Directed by John Hyams and written by Timothy Brady, the indie drama All Square follows John Zbikowski (Michael Kelly), a down-on-his-luck small-town bookie who isn’t the best at collecting outstanding debts. When he strikes up a friendship with an ex’s (Pamela Adlon) 12-year-old son (Jesse Ray Sheps), he sees the possibilities in taking bets on his little league games, creating chaos in the community.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Kelly (who is also a producer on the film) talked about the appeal of his friend’s script, getting All Square into production pretty quickly, enticing some of the House of Cards crew members to sign on, what it was like to say goodbye to the series and character that he’s played for six seasons, what it was like to watch Robin Wright take center stage for the final season, what he’ll miss most about playing Doug Stamper, what it’s been like to join the second season of the Amazon series Jack Ryan, and whether he’d like to direct, in the future.
Collider: I thought you were so great in this. It’s such an interesting story because we don’t get to see characters like this too often, and we definitely don’t get to see a friendship like the one between John and Brian.
MICHAEL KELLY: Yeah, what really struck me when my friend, Timmy [Brady], sent me the script – I had read many of Timmy’s things before and he’s a really good friend of mine – I was on the last page, dialing his number. I was like, “Dude, where did this come from? It’s so good. It’s such a throwback movie and script. It’s got heart. It has that older ‘70s style feel to it. I wanna do this, man.” And he was like, “Really?!” I was like, “Yeah, I wanna make this happen.” The director John Hyams, and I both agreed that this script was great, so we made a deal that, if he could get Sam Rockwell, I’d pull out of it, or if we could get some great director, he’d be out of there. We just knew that it had to be made.
When your friend sent you his script, did he say anything about it? Did he pitch it in any way, or did you read it without knowing what it would be?
KELLY: It was the latter. He does that, from time to time. He just says, “Hey, I wrote something and I’d love to have your two cents.” I was on House of Cards, at the time, and was super busy, so I was like, “I’ll probably get to it this week.” I never read anything unless I can read it from start to finish without any interruptions, so that’s what I did. I just waited a few days until I had that time, and I sat down not knowing what to expect. Even when I asked him, “Where did this come from?,” he said, “I just wrote something from my heart, instead of what I thought everyone wanted to read. I wrote what I wanted to write.” I said, “Well, keep doing that. You’ve really got something.”
One of the things that I loved most about this movie is the friendship between this man and this young boy because there’s something so interesting and compelling about it. There’s a definite age difference there and they’re not related to each other, so there’s no real obligation that ties them to each other, and yet they seem to have just found this odd friendship. What was the experience of working with that young actor like and developing a dynamic like that?
KELLY: Jesse Ray Sheps is such a talented kid. We went through the typical audition process, in finding him, and that was our biggest hurdle. We called a lot of friends to be in the movie, and I knew everyone except for Harris [Yulin] and Jesse. I was back and forth, doing House of Cards in Baltimore and New York. One of the trips home that I scheduled, with John and Timmy, who flew from L.A. to New York to meet the final few kids and have me read with them, it was down to a couple kids. This other kid was equally good, but there was just something about the ease at which Jesse was in the room, and that smile. You can’t not love that kid’s smile. We were like, “Yep, that’s the kid.” And his folks were so great. When we got together on set, he was a great young actor because he asked questions. He comes fully prepared, and he dives into a scene like an adult. It all happened really organically with him, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
It sounds like this got made fairly quickly, which is kind of unheard of. Did you have any moments, along the way, where it almost fell apart, or was it surprisingly smooth sailing?
KELLY: Every step of the way, when you’re producing and starring in something, you hit those roadblocks. You hit them every day, especially on an independent film of this budget. You’re going to just get smacked in the face, all the time, even going right up to within a week of starting principle photography. It went union on us, which is fine, but it was a very unexpected thing. We shaved it down from 21 to 18 shooting days, and we’d plot ahead to make our days, so we didn’t really ever go over time. To go back to your original question of how quickly it went together, I think that kind of stuff is possible. I don’t believe that it has to be so complicated. Granted, we had the director, we had the writer and we had the actor, in myself, and then we just called on every friend that we had and asked favors. I went to the House of Cards crew. The first person I gave it to was Lorenzo [Millan], our sound guy, and he was like, “Oh, my god, I love this. If you do this near Maryland, I’m in.” More and more, people came forward from the crew who were like, “Mike, whatever you’re doing, we got your back.” What I ended up doing was just taking those people on my crew, who I knew were completely competent of taking it to the next level, and just bumped them one position up and giving them that credit, as a favor, in return for their services. On an independent film, you don’t get paid a lot, so I just tried to make it as beneficial to everyone as I could. We had a crew that I knew, and I knew that they were really talented, so we were able to make a film for not a ton of money, in a short amount of time. The way it all came together, it blew us all away. It really came down to John Hyams, the director, and me, as the actor. We both had a window in which we were not working, and it was a short window, so we had to get it in there and we just did everything that we could to make it happen, in those days.