Four Actor Aces on King Jack
(from Sag Harbor Express June 16, 1916)
King Jack fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. A year after it received the Tribeca Film Festival’s Audience Award as the most popular narrative film in 2015, Tisch-graduate Felix Thompson’s tough-but-affectionate ode to boyhood opened at the Cinema Village in New York City last week to critical acclaim. I hope it comes our way. Thompson’s first feature takes place in a small, past-its-prime town in upstate New York, where troubled, fifteen-year-old Jack (a winning performance by Charlie Plummer) tries to get through a summer weekend despite having no friends or good role models. He has a critical older brother Tom (Christian Madsen) and a loving but oblivious mother who is busy working and tells him to look after his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols is instantly likable). He also is being hounded by bully Shane (Danny Flaherty, now a regular on TV’s The Americans) and his thuggish friends, while chasing after an elite girl who doesn’t like him–and not noticing that the much cooler Holly (Chloe Levine) is interested in him. There will be trouble. That’s essentially the synopsis I included in my introduction to an interview I did with Thompson a week before he received the TFF’s $25,000 prize in April ’15. (http://sagharboronline.com/felix-thompsons-king-jack-is-crowned-tffs-favorite-film/) Minutes later I did the following one-on-four with the young male leads of King Jack: Charlie Plummer, Cory Nichols, Danny Flaherty and Christian Madsen. I liked these guys!
Danny Peary: Charlie, you already had other credits, but it must have been exciting being cast as the title character of a feature film.
Charlie Plummer: I was kind of surprised they cast someone my age, 15, instead of going with someone who’s 18, but I think it really added to the film to have people that age who are going through the experience of learning to deal with problems on their own and not necessarily relying on their parents or someone who’s an actual adult.
DP: Your writer-director Felix Thompson and I talked about how he could have made Ben and Jack the same age in the movie. Would that have made sense?
Cory Nichols: I think it adds to the story for Ben to be a younger cousin. I think it works better if Jack begins to realize that he has to care for other people.
DP: I agree it works better, too, because Jack understands that his older brother, Tom, hasn’t been taking care of him.
CP: I think that in the relationship between Jack and Ben, a lot of the time Ben’s much more mature, which makes it more effective, but Jack thinks of himself as being much more mature. I think he really learns in the process of the entire film that it’s not so much about your age but who you are as a person.
DP: In the 1970s, I was an extra in a film and there was a scene on a riverboat. During our breaks, all the extras who played the elegant, first-class passengers went off by themselves and stayed apart from us who played the riffraff. What about you between scenes with the mean guys and the good guys?
Christian Madsen (tongue-in-cheek): It’s the same thing, we went our separate ways. I think we lucked out because when you make an indie film there are situations where you can’t escape, you have to be in close quarters with each other. On those days when I was on set, our hangout spot was in a small room on the second floor of the house that was the family’s house in the movie. So if you wanted to go anywhere, you’d have to go through mom’s kitchen, so it was like you were really living in the world of this family. So in that confined space, we all became friends.
Danny Flaherty: We became very close. There was no way to escape. Every time I turned a corner I ran into Charlie and Ben!
CM: We were all staying at the same little hotel, so we had some good hangout nights.
CN: Every single night on that rundown ping-pong table.
DF: Yeah, we played ping-pong almost every night.
DP: It really was fortunate that you guys got along.
All: Yeah, very fortunate.
DP: Do you think it was just that Felix did such a good job with casting?
CP: It was that, but I think we also had very good chemistry from the start and bonded really well. We all really like sports and that was a topic. But I think we just all got along really easily. It was really wonderful.
CN: We didn’t know each other before but Felix did such a good job of bringing us all together and every time somebody new came on the set, we would all get together at the hotel, so that everyone was familiar with each other, and he’d make strangers feel like good friends.
DF: Whenever somebody came to the town, he’d take us to the diner and kind of force us to meet with him, which is really interesting, and that really helped us form relationships right away. He was really trying to get that chemistry to be real, and the tactics that he used to do that worked out very well.
DP: Did Felix use tricks to make sure your bully Shane was properly mad at Jack?
DF: No, but he would tell me little things, like, “This is the scene where you just kick the crap out of Jack.” He was pretty straight forward.
CP: Danny is just a really good actor.
CN: He’s the nicest guy and looks friggin’ scary.
DP: Charlie, Jack does some petty crimes–I am thinking of the graffiti–but his mom says to him: “You can be a good kid if you wanted to.” Did that ring true to you? Was that a major line in your thinking?
CP: I think Jack doesn’t really know what a good kid is, but part of him doesn’t really want to be what people think of as a good kid. I think he’s really trying to find himself and find out who he wants to be. Does he want to be friends with the bullies? Does he want to date this girl who’s really mean to him? Or does he want to find people like Ben, who might not be as cool as other people but is a really good friend? I think Jack is trying to figure all that out about himself by himself, and that’s a big part of the film.
DP: Danny, Shane is pretty bad the whole way through the movie? Did you want to like him and look for something good in him?
DF: My character is very troubled, and one of the reasons he picks on Jack so much is because he was picked on when he was Jack’s age by Tom. I think there is some good in him but it’s very hard to find. Everything that’s happening in that character’s life, with his single-parent situation, and his memories of his mom beating the crap out of him, he can’t be good in that way because he’s letting all his anger hold him back from being a good person.
DP: Is there hope for him?
DF: You know what–I don’t believe there is.
DP: Danny, have you known bullies and is there something about them that you latched on to?
CP: I’ve known a few bullies in my past. I think they have a lot of issues that they’re dealing with themselves and the only way they can express it is to take it out on other people around them, people that are non-threatening. Because Jack is not very threatening to Shane, who is lot bigger than him. But Shane takes it out on him because of the way he feel about his older brother Tom and what Tom did to him in the past. So he’s kind of dealing with his problems by making his problems other people’s problems. I feel that’s what bullies do a lot–they have no one to open to and talk to, so they end up taking it out on people who are weaker than them.
DP: Christian, your character has some shading to him, in that he doesn’t treat Jack well but still isn’t a totally bad guy. Do you think the relationship between him and Jack changes during the film?
CM: I don’t think that Tom has the fortune that I do in my real life of being grounded. Tom doesn’t really have a foundation there. Being from a broken family and having no father there, he comes to terms with his having to forcefully try to become the father figure of the family, which doesn’t work out because he’s just a shadow of that. He has a very small window of an opportunity to do something important in that moment of his life, helping out his brother. I don’t know if he gets it across to Jacke the way that he wants to, because the only way he knows how to explain anything is in a physical way. I think in some weird way he would just want to show Jack, “I care about you, but I don’t know how to explain it you verbally, I just know how to show you in a physical way.”
DP: Does Jack want to be friends with Tom more by the end of the movie?
CP: Oh, yeah, I think Jack really looks up to him–it’s his older brother. I think no matter what happens, he’s always going to be his older brother. However bad he treats him, he’s always going to look to him as a hero, one way or another.
CM: All brothers have a quiet understanding of each other, how to pick at each other, how to tell each other things. I have four younger brothers and I can say one thing to tick them off or say one other thing to make them smile. You just know them. I can do something in a way for my brother to know how I feel about a situation. I think there doesn’t have to be a lot of explaining between Tom and Jack. They know each other so well that if Tom does one little thing it’s going to get across to him somehow, in some way.
DP: In the movie, Tom and his mom talk about $5 being such a large amount of money. Did that resonate with you guys?
CP: It’s definitely a family that’s really struggling financially, but also sticking together as a family. They’re kind of in separate corners, all the time, not really wanting to take about their issues and problems. They’re not necessarily really supportive of each other in that sense. But I think they are a family, and at the end of the film, they do all come together. I’m including Ben in that sense, I think they really open up to each other and that’s really beautiful.
DP: Cory, when Ben goes home, will he report back to his mother that it was a good weekend he spent with Jack?
CN: I think to his mom he will say that was a good weekend. But in the movie they don’t show the dialogue I had when Ben’s on the phone calling his dad. He was saying to his dad, “I really want to come home, I’m homesick.” He never said, “I got beat up,” because he’s just not the kind of kid who would rat anyone out, but he definitely wouldn’t hide the fact that he didn’t enjoy it. However, in front of his mom he would say he had a good time because of the bad state she is in.
DP: But when the worst is over, Ben seem to be enjoying himself.
CN: Yeah. I do think it’s hard for him to push past what he went through. But, you know, he ends up making the best out of it.
DP: Charlie, what about Jack? Felix calls this a rite-of-passage movie so can we say that what your character goes through can be seen a good thing?
CP: I definitely think it’s a hopeful story. Some is very hard to watch, but it has a really hopeful ending. I think the great thing about these two characters is that–and this is a reason the ending is happy–they become genuine friends. It’s not that, “Oh, we have to be together and we had an OK time,” but they really bond with one another during the experience they go through, and that’s unlike anything else. They go through a lot but the end product is definitely happy.
DP: Do you think you’d be friends with Jack?
CP: I don’t know. Jack is definitely a kid that is troubled and is the kind of kid a lot of us don’t really want to look at, because he’s got a lot of problems and he doesn’t really want anybody’s help. So it’s hard to go up to a kid like that and try to become friends with him, try to understand him, but I know that for me playing him, it was a really interesting process trying to get into his head. And now, after doing the project, I think I have a lot more compassion for that type of person. And a lot more understanding of what they’re going through in their daily life. So at the start of the project, no, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to deal with someone struggling so much, but now I’d absolutely want to help them.
DP: If you go with your family to see this movie, is there a moment when you’d say, “I really want you to watch me?
CM (laughing): All the moments I’m not in! For me the whole scene where Tom goes to the bully’s house and to rescue Ben for Jack was fun to shoot. We had a lot of physicality in it, we a lot of little steps we had to go over, but when we would get ready and shoot all in one, it was really a good experience to go through. It would start to rain, we’d have to tarp everything, then it would stop, we’d run back out. But it kept you on your game, because you knew you had to perform at that moment. There was a stunt guy on set who was really great, and he helped us all be more believable in that aspect and be very safe.
DF: I’m very opposite of my character in real life, so I think I’d be like, “Mom, don’t watch this, I’m very, very mean.”
CN: For me, I’d probably want my mother to watch the scene were I come in with the bat. I just love it.
DP: I like when you smile on the pitcher’s mound when you’re throwing balls for Jack to hit and he’s hopeless.
CN: You know, I was just going to say I love that, too.
CP: I’m in a lot of the film so it’s hard to pick out one moment. But I do love the “Truth or Dare” scene with two girls and Ben. I think it’s really beautiful. It’s a really all-around great film, so I can’t really pick out one thing and say “This is the best scene.” It has such a beautiful flow to it.
DP: What is it like to premiere your movie in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival?
CM: Tribeca has a good feel for this film, Just to keep it short, Felix put it the best. He called me and said, “We’re bringing the film home.” We shot it upstate, but it’s great to bring it back to our home here. All these guys are from here so they can bring their friends and family. It’s great. We’re all honored to be here.