SXSW Interview: Christopher Abbott and the Cast of ‘Burma’ Talk Horrible Auditions and Back Story

christopher-abbott-burmaLots of wonderful films screened at this year’s SXSW and with so many choices, it’s nearly impossible to see every film on my list of “Must See’s.” But, the movie Gods were shining on me when I scheduled an interview with the cast and director of Burma.

Directed by Carlos Puga, who is making his first time feature debut, the film won the Ensemble Cast Jury Award at this year’s SXSW. And damn if they didn’t get it right. The cast, Christopher Abbott (Girls), Gaby Hoffman, Dan Bittner and Christopher McCann, was fantastic. Especially Abbott; if you’ve only seen him in Girls, check him out in this when you can and Hello, I Must Be Going with Melanie Lynskey.

The film is about a family who’s father abandoned them right after their mother found out she was terminally ill. When the father shows up 9 years later, Christian (played by Abbott) agrees to take the father to a scheduled family reunion.

I talked the director Carlos Puga and most of the cast – Christopher Abbott, Dan Bittner, Christopher McCann and Jacinta Puga (who is making her film debut) at SXSW about the film, character exposition, horrible – but extremely funny – auditions and advice to actors.

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

In some films that are about families, you can tell that the cast was just kind of thrown together the day before. And there’s no real chemistry to them. You guys felt like a real family. Dysfunctional, but still a real family. Did you guys rehearse or did you all know each other prior to filming?

Christopher McCann: We actually cast the family the day before.

Dan Bittner: We nailed it though. We fooled them all.

Christopher Abbott: We didn’t know, no.

Dan Bittner: We had met.

Christopher Abbott: We had met.

Dan Bittner: We knew each other. But not really. When I auditioned, Chris read with me for it. So we had a little bit of rapport. But that was it.

Carlos Puga: Yeah. I knew Chris, we were friends before this. And then I went to see him in a play and was blown away so I was like, “Ok, I need to get him to do this part.” And so it kind of centered around him when he agreed to do it and we had that piece and then we sort of were casting for the rest of the family around him. And then when each of them came in it was just… we had just decided right then and there pretty much when each of them came in I think it was like, “Ok yeah. That’s…”

Christopher Abbott: It all felt right.

Carlos Puga: “That’s Dr. Lynn,” and Gabby was definitely Susan as soon as she walked in.”

Was it like a regular casting process?

Carlos Puga: Yeah.

Because you guys got a lot of great theater people here too.

Carlos Puga: Yeah. We had a great, great casting director, Susan Shopmaker.

Christopher McCann: I would just add that part of why I think it gelled so well, at least we think it gelled so well, is Carlos. You know? And how, you know, what the environment was on the set and how he shot it, how the sort of documentary feel to it. And you, as an actor, you learn sort of from, it might sound peculiar, but how it’s being shot. You know how to behave.

In the film, there’s no real back story for a lot of the character and you just kinda have to figure it out. Did that attract you guys? Where you would give Gabby a certain look.

Christopher Abbott: But that is a back story. You know? And rather than having exposition, you know? It’s kinda… I think it’s more entertaining just to, like, you know, you just see the history between people.

Christopher McCann: It’s Ibsen. There is tons of back story, just it’s revealed later, you know, you learn about it later.

Dan Bittner: Whenever I watch a movie or read a play, anything like that, I just hate exposition. I hate it to be, like, pounded over the head. If I don’t know a certain detail about a character, it’s fine. I can just imagine just from knowing other things about him. I’ll piece together his life story and I’m so much more entertained that way than having to, you know, this is my entire life and here’s what I’ve done, you know, each day of my life, and some movies can get that way.

And then also what was great about the script, reading through it, what Chris was saying a little earlier was, you know, everything just felt real natural and I just understood every situation and it’s so easy to just go into melodrama with a genre like this and a story like this and it never did that. There was never any moment that I was like, “Alright, pump the brakes here, you’re kinda reaching.” It just was very, very natural in the way that it felt.

Carlos, when you cast Chris first, did you then go back and rewrite some stuff? Or did you guys collaborate and…?

Carlos Puga: I think so. There was a little bit. But I think… I actually had him in mind when writing. I was like… sort of, I mean I didn’t know if he was gonna do it or not, but it was definitely, like, in my head for some of the later drafts. And then afterwards, yeah, we spoke every now and then about things that he felt maybe he would do or like would sort of fit Christian better.

Christopher Abbott: It was more of a day to day thing though. While we were shooting, we just… yeah.

burma cast

Daily Actor is an acting website so I’m going to ask you guys some acting questions. Carlos, you can answer as well.

Carlos Puga: [laughs] I am in the movie, yes. I’m in the movie a couple of times. I’m the voice on the bus.

Christopher Abbott: That was brilliant.

Carlos Puga: I also hand Chris a… some drugs in the club. You see the back of my head. I think the back of my head is in it a couple more times.

Christopher Abbott: In the party too, I think.

What’s an awful, horrible, nightmare audition you guys have had?

Christopher Abbott: All of them. No, that’s not true. But I do hate a lot of them. I haven’t thought of… I was starting to answer, but I haven’t thought of a specific situation yet. I will. I will think of one.

Christopher McCann: Oh, God. This is a theatre audition. But I was auditioning for Richard III and I started, I was probably doing “That was the winter of our discontent…” and as I started, the director was in the room, the producer of the theatre, and two intern types. And as soon as I started, the interns, both interns, kind of started doing this stuff like this, [looking at papers] you know, and it kind of drives me crazy. So I stopped and I said, you know, “If you don’t wanna be here, you don’t have to be here.”

Christopher Abbott: Yeah, that would be…

Christopher Abbott: That intern now runs that theatre. And it’s a place where I don’t work.

Dan Bittner: Auditioning is… it’s a horrible, brutal thing. I think overall I really get annoyed when I’m given 20 pages of audition material and then you get there and they’re like, “We’re just gonna do the first page.” I worked on this whole thing and now I have to do this one.

The only thing I… one thing I remember, I’d like to give the blame on everybody else, but there was one time that I screwed up pretty big early on and I went into a big TV audition and I read and it was… I had some real dramatic, you know, I was doing really great, I even think I was tearing a little bit. And the casting directing, you know, was like, “Dan, that was really good, but this is a comedy.” And I just, for some reason, I didn’t read the script. They didn’t give you the script. And so I just read the sides and I thought, “Oh, well this is a dramatic moment,” and it wasn’t at all. It was like a slapstick and I just totally read it wrong, I felt like an idiot. And I’ve never been back there too often after that. Oops.

Christopher Abbott: I guess one is, fairly recent, it was a few weeks ago, and I hate improv. I especially hate improv auditions. I don’t hate improv, but I do hate improv auditions. And it was just a couple of casting people and there was no information to go on for this improv. So they were like, “Oh, well you’re, like, a business… you’re this guy in business and you’re trying to convince this guy to do business.” And I’m like… his wife’s there… so I was like… so my first thing was like, “Oh, I’m glad we’re in business now.” Literally I was like, “I don’t know…” I stopped I was like, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do.” “Well, you know, just talk about it more.” And I literally started the next one again, “Well, I love this business. Hope it goes well.”

What’s your advice to actors?

Christopher McCann: Someone asked a great question earlier and Carlos’s response was fabulous which was just go out and do it. Don’t sit around and wait in your chair for something to happen or to feel inspired or to get the right idea. If you wanna do it, just go out and start. Just start. Get your butt off the couch.

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