Director E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills was the first movie to get picked up for distribution at this year’s South by Southwest, and it’s also the third movie in a row actor Pat Healy has had at the festival, following Compliance and The Innkeepers. All three movies have featured Healy in a starring role, but, according to Healy, that doesn’t mean he still isn’t crashing on people’s couches to make it to a film festival.
Healy has been acting for quite a while now, making small appearances in Payback, The Assassination of Jesse James, to, who could forget, Home Alone 3. Even with a steady stream of working coming his way recently, Healy still struggles, and and that struggle is something Cheap Thrills is very much about.
When I sat down with Healy in Austin he was playing with his sweater, which was made by his brother’s clothing company, Toddland, leading us to the start of our interview.
I’ve heard you say on [the podcast] Battleship Pretension how you and your brother started off as hardcore film fans at an early age.
My parents were very much into film, theatre, and music, and the arts. Lots of that stuff around our house. The first films that we saw were like the Disney films and all that stuff that kids see. This is 1970’s…so yes, Star Wars and all that stuff that all the kids saw. My mom worked for a company called On TV which was…You know what Z Channel is? We didn’t have cable in our town, if you can believe that. That’s how long ago it was. And they had On TV was a channel that programmed films. And it was a box and it had an on and off switch on the box. It wasn’t 24 hours. It just showed the recent movies like you’d see on HBO now. But like tons of old stuff, so the Mel Brooks movies, the Woody Allen movies were really important to us. A little bit later on like John Landis, Animal House, and Blues Brothers and all those. We really loved Saturday Night Live and SC TV, so anybody on that. A lot of comedy stuff.
Then as we kind of got into our 10, 11, 12, really interested in cult movies. There was like Danny Peary wrote the Cult Movies, the book series. There’s three of them, I think. They encompassed from The Wizard of Oz to movies that you couldn’t see for a long time stuff for home video, like John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, The Road Warrior, and the Kubrick films; all these things that people don’t understand now were not accessible in the way they are now.
My brother was always way ahead of me and he still is in terms of his knowledge in that and everything. The summer before high school getting the VCR, that was like, OK, all the Scorsese, De Niro movies, all the Kubrick movies, all these really rich experiences. And that’s really when my cinephilia really took hold and became all-encompassing.
I had a film study class in my high school that was only taught for a few years, but I had it. We watched like The Godfather and Dirty Harry and Kane, and then we saw Stroszek, the Herzog film. I had never seen anything like that. I was probably 15 or 16.
Then right after that the movie Blue Velvet came out in 1986. I think with my knowledge of what cinema language was and all that stuff, it’s still in my top five movies. That was like a my brain being cracked open moment on a movie where everything sort of came together to me of what it was. I didn’t give much thought to growing up in the suburbs. But that was a movie about all these darkness things, the darkness beneath the thing that you take for granted and that’s your everyday life.
So when you got to high school did you end up being the theater kid?
Yeah, I did theater. I have always acted since as long as I can remember. I did plays in high school. And then I got into a theater program at Illinois State University for college, which is about two hours south of Chicago, where I grew up in the suburbs. That was a really great experience because it’s a really good theater program. They gave an internship to a graduating senior every year and I got it the year I did. So that propelled me right into the business because I was an intern there, but they allowed me to audition for every show. I got a couple understudy gigs. Went on as an understudy in the show and then got cast, amazingly enough, in a production of Clockwork Orange that Terry King directed.
Who did you play in Clockwork Orange?
I just played various different characters, like member the other rival gang and a cop. I was 22, 23 years old. Just from my association with that, I got an agent in Chicago. I did whatever TV shows and movies came through Chicago. So I did Home Alone 3. That was the first movie I did. And then they shot this show called Early Edition there with Kyle Chandler where he gets the newspaper a day early.
But the agency had an office in LA, so they said, “Well, we’d like to represent you out there if you are ready to go.” I knew I was always going to go there, and I went there in ’98. I’m not going to say it’s been consistent, but it’s been pretty consistent. I’ve made my living that way for 15 years now, so that’s pretty good. There’s been whole years where I’ve been out of work, but that’s what residuals are for.
A lot of actors say when you go to theater school it’s a little weird because you are being asked to portray things you haven’t really experienced.
Yeah, when you are young it’s weird. It doesn’t seem weird at the time, though. When I go back an look at pictures of me when I played the dad in Brighton Beach Memoirs, my idea of an older guy was I just sprayed one line of silver paint on the side of my head. Otherwise I look like a 15 year old kid. I think that’s continued to be true as…right around the time I did The Great World of Sound, which was in 2005, I felt like life experience caught up with also all the work that I had done. I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. And that was when I’m well into my early 30’s. It takes a long time to get good at it and it takes a long time to have life experience to be good at it, to draw from.
Now it’s like I step into something like Cheap Thrills and it’s extreme, but it’s not something that I don’t relate to. I can relate to why…everything follows logically from what was presented. It’s not like any major leaps. It’s all sort of like matters of degree of getting in the water and it’s cold, but once you get in there it’s warm. But you slowly dip into that. By the time you are in it, it just seems normal.
You get the sense these characters have been through a lot, even before what happens in the movie.
I said to Evan early on, I was like, “You know, this is cool because it’s not for as broad an audience, but this would be like what the Hangover would be like if there were real consequences for their actions, if those things really had like real life consequences, which is probably people would get hurt, people would die, and people get divorced, and people get…”
And I’ve been through a lot of that. I’ve been kicked around in Hollywood. I’ve been married and divorced. I’ve taken care of sick people. I’ve needed to do things for money a lot. I’m still struggling. I have my career as a screenwriter that pays the bills right now because I’d rather do these movies where I actually get to do something. It doesn’t pay anything, but the reward is the work. You know, keep getting the work and I’ll make the money in another way.
My trip here had to be…I had to really crash on people’s couches and get the cheapest plane ticket I could. It’s still a struggle. So I get it. There might have been certain things I would have done to get here. It’s too important for me to be here for the movie.
I’m sure you’ve gained a good amount of life experience working as a screenwriter now.
Oh yeah. My naivety was such that you get kicked around auditioning, and it’s humiliating, and it’s so personal. And pilot season is sort of the crown jewel of that shit storm because it’s this thing where the writer, and the director, and the producer of the show, it’s like, “You are our guy. We love you.” But they are forced by a network or corporation to pick two other people and the network has always said no.
Once the writing career took off, I was like, “I’m being respected as a writer. I’m being paid better as a writer. I’ll do the things that people ask me to do.” And that’s how I ended up doing movies with Craig [Zobel], Ti [West], and Evan, and everybody, all these movies that I’ve done over the last couple years.
But yeah, as a writer it’s, “Eh, same shit.” It’s more money, but the movie doesn’t take two and a half years of your life to act in. It gets done in a couple weeks. You do it and money-wise it kinda works out.
And you get more heartache with the writing.
Especially on assignment work. I haven’t had any of my screenplays produced yet except for some television stuff. And that you expect is not going to be…it’s not your vision. You are working for somebody else’s vision that already exists.
But we’ll see. I think it’s probably going to be more heartbreaking to have things that are self-generated that I get notice that they don’t like it and I have to change things. But it really hasn’t happened. I think I’ve also grown up a lot. This speaks to what we’ve been talking about all along and just sort of maturing where if someone gives me a no, I don’t immediately take it personally and fly off the handle. Once you separate that out and you are like, “OK, maybe there is something to this no and maybe there isn’t.” This last experience I just had writing this movie for HBO Films and Tribeca, De Niro’s company, it has been a wonderful development process. They are great at HBO. The producer from Tribeca is great. He gives me intelligent notes. Do I agree with everything? No. But I’m figuring out a solution and I’m learning to compromise in a way that I compromise, everybody gets what they want, and the script is still good. It’s still something I want to do, too.
You’re not as precious about that stuff anymore, from the sound of it.
No. I think that’s part of growing up. When you are younger that’s going to be selling out or compromising. You just calm down like, “It’s not that big of a deal.” The things that are a big deal are the work. The work is important. And if you have a family and you have relationships, and friends, and your interests that’s what’s important.
And by the work, I say like I do Cheap Thrills. That’s it. That may be all I ever get out of that. It’s the most amazing experience as an actor that I’ve ever had and I think the best work that I’ve ever done. OK, maybe it gets made. Sometimes these movies don’t get finished. So, it gets finished. That’s another one. Take that. It’s good. It’s really good. It gets into a festival. Great. People like it. Great. Maybe it’s going to get distributed and people see it, and I get other jobs. Evan saw me in another movie and he cast me in this.
So you have to learn to take each small victory and not futurize so much. It’s hard because we want that. Pilot season is also dubious because they make you…they work out your deal before you audition, so you know how much money you are going to get. When you don’t get it, you are just like…Not only that I did not like that, but I convince myself that I did because I wanted that money so bad. Now I’m doubly mad at myself because I didn’t get it and I’m pissed because I got excited about it, and it sucks.
A lot of the films you have been doing lately, they live or die by the cast. When you are on set, do you ever get a sense of whether it’s working or not with other actors?
I can, yeah. I’d say that with Compliance it was a little more difficult to assess just because I was in the other room and not seeing them. But knowing Craig as well as I do, we know each other incredibly well as brothers, I trust that that’s happening.
With Innkeepers and with Cheap Thrills, you could feel it. And partially because it’s a contained location and partially because it’s a low budget and a short schedule, we’re doing a lot of stuff in long takes. So it is like doing a play where you actually have to really be an actor. There’s a lot of handheld where it’s like, “We’re going to do this in one” and it’s everybody in a room. You see all the amazing stuff that Ethan is doing and Sarah is doing just by looking a certain way, or like David’s doing in doing his thing, and you react off that. You allow yourself to be vulnerable to whatever comes at you.
People were asking me if I was nervous sitting down watching it for the first time. I wasn’t because I felt that unless he did something horribly wrong, we have the movie. I was in every scene pretty much, so I would know. And it’s better than I could have ever expected. So I think you can tell. Some people say you never know, but that probably has more to do with like there’s interference that happens, like somebody gets in their own way or somebody enforces cuts or a bad score or something like that when it’s totally happening on set and just doesn’t come together.
Then there’s the story about how their performance is shaped in in editing, too.
Well, yeah. I mean people say all the time there’s lots of performances that can be made in the editing room. I need to make sure that it’s there on set. That being said, they do a lot in editing that makes the performance so much better. I think it’s so weird that actors never thank the editor in awards. That’s very egotistical. Like they just showed up and just did this magic thing and here’s your award. Editors do a lot. And real editors really…their biggest plus is that they understand performance and how it works.
Cheap Thrills is currently in select cities and on VOD. Check out Drafthouse Films for more specific release info.