Michael Ironside on the Horror of Miscommunication in ‘Knuckleball’

Families are divided. Mother and father are at war. Kids are looking for the upper hand in an unwinnable conflict. No one wants to talk when there is an iPhone to fall into.

Knuckleball is a thriller built on the misery of that lack of communication. When young Jacob (Luca Villacis) is dumped on his grandfather’s (Michael Ironside) isolated farm by his parents, the twelve-year-old must worm his way into the old man’s thinking before he’s trapped into his slave labor force. Like all men, only sports talk can break down the barrier between them, but are various pitching styles enough to hold back dark family secrets from bubbling to the surface?

I spoke to Michael Ironside over the phone on the week of the film’s release. From the jump, it is obvious that he is incredibly thrilled with Knuckleball. Ironside digs the film so much that he’s willing to suffer through my various probes into his acting process. He is not the type of actor to spend time dissecting how he finds his characters, but our conversation eventually uncovers a few Ironside trade secrets.

Ironside has appeared in every manner of film and experienced as many different set environments. He’s damn good at his job, and he loves putting that first step into a character. What drives him from one film to the next? Only he knows.

Here is our conversation in full:

What brought you to Knuckleball?

The initial appeal was, how do I say this? I like anything that has an organic base to it and this one dealt with miscommunication. Generational miscommunication. You could see it in the first draft; it was about one person saying one thing and another person not hearing them. Whether it’s the father talking to the daughter, the daughter is now a wife talking to her husband and they’re both talking to their children. And how communication has broken down over the generations and I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the world. We’ve never had more opportunity to communicate whether its cell phones and every other electronic device. So little is being said and what is being said is being misrepresented and completely bastardized. That’s what I found attractive, you know? Then you put that in a format, both miscommunication, familial miscommunication, and the horror that comes out of that. So, I think it’s a wonderful metaphor, the whole film is.

The whole film is built around your relationship with Luca Villacis and Munro Chambers. Even if its centered around not understanding each other. Where do you start on building that dynamic?

Luca is kind of new to the whole process of filming and stuff like that and he was wide open. Very well cast, I must say, by Michael Peterson. Luca, how do I say that? It was kind of like he had seen that stuff I’d done. He was a fan of Munro Chambers. Actually, I was the one that suggested Munro for the part. We had done Turbo Kid together and some other stuff and I’d told him he had to destroy that pretty boy, and you know, kind of sense his intelligence. He has an extreme range and is just a good actor.

Luca, when he was cast, we kind of got together, and he said he was wide open, and trusting and he had this incredible relationship with Michael Peterson. It just clicked, all three of us just clicked and including, you know, I’m not trying to blow smoke up your ass here, but Munro, Luca, Kathy, and myself, even Krista Bridges, she played the cop and stuff like that. Wonderful, open actors. They got what we were doing. I really enjoyed the film. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t care for it. I think it’s a wonderful show.

So, how do you connect with a kid who’s fresh to everything? The relationship gets kinda antagonistic.

Well, what I am on camera and off camera are two completely different things. And I didn’t see it as being antagonistic. I saw that as being reserved. The whole family doesn’t know how to show those emotions. The whole family has kinda isolated themselves, you know? They say one thing, I say another. There’s no shared kind of sense of community with this group. As far as Luca was, like I said, wide open and trusting. We spent time together off-camera when we were shooting just to making sure that he was comfortable explaining what was going on. It was a real paternal side of me. I have many first cousins, I’m the oldest of five kids, I have my own children. So there was that. It’s not my first time at the dance and he was very, very, very, how do I say this? Accepting. And Munro was a wonderful actor, too, so I mean it was a great relationship. It not only works, but it’s also a familial kind of feeling to it. The film is 90% the three of us, you know? And Mike, Michael Peterson, as the director, made it a very safe place and a fun place, you know what I mean? A place for us all to offer up ideas and solutions and stuff like that and put input.

The whole film really falls on the three of you. That’s a lot of pressure on that dynamic to work.

Well, not really. And what’s this you mean pressure?

I mean, the whole film rests on your three performances, right?

Yeah but that’s not pressure. We’re trained to do that. That’s what we do. It’s in the environment that Mike creates that makes it very easy to work. For us to basically just create and be a part of that reality. What makes it difficult is when you have people that don’t communicate and the director and the scripter are not responding and they don’t gel, when they don’t have the same common end. You’d be surprised how many times the director doesn’t know what the script is about. You’d be absolutely surprised. You’re telling one film and everyone else is doing another.

Well, I’m sure you’ve experienced every kind of set over your career.

I’ve been doing it for a while.

There are two sides to your performance, almost two characters, really.

Well, there’s the aspect that’s real, which is somebody who is isolated, withdrawn, and doesn’t trust anybody. And then there’s the character that is perceived through Munro Chamber’s character, Dixon. Dixon has created this persona that he believes is his father. So, you get two versions. You get the version that’s the real me, and the one that you get to see of me from Dixon’s eyes. Who he thinks I am. And that’s a very clever aspect in the film that was created by Mike, by the director, and the writers. You have this duality over one. It was a lot of fun to play.

Do you approach those as two separate entities then?

That’s what I did. Two completely different characters. They just happened to be wearing the same clothes, to be in the same body, and in the same film. But they’re absolutely different characters.

And how does that work for you, process wise?

Well, I’m trained to do it. You go to acting school. I’m not being sarcastic, it’s what I do.

Has what drives you changed over your career?

I don’t have anything that drives me.

No?

I don’t know what you mean. It’s what I do.

But what propels you from one project to another? And has that changed as you’ve gotten older?

The joy of my craft. I’m sorry if I’m not giving you some sensationalized interview here.

(Laughter) No, no, no. I’m just curious –

I enjoy what I do. If I didn’t, I would not go to work. I would do something else. Whether it’s a two-day job or whether it’s from the beginning of the film. I have never been able to sleep the night before a film starts.

Really? Why?

Yeah, because the character is all over the place. Until you walk out on camera and until I walk out on camera as that character am I okay. By halfway through the first day I kind of get a sense of. I’m the paint and the film’s the canvas and between the director, and me we’re gonna paint this character and until that’s set and locked in, it’s all up in the air. My daughter, my oldest, she’s been in the film industry for a while. She’s been on the set with me since she was 10 years old, seven years old. She’s done everything from producing to AD where she said to me, “The day you can probably sleep before a film is when you should hang up your hat.” And I agree with her. It’s that sense and anticipation, I love that … walking over and building a character. I love it, I absolutely love it. And then the nuance is that you can create said character and they’re all big. There’s nothing intellectual about it.

You don’t know the character until you’re playing him on the set.

Yes, he doesn’t come into focus. There is no credible focus until the director says, “Yeah print that. That’s what I like.”

That hasn’t changed over your career? It’s always been that way?

Yeah, it’s always been that way. If I walk up to something that’s set, I’m not in conjunction with the director. Then I’m working as an isolated person. It’s a collective thing; making a film is a collective thing. It’s a group collective, it’s a cast collective. Certain colors that I choose and stuff like that, the directions might want for another character in the film, might have a different job or task, emotional task for another character. Otherwise, it would just be hysteria on-screen. The director suddenly starts, he or she is painting a picture with a palette, we bring certain colors and emotions to it.

When Jacob, the father, and the grandfather, at the beginning of the picture is painfully hurting. He is withdrawn from life, and he’s emotionally and spiritually kind of shut the doors and is not incapable of love. He just doesn’t trust. He dies and then you have the history of where and what he has done. It comes out afterward. And who is responsible for all that is a big question. I love the sequence when Kathy Monroe, who plays my daughter, and she walks to the end of the driveway, stares at the barn. Have you seen the film?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course.

Have you seen it?

Yes, I have.

Well, she’s at the end there and she’s staring at the barn and having her memory and her husband goes out and says “What?” She says, “You don’t understand.” It’s that inability to explain where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced. The lack of communication and that’s what I love about this script. It really focused on that lack of communication that is happening all over the planet.

So, are you the type of actor that pulls everything from the script? Or are you constructing a backstory, and messing around with a lot of research?

What made you ask that?

The way I was interpreting your responses –

No, I’m not interested in talking about my craft of acting and stuff like that. It’s a lot of wasted time. Why would I talk about that? When I walk on set, my daughter always says, “Don’t ask him questions because he’s not here right now.” I studied very heavily for a very long time before my first feature. I was a writer/director who took acting lessons who ended up being an actor. I’m very well trained. I know what I’m doing and as my daughter says when I’m on set, “Forget having a real conversation with him.” I can’t walk around in character all the time because most of the characters I’ve played are very, very antisocial so I throw over kind of a raincoat over the character.

Okay. Huh.

My daughter refers to him as Binky. It’s kind of suitor that has a sense of humor but who can’t remember shit. Because I don’t drop the character. The character is pretty much me by the time I get to where it’s – I’m usually up an hour before my call time. Laying all the emotional work I have to do for the day. I try my best at night to let it go but it doesn’t often go. I’ve learned that if I’ve changed my footwear at the end of the day that helps. I wear Birkenstocks when I’m not working, and I’ve never played a character that wears Birkenstocks because I build the character from the ground up so I slip on a pair of Birkenstocks at the end of the day and the character has a tendency to go stand in the corner until the next day. (Laughter) Do you have any other questions you’d like to ask?

No, that’s-

I enjoyed making this film, by the way.

I can tell and-

I enjoyed this film. I don’t do press for all the films. Some of them are wonderful experiences like this one. Some need and really deserve support like this film and some are a fused with mechanized kind of engines that drives forward on their own and stuff. I try to do like one big named project a year so it keeps my distribution. So I like to do films like this. Munro Chambers, we’ve done two or three films together. We did Turbo Kid, we did this, we did a couple other small things. He’s absolutely brilliant in the film. I think Luca as a first-time actor playing Henry, my grandson, has an incredible open innocence about him that you just can’t fake. Kathleen Munroe who plays my daughter, and Krista Bridges, who plays the cop. There’s something wonderfully present about those actors. Jon Thomas who’s the cinematographer should not go unmentioned. He made that landscape and that weather and that emotional weather all gel together. Jon does a great job, as the photographer because so many winter films don’t do well and I really think this one will.

He captures that island-like isolation.

Yeah, that starkness.

Michael, I really appreciate the conversation, and I love hearing your passion for this film.

I’d actually recommend this one to families. I don’t always do that. I say if you get the chance to go see this do so. I think it’s really pertinent, I think the fact that if you don’t talk, if you don’t communicate with each other, you create a fucking horror in your family. Miscommunication and the lack of communication is the biggest problem on earth right now. And it’s a pretty political statement we have going on there.


Knuckleball is now playing in select theaters and Digital HD and VOD.

Brad Gullickson: @@MouthDork Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.