SXSW Interview: Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett Talk ‘The Mend’, Bringing Your Character Home and the Biggest Challenge of an Actor

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Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett star in The Mend, John Magary‘s feature directorial debut. The film is about two brothers, Mat and Alan (Lucas and Plunkett). Mat is angry, lazy and quite possibly an alcoholic while Alan is stable and on the verge of asking his long-time girlfriend, Farrah (Mickey Sumner) to marry him. When Alan returns home from a vacation without Farrah, he discovers that Mat has taken over his apartment and had his girlfriend (Louisa Krause) and son move in.

Lucas and Plunkett are terrific and their brotherly conversations, arguments and overall interactions are just so true and perfect.

The two actors were at SXSW for the premiere of the film and I got a chance to chat with them about the film, not rehearsing, if it’s tiring playing someone who’s so angry, being nervous on set and a lot more.

Check it out below!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.

So what did you guys think of the film? Was it the first time you saw it?

Josh Lucas: I had seen a rough cut of it a while ago. Stephen just saw it the other night for the first time. He wasn’t there last night at the screening.

Stephen Plunkett: I just flew in from New York last night, but I’d seen that cut on my TV. But I was pleased. It’s a movie that really… it’s hard to really know what it’s gonna be before and it’s not… some movies are like you read the script and then you see it and you’re like, “Oh, that’s about what I would’ve expected based on the script,” but I feel like John has a really distinctive voice and the movie is shot in this kind of unusual style which I loved, it was just something that it was just unexpected. It was great.

Josh Lucas: It’s interesting, when I first read the script I was like, “I don’t understand this. I don’t know what this is. I don’t understand…” because there’s nothing improvisational about this script. I mean, it’s really precise writing and even the overlapping fight is like overlapping dialogue where you see both…

Oh, is the script like that?

Josh Lucas: Yeah. Sections and there’s even a point in the script which actually didn’t make it in the movie where you have 4 characters talking about the exact same time and literally there’d be blocks of four pieces of dialogue that he’s trying to figure out how to overlay them and the shooting of it.

But I was kind of in reading it thinking, “I don’t even know how this is orwhat’s the point in a way.” Because it’s not… it’s structurally abnormal. If you talk about the Syd Field script writing there is the, you know, 30 pages in something changes, but it isn’t the normal, oh, now you’re on this journey. It’s a completely abstract kind of film in that it’s observational, it’s slice of life. And I go back to the Cassavettes of it all. Cassavetes from what I understand, the stuff was very improvisational. This is totally not down to the way it’s shot. It’s just precision.

Stephen Plunkett: Very deliberate.

You guys said last night in the Q & A that there was no rehearsal. And just from what you’re talking about, that would seem madness trying to do that on take one. With all the overlapping dialogue.

Josh Lucas: We’d get to kind of run through it but, again, I think it’s a testament to what John, his preparation for it. And also, I think if you look at John’s story it’s a personal story, it’s a story like I think each character has a real relationship to his own life. And so in the shooting of it, we would come into it and yes he would be discovering it, but he also knew it is what I saw.

Do you guys like having rehearsal time for film?

Stephen Plunkett: I can go either way. I mean, we met together a couple of times just to kind of feel each other out. And get to know each other. We didn’t rehearse per say like you rehearse a play. To me, that’s sort of more important is to get to know the other people you’re gonna be playing with and develop a level of comfort and openness.

The nice thing about not rehearsing is everything you discover happens in front of the camera. And so sometimes you’re rehearsing a play or something and something brilliant happens but it’s in the rehearsal room and you develop something that’s kind of based on that, but you never get that exact moment of brilliance.

Josh Lucas: That’s the joy of film.

Stephen Plunkett: But being on film, you know, you catch it all. And if you get, you know, maybe you have hours and hours of shit, but if you have just a little bit of something great then you can really do something with that.

Josh Lucas: Look, I can honestly maybe admit that I’m a little bit impatient with rehearsing when it comes to film for that exact same reason. But one of my favorite directors on earth is Paul Greengrass and my understanding about Paul Greengrass is that he spends his entire day rehearsing and only shoots a little bit and that’s part of the greatness of his movies. And that’s, to me, it’s fascinating because his work also seems to look very raw and improvised in a way, but in reality my understanding is that he even says, “I could make studios insane because they look at the daily tally of how much we’ve shot and it’s very little because we’ve spent the whole day rehearsing.” And, I don’t know, it’s a really mystifying shift that can work well for some movies and then not at all for others.

Stephen Plunkett: I guess if you’re trying to get a really specific frame, really specific shot, then maybe you need to rehearse it a bit. Otherwise it seems to me that the great thing about the medium is the fact that you don’t have to work like that and why not take advantage of what’s great about that?

Josh Lucas: One of the both incredible strengths and I would say weaknesses of digital, for example, on Lincoln Lawyer, this movie that I did, the director was literally just leaving the camera running for an hour. It was about 40 minutes at a time. And there would be…

Stephen Plunkett: It doesn’t cost him.

Josh Lucas: Exactly. Well, when I spoke to the editors and they were saying, “We’re basically downloading the equivalent of one of those large digital file boxes” basically every single day. And they couldn’t honestly even get through it because there was so much. And I think it would be alright because they were literally just having to fast forward during the times where there was just a conversation happening on set.

And there can be real laziness to that, but at the same time, there can be some glimmer of something extraordinary where, bam, there’s a moment and the great editor, great director would be like, “Do you remember that little piece there where Josh does this thing and maybe it was even in a conversation that wasn’t exactly about the scene?” It’s kind of amazing what has changed with digital that way.

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How long was the shoot?

Josh Lucas: 28 days, something like that.

You play an angry guy for most of the film. Is it tiring just to be like that the whole time?

Josh Lucas: Yeah, you know what? It is, to be honest with you, and I think it is… I saw this thing the other day about what’s her name, the great actress who just won best actress for Blue Jasmine.

Stephen Plunkett: Cate Blanchett.

Josh Lucas: Cate Blanchett. And her husband was saying she comes home and she just… her work is immediately gone and she’s just Cate and she’s lovely and happy. I just am not that kind of person. I definitely get affected by it. I definitely feel like it’s kind of in me. Not that I want it to be, but I was just sort of grumpy.

But also, the reality of this movie was that it was really kind of tough to make from a… it was constricted. But it was not just from a comfort standpoint. There were times where I’d walk downstairs and there was not even a chair to sit down in literally there was so many people. And I remember walking to the bathroom at one point and the bathroom was so disgusting how many people, extras and everything, was there using the bathroom. And that’s sort of stuff that I think normally I would’ve not, you know, I would’ve whatever. In Max mode, I was really pissed off about it. But, on top of it, we were shooting all nights, so you’re kind of… your circadian rhythms are…

Stephen Plunkett: It wasn’t just all nights, it was like all days, then all nights, then… I didn’t know if I was asleep or awake.

Josh Lucas: And we’d do these weird splits. We started going to work at 3:30 in the morning and working from 3:30 in the morning until about 4 in the afternoon, so you were just completely rattled at that point. We were saying before, we were going to work when everyone was coming home drunk. Multiple times I had weird experiences on the subway because everyone is drunk, basically. There’s no reason to be on the subway… no one’s going to work at 4:00 in the morning. It was a long, long subway ride, too.

Stephen Plunkett: And as soon as you get used to the all nights or the splits or whatever, you have a day off and then you do something different it’s like the whole process all over again. Which is kind of good for the movie because everything’s so… such a mess, but it wasn’t comfortable.

Do you kind of take it home too? Because he’s all kind of external anger you’re sort of internalizing everything.

Stephen Plunkett: Yeah, yeah. No, I do kind of take it home. I don’t really… I’m not able to really let it go until it’s over. I just always try and bring myself, my own experiences to it and so in trying to do that, it’s with me on the subway, it’s with me when I wake up in the morning.

Josh, have you done anything recently? I remember last time we talked you said you were looking for something.

Josh Lucas: No, I really… I tell you, I keep… I’m hungry to the point of starving a little bit for it. It’s been about 4 years since I’ve done a play and I’ve done a play basically my whole life about every 18 months, 12 to 18 months, and this is the first time that that gap has been really long. And I don’t necessarily know why. I know, you know, I have a child in my life, I know that my life has sort have been a little bit different in that way, but I’m really hungry for it.

And acting is such… it’s such a muscle. It’s interesting, last year I did 4 movies back to back to back to back and by the 4th movie, which was The Mend, I felt like I was in really good shape, good acting shape. And then, honestly, right now I haven’t worked since The Mend. I feel like I have started to work on a movie just now and I literally felt just like when you go back to the gym and I was like completely rattled. I was like a little bit uncomfortable, insecure. Whatever it was, all the different things, just like you do when you’re out of shape. And so I imagine doing a play right now I’d feel the exact same way. You do… it’s such a muscle, it’s so unique that way.

You guys still get nervous at all? Either before you go on stage or before you do a big scene or first day of shooting?

Josh Lucas: Yeah, hell yeah.

Stephen Plunkett: Yeah. Yeah.

Josh Lucas: My first job ever was in American Psycho. It wasn’t my first job, but one of my first jobs was in American Psycho and I remember driving to set the very first day with Willem Dafoe and I was really nervous, actually. And I said to him, I took this big breath and I was in a normal van driving to the set and I was like, “I’m really, really, really… I’ve gotta admit, I’m fucking scared right now.” And he was like… he turns to me and looks back at me and he was like, “Me too,” and I was like, “Willem Dafoe, man? The Oscar winning Willem Dafoe?” I remember being so struck by this, he said, “If I don’t get nervous, something’s wrong,” and ever since then I felt that a little bit. I felt, “Ooh, wow. That’s a good…”

Stephen Plunkett: It’s a sign. It’s a sign of life.

Josh Lucas: Yeah.

Stephen Plunkett: For me with this one, I’d been attached to the movie for almost a year and a half, so I’d spent a lot of time with the script. I really loved it, I felt… I really responded to it. I’d spent a lot of time reading and rereading and preparing. So there was an element of ok now the rubber is gonna hit the road and now it’s going from in my mind and imagination and hopes to a real thing that’s on screen and that’s just like…

Josh Lucas: But also for you and for John it had been a movie that multiple times had been very close to happening and then didn’t happen.

Stephen Plunkett: Yeah, exactly.

Josh Lucas: It’s like that start, stop feeling, that’s very unnerving in a way. And these movies are… they’re like relationships in the sense that you… you feel very connected to them. And when suddenly they don’t happen or they get delayed or… and every time, particularly a smaller movie like this gets delayed, there’s a good chance it’s not gonna happen. There’s kind of a heartbreak that would go along with that, I would imagine, for this one particularly for the multiple times it happened, right?

Stephen Plunkett: Yeah.

Josh Lucas: Even for me, it was like we’re starting in a month and then, boom, it was like no we’re not starting for another 3 months. And I, in my mind, I knew that’s a good chance it could fall apart then. And that’s not a good feeling.

How do you guys work your schedule? I mean, you block out the time and then all of a sudden it’s gone and then you try and fill up your time with other work or do you just kind of wait?

Stephen Plunkett: Yeah. I mean, always trying to find other good things to work on, but at the same time something you care about you try and, you know, keep yourself available. I don’t know, it’s probably different for you.

Josh Lucas: No, I think that’s the… that’s probably one of the biggest challenges of being an actor is exactly that, is exactly the downside. The times between jobs.

Our job is so weird that way where it’s not like we’re musicians where we can go practice or we can go just do a gig. It’s just strange… it’s one of those things like, look, I bring it back to my 18 month old son. I love what I do, but… not that I hope he doesn’t do it, but what I hope he does more in his life is find things that are creatively self-motivating. Look, you created this web site so that you… this site so that you know every day you can work on it. I think one of the things that’s very troubling as an actor is when you… when you don’t connect to work or work doesn’t connect to you…

It’s maddening. Yeah.

Josh Lucas: There can be times where you’re just sort of wandering through life without… not that you don’t have other passions and other things that I’m interested in, but my primary passion, my primary job sometimes can be void for long periods of time.

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