Thomas Jane became something of a cultural anthropologist for his role in 1922, a film adaptation of the Stephen King novella about a farmer named Wilfred James who clings to the familiar comforts of his pastoral life so tightly that he’s willing to kill his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), to avoid losing his land. To get into the mind of a man who throws his wife’s body down a well and then spends the duration of the film hallucinating a bunch of talking rats, Jane worked with a vocal coach to research the dialectic idiosyncrasies of Nebraskans in the 1920s, called on summers spent growing up in a Alabama to keep Wilfred from turning into a stock southern simpleton, and ended up channeling his own grandfather. He also delved into the darkness of human nature to bring forth what King calls “the conniving man” inside all of us. Vulture caught up with Jane to discuss working with rats, creating an evocative character with minimal dialogue, and whether or not humanity has what it takes to defeat its own inherent destructive tendencies.
Wilfred fears change, life in the city, and his own obsolescence, and that’s something you convey in him mostly through your physical performance, since he has very few actual lines. How did you build a character without much dialogue to work with?
It’s just about climbing into the character’s head and feeling what he’d be feeling at that time, and you can wear that stuff. You know, life was hard. It was a whole different set of circumstances that people lived in. They were very much closer to the elements, and the elements had an effect on your life. They could send you to an early grave. They could kill you if the winter got too bad, and you had to constantly be making preparations to shore up against what could come — a blight, a heat wave, a dust bowl. You never knew, and so the work was ongoing and daily and from dusk to dawn, just to eke out a living for yourself and survive, and you had to be smart and you had to be tough as nails. And it took a toll on you, so I was thinking about all that stuff when I was putting Wilfred together, just the toll of life out there in the Middle, what Stephen King calls the Middle. It’s a whole other ball of wax, and society and all that other stuff seems to fall away and you’re left with yourself and your family.
Wilfred’s anxiety about killing his wife manifests in the constant presence of rats that are almost stalking him. Were you working with actual rats?
Oh, yeah. We couldn’t afford no fake rats.
Real rats come cheap.
A lot cheaper than building them in the computer, yeah.
Did you sustain any rat bites?
The rats seemed pretty well-trained. They had a family of rat wranglers, and I’m sure they do other stuff too, but I think the daughter was there and the father and the uncle or something. They were just this family that came with a truck full of rats. They spent a few weeks sort of training these rats to do this and that, and they were all clean. They had all had baths, and I guess they try to rat them up a little bit for the camera. You know, they go through their little makeup trailer and get spit out the other end. They were great. Nobody that I knew of got bit.
So I was really fascinated by the introduction of “the conniving man,” which is something Wilfred talks about as a sort of dark passenger that exists in every man, giving him the ability to do harm. The way Wilfred discusses it is very nonjudgmental. It resonated with me a lot as we are seeing this wave of unmaskings of real-life villains in Hollywood — very public figures who live and function in polite society and yet have these lives as predators in private places. The insidious plainclothes monster hiding in plain sight is extremely relevant.
Oh, yeah. You’re right.
So did you draw from your own conniving man to get into this part?
That comes from Stephen King. That comes right out of the novella, and that’s what King is so great at. He reaches down into what makes you tick, and what makes us tick as human beings is — that’s been with us since the beginning of time. We have these forebrains that are designed to be crafty. Right? Homo sapiens. Wise men. Well, fuck. That’s just another way of saying a conniving man. So that’s just who we are. The real question is: Do we have the free will to counteract our conniving man? Can we set up a society where checks and balances are in place and we can neutralize the craftier sides of our nature that end up hurting lots of people. Okay? And so far that question is no. We cannot or have not been able to do that.
Do you think Hollywood can be a part of the solution? It’s an industry that can bring a lot of issues into focus on a massive scale, but it’s now in the spotlight for its horrible sexual politics that have settled into place for decades.
We have the potential to make films that really change people’s minds and change the conversation about certain issues, and we also have this horrible reputation for Bacchanalian behavior, but then that’s true in Wall Street. That’s true in any major human endeavor. That’s who we are. It expresses itself most fully where the money is. The money is in Hollywood. The money is in politics. The money is in Silicon Valley. It’s in Wall Street. Wherever the fucking money is, that’s where the human nature gets expressed the fullest and also gets the most attention. So you’re looking at a mirror being held up to everybody.
And myself? Yeah. For me it’s the tension between wanting to do good work and then trying to pay for my house. So you do shit that you’re like, “God damn. I hope nobody watches this, because this isn’t really saying anything other than, ‘Hey, don’t look at your own life. Look at me.’” You know, bread-and-circus type of bullshit. Then there are the things that come along where you feel like, “Hey, I can add to the conversation here as an artist.” And that’s the stuff we live for, but it’s sort of a 50/50 thing. If we’re lucky, it’s a 50/50 thing.
So what is your role specifically in confronting the conniving man?
Let me just add to the conversation by saying: If we don’t wake up, the conniving man is going to fucking kill us all in our sleep. And that’s what he does. He’s not thinking about the future. So we gotta all look at that. For me, I’m an artist. Okay? So I love, and have been moved by, and my life has been changed by art. By all of it, by painting, by literature, by film, by photography. My eyes have been opened and I have seen the light. It’s the arts and sciences and that’s how we can change our society, and that’s how we continue the conversation, and in a lot of ways it’s how we can safely have the conversation without feeling too threatened. So for me, every day I wake up and I am playing in that sandbox.
Do you feel like the force of positive momentum is strong enough to topple the entrenched power structures in Hollywood that have been so toxic and abusive to so many?
No. Not yet. And everyone needs to ask themselves this question: Why now? Why did one guy in Hollywood, why is he being toppled so furiously at this moment? We have to look at that, okay. Here’s a guy who wielded billions of dollars, and he made billions for people and he also, hello, lost billions for people. And so do a little digging and ask yourself, why is this happening right now? Because I guarantee you this would not be happening right now unless somebody allowed it to happen right now. And the reasons why they’re allowing it to happen right now is I think he probably pissed some people off. We live in the machine. The machine is now sacrificing one of its own, but the machine sacrifices one of its own only because it knows every now and then it has to make a sacrifice in order to stay alive. Okay? Think about that.
So if this is not the moment of reckoning, do you feel like people are even equipped to participate in that, to catalyze that?
That’s the big question, and that’s the question we should all be asking: What are the resources we would need to affect a true reckoning? And baby, it ain’t gonna happen without blood. I guarantee you. It’s not gonna happen without blood. These people will do anything and everything they can to hang on to what they got. So, no. No! We have to realize what we’re up against here. Everybody is persecuting one fucking guy because we’re clowns. We’re monkeys. We’re some monkeys beating up another monkey and we all run over there and try to beat up that monkey, but we don’t realize that monkey got thrown into the cage with a rope around his neck. Who’s got the rope? Who’s holding the rope? Look up! Look up.
Why do think the work of Stephen King is being adapted now, in particular — what is it that we’re latching onto in this existentially harrowing time?
It just goes back to what I said originally. The guy has an uncanny ability to tap into the dark side of what it means to be human and he does it in a way that feels real. And yeah. You’re right. You picked up on the conniving man in 1922, and that’s part of what makes it a wonderful novella is because he speaks to that darker side of us who’s like, “My life is fucked up right now, and if I chopped up my wife and threw her in the well, my life would be so much easier and I would feel so much better.” Without really thinking about what the consequences of that would be. And we all have that sort of conniving man, and that’s sort of why we’re in the situation we’re in today. Welcome to our world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.