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Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has just finished high school in the year following Kurt Cobain's suicide. For the 22-year-old Peck, 1994 represented a slightly different period of personal growth. "Power Rangers, Bugle Boy jeans, lights in my shoes, Spice Girl lollipops, Joey Lawrence CDs, flannels, ripped jeans, Hootie and the Blowfish," recalled Peck. "I was really young during that time but in many ways the great thing about acting is you can reinvestigate parts of your brain that might have otherwise gone dormant. So for me it was trying to think back to what were adults talking about in 1994. I remember everyone was talking about Pulp Fiction. That was sort of the definitive thing. So I really tried to work off of that, and reintroduce a lot of the language that we used in the early ‘90s, which wasn’t really different but instead of like now where we might be like, 'That’s tight," then it was, 'That’s mack crazy son.' That was what people said so I just had to refamiliarize myself with it."

Sir Ben Kingsley was even further removed from the unique lingo of the mid-'90s. The film comes with a glossary for members of the press to translate terms of the drug culture or slang. The Shakespearean trained knight approached it just like his more intellectual work.

"[I was] blissfully ignorant," Kingsley told Dish. "It's a great starting point for a character, not to bring any preconceptions to it. So I completely trusted [writer/director] Jonathan [Levine] and the whole set design, the writing, the music, the ambiance and I just flowed into it. But I'm used to that. My early days with the Royal Shakespeare Company were spent, sometimes spent quite a long time deciphering precisely what he meant. And then the joy of discovering exactly what that line meant was very fulfilling. So I've always had that forensic attitude to text and I enjoyed discovering this one as well. The glossary, no."

The Wackness is Levine's second feature film, though the first to be released. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is still on the schedule for later this year. While Wackness may not be his own personal story, he definitely drew from some experience.

"The world is autobiographical," said Levine. "That’s the world I grew up in, the music I was listening to, the vernacular, definitely the spirit and the kind of dilemmas that the characters are facing, whether it be trying to get laid or figuring out what to do with the adults in your life. Figuring out if you want to be on medication, if you want to smoke weed, any of that stuff. Yeah, that’s all stuff that I’ve tackled."

The supporting cast includes Juno's Olivia Thirlby as Luke's first love, Famke Janssen as Dr. Squires' distant wife, and Mary Kate Olsen as a hippie pothead. She has a love scene with Squires in a phone booth, and Kingsley made no effort to claim it was "awkward and professional."

"Who's telling you this?" Kingsley asked. "Well, they're lying. They're skillfully lying. They've had a fantastic time with somebody and say, 'Oh, it was very awkward. It's very difficult.'"

Casting a very recognizable figure from today's media in a small role could have been a risk, but Levine wanted to challenge viewers' expectations.

"Mary-Kate, that was a really cool idea, "said Levine." As a filmmaker it’s nice to be able to kind of take people and you know you may have preconceived notions about them, and put them in role that you wouldn’t expect to see them in. I think to a certain extent we did that with Sir Ben as well. So we just offered her the role and she was down, because she’s cool. I think she saw it as a good opportunity to sort of kind of expand on her image as well. The good thing is that she’s talented, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked."

In their romantic moment, Sir Ben let Olsen take the lead. "I can't really recall how we arrived at that tiny bit of the film, the choreography of it," said Kingsley. "I know that Mary Kate, I asked her, 'You're the boss. You need to choreograph to tell your wonderful story of your free spirit, like a good fairy of the film, Tinkerbell of the film. You have to guide me.' So we worked out a choreography under her guidance and we shot it. I think it's a tragic glimpse at loneliness, terrible loneliness, grabbing something in a phone booth. It's funny, it's endearing, but the heart of it is, 'Oh dear, that's really tragic. It's lonely.'"

At various points in the film, Luke mentors Dr. Squires and the shrink serves as surrogate father to his young patient/dealer. While Squires may be trying to reclaim his youth, Sir Ben claims that he has changed very little since his teenage days.

"It's basically what you see now," said Kingsley. "There's been actually very little change in me since my childhood. I have a wonderful direct thread right back to my childhood. It's not even reminiscent. It's cellular. I can really feel it. I think it's part of me being an actor. In order to be who I am, I have to be an actor, because what I am is not a hardened piece of clay that's become a pot. I am still the soft clay. I need to be in order to inhabit all these very, very different characters. So the teenager, not a million miles away from what's sitting here now."

Perhaps working with young Peck helped bring out the kid in Kingsley's performance. "If I did, I would never take credit for it," said Peck. "Such a huge part of acting is reacting, so I think that the fact that he was so very involved in the scenes and there for each and every moment, that anything that I was putting out there he could then be actively reacting to, which I think is the key to acting. He’s got sons that are my age so I think he’s very aware of kind of the head space of a young man. As I said before, it’s one of the great things we’re afforded as actors, that things that would have otherwise gone dormant are sort of reinvestigated and ignited in our lives. I think he embodies that."

For his part, Peck got to reach some dark places in his performance. "Things can get really messy and become all too real at times," said Peck. "Acting’s not therapy but it can be therapeutic. So I think things can get a little bit scary. You can become almost too open. You want to go to those emotional places and be in touch with those things that are painful, and yet you want to have control over it. You want to be able to speak through the emotion. You don’t want to get so messy that you’re sobbing and you can’t even speak through it. So there’s an immense amount of control that’s involved I think, and very important. So for me, I think it’s finding sort of these primitive emotions that I think are universal for all of us. No matter what, I find a way for them to relate to what my character’s going through, as difficult as it may be. I’ve auditioned to play soldiers in Iraq which is something that I will never have firsthand experience with, and is something I can never imagine. So for me it’s finding my own personal things that somewhat relate to the headspace that they’re in and hoping that it translates."

Peck is in good company though, as even Kingsley admits he becomes his roles, at least for the time being. "I think that when you are shaping the soft clay, I think that relationship between you and the clay and your hands, if you want to use that metaphor and I think it's a very good metaphor," said Kingsley. "I think your need to express yourself into that character must be related to some needs I have to express some things in me. But I don't need to go into details because the details of my needs to express are all over the screen. I'm blessed as an actor by being pretty well not fully expressed because I've got years more to go but up to now, I'm fully expressed as an actor about things that I deeply care about. In Ghandi, racism. In Schindler's List, horrendous persecution on racial and ethnic grounds, and the holocaust films that I've done. Searching for Bobby Fischer, the care adults should have over children and this film too. Yes, they're all in there. They hover for a little while and then they have to go."

The Wackness opens July 3. / Issue 83 - September 2018
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