From writer/director Michael James Johnson, The Wilderness of James (playing at the SXSW Film Festival), tells the story of a lost teenager named James (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He’s crawled into his shell as he struggles to deal with the tragic death of his father, and he lives in a world of his own making that is defined by his bizarre fascination with death. As tensions mount with his mother (Virginia Madsen) at home, he begins to explore the wilderness of the city, finding himself drawn to a girl (Isabelle Fuhrman) and a charismatic stranger (Evan Ross).
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee talked about how he came to be a part of this film, why he was so drawn to the role, what his typical process is for finding a character, letting himself be free with the character, why the set was such a good environment, why he prefers being on the giving rather than the receiving end for fight scenes, and how much he enjoyed working with this cast. He also talked about his experience on the upcoming blockbuster sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, reuniting with his Let Me In director Matt Reeves, and that he can’t wait to see the film. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
KODI SMIT-McPHEE: (Writer/director) Michael [James Johnson] sent the script over and I read it, and we just had a few meetings. We stayed in contact for a very long time, while he was trying to get it up and running. I really wanted it to work out, and eventually it did. We fit it in a small time space, and we shot it. It was really great. I’m glad it got made.
What was it about this script that really stood out for you? Did you realize, when you read it, how unusual it is that someone of your age was in so much of this alone, and that so much of the story was really internal?
SMIT-McPHEE: Yes, I think it’s a very unique film, in itself. It captures Portland really uniquely. My character is something that I’ve never really played before. And I think the story itself is amazing. It basically just shows how the universe works and how, if you keep ignoring something, no matter what, life will take you out of your box and put you right back into your place. It shows how he escapes out of his house and his town, and then meets totally new characters who pull him out of himself and show him what life is about. I think that’s a really important lesson, and I think it shows that, in this movie.
Did you have conversations with your director about the kind of vision he wanted for this?
SMIT-McPHEE: Michael had a pretty strong vision for what he wanted to do, and I think it came across pretty great. He always talked about Portland being a character itself, in the movie, and I think that vibe comes across, as well. But character wise, his writing was amazing. I got so much information and so much of the point of view of what he wanted to do with the script. And then, I did what you usually do and made it my own, and kept the continuity.
What is your process for finding a character? Do you have family that you work on your roles with?
SMIT-McPHEE: My dad actually got me into acting when I was eight, and it’s always been the same process. It’s literally just trying to get to the core of the moment. It’s about absolutely just being real and knowing your character, inside out, and knowing your story, back to front. Once you have all that information, you have free space to jump around and express yourself within that. It’s just basically a process of trying to get to the real moment.
Did you find this character pretty easy to identify with, or was he a challenging character?
SMIT-McPHEE: The thing with this character is that he’s so much within his head that he doesn’t really have the mask that most people have, in the street. Really, to play a role like this is a lot of fun because all you have to do is take off your social mask and express yourself, as you would. That’s all I really did. I let myself be really free with the character. I loved that, and had a lot of fun.
This character feels lonely and alone through much of this film. Did it ever feel that way, while you were shooting it, or did it feel like a collaborative process?
SMIT-McPHEE: It was definitely a lot of fun. It was always so much fun on set, with Michael and everyone. It was just such a good environment to be in. You get to know each other so well that it becomes a little family. I had a really good time playing the character. I love taking myself to those quiet, lonely places within acting. I’d rather not go there in life, itself. But all of these experiences are fun, in that way.
A lot of this film also feels very loose, when you’re walking around and hanging out in different places. Was that the case, or was it more structured than you’d think?
SMIT-McPHEE: Actually, I think that was Michael’s genius way of editing. I think that was very purposeful. I feel like that just works, with the whole movie. You’re with James for so much, and yet the times that seem prominent and structured are the times he’s interacting with someone else, in the real world, or his mother. But for the rest of the movie, it’s spacey and walking around with James while he’s working out his problems and his story. I think it’s great that that comes across.
James goes through a lot, in this film. He’s a teenager, which is hard enough, but he’s also suffered this tragic loss of his father, he has a knack for pissing people off enough to want to hit him, he gets drunk, he falls for a girl, and he gets in a fight over that girl. Did you find one thing the most fun to shoot, or was it just the overall experience?
SMIT-McPHEE: It’s definitely always the experience, overall. But, I did love the scenes in the cave. Those were really great. That is actually a real place where the director, Michael, used to go and hang out. A lot of the little moments within the story are real moments that Michael’s lived, so it was just cool to be there and chill out. It was awesome in Portland. It’s a very young, artsy, expressive town.
Since you have both in this film, is it more fun to shoot fight scenes where you’re the giver or the receiver?
SMIT-McPHEE: I think definitely giving because you do have the control of not actually punching someone in the face. You have more control than you do when you’re blocking.
Was it fun to have this younger cast to work with, with Evan Ross and Isabelle Fuhrman, while also getting to work with some actors who have been in this business for awhile, with Virginia Madsen and Danny DeVito?
SMIT-McPHEE: Yes, it was so much fun, working with Virginia and Danny. Most of the stuff that we did together, we would do the script, but then Michael would let us improvise and mess around and play within the space of the characters. That was an awesome experience. I love that he had a different relationship with each character, in the movie. From each character, he’s learning and evolving within himself, taking from all of those people and really just adding to knowing himself.
SMIT-McPHEE: I haven’t done a lot of studio movies, but studio movies and independent films are always just as fun as each other. As long as it’s a quality story, it’s always filled with the same amount of love for the project. I think indie films have more of a fresh, experimental vibe about them, whereas studio films know what they want and can basically get it. It’s the same amount of fun, but different spectrums of the art itself.
It must be so intimidating to be a part of a film of that size.
SMIT-McPHEE: Oh, yeah. There’s just so many people. Everything is multiplied by a million.
Did it help that you already had a working relationship with your director, Matt Reeves?
SMIT-McPHEE: Definitely. That was awesome. On Planet of the Apes, it felt like a camp to be there with Matt again, and to be with great people like Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman. Obviously, Matt Reeves being there played a big role in me getting the part, but I did have to audition, as well. I was in South Africa shooting Young Ones, and Matt gave me the call on Skype and told me the news that he was directing Planet of the Apes. I was over the moon. So, I did an audition and sent it, and the next day, I was told I got the job. It was awesome. It was so great to be on it. That whole experience was unbelievable. I can’t wait until it comes out.
Have you gotten to see any of it yet?
SMIT-McPHEE: Only what the public has seen. That’s a big thing with studio films, as well. They’re very strict with their secrecy. I can’t wait to see everything with it.
What was most surprising to you, in regard to making that film?
SMIT-McPHEE: To tell the truth, it really wasn’t a shock. It’s just a different way of doing it. But, it was the same kind of experience. Everyone has the same passion for it. It’s just bigger.
What was it like to film in New Orleans, especially compared to having shot in Portland?
SMIT-McPHEE: New Orleans is awake all night, and every night is a party. That was a lot of fun. But, I really dig Portland. It’s totally my vibe. Everyone was riding around on bikes and skateboards. There’s great coffee there. It’s a young, cool, arty town. They’re just so different.
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a role?
SMIT-McPHEE: Instinct plays a huge part. I always just try to go for quality stories, and that’s thanks to my team of agents and managers. They’re always looking out for things they think I would love, and I read them all.
Do you know what you’re going to shoot next?
SMIT-McPHEE: Yes, I’m shooting a mini-series in Australia, called Gallipoli. It’s the 100th anniversary of a war we had there, so it’s a really cool thing for Australia and it’s something for me to do that’s different, as well. And I get to actually be Australian, for once.
The Wilderness of James premieres at SXSW on March 9th.