Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: He hasn’t quite turned 28 yet, but Brady Corbet has already charted a long and unusually distinguished career as an actor. Before he was even old enough to drive, he’d appeared in acclaimed American indies such as Mysterious Skin and Thirteen, not to mention a number of network television shows. But over the last decade, he’s made a name for himself as the American guy who works with all the top-shelf European auteurs, showing up (sometimes rather unexpectedly) in films by the likes of Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, and Olivier Assayas. Corbet’s own directorial debut, the striking The Childhood Of A Leader—a post-World War I psychodrama that he co-wrote with his partner, the Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold—is currently in theaters and available on VOD.
Funny Games (2007)—Peter
The A.V. Club: A film I thought about quite a bit while I was watching The Childhood Of A Leader was The White Ribbon, which is another very muscularly told story about the roots of fascism. So I wanted to start by asking about your experience with Michael Haneke. Was the casting for Funny Games done in the traditional way?
Brady Corbet: Well, sort of. I actually had met Michael Haneke at a screening of Code Unknown in Los Angeles many years ago. I wasn’t even living in Los Angeles, but I happened to be in Los Angeles during a retrospective of his work at the Egyptian. So I met him then, and he and I exchanged email addresses. And then I found out that he was making a movie in the States when I was 17. And so I decided to reach out to him and his casting director and see if I could put myself forward for it. And then—to my obviously great surprise—they actually cast me. And they cast me very quickly: I read for it and he cast me the next day.
AVC: Was he clear with the cast from the outset about how closely the remake would adhere to the original?
BC: Yeah. I mean, he was clear with me. [Laughs.] I feel like some people got there and didn’t know it was going to be like a shot-for-shot remake. But I feel like I knew that from pretty early on. And his logic was interesting. He basically was like, “I’ve done the same opera in different countries, in different languages, but the blocking stays the same. Everything stays the same.” He was like, “It was made that way for a reason. I don’t see it any other way.” And I think that the thing about Michael is that he is a film theorist. And he teaches cinema in Austria, and he primarily teaches the theoretical aspect of moviemaking. So I think that it was just a very interesting experiment for him.
AVC: I imagine you studied the original quite closely then.
BC: Yes and no. I mean, you just kind of had to listen to him. He’s a real puppet-master anyway. I know from being on other sets of his that he’s just as specific on totally original films as he was with us on that. He knows exactly how he wants things to be. The difference between Michael Haneke and someone like Lars Von Trier is that Michael is really precise and quite didactic in a way, and then Lars is not. Lars is like, you show up in a room with a hundred extras and then he just starts shooting—he doesn’t even tell you what to do. So it’s kind of like there’s no right way to do these things. I think that everyone has a different approach, and Michael’s way really works for him.
AVC: Lars Von Trier is obviously very controversial. Can you talk a little bit more about your experience working with him?
BC: I had a great experience working with Lars. I think he’s probably the most brilliant guy I’ve ever met in my life. He’s so, so brilliant that it’s kind of overwhelming to spend time with him, because it’s a real blessing and a curse. But he operates at a very different pace than a lot of the rest of us. He’s very warm, he’s very sweet, he’s very funny. But he’s a little bit of a loner, because I feel like he’s so sensitive and so in tune with everything and everyone around him that he’s kind of constantly overwhelmed, and that’s kind of a beautiful but really overwhelming thing to witness and be around. He’s a truly special person. And he’s a bit difficult to describe or do justice to unless someone’s spent 10 minutes with the guy. But, yeah, I’m really fond of him.
AVC: I’m curious what directions he gave you with that character, because to me he just seems the definition of a pushover. Your boss is mean to you; you just kind of lie down in the sand trap when Kirsten Dunst mounts you.
BC: You know, you kind of understand what you’re doing based on what’s on the page. So the only thing that he really would say were things like, “Hey, maybe you should have a stutter.” [Laughs.] He’s very, very loose in his directions. He shoots a lot of footage. And because he edits so many jump cuts and stuff, he just has these pieces that he’s looking for and he just keeps having you do it until he gets it. But he doesn’t guide you that much in a weird way.
Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014)—Piers Roaldson
AVC: In Clouds Of Sils Maria, you show up at the very end playing a director. Considering your new project, did you learn anything at all about being a director from playing a director, even if it was only for one scene?
BC: Olivier [Assayas] and Mia Hansen-Løve are friends of mine, and he knew I was in Paris making a movie—I was in preproduction. The whole project was so meta, meta, meta, meta that I think he just decided to cast me because I obviously have a background as an actor, so I wasn’t going to come in and totally fuck it up. But I also was a young filmmaker, so I think he just got a kick out of it or something.
AVC: I imagine it was very flattering, in any event.
BC: Yes, totally. And I had a really, really good time doing that. I was there for a week or something, and it was really a great group of people. I love his cinematographer. His producers are just great.
Force Majeure (2014)—Brady
Saint Laurent (2014)—David
BC: Force Majeure was directed by a really good friend of mine, Ruben Östlund, who I just knew over the years from festivals and stuff like that. I was a big fan of his two prior films. The thing is actually about all of these films—there were a handful of films; there was Bertrand Bonello’s film, Saint Laurent, and obviously Olivier’s film, and Mia Hansen-Løve’s [Eden]—these were different filmmakers I knew asking me to come and do some work with them. It was just a coincidence. I basically wasn’t working as an actor—I was just working on setting up my film—and different filmmakers that I knew just kept asking me if I would come work on something for a week or two weeks or a couple of days, depending on what it was. So it was just kind of fun things to do with people that I respect and was close with.
AVC: So these were all projects that came up while you were living in Europe.
BC: Yes. For the most part, yes.
AVC: Is there any kind of pressure that goes along with being on screen for such a short amount of time when you know people are going to recognize you from other films?
BC: I mean, I guess I just would never be so arrogant as to think that anybody would even recognize me. [Laughs.] I didn’t even think about it. I think that all of those films came out at the same time, even though they were actually made sometimes two or three years apart from one another. But they all just happened to be doing the same festival circuit and whatever, so it just became kind of like a joke. Like, “Oh, Brady Corbet is the American guy who got lost on some European backlot or something.” [Laughs.] I think that’s one of those things that somebody kind of notices during a season or a year. But in terms of 10 years from now or something, nobody will really even make that connection.
24 (2006)—Derek Huxley
AVC: So you mentioned that you didn’t think at all about being recognized. But maybe 24 is something that you’re more often recognized for?
BC: I mean, I’m not really often recognized—not really. Or if I am, nobody cares enough to come and tell me that they recognize me. 24 I was on when I was like 16 years old. I mean, I look pretty different. [Laughs.] Luckily for me, I don’t get harassed or anything like that.
AVC: Can you talk more about that experience on 24? It was a long time ago, I guess.
BC: I just needed a job at the time. [Laughs.] I didn’t really work on much television for a reason, just because I’m still actually not that great of a fan of any or many series. I don’t have anything against it—just nothing catches me. To spend 36 hours or 48 hours of my life binge-watching something seems insane to me.
So, yeah, it was a nice group of people, I enjoyed working on it, but it didn’t create that much of a lasting impression for me, because that was really a job, and it’s different from projects that you are really devoted to. Movies that I remember working on, or things that I remember working on, are things that took years of struggle and strife to get them off the ground or get them in front of the public. You don’t have that kind of strife or whatever with a television show. It has an automatic platform. You go in, you do your job, and then it goes on air, and that’s that. [Laughs.] It’s a more corporate environment, of course.
AVC: You’ve done two different episodes on two different incarnations of Law & Order. Maybe this is a very hackneyed idea, but it’s sort of a rite of passage for a New York actor.
BC: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, once again, pretty much any time in my career where I worked on television it was usually because of some financial woes or something. [Laughs.] I was really broke, and my mother had lost her job when I was 18 because she was working at a mortgage company that was affiliated with Fannie Mae. So she lost her job like so many people lost their jobs. And, basically, if I ever went and worked on a crime drama or something, it was usually just for the work. I mean, I like Law & Order—obviously it’s an institution, especially here in New York. But, yeah, they were just jobs.
AVC: That SVU character in particular is a very prototypical role for you.
BC: I actually don’t remember which one that is. [Laughs.] I remember the roles, but I don’t remember which was which.
AVC: It’s like your Simon Killer character in some ways—it’s just a very tightly wound Manhattan prep-school kid.
BC: Okay, okay. Right, right, right, right. Yeah, totally. Sorry, I couldn’t remember. I know one of them I played a Mormon in, but I couldn’t remember. [Laughs.] And so I was like, “Is that the Mormon one, or is that the preppy kid?” Right, it’s the preppy kid.
That makes sense. I was often getting hired to play sociopaths and psychopaths and stuff, which is really funny. I mean, I don’t know what that says about me. I think I was always interested in darker characters just because there was a lot more to do. It’s so enjoyable to play a bad guy, you know. But yeah—I guess people saw something in me that I didn’t see. [Laughs.]
AVC: Looking at your IMDB page, you have some sitcom credits from very, very early in your career. I went back and watched that episode of King Of Queens you’re on, which I guess is your first role altogether?
BC: [Laughs.] Wow, you are thorough. I don’t even know how to find that. You’ve got to send it to me.
AVC: It’s on YouTube.
BC: Is it online?
AVC: It’s on YouTube, the episode. You can find it.
BC: Oh, wow! Cool. Okay, I’m going to look for that.
The first thing I ever did was a commercial for Circle K, which is like 7/11 or something in the Southwest. And then I guess I did this episode of King Of Queens when I was like 8 years old or something. I don’t really remember it.
AVC: So in the episode, it’s one scene, and you’re playing Tekken 3 in an arcade with Kevin James.
BC: Yeah! I remember Kevin James was super, super lovely. He was a super, super, super lovely guy. Really, really sweet.
AVC: I was wondering if you two were actually playing the game also. Because you see the “game over” screen come up.
BC: I have absolutely no idea. [Laughs.] I do not remember. It was 20 years ago.
AVC: Did you have it in mind at that point to be more of a comic actor, or were these just jobs that came up?
BC: No. So, basically, I was living in Colorado, and my family took me in for an audition that was happening 45 minutes away from my hometown, because they knew I loved movies. And so they were like, “Hey, there’s a movie that they’re going to make, and they’re casting. You should try out for it.” So I did. And then I didn’t get the job, but I ended up getting an agent out of it, because I went pretty far along in the process. And that movie was Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations.
And so what happened was that I stayed in Colorado, but every once in a while this agent that I had in Los Angeles would send me something and be like, “Hey! Put yourself on tape for this.” And sometimes I would. And so it started off as just sort of a curiosity, because I was such a cinephile at that age, so I thought it could be fun. And I have a single mom, and I’m an only child, so it was not complicated for us to go somewhere for a month or something if we needed to. And my mom was very supportive of it. She was like, “Sure! If you want to, no problem.” She’d worked at an ad agency when she was younger, so she was a little off-put by the idea initially of having a child actor running around the house. [Laughs.] But then when she realized that I was kind of really seriously interested in it, then she was fine with it.
So basically those odd jobs during that very first part of my life, the reason they were so random is because I was not living in California—I was just, you know, offered a TV show to come say one line or whatever. That’s all I remember about it. I didn’t start really actively pursuing it until I was about 11. And I did the movie Thirteen when I was 12.
Mysterious Skin (2004)—Brian
AVC: And then Mysterious Skin was around that time too, right?
BC: Then I did Mysterious Skin when I was 14, so just a couple years later. So basically up until that point in my life, the jobs were picking me. And then that was the first time that I actively pursued something that I wanted to work on. So Mysterious Skin was kind of the beginning of me being in a position to pursue work. I had to read for Gregg [Araki, director], but I was like, “Hey, I really want to do this.” And so that was sort of when I started taking charge of my own life and career, I suppose.
AVC: I imagine that’s a project you’re still very proud of.
BC: Yeah, I am. I am. I haven’t seen it in years, but I’m super touched when people come up and talk to me about it, because I really think it moved a lot of people. And I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I remember it being super moving and a very heartfelt, beautiful movie.
AVC: What was it like working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt? That could be one of the closest collaborations with another actor you’ve had in your career, but it’s strange because it’s kind of two separate movies and it’s all building toward that final scene.
BC: Yeah, Joe and I had a great relationship. It was great. And he and I are still close—really good friends. But I was 14 and he was 22 at that time. And so we were eight years apart, but he was sort of like an older brother to me or something.
AVC: But playing characters who were the same age.
BC: Exactly. But I was playing 18 and he was playing 18, so I was four years up and he was four years back.
Simon Killer (2012)—Simon
AVC: Simon Killer was your first story credit, so your first film as a writer. You were sort of sadistic to yourself as a performer, just by having a hand in putting your character through all these revealing and torturous scenarios.
BC: Yeah, I mean, I actually was doing ghostwriting jobs since I was 17 years old, so I’ve been supporting myself off and on with writing jobs for almost 10 years. But those were all things that I did off the books. And now I do a lot more writing on the books. And I write for myself, and I wrote my next film. And Mona [Fastvold] and I have worked together—we wrote her new film together as well. Now I write often. I decided that I need to write for myself—I can’t really direct other people’s material.
AVC: When you’re acting in something that you’ve written, do you feel any tension between those two different roles?
BC: Not really. I mean, [Simon Killer] was made in a very experimental way. And the truth is that there was no screenplay, so those writing credits are kind of loose. We just all conceived the project together, and then we kind of improv’d these rehearsals that would then be transcribed and turned into the next day’s material. And Antonio [Campos, director] wrote these monologues and these things to kind of link it all together. But it was made in a very experimental fashion, because Antonio and I were interested in trying to make something that was very, very formal but extremely loose in its approach. And neither of us had ever made anything that way, so we wanted to see how it would work. And it was very stressful, but it was very revealing for us. It was a great exercise, and we’re super proud of the film. I really like that movie.
AVC: You’ve claimed, for instance, that your character from Funny Games is just a device and that he doesn’t have any real backstory whatsoever. It’s sort of unclear what’s Simon’s backstory is. Did you have to construct an extensive one for yourself?
BC: This actually goes for my own film as well: Characters for me are born on page one and they die on page 100. [Laughs.] I usually just think about people and actions and dramatic events. I have a very pragmatic approach to all those things. And I feel that as a writer and as a performer too. I never really thought about backstory for characters. It was much more of a musical approach: You learn a melody, and then you sing it, I suppose, or you find a rhythm or a cadence that works for the material. And then it’s sort of about hitting that note correctly and finding those beats. But everyone’s different. I mean, some people write journals for their characters and stuff, but that was never really my area.
AVC: There’s also some anime voice work on your résumé, is that right?
BC: I mean, I did a lot of voice-overs as a kid, so, yeah, I’m sure. [Laughs.] I did all sorts of cartoons and stuff. And every once in a while I still do. [Laughs.] It’s rare, but it happens.
AVC: Is that experience that you took anything in particular from that you can incorporate into higher-brow fare that you’re in?
BC: We can ask Xavier Dolan that question, because you know that Xavier Dolan is a voice-over king, and he actually is my French double and does my voice in all French-dubbed movies? [Laughs.] So he’s much more experienced than me. I just did things here and there because it’s very lucrative. [Laughs.] It does pay a lot of money. And it’s great because it’s always totally anonymous.
Thunderbirds (2004)—Alan Tracy
AVC: Thunderbirds is the only big-budget, major-studio thing in your filmography.
BC: Yeah. Basically, Working Title produced the movie Thirteen, and then the producers of Thirteen offered me the role in that movie. And I had never been offered a big studio movie. At that point, Richard Curtis, who wrote a lot of Working Title movies, had written a draft, and it was a little bit more tongue-in-cheek and less of a straight kids’ movie. And then basically it just turned into a really straight family movie over the course of the six months or whatever that they were developing it.
It was an interesting experience. I was at an age where I had really come into my own in terms of my tastes and things that I was interested in watching, and that was obviously not very in line with my tastes. [Laughs.] But I’m super happy that I did it because I have a 2-year-old daughter now, and she can say that her dad was a superhero once.