We talk to Christopher Abbott about the generosity of Jon Bernthal and the importance of withholding narrative for emotional impact.
Sweet Virginia is an emotionally meaty Alaskan noir that pits Christopher Abbott’s psychopath against Jon Bernthal’s broken rodeo player. Two hard cases caught in perpetual suspension slowly revealing the hatred and ugliness simmering behind the white picket fences. It’s not Blue Velvet, but it’s a calm and collected thriller that exposes the cavities rotting away in all our pretty smiles. Abbott’s hired killer, Elwood, lunges for the viewer from the very first scene. Finance a few sequels and he may end up on Hannibal Lecter’s couch…or dinner plate. It would be easy for Abbott to chew the scenery and rob Bernthal of his meal, but the actor goes mellow when he could rage. This quiet, steely confidence of the killer contributes to a classical idea of sinister. He was such quiet boy.
Several months ago, we had the chance to speak to director Jamie M. Dagg while Sweet Virginia screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and this week we spoke to Christopher Abbott days after the film met the larger world through VOD.
Looking at Elwood, I always thought that this sort of sociopathic character was one of the hardest roles to pull off. Balancing that lack of empathy with straight up emotionlessness. I guess, first I should ask, is that a fair description of Elwood?
Yeah. I think so. I wanted to approach it more or less … I mean, less of approaching it like I’m playing a villain and more interested in kind of researching the mental health of someone like this and why someone would do this.
I’ve talked about this before, but — and I coincidentally had read some books — I was interested in psychology, so I’ve read a few books just about the psychopath test and like even before I was doing this movie, I kind of took some stuff that I read. Yeah, I think he dances on the line of a sociopath or a psychopath, which actually the terms are interchangeable, really. I think he has a lot of those traits. Probably bipolar, he’s maybe somewhere on the spectrum, too. It kind of runs a gamut.
The appeal for me with Sweet Virginia is you’re sitting across that diner table from John Bernthal’s character and Elwood recognizes a brokenness in him that you infer he has also experienced.
How did you get there mentally?
I don’t know, I’m not sure. I don’t mean to shroud it in mystery, by any means. I’m usually quite practical about these things, but I think once you start just getting into, once you start just doing it, something starts to happen. You can prep and you can research as much as you want, and I believe in doing that work, but then I also believe in after you do the work to kind of forget it all once you show up on set.
My biggest thing is trying to be generous for the other actor because that’s what I cherish most when working with other actors. I think generosity is important. Sometimes when people get too clouded by character, or certain ways of doing something, you kind of remove yourself from the scene or you, at least, remove yourself from the other acting partner. I wanted to avoid doing that.
Then actors like Jon, you’re able to kind of sit there and play tennis and he’s incredible. I love him, he’s incredibly generous. In a way, that made my job much easier. Jamie let us play and I felt confident enough to be able to experiment, I improvised a lot. A lot of credit is due to Jamie for setting the tone for that much freedom for the actors.
Over the process of making the film, did the impression of your character or his situation change?
You mean like my own empathy towards the character?
I guess, I think it’s part of the job to find the empathy irregardless, even though he’s a killer and a sociopath. Yeah, I mean, I think, there’s glimpses … Here’s one thing and this is a negative trait- he’s also a chronic liar. He lies constantly. He lied about his mother being dead.
Then, it’s my job not only to ask why someone would do that, but then to kind of feel for that person and not that any kind of … whatever his history is, not that it justifies a lot of the actions that he does in the film, but I still need to have enough empathy for him.
Yeah, as I was shooting it, certain things would kind of come to light that I would be able to play with and conversations I would have with Jamie made. Beforehand Jamie had written a whole kind of history for all the characters and I definitely used some of that. I don’t want to take full credit, because yeah, a lot of pieces were involved.
And you always saw him in that particular light?
Yeah, I definitely felt a certain amount of empathy for the character. Obviously, he’s had a troubled life and a hard life. Again, not that it justifies any of his actions, but you get a little glimpse when he’s talking to his mother who, obviously, has dementia or is somewhat senile. He’s probably somebody that grew up without the advice of any adults and never was treated for any of his mental illness and it grew into this person. You always think, “Well, if he had a different upbringing, it could have helped him,” and it probably could have.
Was there a particular moment in the script that you knew you had to nail or the whole thing wouldn’t work for you?
The opener. Whenever there’s an introduction of a character, you have to set the tone a little bit, in that way, for the rest of the film.
You’re the initial thread of violence. I mean you’re the catalyst for the entire film.
Right, right. I think that’s really important. That’s one I was worried about, because originally also as written, even that scene, the killer Elwood was a little bit too cool for school. Jamie and I both wanted to avoid any traps when playing this classic villain as it is written. I’m not saying I’m playing a classic villain, but as written, it was kind of a classic noir villain. We wanted to sidestep any of those chokes that could have been there.
Every moment of every scene, I would try to think, “Okay, what’s the good choice, and just in case, what’s the opposite choice? What’s the opposite thing I could maybe do here?” Sometimes I would go that route. Yeah, that opening scene. The first scene I shot in the movie when I arrived in Canada to shoot was the diner scene between me and John. That was a really long, nice, beautiful, long scene and I was nervous about that but also excited because you can just sit and play with the other actor and that … Yeah, yeah. I mean, there was a plenty of scenes. It could have gone awry, for sure.
That diner scene really is kind of a Robert De Niro, Al Pacino Heat moment.
Yeah. Bless Jamie for keeping a lot of it in the two shot. In that way, I think you see some of the energy between the two guys.
That moment on the phone with your mom is extremely crucial to your character.
Yeah, yeah, I think so. I think seeing that is the slight difference of the classic villain tropes. You know what I mean?
With characters like this, most of the time you only really see them in action. You never quite see them in their downtime. I thought that was an interesting thing about this film — that you got to see Elwood when he wasn’t doing anything. You know what I mean? What he was doing in his hotel room, not just the phone call scene, but there’s a scene when he’s just watching TV and he looks at himself in the mirror. Then, there’s a little bit of a montage of cleaning his gun, exercising, having sex. You never really get to see a killer waiting that often. Again, you get a bit of a glimpse into his psyche just by doing that.
You mentioned noir just a little bit ago. When watching Sweet Virginia, I was thinking a lot about Albert Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt where Joseph Cotten has that speech about lifting the roofs off of houses and seeing swine. Sweet Virginia is that. It’s about all this hidden hatred, all this hidden fear, this terror that we all have, that we’re all capable of.
I guess, what I’m getting to is when you look back on Sweet Virginia, if you were going to put the film on your DVD shelf — that is if people still bought physical media — where would you like to see this film rest? What tradition does it belong to?
I think we’d also be lying if … I know a lot of like reviews and articles that talk about like early Coen brothers movies, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think it does evoke a certain tone to like Blood Simple, you know?
There’s that early Robert Bresson film …
Oh. Oh my gosh, like L’Argent or, it would be …
Was it Pickpocket?
Pickpocket, yeah. Obviously, not the same movie but in terms of its simplicity, you know what I mean? I think there’s something similar because the story is so simple and it’s kind of focused. I don’t know. I think it can live in just like the thriller section, too. I used to work at a video store when I was a teenager, so I think of movies on shelves as sections. Hell, it could be in the drama section. Yeah.
Jamie had talked about how this was a China brothers script pulled from The Black List and how he reduced a lot of the writing. He took out like 30% of the script to really make it bite. Sure, it’s dense with emotion, but you and Jon have to carry the back story on your faces.
I think that’s the trick with this film and with noir in general. It’s a very simple story, but you can absorb all the emotion that’s just radiating off of the various characters and all the different points of view that are occurring throughout it.
Exactly. It’s not something new. You know what I mean? I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. It’s just more about execution and how specific these characters are in that way, but I think it makes it unique and special.
As a film fan yourself, as a creative, what are you drawn to? You’ve done a variety of stories. Just this year you also did It Comes At Night. I think both of those films certainly appeal to a certain type of audience member, and I’m guessing a performer, as well.
What stories are you attracted to?
I did a movie with a friend of mine Nick Pesce who did The Eyes of My Mother. You know that film?
Oh, yeah. God damn, that’s a brutal movie. I love that flick.
We did a movie called Piercing that’s quite stylized in genre. It’s based on Ryu Murakami’s novel, also called Piercing. Not to be confused with Haruki Murakami — that’s very styled. For me, that was an exercise just in genre. It’s like smart candy in a way and also a bit of noir and strange and weird. Again, it’s in the Murakami world. Very violent, and yet very tongue in cheek and with a lot of humor, and I love kind of playing on that line. I also did a movie with my friend Sebastian Silva which is very different, very naturalistic, real kind of drama weird comedy.
Next, I want to do something that’s less about narrative. Something more about tone. One of my favorite films is Beau Travail, it’s a Claire Denis film. I would love to do something like that. I don’t know if people make those kinds of movies anymore. I think it’s hard. I don’t know what the script for that movie would even look like, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t found one that’s like that in a while.
I would love to do something that’s more of like a tone poem. Less about narrative, and more just about evoking a certain feeling. Something which is a little more experimental. I think sounds interesting me. I have no immediate plans for it.