From writer/director Theresa Bennett, the romantic dramedy Social Animals is an honest look at how life doesn’t always turn out the way we want, expect, or hope it will. When Zoe (Noël Wells), who’s facing eviction and dealing with a failing business while being resigned to a life of one-night stands, meets Paul (Josh Radnor), who’s in a marriage (with Jane, played by Aya Cash) that lacks any sort of honest communication, together they realize that while their whole world is unraveling, it might actually lead to a new beginning.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat with co-stars Josh Radnor and Aya Cash about why they wanted to play these characters, what makes this romantic comedy different, telling a story without a villain, shooting at a video store, and working with a female director, both on this film and in general. Radnor also talked about his desire to direct again, and Cash talked about having to say goodbye, as she goes into the last season of her FX series You’re the Worst.
Collider: I have never watched a movie where I’ve hoped a couple broke up, as much as I hoped these two would break up, which was a little emotionally weird. It just felt like that’s what was best for these two.
AYA CASH: You can be good people who are bad together. That’s all right.
JOSH RADNOR: Good people, bad together.
CASH: Yeah, that’s the tagline!
How long ago did you guys read this and how much did it change, from when you read it to when you actually shot it?
CASH: I read it two years before we shot, so I don’t remember how it changed. I thought it just went into the black hole of meetings that happen, when you’re an actor, which is that you go in to meetings and you think you have a great first date, and then you see the movie that you didn’t get. So, I was like, “Wow, she’s so great! We got along. I liked the script,. But I guess she felt differently or hired someone better. But two years later, I got a call and they were like, “Do you want to be in Austin in two weeks?” So, I didn’t see how it changed. I just got to come at it anew. And then on set, the script was pretty set, with a little bit of improv, mainly by Fortune [Feimster], who is a creative comic genius. We stuck fairly close to script, with a little bit of improv.
RADNOR: I read the script and just tore through it. I really liked the character and I felt like I had some intuitive sense of how to play him, and I had a great meeting with (writer/director) Teresa [Bennett]. I had never been to Austin, and I loved her taste in music. The whole thing just aligned. I can’t remember how far in advance I got the offer and met her, but it wasn’t like we showed up on set and there was a wildly different script. She wasn’t very precious about it, but we stuck to the script, by and large. If something wasn’t working or we wanted to re-phrase something, she was so open to that. She kept her cool, in the best kind of way, as a first-time director.
CASH: She also took seven years to write it, so it changed a lot in those seven years.
RADNOR: We didn’t get all the old drafts. We just got the latest draft, which was the shooting draft.
What was it that you were excited about, with getting the play these characters? Were there things that you felt that you hadn’t gotten to do?
CASH: For me, that’s definitely true. I don’t normally play mothers who are responsible business people, so I was excited to do that. Obviously, she is going through something and there’s much more under the surface. Normally, I get cast in the Zoe role, so it was really fun to play the Jane role. When I first met on it, they said, “Think about both characters,” and I said, “I think Jane is more interesting to me right now, just because I’ve been doing the other for awhile.” That was really exciting. We all have different sides to ourselves, and there’s a part of Jane that rings very true to me. It’s not necessarily my best side, but it’s a side, and it’s fun to express that and explore that through a character.
RADNOR: Yeah, I liked this notion of polarity and opposites. I got to be in a romantic comedy, where you’re falling for a woman, and it’s this great romance, but then there’s also this crumbling marriage that’s at the heart of it, that’s kicking him into the arms of this other woman. All romantic comedies are essentially about what’s keeping them apart, and what’s keeping him from just jumping into this thing with Zoe with both feet is that he’s married with children, and he actually loves his kids and his wife. He’s got a moral compass, which I think is a fun internal conflict to play. His heart is drawing him one way, but his sense of basic decency and his marital vows are keeping him in this other place. When you’re an actor and you’re considering roles and seeing how juicy they are, you’re looking for that stuff that’s roiling underneath, and that keeps it from being basic and easy to crack. All of that internal combustion is good fuel, and it’s fun to play.
I enjoyed how this is really just a simple story about these people who are trying, but it’s just not necessarily working. We’re so used to big, flashy movies nowadays that it’s really nice to see an intimate story where people are trying to work things out.
CASH: Yeah. It’s so easy to have a villain or to have someone to blame, so that then you can be like, “Great, I know who to root for.” You’re kicked around in this movie, a little bit, as far as who you’re rooting for and what you’re rooting for, which is interesting to me.
RADNOR: A lot of movies sort people into types and say, but anyone who is even half awake in life knows that life is more complicated than that.
Josh, I loved the fact that your character owns a video store because I have all of these nostalgic memories of being in a video store when I was a kid. It was just was so sad that there was no one in his video store.
RADNOR: I know. That video store was amazing. They actually had both of my movies (Liberal Arts and Happythankyoumoreplease), which I was thrilled about. And in terms of the production design, wherever you pointed the camera, it was so rich with color.
Aya, you’ve said that you were looking for more female directors to work with, which is something you got from doing this project.
Was there a specific point where you noticed that you weren’t working with many female directors?
CASH: The moment you notice it the most is sex scenes. Doing sex scenes with male directors is a whole different feeling.
RADNOR: You should be clear that you mean sex scenes with male directors directing the sex scenes.
CASH: Yeah, not in the #MeToo way. It’s just a totally different vibe. And also, the language between men and women around the sex stuff, even if you’re being careful, adds another layer. When you can be franker about what’s going on, and what you’re feeling about a sex scene, about showing your body or not showing your body, and about the reasons why we’re showing sex, a frank conversation can happen when you’re working with women. It’s so interesting, doing a sex scene surrounded by a female crew. Even if there’s a female director, it’s mostly men on the crew. We had a female DP, and all the heads of department were women, so there were a lot more women on set than I’m used to. You don’t notice, until you get the opposite and you’re like, “Oh wait, it can be like this!” That’s not to say that there aren’t great men in this industry. It’s not to say that there isn’t a place for both. It’s not like it’s been so traumatic to work for men. But you don’t even notice that there’s this other option, and there needs to be more of that other option. I’m working on developing a movie, and there is a scene in the shower, where I would be in the shower, and it’s the first time that I’ve considered doing nudity. It’s my own shower scene, and I’m not sure that it’s necessary, but it’s the first time I was really like, “It might be important here, and here’s why . . .”
Josh, have you noticed whether you were or weren’t working with many female directors, yourself?
RADNOR: I’ve actually probably worked with more female directors than male directors. A lot of my feature work has been with women, Pam Fryman directed 200 of the 208 episodes of How I Met Your Mother. I worked with a great director, named Kimberly Senior, on Broadway, in a play called Disgraced. I’ve worked with Jill Soloway (on Afternoon Delight). I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and not had a bad experience. A set is a very delicate ecosystem and, as a director, I always want to create a space that the actors just feel really comfortable and really safe in, so that they can be dangerous in their work. You want them to feel that you see them, and that you’re going to pick their best takes and you’re not out to humiliate them. I think women are particularly good at creating that fertile environment, where great, risky work can happen.
Are you hoping to direct again soon, yourself?
RADNOR: Oh, yeah.
CASH: This is where he’s gonna announce his next movie, starring me. I did a reading of his, a long time ago, and he didn’t cast me, and he’s regretted it ever since. He was like, “Don’t worry, I will write you a movie.” Right?
RADNOR: Am I supposed to just sign on off this?
CASH: No, I’m just putting it in print. I’ll shame you into a job.
RADNOR: So now, if I cast you in my next film, people are gonna be like, “Oh, it’s because she shamed him in that interview for Collider. That’s why he did it.”
CASH: I don’t care! A job’s a job, baby!
RADNOR: You’re such a working actor dame. You’re like the Elaine Stritch of the indie film world.
CASH: Just bring it on!
RADNOR: Yeah, so, I have a script ready to go that I was gonna do, but other things got in the way. I’m looking to do something ASAP, so the answer is yes.