In the unsettling indie drama White Rabbit, Harlon Mackey (Nick Krause) has been tormented by visions since his alcoholic father (Sam Trammell) forced him to kill an innocent rabbit while hunting as a boy. Now a bullied high school student, Harlon’s undiagnosed mental illness is getting worse and the voices he hears are encouraging him to carry out violent acts, as his imagination and reality blur in the most dangerous of ways.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Sam Trammell (True Blood) talked about how he got involved with White Rabbit, clicking with director Tim McCann so much that they’ve already made another film (The Aftermath), his process in preparing for this morally questionable role, how he connected with this character, and the intense father-son dynamic. He also talked about working with Jason Lee on their Amazon pilot, Cocked, a darkly comic tale of a broken family working in the quintessentially American business of guns, and the process of viewer feedback determining the fate of a series.
SAM TRAMMELL: It was completely out of the blue. I got the script and I really connected with the character. I just thought this would be a great character to play. It’s a potentially really powerful story, overall. I’d never worked with Shaun Sanghani, the producer, or Tim McCann, the director, but I just really liked the character and thought the character would be great to play. And it was going to be shot in Louisiana, which is where I’m from. I had a couple calls with the director, and we talked about the script. And then, I just went down there. It was a good experience for all of us. It was good enough for us to want to work together again, which we did the next summer, and made a movie called The Aftermath.
How nice is it, as an actor, to click with a director so much that you immediately want to work with him again?
TRAMMELL: It was great. I liked the freedom that Tim gave me. And then, when I saw it, I was just so impressed with the stark reality. It just didn’t feel like I was watching a movie, a lot of the time. It felt very real. So, I just became a very big fan of Tim’s. He had shot another movie, called Zero in the System, which was incredible. He used a lot of non-actors and got them to improvise. I really think he’s an artist. And I like that feeling of trying to get real stuff on camera and stuff you don’t expect. Seeing what happens, in the moment, is really artistically fulfilling.
How did you find the experience of working with Tim McCann a second time?
TRAMMELL: The Aftermath was one of the most artistically fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. That was incredible. We all had equal say in the story. I would certainly work with him again. He’s awesome. I like his aesthetic, a lot. It’s dark, but it really appreciates real moments with real people. I love the idea of getting people that aren’t actors to perform, and seeing what happens.
Did the finished film for White Rabbit end up pretty similar to the first script you read, or were there any major changes made, along the way?
TRAMMELL: It was close. I remember that there were some changes with the ending. I can’t remember exactly what the ending was before, but the ending changed a couple of times. Other than that, it was pretty close.
As an actor, is it fun and freeing to play someone who, for most of the film, didn’t seem to have much of a moral compass?
TRAMMELL: It’s weird, I think he thought he had a moral compass. It was just a real narrow-minded one. At the beginning, he’s just a substance abuser and an addict who’s just getting by. And then, he has this strong rebirth and it’s almost as just as bad as being a substance abuser, as far as his relationship with his son. First, he’s not there to support him, and then he’s not there to accept him.
TRAMMELL: There is a part of me that felt very at home in his skin. Being in Louisiana, where I was born and where my family is from, I feel like I have a real country streak in my blood that gets dulled by living in New York and Los Angeles, but I have a real connection to it. I grew up and went to school in semi-rural areas in Louisiana and West Virginia, and I was exposed to a lot of rural and country culture and lifestyle. I just really appreciate that and love it. So, in a lot of ways, and certainly not in reference to the substance abuse, but in reference to living in the south and in the country, it felt like a homecoming. I felt very close to that character, in a way. The stuff that I had to really do the research on was the substance abuse and the smoking of meth. I talked to a lot of addicts and watched a lot of footage.
When you play a character like this, that stretches you outside of who you are, is it fun to play that, or is it difficult to shake off?
TRAMMELL: I love it! Of course, it depends on how much you connect to the character. I grew up in the theater in New York, putting on accents and doing physical work, so for me, it’s a blast. When you can meld that with the smallness that the film requires, as far as your acting, it’s a great thing.
This man is really on his own journey of discovering who he is, at the same time we get the story about his son. Was there a particularly challenging moment of scene for you to tackle?
TRAMMELL: It was really challenging. The scenes where I’m smoking were really challenging. That was the hardest, when I was really on the drugs. That’s easy to do badly. You want to be convincing, and I don’t have any experience smoking meth, so I was in uncharted territory. With the rest of it, I really connected with the character, so it was just a lot of fun.
What was it like to work with Nick Krause, and play such an intense father-son dynamic with him?
TRAMMELL: Nick is such a nice guy. I felt like I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with him because I needed that ability to just be an asshole to him. I wanted to be able to objectify him. So, for this part, we didn’t end up spending a lot of time getting to know each other, and I think it was less a choice and more that we were living in two different areas of town. I didn’t get to see him that much, but it worked for the best. There was a lot of disconnect with my character and his, so I didn’t want to get too close to him.
Now that you have kids of your own, do you find yourself worrying, not just about how they’re treated, but about how they treat other people, as well?
TRAMMELL: Yeah. That’s a great question. Of course, I’m concerned about how they’re treated. Every day, you’re teaching your values, and one of the most important things is just to be kind to other people. That is absolutely really important to us, and important to me. That’s something that you need to help your kids with, for sure.
Both White Rabbit and Cocked, your Amazon pilot, are projects that will spark a lot of conversation. Do you consciously find yourself drawn to projects that have something to say about hot-button topics, or is it totally coincidental?
TRAMMELL: It’s totally and completely by chance. Cocked came around and I just thought it was a really well-written script. Sam Baum is a really smart guy. And it was just such a good character that was so different than what I’d been doing. The gun issues was neither here nor there, as far as me wanting to do it or not. It was really all about the character and the script and the relationship between the brothers. I just thought that was a fun dynamic.
What was the pitch for a show that seems like it would sound totally crazy on paper?
TRAMMELL: Cocked is really about self-protection, and the choices you make to protect your family and your dog. Obviously, guns are a way to protect yourself. I can’t speak for the creator, but I think that world is really rich, crazy and darkly entertaining, as far as what happens in the world of gun manufacturing. It’s crazy. People take things into their own hands. There’s a certain level of dark humor and entertainment that can come from that. And then, you have the brothers’ story.
The brother dynamic between you and Jason Lee is so fun to watch. How was the experience working with him? Do you have a similar approach to the work, or are you very different in how you approach things?
TRAMMELL: I didn’t really talk to him much about how he approached it. I have a feeling that we’re very different, but I’m not sure. The one thing I know is that we had so much fun, once the cameras rolled. He is so fun to work with. I really liked the rapport we had, as characters, and we really liked each other, as people, too. I’ve always been a huge fan of his. I think he’s great, and I think he has a great presence on camera. I love the work that he’s done. We had a blast working together. He’s got a lot of fun stuff to do, as well.
It’s such an interesting idea to have people decide the fate of the series by showing them the pilot and getting their feedback, especially since normally, if something doesn’t make it to series, you never actually get to see the pilot.
TRAMMELL: I know. Pilots are never shown in this state, with no reshoots. When a pilot gets picked up, there’s always reshoots and tweaks, and this is before any of that happens. People are seeing the raw material.
Have you had any conversations about where things would go beyond the pilot, and does the pilot feel like a good representation of what the series might be?
TRAMMELL: I think it is a good representation, but I think it’s also setting a lot of stuff up. I think the actual show would not have to spend the time that the pilot does, in doing the broad set-ups of character. I think it would get a lot more detailed, and not have to try to do as much as the first episode tried to do. Obviously, you have a lot of things you have to do in the pilot that you don’t have to do afterwards. Tonally, I think it’s a good representation. Things will probably be tweaked, here and there, because that always happens and we haven’t gotten a chance to do that. It’s definitely going for a dark comedy tone that’s fun and edgy and raucous and unexpected.
TRAMMELL: I know. And everybody can read each other’s feedback, too. It’s a pretty hardcore situation. Everybody has a lot of power. Whoever watches it and reviews it has power.
Is that a bizarre experience? Are you reading any of the feedback?
TRAMMELL: It’s not totally bizarre because I’m used to getting reviews. I try not to read much because you’ll always focus on the bad ones and not remember the good ones, so it can be a negative thing for a performer. I guess everybody’s different, but I know that everybody’s natural instinct is to remember the bad stuff more than the good stuff. So, I try to stay away from it, for the most part, but you can’t help checking in to see how it’s going because the answer is right there.
What are you working on while you’re waiting to find out about the fate of Cocked?
TRAMMELL: I’m not literally working on anything right now. I just did a movie called Three Generations, with Naomi Watts, Elle Fanning and Susan Sarandon. And I did a movie called The Track, with Missy Yager, who’s my partner and the mother of my children. And then, The Aftermath is in the festival circuit right now. And in the meantime, I’m in a holding pattern, waiting to see if [the show] gets picked up.
White Rabbit is now playing in theaters and on VOD, and Cocked is available on Amazon Prime.