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Interview: Jeremy Davies

Probably most familiar to audiences for his portrayal of an interpreter who suffers a mental/emotional breakdown in the climatic battle of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Jeremy Davies now takes on another such non-heroic role, and gives arguably the most brilliant supporting we’ve seen all year in acclaimed and award winning filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn.

Probably most familiar to audiences for his portrayal of an interpreter who suffers a mental/emotional breakdown in the climatic battle of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Jeremy Davies (David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey, Steven Soderberg’s Solaris) now takes on another such non-heroic role, and gives arguably the best supporting we’ve seen all year in acclaimed and award winning filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn.

In Rescue Dawn Davies plays Gene, a living-unknown-soldier who has been held prisoner in a Laos prison camp for two years upon the arrival of the film’s hero,  German-born U.S. fighter pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale). Dieter immediately begins to plan a daring escape from the camp, but meets opposition from Gene, who believes that they are to be released any day now, and it would be useless to get shot attempting to escape at this point.

While audiences will side with Dieter’s ingenuity, fearlessness, and boundless determination, Davies provides a perfect mental opposition to Dieter’s character. And even though audiences will disagree with Gene’s outlook on the situation, no one can deny that Davies performance is a brilliant, if not unsettling, gem.

Jeremy Davies

Question: In this film you give a performance that can border on disturbing at moments, was that your intention?
Jeremy Davies: Sorry if it was disturbing. What I was going for… the key for me was to honor the experience of all soldiers, and especially, obviously, Gene, and what they went through in wartime. That above all, I think, informed the performance the most… just making sure I portrayed the experience of this soldier authentically. Am I talking to fast? Some of you are writing.

Q: No, it’s fine.
JD: Are you writing in shorthand?

Q: No. I just write very quickly.
JD: Do you ever go back and look at it and go, ‘What the hell was I writing?’

Q: Yeah, especially when I’m taking notes in a dark theater.
JD: I do that all the time to and then I come back and I can never remember [what I was writing]. Do you have a light?

Q: I tried that but the people sitting around me didn’t like it.
JD: No, you can get them really small, so it’s not bad.

Q: So you take notes on movies?
JD: Yeah, yeah.

Q: Do you have a blog or a website where you post your critiques? I’m sure a lot of people would be interested to read them.
JD: Well, that’s debatable. But I’ll tell you exactly why I do that. I’m kind of… to digress from the last question… I’m kind of an agent’s nightmare, because I’ve basically been hijacking my skinny acting career for years to turn it into film school. Since day one on Spanking the Monkey, which was the first film I did, I had a kind of blasphemous intention and desire to be a filmmaker and write, and become a reasonably competent filmmaker. So I’ve taken every experience, which of course is like a very privileged, four-dimensional film school. I’ve made a point of stealing all the filmmaking wisdom I could. I’ve transformed every acting experience I’ve ever had into film school essentially, and I’ve taken it beyond that, to where I’ve been seeking out filmmaking mentors. For example, Lars van Trier is someone I’ve revered, as much as Werner, for a long time. And I just decided, blasphemously, to send him a letter asking for permission to come and watch him make his films so I could steal some genius from him. And I wasn’t seeking a role at all… I had to kind of fight with my agents to get them to send it, because it was so unorthodox. And they finally sent it, and against his better judgment, he responded really well to the letter, and invited me over, and ever insisted I take a small role in the film, which was Dogville. And that was the beginning of what turned into a really profound mentor/apprenticeship.

Q: Had he seen your previous work?
JD: I don’t even know. He has now. He really likes Spanking the Monkey.

Q: I actually saw that for the first time a week or so ago. It was on IFC really late at night. It’s a very captivating film.
JD: Yeah? Good, good.

Q: What was it like working with David O. Russell? He has kind of a bad reputation…
JD: What I learned from David, what I can say that I really appreciated and that I’m drawn to with filmmakers now… I really, really respect the best kind of atmosphere on set, where… to me it seems like a lot of people feel the best kind of set is where no one disagrees with anyone, no one challenges anyone, you know? Those are the sets that terrify me the most.

Q: Have you been on a set like that?
JD:  Yeah. Where you go and it feels like you’re on vacation, everyone feels like they’re on vacation. Maybe it’s because the budget is so big, or because of the locale, or it could be anything. But the sets where there’s no disagreement, no challenge, terrifies me, because I believe it is essential to a creative process. David welcomes challenge, and he was very comfortable with challenge, and challenging his actors. And every filmmaker challenges their actors differently. And I have great, great respect for David, I think he’s a wildly brilliant man, I was privileged to get a chance for him to trust me with his debut film, it was a huge leap of faith. So what I’m saying is I’m much more comfortable on sets where – not necessarily that kind of… I’m sure that that was just one very intense moment that happened to get caught on tape, and was pulled out of context.

Q: Was Rescue Dawn that kind of set?
JD: Rescue Dawn was also chaotic, but again, to me, there’s the best kind of chaos. There’s the wrong kind of chaos, and there are certainly those sets, where you really feel the filmmaker is creating chaos out of insecurity, and really not knowing, and really not having a vision and not knowing what to say or how to ask for what they want, and that creates a certain kind of chaos that’s different from someone who really does know what they want, or really feels comfortable creating an atmosphere where the best kind of work happens. So there was definitely chaos on Rescue Dawn, but it was the kind of chaos that led to me the most interesting experience creatively, which I believe translated into the most interesting moments of the performances on camera that you can get.

Q: Your character, Gene – were you able to find his military record, or any record at all, of this man?
JD: No.

Q: How did you go about building his character? Was it liberating to be able to build him from scratch? Or was there even more responsibility felt on your part?
JD: Yeah… obviously that was one of my first questions to Werner, if there was any information at all to gather. But again, the impulse being, really wanting to honor this gentleman as much as possible, and portraying him authentically. But he was never found, so there’s very little information on him obviously. So everything I learned about Gene is hearsay from Dieter, who told Werner, who told me. What I saw, what I worked hardest on, one of the things I worked hardest on, was to represent a valid, legitimate opposing force against the hero. Sometimes you see films where the opposing force is a villain or whatever, the opposing force against the hero, the character that questions the hero – you don’t buy into their logic, they don’t make sense. You don’t respect them, and you don’t care for them. But I felt that Gene’s perspective was extremely valid, and he was really just saying to Dieter, ‘Look, we’ve been here two years, and I believe, with all my heart, that we’re going to be released any day.’ Whether he was clinging to an irrational belief or not, that’s what he believed. And to have Dieter come crashing in and being full force, gung-ho, and in the end not really giving Gene a chance to… he just said, ‘Look, we’re going, you got to come.’ Different people – what I wanted to represent – different people react differently to all things, and especially war, no one knows how they are going to react to war. That’s one thing I learned on Saving Private Ryan, what was really important for Steven on that, was to have this character represent the audience more than any other character. And the audience, most of which has never been in the military or in a war, and to show what it’s like to be in war when you’re really not equipped for it, when you really don’t have the capacity for it. It’s important to show a complexity – a wide spectrum of complexity – of character, as opposed to one heroic character and everyone agreeing with him completely. You don’t have a story.

Q: Did you ever think how Gene might have changed in those two years in the camp, and what he might have been like before?
JD: Sure. Sure I do. Of course it’s all speculation. I mean we can imagine anyone in that situation – I mean we can’t imagine. Two years in camp like that.

Q: It’s really one of those things that’s beyond the grasp of imagination unless you’ve been in a similar situation.
JD: And that’s one of the things that provided a really important sense of gratitude and respect for every man and woman in uniform, and for what they are willing to do for their country. And obviously what’s going on now, the ability to do that, to be willing to put yourself in a situation, a warzone, or a battle, or maybe possibly becoming a POW, you can’t possibly imagine, and especially in countries like America, where most of us really are quite fortunate compared to most countries. But anyway, I really came away with… after all my research and experience and preparation to portray these characters authentically, I really came away with that, a really powerful sense of respect.

Q: Have you made any films yet? Or are you writing anything?
JD: Yeah. I kind of got through half of an answer on that before, and forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but I started developing these apprenticeships and throughout that I’ve set up my life – maybe the smartest thing I’ve done, or maybe the only smart thing I’ve done in this business is early on, I took the sort of Monopoly money that you get, that the industry can pay an actor – even a working actor like me – I took it early on and invested it wisely in real estate, so I sort of set my life up so I don’t have to work, if I don’t want to or I don’t feel like it, like if I feel like I don’t have anything to offer the film. And that is great freedom to develop as a filmmaker, to keep teaching myself and keep seeking apprenticeships and I’ve done that a lot, far more than my agents are comfortable with. And during this process, since Spanking the Monkey, I’ve been teaching myself storytelling, teaching myself what story is, and screenplay structure, and filmmaking on every level, components of editing. So yeah, I have some things cooking, but I’ve always sworn I would never try to do it… if I’m 60 or 70 before I feel I’m ready, I won’t do it. Although I hope it’s not that long, because I also promised myself I wouldn’t try to start a family before then either.

MGM releases Rescue Dawn in theatres on July 4th.

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