Josh Pais plays a buttoned-up dentist with social anxiety running a flagging dental practice with the assistance of his daughter (Ellen Page) in Lynn Shelton’s new indie dramedy, Touchy Feely. When rumors spread that he’s suddenly developed a “healing touch,” his practice as well as his life outside the office is miraculously reinvigorated and he discovers a whole new side of himself he never knew existed. Meanwhile, his sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), a popular massage therapist, undergoes a similar soul searching identity crisis. Now available on iTunes/On Demand, and in theaters September 6th, the film boasts a strong ensemble cast that also includes Allison Janney, Scoot McNairy, Ron Livingston and Tomo Nakayama.
At our recent interview, Pais talked about how Shelton approached him to do the movie, his research for the role, how he used his physicality to reveal his character’s transformation and allowed the voice of his character to inspire his improvisation, why he thrives on the unknown, how he had a blast acting opposite Janney, and what he enjoyed most about the experience of working with Shelton. He also discussed playing Stu Feldman in the Showtime series Ray Donovan, his upcoming comedy Are We Officially Dating? with Zac Efron, and his plans to direct Plum Island, a zombie comedy-adventure-thriller. Check out the interview after the jump.
JOSH PAIS: I was in a movie called Please Give that was at the Tribeca Film Festival, and I came out, and this very beautiful woman came up to me and started saying, “I’m such a big fan and I know you from all these movies.” I was very flattered. Then we walked down the street a little bit, and I said, “What do you do?” And she said, “I’m Lynn Shelton and I’m a filmmaker.” I had just seen Humpday, and then, it was like the total giveback. I was like, “I am such a fan of your work.” And then, we decided that we wanted to work together and that was the genesis of this. We started Skyping and talking and coming up with ideas of characters and so on. Lynn also had in the back of her mind this idea for a movie with Rosemarie (DeWitt) about the massage therapist. At the time, we were both real busy with other projects. And then, Lynn called me one day and she was really excited, and she said, “Are you free at this period of time? I have this idea to put everything we’ve been talking about and integrating with Rosemarie’s character.” She just downloaded the whole movie to me on the phone, and I was like, “This sounds awesome.” And then, Ellen (Page) came on and then Allison Janney. We started with a lot of phone conversations – Lynn, Ellen, and myself – and Lynn, Rosemarie, and myself – just to build the family dynamic.
Can you talk about your character’s transformation and how you approached that?
PAIS: For me, it was like what a great challenge and opportunity. It was very interesting to me to explore somebody who’s so contained and so withdrawn, somebody that needs every day to be the same, can’t deal with the unknown, can’t deal with the fluctuations that life brings, and then what kind of body that generates. I played literally from my toes being tight, to my legs not having much flexibility, and my upper body crunching down to my lower body, and then my vision being very myopic, and seeing one thing, and trying to shut out the world. And, as this ability to heal starts to emerge, and the Ecstasy, it was just playing with that physical structure and shifting and being able to embrace life and the unknown. It’s somebody who wants everything to be known to accepting the unknown, and as a result, coming to life.
What kinds of things did you discuss on the phone when you were building the family? Obviously there’s a back story, but a lot of it remains unspoken in the film. Was that always going to be kept hidden from the audience?
PAIS: Our intent wasn’t that it was hidden, but it was so that we knew what was going on so that it would not be disruptive. There wasn’t a lot of exposition. There were little hints, like my wife left me, and that’s why there’s this very contained relationship that Ellen and I have in the movie. That’s how that emerged, and also just this sense that if I’m this suppressed guy, how that affects my daughter and how she operates in the world. And we just talked a lot about co-dependency. In a sense, she’s my wife, but not in any kind of sexual way. She takes that place. I wasn’t that familiar with the whole co-dependent thing and all those dynamics, but some of the other people were. So, we just dove into all of that and how that manifests.
Did you have to do any research to see what it was like to roll on Ecstasy?
PAIS: I did Ecstasy twice. I was good to go.
What about the dental skills? You looked very convincing as a dentist.
PAIS: Thank you. I actually worked with a dentist in New York who brought me in and set me up. When I was training, he literally brought in his own receptionists, and he had me work on them. He said, “It’s for a movie” and they were like, “Oh, okay.” I’m not bad, seriously. In the movie, I was actually cleaning people’s teeth. I was really doing it. And there was another dentist in the office right next door and he gave me some skills. Those glasses that I was wearing were his.
What was it like working with Lynn? Did she just give you an idea of the tone and what she was looking for and then let you go? Did you get to improvise at all?
PAIS: Yeah. Almost initially, it would be like, “Let’s see what you guys come up with.” Also, Lynn had put together this day in L.A. where we all had dinner. We cooked together and spent the day together. And so, we were all very familiar with each other by the time we started shooting. I would say it’s almost like the first take is just seeing where it goes, and then Lynn would come in, and if we improvised something, she might just gently redirect that a little bit. Very often, we would try to figure out what could this be and then she would say, “Let Paul figure it out,” which is my character. There were times where I might have an idea like, “Oh this could be interesting,” but it was never as good as when I just let the character speak and let it unfold from that tight body and see where it went.
Is that nerve wracking as an actor to not know what’s going to come out and just go with it? Or do you find that exciting?
PAIS: I love it. For me, there’s nothing better. Unlike Paul, I thrive on the unknown. I love going in having a trajectory, but not knowing how it’s going to unfold. The result is that it’s happening in real time. What’s being filmed is something that’s actually unfolding. In this day and age, that’s what people want to see from actors, because as actors, our competition is people on YouTube and reality TV. And even though reality TV is very manipulated, it’s all manipulated so that something real happens. And so, our job in this era is to make that real thing happen, because nobody wants to see anymore manipulated, pre-planned performances. That era is over.
Was the physicality of your character something that you worked out on your own? Did you bring it to Lynn and say, “That’s what I want?” Did you and Lynn work on it together?
PAIS: It’s something that we talked a lot about, and this was something that I said to myself, that I’m going to trust that everything we’ve talked about is going to emerge as we’re shooting. And that’s what happened. Actually, the first scene that we shot was in the club. It’s just a moment of me walking down the hallway to the club where I’m dancing and then that whole thing. Lynn and I just talked about it, like this is the most terrifying journey, this hallway, for this guy to go to all these people that are having fun and are alive and dancing. That’s the most terrifying thing for him. As I walked, my feet got tight. I felt like I had less flexibility in my legs and I felt like my upper body tightened. And then, that was the character and that’s what I explored in him – different levels of having more compression and less compression, and his vision going from being very tight to being able to take in more.
How was it playing opposite Allison Janney?
PAIS: We had so much fun. We had a blast. Allison and I had worked together years ago in real Off-Off-Broadway in New York, ridiculous theater things, and so we knew each other. It was magical. We just clicked into something. Actually, in one of the versions, when we’re doing Reiki, we spontaneously start kissing and we were practically making out over the person that we’re doing Reiki. So we shot it, but as Lynn was putting the movie together, having that kiss took away from the other kiss that we have. It was almost happening too soon. We just improvised. We did drumming and all this stuff. It was just so great to have somebody so uptight facing somebody so open and what happens.
Did you get any Reiki done? Did you research it?
PAIS: I’d had Reiki done. I didn’t want to get it done for this because my character didn’t even know what it was. But Allison did some research and worked with somebody. I have to say when I was lying on the table and she had her hands over me, I could feel her energy. If somebody is sending you energy and it’s coming from a good place, that’s basically healing just on that level. She did some good Reiki.
PAIS: I just loved coming to work every day. Working with Lynn is so much fun. We got to dig around in these characters and take the time to relish in these unusual characters as opposed to just zipping through. Working with Lynn is a treat. She’s outstanding. She’s a great person and a great director.
There’s something about her films that makes them feel both sweetly personal and profound in a way.
PAIS: It’s great with all the big movies to be able to spend some time with these characters that are very ordinary in a sense. I feel like my character is the most undynamic person. It’s very unusual that you would see this character fully evolve.
What other projects or films do you have coming up and are you doing any more theater?
PAIS: I’m not doing theater. I’m in this new Showtime series called Ray Donovan. I play this guy Stu Feldman who runs Paramount Pictures, so the total opposite to this character. It’s almost as if this character got tons of power, because this character that I play in Ray Donovan has tons of power, but he’s just a mess inside. He hasn’t built any self-esteem, but he’s got all the tools of power. That’s a blast. I’m going to have some fun stuff, particularly in the second season. We got picked up for a second season.
And then, I’m in this movie called Are We Officially Dating? with Zac Efron. It’s a full out comedy. And I’m putting together a movie that I want to direct in about a year or so called Plum Island. Plum Island is an island off of the Hamptons. It’s actually a place where they make weapons for biological warfare. It’s basically a serum that comes from there that makes people younger, and this plastic surgeon gets ahold of this stuff, and he becomes incredibly famous. And then, they get younger and younger, and then they turn into zombies.
Is it a comedy or a thriller?
PAIS: It’s everything. It’s a thriller, a comedy and an adventure. And the Mexican landscapers in the Hamptons become the heroes of the movie.