Michael Rosenbaum is known to television fans for playing the iconic role of Lex Luthor in Smallville, but he wanted to expand his talents beyond acting. The 41-year-old star decided to spread his wings and make his feature directorial and writing debut in Back in the Day.
The story focuses on aspiring actor Jim Owens who goes back home to Indiana for his high school reunion. It’s a hilarious yet classic tale of what might have been had he stayed home and made a more conventional career choice.
Daily Actor had the opportunity to interview Rosenbaum about the film, his career and what’s next in his career.
Michael Rosenbaum: Let’s do it. I’m ready.
Daily Actor: Alright, well let’s talk about Back in the Day because clearly it looks like to me that you have some autobiographical elements to it. What inspired you to write it?
Michael Rosenbaum: I love going back home. I go to play whiffle ball in my small town where I grew up in Newburgh, Indiana, in Evansville, twice a year. People don’t understand why. I say, “Come back and you’ll see,” and they do and they’re like, “wow.!” It’s just a bunch of guys playing whiffle ball who are a little over-aged. They’re in their mid-30s or 40s and drinking beer and eating Strombolis and hanging out and it’s just… I grew up in a small town and it’s just… we used to cut through backyards and drink out of a garden hose and play flashlight tag and catch fireflies. And I just… I miss that essence and when I’m here it’s just like the character in the movie where he has to go back. Because it’s not only that he goes back for a reunion, but he starts to fall in love with the town he ran away from so many years ago and I left and I thought, “I’m gonna be the one who gets out of here. I’m gonna be the one who goes and becomes an actor.”
This guy only becomes… regardless of what he’s become, he’s like the Nationwide insurance guy with the big thumbs up all the time. All city insurance, always there, all the time, all in. And when he gets home his friends give him s— and they go, “All the time? Balls deep.” And, you know, I think it’s one of those things where I’m 41 now and I’m like going, “Wow,” you know? It’s not a pity party. It’s like, “Wow, I did Smallville and movies and I made some money and I’m… shouldn’t I be just on top of the world?” Then you go back home and you see your friends with their families and their kids and their… and it’s just this sweet and you’re like, “What did I miss out? Did I go in a different direction where…?” You know, there’s a line in the movie where Morena Baccarin’s character Lori says, “Are you happy?” and I go, “No.” I go, “Are you happy?” She goes, “Well, who’s really happy?” And I go, “Happy people, I guess.” It’s kinda like this what the… in a sense it’s like it’s what you find… what really makes people happy. And when I go back home there’s that innate goodness about the Midwest and…
DA: Sense of community.
Michael Rosenbaum: Sense of community.
DA: We don’t have out here in LA.
Michael Rosenbaum: It’s just like the generosity. You can’t rent a high school out for free. F— you, give me 20 grand.
DA: And let me see a permit.
Michael Rosenbaum: Let me see your permit. We want money. Change the name of the high school. They’re like, “Yeah. Shoot in our high school for 3 days for free. Shoot at Pizza King for free. Shoot at the Nob Hill.” My friend Phil went and slept in a Howard Johnson’s or some s— for letting me use his house. You don’t find that here.
Michael Rosenbaum: I had to go home. I, you know, there was something, you know, you talk about this project, it was like it’s a passion project. A lot of these stories sort of happen. These characters are all based loosely on people and, you know, some of them. And, I felt like I had to go film in Indiana.
DA: It kind of takes a village. They all helped you with the project in some way.
Michael Rosenbaum: This movie is for Indiana. I think they’ll get a kick out of it and I think they’ll appreciate that, you know, most people go back to their hometowns or their small towns and say, “Oh, this is the fattest city in the country,” or, “Oh, this is the most depressed city in the country.” But I’m like, “This is the most beautiful city in the country. F— you. Go and visit and you’ll find out how cool and interesting Midwesterners are.” I couldn’t imagine growing up… growing a family in Los Angeles. Not to put Los Angeles down…
DA: I get it.
Michael Rosenbaum: …but I don’t know how people do it. I mean, I remember, like I told you, just living in a neighborhood where we walked to school and cut through yards and, you know…
DA: You can’t send your kids out in the street here.
Michael Rosenbaum: I think all these kids are so hip and they’ve got their phones. Take phones away from children. My niece texts me these little emojicons. What do they call them? Emojis?
DA: Emojis or emoticons, either one.
Michael Rosenbaum: She’s 10 years old. She says, “You’re a terrible uncle. You don’t text me back.” I’m like, “You’re 10 years old. Get off the cell phone.”
DA: Go outside and play.
Michael Rosenbaum: Call me from a freaking landline like a normal 10-year-old. So I don’t know, man. This world. But I… look, I got off on a tangent.
DA: No, no. But it makes sense though because I think for people in LA, especially, it’s a story that a lot of us can relate to if you’ve gone back. I grew up in small-town Massachusetts so I totally understand.
Michael Rosenbaum: Worcester?
DA: Not Worcester.
Michael Rosenbaum: My uncle lived in Worcester.
DA: Worcester. Andover.
Michael Rosenbaum: Park the car in Harvard Yard.
Michael Rosenbaum: Yeah, I know that.
DA: I don’t have the accent, though. Thank God.
Michael Rosenbaum: But going back home is like I just, man, there’s something about it. I just am drawn to it. I’m drawn.
DA: Well, how about you, you’ve been an actor, this is your writing and directorial debut. What was it like for you to be in charge because I’ve got to imagine this was a big learning lesson for you?
Michael Rosenbaum: Anybody who knows me, look, I just brought all my friends to Disney World for New Years Eve. I’m a leader, I organize softball, flag football, kickball, bowling, and when I don’t people are like, “Dude, what’s going on?”
DA: What’s wrong with you?
Michael Rosenbaum: I’m like, “You guys can do this.” So I always was like, “You know what?” I like to have fun, I like to think that I’m fun to be around, and I wanted to do… I really… this may sound egotistical, but I like control. I like having control. I like, being on set, I like saying… calling the shots. I like to think I know what’s funny and if I don’t I have other people around me who are all talented and funny and I said, “Well, what’s on paper is fine, but I know that these guys are gonna bring it.” And Nick Swartz and Sara and Morena and Emma and all these… Jay, Isaiah, Nick, Chris, and I’ll name all of them. Mike. Who else?
DA: We’ll be here all day.
Michael Rosenbaum: Liz. Anyway, you just, I… whatever.
DA: That seems to be the best part. Was there a hard part that you didn’t expect?
Michael Rosenbaum: Yes. The first two weeks I felt like, “I can do this. Wow, I’m a born director.” And one day happened, whiffle ball scene, it rains, shot list out the window, we’ve gotta create… we’ve gotta somehow shoot the scene handheld, they’ve already let some actors go home so now other actors are reading with assistants who don’t know how to act and are reading their lines off camera and somebody’s being short with somebody and so and so is being short and they’re like, “Oh my God, does this first-time director know…?” I don’t know if they said that, but I’m sure I… in my mind I was like, “Oh my God, this is the s—, f—ing gonna sink.” It was just one day and all these other days were brilliant and it’s one of those days you’re like, “Oh my God, can I do this?” And then you f—ing say you put it together, you put your team together, and you say, “How are we gonna make this work? Let’s make this work.” And the next day we got a record of 63 setups, which is unheard of.
DA: That’s huge.
Michael Rosenbaum: And I said to my DP and my AD and I said, “Hey, today was rough. Tomorrow is gonna be beautiful.”
DA: As an actor did you feel a little bit more nitpicky on your, you know, what you were doing?
Michael Rosenbaum: You know what? I just, I knew… I trusted myself as an actor. I’ve done enough work where I was like, “You know what? If you’re worried and paranoid and insecure and going, ‘Oh, am I good enough?’ and all those things, you’re gonna fail.” You’ve gotta trust how good you think you are. You just gotta say, “I’m good. I’m gonna do this. I’m not gonna worry about me.” My goal is to worry about everybody else and make sure their performances because they gave their time and they’re in Indiana and I’ve got to make sure that they’re taken care of. So I made sure everybody’s performance was good and I looked at my producer and my best friend Tom and my AD Sherry and I said, “Hey, watch my back. Watch these takes. If I need more energy, tell me to do another one. Because I’m not gonna watch my s—. I know the shot, I know how close you are on the camera. If it’s not good… if it’s good, we’re moving on.” And you don’t have time to look at your s—, you’re shooting eight pages a day. So I just trusted. I trusted the people I was working with. You’ve gotta let go. As much of a control freak, you’ve gotta let your DP do his job, your AD do her job, your producer do the job, and your actors, let them do their s—.
DA: It’s called delegating, isn’t it?
Michael Rosenbaum: Delegating.
DA: You know, all the fans were asking, what are you working on next? They’re dying to know.
Michael Rosenbaum: You know? I’ve got… I’m definitely gonna direct another movie. That’s happening. So I can’t say what it is, but it’s gonna be happening by the summer probably and they’ll hear about it shortly and I’m really excited and I think it’s gonna be a little bigger of a budget and, you know…
DA: You writing it?
Michael Rosenbaum: I wrote it. And I’m also… I’ve written a couple of horror movies and so there’s a horror movie coming out that could be made soon and… and also there’s a TV show that I’m gonna make digitally for a studio. So I think that’s gonna happen too so we’re just dealing with contracts and stuff. There’s a lot of… there’s a lot of good stuff around.
DA: That’s good, I’m glad to hear that.
Michael Rosenbaum: I’m blessed.
Back in the Day is available on video on demand now and in theaters on Jan. 17.