Available now on VOD and arriving in select theaters this weekend is The Sacrament, Ti West‘s horrific look at the final hours of the Jonestown inspired cult, Eden Parish, as told through the lens of a VICE documentary. As the affable cult leader “Father”, Gene Jones delivers a performance that is equal parts engrossing and repellent. In his standout scene Father sits down in front of his congregation with AJ Bowen‘s journalist, Sam, for a lengthy interview where he reveals himself as a powerfully charismatic and all together convivial man, yet unmistakably shrewd with an ever present threat of menace. Father is the proverbial razor-filled candy bar incarnate, and he’s one of the best on-screen villains in recent memory. The Sacrament also stars Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, and Kentucker Audley.
At a recent LA press day I sat down for an exclusive interview with Jones. He talked about his acting process, creating a character like Father, his electric scene with the extras of the congregation, his unforgettable work in No Country for Old Men and more. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
GENE JONES: Yes, well this unbelievable, but absolutely true. Ti was only a few weeks before shooting and he did not have a Father in mind yet. On a very lucky night for me Ti saw the Louis C.K. show and I had a very short sketch, I’m positive it was under five minutes with Louis, I played a pharmacist, and for some reason Ti got the idea from this that I should make a video audition for The Sacrament. It made no sense to me- it still doesn’t, but anyway, I had not seen the script, I knew basically that it was a kind of what if Jonestown happened now story. I made a video audition quickly and sent it to him and he liked it and gave me some notes. I took his notes and made the video again and he liked that and offered it to me. I read the script of course and I thought it was good. I’d never met him until I walked onto the set the first time, but I did trust him already because of this script that he’d written, the notes that he gave me, and the comments that he gave me after I made the two videos. So a great piece of luck on my part was what it was.
That’s surprising. I would have thought for sure it would be your amazing No Country for Old Men scene.
JONES: No, he remembered it after he’d seen me on Louie, looked me up and he saw that credit, but it was not that that led to this.
Do people still get really excited to talk to you about that scene?
JONES: Yes. People still- not as many as used to, but people still come up to me on the street and start saying Javier Bardem’s dialogue and they want me to say my dialogue. Of course I have long since forgotten my dialogue, so that’s always a disappointment to them that they didn’t get to do that scene with me. That scene really grabbed a lot of people, and I’m still recognized for it every once and a while at an airport or something when I’m taking of my shoes or something. Somebody will come up and say, “Weren’t you that guy?”
Well it is a tremendous scene and tremendous work by you.
So talk a little bit about what it was like on set, especially because you came on without having met Ti.
JONES: Well, we started off with a very short scene. The night scene where I’m at the screen door, that little short scene where I come out to poke my head out and say, “Are you guys lost? Do you want somebody to show you back to your cabin?” It’s four or five lines. We shot that and that was my first night, and then my second night was the big interview and that was thrilling because the congregation was so good. I found out the first take through- I mean, it was originally written and shot to be seventeen minutes and Ti said, “Well, let’s try one.” I learned just seconds into it, just in no time, I learned that this crowd would respond to me if I wanted them to. I started directing anything to them and they would agree, “Oh yes, oh yes! Amen.” It wasn’t cliché. It wasn’t like an old movie revival meeting, they were actually listening and coming back with agreement with me. If I would say, “We can’t do this.” They would say, “Oh no, no, we can’t do that.” “This is what we’re here for, isn’t that true?” “Oh yes, yes!” It was just electric because of those 200 people sitting there all listening to me and acting with me. You almost never expect that.
And they were a group of extras right?
JONES: Yeah, it was amazing and it was thrilling- that’s my word. Of course we didn’t stop with one take, we did probably eight or nine takes, but they did it and if I- I got it pretty close to as written the first three or four times, and then as the night went on and we got more tired I started putting things out of order, but they stayed with me even then. Even then they would come back with what I wanted to hear. The scene that’s in the film is mostly from the first take. Some of the other takes we took a bit here and there, but it’s mostly that first time through- which kind of surprised everybody. It surprised the congregation, it surprised me, Ti was kind of stunned by it, but that’s my big memory of it is that electricity with those people.
That’s awesome. I’m curious about your process when you get a script and when you commit to a character how you go about developing the role, and what that process was like for father.
JONES: I absolutely start with the script, I’m not somebody who’s first thought is to go and do research for something. I really want the script and it’s rhythms and it’s words and it’s meanings in my bones, in my head. I want to honor the script. The first thing I do to honor it is to work on the words and to memorize. I did a little tweaking of the language with Ti’s permission- I always ask the director before. I say, “Can we change this line?” Simply because to me it’s the right thing to do. The director wrote the line, has lived with the line longer than I have, and there may be a reason for this line. Ti said, “Absolutely. Make the words fit your mouth,” and I did that. I just had it so firmly that I couldn’t mess up. I might get words turned around, but I’m not going to ever not know the intent of the scene, or not know the intent of the speech. And if I can get it, and I pretty much got in that seventeen minutes, I’m going to give you all your words that you wrote.
That’s kind of the way I go. I’m not quick to do research. Ti’s first idea with this subject was to make it as and eight or ten hour miniseries for cable, and of course if we’d had eight or ten hours of course I would have researched Jim Jones and found out how he dealt with people on a day to day basis. Where did he get his drugs? What did he preach on a typical Sunday? But none of that is in the script. This is one day in the life and it’s not a typical day at all, so instead of worrying myself about finding out what was typical, I just stuck to the script and Ti’s intentions. That’s pretty much the way I work all the time. When I did No Country for Old Men, I refused to read the novel. I refused to. I knew this was a one scene role, my character was not coming back, I’m not going to recur, I don’t need to invent a backstory I don’t need to project into the end of the movie. I want to do the most solid five minutes in that store that you could. I want this. I want to play this. I don’t want to play something I dreamed of or made up that isn’t in this five minutes. I bought the novel on the flight home after I shot the scene, I finally bought the novel.
Did you like it?
JONES: I liked it very much, yes. And I realized how much of my scene came from that novel. Cormac McCarthy pretty much wrote my scene.
I have to wrap with you, but thank you so much for your time today. It was a pleasure speaking with you.