Interview: Rachael Harris, Matt O’Leary and Director Robbie Pickering of SXSW’s Grand Jury Award Winner, ‘Natural Selection’

The stars (Rachael Harris & Matt O'Leary) and writer/director Robbie Pickering talk about their film, Natural Selection, Matt's audition & Rachael's improv genius (my words not hers)!

At SXSW, the amazingly wonderful Natural Selection swept the awards.

Seriously, it won everything. It won the Grand Jury prize, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score/Music and the stars of the film (Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary) won for Breakthrough Performances.

I can’t say enough good things about this movie and it deserves all the praise it’s getting.

Before I saw the film, I sat down and talked with its stars, Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary, and writer/director Robbie Pickering. We had a great conversation but unfortunately my recorders didn’t catch a lot of what Rachael said due to all the noise in the Driskill hotel. So, if you download the podcast, just be aware of that.

We talked about Matt’s audition, Rachael’s improv mastery (my words not hers) and how the film Step Brothers can lead to break-ups.

Matt, how did you get involved in the film?

Matt O’ Leary: Well, it was just an audition process back in LA, they, through the agent whatever, I went out and I kind of, I started to spread my wings a little bit with comedy, and this is, it’s a dark comedy. And I really like the character. And I kinda want to create something new. I was playing a video game and I heard like some voice and I started creating this thing and I went in.

I walked in and I decided  I’m just gonna go all out. And I really like improving and to improv somebody’s writing, its gotta be annoying but I was hoping that he wouldn’t have a problem with it. And we actually, we bounced back and forth very well in the room.

Since you have once or two scenes to pick from and they’re making a judgment for the entire span of the character, they were worried that I was a little too angry, so when I went back in, I kind of just, I kinda change it up a little bit. And that’s where really the improv kinda kicked in, and I started to fall in love with the comedy of the story because really I haven’t been a part of any comedy, Spy Kids is a little different.

Robbie, how did you go about writing your script and getting these two?

Robbie Pickering: I was in a Film Independent Directors Lab Workshop with a lot of great people and a lot of great speakers came in and one of them was Laura Dern and she said, “if you guys have a great script, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, actors want to work. It’s not too difficult if you have a great script, to go in and get a pretty good casting director and say “Hey!” I mean it takes a while of course, but Matt and Rachel want to be in good stuff, they wanna be challenged. Yeah, they wanna get paid, but I don’t think either of you did this for the money.

Rachel almost couldn’t do this because of a pilot. She got a pilot and she dropped out of the movie for a while.

What was the audition process like with Rachael and Matt?

Robbie Pickering: With Matt, I think when he first came into audition, Matt brought, Matt took a little like getting something, he was a little too angry in the first audition. Because I think when you’re a boy or a young adult as Matt is, when you’re a guy, I think anger is you’re immediate go-to, so it didn’t surprise us that anger was the first emotion that came up when he was doing the character so I had him come back. So no, initially Matt was, we’re all like Matt is too angry, but we knew that he was a great actor, so we invited him back, and I just gave him one simple direction, you know I kind of yes! I think I told you let’s see more of that kid from Frailty or something like that, or the boy in the character and you did perfectly. And then with Rachel, I think that I knew from the beginning with Rachel ‘cause…

My Casting Director set up a meeting with Rachel, and I didn’t wanna go because I was kinda like when you see the movie, and you know Rachel’s prior work, your kinda like, I mean you’re like, she plays a bitch in all of her roles, and this woman is the complete opposite of that.

But when I sat down with her, I think what convinced me with both Rachel and Matt, and I was saying this earlier, is that I really do believe that the best casting is just hyperbole of who they are naturally. And I can see the essence of the characters in both of them, just in interactions apart, like during the auditions, talking to Rachel was actually more informative than the audition itself, same thing with Matt.

Because you get a sense of their personalities, and so you know when they act, they can just be the characters instead of acting like the character, which I think is essential to a great performance on screen.

Rachel is a great improv actress, did you guys improv at all or was it just script, script, script?

Rachel Harris: We did, we did, and Robbie was really generous. Robbie was really great at letting us make it our own, but he was also great at saying, this needs to be simplified. But, yeah we did improvise and Matt was a great improviser.

Matt O’Leary: I got to try it at least, and being with Rachel it was awesome.

It was like a masterclass.

Matt O’Leary: Yeah, it was great. A lot of conversations between Robbie and I were… I would ask him what the meaning is and what the point is that we’re trying to get to, and sometimes you’d say “yes” but I need you to say this words, because I would try to go off-script as much as possible.

Robbie Pickering: The reason we could improvise and the reason anybody can improvise and do it, like, so it’s not a Saturday Night Live sketch or Anchorman, which just one of my favorite movies.

Rachel Harris: As well as Step Brothers. I just wanna go on record and say one of the funniest movies ever.

Robbie Pickering: One of the funniest, I once broke up with a girlfriend because she didn’t like Step Brothers.[laughs] So, the way we were improvising is not the way Rachel improvises with the Groundlings. In fact, when we got close to that kind of improvisation, Rachel was really uncomfortable. The way we were improvising was comedic and was dramatic, it wasn’t either those things exclusively.

So, the way we were improvising was totally from character. In fact, we did 45 minutes of improvisation, one time it was exclusively for one-line. And Matt had a lot of funny stuff, but out of the 45 minutes of shooting, which the crew got mad at me for doing, we only used one line from that.

Rachel Harris: Yeah. And it was driving me crazy the whole time we’re doing it. [laughs] It was like it’s funny, but it’s not.

Did you guys rehearse at all?

Robbie Pickering: We rehearsed; we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, so I went over the script with Matt, prior to filming. I went over the script briefly with Rachel ‘cause she flew in the day before.

We had like three scenes that we knew we had to get and we rehearse those pretty well. We would find the scenes on lot, and everyday after we filmed, me, Rachel, Matt, the other actors we’d go back, we kind of pow-wow and think about the scenes the next day, and think about what beats we’d want to accentuate, how the scenes would change. It was pretty fluid process not to much rehearsal.

And you’re script to the final film, did it exceed your expectations?

Robbie Pickering: Yeah, I mean it exceeded my expectations because it defied my expectations. It was different, it became a living thing. That’s the best thing I can say about it, is that I didn’t plan on it being the movie it is. And it surprised me, it disappointed me, there are mistakes, there are triumphs, there are victories, and it’s totally different from the script I wrote. To me, I think if somebody else read it they  will see it’s like similar, but the tone is different. That’s because it’s alive, and that’s because their real characters on the screen, if it was a line with my expectations, it will be a really dead movie.

There’s just a movie that is exactly what they wanted it to be, and those are a lot of  bad studio movies or movies that are controlled within an inch of their life. Then there are movies, mostly indie movies, Robert Altman movies for me, Michael Ritchie movies for me, Hal Ashby movies for me, that live on screen, and that the director wasn’t trying to control it. And the director was guiding it, but the movie was its own entity. And I wanted my baby to go to Harvard, but it’s going to Oxford, or it’s going to UT instead, I can’t control what my baby is going to be but I know I’m proud of my baby.

What’s your advice to actors?

Rachel Harris: Get training. Don’t be afraid to fail when you’re trying things, when you’re rehearsing, when you’re shooting even. T1the more you think something doesn’t work, the closer you are to figuring out that is does work. My advice is, if you seeing envision yourself doing anything else…. I have no other skill set, so…

Don’t try to be something else that you’re not. Don’t try to be something the casting director wants.

Matt O’ Leary: I honestly think, it’s a little cliché to say but it’s like, I think you should know your lines inside and out. I know a lot of actors that are my age that have them memorized but they don’t know them. And I think know your lines, if you know your lines then you can apply a different level of energy to it. And I think giving it your all, like almost too much is a good thing. And you say, give it your all and everyone’s like, well sure yeah I’ll give it your all, but it’s like…

Robbie Pickering: Some people don’t throw themselves into it.

Matt O’ Leary: Yeah throw yourself into it. Listen, the Director, whoever you’re around, will take you back, and will turn you, it will bring you back if you go a little too far but it’s way more difficult to asks somebody, or have your Director or your Casting Director ask you to do more because it’s an ambiguous kind of statement, “hey, apply more of yourself”, just literally just dive into it, and if you know your lines, that’s not gonna be the difficult process.

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