Brenton Thwaites plays an MIT computer whiz in The Signal who gets more adventure than he bargained for on a cross-country road trip with his college friends when they take an unexpected detour into the desert in search of a mysterious hacker. The journey turns dark and disconcerting when Nic (Thwaites) realizes he’s been abducted and is being held in an isolated, underground facility where he’s subjected to a series of bizarre interrogations by an enigmatic doctor (Laurence Fishburne). Opening June 13th, the stylish sci-fi thriller shot on location in New Mexico is directed by William Eubank and also stars Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Thwaites who took time from his busy schedule to talk to me by phone from the set in Sydney, Australia where he’s currently shooting Gods of Egypt. He revealed how The Signal first came to his attention, what drew him to the script, why he loved the emotional arc of his character, how he enjoyed collaborating with his director, what he learned from working with Fishburne, what he feels distinguishes The Signal from other sci-fi films, and his upcoming projects that he’s excited for audiences to see including The Giver, Son of a Gun, Ride and Gods of Egypt. Check out the interview after the jump.
BRENTON THWAITES: I was in Western Australian shooting a movie called Son of a Gun, and like most things, it just came in an email. I read the script and I loved it. I had the opportunity to skype with Will (Eubank), the director, and we just got on like a house on fire. We shared a lot of the same ideas about the character and the story. From there, he cast me and I accepted.
What was it about this story and your character that resonated with you when you first read the script?
THWAITES: I just loved the overall arc of the journey. I loved what Nic learned throughout the story. He starts off very beside himself and very insecure in a way, and throughout the film he learns to trust himself and believe in himself. All the sci-fi aside, I think his emotional journey has such a twist in it. Basically, that was my attraction to the script. It was so raw. Nic read as this really passionate kid who finds himself halfway through the film.
Were there significant changes from inception to finished film, from when you first read the script until you finished shooting the film?
THWAITES: No, not really. When I saw the film, I was shocked just on a personal level, because to be honest, it was one of the first films that I had seen of myself. It was one big shock. Also, it was fascinating to see a sci-fi like that come to life. When you’re shooting it, there are so many little shooting tricks that Will has up his sleeve. You trust him, so you know it’s going to work. There were these little scenes that we would go through using this 5D camera. They all worked so well. I guess that was the biggest shock. When we were shooting – just me, Beau (Knapp) and Olivia (Cooke) and Will – we’d go out into the middle of nowhere and shoot these beautiful little scenes, and they actually play in the movie really well, to show the contract between the normal world, the world that we play in and the world that we live in, the road trip world, in comparison to the Kubrickesque world, the closed environment, the long hallways and the weird feel.
The film is so fascinating and experimental and a lot of it rests on your shoulders. Was that a challenge?
THWAITES: It was. I guess the main thing for me was just the pace of shooting a film like that. It’s so quick. If we missed a shot, we wouldn’t have time to go back to it, so there was pressure to get it the first time. So, maybe the second time you can play around, and the third time you can experiment a little bit to try something new. That was the main thing. The rest was exciting. I found it quite easy to work with Will, because he’s so passionate and he’s so open to suggestions. If you have an idea, he’s so willing to help you out with it. He’s very honest and very direct, so if it doesn’t work, he says, “It’s a shit idea. It doesn’t work.” And it’s okay. You move on.
THWAITES: It was a dream. I loved every second of it. I only had a few scenes with him, but they were changing points for our characters. I learned a lot from the way he worked and the way he would relax. He’s very friendly. He’s very easy to get along with and very willing to pass down knowledge and experience. I felt very lucky to work with Laurence.
What do you think sets this film apart from other sci-fi films? What makes it so intriguing?
THWAITES: I think it’s the fact that it touches on a lot of different genres. It’s a deep sci-fi film, because the question that is asked at the end of the film is the same question most sci-fi films touch on in the second or third act. Are we alone in the universe? But this also has such a grounded nature. It almost feels like a teenage drama in a sense. It’s that shock value of thinking it’s this moody teenage drama and a sweet, beautiful road trip story, and then it flips that idea on its head and becomes this thriller sci-fi adventure film.
How long did it take to shoot?
THWAITES: We were shooting for about six weeks, give or take some nights and days with Will while he’d shoot me in 5D. (Laughs)
Were there any surprises? Anything you didn’t expect or that you wish you’d known on day one?
THWAITES: There was a new surprise every single day, but my reaction to that was organic. Had I known what I do now, I don’t think I would have had that initial organic reaction which I think is what’s so unique about the film. My character is trying to figure out and understand his situation, and really that’s what I was doing as well. Every scene was so gnarly and the things that we had to do were so intense. So, the only way to really comprehend it was to jump in one hundred percent and see what happened.
THWAITES: It’s what I was talking about before, the change with the set-up of the movie and these three characters that are established on a road trip. They’re friends. They’re relaxed. They’re just cruising. The shock value of that being flipped on its head really got me in the film. When you read it, it’s just one setting to another, but when you see it… Will has this capacity to make you really feel like you’re in with Nic. In that first image of being in the containment area, you really feel like you’re in there. It’s annoying to watch, but you cannot look away. So, that in a great way was uncomfortable. I went “Oh!,” and went straight back from reality to sitting in the wheelchair. It really feels so odd.
Have you had an opportunity to screen the movie for your friends and family?
THWAITES: No. My family hasn’t seen it yet here in Australia. To be honest, I don’t know what’s happening. Someone needs to tell me what’s happening with The Signal in Australia. I don’t think it’s sold down here yet or something. Unfortunately, they couldn’t come over and see it at Sundance. I’m really looking forward to them checking it out and seeing me all funnied up.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this?
THWAITES: I learned the value of just jumping into a scene and seeing what happens. There’s something to be said for forgetting about everything and just throwing yourself physically and emotionally into this environment that Will creates and gives you, which was really beneficial to me. The reality of it is that I’m in the desert with these fake tights on, covered in plastic, pretending that I have to walk. The reality of it is it’s all a little disconcerting, but Will told me to just forget about it all and believe in what I’m doing, which I finally did, too much though, I think. (Laughs)
THWAITES: Well, there are a bunch of films coming out at the end of the year. I’m really excited to see how The Giver turns out which is directed by Phillip Noyce and will be released in August. In The Giver, I play a character called Jonas who is a member of this community called Changeless. In this community, everyone is kept at bay emotionally and physically. They receive an injection every morning to control them from feeling things like love and pain and all natural emotions. My character, upon graduation, is chosen to receive all of the memory of the history of the world in order to be a savior in case things in the community get out of hand. I’m assigned to a character called The Giver who is played by Jeff Bridges and he gives me these memories through a series of classes. Eventually, through these memories, I learn true emotion and how it feels to see these painful things and feel love. And so, I learn that we’re living a false life and I have to escape in order to restore harmony. I’m also really excited to see how Son of a Gun turns out. It’s a story about two people who meet in jail, my character, JR, and Ewan McGregor’s character, Brendan. I also did a film called Ride with Helen Hunt which was super fun in Venice Beach, California, and I’m so excited to see how that turns out. (Hunt wrote and directed.) In terms of next, I honestly don’t know. I’ve read some great scripts. There’s some great material to tell you the truth, so hopefully I’ll get back into doing something crazy and weird.
Can you talk a little bit about Gods of Egypt which you’re shooting right now? How’s that going?
THWAITES: I’m shooting a film called Gods of Egypt in Australia. It’s being directed by Alex Proyas. I play a character called Bek who is basically mankind. He goes on a journey with the gods to help restore order in Egypt. He teams up with a god called Horus played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who is on a path to avenge his father and kill the baddie, and I go along with him in the belief that he’ll help me get back to my girl (Courtney Eaton). We’re shooting in a studio in Sydney and we’re about halfway done with principal photography. (Laughs) I have to go. That’s the third time they’ve called me back to set.