The Policeman is a cypher. It’s a character that has practically everything going on internally. On the outside, he seems like a run-of-the-mill cop, but he isn’t. There’s a genuine warmth and sadness to Elias Koteas’ performance in Let Me In. He’s someone who’s way in over his head and doesn’t grasp what’s really going on. In any other film this would’ve been the character trying to ruin the kid’s fun and more so played as a villain, but he’s not.
If anything, The Policeman is the most sympathetic character on screen. He never does anything wrong and there’s nothing morally questionable about him, unlike every other character in the film. Let Me In is an odd film in that it isn’t completely black and white. Nobody is singled out as good or bad, except perhaps The Policeman, who also plays into some very subtle religious undertones as well. Koteas brings a sympathy to a character that easily could’ve been played as the bad guy.
Here’s what Elias Koteas had to say about his role in Let Me In, satanism, and working with some of the most talented directors still working today.
The tricky thing about The Policeman is that he’s a bit of an enigma. On the outside not much is going on. Was that the greatest challenge to you?
When I first read it what was most interesting to me was that I was trying to figure out how he would affect the events of the movie and the journey, so what was tough was trying to make it relevant outside of just being a figurehead of the law slowly approaching them. I tried to personalize it and he felt very much like a ghost to me. Somebody that has gone through his whole journey and at the end of the day he’s retracing his steps looking for where he went wrong and what he missed.
It all sounded very simple, but it allowed me to view the events in a very sort of compassionate and non-judgmental way as to what led him to what he eventually goes to. That’s the way I describe it.
In most films he’d have been the guy ruining the kid’s fun, but he comes off fairly sad.
Yeah, yeah. That’s good. I felt it was a good element because I imagined he worked hard all of his life and tried to do the best he could, but somehow he missed something and he met his fate. It really is very sad. You don’t ground him in anything and he’s almost sort of a ghost moving through events. That’s the way I felt that I could hold onto it and be a part of the story. In some way, you cold take him out of the narrative and the narrative would go on. That’s not an indictment, but it’s the nature of it. So I’m glad you had those feelings, because that was my intention.
But wouldn’t you say he is important narratively? His death is pretty important for Owen.
It absolutely is. I think after the fact and when it all came together and, I finally saw the finished picture a couple of days ago, I felt so moved and was brought to tears by it. When you experience something that moves your heart it’s, that moment to me brought those two together. Owen crosses a line, but that is maybe what The Policeman’s purpose is. Maybe that was the purpose of his life, somehow. In an odd way, it works that way.
Wouldn’t you say that it’s more of a sad scene because you see how vulnerable he is with Owen, as well?
It is, and that broke my heart. They so encapsulate the 12-year old energy and not only the characters, but themselves as children. You know the life around them is going to change and there’s no stopping it. It’s very much the same way in the movie. There’s the scene where Abby takes a shower, puts on the mother’s dress, and they’re dancing to this music and for this moment they’re kids. And there’s something about that that’s heartbreaking, but in a good way.
When you got the script were you surprised in a sense that The Policeman wasn’t played as a villain?
Yeah, I was glad that Matt [Reeves] presented it the way he did as this moral conscience. I’m glad there wasn’t all helicopters and screaming sirens, and it’s all very simplistic.
Who is the villain here, if anyone?
Exactly. Who is the villain? Everyone has got their convictions, their reasons and their passions. You know, for The Policeman he wants these crimes to stop, but at the same time, you’re rooting for these kids in a certain way. It’s this timeless love and this need to connect that is really this dark thing. Her being what she is and this little boy who is lonely and bullied and has finally connected with someone that has major issues. You don’t know who to root for.
Abby of course has her obvious issues, but wouldn’t you say Owen’s are more extreme in an odd way?
Yeah. I mean, look where he came from. The phone call he has with his father is just heartbreaking and his mom, you know. He’s just so alone. It’s not a mystery that this boy is opened to this. I feel like it all comes down to parenting. I’m not a parent myself, but that’s just my instinctual feeling about it.
Even more than just his parents, the only interactions outside of Abby and his parents are with the bullies.
Yeah, he is just so sad. It’s such a sad story. When I first read it, it was obviously extreme, but there was so much I could relate to. I just wanted to be a part of it when I first met Kodi [Smit-McPhee]. From afar, he just caught that essence of a 12-year kid that is lonely and scared.
The film also doesn’t shy away or sugarcoat what Abby and Owen do in the film, did that surprise you?
No, it doesn’t. It just presents it as is and the passion behind it. When I saw it, I was taken by the romanticism of it. I was a sucker for it. There’s a sense metaphorically that he knows what she is and she sees him and they both know each other and see each other. That’s what we all strived from. Outside of where it’s eventually going to lead, they just so need each other that somehow it touched a cord for me. She needs blood to survive, but he’s lonely. They just want to be seen and loved.
We were just talking about the idea of there being no villain, but wouldn’t you say The Policeman is the only innocent one here?
Yeah, right? That’s maybe true, but in his mind looking back he’s trying to figure out what he did wrong. Maybe he should’ve waited for backup? You don’t go down a hall without knowing what you’re getting into. There’s a lot of things that, after the fact, he could probably question. He’s in way over his head and he comes barging into the apartment almost clumsily. He’s overeager and he’s easily frightened, it’s a subtle thing. To me, it signified he’s in way over his head and that he hasn’t ever experience anything like this. I can see your point, though.
The film really establishes the fact he is, like you said, way in over his head when he says to The Father, “Are you a part of some satanic cult?”
(laughs) Yeah, that’s true. I like the whole looking right at the camera and being in the point of view of The Father, and my intent for that opening scene was to be nonjudgmental, to draw him in and to let him know that I sympathize. It’s him somehow bearing witness and trying to draw him out, it was important for me to strike that note with the character.
But it’s also a great line if you know the 80s and the whole satanic panic period, so it makes sense why he would think that.
(laughs) Yeah, right. I’m trying to remember all that stuff. I was in my early twenties for that, but it’s all a blur. I remember it, but not all the much. I remember all the ideas about witchcraft and evil, but I was so focused on studying acting and it was me moving away from home for the first time where I was trying to figure out who I was, so I wasn’t paying much attention. I was a twenty-year old man living in New York in 1981 and New York was very different than it is now. It was barely coming out of bankruptcy and it was like a huge toilet bowl. It was dangerous, man. There was like fifteen hundred murders per year and the place was a wreck. When you’re twenty there, you’re fearless. But it was all cool.
When The Policeman goes into the room clumsily and overeager, do you really see that as an actual mistake? He’s a New Mexico cop, should he really expect what he gets?
No, I agree with you. After I read, I thought maybe it wasn’t true. You have a point, absolutely. He’s on his own, so what is he going to do? You can second guess the guy in this moment, but it needed to happen that way. Like you said, it needed to happen that way. Watching it, it broke my heart. For one of the few times in my life I was able to remove myself from watching myself and just get caught up in the narrative and the story, and that was telling. But yeah, you’re right about The Policeman. He’s alone going through this thing and that was his fate.
To me, that moment pushes Abby into being a monster.
She is ferocious, man. And he gets to see her, isn’t that the first time he sees her? He sees what she’s capable of. She comes to Owen, embraces him, and says, “This is who I am.” She gives him a kiss on the lips smeared with The Policeman’s blood and it’s so loaded. The music that leads up to it is powerful stuff.
Do you think The Policeman and Abby’s relationship plays into some of the religious undertones of the film? He says Jesus a few times and Abby is referred to as pure evil early on. Was that religious counter-dynamic intentional?
I mean, if it’s there. I don’t think there’s anything in the movie that was arbitrary from Matt [Reeves]. There’s a picture of Jesus in it when Owen is taking the money out of his mom’s wallet. It’s about the nature of evil. Where is it? Where does it originate? It’s an interesting question, but to answer your question I think whatever you saw in that picture is not arbitrary. I believe that Matt made it so, and I picked up on it as well. And I think it had a place for it. I think it was appropriate.
Do you prefer working with directors like Matt Reeves and David Fincher that are very detail-oriented or say someone like Terrence Malick?
You know, Terry Malick had a limitless amount of time, but so did David Fincher. They’re just such different challenges, but what they all have in common is that they know what they want. The arena and landscapes they create any actor would want to be in, you know you’re in great hands of great storytellers. At the end of the day, all you want to do is tell a good story. And all of these guys are just great storytellers. It’s a blessing they ask you to come along for the ride to help them tell a story. Each one has a different temperament, energy and approach, but at the end of the day, it’s like poetry. They’re trying to transport you.
It’s like spiritual content, you judge the art by its spiritual content. You walk away from these guys’ films being altered in some way. It’s kind of like going to church (laughs). When I saw Let Me In, The Thin Red Line, Zodiac or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button I was moved. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and I haven’t stopped thinking about Let Me In since I saw it. It’s what I want when I watch a film and it’s what I look for to somehow reflect on my life when it comes to where I’m going and what I’m doing.
What was your experience like working on The Thin Red Line, as well as with Malick?
(Pause) I don’t really know how to talk about it. I know he came into my life and trusted me to be a very important color in his movie. The four or five months of filming were very profound, for me and for everyone else involved. It’s been a long time and I don’t really know how to talk about it, but I knew that it was as good as it was ever going to get being in the company of such artists and creative energy. Sometimes, the energy isn’t so comfortable and it doesn’t have to always be comfortable. It was the nature of the film itself being at war, did you think it was going to be a cake walk? It wasn’t.
The manner in which Malick approaches the work might not be very linear, and it shouldn’t be and I wouldn’t expect that from someone who just creates poetry. Sometimes there’s going to be a lot friction and agony of creating, and that goes hand in hand. I had to pinch myself being photographed by John Toll and directed by Terry Malick. All I had to do was show up and be open. It’s not necessarily the most comfortable thing, but you want to be vulnerable and you want to be open. At the end of the day, as an actor that’s all you can ask of yourself.
It does not sound like the regular acting experience.
It wasn’t, it wasn’t. The gift that he has is that he is able to tap into, he gazes a certain way and has a certain sensibility, and once he makes a decision he gets to know you and wants you to reveal you. He’s not asking you to play a character, he’s asking you to play yourself in the situation. For a lot of us who go around in masks and try to hide behind it, it can be very liberating and it can be very frightening. At the end of the day, it’s a hard act to follow because most people don’t work that way.
Most people don’t have the time to get to know you. They just know you from something they’ve seen you in and they assume that’s something you can do easily, but it takes a lot of time spent to get to know the energy of the person you’re working with and to write for them and to see if the words are coming out of your mouth organically.
Let Me In is now in theaters.