The actor: Jeremy Davies' breakthrough role as a brooding college student who becomes way too involved with his mother in 1994's Spanking The Monkey seemed to establish him as a quirky, offbeat leading man in iconoclastic Dustin Hoffman/Donald Sutherland mode. But Davies has subsequently leaned toward eccentric supporting roles, generally as misfits and loners. Davies' performance as a prisoner of war in Werner Herzog's rousing, fact-based adventure movie Rescue Dawn—now out on DVD—is characteristically intense and uncompromising.
Rescue Dawn (2006) — "Gene"
Jeremy Davies: I'll try to give you the abridged version of how I became involved with Rescue Dawn. But the abridged version is still quite an extended version, because you kind of need to know the preamble to my meeting Werner, actually. What I've been doing with my misfit, so-called acting career in film from day one on my first film, Spanking The Monkey, is, I've kind of made a concerted effort to hijack my acting career to turn it into film school, because I've always had the blasphemous idea of becoming a reasonably competent filmmaker in my own right some day. And because, frankly, I never expected the acting thing to last. A misfit like me getting anywhere in Hollywood as I somehow have, seemed, certainly at the time of Spanking The Monkey, kind of out of reach, or not a very realistic take. As you know, getting anywhere in this business is kind of like winning an interplanetary lottery.
But most of all, I really wanted to become a filmmaker, and I've used every acting experience to just turn it into film school. How this connects to Rescue Dawn as a preamble is that setting up my acting career that way led to me not only stealing film wisdom from the filmmakers I was wildly fortunate enough to work with, but also, between gigs, I started approaching filmmakers, tremendous filmmakers that I deeply admired, to see if I could ignite some apprenticeships. For example, I sent a letter to Lars von Trier, which as you know is a pretty unorthodox thing to do, send a letter to a renowned filmmaker overseas. I actually had to fight with my very well-meaning representatives at the time to get them to send it, because they wanted me to go through proper channels and all that. But at any rate, that's what I've been doing between films. I sent a letter to Lars and just asked permission to come watch him make films, so I could further my filmmaking education. Against his better judgment, he invited me to Copenhagen, and even kind of made me take a small role in… This was back when he was doing Dogville, and this developed into a very rich, very rewarding apprenticeship. So I'd been doing this for a while, and on a short list of dream, God-sized filmmakers that I wanted to have the same opportunity with, was Werner. So before I met him, before I'd heard anything about Rescue Dawn, I was intending to write him a similar letter, and then out of the blue, he got in touch with me about Rescue Dawn. I met with him and proposed the same thing I proposed to Lars. I said "I don't know how serious you are about me for this role, but if you go another way, it would still be a great privilege to have your permission to come and watch you make films." And against his better judgment, he cast me in Rescue Dawn, so that's how it all came about.
AVC: It seems like Rescue Dawn was an incredibly difficult film to make, from a physical perspective.
JD: Well, it was a bit of a trial, a bit of a crucible, physically. It was, at times, you could say, a little too vividly Fitzcarraldo-esque, because he's back in the jungle, and it was pretty intense. It was very subterranean, independent filmmaking. But on the other hand, I come from that. I have a long history of subterranean films. I'm used to that.
And of course, I lost, like, 35 pounds for the role, which I thought was an absolute necessity to honor this individual, Gene, and also every man and woman in uniform. Beyond the physical, the greatest burden I felt was just psychically and spiritually, the burden of not wanting to let my director down, not letting Werner down, and most of all not wanting to let down… wanting to honor this individual, authentically and legitimately. That's the greatest burden I felt, but it was definitely physically pretty much a crucible.
AVC: Psychologically, was it difficult playing a character who becomes the story's antagonist, and invokes such strong reactions?
JD: No, actually, I was first of all very deeply grateful to Werner for allowing me a great deal, perhaps too much room, to collaborate on Gene, in creating Gene. It really helped to be allowed that much room to collaborate, because one of the most important things, for me, that Werner allowed me to expand and work on was the idea that in every great story, not only do you need a very believable, complex, compelling protagonist, every great story needs an equally believable and empathic opposing force. You need an antagonist who's not dismissible, who's not two-dimensional. We've all seen films where the opposing-force character or characters are laughable, and there's no room to empathize with that. And that was one of the things Werner and I worked pretty hard on, just really presenting Gene's perspective much stronger than it was in the original outliner sketch for the script. Because I really, truly believe Gene had a fiercely legitimate perspective, even though it was kind of the polar opposite of Dieter's. [Christian Bale's character.]
One other thing that helped in developing this, and understanding the psyche, and navigating the psychological terrain and psychological burden of this, was reading Viktor E. Frankl, particularly a book called Man's Search For Meaning. Victor Frankl is a renowned psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and wrote about the psyche of prisoners of war, and those who've gone through tragedies like the Holocaust, and he writes a lot about why he believes certain individuals are more inclined to survive such atrocities, and why some are less inclined to survive. He talks about the individual being able to find the freedom between stimulus and response, and to develop a powerful, hopeful belief system rather than a tragic or negative belief system. Gene had been in the camps for two years before Dieter showed up, and his belief system, what he was hanging on to, what was essential to his survival, was that a) there would be and was no war, and then b) they would be released at any time. So obviously the energy and character of Dieter represented a force that crash-landed on Gene's belief system and shattered his faith and his hope. And in a situation where you feel like your life depends on holding on to a belief system, then you're gonna fight for it. You're going to hang onto what you believe.
Shoot First: A Cop's Vengeance (1991) — "White Punk"
JD: I remember very little about this. Even the most humble role, I've always felt really wildly grateful to be getting anywhere in this business. Beyond that, I truly don't remember much about those earlier, survival kinds of roles.
AVC: Not even Pete Stoller in Melrose Place?
JD: Don't remember much about that, either. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do remember getting these roles, or any specific part of it?
JD: The truth is, I think I'd prefer to try to help promote Rescue Dawn. Self-promotion has never been a point, and I'm incredibly inept at self-promotion. Talking about myself is a little less inspiring than talking about the character. I'd rather praise Werner. I could talk for days about Werner.
Spanking The Monkey (1994) — "Ray Aibelli"
JD: David O. Russell is a pretty wildly brilliant guy, and I've been such a fortunate fool. To start out with someone as remarkably gifted as David O. Russell was pretty striking. I remember the first time reading it, thinking, "This is an intelligent script." At that point, I had not been able to even approach or get to read more interesting, intelligent scripts, and this one, I thought, was pretty remarkable. I think I only had a shot at it because everyone was afraid of it, and it was an intense tightrope to walk. David and I together tried to figure out, "How do you keep the audience onboard with this character, despite the actions he takes?" You want to be able to root for him, and it's essential to empathize with him. It was quite a bit of pressure, working as low-budget as we were, as subterranean, guerilla-filmmaking-style as we were, but also trying to really get this balance right. It's remarkable to me, looking back. I don't know how we pulled it off.
AVC: It seemed like there was a lot of David O. Russell in the character that you were playing. Did you see it as a very personal project for him?
JD: You'd have to ask David, really. I'm sure there's some of David in that, but just how much, I wouldn't even venture to guess, particularly because of the subject matter. It's definitely a personal film, but what I find most remarkable about him is that he went from that to Flirting With Disaster, which is a complete 180, then did another 180 and did Three Kings.
AVC: You talked about taking on certain roles as a form of film school. Going back to Saving Private Ryan in 1998, was that in your mindset, or was it more "This is an amazing role"?
JD: Oh yeah. That started on Spanking The Monkey, because as I was saying earlier, I really didn't expect the acting thing to last. I truly believe a misfit like me getting very far in this business, there wasn't a chance, and I'm incredibly sincere about that. I have so many really gifted friends, actors who I thought deserved as much as I did to get an agent or a job, or deserved more, and just never made it through somehow. I've always been really fiercely tethered to that. You know, I've been very lucky. All the filmmakers I've worked with have taken my desire to educate myself very seriously. Steven Spielberg is such a remarkably generous man. I still remember him taking breaks and setting up little diagrams, grabbing rocks in the dirt and showing me how to navigate. A dinner scene, for example, I remember him saying, is one of the hardest things to shoot in the world, because there's only so many ways you can do it, and you end up repeating yourself, and everyone's done it. But definitely, I have stolen with abandon, as much film wisdom and genius over the shoulders of these remarkable filmmakers as possible, from Spanking The Monkey on.
The Million Dollar Hotel (2000) — "Tom Tom"
JD: Wim [Wenders] is just such a dear man. He is just a deeply dedicated artist, and has always been—and still is—incredibly supportive and generous. I just took every chance I had to listen to him, to encourage him to speak. He's like the most mesmerizing, gentle professor. You ask him anything about film history and film theory, and he can speak at great length. You could just record it all and transcribe it and publish. It was a difficult experience for all of us, and the production was a little troubled.
AVC: How so?
JD: Well, I don't really want to get into all that; I'd rather focus on praising mentors. It's in the past.
Investigating Sex (2001) — "Oscar"
JD: Every film, obviously, everyone starts out aiming at making it good, and in the end, filmmaking is really fragile. Making a film is like building a house of cards on the deck of a speeding boat, or playing chess on train tracks. Every opportunity feels like that; it's the one artistic field that's unlike most of the others. When you write a novel or paint a picture, you have the opportunity to approach it and back off, tear up pages, write, rewrite, paint over, and come back to it. In film, once you start shooting, you can't restart the clock, and you keep moving forward, and you don't look back, and you don't go back. And that is, of course, antithetical to the creative process. It's really hard to generate a comfortable creative flow under that kind of pressure, particularly in the subterranean-film background, where, on average, your take ratio is two-to-one or three-to-one. You can prepare all you want and all you can, but when you get there on the day, you have this window. You don't know when it's going to come up. You spend 85, 90 percent of the day or more lighting and setting up for the camera, and the remaining tiny window of time, you actually work and you shoot. Because it's so expensive, you can't afford the luxury of a 50-to-1 take ratio, so that necessarily requires you to be more self-conscious, because you have to try to choose the best takes that you want to bet on.
As an artist, particularly an artist like Werner or Lars, you want to capture more of a jazz interpretation of the role. You want to capture what I call an "unrepeatable moment," and to do that, you need to take a great leap of faith, and you need freedom, and you need to take risks. I'm really looking forward to digital breaking wide open and becoming comparable to 35mm, and allowing us to have a far greater shooting ratio, where the ratio and the workday is reversed so you spend 80 percent of the day shooting, and 20 or 10 percent of the day setting up the camera, or less. And when that ratio reverses, I think there'll be a much greater chance at capturing a more compelling performance, or figuring out a way to get the alchemy of film right. Investigating Sex was an example of a film where a lot of great friends and artists got together to try to pull off an interesting and compelling subject about the surrealists, and it didn't quite work. I don't believe it ever saw the light of day, but that's what that reminds me of.
Dogville (2003) — "Bill Henson"
JD: Actually, a great deal of what I was just discussing, I learned from Dogville. The preamble to Dogville was me sending that letter to Lars, and it really was just a very sincere request to come and watch him. The roles that he made me take, I really didn't ask for, and I probably would've learned more if I didn't have to be in front of the camera, but what I've learned from Lars—and he let me shadow him throughout the entire process; I lived in Copenhagen for some time as well, and was with him throughout the editing process. We've become, kind of surprisingly, remarkable good friends. I just think he's extraordinary.
Like Werner, I think I'm really drawn to filmmakers and artists who are kind of pathologically incapable of thinking straightforward about film, and about life as well, who cannot help but think laterally, think sideways about an approach to anything cinematic. That's what Lars has done, I think, and Werner, arguably more than most, or maybe more than anyone in film history. What I was drawn to about Lars to begin with was his earlier films, before he did The Kingdom. All his films were technically spectacular and precise, like stainless steel, and he won every technical award there was to win. One of the first things that impressed me was that he went as far as he could go in that respect. And what he decided to do was take all those strengths and put them aside and not rely on them. So he threw out all his technical strengths and turned toward embracing emotion and letting go of all the precise rules of film school. The Kingdom is when he first started experimenting with this, and then into Breaking The Waves, where he threw all the rules aside and embraced emotion. He ran headlong into it, and for the first time, really wanted to overcome his fear of actors. So he's, to me, constantly thinking laterally.
He's really trying to reverse the ratio I was talking about earlier. Dancer In The Dark is when he first really started pushing this. It was just him with the hand-held camera and the actors 80 percent of the time. On Dogville and Manderlay, he got back to the editing room with this enormous arsenal of footage, just increasing the take ratio exponentially. The difference between that and a filmmaker who only gets two or three takes per scene… The difference between ending up in an editing room with those limited options, vs. getting in an editing room with as many options as Lars had, and watching him go through it all, and seeing the kind of alchemy that results from that… I could talk forever, but I think he's embracing the future of filmmaking. Soderbergh's the same way. Soderbergh just endorsed the RedCam—the Red Camera—and we are getting to a point where digital will finally be comparable to 35. And I believe when that happens, when it's undeniable, and the cost is brought down, and the camera's as light as the RedCam, and the magic of film is adequately duplicated in digital, then I truly believe studio systems will start going the way that the record companies are going now. Because when it becomes really, really cheap to make films, that will be the beginning of the true democratization of filmmaking. What will be valuable are the best stories and talents out there. And the best filmmakers.
Helter Skelter (2004) — "Charles Manson"
JD: My whole experience with Manson was, I was offered the role years ago by independent filmmakers, and I was preparing for this independent film, and I prepared for a couple months, and realized taking on such a particularly iconic role, with this particular nature and history, was just far more daunting and overwhelming than I imagined it would be. One of the greatest ironies I experienced in this business was, I was really starting to have a bit of a crisis in a motel room. I'd been putting myself on tape for months, just trying to crack it a bit, to decode it, trying to get there and feel like I could get somewhere in understanding and portraying this, and I'd really decided I didn't think I could pull it off, when 9/11 happened. And of course that shifted a lot of things in the business, and financing on a lot of projects fell through, and it fell through on this one.
That was kind of, in a way, a tragic, strange, ironically tragic saving grace, because I really didn't think I could pull it off. But what I did was, I kept rehearsing on my own, because they were trying to get the financing back. They never did, but I kept rehearsing on my own, and I'd been teaching myself filmmaking skills, and had taught myself editing. I was shooting myself, and I edited down 30 hours of footage to a 20-minute tape of footage that I felt kind of captured it a bit, and that tape, I gave to the filmmakers at the time, and a few other friends. People really responded strongly to the tape. I never did that independent film project, but this accidental demo ended up getting bootlegged around town somehow, and my reps would hear it ended up in the hands of a lot of really surprising artists, who would from time to time say, "Hey, I came across this. Kudos." For example, it ended up in the hands of Soderbergh, and that's one of the reasons why he wanted to meet with me for Solaris, and why he ended up casting me. That tape did a lot of good, and I only ended up doing it for CBS because they got the tape a couple years later, and offered me a far-too-generous deal, where they gave me a lot of creative control, and let me rewrite all Manson's dialogue.
AVC: Did you meet with Charles Manson at any point throughout this process?
JD: No, I didn't meet with him, and my understanding was that it wouldn't have helped, because of his mental condition. I don't think he would've been helpful, because he's not quite arguably stable. It would've been an interesting sociological experience, but I don't think it would've helped me, and I don't suppose he would've wanted to be necessarily too helpful.
Solaris (2003) — "Snow"
JD: I learned a great deal from Steven. He's quite vividly generous, and took my desire to educate myself seriously. I would be repeating myself to tell you everything—he's also very much from the school of trying to find the "unrepeatable moment." One thing in particular I remember about Steven is, he gave me a lot of freedom with the dialogue as well. First of all, here's a guy who is the youngest winner of Cannes with sex, lies, and videotape, a film he wrote and directed, but he claims he doesn't really think he's that great of a screenwriter. The reason was, he claims—and I disagree fiercely—he feels like he's not as good as his friend Stephen Gaghan is in separating the voices of the characters. So what he expressed to me is the importance of making sure your actors' voices, your characters' voices, are not homogenized, and really understanding that every actor approaches it differently. There are their working methods and their own voices, and you need to allow the actual authenticity. You need to allow room for that kind of collaboration, and he certainly allowed me quite a bit. That just scratches the surface of what he taught me.
AVC: How do you think the Soderbergh Solaris compares to the Tarkovsky original?
JD: That's a question for Steven. I really wouldn't want to try; it's sort of like picking your favorite child.
AVC: Going back to the early, early part of your career, you were known for an ad—the "like punk rock, but a car" Subaru commercial. What do you remember about that?
JD: All I think about that time was just realizing the full weight of what an interplanetary lottery it is to get anywhere in the business. There wasn't anything in that other than survival, and a fierce desire to be around filmmaking of any kind. I actually learned a lot from the director of that. And heroes of mine from film had gone the same route, too. I think Dustin Hoffman had done a Volkswagen commercial. So it's just wanting to be around a film set, be around any kind of filmmaking.
AVC: You were kind of grateful to be getting any kind of opportunity at that point, it sounds like.
JD: Yeah, I just came from nowhere. I didn't know anyone in the business, really came from nothing.
AVC: So you didn't have a strong opinion as to whether Subaru was just like punk rock, only a car?
JD: Um, no.
AVC: You didn't write up a history for your character or anything?
JD: [Laughs.] No.
Secretary (2002) — "Peter"
JD: It was a privilege to be part of that particular film tribe. A lot of gifted people in that. I remember the casting director, Ellen Parks—she was also the casting director on Spanking The Monkey—and [Secretary director] Steven [Shainberg] sent me a copy of Maggie [Gyllenhaal]'s audition tape for that. She was extraordinary on this little tape. So it was kind of a combination of feeling very kindly toward Ellen Parks, because she had a lot to do with me getting Spanking The Monkey, and she discovered Maggie. I just thought it was a really smart, intelligent script. And it wasn't so much the role that moved me, I just wanted to be around the filmmaking process and a collective of smart artists. Ellen being one of the ringleaders was a big, gorgeous bonus.