There’s nothing better than a film that grabs you by the throat and knocks you square on your ass. Cheap Thrills, out now on VOD and in select theaters, is one of those all too rare films. Director E.L. Katz takes a simple premise – a pair of old friends who’ve fallen on hard times participate in a series of escalating dares for fast cash – and turns it into a brutal, funny, surprisingly emotional, and occasionally deranged exploration of just how low we’ll go when fueled by desperation. Cheap Thrills stars David Koechner, Pat Healy, Ethan Embry and Sara Paxton.
At a recent LA press day I had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with actors Pat Healy and Ethan Embry. They talked about how the film defies genre labels, what attracted them to their roles, how the watching experience holds up across different media, making a film their proud of, and more. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
PAT HEALY: We keep getting asked that question and it’s really hard to answer.
ETHAN EMBRY: Yeah, and we were on set doing it too, because there are very real and rather intense moments in it and very dramatic elements, and then there’s these pure comedic scenes as well. Some of them were very clear; this is obviously a dramatic scene and this is obviously a comedic scene, but there were times where I was like, “Are we doing comedy here. Which way are we taking this?”
HEALY: It’s kind of good because if you don’t know then you just have to rely on playing for the reality and it’s going to be funny if it’s funny and if it’s not it’s going to be dramatic or sad. You just play the reality of it. I don’t think of what genre it is much when I’m acting. You can’t act a genre, really. I certainly never thought of it as a horror film, a lot of people put it in that, maybe that’s more of a sales tactic, but it has gore in it so it really is a hybrid. I think about a lot of the films I really love don’t fit into an easy category either. Like The King of Comedy, that’s my favorite movie and it isn’t really a comedy, although it is hilarious, it’s kind of frightening and kind of drama about a very scary person that’s very funny. 2001: A Space Odyssey is ostensibly a science fiction movie, but it’s really the most philosophical movie about every single issue, everything you could think or feel about ever. I’m not going to hold our movie up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I will say that the best things sort of transcend genre- and no one wants to say “drama” anymore because it doesn’t sell, which essentially this movie is, with some laughs.
EMBRY: I think it’s a really dark comedy.
HEALY: Yeah a really dark comedy or a thriller.
The darkest comedy.
EMBRY: It’s the darkest comedy that I’ve ever seen.
HEALY: That’s certainly what the poster seems to say. I don’t do a lot of smiling in the movie, but on the poster I did.
EMBRY: I think that’s probably the best way to understand it.
As actors when you guys pick up this script and see that you’re gong to have to go to really dark places and do really fucked up ugly things, what’s the appeal to you as an actor, and also why do you think that appeals to the audience? Why do you think the audiences are eating this movie up and loving that darkness?
HEALY: I think because there are just things that we would like to do, but we know- not that we’d like to do, but it’s nice to get that out of your system. We’re not going to do that in real life because we’d harm ourselves or other people, so it’s very cathartic in a way. For us it’s cathartic, or for me it’s cathartic to play these things and feel what that feels like without anyone actually being harmed, you know, relatively speaking, some of us got harmed a little bit just through accidents on set [laughs], but I think an audience feels that catharsis. Some people in the audience are like David and Sara’s characters and watching the monkeys beat each other up and some people relate to us having to fight for what’s ours. But if I were to look at a piece of dark material like Compliance, which is a movie I did, it was very dark and not cathartic at all; very much not as pleasant. I didn’t necessarily relish wanting to do that, I just thought it was an interesting movie and should be done, but this I knew would be cathartic and fun even if it doesn’t look like it is at times. At the end of the day it’s not real, so you can go home and just let all these feelings that you have inside yourself out.
EMBRY: Just having the opportunity also to go anywhere with our work is what attracts me to projects. I didn’t even really view this as going places because it’s not that far- I mean, I’m crazy, but the thing I’m doing next is going to be harder for me because it’s emotionally dark places that are very, very real and that to me is going to be more of a mental challenge, but I’m actually looking forward to it because of the opportunity to go somewhere. That’s why I do this, just to leave this guy that’s sitting in front of you and go somewhere else for a period of time.
HEALY: I think both of us are, for lack of a better word, seekers and our work is important to us because we become different people when we do it and then we’re different people after we do it. I want to know what I can take from something as much as what I can bring to it.
HEALY: I push myself to places creatively and personally that now I’m at a different level as a person, I feel because I did this and so I look for that too.
EMBRY: That whole idea that actors say they want to identify with every character that they play- if I can find a part of Vince in me then I’ve learned a lot more about myself than I knew beforehand. If I can honestly identify with the character, no matter how small that part of me is, then I am more aware of myself.
HEALY: It’s also like, if you can find something to humanize a character it doesn’t matter if you like what they do or not or if what they do is reprehensible. It’s like we’re showing ourselves and then hopefully other people will go, “Oh, I understand that now. I don’t have to like it, I don’t have to be someone like that, but I get why someone would do that.” That’s sort of what the artists job is to do, is to illuminate why things are the way they are. I don’t go in there and go, “I can’t wait to do this movie and illuminate the public into what the human condition is”, but it is something that happens.
Unfortunately I watched this on a screener on my computer, but I imagine this is a hell of a film to see with a crowd.
HEALY: Yeah, it’s something else, but it does- Ethan was talking to me about this the other day, it does speak to something that it works really well on a computer at home as well, because a lot of people see it that way.
EMBRY: That’s how I first saw it.
HEALY: I always want people to see it in a theater too, because people will see it at home and go, “Oh man that was really disturbing.” Then everyone who sees in the theater goes, “What the hell are you talking about?”
EMBRY: But it’s still a ride, when you sit at the house and you watch it, it still has those comedic elements, the thrilling elements, it still has you laughing and at the edge of your seat. It’s just when you see it with the audience everything’s heightened and it’s rowdy.
And you don’t have the option of pressing pause at any point.
EMBRY: Right, you’re dragged along.
HEALY: Also, other people let you know it’s okay to laugh when they laugh, you don’t feel gross for laughing. But I think anything that’s good works however you see it.
EMBRY: I’m glad you still got something out of it sitting at home.
HEALY: I remember watching United 93 on a little tiny computer screen, not on a plane, but at home and it was one of the more powerful experiences I’ve had watching a movie ever- and it was on this little screen, and it was because it just works so well and was a very powerful thing. So that’s great for our movie because we don’t have a big budget and we don’t have a big advertising budget so we don’t know how many people are going to see this movie in the theater, but people will hopefully see it forever on Netflix on the computers, at home on TV. Hopefully someone wont watch this on a plane because there’s children around and stuff like that, but you know, the movie has to ultimately sell to stand on it’s own. There are movies that are great audience movies and maybe this will a midnight movie in theaters and stuff. It just works.
I think it could have a good shelf life both ways.
HEALY: Yeah, I think so too.
Is there anything you want people to know about the movie or your experience making that you haven’t really been asked or had a chance to discuss?
EMBRY: I think what you just said to me, because I am proud of it and it represents why I do what we struggle doing for two decades, because at times magic happens and you end up with something great like this. I just want people to see it. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a crowded theater to me, it doesn’t matter by themselves at home on Netflix, but every instance that I’ve ever come across, people who have seen this, they have to talk about it. It affects them and it stays with them once they leave it. So to me I just hope as many eyes can see this as possible.
HEALY: Mine’s like an addendum to that, which is I’ve had people say, “I don’t like that kind of movie. I don’t want to see it, it looks too intense.” I encourage them to see it anyway, because everyone I know who’s seen it likes it, so I’d say even if this isn’t your kind of movie or doesn’t look like the kind of movie you’d like, you should see it.
EMBRY: It’s a comedy…that leaves a twist in your fucking stomach.
Did you guys have the sense that it was going to be so good when you were making it?
HEALY: To be honest, no, not really. We knew the script was good, and we knew what we were doing on the set was good, but I don’t think any of us knew that it would be this good.
EMBRY: I actually called my agent and said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now. I don’t know, man.”
HEALY: [Laughs] I just read an interview we did where somebody said, “Did you make any bets on set?” and you said, “I bet you that this would be a piece of shit.”
HEALY: No, I think it’s far exceeded our expectations, which is great because we put a lot into it.