Welcome to the Melbourne underworld, where tensions are building between dangerous criminals and equally dangerous police. In Animal Kingdom, a menacing character-driven crime drama written and directed by David Michod, the Wild West is being played out on the city’s streets in a modern version of gangsters versus renegade cops. Following the death of his mother, 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) goes to live with his estranged family – a deceptively sunny grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), her hardened criminal sons, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford), and Pope’s business partner, Barry ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton). Before long, he finds himself naively navigating his way through this criminal world caught between family loyalties and the police who want his uncles dead or alive, including a senior cop (Guy Pearce) who attempts to lure “J” into the police fold.
We sat down with James and Sullivan to talk about their new film. James told us what it was like playing the young and impressionable “J” and to be cast opposite such an established Australian cast for his feature film debut. Sullivan, who plays the speed-addicted and volatile Craig Cody, described how he was attracted to the project by the caliber of script and cast and how he collaborated with Michod and his fellow actors to work out the unusual family dynamics and idiosyncratic behavior of his character.
Q: This was your feature film debut. What was the experience like?
James: It was incredible. Usually being a young actor, you’ve got to go through certain levels of hierarchy, going through bit parts and extra roles and then kind of progressing up the food chain and having the size of your roles grow in that sense. And then, to go through an open casting call and be put right in the middle of such an established Australian cast, it was like a complete freak show and a fluke. (Laughs) It was great!
Q: Tell us a little bit about your character and the development – where Joshua starts off with his mom dying and where he ends up in the end?
James: The backstory was that Joshua’s father was never in the picture and [he’s grown up] with the sort of mother that you see in the first scene of the film who’s a heroin addict and more often than not is stoned. If you’re wondering why Joshua is wearing a rubber glove in that first scene before the paramedics came, he was doing the dishes in the kitchen, but never having been educated as to how you do the dishes, just thinking that’s the right thing to do. And the phone’s ringing and his mom’s not picking up, so he’s yelling at her, “Pick up the phone!” Then, she just doesn’t. He’s a really emotionally stunted teenager that otherwise is still a kid. It seems like he didn’t quite have a childhood because it wasn’t a very wholesome upbringing. And then, on top of being young and impressionable, when he moves in with his uncles, he just wants to try to do the right thing by everyone and not cross anyone too badly, which was kind of like being on a film set. (Laughs)
Q: For both of you, when you first read the script, what were your initial thoughts about the film?
Sullivan: That I wanted to do it. It was a great script. It was a page turner and they don’t come along that often, not of that caliber. And then, we knew there was a cast in place already. Most of that was already done. So it wasn’t a hard decision to want to be a part of it.
Q: What did you think of the idea of gangsters versus renegade cops?
James: I liked that the edges were blurred a bit and everything that happened, whether it was good or bad, was all circumstantial and subjective to the desperateness of their situations. So it wasn’t like anyone was a good cop or a bad cop. They were just people under pressure.
Sullivan: They were bad cops. (Laughs) I mean, that’s what they were like. I think it’s a fine line between cops and robbers, to be doing that and to immerse yourself in that world and be chasing them and leaving that world. You’ve got to get a little bit dirty.
Q: What kind of research did you guys do? Did you do much at all?
Sullivan: No. (Laughs) Nothing we can say on record. There’s not much research you can do – certainly not my character anyway – without either ending up in a hospital or in jail. You read books. There are a lot of books about what went on at that time and the crime in Melbourne and it’s saturated through the media back at home.
Q: Is it based on a true story?
Sullivan: It’s based on events. It’s a fictional story but it’s certainly inspired by events that happened over the years in Melbourne.
James: The central event in the film with the retribution killing of the police, that happened and that was pretty terrible, but David (Michod) didn’t want to be confined by the limitations of having to remake that particular story. He knew that if you fictionalized it, he could create his own characters and take them directly to them and people wouldn’t know that. I didn’t do any kind of huge research for the character. All I remember doing was sitting down with David and figuring out idiosyncratic behavioral patterns – like with sentences ending in upward inflections and the shuffling and the mumbling and the drooling. (Laughs)
Sullivan: Which came naturally.
Q: Did you have a long rehearsal process or was this just camera set-up and go?
Sullivan: We did two weeks?
James: Yeah, three weeks, which apparently is very rare.
Sullivan: We did a lot on the family working the [family dynamic] out. We sat around and we talked a lot about who these characters were. It was not necessary.
Q: There definitely seems to be something going on with Jacki Weaver’s character and her relationship with you guys and the way she kisses.
James: That wasn’t scripted.
Sullivan: No, that was just us. (Laughs)
James: That was a big element. It was sort of a powerful play. Mom is boss.
Sullivan: Not at all incestuous but just too much indulgence coming from the mother. They were really spoiled kids growing up.
James: It’s this dominance thing.
Q: Can you talk about your dynamic with your brothers and how that plays out in the film?
Sullivan: Well I’ve known Ben for years and so naturally we worked out pretty quickly our order in the pack. (Laughs) I have a ball working with Ben. I’ve done it a few times now and it gets better and better as it goes on, but this was pretty fun because you had to let Benny be leader of the pack, you know, alpha male. I had other young pups that I could pick on so it was a lot of fun. And then there was always Momma and she was boss.
James: Jacki was great. If there was tension or arguing, as soon as Jacki got involved, everyone was quietly subdued by usually anything and everything that she said.
Sullivan: There weren’t that many arguments. We were having fun. We’re just boys trying each other out.
Q: How was it working with Guy Pearce?
James: It was really good. With this kind of dynamic happening with the Cody brothers before, the set was a total jungle. Guy came in about half way through and I was still in frantic jungle mode. Guy comes in. He’s there to work, fully prepared, and it was a complete shift in the working style. It was a different kind of [approach] to working that I hadn’t seen until that point. It was just incredible to watch the technical aspects of his acting and the emotional stuff as well. He was great.
Q: How was the Sundance experience?
Sullivan: It was pretty good. We went and there was a bit of a buzz about the film, but we didn’t really know about that until we hit Sundance and then it was sold out. People couldn’t get tickets. Everyone was talking about it, and then as the days went on, people started to recognize us. We were going around as a pack, you know, (laughs) as the king of animals. But it was fun and it was a really nice way of doing it. It was a blessing to be in a film that everyone liked. That was the first time I’ve done it. It was a nice way of doing it compared to the opposite.
Q: So you were proud of it?
Sullivan: Yeah, everyone wanted to see it. We got to go to some good parties and we won it. So, I don’t think it gets much better.
Q: What was the audience’s reaction watching it at the Los Angeles Film Festival?
Sullivan: I think it was pretty good. We didn’t watch it. (Laughs)
James: The screen and the sound from what David Michod was telling me was probably the best picture and the best audio levels that he had heard thus far. The tension was palpable and all of us like to sneak in to watch the crowd at certain moments in the film.
Sullivan: When we were here, we did that.
James: We did that and it was good.
Sullivan: I’ve seen it three times now. I’m starting to analyze it a bit too much. I’ve sat through it three times and just had to pick things apart. But we snuck in at the end. Everyone clapped and cheered and then a lot of people stayed for the Q&A.
James: A lot of people did. I remember that. There was a woman that left halfway through that was congratulating people on the way out, but she was in tears saying “I need a drink.”
Sullivan: (Laughs) She doesn’t have the heart for it.
James: It’s really interesting to see how emotionally taxing it is on some people and how it affects people in different ways. The response seemed pretty good.
Q: How was it working with David and what was the vibe like on set? Did he give you a lot of latitude?
Sullivan: He did, but Dave knew what he wanted and he would allow us the space to create with him which is a blessing, but the content that we dealt with in that script and in filming, Dave somehow had this ability to make things really calm and easy and it was a nice way of working considering what we were dealing with.
James: If it’s at the top, if you’ve got a calm person in control, then it just trickles down. David had known Luke Doolan, the editor, and Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer, for a long time so they had this great shorthand. I don’t ever remember them having arguments about things on set. It was a really great kind of vibe. Every time I’d be in a situation where I was dealing with anxiety, Dave would just come in with an anecdotal something that would put me in a sweet spot that I needed to be in. I remember for the shower scene I was freaking out because I had to wear a cock sock, or a modesty patch, and I was feeling kind of awkward. So, I’d be there standing in the shower with this weird little skin-colored pouch over my genitals while grips and the crew watched my shower scene. David came up and told me this funny story about a calendar shoot he had to deal with … I mean, I’m not going to go into it.
Sullivan: Oh yes you are! I haven’t heard this.
James: I think David was there for a calendar shoot he was doing with some friends and they were all supposed to be wearing tuxedos and be standing out in the scene. David didn’t get a tuxedo on his way up to the beach and he was like, “Shit, I’ve let these guys down. What can I do?” Apparently Mr. April is Michod in the nude. Like I said, as soon as he told me that story, I’m like “Cocksucking shower. This is fine.” It’s better than 30 days of people picking on Michod. (Laughs)
Sullivan: Mr. April is just all over L.A. now. I think he’s the cute one in that calendar.
James: That’s why I didn’t want to say it.
Sullivan: But you said it.
James: Only because you pushed me.
Q: It seems you guys still have a brother dynamic going on there?
James: Oh completely. It’s funny, the relationship that Josh had with his uncles directly mirrored what mine was like with Sully. It’s that sort of thing where it’s like big brother wrestling and nookies and stuff like that. And then with Luke, every time Luke would be shitty with Sully or Ben, he would come back and kind of sock it to me and we’d have sulking sessions in the trailer where we’d watch cooking DVDs. Luke would be giving me tips and anecdotes about being a young actor and what I might be in for and that sort of stuff. And then with Ben, I’d just have to not look him in the eyes and not be in the same room as him. I’d really tread lightly. Is he going to punch me or smile at me? What am I going to do? Just don’t move too fast.
Q: What do you think happened to your character after the movie ended?
James: I’ve never given it too much thought but I always feel that after that point in the story, he’s now an adult. He was really passive for a lot of the film and then he hits a point where he realizes that if he’s gonna have anything happen, he needs to take action and do it himself. So, whatever direction he heads in, I just get the feeling that he’s now capable, whether he stays in that apartment or goes and does something completely different. I’ve never given it too much thought.
Q: There were actually a couple people who thought he’d killed his mother at the beginning of the movie. You don’t think so?
James: No, not at all. She was just getting stoned watching “Deal or No Deal.” That was kind of Josh’s upbringing. It’s pretty sad.
Sullivan: I came over here a while ago. I was going around the world basically. I said to my agent, “Set up a couple meetings so I can go and see what this big, bad world of Hollywood is like.” There’s some bad stories that go home about how scary this place is and they attack people. And, I could write the trip off on my taxes. So that’s why I did it. I stopped in and it was a really great way of coming in and that was probably 5 or 6 years ago. But I came and I had some meetings, and I didn’t have that desperation of needing work or wanting to make it big, so it was nice. I had some great meetings, left, went around the world and then went back home and did some of what I consider my best work. Then it got to a point where we’re a small industry back home but I thought maybe I should come over here. I was getting to that point where I was thinking I’d like to see what could happen and then I got this.
Q: Is this your first time.
James: Third. I came after I finished high school for a few weeks. I came over to meet representation, had some meetings, and then I popped by after at Sundance and now I’m here.
Q: What are each of you working on now? What do you have coming up next?
Sullivan: I’m working on getting another job (laughs) – going out on auditions, having readings and stuff. I’m back to square one. Well I’m not square one, maybe a few squares at least. I’m now actually based here by default. The house that I was living in back at home, I was supposed to go back after Sundance and help my mate renovate it, and I actually came here after Sundance and got a job and left home. I should have stayed. And then he rang and about halfway through the conversation, he said “Sit down. Your room’s gone.” I found a place to stay here and so it became home which I’m quite enjoying.
James: I’ve been writing a little bit. I think that’s always really great because that fits into acting, an appreciation for script form and analysis and stuff like that, but just the same, doing meetings, auditions, and trying to get a job, having not succeeded thus far.
Q: What’s your script about?
James: There’s a few of them. One’s a schlock horror about a boy that gets bullied to death and comes back to kill us. It’s ridiculous.
Q: What are the character names?
James: There’s Benzo, Cobra and Samson. A friend of mine made this film called Paranormal Satisjaction when he was 16 in high school and within this school environment, it’s kind of revered as the most ridiculous, amazing film that’s ever come out of this high school and I jokingly said to my friend, “Let’s turn it into a feature.” I’m about 40 pages in and it’s actually starting to get the form. It’s quite funny. I’m not sure if it’ll ever see the light of day, but it’s a good exercise to teach myself to write because it’s fun. And then there’s another one about a drug or maybe petro bootlegger from an Outback aboriginal community that’s just a complete buffoon.
Sullivan: What?! (Laughing)
James; You asked!
Q: What are they called – the names of your film scripts?
James: The first one is possibly still going to be called Paranormal Satisjaction because I can’t think of an appropriate title that’ll sound right. And the other one I’m thinking of calling Zero Percenter. With Outlook bikers in Australia, if you’ve got a little emblazoned thing that’s got “one percent” on it, that means you’re one percent of the population and a dangerous criminal. If it’s “99,” it means you’re kind of a nice recreational biker. If it’s “zero percenter,” it just shows you’re a total deadbeat.
Animal Kingdom opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on August 13th.