Alex Moreland chats with actor Johnathon Schaech about his new film Southern Fury…
What drew you to this role initially?
I had just made a movie with Steven C. Miller, the director – Marauders – and it was such a great experience, man, we were like a very tight-knit family. The producers fill these roles very quick, these guys don’t let just anything go by – they’re like an efficient machine. The crew and everyone, they know how to move fast.
I always say, movies can be made for a million bucks, or they can be made for twenty – pretty much you’re gonna get the same thing at the end of it, depending on the artist that comes to it, and how willing they are to give. When I went there to make Marauders, I was just so enamoured by the way that they protected me, number one – making sure that we’re protected as actors, you don’t find that to be very often – and they just made me better.
Like, when this Arsenal movie came around – it was called Philly Fury the first time, then it was called Southern Fury, then Arsenal, then they went back to Southern Fury because Arsenal [the football club] is big in England, so we couldn’t call it that!
But I loved the character. It was a different character in Philly Fury than it was in Southern Fury, but it had the same principles, and I had worked with Adrian Grenier in Marauders, and they thought we’d make good brothers.
You’ve mentioned there that the character evolved, across the different stages of the film’s development – could you tell us a little bit more about that?
In Philly Fury, [Mosbug]’s screenplay was real tight, it was a really good read, and it had an energy – like a sort of East Coast feeling, Boston or New York. Philly’s kind of in the same area. I’m from Baltimore, so I knew it fairly well. It had this vibe of brutality, and Mikey, my character, he was molested. His parents passed away, and he was molested by the uncle. The uncle was drunk, and a paedophile, but what Mikey did was he protected his brother from his uncle all those years. He kept him away from all the harm that ended up being caused. That was kind of the root of why Mikey was so f***ed up. You know, it felt to me when I first read it, it was a Mickey Rourke role. Like, Mickey Rourke needs to play that role. When they offered it to me, I was like, “wow man, they must think I’m really f***ed up”!
The way that it evolved, we started out maybe two weeks prior, Steven said “here, read the script, we’ve had to change things. We’re gonna shoot in Mississippi”. They’d had the funding to shoot in Philadelphia, but the guys over there aren’t consenting to anything, so we were gonna shoot in Mississippi. And I read it, and they’d took that backstory out. So, as you’d realised, he needed to be – not an asshole, but he needed to have a problem.
So, me and Steven started to create a backstory. I had done my research, I’d spent a lot of time down with the military, and one of the biggest problems was soldiers, the United States Marines – you know, I actually trained with the British marines – is that after combat they’ll return with PTSD. And what happens is they try to find ways to express themselves, and they get into a lot of trouble. What happens with the military is sometimes they discharge them, and so they get a bad conduct discharge on their paperwork – it’s almost like a scarlet letter. It’s hard for them to get jobs, it’s hard for them to do anything, and Mikey was in that situation where he had that bad conduct discharge. He just couldn’t survive in life, and that’s why he did the things he tried to do to make money. So that’s the evolution of my character.
When you’re portraying a character like this, with the backstory of abuse and PTSD, do you feel any particular responsibility in your performance, and how you approach it?
Yes. You know… my father was a police officer, and every time we used to watch movies, he would get up and leave when pretty much any police work would happen on the screen. I always wondered why he was like “I can’t watch this kind of stuff, because it’s not real, and it doesn’t go down like that, and it’s showing everybody that that’s how we do our jobs. And that’s not how we do our jobs, that’s not how I do my job”.
The biggest part of me, for anything that’s any sort of military or police work, is I always just try not to forget that every time I look. You know, we’re making a movie, and unlike real life you just have to be more entertaining, and think then “you guys do really good jobs”. So, I was trying to tell the truth – I always try to find the truth. I studied with the marines, with friends of mine that were former military, I went to the veterans down in the Redwood area by Los Angeles, trying to get as much information as I possibly could, so that I would know my job. What he was going through, and why he was going through what he was going through, as much as I possibly could – because it is a great deal of responsibility.
When the movie comes out, there’s very little of it in there. There was just a hint of it, they didn’t want to make a movie like that. If I was Jake Gyllenhaal, it would have been a movie about PTSD, ‘cos you’d know about Jake Gyllenhaal, and he’s a big star. But for me, it’s just to tell the truth, and then through all the layers you can feel that there is that. It’s in the performance.
Personally, when I was watching it, I could see that deeper side of it, so I do think it paid off. Now, you’ve been acting for a fairly long time – do you find, though, that your process is still evolving? Or is there a set way in which you’ll approach your roles?
If I was pitching you to hire me for the next project, I would say my process has had to evolve. When I first started, I would have the luxury of months prior to filming; when I played Harry Houdini, I went to Vegas, and I literally learned from the greatest magicians in the world. In That Thing That You Do, I studied eight hours every day with the greatest musicians in the world on how to play guitar, and I would sing all night to try and get the notes correct.
I had time to do all those things; nowadays, film’s not the same, and you just don’t have that much time. It’s a quicker process, it’s much more intense, you never let anything just go by, I have an incredible work ethic from doing it for so long. The good thing is, I’ve learned how to process faster – so when I get hired on a television series, I do enough work that I can get by on whatever it is that I’m playing. In my off time, I play the things that I think they’re going to hire me as – I work on my skills with a gun, my fighting skills, I train with weights, I do physical stuff so that when I have to do stunts I can push myself without getting hurt.
So, my process evolves that way. Emotionally, my life is still – I’ve got a little three-year-old, and there’s nothing emotionally I have to prep harder for than to just think about how much I miss him, and how much I love him, or my wife, or those kind of things that are just much easier to pull, honestly, than it used to be.
At least I can rely on my high school studio training; I was trained at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts (RADA) for probably like six months of my life for my very very first film. I always relied on that training to get me by; most of my projects were like voice and embodiment, combat and competitiveness, and then actor’s studio they worked on a sense of memory and that kind of thing. I was out there in New York learning that sort of thing for six months of my life.
But now, man, I just have a bunch of love in my life, so that’s the biggest thing I can pull from. So yeah, everything’s evolving as I’m getting older.
What was it like working with your co-stars here? You said that working with Steven C. Miller, the director of the movie, made you better – do you find that your co-stars changed how you approached your performance, because of working with them?
You never know what you’re going to get. You never know. For Southern Fury, when Nic Cage came to the set, I hadn’t talked to him before at the trailers or the readthrough; I hadn’t met him. I think I’ve bumped into him at a couple of Oscar parties or something when I was younger. We knew a lot of the same people, so he gave me a respect – he came over and he said “Hey Johnathon, let’s do this”. He had sunglasses on, he had a wig on, his costume was like 1970s – and I just felt like this character he was playing was holding on to the past, but he said “let’s do this”.
For the next sixteen hours, he just went f***ing ballistic. Trying something new in every single take, and I wasn’t trying to keep up, I was trying to outdo him. But yeah, he’s like one person on one level, a Nicolas Cage who… jesus. Look, he was… in front of me… they would have just have ran the camera, from the time he was in front of me to the time he wasn’t, and they would have seen a whole gambit of emotions, dramatic actions, he changed his rhythms, his concentration was impeccable, his observation skills – he did not let anyone get away with anything. He was so freaking present.
And then you know on the other hand, with Adrian. Me and Adrian would just walk on the set and we were brothers, because we could feel one another, we just had this uncanny ability. Everything I brought to him, he hated – like a ping pong match, you know. He played right off of the concepts I had come up with in my head; if they weren’t working, he just bounced them off. Sometimes we made them work, and sometimes we would just start to laugh. Everyone’s different out there, and that’s the beauty of what I do. I can rock ‘n’ roll with anybody, man. I can get out there and play a little jazz with anybody.
To draw it all to a close, then – what’s the most important thing you’d like an audience member to take, not just from this film, but from your work in general?
I’m always fighting for the truth. In my storytelling, as well as in my character. I don’t know, if I get monkey makeup on, or I get monster makeup, I’m still trying to find the truth. I wish other people could do that in life, but they’re not actors – I’m the one who has to walk in other people’s shoes. Hopefully, they can understand those people much better.
Thank you very much, Johnathon!
You’re welcome! Thanks Alex.