The sci-fi thriller After, from writer/director Ryan Smith, tells the story of two bus crash survivors, Freddy (Steven Strait) and Ana (Karolina Wydra), who awake to discover that they are the only people left in their small town. As strange events begin to unfold, they form an unlikely alliance and start to question whether the town they know so well is really what it seems, or if there is something else behind what is happening to them.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Steven Strait talked about how he came to be involved with the film, what drew him to the story and character, the experience of collaborating with both his director and co-star, and how fun and liberating it is to work with green screen. He also talked about what fans can expect from Season 2 of his Starz drama series Magic City, and how much he’s been enjoying the luxury of getting to explore a character in the long-term. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
STEVEN STRAIT: No, I was contacted by Sabyn Mayfield, who is Laray Mayfield’s son, who I had known for many years. She’s a very famous casting director in Los Angeles. I had known Sabyn a little bit, and he was like, “I’ve got this really great script that my friend, Ryan [Smith], wrote. We would love for you to read it and see what you think. We’re in town, if you’re interested.” So, I was like, “Sure, of course!” I read it and I was just blown away by how original and intelligent and unpretentious the script and the story was, and how heartfelt yet philosophical it seemed to be. It all wrapped up very well and really clean, in a lean way without Ryan trying to push too much into the pot. It all just seemed to be very graceful. And then, I met Ryan and I just felt it. Ryan had never done a full feature before, but I had seen his short and I really liked it. I just wanted to give it a shot. I really believe in the project, and I wanted to make what was on the page happen. I thought it would be a really cool movie to make and a cool movie for folks to enjoy, if we were able to pull it off.
STRAIT: It has a lot of different elements to it. At its core, it’s a sci-fi/existential thriller. It does have scarier moments, but it’s not really a horror movie, in any way. It definitely had concepts that you don’t generally see it films, these days, that are at least released with a script that is really purely based on these questions of, “Where are we? Why are we here? Why are we both here together?” He was trying to explore these philosophical ideals in a fun way without it hitting you over the head with any kind of intelligencia or pretension. It’s still a fun movie to watch. I really appreciate that about him. We met and started talking about comic books because we’re both big comic book nerds, and Freddy, in this movie, is a comic book illustrator and a projectionist at the movie theater. We talked about how these two people or souls, or whatever you want to call them, get trapped in this place and they don’t quite know what it is or where they are or what’s happened, but they’re together. And the town has been surrounded by this cloud of darkness that keeps inching closer and closer to them, and they need to figure out a way out and figure out why they’re there, in the first place, and figure out why they’re there together. They’re strangers. It was a really, really fun read, and it was really fun to shoot. We just had a blast. We shot it on a minimal budget and the film looks a lot larger than the budget was. They did an incredible job. Ryan is incredibly talented. I generally have a hard time watching myself on screen, but his imprint on the film is so direct that I was really able to separate myself from it and enjoy the film. He is really good. He’s an incredible writer, as well. He’s the package, so I was really happy to be able to work with him.
STRAIT: Totally! He was really open to collaborating on the characters and the way that they progressed around the arc of this movie. We had a really great time. Most of the film is really two people. There are a couple of flashback sequences, but at its essence, it’s really the story of these two people. To have a guy with such a specific vision, for that dynamic in a movie to work, is really important, just so that you can hold your audience and still convey what you want to convey. I’m really proud of the movie, I’m really proud of him, and I’m super excited for it to come out. It will be cool.
What was it like to work with Karolina Wydra and develop the relationship between Freddy and Ana?
STRAIT: It was a cool dynamic to work with because they originally start out as strangers on a bus, from the same town but they had never met each other. They don’t know anything about each other, but then they get stuck there. The relationship essentially evolves from the ground up, and through their survival, and through the search for meaning and what’s going on and why they’re there together. I really appreciated the challenge of making that relationship as organic as possible. It’s not exactly rose petals, in the beginning. They’re just trying to get to know each other, at first, and they’re under these extreme circumstances. And as the heat of the film goes up, they have to get closer and closer to be able to do what they need to, to survive. The story lends itself to that kind of organic character progression, and I was just along for the ride. It was really fun, working with Ryan and Karolina, to flesh these relationships out and look through these flashbacks to create histories for Freddy, and I know that Karolina did it for her character as well. We created these really complex histories that went into what was there between the lines. Why is Freddy so isolated from his family? Why is he such a loner now? Why is he comfortable with being the kind of guy he is? He is comfortable with it. He’s a nerdy, loner guy, but he’s okay with that because what else has he ever really known? Being this close to someone pushes him out of his comfort zone, a little bit. It was a really, really fun project to do. I genuinely had a really good time, shooting this little movie in Alabama for 28 days, or something like that. It was great!
STRAIT: I’ve done a bit before, for other projects, earlier on. At first, it was a little weird. I wouldn’t say difficult. Obviously, there’s nothing there in front of you, but my imagination has always been the primary source of my process anyway, so I can just imagine it in my mind and imagine seeing it. It’s a challenge, but it’s also fun and liberating, in a bizarre way. You can make it what you want it to be, within your own mind. When you see the cloud of darkness that encircles the town of Pearl, that was just a green screen. I didn’t know how tall it would be or what the thickness of it would be like or how it moved, or anything. I got up to the green screen and just saw it as being gargantuan and as tall as I could imagine, and that you could put your hand through it, but it had this bizarre power and slipperiness to it with an airy quality. It just gives you the opportunity to be creative with this very different and new side of acting. It’s fairly new. It’s only been around for a couple of decades. It’s certainly not something they teach you in acting school, that’s for sure, but it was fun. It was cool doing it on this because I felt like the effects were used in such a great way and they didn’t beat you over the head with it. It was just used where it was needed to be used. There’s a part of me that really does enjoy it, and then there’s a part that finds it very challenging, at times, too.
With the way things were left with your character on Magic City, what can you say to tease where he’ll be at in Season 2, and will he continue to stir up trouble?
STRAIT: I think you can always expect Stevie to stir up a little trouble. I can’t really say where he’ll be going. It will be interesting, that’s for sure. I’m really excited about this next season. We just started shooting again, in earnest, a couple days ago. I’m not allowed to say much, but I am very excited about it and I’m very happy with the trajectory and the path that he’s on.
STRAIT: Yeah, for sure! It is really interesting and I am enjoying it. It’s almost like writing something long-form, as opposed to a short story. You just have so much time to really explore the intricacies of these people. Don’t get me wrong, I love film. I love how you can shoot a movie in a month or two or three of four, and it’s this encapsulated story that you box up and ship out into the world, and what it is, is what it is. This is the first television series that I’ve ever been a part of, so it’s a new experience for me. It’s about having the time to not only just explore the arc of who a character like Stevie is, or the arc of the way that this story progresses, but also just discovering things yourself, as an actor, within these moments because you’re allowed to take the time. You don’t have to force so much into two hours to make these people real. You can just let it breathe a little bit, and that’s really nice. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work with the people that I am working with. That’s the other piece. Mitch Glazer is writing the scripts, and I’m there with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Danny Huston, Alex Rocco, Olga Kurylenko, Jessica Marais, Christian Cooke and Dominik Garcia, who are all these amazing actors that come to work excited about exploring these characters. It all adds upon itself. For us, it’s been an incredible journey, and it’s really fun to simply have the time to just keep going deeper. You just have more time to dig and start pulling out stuff. I find myself, more often than I do in movies, finding out things about the character and the moment, during the scene, that I wouldn’t have otherwise because we’d be rushing to move on to do something else. But, within the structure of this long-form, it really lends itself to that, and I’ve really found myself liking it. It’s very cool!
After opens in limited theaters on September 14th.