Super proud of the entire team that came around and helped me bring this dream of mine to the screen.
As I was going back through pictures of past jobs, I noticed that some of my favorite roles included characters wearing some kind of hat (I’m including helmets and wigs).
Interesting wardrobe allows an actor to disappear into a character much more easily than when I hear “and can you bring a bunch of your own clothes for wardrobe options?” I realize that using your own clothes is part of the deal on a lot of low budget films, but I love it when a director has a vision for their characters that’s super specific. It tells me that they’ve done the work to honor their characters, and it puts me at ease.
Just something to ponder for you directors out there…
Projects (left to right from top to bottom):
Popeye the Pizza Man
Travis Manion Foundation PSA
House of the Righteous
Popeye the Pizza Man
Marine Corps training video
Burt’s Eye View
Two years ago, I was in South Carolina working with my buddy Justin Robinson on his latest short film “Popeye the Pizza Man.” It was an experience that left me drained. I put so much preparation into that role, and when the time finally came to step in front of the camera… I’m not gonna lie, it was hard. It was a hard film to do. Not just for me… for Justin as he wrote and directed, for the other actors, for the crew. It was heavy. It was dark. I’m thankful for the splashes of comedy sprinkled through it, because when I go back and re-watch it, I tend to forget how heavy the whole thing was.
Not long before filming, Justin emailed me and said he wanted to give my character, Lewis, a little more depth. He wrote this monologue at the tree house and sent it to me. Man, reading that scene… I kinda sat back and took a minute because I knew what it was going to take. But I wanted to do it. The gift of a nuanced character combined with great dialogue is what I live for… I hunger for it. I need it.
That night on set, I was walking around in circles in the dark listening to my music while Brent Christy finished setting camera, and when we finally sat into it… it was like a graveyard, it was so still. Because of the camera and lighting set up, a couple of crew guys were only feet away from me. I remember watching the audio guy check his set up, and then turn his back to me to give me even more privacy. After the first take, no one moved. Justin came around, knelt next to me, whispered some direction, and then he crept back around the camera and called action.
To be given that much respect as an actor… if you’re not an actor, I don’t think I can describe it. I’ve been on sets where I had an emotional scene and people from the crew, to the producers, and even the DP once, were cutting up, telling jokes, standing in my eye line… completely not getting what they were doing. Clueless. And so I say I’ll always work with Justin and with Brent because they protect their actors.
Lewis was a gift. I’ll always remember him. I’ll always have a part of him left with me, and I know I left some of myself with him that night.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Justin many times now. His passion, skill, and heart for excellence continue to grow.
He’s a talent to keep your eye on.
Back in March, I tackled a role in my seventh collaboration with filmmaker Justin Robinson (J-Rob Productions). It was dark–there’s not really any other way to say it. My work with Justin has spanned quite a few different characters (I talk about it here in an earlier blog post). It’s been a rocky journey of growth and one where both Justin and I have learned a lot about ourselves (as a bonus, check out Justin’s post about his struggle going into the filming of RIFFRAFF).
I’ve had to work through my own reservations, fears, and beliefs as an actor. Each artist comes to their own understanding of what they’ll tackle and how far they’ll go. I believe this is healthy and necessary because none of us are the same. But I believe that too many Christian artists tend to shy away from dark roles or roles that require an exposure to things that make us uncomfortable or to feel unsafe. If I believe in God and His power in my life, then I should be most willing to lean into the darkness because I know what I’m anchored too. It’s more dangerous for an artist who doesn’t hold to any particular belief, because they don’t have the direction in place to reel themselves back in once the role is passed. I’m not espousing working on roles that serve no long-standing purpose and throw gratuitous nonsense in the audience’s face for shock value. I want to work on roles that convey a necessary message–even if that message is a dark one. David Oyelowo said it well when he stated that he wants to play roles that he can defend to his children when they are the appropriate age to watch them.
I learned from Coen. I learned a lot. I don’t believe that people are inherently good, but people are very good at hiding it. I needed to get outside of my comfort zone. I listened to music I wouldn’t normally go to. I watched dark films.
“The hate was all we had
Who needs another mess?
We could start over
Just look me in the eyes and say I’m wrong
Now there’s only emptiness.”
It was tough, but it was necessary. I read once that the best villains think they’re heroes. They’re so committed to their belief that they follow through with a devotion that puts most of your “everyman” characters to shame. As Coen says, “I know what I am.”
Andrew Bradford grabbed this picture to incorporate into the film’s poster.
I keep this picture as my laptop wallpaper and my phone’s lockscreen so that I am reminded constantly of Coen’s 100% commitment to who he is. I haven’t “made it” yet as an actor. There are still days when I look at my bank account and wonder how I’m going to make it. There are days (and nights) when I wonder if I’m where I’m supposed to be. There are times when I wonder if I’m making a difference. And it’s in those moments when I look at that picture and hear Coen’s gravelly voice in my head telling me there is no other option–“this is what you’re meant to do, so suck it up, and figure it out.”
And so I do.
Justin Robinson is special, and with his latest film (beautifully shot as always by the masterful Brent Christy), he’s proven that yet again.
I’ve known he was special since I first met Justin–he and his brother Jordan had just crawled out of the Reedy River in downtown Greenville, SC, toting a video camera and shooting a Bear Grylls spoof. Several months later, I got him to come out to Lake Jocassee to shoot a 90′ cliff jump stunt I had been wanting to do, and from there…well, the rest is history.
Over the past five years, I’ve had the honor of working on seven of his films. Each time, I’ve seen his passion and his talent grow exponentially.
With “Popeye” — and his upcoming film “Riffraff” (not to mention his Vimeo Staff-picked “Grape Soda”) — he has entered a new level of film-making and directing. The study of suicide that “Popeye” encompasses required a lot, I won’t lie about that. Jordan Crowder, Joe Coffey, and I all had to go to places that were hard…really hard. But Justin made it safe for us. He’s the best “actor’s director” I’ve worked with yet. And he knows how much he can push, because he’s built that trust with us. He pulled a stunt with me on “Popeye” that, if any other director had tried, I would have walked off the set at least for a few hours if not permanently. But I know I’m safe when I’m on his set. I know he’ll push because he knows what’s inside his actors, and he knows what needs to be told.
It’s true–we leave a little bit of ourselves in every project we do; it’s a part we’ll never get back, and it’s a sacrifice I’ll make every time Justin calls, no matter what.
*author’s note: I don’t ever share all the things I do in my prep for a role. “Coen” in Justin Robinson’s upcoming film RIFFRAFF was a heavy character: purposeful, dark, singularly focused. I spent hours working through the dynamics of a character who is pretty much the antithesis to all the things I was raised to embrace. Stripping away the facade that society tells me I need to wear to be the “nice guy” was liberating in many ways…also, I listened to a lot of “Slipknot” (I think I’ve pretty much recovered from that, but the jury’s still out). Each character I tackle takes something and leaves something.
This poem is part of what Coen left behind.
‘Tis a story long begot
From simpler times
‘Fore souls were caught
Indefensible to the guile
Rolled into the malleable center
Of their view
Eyes like crystal
Full of rainbows
Capricious bloated fairy tales
My way stood plain
Exposed in the howling rain
That crowned my birth
Leading me on a path to liberation
Watching the blood run in rivulets
Through Pilate’s gauntlets
Rupturing the broken shell of a man
A curious thing when robbed of breath
Embraced by Death
And I never doubted this is who I am
Cavorting in darkness
Taking the believer
And bestowing the antitheses
Of his dreams
What is good
What is right
When there is no dark
For the light to spring against
So kick against
The pricks of a world that is cold and cruel
I am nothing but a tool
In Fate’s hand
Meting brutal beatings
To the soft, tarnished, fleeting
Belief you cling to
Separating the chaff
Truer man was never born
So forget your wings
I’ll keep my horns.