Saturday, November 14, 2009

'Dare' actor Zach Gilford

The film Dare is a dark, realistic drama about high school in which popular kid Johnny Drake, a second-semester high school senior, forms relationships with two outcasts named Alexa (Emmy Rossum, with whom we spoke last week) and Ben (Ashley Springer). The consequences of this new-found closeness change all three teenagers profoundly. Johnny is played by Friday Night Lights veteran Zach Gilford; I myself am at high school play rehearsal when he calls, and I miss him because my scene runs late. I call him back one minute later... and am immediately prevailed upon to go talk to my director. So I look at my phone, I look at my digital recorder, I look at my friend... and I do the most unprofessional thing possible: I shove the phone and recorder at the aforementioned friend and run out of the room. My director and I only talk for about a minute; after this I race backstage, relieving my friend of her impromptu duties, and this is the conversation that ensues.

Hi. I am so, so sorry. Here’s a bit of background: I’m a high school senior; I’m in rehearsal for my school play; and my scene went on longer than it was supposed to.
Don’t worry about it. Where are you?

I’m backstage in the greenroom.
I meant where do you go to school?

Oh! [laughs] I go to school in Brooklyn Heights.
Oh, cool. Nice!

Haven’t you worked with a program called ARCC for the past ten years?
Adventures Cross-Country, yeah. Well, not quite ten. I guess seven. I started doing it in college; I went to summer camp when I was a kid, and I did a lot of camping in high school and college, and then when I was old enough I applied for a job to take kids camping and luckily I got it. It’s been a fun job. It’s been a fun thing to do in the summer. Last summer I was in Costa Rica all summer, and, you know, there’s been Alaska, Australia, New Zealand…

That sounds incredible. Anyway, let’s talk about Dare! How did you get involved? Were you in the original short film?
No, I was not in the short. They made the short in grad school; it was like their grad school final project or something like that. But I made an audition tape in my apartment with my girlfriend, and then I flew to New York and met with the writer and director there and sat down and talked a little more about it. So it was a process, and I had to really make an effort to show to them that I really, really wanted to do it—to prove to them through the auditions that I could do it. And eventually they let me do it!

Well, you’re excellent in the film. You and Emmy and Ashley especially—your performances are so honest. They’re so… that’s how high schoolers act.
Well, thanks! That’s what I think drew us to the project. On the page it seemed very true to high school; it wasn’t High School Musical or something like that. I think in the movies a lot of times they put the characters in a box or in a stereotype and just have them play that, and I always say that’s not what it’s like in high school, and this movie I think is kind of about that fact: that you can’t just stereotype someone. There’s a lot more to them.

Yeah, absolutely. And, no, not everyone goes around having threesomes their second semester of senior year, but—
But some people do! [laughter]

Well, okay, yeah… [laughs]
No, but I know what you mean. No, that’s not what everyone does, but that’s the time where you kind of try to break out of your mold. And some people just don’t, and when they get to college that’s when they do, or maybe when they finish college. But… I’m not saying, specifically, that this is the way everyone goes about it, but things like this occur.

And that exact thing—daring oneself to go beyond one’s comfort zone—I mean, it’s in the name of the film. [laughter] It’s certainly the overarching theme, which is nice to see because that is what you feel like you should be doing at that time in your life.
Yeah. No, totally, I agree with you.

Alan Cumming’s character has a great line—I love how he’s just in one scene but he’s the catalyst for the entire film.
Yeah. But, I mean, it is Alan Cumming, so.

Right, so of course his role’s going to be important. But when he asks Alexa, “Have you really… done anything?”—I think that’s what a lot of people ask themselves around my age.
Right. Especially with characters like these, who come from good families or families that are financially well-off or stable, they take it for granted and you get to a point in your life where you’re like, “Jesus, I haven’t really experienced much! I’ve had a very sheltered life.” I know when I went to college, a lot of the people I went to school with—I was shocked by how sheltered they were. I couldn’t believe it. Like, they’d never met a Jewish person, or they’d never met a black person. We were in Chicago, and they’d hear like a dumpster banging and go “Was that a gunshot?!” and I’d be like “Are you serious?”

So you went to school in Chicago?
Yeah, I went to Northwestern, and I grew up in Chicago.

Nice. I have some friends who are applying to Northwestern, and I’m applying to UChicago.
Oh, that’s where my sister went!

I have a friend who goes there, and she’s absolutely in love with it. Chicago’s a really cool city.
Oh, yeah, it’s the best city. I can’t wait—I hope someday I get to move back there.

Or, you know, shoot a movie there!
Well, yeah, yeah, that’d be cool too.

But when you grow up in a city you’re almost sheltered in a different way. You’re surrounded by people who are far more liberal and by far more experiences than are normal than in the rest of the country.
Yeah. No, I couldn’t agree with you more. You’re sheltered from people who are… yeah, you put it perfectly. You’re sheltered from people who disagree with you, or who are a little more closed-minded or haven’t had as much life experience. Like, it’s hard to believe there are people like that out there, because growing up social liberalism is all you’ve known.

Exactly. For example, the gay marriage thing? If you live in NYC it’s hard to fathom that there are actually people who are against that. But they make up a significant part of the country!
A large part. I mean, I’ve been living in Texas on and off for about four years, and so I’ve definitely met some of those kinds of people.

There would be some of those people there. [laughs] That’s where you shoot Friday Night Lights, right?
Yeah.

I don’t watch the show, but my—[laughs] my friend, whom you were talking to before I ran in, is a fan and she says that it’s a very down-to-earth portrayal of high school. I was wondering how you’d contrast the role of Matt in Friday Night Lights with the role of Johnny in Dare.
Well, the character I play on Friday Night Lights is a lot more meek. A little more introverted. A big similarity that they have is they both have this more vulnerable side, so—if you start watching the show, you should start at the beginning of the series. I think you’ll get into it. Ask your friend; she’ll sell you on it.

She’s trying! Now that I’m talking to you I might feel obligated.
Yeah, you totally should. But you should feel more obligated to—Dare opens on the 13th, just in New York and L.A., and if it does well they might expand it, so make sure you get all your friends to go see Dare.

Yeah, when I saw Dare I thought it was incredible and ever since I’ve been saying to my friend, “You know what you should see? You know who’s in it?”
[laughs] Well, thank you.

I mean, it’s a great film. I think it needs to be seen. It was shot fairly quickly, right?
Yeah, we shot it in four weeks. Maybe five weeks? I think it was four. But basically we shot it in May of… 2008? I think?

That’s impressive.
[laughs] Thanks. We were knocking it out pretty quick. But we had a great time. We all got along really well; it was a lot of fun. Even the filmmakers were close to our age. They were just turning 30, and we were all in our mid-to-early 20s.

Yeah, when I talked to Emmy she said everyone working on the film was super young.
Yeah, which was really cool. It was a lot of fun.

Your character, Johnny… he’s popular, he’s always surrounded by a lot of people, but at the end of the day he’s the loneliest, the one who’s most in need of companionship.
Well, yeah, I remember the writer David Brind talking about how one of the things with writing this film was the idea of the popular kid growing up in high school—where does that kid go when he gets home? What is his life like? Is it something you’d imagine it would be, like, is it popular and cool, or is it something else? Yeah, so I think he delved into that and the fact that just because everybody thinks you’re really cool doesn’t mean you’re enjoying yourself too thoroughly.

And then at the end, instead of going to college like everyone else, he’s the most disillusioned one, I guess, and he’s the one that ends up turning to acting. Instead of Alexa, who arguably wants it the most.
Yeah. And I think part of that, also, if you go back to Alan Cumming’s scene… I think his whole thing throughout the movie, and why he establishes these relationships with Alexa and Ben, is because they’re the only people who ever showed what he thought was genuine interest in him. And it seems as if they cared about him. When Alan Cumming’s there, he says to Johnny, “Oh, you’re good! You have talent!” or whatever and shows interest, and this is the only time in his life that anyone’s ever said to him “Oh, you’re good! You can do this!” So I think this is kind of a similar thing: he’s still attaching himself to something that someone gave him positive feedback in.

Yeah. That’s such an interesting… like… parallel between him and Alexa, because her life is the opposite of what you just described, and the ending really helps bring that full circle.
Well, cool! Thank you.

All right, I think I should go… and then I need to explain why [laughs] first I missed your call and then I had my friend talking to you for several minutes…
Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it at all. You actually gave—this is probably the best interview I’ve had all day. You asked great questions and it was well-thought out, so I appreciate it.

Wow, well, I appreciate the compliment! Thank you very much.
What play are you working on?

The Tempest.
Oh, cool! Who are you playing?

I’m in the ensemble.
All right! Well, no shame in that.

No, not at all!
You know, Alan Cumming just did a movie of that. Well, good luck! Break a leg.

Thank you! It was great talking with you.
It was great talking to you too.

Dare opens this weekend in NYC and LA. Go see it if you can; it's an absolutely excellent film!

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