Based on a novel by the famously difficult-to-adapt Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain), the 1950s-set Indignation stars Logan Lerman as a working class Jewish kid from New Jersey who is confronted with culture shock whilst attending a small Ohio college. Ang Lee’s oft writer/producer, James Schamus, makes his directorial debut with Indignation, while Lerman stars opposite Sarah Gadon (11.22.63) and actor/writer, Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, August: Osage County). FilmInk spoke with the candid Logan Lerman at The Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.
In the film, you’ve got a credit as executive producer; what did that involve? “They came to me before anybody else was on board. James [Schamus] wrote the script, and handed it to me, and I started working on it with him right away. I was involved mainly in just the conversations, not making phone calls or the big decisions. At the end of the day, my position was really just to be involved, and also if they needed my help, to help James get what he wanted. James can get whatever the heck he wants, so really I didn’t do too much! I was just involved in the conversation, and had a say.”
Was it eye-opening to see how those conversations play out, which I guess you wouldn’t have been part of before? “I’m usually part of those conversations, I just don’t usually get a credit. I usually work pretty intensely with the production, but sometimes I’ll come on just as an actor. But I’m usually on pretty early with some of the films that I work on, and in this case, they gave me a credit, but apart from that, it isn’t too different from how I normally work.”
You started off so young. Did other people make a lot of decisions for you? “I was part of a lot of films that I didn’t want to do. As a young actor, I got talked into things. I was told that I had to do certain parts, and in the end, I think it benefitted my career. They were the best learning experiences. There were movies that I hated being a part of, and where I wasn’t happy with my performances, or the character, but I learnt more from that than a film where I was satisfied with the overall experience. Learning from your failures is important. They were the best lessons that I’ve learned as an actor, and it’s nice to have done them as a child. You can get away with it more than when you are an adult. People really have you under a magnifying glass in the work that you’re doing when you’re an adult.”
How do you choose today? What does a script need to have for you to want to be a part of the movie? “It just needs to be well written, and the character needs to be the right fit for me. It’s difficult to define what that is, because I really don’t know exactly what the right fit is, but there needs to be substance, and it needs to be challenging, and different, and definitely not repetitive. There have been times where I’ve been offered great movies – actually not even many; there’s really only one that I can think of, and I’m not going to mention it – but the character was too repetitive to the last film that I did before that, and it was heartbreaking to say no to it. But I don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over again. That’s when you get pigeonholed. It’s better to fight for the roles that people aren’t expecting you to do. People don’t like to see the same thing over and over again, and an actor just doing the same thing is just boring.”
Being Jewish yourself, did you relate to the character in this film very much? “Oh, yeah! When I play a Christian kid, which I’ve done before, it’s very foreign to me. I really don’t know what it’s like growing up in a Christian household, so I really have to learn about that. A lot of the research was already done for me with this film, because I grew up in a Jewish household. I could definitely relate to the family, and the values, and things like that. I grew up with those things, so it was easier to relate to the character. But that’s not something that attracted me to the project. It was really the substance of the material, and the depth of the character. More than anything, the complicated relationship between the dean of the college [Tracy Letts] and Marcus was what made me really want to do this film. And it also made me want to drop out several times, because I was afraid that I couldn’t do it.”
Why were you so scared? Did you really want to drop out? “I literally never told James this, but there were so many times when I was calling my representation, saying, ‘How do I get out of this? I’m too afraid to do it!’ And they were like, ‘You don’t get out of it! You’re involved in the movie! You’re a producer too!’”
Was this before you started shooting? “This was in the months leading up to filming. I was like, ‘I don’t know! He’s very smart! I’m not that smart! I’m not as smart as Marcus is!’ I didn’t know the people, and the material that e was referencing, and I really had to know it. It’s not just about reading it, it’s like really memorising it. I had to know every part of it, and not fake it. The only way to make the scenes work would be to feel comfortable to improvise the dialogue, and know about what he’s talking about. I had to truly understand him in order to make it work.”
Do you improvise a lot? “Yes, I guess so. If you are working with an actor too, who’s very rehearsed, it’s nice to throw them off, and catch them in those moments, where you get a real genuine reaction from them. That’s a great part of improvisation.”
Are some of the issues that Marcus is facing in the 70s still relevant to Jews at his age today? “Yes, for sure. Maybe not where I’m from. I grew up in a very Jewish area in Los Angeles. Marcus’ struggle wasn’t relevant to my childhood, but I know that it is relevant in other communities around the country. It’s a big country! So, depending on where you are, it’s very relevant! It’s extremely interesting because he’s an atheist Jew who has been categorised, and been forced into this community, that he doesn’t even relate to, or agree with. That’s fascinating, and he’s an incredible character.”
How selective are you? You haven’t made loads of movies. “It’s really stressful to be selective, because I’m constantly afraid that people are going to forget about me. But I made an agreement with myself that I don’t want to work on movies that I’m not passionate about…I need to be passionate about that movie. You can’t force passion.”
Are you getting hassled by your agents to do more stuff? “No! It’s quite the opposite. They know how I am, and I start compromising with them, saying, ‘Maybe I’ll just do this movie’, and they say, ‘No!’ They actually guide me. I’m working with good people. They know me and care about what I want. They’re not talking me into doing crappy projects. I fired those people a long time ago! I don’t work with people like that…anymore. I have a good team now, and as an actor, you’re constantly afraid of being forgotten, and you’re constantly afraid of not being sent a good film. So I’m always at battle with myself. I want to work, because I’m at my happiest when I’m on set, or in pre-production on a film. When I’m not doing that, I get a lot of anxiety, and it’s a tough period of time.”
You’ve done big scale films like Noah, and obviously Fury was pretty big. Could you see yourself doing a comic book movie? “There’s nothing that I’ve read that’s been interesting. There’s nothing in that world that I’m really interested in. But that doesn’t mean that something wouldn’t come up, and there’d be a good filmmaker on board, but typically, given the formula of those movies, it’s not that interesting to me. It really depends on the filmmaker and the character.”
Well, your Fury director, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad should be interesting! “Oh, yes! That’s really cool! That’s fresh and new, and it feels good, but a lot of times, those films just feel repetitive and formulaic. I’m just not into those movies. I’d rather do films like this, and pray that they make money, and pray that people see them, and then compliment them. There are bigger movies that aren’t superhero movies. It feels like there are other things to do, in the more commercial realm, besides another remake of another comic book film. It’s a little boring.”
Indignation is released in cinemas on August 18.