagreement, or some big moment, that statement would come up. And I said, “Yeah, but John, it doesn’t mean anything to me. Is it gonna mean anything for the audience?” But there are so many moments in the film where there’s just a kind of beautiful mystery to it. Like the way we watch the light travel across the apartment a couple of times. Are they clear to everybody? Not really. Are they fun and mysterious to try and think about? Yeah. The hairball line probably came up ten times in the script. Now it’s there two or three times. It was a very constant thing between these brothers, as it is between John and his brother.
I imagine not knowing some of those answers probably helped you be in the moment a bit more. Was that the case?
The approach that John and I took to each other was kind of hands-off. I did ask a bunch of questions at first, but then I got to a point where I thought, Okay, he clearly knows what he’s doing. And I think he got to a similar place with me. All right, he’s doing all these fun things with this character that are from his own life. I kept going back to something that’s maybe been missing in some of my films and performances, and which I’m more interested in: comedy. And particularly comedy inside of darkness, or comedy inside of a level of anger that life presents. I think my mistakes as an actor have been about being too on the nose, or too literal.
You did a lot of big movies early in your career. In recent years, you’ve gone towards more indie films. Has that been intentional?
I wish I could say, “Absolutely.” And I guess it has been in the sense that I loved these kinds of movies growing up. What happened in my life as a kid was that this small fishing village near Seattle got a grant for 5,000 independent and world-cinema titles on VHS. So when I was 15, I would walk in and get ten VHS tapes at a time from the library. And none of them were Hollywood movies. I really fell in love with French cinema and strange, independent, tough American indie cinema — like Cassavetes, and everything south of that in terms of popularity. That’s where my real fascination with cinema came. But then my career skewed into big movies that didn’t work out very well for me, and many of which I didn’t love making. I felt lost inside of them. There are times when I wish I had easier access to those movies, so I could keep up some sort of box-office level of credibility. But I’ve also been asking myself, “Hey, what kind of movie do I really want to go watch?” And then you fight for those movies. Sometimes they come to you easily. I mean, for The Mend, I guess maybe they might have taken any actor that John thought might help him get his movie made! [Laughs.] But at the same time, I’m definitely not picking and choosing, by any means.
You sound like a guy who wants to direct.
I absolutely want to direct. But I also know that I may never get to do so. When you work with a guy like John, you understand: They just are directors. If and when I do it, I think I could only really do it once or twice. It consumes multiple years of your life, and during those periods of time, you really can’t do or think about anything else. As an actor, you get to be a little bit flighty — you get to jump around from project to project. There’s no truth to that in being a great director — at least, not with the great directors I’ve worked with. I had a great experience working with someone like Ang Lee, who will work on a movie for years and years. These directors get pulled away from their families and their children, like they’re going to war. It is one of the most all-consuming jobs there is. A sculptor can probably make a sculpture in six weeks, and a painter can probably make a painting in a few days. But when it comes to directing movies — even a tiny movie like The Mend, it took John four years. And it wasn’t a part-time job, either! I’ve searched for something that will allow me to do that, but I have not found it. Would I like to? Hell, yes. Do I truly know that I have it in me to do it? I don’t know yet. I think I have some of the instincts and some of the sensibility. But it scares me, too.