From writer/director Akash Sherman, the indie sci-fi drama Clara tells the story of astronomer Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams), a man consumed by the search for life beyond Earth. When he meets Clara (Troian Bellisario) and realizes that they share a fascination for the possibilities of space, he invites her to collaborate with him on a possibly profound discovery, over which they form a connection deeper than either of them ever expected.
During this phone interview with Collider, co-stars Patrick J. Adams and Troian Bellisario talked about the extensive collaborative process they experienced with filmmaker Akash Sherman, why they so deeply connected to this material, what they wanted to dig deeper into, the unconventional love story, and keeping the sci-fi aspect grounded in real science. They also talked about how they’d like to do more directing, and whether they’d like to do more projects together, while Adams talked about the possibility of returning, in some way, for the final season of Suits.
Collider: I really loved this film, and I thought it was so different from anything that I’ve seen. It’s a really interesting, beautiful story. What was it like to have a script like this come your way?
PATRICK J. ADAMS: I first got it four years ago now, in a much different iteration. (Writer/Director) Akash [Sherman] had reached out because he thought that I would be a good match for it, and one of the producers, Ari Lantos, agreed, so they sent me a version of the script that’s very, very different from the film now. What made this such a special process for me is that they welcomed me into the process of reimagining it and finding a new way through it. So, it always was clear to me, especially because this was going to be something special, and the beating heart of the story was something really unique, that this would be a really great experience because they allowed me to come in and help them reshape the last few drafts and find it together. By the time that we got on set, there was a real sense of ownership, with all of us. And like everything that I ever work on, I was always running ideas and thoughts past Troian [Bellisario], so she inevitably ended up becoming very involved in the creative process, as well. Then, at the last moment, they said, “Wait a minute, why isn’t Troian in the film?,” and we all agreed, and then went and made it. It was cool to already have such an understanding of the beats of the film, because we had been pretty instrumental in working through them with Akash, the other cast members, and the producers.
What did you like about what was already on the page, and what did you feel like you wanted to dig deeper into?
TROIAN BELLISARIO: I love grounded science fiction, so for me, what I loved about it is that it’s just our world. There wasn’t anything fancy or alternate, or with future technology that we were dealing with. It’s really a character piece, and that interested me. Then, of course, there was the relationship between Isaac and Clara that was also so intriguing because it wasn’t primarily romantic. I really liked exploring the idea that Patrick [J. Adams] and I would get to work as people who were intellectual equals, if not very, very different, on all other levels, but that they were friends first. I really loved that part of the film.
ADAMS: I was really attracted to the fact that Akash was such a smart young guy, and he had based almost everything technical in the film on real things that were happening, in real time. That just gave me a sense that this story would always be grounded in reality, and we would never go so far afield or off the reservation that you would have to suspend your disbelief, in order to believe where we went. And so, the idea of arriving towards some of the moments, at the end of this film, felt so much more special because we had kept our feet on the earth, so to speak, throughout the beginning of the story. He had just done so much research and was so diligent about staying true to so many of the concepts that we explore in film, scientifically, and he invited some big scientists into the process, and he was just so energized and excited about keeping that stuff honest, that I was so drawn to it. Another part of the story that really pulled me in was the scene in the beginning of the film, where Isaac is teaching class and somebody asks him to disprove love. After reading the first script, which had a scene like that, I said to Akash, “Wouldn’t it be cool, if there was a scene where Isaac Bruno was smart enough that he could mathematically dispel the notion of love.” I said that to him on a whim because I thought it was just a neat idea. I thought Akash would send something back to me, months later, and we’d read that over. It was a pretty tall order, especially for a guy who was 20, at the time. But the next day, I had an email with a draft of the scene that’s essentially in the film now, even though it’s a little different, but the parameters of the formula he uses are exactly the same, and in a night, he ha figured out how he could mathematically and cinematically disprove love, in front of a classroom. I couldn’t believe how quickly he had come up with that, just based on an idea that I had thrown at him. That was really the moment that I thought, “I’ve gotta do this. I’ve gotta work with him.”
I really love the unconventional aspect of the love story because that just makes it seem much more real and the human connection seems more relatable.
ADAMS: One hundred percent, and that’s the other side of Akash. He’s such a smart guy, but he’s also got such a deep heart, and a love for the process, a love for his family, and a respect for artists. He’s just such a sensitive, wonderful young man. He draws you in with his intelligence, but as soon as you start talking about motivations and intentions, or characters, or history, or trauma to these characters, he’s equally as well-versed in that stuff, and able to totally meet you. Especially for a young person, that was so staggering because most young people just don’t have the life experience to really value those things, but that was not the case with him. He was so ready to go further and deeper, and if he felt like he didn’t know something, he was really excited to ask questions and welcome you into the process.
Which must be great for actors like you guys, who are also directing, writing and producing your own material. When you have an experience like this, does it really feed that, as well?
BELLISARIO: Absolutely! We were just so grateful that our opinions were important to the process. From the very beginning, Akash so valued what kind of story we wanted to tell, and who we thought these people were, and how we wanted to contribute, not just ourselves on the screen, but also ourselves to the story and all of the other scenes that were played. We felt very grateful to be a part of this artistic process.
ADAMS: Troian and I are always dreaming up and trying to figure out new things for us to work on, maybe for ourselves, but there’s something that’s pretty wonderful when somebody comes to you with their own vision. We get welcomed into the process, but we also get to just do the fun part. We got to just sit around and talk story, and maybe help write a couple of things. It’s fun when you have somebody who’s really in charge of it because you get to do the fun stuff and dream up cool things, and talk about all of it, and then Akash is the one that goes to do the really heavy lifting, and pull it all together, and figure out a way through it. That’s a really uniquely wonderful place to be because a lot of people wouldn’t welcome you so deep into the process. Maybe it’s a function of him being new to the process and, as he finds his voice, maybe he’ll be able to be a bit more protective of it. But we were really careful to not overstay our welcome and make clear that, when we had ideas or opinions about things, they were just ideas, and that he was the final say, and that he had to be comfortable with them and believe in it. It was a really cool, fluid process, where we wanted to be involved, but we knew it was his, and we didn’t want to overstep our bounds, at any moment.
This is such an interesting film because it has this ambitious premise and reveals to it, but it’s told in this intimate, small way, and the success of pulling that off relies on allowing the viewers to use their imaginations to fill in those gaps. How do you feel that benefits the film and the story that you’re telling, and did you ever find that to be challenging to collectively pull off?
ADAMS: That was the thing that excited me the most, and I think it was by virtue of the fact that so much of it was grounded in real science that we talked to scientists and astronomers about. Obviously there were a few reveals, at the end, where we scaled it up a little bit, along the way, but it was so grounded that it never felt like it wouldn’t be believable. That was the fun of it. We knew that we had a limited budget and limited time, but we still wanted to inspire these same feelings of grandness, and blow up our small little world that we live in, and imagine something bigger and more vast and what could be, instead of what is. Because Akash had done his homework so diligently, that was exciting. We could make a film that still spoke to these giant concepts, but they did it in these small ways, in these very human scenes of people just talking about this over a coffee, or struggling with each other about how to interpret the data. So, I was never really worried about it, just because I trusted Akash and the work that he had done, before we arrived on set, and I was just excited to be a part of it. I just never really had a doubt that he could get what was on the page and in his head into the film, and people would see what we had seen, when we read it the first time.
It’s all so beautifully handled, but at the same time, it seems like it could have been a disaster, if it had not been done the way that it’s done.
ADAMS: Totally! Also, he was 20 years old. That’s the other part of it. It could have been a disaster in anybody’s hands, not to mention a 20-year-old. To be honest, I probably tried to find a bunch of ways to not do this film, along the way, because from the outside, there are so many pitfalls that you would normally want to avoid when going to make a film. First-time directors are not necessarily a problem, but if they’re tested and don’t have a ton of material to show, it’s hard to sign off on. If it’s the first major script that you’ve written, there are a lot of firsts that could typically scare someone away, especially when you have a limited amount of time to go make something. But the minute you meet Akash and you start talking about new ideas with him, and you talk to him about things that have nothing to do with the film, but are about his family and where he comes from, and when he starts telling you stories, you can tell that he’s the quintessential old soul. He’s not a 20-year-old man, talking to you through the perspective of your regular 20-year-old. He’s dealing and struggling and moving through things that people two or three times his age are thinking about and dealing with. I had to fight so many of my instincts to go, “This could be so dangerous, and it could not work out,” but at some point, I was so won over by this guy. It was so clear that he was going to make this thing work, no matter what. And so, rather than wanting to run away from it and protect yourself, you were like, “I wanna be a part of that. I need to where he goes. He’s headed somewhere, and I wanna know where that is.”
BELLISARIO: For me, the exciting thing was that while Patrick’s character, Isaac, was so well-represented and flushed out on the screen, and you got to understand his backstory and you saw him teaching, Clara conversely comes with this really big question mark. She has a past that is unknown. We get to hear brief bits about it, but she’s like a satellite. She’s this traveling explorer. There was so much that was unknown and unspoken about, in the script. My favorite part was sitting down with Akash, from a very early point in the process, and him going through, beat for beat, to tell me, “Here’s where I think Clara’s story began and this is what she’s been doing.” He was willing to go through that with me and answer all of my endless questions, so that she wasn’t as much of a mystery to me, even though she has to be, to the audience. It was very exciting to get to work with him, and I just loved that he didn’t leave me alone out there, floundering and grasping for whatever I could find, to bring this character to life. He was very, very involved, and had so many wonderful ideas.
ADAMS: Troian is under-stating how valuable she was to the process. One of the things in the script that was really lacking, early on, was the complexity of this important female character of Clara. I think Troian was really responsible for coming in and deepening that role, and fighting for different aspects of her character, and looking for specificity, where it wasn’t before. To his credit, Akash was not defensive. He was like, “This is exactly what I needed. I needed an intelligent, complex female voice to come in and make this what I couldn’t”. He knew what he wanted it to be, but he hadn’t gotten it there yet, and together, Troian and Akash really created this character that had a much more complex and interesting history, who had suffered trauma, and who knew where she had come from and where she wanted to go. A lot of that stuff had been lacking in the first script Akash totally grasped onto what Troian had to offer, and Troian totally rose to the occasion and spent a whole lot of time working through this to create a character that speaks for itself, on screen. It was fascinating.
Patrick, now that we know that the next season of Suits will also be the last season, it seems as though it would be impossible to end the show without a reappearance from you. Is that something that you’d like to do? Have you had serious conversations about doing that, in some way?
ADAMS: I have not heard anything yet, but I know that they’re pulling the season together. I still talk regularly with everybody over there, and there’s a lot of good will. If there was a good scene for me to do, over there, to help the story that they’re looking to tell, and if it worked out, schedule-wise, I’d love to go and be a part of the end of the show. It’s totally their call to make, and there’s zero pressure, on my end. When I left, we left clean. I’m there at the behest of (show creator) Aaron Korsh and whatever the writers want to do, with a particular season. I think they’re still figuring that out, but if they come calling and it could work out, then I’d be open to it. We’ll have to wait and see what it is.
After you have an experience like this film, and you guys have both previously done a bit of directing, is directing something that you’re hoping to get more into? Would you like to do a full-length feature film?
ADAMS: I’ve thought about it a lot. I know from a lot of friends that have done it, that it takes over your life, with good cause, for a long period of time. So, I’m definitely interested in doing that, but I feel like I have so much more to learn, before I could do it properly. All of my friends who have done it say that you just have to dive in and figure it out, as you go, which makes sense. I’m always on the lookout for what that particular story might be, whether it’s something that I would need to write, or a script I find that somebody else has written. Then, I just need to make sure that whatever it is, it’s something that I’m interested in hanging out with for a year or more because that’s what it takes, in order to like make a great film. But directing, in general, is something that’s a huge part of my life. I love it. I feel really at home doing it.
BELLISARIO: I was really lucky that, while I was pregnant and taking a bit of a break from acting, I got to direct two episodes of two different shows, and I really had a wonderful time. I feel so grateful because I got to learn so much. My previous experience was just directing on Pretty Little Liars, so I got to learn about a different crew and a different narrative. And then, I got to write and direct my first short film, which I made when I was nine months pregnant. I was planning on trying to finish it before I had my baby, but that didn’t happen, so it’s taken me a bit of time to finish it. I’m hoping to have that done soon, and that was just such a wonderful learning experience. When you take that step to direct something that’s 90 minutes or longer, you have to be so committed and so passionate, and have so much energy that you’re willing to put towards that particular story, and I don’t know what that story is yet, either. It’s been a wonderful experience, getting to work in short form, and I hope it leads to more.
Since you guys have both done some episodic directing, are there any TV shows that you watch that you wish you could direct an episode of?