From writer/director Annabelle Attanasio, the indie drama Mickey and the Bear follows Mickey Peck (Camila Morrone), a teenager in the town of Anaconda, Montana, who finds herself responsible for taking care of her opioid-addicted veteran father Hank (James Badge Dale), as they’re both still grieving the loss of her mother. While fantasizing about living life on her own terms and wondering what it might be like to pursue her dreams, Mickey is faced with the impossible choice between family and her independence.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with James Badge Dale for an in-depth chat about why he was so drawn to Mickey and the Bear, trusting your director, the collaboration in making an independent film, playing a spontaneous and unpredictable character, finding who Hank is, ultimately having a great time on this shoot, and what he did to unwind when filming was done. He also talked about his upcoming Starz series Hightown, and the upcoming Disney+ film Safety, based on an inspiring true story.
Collider: When you come across material like this, where you can spend the length of a movie really exploring a relationship between two people, does that feel very rare, these days?
JAMES BADGE DALE: You know what? Yes, it is rare. When you find that material, I think it’s important that you jump on it. There’s not one word of exposition in Annie’s script. We’re just flowing back and forth. I had a really good sparring partner. Cami is a baller. She came to work, and I dug it.
When you read this, what most excited you about it and what were the questions that you had?
DALE: Whenever someone sends you a script from a first-time director, there’s a moment where you [wonder what it will be like]. I read it and was like, “Oh, it’s really good. Shit! Oh, no!” When you see material that is strong and unique and coming from a different perspective, and is also risky and it’s just all there, you start gravitating towards it. And then, you’re in a circumstance where you’re working with a first-time director, and there are some unknown quantities. And then, I saw her short film, Frankie Keeps Talking, which I recommend for everyone to see. She wrote, directed and starred in that, about a bad date, which is a totally different tone than our film, and in that moment, I was like, “I’m in!” We sat down and talked, and it was immediate. She’s such an artist. She’s so talented. Filmmaking is about trust. My job is to take the material, filter it, and give it back to the filmmaker, so that they trust me and I trust them. I trust Annie with my entire being.
How hard is that, as an actor, to essentially hand your work over to a director? How often has that lined up with the finished product for you?
DALE: Sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the thing, you never know. I’ve done some things, in my life, where I was like, “Wait a minute, how much are you paying me?” We’ve all gotta live. You go into everything wanting to make it the best it can be, and sometimes we fall short. Sometimes I’ve made movies where I’m like, “Oh, my god, that’s great. We made the movie we wanted to make.” And then, the audience just doesn’t respond to it. There are so many weird layers. And the, I’ve made movies where I’m like, “Wait a minute, I don’t know what we did here,” and everyone loves it. I don’t make movies for me. First of all, I’m not the filmmaker. The filmmaker makes a film, and I’m there to facilitate that. Everything else is just completely out of my hands. I hope people like it.
So, what is it about for you, then?
DALE: It’s funny you bring this up because I’ve been doing this for about 20 years, and this film changed me a bit. This film was the first time that I was playing the father. This film came at a time in my life where I’m re-evaluating. I’m looking at things differently and deciding what I want to do, creatively, for the next 10 or 20 years. I’ve had a great run. In the last 20 years, I’ve travelled the world, I’ve done plays that I’ve loved, I’ve done plays that I didn’t like, I’ve met amazing people, and I’ve worked with amazing people. Where does that creative satisfaction go? Things change, and they transfer and morph into something else. I love movie, and I love what we did. We all gave a lot to it. There’s a lot of creative satisfaction there. This job isn’t for everybody. It’s a funny one. A couple of years ago, a very well known actor, whose name I won’t say, came up to me, and I know his son, who’s 18, and he just put his hand on my shoulder and looked down at me and said, “Badge, my son wants to be an actor,” and he got so darkly depressed. I was like, “I get it.” He knows that it’s a long, hard road that will test you in different ways. You’d better get really thick skin.
And it seems as though, no matter how long you work or how good the work is, that judgement never stops.
DALE: It’s an odd living, and it’s constantly changing. For me, the way I work is that I have to keep all of the judgment, the good and the bad, away. I was working construction in New York and my first job was Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, like every New York actor. I grabbed my tool bags and my boss gave me a week off of work. I was walking off of the job site and he yells to me, “Don’t believe the shit they talk behind your back, and don’t believe the smoke they blow up your ass,” and something about that landed with me. I was 22 years old and I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” None of it matters. When you’re in construction, all of the talk doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you built and how you feel about what you built because you know the work you put in, the amount of time, and the level of craftsmanship. I know when I’ve built something that is not going to stand longer than six months, which is most everything I’ve ever built in construction. I was a terrible construction worker. You know, deep inside, when you’ve put the right time and effort into something and you’ve built something where you’re like, “ That’s gonna stand for another 20 years.” I think filmmaking is the same thing. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
What was it like to get on this set and have such a small group, between your writer/director Annabelle Attanasio and Camila Morrone? How did that collaboration work, through the shoot?
DALE: With independent filmmaking there’s not a lot of money, so you are working faster, but we weren’t cramped. I never felt that pressure. A lot of that is credited to Annie and the crew she hired. We just had a really, really good crew and a really positive, creative environment. These actors came to work. That was it. I love to just get in it. I don’t need to rehearse. I’m here to find out what you’re doing. I do all of this homework, and then I throw it away. And if you do all of this homework, and then throw it away, and we’re sitting there with each other and they roll the camera, it’s the first time that I’m hearing these words. I don’t rehearse with other people. It’s so fun and exciting, and it has this magical element, and you keep going while it builds and changes, and they film it. It will never happen again, but someone films it, so it stays for eternity. It’s a really cool, exciting process.
Did this feel like a character that you could be more spontaneous with sometimes because he is unpredictable?
DALE: Yeah, and I look for that, too. I look for characters that can live in more of an electric world and can drive scenes. Annie and I did talk about the 180-degree turns that could happen, which was based upon some of the things that I was taking from friends and family members, over the years. That behavior, I’d always earmarked, in circumstances like this, with that volatile nature.
Does it make it harder to find a character like that, or is it easier? When you’re playing someone who has such sudden mood shifts, does it change how you perceive him?
DALE: When we start shooting, there’s no him anymore. There’s just me. It’s just I, and I try not to perceive myself. Now that we’re done with it, I can say him, but I don’t know how self-aware he was. On any film, I act as a filter, and you have to trust your instincts. A director hires someone whose instincts they trust because a director is busy. A director doesn’t have time to like cradle an actor and hold their hand and tell them what to do. Acting is really strange. It’s a really strange occupation.
Hank is such an interesting guy to watch because there is no straight line to an endpoint. He just keeps zig-zagging.
DALE: And that’s important. This is it. It’s literally a ping pong, back and forth, swirling that drain. Bringing that level of volatility to it and that rudderless direction was important to the story.
Did you rely on instinct for this, did you take things from people around you, or did you do specific research about the location and the people there?
DALE: It’s all of the above. It’s my personal experiences. It’s my family’s personal experiences. I’m a thief. This was fertile. When I read the script, I was scared because I knew what this was going to be and I knew where this was going to go. I did do outside research. There are a few books and memoirs that I read, and I actually believe those authors would like to remain anonymous ‘cause what they wrote was not for fame, but just to get out what they had to get out. As much as I pride myself on being complete and getting my research complete, I’m not. There are actors out there that do way more research than I do. When it came to the [location], I drove from New York to Montana with my dog, and I rented this house. I didn’t stay in Anaconda. I wanted to stay outside ‘cause I just needed my own space. I was up this mountain on this dirt road, by a smaller town with 800 people. One of the guys on the crew happened to have a cabin up that same dirt road and he said, “You can go stay at my cabin. My brother’s in town with his buddies, Eddie Vedder’s playing a show in Missoula, and we’ll be back at like 2 am and we’ll try to keep it down for you. I was like, “Yeah, please, I’d appreciate that. I just drove four days to get here, and I’m tired. I’m in work mode.” I woke up the next morning, and these guys were passed out on the floor. They were big, burly guys, who were a little older than me with big beards, and they all got up and looked at me. The guy stopped and went, “Have you ever seen the movie 13 Hours? Did you play Tyrone Woods?” I said, “Yeah, that was me.” He pulls out his military ID card and he’s special ops, and his buddy is special ops. They’re both from Montana. And so, we took out some rifles and we went shooting. They started telling me their stories, and they told me the stories of Anaconda and what happened there with the copper mining industry. They got a series of books for me and helped me watch documentaries on this. I still talk to them. I don’t think there are mistakes in this world. That was my first day and night there, and I’m really thankful for that ‘cause that informed it.
Is it hard to have fun days on a shoot like this, or did you enjoy the shoot because you were so passionate about doing this project?
DALE: We had a great time. I don’t want to say this is a dark movie because there’s something else at play here, but we kept it light, every day. We would show up to work and just have fun. That’s always a good creative environment. I don’t like depressed sets. It’s hard work, working on material that’s heavy like this. It’s asking you to rip yourself apart, so you have to keep it light. It’s almost a gallows humor kind of thing. It’s almost the soldier’s mentality of, you gotta joke about this stuff because, if you stop for a second, it hurts. So, we had a great time. The only time it really got dark for me was that last day of filming, when we shaved the beard and shot the end of the movie. I remember sitting in that trailer going, “Oh, wow.” You’re fighting so hard to keep this relationship intact. You’re like, “Today, I’m gonna succeed,” day after day, and he just fails and fails and fails and fails. And then, there’s that last moment of just realizing complete and utter failure, as a father. I remember turning to Annie at 2 am and I was like, “I’m having trouble.” And she said, “Come on, we’ve gotta get it.”
Did you need to take a break, after finishing with a character like this, or do you prefer to jump right into something else?
DALE: If I know something else is coming up right afterwards, like if we set up three films in a row, and I have lead up time beforehand to consciously prepare for all three, I can flow and they’ll each inform the other. If you do it right, you can springboard, and you are loose and ready to go. But this was a film where I took time off afterwards. I brought a surfboard, all the way from New York., and I had my dog in my truck, and I drove from Montana to Portland, where I have some buddies. They drew me a hand drawn map of the Portland and Northern California coast, of different little spots, and I just went down the coast, me and my dog, and surfed a lot of cold water, and tried not to get eaten by prehistoric sized great white sharks. It was fun. Surfing Big Sur was wild. That’s like surfing in Jurassic Park. I’d leave a little extra food and water in the truck for my dog, just in case I never came back.
What was your next project, after this?
DALE: I went into playing a sex addicted narcotics cop on this really cool show (called Hightown) that we did for Starz about opioid addiction and the heroin trade on Cape Cod. I worked at some really, really wonderful people on that, and it will come out in [Spring 2020]. So, that was another light one. And then, I actually just did a movie for Disney+ (called Safety) that’s a true story about a freshman at Clemson College in 2006, who’s on the football team. He ended up raising his 11-year-old brother, and snuck him into the dorm rooms. It’s one of those really beautiful, heartwarming true stories. I actually had a lot of fun on that ‘cause I did not have to go into a dark place. I’m playing the coach, and my job was to keep it light and keep everybody together. I really had fun on that. I worked with a great group of young actors, who were really lovely guys. This guy, Jay Reeves, stars in it. It’s really fun to watch the next generation. I’m entering a new phase of my life, and I’m excited for that. I’m not the young guy anymore. I’m doing something different now.
Film and TV used to be so separate, and now there are such high quality projects everywhere, with so many networks and streaming services. Does it feel like you have more choices?
DALE: It’s a really interesting time because everything’s changing, and it’s changing so rapidly. Storytelling is still there. It’s almost what happened to the music industry. Music didn’t really change, the delivery system change. We’re in that same circumstance, where we’re still making movies, but what I love is this amazing mini-series element. What I did for Starz, we did eight episodes. That’s a bit of a long form narrative, but you can tell a really interesting story in eight hours of material. And so, a lot of great filmmakers are moving into that. As an actor, you really just follow the filmmakers. I wanna work with good directors. That’s it.
Mickey and the Bear is now playing in theaters.