CBGB tells the story of how the ever-determined Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) borrowed money to buy a watering hole in what was then New York’s skid row. By giving a stage to live musicians, the bands that came were primitive and unrehearsed, but sparked a DIY punk movement with their raw sound and changed the world of music forever.
At the film’s press day, actor Joel David Moore, who plays The Ramones frontman Joey Ramone, spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he came to embody the enigmatic singer, his approach to finding the human being behind the rock star, what it was like to see himself in the full costume, his most memorable day on set, the first concert he went to that left a lasting impression on him, and his latest directorial project, the dark comedy Killing Winston Jones. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOEL DAVID MOORE: (Director) Randy [Miller] and I were meeting on another project that they were putting together, and that was supposed to go first. He said, “This is great. We like you for this. But, we have this other thing that you’re perfect for.” Randy and I had met a few years ago, and he was like, “Now seeing you again, and seeing how tall and skinny you are, do you remember Joey Ramone?” And I was like, “Of course, I do! Absolutely!” I was a skater boy, growing up, so I literally owned The Ramones shirts and used to skate the half-pipe at my body’s garage to their music. And he was like, “Well, we’re gonna do this movie about CBGB, the club.” And I didn’t know much about the club, other than having seen the brand. But then, when you do look into it, you realize that you do know more about it, just because of the origins of punk, and the bands that were playing there and broke there.
How did you approach preparing to play this real-life guy?
MOORE: I had done a biopic before CBGB, called Grassroots with (director) Stephen Gyllenhaal. It was a true story about this guy in Seattle that was running for City Council, and he was trying to extend the monorail. And he’s alive, so I got to sit with him for a month before I started it, but he also isn’t a notable famous character. Nobody really knows what he’s like. So, I was able to take what I wanted, and get the essence of him and bring it to the character. Well, CBGB was the complete opposite. First, he’s not alive. Second, everybody knows what Joey Ramone looks like, how he acts and who he is. He was very distinctive. So, I really had to find and mirror the way that he was, and bring his essence to it. I also had to slump my shoulders in a certain way and figure out how he would lean, whether he was right or left handed, and how he held his mic. I had to bring all of that because it wasn’t about bringing my own character to it. I was playing another person, and that person is notable, famous, in history, and is a rock god. You can’t make your own decisions about that. He was tall and gaunt, and he stuck out and tried not to. He and his own bandmates barely ever spoke.
Did it surprise you to learn how shy of a person Joey Ramone was?
MOORE: Only because I would have never thought about it. I would have never thought that he was not out there and a drug addict who was drinking and partying all weekend, with a bunch of ladies all over. That’s what you expected from that genre of music. It only surprised me once I did know because I was actually thinking about it. You generalize all of these people. It’s funny, he tried not to stick out, but he stuck out by trying not to stick out. He was taller and skinnier than me. How is that possible?
What was it like, the first time you saw yourself in the full Joey Ramone costume and look?
MOORE: It was a giant sigh of relief. I was so nervous about getting the character down that once I got the outfit down, you step into it. There’s a peace that comes over. I was like, “Okay, if I don’t get every Queens accent right, they’re going to tell me.” I had a dialogue coach, the entire time. I needed to find the essence and make sure my body was like him, but the clothes were gonna sell 70% of it. Once people watch the film, they’re gonna be surprised about how he is. They’re gonna be like, “That’s how Joey Ramone was?!” People who have seen other films of mine might compare it to other characters that I’ve done, but that is how he was. Not that I perfected it or anything, but he was slumped over and shy, with his head down. He wouldn’t show his teeth. He was that guy. He was a sweet giant.
MOORE: We did a few days of all of our performance stuff, and that was so interesting. We did a bunch of songs that they didn’t use. We did a bunch, so that they could fit in which ones they decided to use, based on Randy’s vision of everything. But, doing all of those pieces was really fun. I’ve never played a rock star before. I played a bassist in a fledgling band in Janie Jones, but this was a different kind of thing. There was an idolization of these guys, even at the beginning, because of the way this movement was going on. It was really fun! It was captivating, and it actually made me understand why you’d be socially weird and maybe a little bit reserved, after that. You’re just thrown into that limelight and expected to be a certain way, and he didn’t want to be in the limelight. And then, think about how much they had to travel and be on tour.
Was this a fast-moving production?
MOORE: Randy is wonderful. It was smooth. Randy and Jody [Savin] have done this a lot, and they know what they’re doing. They had a vision, and they understood the vision. They walked in knowing that a lot of it was going to be animated and have a frenetic feel to it because that was the style they were going for. The thing that I think is interesting about Randy is that he can make different movies in different visual styles, based on what the theme is, what is going on, what the characters are about, what the story is and what the structure is. Punk magazine, and using that and the animation, was a really good and interesting way to do it because it completely makes sense. It’s not taking something that’s not derivative of the natural thing that was going on. It’s not like trying to do something like that to the Backstreet Boys. That wouldn’t have made sense. But, this entire movement was born out of this magazine, and vice versa. But, every film is chaotic. I’ve done 25 films, at this point, and I’ve never shown up to a set that’s not just keeping everything together, no matter how big or how small. It’s always a little like landing a plane. It’s controlled chaos and controlled casting.
What was the first concert you went to that made an impression on you?
MOORE: I didn’t go to concerts, when I was a kid. The first concert that I bought tickets to, I was 17 or 18, and it was Wu-Tang Clan and Tribe Called Quest. The Roots were performing with them, and something happened. Somebody had beaten somebody else up, so Wu-Tang wasn’t there. Anyway, The Roots blew me out of the water. The Roots brought music and rap together. They had a live band. It was like, “What?! We’re listening to a rapper that’s using a live band?!” That was really cool, and I remember being very impressed by that.
And you recently directed another film, right?
MOORE: I did. We shot CBGB in Savannah, and then I took another project there afterwards, called Killing Winston Jones. It’s a dark comedy with Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Jon Heder, Danny Masterson and Aly Michalka. It’s a great cast, and a beautiful film. That will come out next year, and we’re excited about it. I like the dark comedy realm. I think that I’m going to direct another one, in that realm, next. I started in the psychological thriller side of feature filmmaking with Spiral, which was the first one that I wrote and directed and played the lead in. So, I’m getting there. And then, I’ll do a bunch of Avatar films. That will keep me busy for quite awhile.
CBGB is now playing in theaters.